May 30, 2012

The Road Less Ridden

Cycling in Stockholm

Stockholm is beautiful in spring. I stopped here to take some photos and drink the Coke that the Thai takeout lady gave me for speaking my pidgin Thai to her. “Free Coke! You Thai-girl same same!”

In my mother tongue we have a brilliant turn of phrase. Geh kiang. Separately, they mean fake clever. Together, it means some approximation of ‘smart alec’, but that’s not quite good enough. It’s hardly translatable at all. ‘Smart alec’ does not embody the degree of stupidity we are usually referring to when we say ‘geh kiang’.

Speed packing at Copenhagen Central lockersI learned to pack my bicycle in under five minutes. And became closely acquainted with luggage rooms at train stations.

My mother will tell you I embody geh kiang, every bit of me.

I was especially geh kiang when I packed up my bags and bicycle, mostly under stressful circumstances, in order to take them somewhere.

Why did I bring a bicycle to northern Europe? I found myself wondering that all throughout my Nordic escapade. I wondered the loudest and grumbled the most when it was time to pack up my bags and my bicycle all over again. Five times. I know, I counted.

Bike rental shop with attached bicycle cafeMe enjoying a cup of coffee while waiting for my friends to be done picking their rental bikes. Flowery helmet = me. Handbag = friend.

I packed up my bags and my bicycle when I had to move, when I had to get in a plane, when I had to jump into a train, when I had to do all of that entirely by public transport (cabs are totally out of the question in Europe!) and onto train platforms and then into trains.

It was difficult, to say the least. Lucky for me — and my sanity — my love for cycling, and the relative benefits of having one’s own bicycle in a foreign place, far outshone the logistical barriers. I will probably do it again.

When you commit to having such a piece of equipment by your side of the entire duration of your trip, you’re committing to a relationship that will be the primary relationship, one that will be far more important than the by-now boring concept of luggage. You have to look after it. Endure the glances. Fight for it at airport check-in desks. Hold it, dance with it, around the feet of heavily pregnant commuters and swerving around nervous people, trying your best not to jab anybody with your hulk of a piece of equipment.

So what happened? In a nutshell,

I broke my bike

Finnair treated my bike brilliantly. I flew them three times: to Helsinki, to Stockholm, back from Copenhagen. All three times my bicycle more than survived, and the entire experience was very easy. I highly recommend Finnair for their quick, no-nonsense flights to Europe from Singapore. Helsinki Airport is also my new favourite airport.

I, however, was very stupid. I tried to fix what I thought was a loose nut, myself. Being no bike mechanic, I promptly broke the weirdest little part I could break — the plastic doohickey in the stem of the folding post of my bike. Without it, my bicycle could not stay folded. Foldable bikes like mine haven’t taken off in that part of the world at all. Even though the Finns speak amazing English, most people anywhere have never heard of a plastic doohickey. Not unless you are very familiar with foldable bikes of the Dahon make.

Somehow, I managed to find an excellent bicycle shop where its owner and mechanics were super helpful. Since it’s not even a part that my bicycle’s manufacturer offers for sale, it seemed pretty dire. Thankfully, a quick-thinking mechanics with extraordinary ability in plastics (he had a degree in plastics engineering) took a look at the broken plastic bits, and he made a brand new doohickey for me. That entire process took a week so I had to go to Tallinn without my bicycle, but I was relieved that I wouldn’t be travelling around with an unridable piece of junk for the next 3 weeks. More glad that it got fixed. I got lucky.

I had to be rescued by Swedish police

Not something I care to repeat ever again, but.. what an experience.

I was cycling along the bike lanes from Kungsholmen to Stockholm Central, happily zipping along at 25km/h with an air of familiarity. I was starting to really get where things were in Stockholm, and I’d had some amazing city rides. Seems like Stockholm Central hates me for some inexplicable reason. The last time I was there in 2010, I got locked out of Stockholm Central for many hours while my luggage was locked in.

This time, I guess I missed the sign that said “IF YOU ARE A BICYCLE, GO LEFT! NOT STRAIGHT!”

I went straight.

I realised something was amiss when I started descending down a steep flyover. I saw many heavy vehicles. I saw that I had no way to filter right (they ride on the right) without being in the middle of oncoming, converging traffic from another steep flyover. I jumped out. I saw that I could not go back up, and that there was no way I could walk off that bridge (water, water, everywhere).

I jumped onto my bike and kept going.

At some point it dawned upon me in my puny little brain that if I went any further, I would be bus chow in the middle of the underwater tunnel that crossed islands into Södermalm. I got out.

I don’t know what I was thinking — probably nothing — I remember I was extremely calm. I called a Swedish friend, who could not help; I texted the Swedish friend I was riding to meet and told her I’d be late, that I’d explain later when I saw her.

Mostly I just stood by the side of the road and looked pathetic, I think.

A Stockholm city police car came within ten minutes, bundled my bicycle and its stupid owner into the back of the car, and drove me to Stockholm Central. I figured motorists might have called in to tell them that an Asian tourist was dangerously obstructing the lives of motorists on the highway by looking pathetic and helpless.

(They did confirm that they received calls about me, which is why they came; I didn’t care to ask what had been reported!)

Stockholm police’s parting words to me: “you should take a photo and show it to your friends.”

Damn malu.

I had to carry a ton of weight every step of the way

Let’s just say travelling with a bicycle, no matter how light, is not for the faint of heart. I only moved all my bags and the bicycle when I moved to a new city or went to the train station or airport, but when I moved, I moved.

One of the last minute decisions before leaving for Helsinki was that I would bring a silly little trolley with me. The kind that aunties go to the wet market with: the flimsy, plastic ones that are given out free at computer fairs or promotions. I don’t know how I managed without it. Although my Dahon D7HG is quite tiny when folded, and it was also in a soft bag, the overall package including the paddings, foam and bubble wrap made for an uncarry-able package. I also had my large backpack and camera backpack. Why didn’t I just pack it in a Samsonite case? I’ve tried that many times, each time to devastating results. First, dismantling the bike is pretty easy. Getting it to fit isn’t. Unlike most other 20″ Dahon bikes, the D7HG Vitesse that I have has a large rear fender. It is close to impossible to remove, and without removing it, the bicycle does not fit into any luggage. It also has a hub gear, which makes it difficult to remove the rear wheel. More importantly, because of the hub gear and the rear fender, I’m not able to confidently put it back. I decided to avoid that nightmare this time. mrbrown and Ryan helped me zhng a makeshift soft bag carry method. It served me well.

Me and all my shit in train to Kastrup airportMy barang in the train to and from Sweden

Eventually, I gave up on the lousy trolley and went to a trolley superstore in Stockholm (yes, there is such a thing!) and purchased an amazing, sturdy, well-made Swedish trolley.

Would I do it again? Yes, absolutely! That was my first time travelling with my bicycle. To be honest, I don’t think I was ready for it. I’m lucky in that I didn’t get flats, I didn’t need to change tubes (though I brought them anyway), that I didn’t need to remove my wheels or do any repairs of any sorts on my own (other than the plastic doohickey incident). I’m no bike mechanic. I’m a little stupid about those things, in fact. I will get better at it because I now know what and where are the gaps in my knowledge.

I had an amazing time on the bike.

The Nordic countries are light years ahead of us in terms of cycling as part of the urban landscape. It was such a joy to ride there, especially in Copenhagen. Real bike lanes, bike traffic lights, an entire culture and city where cycling was a real — and sometimes the only – way of life. It was liberating.

Before going, I was quite shaky on the roads. I did not like the idea of riding on the roads in Singapore as I was not confident enough to do it. Because I got so much mileage on the roads of Copenhagen (breezy sweat-free 40km days were typical), I learned many things about what I needed to know from them. I now ride on the roads of Singapore regularly, and don’t find it particularly difficult, although there are some challenges to be mindful of (car-dooring, for example).

Since I got home to Singapore, there’s been a lot of talk about how public transport has become absolutely terrible. I agree it has deteriorated substantially, but my own personal way of getting around that problem is to ride more and talk less. I would be quite happy to cycle-commute at least 40% of the time in Singapore. Next time I travel, I am taking the bike with me again. Anywhere. Everywhere.

Bike racks in bike cabins on Copenhagen S-tog

My beautiful Pipo in the S-train in Copenhagen

A quiet last day in Copenhagen

Last day in the Nordics. Took my bike out on a 40+ km DIY bike tour of Copenhagen. Drank a lot of coffee. Got into a plane, unshowered, and flew the 12+ hours home to the tropics. What a life. What a trip.

Me and all my barang

Super Geh Kiang Me.

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