Copenhagen-izing yourself

Susan Urrutia/Courtesy

Do you remember your first Hot Wheels? I was perhaps 6 or 7. It was the time when “Pocahontas” came out, and I watched on VHS how she so magnificently straddled around the woods talking to possessed animals and hopping to the rhythm of the rainbow-colored wind like a deer herself. My version of those woods, however, were tantamount to a road about 30 houses long that quietly hid away from the downtown bustle in a middle-class neighborhood in my hometown in tropical El Salvador.

The October winds whispered that summer was coming and, sure enough, it was time. I was wearing a knee-length black dress with color buttons the size of M&Ms, my trademark white socks with ruffles on the edges and black, flat, patent leather shoes — totally 90s style that will shame me forever — but I was ready. To match my clownish look and, with the full force of my stubborn disposition to beat my fears, I got my bike out of the backyard. The big almond tree in front of my house’s lawn was the start, and the end of the road was the finish line. I mounted it, and before God as witness, I rode my Pepto-Bismol colored bike out to the street, making no concessions to my Nana’s biking Prohibition mania.

I tempestuously raced against the wind, pedaling as fast as my twiggy legs would allow and scantily breathing while my thick, brown hair waved back against the breezy thrill of my newfound freedom and the spite of a 6-year-old riding her bike alone for the first time.

Halfway around the world 17 years later, I grumpily ride a hot pink bike to school in snowy Copenhagen. A bit more stylish now with black stilettos, a mini black skirt on top of dark wool tights and a flashy beige party shirt hidden under my big black coat, I cycle to the trendy Vesterbro neighborhood during a snowstorm that had traveled from Siberia to Copenhagen. Any stoplight downtown becomes a fashion show, not only for onlookers but also for us cyclists: Long-legged blonde women pedaling in sheer black pantyhose in -10 degrees Celsius weather and thick-thighed Viking men waiting for the green light look like models straight from a Perry Ellis catalogue. In my bliss, replaying in slow motion those handsome Danish men snaking around on their bikes, I break. The bike lane has become a race track. Fact: Copenhagen is home to the world’s busiest biking lane with up to 36,000 cyclists per day. Fact: About 55 percent of Copenhageners ride their bikes to school or work daily. Fact: Copenhageners bike twice back and forth to the moon yearly, cycling 1.2 million kilometers. Fact: Copenhagen is nuts.

This Scandinavian town is a city of trends — the world’s best restaurant lives here; the Louisiana Modern Art Museum has become a zeitgeist landmark for contemporary art lovers; and Stroget Street elongates 1.1 kilometers in hundreds of unique Scandinavian fashion stores. But to the newcomer, what is striking about this city is that riding a bike to work or school is not only the cheapest, fastest and most common way of transportation, but it is also an environmentally friendly trend that, along with other advances and reforms in green technology, is expected to grow and make Copenhagen carbon-neutral by 2025.

In Scandinavia (Denmark, Sweden and Norway, arguably also Iceland and Finland), Copenhagen has been named Bike City for four years in a row. The city’s bike culture developed through the whole of the 20th century, but not surprisingly, it was in the early ’70s during the oil crisis when Copenhageners voted to make the city clean and healthy. Superhighways are being planned not for cars but for bikes, and adding 15,000 bikers to the city over the next five years is expected to save the health care system about $60 million a year.

It sounds utopian, but it is true and possible. Even though I waited a little longer than my classmates to man up and ride my bike under below freezing conditions, I am glad I make my 13-kilometer stretch to school twice a week. On the white-carpeted road, I enjoy some beautiful, frugal moments that I would otherwise miss in a car or on the bus. A couple cycles, hands tied to each other, and behind them, a mother with a cargo bike carries her son to the local kindergarten in what otherwise looks like his personal limo. And as the snowflakes blast against my bare face and melt into sweat drops, I slow down, pausing at intervals only to look at the amazing world-renowned architecture for which the city is famous. All the while, I am not singing “Colors of the Wind” because of course everything is snow-white. Instead, I sing “Old Dirt Hill” by Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds.

Now, it’s not always fun gliding through these bike boulevards. What took me some time was to sort out my fear from the angry bikers during the rush hours between 15:30 and 18:00. People can be mean. Because more and more people are joining the bike rage, the city has become congested, and bike traffic is quite dangerous. Sometimes it can be a real hassle to find a decent parking space for my hot pink bike because I will not let my baby fall on top of another bike in a domino effect that can leave it paralyzed and make taking it out of such entanglement a real stress. And sometimes, if I cycle back home still drunk at 4 a.m. when Siberian winds shake even tree trunks from their stillness, there is a chance that my 45 kilograms of girl power will succumb and fall on the ground. Obviously that’s funny, but it is no fun.

But it’s all bliss here in Copenhagen. For this breed of Vikings, there is no snowstorm, rainstorm or raging wind that will make them hop off their bikes. I’m glad I joined them.