Exploring Copenhagen by Cargo Bike with My Mom

My Mom and I recently traveled to Europe to celebrate her 80th birthday. It was strictly mother-daughter time, just the two of us, on a wonderful 10-day excursion that kicked off in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Copenhagen is the cycling capital of the world, so of course I wanted to be able to share that with my Mom as a part of our travel adventure. And my Mom was up for it. The hitch was that, while she walks with vigor, she no longer trusts her sense of balance on a bicycle. Fair enough.

Copenhagen_Bike_commuters

Copenhagen residents on the go in the bike lanes near our hotel.

Exploring Copenhagen by cargo bike, using the city’s extensive network of protected bike lanes, was the answer. But a box bike, which was all I could find through the rental companies I contacted, wouldn’t do. The solution came by way of fellow New York City cycling blogger Doug Gordon, who publishes Brooklyn Spoke. On a trip to Copenhagen, Doug had learned of a remarkable organization called Cycling Without Age.

Founded by Copenhagen resident Ole Kassow in 2012, the not-for-profit organization pairs elderly citizens with volunteers who take them on rides in comfortable passenger cargo bikes called trishaws. The goal of Cycling Without Age, which has chapters around the world, is to re-connect seniors with limited mobility with the joys of bicycling on outings that offer fresh air, scenery and conversation.

Becoming a Cargo Bike Pilot

I contacted Ole in Copenhagen in advance of our trip. He was amazingly generous in arranging for my Mom and me to use a trishaw for a day of sightseeing.

Ole Kassow

Ole Kassow, founder of Cycling Without Age, demonstrates trishaw steering.

But first, I had to learn how to pilot the bike, so I met with Ole early one morning for instruction. Think of the trishaw as a reverse pedicab, with the passenger seated in the front and the cyclist pedaling in the back. (The trishaws are made by Copenhagen-based Christiania Bikes.)

The most challenging aspect of handling – and it’s not a big deal once you get the hang of it – is steering, because the width of the handlebar is exaggerated. The trick, Ole pointed out, is to move one hand to the center when executing a turn. For example, for a right turn, I placed my right hand to the far right and moved my left hand to the center of the bar. The trishaw is equipped with electric assist, which gives a helpful boost to the pilot’s pedal stroke on inclines, and lots of amenities for the passengers — a rain hood, a blanket that folds out from the foot of the bike for warmth and seat belts.

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The view over the rain hood as I pedal toward the city center.

After circumnavigating the parking lot a few times to practice those wide turns, I rolled into the bike lanes with Ole kindly shepherding me with his own bicycle. I was surprised at the relative lightness and maneuverability of the trishaw on the street.

Still, while focusing on pedaling and following the rules of the bike lanes, which Copenhageners take seriously, a steady narrative streamed through my mind on this maiden voyage: slow down using rear brake, shift hands to proper turning position, signal turn, slow down on turn, accelerate after turn, keep to the right of the bike lane. For their part, the Danish bike lane regulars around me were remarkably tolerant of a cargo bike newbie.

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The trishaw joins the crowded line-up in the courtyard of our hotel.

And so we arrived without incident at my hotel, where this chariot would await its passenger.

My Mom Meets Her Chariot

I have to say here, that my Mom had some reservations when she first heard about the cargo bike idea — but not the ones you might expect. It was not fear of riding in traffic that gave my Mom pause. She may live in Central Illinois, where there’s not much in the way of bike lanes, but she grew up in Hamburg, Germany, where they are plentiful. She recognizes bicycling as a familiar form of urban transportation – a notion reinforced all around us from the moment we emerged from the Norreport train station in Copenhagen. The hesitancy, it turned out, centered on dignity. Specifically, would it make my Mom, a vibrant, person, appear somehow diminished for her daughter to be pedaling her around town?

But, my Mom seemed quite enchanted by the trishaw on first encounter, later referring to it as an “elegant conveyance.” After gingerly seating herself on the bench, her sense of fun and adventure kicked in. Soon we were rolling out of the cobbled courtyard and into the bike lane in front of our hotel. The shared experience that I had envisioned was underway.

The Ride to Rosenborg Castle

We set some ground rules, agreeing that there would be no sudden moves; I would call out our direction and turns in advance. In addition, if we felt unsure or scared about anything, like a steep downhill, I would stop the bike and we would walk together past whatever the obstacle. We ramped up slowly, cruising along the recreational paths that line the rectangular lakes at the western end of the city center. At mid-morning, these were quiet, offering serene views of the city and surprises like swan-shaped paddle boats (below) tethered in a row, idle on this overcast weekday.

Swans

By the time we joined traffic in the bike lanes flowing toward the city center, a light drizzle fell, so we deployed the bright red cover. A downpour began just as we reached our destination, the Dutch Renaissance Rosenborg Castle and gardens. I secured the trishaw to the end of a bike rack outside the castle wall with a chain lock the thickness of an anaconda (not kidding). Then we grabbed our umbrellas and dashed to the Schatzkammer, the subterranean treasury where the crown jewels are on view. When we emerged, the rain had stopped, allowing us to explore the grounds where the rose garden was still in bloom.

Rosenborg

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Above: Scenes from Rosenborg Castle and gardens.

We reclaimed the trishaw, drying the seats with a hotel towel that I had tucked into my purse. As we got back underway, I found that some maneuvers were not intuitive to a novice. For example, I had to learn how to time the maneuvering of this big bike off the sidewalk and back into the bike lane without blocking the very steady flow of two-wheeled traffic. Our voyage was not without a few madcap Oops, sorry! moments, which in retrospect just added to the adventure.

Our lunch destination was the popular Torvehallerne, twin glass and steel food halls, on Israels Plads. The only challenge there was finding a place to park; bicycles were so densely packed at the racks on the front plaza and side streets in early afternoon that securing our double-wide took some creativity. In the end, I threaded the lock through the frame and back wheel and situated the bike next to a window where we could keep an eye on it while buying our meal.

Market

Brimming stalls in the Torvehallerne are a foodie’s delight.

CopenhagenLunch

We found a spot at a picnic table to enjoy our lunch of smoked salmon.

On the other hand, making a lunch pick from among vendors offering charcuterie, baked goods, smoked fish, salads and more was a dilemma of the very best kind. We decided on smørrebrød, traditional Danish open-face sandwiches, which were delicious.

After dining outdoors, surrounded by abundantly stocked and beautifully arranged vegetable and flower stands, we resumed our travels via the bike lane along Frederiksborggade, which led back to our little hotel courtyard.

Later, when Ole reclaimed the trishaw, he dropped off a book about the Cycling Without Age program, filled with narratives and photos, a thoughtful memento. Although we had not been official participants in the program, we benefited mightily from its spirit. Our cycling excursion on our first visit to Copenhagen remains an indelible shared memory of our trip.

Thanks Mom, for the adventure! And much gratitude to Ole Kassow and Cycling Without Age. The program has expanded beyond Denmark, where 63 of 98 municipalities offer it, to countries around the world. (New Yorkers stay tuned…) If you’d like to learn more or start a chapter in your community, check out cyclingwithoutage.org

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The Cycling Without Age mission.

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Photos: velojoy

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