Master of the Road: The Fine Art of Bicycle Riding in Germany

A few months back I was chatting on the phone with a girlfriend as she made her way home during the evening’s commute. Suddenly I became aware of a commotion on her end followed by a muffled conversation that appeared to escalate in tone. Concerned for her well-being, I urgently called out her name seeking assurance she was okay. A minor eternity later she redirected her attention back to me with news of the accident that had just taken place between her and a fellow commuter. That my friend was going the wrong way on a one-way street and ended up clipping the side of said commuter meant the police were on their way. My friend, sighing heavily, began detailing the headache this was likely to bear which included a likely court date, a fine and a potential point on her driver's license. Clearly in a situation which required her full attention, we said a quick goodbye with promises to call back once she managed to make her way safely home. Placing the phone down, thankful no one was hurt, I ran the fragmented details of her accident and the police drama soon to follow through my head. 

Wait a second I thought, she told me they were both riding bicycles.(?)

My Other Car is a Bike

Like most American kids, I learned to ride a bicycle around the age of six after spending my first few years learning the ropes with a three-wheeler. Following a decade long stint in a loving relationship with my bike, we abruptly broke up when my sixteen-year-old-hands got ahold of the two things I had long pined for - a valid driver’s license and the keys to my parent's car. In moving to Germany and understanding that my driving privileges were revoked due to my lack of a local license, I was nevertheless equipped to handle the news after having spent years navigating NYC’s public transit system. The Germans curious enough, despite having a train system that runs like clockwork and recognized as the brainchild behind automobile brands that are often linked to the word “genius,” seem to often default to the time-honored bicycle as their go-to resource when it comes to getting around town. While I could easily count on two hands the number of times I had been on a bike since exiting puberty, I was more than open to jumping on the saddle again and in essence, grasp my German life by the handlebars.

According to, Germany registered around 73 million bikes nationwide in 2016 - a significant figure when you consider that the country’s population clocks in at around 80 million. This in turn makes it easy to understand why it appears that every person between the ages of two and 82 are wheeling around on some form of a bike. Speaking of those two-year-olds, well they often start cycle-life out on a something called a Laufräder, a two-wheeled balance bike that leaves them so proficient at wheeling around that I have yet to witness any of the neighborhood kids find the need for training wheels after graduating up to a regular bike. With such formative biking years behind them, it’s no wonder upon entering adulthood they have become the masters of their ride. The application of make-up, eating a meal and two-handed texting are just a few of life’s everyday moments that I have witnessed executed while riding a bike. In being somewhat of a safety nerd, a moniker given to me by university bestie El and heartily adopted by husband V, I find such behaviors falling firmly within the ‘today I decided to dance with death’ department. Despite how this may seem, riding a bike is not something to be taken lightly here. Hitting the streets without lights and a functioning bell, failing to signal when making a left turn, finding yourself pedaling while inebriated and a host of other on-road infractions (curious enough, wearing a helmet did not make the hit list), can land you in some serious hot water: please see paragraph 1 above for a refresher on this subject.

Considering myself an official cycling convert at this stage in the game, I must admit that the hours I have clocked on the saddle in downtown Köln have been limited to a very specific area. Once there, I would park my bike and go the rest by foot so as not to have to concern myself with the increasing car traffic and the potential annoyance of my fellow riders over my ever-so-cautious-biking-riding-ways. This all changed as of Monday when I started a new German class and opted to go there by bike. Being all the way across town, this was to be a new on-road adventure which began with the making of promises to both myself and V that I would consistently wear my helmet. I must confess that despite my safety nerd status, I have not always been prone to wearing a helmet. The time it takes to manhandle my afro puff under and the re-fluffing required after found me letting my safety guard down. So it was - afro puff be damned. Now the first day off to school led with a rocky start as Google maps failed me greatly. A few missed turns, going the wrong way on a one-way biking path and feeling kinda like a dork since 95% of the biking community I encountered were not wearing helmets, I chalked this first day up to part of my learning curve. And the helmet? Well, while I am fairly certain I won't be asked to join the cool-city-kids-biking club, I am sticking with the headgear - it's a decision I can most certainly and quite literally live with. 

Moving on or better yet - riding on from here.