April 23, 2007

What happened to Jack's face

I’ll bet your reaction just now was similar to mine when Jack met me at the Freiburg train station, looking like he’d just been attacked by a cheese grater. What happened to his face?

“Well, this is what’s bound to happen, at some time or another, when you ride a bike in Freiburg,” he said, trying his best to crack a smile despite the pain. “It’s all my fault, actually,” he explained. “I was tailing a car too closely and didn’t notice when he stopped.” His bike was totaled, and he hit the pavement face-first. Actually, he’s lucky it wasn’t worse. He was not wearing a helmet. Still, you can imagine my concern, not only for Jack’s face, but also because this was my introduction to the city’s famous cycling culture – and just a day before we were schedule to tour the region by bike.

Freiburg is one of the most cycle-friendly cities in all of Europe. According to the tourist literature, there are actually more bicycles in the city than there are citizens. Wherever you go, you encounter cyclists of every stripe: dreadlocked co-eds and businessmen in suits, white-haired pensioners and parents with young children. I even saw one man riding despite a sprained ankle. He carried his crutches in one hand while he steered with the other!

I’ve always been a fan of city cycling and wished that it were more prevalent in America. I mean, what’s not to like about it? It’s cheap, it’s environmentally friendly, it’s an enjoyable form of exercise, and it reduces the volume of city traffic. Unfortunately in America’s car-centric culture, it’s not always practical. One summer, when I was living in Boston, I tried cycling to work everyday, but I felt so under threat from the “crazy Boston drivers,” who don’t signal, don’t share the road, and often fail to see cyclists, that I was forced to give it up after only a month.

Since then, I often fantasized that if I were Supreme Dictator of the Whole Wide World, I would shut down all inner-city motor vehicle traffic, except for public transportation, and give the roads over to the cyclists, who, in my experience, are a remarkably polite and law-abiding bunch. But, alas, I’m not. In America the car is king, and all other vehicles have to jockey for their right to be on the road. So I was really curious to see what life was like in Freiburg, where cyclists rule and automobiles are relegated to the outskirts of town.

But it turns out that it is not as safe or peaceful as I had imagined. In fact, as a pedestrian in Freiburg, I felt under threat from the cyclists! For one thing, German cyclists are allowed to ride on the sidewalks, which seems pretty unreasonable since they’ve already been given the roads. You can’t imagine how incredibly nerve-racking it is when they weave in an out of the crowd at full speed, passing you within inches – without any warning. I’m sure they think that they don’t pose a danger, but they can’t know when you might take it into your head to turn off in a new direction.

Futhermore, German cyclists are not the conscientious citizens that American cyclists are. They don’t wear helmets, they don’t obey traffic signs, and they don’t feel the need to ride in the direction of traffic.

So I’ve begun to wonder if it’s not American cyclists’ minority standing that makes them such a virtuous bunch. In order to survive the hazards of city cycling, American cyclists have to be hyper-aware of the behavior of everyone around them. If they’re not, they’ll be run off the road by some woman in a tinted SUV, who’s talking on her cell phone while trying to sip her Starbucks. Maybe it’s just the tyranny of being in the majority that makes European cyclists such careless custodians of the road.

On the other hand, it could be that most people are just bad drivers – no matter what their mode of transportation. Perhaps the American cyclists are a self-selected group of naturally prudent people, who would make excellent drivers, too. But in Freiburg, almost everyone rides a bike, and so, at any given moment, the majority of people on the road are likely to be idiots behind the wheel.

Whatever the reason, you can be sure that the next day, when Jack, Kevin and I rented bikes to tour the Durbach vineyards, I observed the rules of the road with vigilance. I wasn’t able to find a helmet, but I never went too fast or followed anyone too closely, else I wind up with a mug like poor Jack. That is, at least not in while we were riding in Freiburg. Once we got to the country, you had better believe I sped down the steep roads like I owned them, as if I were the Supreme Dictator of the Whole Wide World.

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