Stop at a traffic light in Berlin these days and you’ll more likely than not find yourself surrounded by a representative cross-section of the city’s blossoming bike scene. A thirty year old pipe dream of stoners, squatters and idealists seems on the verge of realisation: a city in which, as H.G. Wells said Utopia would, bicycles abound. Fixies, Dutch roadsters, bakfietsen, clapped-out student transporters and their riders have come to represent different lifestyles and ways of being in the urban environment. As Berlin finds a new two-wheeled identity, bike makers, designers and lovers are drawing on influences from Amsterdam to Copenhagen, New York and London to realise an increasingly carless future.
In Katharina Otto-Bernstein’s classic cult portrait of New York’s hippest subculture – the bike messengers – Steve ‘the Greek’ explained the courier’s philosophy:
“If you’re canoeing down a river you can’t say, ‘I’m gonna canoe to that rock and then make a left and canoe over there – you don’t know. Some people automatically hit their brakes. I’m not a brake person. I don’t stop for lights unless I really, really, really, really have to. My whole theory is, if something happens in front of you, speed up, attack it.”
The adrenalin-charged world of the messenger, a kind of virtuosic improvised dance with the joys and obstacles of the road, has a deep resonance in Berlin’s fixie scene. The founders of Pilot Bikes, an up-and-coming fixie label, began to import the idea after spending time in the anarchic homes of the messenger, London and New York. Mortimer Steinke, who runs one of Berlin’s first addresses for racing bikes, cycle culture café Keirin, spent five years working as a courier in New York.
It’s an attitude that embraces, above all, speed but also total immersion. Enthusiasts say that a fixie, ridden properly, is one and the same thing as its rider. Braking disturbs the flow; the idea is to be ten seconds in the future, to think strategically of what any one of the 45 cars around you might do next and beat them to it. Hence the trend of removing brakes entirely, something Steffen and Alex of Pilot admit makes riding more fun while gently suggesting that we rather leave them on. When the police say that every bike must have two independently operable brakes, and threaten to confiscate bikes that don’t, the answer of a fixie lover is likely to run somewhere along the lines of this fan’s: “I have two independently operable brakes: my left and my right leg. They work independently of each other.”
The flâneur-spirited have long preferred reconnoitring the city on the slower, somewhat stately Dutch roadster – the aptly named opa and omafietsen, grandpa and grandma’s bikes. Heiko Hass of Radlust, a shop that’s been tirelessly advocating the Dutch roadster as the bike for Berlin from its various Kreuzberg homes since 1981, rejects the need for speed typical of other biking mentalities: “A Dutch bike is slower. You feel calmed riding it; there’s no stress.” Old-fashioned, solid and utilizing designs that have stood the test of time, it’s the chosen bike of a new urban gentility: measured, graceful and in absolutely no rush to get where it’s going.
Between the crazed momentum of the would-be messenger and the straight-backed roadster riders pootling through the city in a state of blissful unawareness, a new urban dandyism has begun to emerge. Heavily influenced by a tweedy English hunting and shooting aesthetic, the bike has become a prop to a raffish, self-styled metropolitan aristocracy. So-called called ‘tweed runs,’ promenades undertaken by riders sporting three-piece suits, flat caps and long socks, have made it from London; boutiques in Prenzlauer Berg that prefer the French vélo to more humdrum English or German designations meanwhile offer Saville Row-tailored cycling wear of almost Edwardian elegance.
In a city as ‘poor but sexy’ as Berlin, in which more than 40% of its inhabitants don’t own a car, it’s not hard to see why the bicycle gained such a foothold. A haven to the alternative with its back against the ‘anti-imperialist protective wall,’ the bicycle was as ideologically sound as it was practical. With reunification and the emergence of Berlin as a creative hub of the twenty-first century, cyclists are discovering the joys of streets made for tanks and forging a cosmopolitan culture of the wheel.
Text: Benjamin Blackbenz, Images: tokyobike, pilotbikes