The Bicycle Thief (Not the One You Think)

Biking was the first thing I noticed about Berlin. Coming into an unknown city from the airport in a taxi, I glanced out the window and noticed something I had rarely seen before: people on bikes, of every age and dress. An old man peddled jauntily along with groceries in the back basket, while a young woman with her child in the biking equivalent of a car seat whizzed by in the opposite direction. I’d always had this idea that the bike-friendliness of a city was a good predictor of how happy its inhabitants were in general, and this more than confirmed my theory: Berlin was going to be one of those cities.

My first day in town, my roommate decided it would be a good idea to give me a sense of the city by taking me on a five-hour forced bike tour from Neukölln through Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, and Mitte to Tiergarten and back. By the end of it my eyes were glazed over and I could barely see where I was going, but I had hardly dealt with a single car the entire time: Berlin was laced with perfectly demarcated bike paths. Bikers were not the enemy here: they actually wanted you to ride. After my first rite of passage, during which I stupidly got my bike wheel stuck in the tram tracks that are the perfect size for causing dangerous and painful falls, I was up and running. I’ve barely gotten off a bike since (if you don’t count those months of winter where all was glazed with a two-inch-thick coating of ice).

But along with this newfound biking freedom comes a whole set of problems. New York is still so busy trying to change public opinion that has become so heavily influenced by the prestige of big cars, it hasn’t even gotten to this point yet, but here there are businesses on every block that make money off of it: the general instability and unpredictability of bikes. You never realize how fragile the bicycle is until you’re relyong on it every day. Since I first came to Berlin I’ve had four bikes, and the first one wasn’t even really mine. The second one I bought in January from an American guy who had been on a Fulbright in Berlin but was leaving. The bike had belonged to his wife. Because it was a Peugeot in a beautiful shade of aquamarine, the same type of bike I had grown up with, I decided to overlook—or rather, deliberately not notice—the fact that the front wheel didn’t line up with the bike frame. It’s done just fine since then, in spite of the fact that I have to overcompensate for my left-leaning steering, and my rusty, slightly crunchy gears. My third was a city bike I bought from another American guy: a rusty brown one that looked hideous but fulfilled my biking fantasy in a way that no other had. It fell apart one day as I was wheeling it along in Prenzlauer Berg after brunch, the back part of the frame literally detaching itself from the front and rolling backwards, along with the basket, at an awkward angle. After wheeling it to the nearest bike shop, I was told that it had rusted through to the point of no return, and anything that could be done would be only temporary. I had it stripped of all useful parts and headed to the Treptower Park fleamarket the following weekend to pick up my fourth bike. This one is gold-colored with a white seat and handle bars, a little laurel leaf seal on the front, and no basket or lights at all. It is a piece of junk, but again it fills a place in my heart that the last one did not.

In the sixth months I’ve been here, I’ve probably taken a bike to a repair shop a total of seven times, for one reason or another. That’s a lot. What you don’t realize about bikes if you ride them as infrequently as New York allows is that owning a bike is exactly like owning a car. It is a huge responsibility and requires near-constant maintenance. There will never be a time when you can simply enjoy your bike. Something will always go wrong and then you’ll have to spend more money than it cost in total just to repair it. You could just abandon your bike every time you find yourself having to plunk down money on repairs. But most people who own bikes and use them as a primary form of transportation find themselves getting attached; a bike becomes like a friend or a pet, and you don’t give up on your dog just because it starts getting a bit temperamental. Then again, just like a pet, a bike must also be taken to the vet for shots, cleanings, and preventative care. The last thing you want is to be rolling happily down a hill as your trusty steed goes to pieces underneath you. In the end, the real bike thief isn’t a sinister character lurking in a doorway waiting for you to lock up your bike with an old and untrustworthy lock. It is time; time and the wrath of the road, which makes it impossible to exist in peace and quiet with your bike for more than a few weeks.

Looking ahead, I’m going to be back in New York for a visit in August, and the transition will be tough. Aside from the fact that I’ll be saying entschuldigung to every person I run into on the subway, after months of feeling like I’ve been flying on two wheels, it’ll be a painful landing, a heavy thud, back down to earth again.