Guest Post: The Relativity of Flat

Hey, wait a minute–isn’t Stasia on vacation sans technology? Well yes, yes I am. But as I’m biking through Utah, the magic of the internet is bringing you this guest post from Dieter Loibner about his recent bike adventures in Hamburg, Germany. Read it and get psyched for international travel! :)

Ah, Hamburg. Germany’s second largest city, 60 miles from the ocean, on the banks of a huge river. A bit like good olde Stumptown. But that’s where the similarities end. For one, they don’t have volcanoes in their back yards here and the topography is rather flat. On first blush at least. Beer and coffee? Well, you’d have to come and see for yourself.

This city of 1.8 million also is Europe’s second largest container port. It has a long seafaring tradition and it got wealthy from the cargo trade, i.e. coffee and spices. It used to be a sailor’s town with the (still) notorious Reeperbahn red-light district. Here the mates, starved for amusement by months at sea, drowned their sorrows in booze. Here they paid louche ladies for sexual relief. And here they got the sh*t kicked out of them if they couldn’t pay their tab. Alas, the romance is gone on ships that are now turned around in a matter of hours and on the Reeperbahn that morphed into a cheesy tourist trap.

But Hamburg has much more going for it, including hundreds of miles  dedicated bike paths and routes, which makes it a prime place to ride the Drahtesel. That’s why I bring my strawberry-red Dahon (aka ze Falter), with a fat ECO sticker to boot all the way from Portland. Hamburg has city bikes, of course, but I stay a little bit outside of the center where they are scarce. With my own wheels I can sidestep public trans and still enjoy my daily commute to the magazine where I work, which is a 20 mile round trip.

Dieter Loibner(ze Falter, plus consumerism. © Dieter Loibner)

Every time I get here I notice that probably 8 out of 10 riders don’t wear a nut case, a helmet or even a bucket. They ride casually; they wear office attire and obviously are more worried about hairstyle than brain injury. Commuters mostly wear black – you gotta be hip – and many ride 3-gear Holland bikes. The video is for illustration only. It was shot in Utrecht, the Netherlands, but you’ll catch the drift. The upright position is very comfortable and surprisingly fast. Until you hit headwind or – gulp – a bitty hill.

Dieter Loibner(Helmets? Spandex? Are you kidding? © Dieter Loibner

 The weather in spring loosely compares to Portland, although Hamburg is much farther north. The latitude here is about that of Edmonton, Alberta, while PDX is about eye level with Venice, Italy. The breeze can be fierce, especially when howling from the western quadrant. In that case the morning commute is “downhill” (riding east into the city), but after work it’s 10 miles into the teeth of a gale. Makes you earn dinner.

Next time you grouse about traffic on the Eastside, you may want to think about this: Germany with 230.71 people per square kilometer is seven times more densely populated than the US of A with 32.22 inhabitants per square kilometer. From that follows that no matter where you ride, traffic is likely to be quite a bit denser, plus people in Audis, Daimlers, Porsches and Beemers simply love to drive fast. Because they must. On the other hand, many vehicles are puny, not quite the global warmers like you’d see in front of US schools, waiting to haul a gaggle of kids to football practice “safely” so they can happily bash heads with one another.

But there are oddities here, too: By anecdotal evidence I noticed a fairly high obedience rate for traffic signs and lights. In my own twisted analysis that’s because Germans have good memory. Especially for the operative word of their upbringing: VERBOTEN. Speeding bikes on rural back roads in Hamburg’s hinterland are kept in check with the creative use of cow grates. Kids though, riding to and from school are fiends. Riding sans lights, often without helmets, but not so rarely texting while pedaling. Cocky little bastards.

Dieter Loibner(Cow grates on some back roads rattle bikes, riders and teeth fillings. © Dieter Loibner)

A safe bet is riding along the Elbe River, this mighty waterway that’s full of oceangoing ships, barges, tugs, ferries et cetera. For some good cardio, try racing ships when they are sailing with the tide and the current. There’s a lovely bike path that runs along the northern shore. Just peachy. But fools never let good enough alone, so I tried one of those innocent looking cross streets in Blankenese, a posh burb on a bluff overlooking the river and the Airbus plane factory on the far shore.

After a harmless start, I passed a sign that portended trouble: 15%, 800 Meters. Holy crap! Even though it really was only 600 m, it promised a taste of the RondePDX. I also learned that the bus here is called ”Mountain Goat.” I found out why. Nothing beats empirical knowledge.

Dieter Loibner(yikes. © Dieter Loibner)

You think Amisigger sucks? Or College? Or Old German Town reversed? Well, try riding up to the Bismarckstein (the name says it all, doesn’t it?) from the river following the Falkentaler Weg. It kicks ass. But I’m proud to report that ze Falter with all of its seven gears and I prevailed. No stopping, walking or pushing. Just huffing and puffing and cranking.

Yeah, Hamburg is worth a trip. Bring a bike or rent one. But be aware that “flat”, really, is quite relative.

Dieter Loibner(flat. Relatively. © Dieter Loibner)

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