I have just returned to Melbourne after spending five months travelling around Europe with my bicycle. Being a naive Australian, I figured that five months would be long enough to see a whole swathe of the continent, I was wrong, because it turns out that Europe is actually friggin’ massive. I also wasn’t prepared for the culture shock, it’s hard for me to fathom that so many different cultures exist so close to each other, and have done for thousands of years. The combination of these two factors led me to staying a fair while in each city that I visited, which means that while my European experience wasn’t comprehensive, it was certainly in-depth.
It is true to say that different cities in Europe have really different bicycle cultures, but that’s not going to stop me making some sweeping generalisations about the things I learnt while cycling over there.
Not wearing a helmet can be nice
I loved having the freedom to not wear a helmet. I didn’t expect to love it, but going helmet-free makes the experience of riding a bicycle so much simpler. Carrying a helmet around all day really can suck and there really are a lot of situations in everyday life where riding without one is perfectly safe. Plus, the wind really does feel good in your hair, or you can go ahead and wear that outrageous hat if you want to – I think it’s good to have the freedom to do those things on a bike.
Australian drivers are unusually impatient, which makes them scary
Even in Prague, where there are very few cyclists, the drivers were far more tolerant of my presence on the road than they are here in Melbourne. I experienced very little of the unnecessary beeping, aggressive acceleration, or near-sideswiping that I have been subject to daily since returning. I guess in Europe drivers have worked out that a cyclist is just going to overtake them at the next set of traffic lights anyways, so they may as well wait till it’s safe to pass.
Cities in Australia are WAY more spread out
European cities are dense, with most people living in low-rise apartments close to the city centre. They are also relatively small; Sydney is about fifteen times the size of Paris, so it’s pretty easy to figure out which city is more practical to ride around. The quarter-acre block that typifies the Australian dream has crafted our cities into spaces which are inherently more suitable for the car-flooded days of the mid-twentieth century, which I think is a bit of a pity.
Melbourne’s dedicated bike paths are awesome, and exceptionally beautiful
Australia’s second biggest city is well on the way to proving that a spread out urban plan isn’t a true barrier to a strong cycling culture. The off road bike paths that meander along beside the creeks and canals do a really good job of connecting the suburbs to the city. Not only do they give bike riders a safe way to travel fairly long distances, they do it in style, with the tall trees and green grass bringing to mind the lovely public bike paths in the French countryside.
In Europe you don’t see road cyclists, unless you are in the alps
In Australia the roadies are everywhere whereas in Europe you just don’t see them, they are off riding the country lanes or up a mountain somewhere. Most people you see are riding inexpensive bikes with a relaxed posture, anything that is cost-effective and comfortable.
Bike share systems rule, and every city should have one
France is like heaven for bike share, every little city had one, and you could see that in every city people use it. The only one I used was the Velib in Paris and it was an exceptionally cheap and easy way to get around. Sure, the bikes are chunky and clunky, but they do the job, and it was great not having to worry about someone stealing my bike while I was off buying cheese and baguettes at the markets.
Parisians look good when they ride bikes, whereas Londoners look totally goofy
Cyclists in Europe are almost universally plain-clothed except in London, where hi-vis was the standard uniform. Riding a bike in London is admittedly more scary than in Paris, but I think the main difference is a cultural one. If you were in an accident in London and you weren’t wearing all the safety gear I think there would be a tendency to place the fault in the hands of the cyclist, which is classic victim blaming in my books.
Pedestrians are often more scary than cars, wherever you are
I don’t know when pedestrians will learn that stepping out onto a road without looking is a bad idea, but maybe they never will. Or maybe it is just that they are looking for cars and not bikes. Either way, wherever you go in the world there will be a pedestrian walking between cars stopped at lights, so you’d best keep an eye out for them.
Have you ever gone travelling with a bike? What differences did you observe? What scared you? What did you love? I want to know!