The Top 5 Threats to Cyclists: UK vs. Berlin

Once I nearly fell off my bike just because I was distracted by this enormous bushel of cherry tomatoes.

Today I was cheerfully cycling along, pootling about my neighbourhood as I pondered thoughts such as what I would write about next on Guten Morgen Berlin. Then a car door wanged open abruptly in front of me a split second before I ploughed into it with considerable force. Now, I don’t remember much of the few moments immediately after that happened – I do remember the crash being like those home videos you see on telly where a dad is filming his kid playing footy and then all of a sudden the football speeds directly at the camera lens and the video fractures into a flashing black mayhem with swearing in the background. The other thing I remember enjoying tremendously was how, after I shakily got to my feet and rearranged all my accoutrements and turned to the lady who opened the car door, I did not get the British Instinct to say ‘Oh my goodness I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry, I do apologise for breaking your car with my face, please forgive me!’ Instead, the woman was squawking around going ‘Oh god, I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking!!’ and I simply Germaned up, rearranged my hair and went ‘Well you bloody should have been,’ before launching back off on my bike. 

That’s one of the joys of cycling in Berlin: if somebody cuts you up or chucks a bunch of skaggy booze at you, you can royally give them a piece of your mind without shattering the Britishness Politeness Vortex. But biking in this city is different in a lot of ways and I clearly haven’t quite got used to it yet. Anyhoo, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, eh? And the Internet does love a good list article, so without further ado, here are the top 5 threats to cyclists that you have to be prepared for when two-wheeling it at home or abroad.

1. Berlin = Cars, doors et al: As I mentioned, car doors are a constant danger, because in Berlin there are no double-yellow lines; any residential street will almost certainly be lined with parked cars, one of which may well still contain the driver who has just stopped to pick up a McFlurry. And you’d better be ready for the moment when he flings that car door open as if he wasn’t facing into a tarmac stripe containing fast-moving vehicles. Some cycle lanes keep it especially interesting by being in between the road and a parking strip, so you often get people mounting the pavement and driving over the cycle path like drunken grandmas to get into a parking space. With all those back-ends facing the cycle path, even car boot doors become a threat, and may God have mercy on you if a white van driver decides to pop his back doors open as you are trundling along to work. You had a good life.

UK = All drivers, all the time: Cyclists are slightly less common on British roads, and an actual cycle path is a luxury men can only dream of. Therefore, you have to simply cycle full-on in the road, trying your best not to shatter your pelvis on every drain cover along the kerb. Drivers hate cyclists for being in the way and forcing them to remember al that crap they learned in their lessons about ‘look in your mirror three times and signal right bladibladibla’, so instead they will simply speed past at a ludicrous rate and practically knock you off with the sheer blast of wind they create. They cut you off, give you just slightly less space than the average human shoulderspan to move within, and often will beep at you for no reason other than the joy of seeing you jump in your stupid bulbous helmet.

2. Berlin = Small children on even smaller bikes: Mainstream medical advice is to do something 3 or 4 times a week that raises your heart rate. I manage this at least 5 times a week simply by cycling in Prenzlauer Berg. Over there, the pavements are teeming with tiny children scooting along on little wooden bikes with no brakes or means of stopping other than plain collision or mum-intervention. These kids swerve across the entire width of the pavement and bike lane looking at the sky, their bogeys, a calm pigeon, anything except for what’s in front of them. Unpredictable and deadly.

UK = Potholes like chasms: I’ve never seen potholes as good as the ones in the UK. Maybe it’s the way the roads are made, but when a pothole really sets in, it gets deep and jagged enough to absorb all the light from around it and quite possible also contains a wormhole which enables time travel. I don’t know. But they are so cavernous that cycling over one is terrifying agony, particularly when you are forced into it by item number 1.

3. Berlin = Inexplicably deadly weather: There was a week during winter last year when it was really, really cold, and really, really foggy, and the fog kindof layered down onto the roads in a slick sheen and froze as a deadly lamination the next morning. On my way to work, I honestly saw dozens of people slip and fall over; it stopped being hilarious after the first couple, and the practised shuffle which was the only way to get anywhere without also collapsing onto your arse was a real bore. Cyclists were just a write-off. They were sliding about everywhere like ducklings on a frozen pond. Another time in summer, there were a few weeks where rainstorms would suddenly crack over you and suddenly the air was so full of this torrential downpour that it became impossible to breathe or see. Naturally those always occurred in the middle of a cycle ride.

UK = Just constant, endless, wetness: In the UK, there is no such thing as unexpected rain. Rain is always expected. Rain is always. Always. I used to cycle to work in my skiing jacket because that was the only thing that genuinely kept me (well, my arms and torso) dry; nonetheless, about 80% of the days I cycled to work it was raining, and I would spend the first two hours at my desk steaming gently in the excessive office heat. I remember one particularly miserable rainy day at university where I fell rucksack-first into a puddle, my bag containing a bunch of clothes I was taking back to the shop to return. Shockingly they still let me return them even though the clothes were cold and damp. But then everything is cold and damp in the UK. Even the toast.

4. Berlin = Broken glass. And so much other detritus: There is so much broken glass on the streets of Berlin. It’s a wonder any mums let their little kids tootle about on their own two feet when there are shards of broken bottles simply everywhere. It’s like everyone holds Greek weddings in the streets on a Saturday night. Not to mention the amount of weird and totally random junk I have had to swerve to avoid: a huge exploded jar of gherkins; two large half-frozen steaks; used condoms (small, but treacherously slippery) and even once a filled, discarded nappy, which I am so endlessly glad I didn’t run into and explode all over my shins.

UK = Sudden vengeance from nature: Trees get blown over a lot in the UK. Often in such a way that they lie right across a road and you are suddenly stuck. Or you’ll be cycling along a bush and a long bramble branch will whip across your chest unexpectedly. Or a large wet oak leaf will fall and adhere itself across your forehead and right eye. Or you’ll be cycling along past a field and notice the tiny little teeny baby lambs just born and skipping about in the field and it’s so cute and you can’t believe it and suddenly you ram into a ditch. 

5. Berlin = tram lines: Thanks to tram lines I fell off my bike twice trying to run an errand for my boss at a recent network meeting, and he was so astonished and amused by the thought that he bought me a beer. The annoying thing about them is that they are exactly not-quite: not quite near enough to the kerb for you to cycle between them, not quite far away enough from the kerb to give you enough space to manoeuvre, not quite wide enough for your bike wheels to fit into them, not quite narrow enough that your bike wheels don’t always squeak into the little slots by accident and send you flying. They turn into slippery little margins of death when they are wet, and also my bike light broke when I crashed into that car door before and all the batteries fell into the tram tracks and then when I tried to get them out a speeding motorist nearly ran me over and swore at me out the window. Bloody trams.

UK = buses: Berlin buses tend to be driven, in my experience, by gruff but ultimately reasonable men who look in their wing mirrors before pulling out or stopping and will always let you pay for your ticket even if you don’t have exact change. Bus drivers in the UK like to mess with cyclists by suddenly pulling out without warning and almost spanking you into the middle of the road, or pulling in while you are actually next to them so that you suddenly get trapped in a narrowing corridor of death like that magical dream-alley in Inception. And if you catch the driver’s eye, he’s always either laughing or sucking on his mustache. 

Rose T