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The Candy B Graveller: a gravel ride with history

The allied nations’ response to the Berlin Blockade, the Berlin Airlift, kept West Berliners alive for over a year between June 1948 and September 1949. Flying along three twenty-mile-wide air corridors, pilots flew in thousands of tons of food and fuel to Tempelhof airport every day to keep West Berliners alive. With planes stopping at incredible three minute intervals, the allies were able to sustain a whole city by air alone, after the Soviets cut off all other supply routes as a response to the introduction of the Deutsche Mark.

Moved after talking to forlorn children standing outside Tempelhof airport, USAF pilot Gail ‘Hal’ Halvorsen decided to start dropping off packages of candy via handkerchief parachutes out of his plane just before he landed. Halvorsen’s idea gained momentum, soon becoming an official operation: Operation ‘Little Vittles’. With USAF pilots dropping candy off every other day, all children in West Berlin were soon able to have chocolate and chewing gum, supplied by American confectionery companies. Halvorsen’s legend was cemented, and he became known by the nickname of the Berlin Candy Bomber.

For Göttingen resident, journalist, author and all-round cycling expert, Gunnar Fehlau, the southern airlift corridor represented a great opportunity to marry his love of adventure cycling with a poignant historical story: offering ambitious cyclists not only the chance to challenge themselves by riding 650km of gravel but also by delivering a symbolic care package. The ride would take cyclists along the route of the former southern airlift corridor from Frankfurt to Berlin – the same route the Candy Bomber once flew.

Gunnar was kind enough to answer our questions about the story and format of the ride:

This year was the second Candy B Graveler. How did you come up with this idea?

So in about 2007, there was a 5-line-long news item in a bike magazine here saying that the mechanic of the magazine would take part in this crazy ride called the Tour Divide. I saw this and thought ‘hey, that sounds crazy!’ and started looking online to find out what it was about. So I thought, hey this is great, but doesn’t really work for me in my circumstances: I have kids and a full time job…

So you wanted to ride the Tour Divide, but couldn’t…

Yeah. There was no way to cut off 5 weeks to get over to America and ride the Tour Divide. So the idea was ok, if the preacher can’t come to the church, bring the church to the preacher. So in 2009, I did the Grenzsteintrophy, which is a self-supported mountain bike ride following the former iron curtain trail: East Germany/West Germany: 1300kms, a lot of climbing and a lot of weird terrain. Of course, the border doesn’t follow the way you would build a street, just like the Berlin wall.

So it’s similar to the Berliner Mauerweg…

Sure, but that has no climbs! But yeah, it is similar, just with a lot of climbs, going through Germany. This was probably the first European bikepacking race. I don’t know about anything that happened before this: the idea of it being self-supported and so on. And then, finally in 2013, I at least started the Tour Divide. But I only made it to Butte. Anyway, it was great fun. That was about 500 miles. There are three groups of people on the Tour Divide: people who don’t make it to the start, people who don’t make it to the finish and the smallest group: the people who finish. So I feel pretty good about that. So with a delay of 7 years, I finally made it to Banff to do the ride.

Nevertheless, the Grenzsteintrophy continues to happen every year…but it’s pretty hard, because of the terrain – steep uphills and downhills of 25-30%, mud with tank tracks still on it. It’s not this ‘Montana-cruising-average-speed’ thing of the Tour Divide, but something totally different. So every year they have a very high percentage of ‘do not finish’. A lot of people underestimate it. They can’t imagine something like that in the middle of Germany.

So I thought, let’s do a small sister race or a smaller, more convenient, less tough ride. The GST is tough by itself. It’s not the speed that makes it tough, it’s just tough because it’s tough. With a lot of rides, it’s the old idea that ‘speed kills’ – that if you go slow, it’s not that hard…with the GST, the climbs are incredibly hard and the downhills are so tricky and slow, and so risky that it’s not a question of fitness.

So I was thinking of doing an event, or doing a ride, where the toughness is closely related to the speed you take – something a little less difficult. I was riding off traffic a lot with my road bike, anyway. Now they call it gravel biking. In German I always called that bike my ‘Breitreifenrennrad’ because it’s about the tire width and not about the surface. I was previously totally into long distance endurance road stuff: I did Paris-Brest-Paris, randonneurs and stuff like that, then I did a lot of bikepacking mtb stuff, but right now by favourite bike is my gravel bike: I have a Stolz, which is from a custom frame builder in Switzerland: a custom-made titanium gravel bike with S&S coupling. I love it.

So I was thinking, what would be a nice route to ride? And I like things with historical connections, like the GST, but I was thinking, these were bad times: I don’t wanna have a story about war and blood, I want a story that’s about hope and humanity and about help. And for some reason, this Luftbrücke came into my mind. I thought ok, let’s do the air corridor where they flew, and just ride that route. And there was the idea – I don’t wanna take money – for me these kind of rides aret a non-organisational and non-budget thing. On the other hand, if it’s free, a lot of people sign up but don’t actually show up, so what I said was – ok, everybody gives a donation to charity that’s somehow connected to the idea of the Luftbrücke. So everybody has to give a donation, I want to know who’s taking part so everybody needs to send a picture and a short letter of intent. So these three things get you on the starting list.

I didn’t wanna have a really huge ride so I limited the number – pretty simple rules. Last year it was limited to 69, because the Luftbrücke started 69 years ago. So this year it was 70 and next year 71, just to keep the numbers limited for organisational/back office reasons. And If the numbers are limited, it also makes the ride somehow seem more attractive. The riders make sure to sign up on time for that reason.

Then we had this idea that because the Candy Bomber flew stuff over to Berlin and brought some candy, we should do the same. So everyone carries a small care packet to Berlin. So we had a mission. It’s not only about taking part, but getting the mission done.

I dropped an email to a couple of folks I knew living close to the corridor and they did the route scouting. I asked my freelancer who does a lot of graphic work for me, and who’s also a cyclist – I said this is voluntary charity work – would you like to take part? This is the main reason I go to all this effort – for the charity aspect of the ride. That’s what I like about the project.

So in 2017 there were 69 riders?

It was limited to 69, and I think 68 started.

How many people finished?

I don’t know exactly, because we didn’t do a proper data file about that. Not everybody kept to the codex (planned route), some of them went off the track or did whatever. I guess ¾ finished, and keeping to the codex around 60%.

What kind of people ride it?

It’s totally mixed. That was surprising. The GST is pretty much just hardcore bikepacking folks. But the candy attracts a lot of different people. Of course, there are really competitive, fast endurance road-riding types.

Are there any rules?

In 2017, on every road long-distance bikepacking event, a cyclist died. So I was thinking – it’s not because it’s risky, it’s because the people underestimate it, and there are cars. In the woods, there are wild animals, but there are no cars. So most of the accidents are car accidents. So what we did is, just to make sure that people get at least a short break, we specified that you have to do a 5 hour break every night of the event. It’s your decision: but between 9pm and 9am you have to take a 5 hour break. I don’t mind if you go to the cinema, or have dinner or go and play pool for 5 hours or if you sleep for 5 hours. But either way, your blue dot needs to stop moving for at least 5 hours. This had three results: it kept out all these I-ride-the-whole-time-and-I-don’t-want-to-sleep type people – mission completed – we wanted to keep some types of cyclists out of the ride. Secondly, you have some kind of tactical strategy idea of where and when to take the break, which gives another dimension to the ride. And thirdly, it keeps the thing awake in every sense of the word: people are more awake because they’ve slept, and it kept the momentum of the ride going. I like that idea, and we’ll keep it.

How long is the ride?

Around 640/650km.

The average time?

I don’t know. I don’t want to do a ranking or anything like that, because I don’t want to do a race! The fastest person this year did it in 38 hours. He took one break, so his strategy was to complete the ride just before you have to take the second break. So he cycled the maximum, took the first break and then cycled the maximum again. The last rider did it in 6 days, or 5 and a half. I guess the average – 80% of the riders – make it within 2 or three days.

Is it a requirement to ride a gravel bike, or can you ride a road bike or a mountain bike?

You can even take a shopping cart if you want. I don’t mind, as long as it’s human powered, take whatever you want. You can walk it if you want!

How much of the ride is off road?

The scout had a tough job, to find ‘off traffic tarmac’ – sometimes you have these tarmac roads in the woods which are not for cars. 2/3rds is in the woods, whether it’s tarmac, gravel, soil, or single track.

Does the route go through big towns?

We start in Frankfurt next to the airport. We go through the outskirts of Darmstadt. Then we go right through the centre of Fulda, touch Dessau and then finish in Berlin. So it goes from urban area to urban area but in between it’s pretty much just in the middle of nowhere.

Do all of the riders take tents?

We have all sorts. There is no rule to sleep outside, but sleeping outside makes you faster. We have these ‘I go for a hotel every night’ folks, and these ‘I just need a summer sleeping bag’, the ‘I don’t need a mat because I’m a tough guy’, and everything in between. We have people who use tarps, hammocks, bivy sacks and everything else. This year on the second day was quite rainy, and a lot people got pissed off. It was really a tough section.

Did you ride it this year?

Yeah, but just for a day.

So the ride finished this year at the VELO in Berlin?

Yeah. We planned it because that was right next to the Luftbrücke Denkmal (memorial) in Berlin, so it was perfect. We planned it backwards – I knew most people would take about three or four days, so we started it on the Thursday morning.

Is next year already planned?

We don’t have a date or a strategy for next year. I don’t know if everything will stay the same, or if we’ll change something. So, no plan. But it will happen next year. The web page will be alive again late summer, and everything will be on the page. There will be an announcement of the date, and there will be an announcement of when to send your three-part application.

Do you have international riders?

There are some international riders. But it could be attractive, especially for Americans, y’know: ‘my Grandpa flew it, and now I’m riding it’ – that could be an idea. This hasn’t happened yet, but that would be a great story. I’d love to get some more international attention.

Cheers, Gunnar.

17th June 2018 0 comment
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Goodbye, Keirin: boss Mortimer talks cycling, gentrification, bikes and Berlin

Gentrification is a word frequently dropped into conversations in Berlin, often by privileged expats bemoaning rising rent prices or how their Kiez’s authentic vibe is gradually being eroded due to trendy businesses opening up.

It’s no secret that Berlin is seen by many as an attractive and affordable place to live and work. While this influx of new people and ideas is beneficial to the city, the accompanying economic growth means that people suffer: squeezed out of their apartments and forced to close their shops by greedy landlords who know they can get double the rent from the next tenant.

Mortimer’s much-loved Kreuzberg bike cafe, Keirin, recently suffered a similar fate. Having finally closed its doors after 14 years at Schlessiches Tor, the shop is another unfortunate victim of Berlin’s fast-rising rent prices.

We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mortimer as he reflected on the years at Keirin, cycling, bikes and Berlin.

So, what happened with the shop?

I closed it end of March (’18). The build up was the move (to the smaller unit). We used to be a shop that was 140 square metres – the main shop where the Ramones museum now is, and a little shop next to it that was our storage room. When it was the busy season and we were repairing 20 bikes a week, we stored the repaired bikes there.

We moved into the little shop in 2004, and then in 2006 the big shop next door became available. After 10 years the contract ran out. Half a year before it ran out, (the landlord) said he would have to increase the rent. We thought, yeah ok, after 10 years maybe 10 or 20 percent would be ok. I asked him how much he wanted and the answer was 4000 euros per month. We were paying approximately 2,000 per month and he doubled it. I said I couldn’t really pay this and asked if there was another option, maybe he could sell it to me. He came back and asked for 350,000 (to buy the shop).

I thought, that’s a lot of money. I went to the bank and after a few days they came back to me and said we could do it. I went back to him and then he said: 450,000.

I still had the contract for the smaller shop, so we gave it a try there. We did a ‘save Keirin Berlin’ thing, and we thought about doing Kickstarter, but in the end didn’t do it. We had a party with 3 punk bands and a DJ. We moved into the little shop and gave it a try.

People say the little shop was a prime location, and it is, but it’s 30 square metres. We put in the coffee machine first – that was important to me – we were the first cycle culture cafe that I know of, worldwide. We put in the work space – but my mechanic was complaining that I couldn’t pay him on time. Then he left. We had replacement mechanics, that worked ok, but if we had three cargo bikes come in at once, that was it, the shop was full.

The idea was always not to be just a bike shop, but to be more a place where people meet and talk and maybe to see that the bike as art – to have exhibitions. In the bigger shop there was a coffee area with art on the wall, magazines and books. Next to this was the area with used and new bikes – classic Italian racing bikes and Japanese track bikes. In the back was the workshop and bike parts. There was always some kind of bike related culture – a Keirin (Japanese track cycling racing) exhibition, a 6 day race exhibition or something like that.

Unfortunately when we moved into the smaller shop, it looked a bit like a club, a lot of bike messengers were hanging out and the normal people didn’t dare come inside. The other shop had big windows, a coffee machine. People walked by, saw the bikes, came in for a cappuccino and bought a cycling cap. I would sell 10 cycling caps a day. That went down to maybe 5 a week. We always said cycling caps paid the rent!

How did you get started?

I was a bike messenger for quite some time. I started in Berlin in ’93 – there was the cycle messenger world championships. In ’95, I went to Toronto – to the world championship, and there was this coffee shop, Jet Fuel. The shop was started by this guy, John ‘Jet Fuel’ Englar, who actually invented the alleycat. He decided to open a coffee shop – I wouldn’t call it a cycling cafe, but it was a coffee shop with a bike theme: he had two or three track bikes hanging on the wall. We saw this and thought, wow, this is pretty cool: a coffee shop with bicycles where friends and messengers meet. We can do some food, but we can also repair and sell bikes, and do exhibitions.

So I got the idea in ’95, then in ’98 I went to New York and worked there for five years as a messenger. I met this girl – she said she always wanted to go to Berlin, so we came back to Berlin. She used to say to me, do you want to be a messenger for ever? We were living on Pannierstrasse in Neukolln back then, it was 500 euros warm for an 80m2 apartment. This was in 2003.

I had always wanted to do a coffee shop with a bike theme. The idea was never really purely a bike shop. We never wanted to deal with all kinds of weird cyclists, you know? I never actually considered myself a cyclist: to me a cyclist is someone who makes money cycling, who trains, you know?

So, we opened in 2004 with the little shop. We had maybe 10,000 euros together between us: me and my friend Gary, who was a long time messenger. He had also been working at (Prenzlauer Berg bike shop) Ostrad for maybe 8 years by then, so he was a pretty good mechanic. He was also in Toronto in ’95.

We were searching for a shop for one year. Originally we were looking around Potse (Potsdamer Strasse) – this was my perfect idea of Berlin – it’s not west, it’s not east – it’s a little bit shady, a bit posh – it’s almost like the Lower East Side of NYC.

We bought a coffee machine for 3500 euros, ordered some bags from our friends Bagjack, bought some old cycling jerseys. We bought a lot of track bikes on French and Belgian eBay – at this time the track bike thing hadn’t really taken off: the shipping was more than the bikes! I once bought 11 track bikes from a velodrome in Paris for 30 euros each. They were all Campy Record (high end Campagnolo components) equipped. People just laughed at us. We put them together and then it seemed like – boom – all of a sudden everyone wanted track bikes. There weren’t really even parts available yet. It went really crazy in around 2007/8. It was already crazy in New York since about 2003/4.

It got so crazy. Then the (bigger) shop next door became empty. We thought, fuck, should we really make this move and pay approximately 2,000 euros a month rent? Can we survive this? At this point the rent was 1400, even 15 years ago.

The UPS guy used to leave packages for people in the building with us and tell them “we left your package in the bike store”. We used to say “We’re not a bike store!”. Then more and more we became a bike store. We got the bigger shop, we were concentrating on wheel building. Then the whole trend for colour with fixed gear bikes started: green saddles, orange rims. We did a little bit of that, but not really, we thought it was really only a trend. I still have white deep V rims. We ordered 50 and sold maybe 20. We became a bike shop.

We went to Japan twice a year, to Keirin races, we bought Keirin bikes – in the beginning for around 50 euros and sold them for 200 or 300. We were stupid, could’ve earned more, but Keirin was never about money. It sounds a little cheesy, but we wanted to bring the bicycle to people in a different way – the bicycle is the future, and that was the idea with exhibitions and art. For example, if a couple came in, and she was into bikes, and he wasn’t, he can drink a cappuccino and read Zitty. Maybe then he would think, ah, this red bike is actually really pretty.

We were never really making loads of money. We made enough to pay rent, to pay us and to pay a mechanic, but we had fun.

When did things start getting difficult?

It got a little bit difficult in 2009, when the police suddenly started focusing on track bikes. They figured out that people were riding without brakes. I personally think that this whole ‘no brakes’ thing – it was a big mistake in the fixed gear scene to call it no brakes, trying to sound all punk rock: ‘no brakes!’ – but there is a brake on the bike. The police thought that no brakes meant ‘keine Bremsen’. I remember my ex-girlfriend, she was working as a bike messenger, riding a Schwimm Paramount with Campy Record and the police stopped her and said she had no brake on her bike. She said, no, there’s a back brake on the bike (the bike’s fixed gear). The policeman said “I didn’t know there were Campy Record back brakes”!

They let her off. I’m not sure that anything ever really happened – like somebody on a track bike hitting somebody – but I think there are a lot of people in the fixed gear scene, just like any scene, who don’t behave, who ride like assholes and act like assholes. I figure that maybe something like that happened with a policeman. They went into all the shops, but didn’t come to our shop. They stopped people, at first they said 90 euro fine, and you have two weeks to go to the police and put bells and lights and brakes and whatever on your bike. Then the second time they busted you, they confiscated the bike. My friend had two of her bikes taken away, and never got them back.

They claimed these bikes were like weapons. I can kind of understand that, because there are a lot of people who can’t ride these bikes and a lot of people who can’t ride bikes in general, but the thing is with track bikes, or fixed gear bikes, or – terrible word – fixies, most people know what they’re doing – but there are still assholes.

Did this affect the popularity of track bikes here?

It made people think: I’m gonna get a classic single speed. It wasn’t really what we wanted to do. Also, many other shops suddenly opened up, like Create bikes and Einzig, and good track bikes – with Campy Record or Dura Ace parts – got really expensive, because there was nothing left on eBay, everything was gone. Other shops opened, but just sold cheaply-made stuff. All of a sudden, track bikes weren’t eight or nine hundred euros anymore, but five hundred. Then Amazon got big, web shops got big. It became all about money, and that doesn’t fit to the bicycle for me. A lot of firms are just about numbers.

Do you ride brakeless?

I mean, I’ve never ridden with brakes and I never will, because I feel like I know what I’m doing and it would be more dangerous if I had a brake and had to rely on one. Same thing with helmets. There are studies that say that car drivers tend to be more aggressive toward cyclists when they wear a helmet, they get closer to you. Of course, a helmet can help you survive, but not always. If you feel safer with one, you should wear one.

What are you plans now the shop is closed?

I’m doing this trip, cycling to (on a track bike) Japan. All my friends were telling me I should hang on and stay at the shop, but I’m not in the mood anymore, to struggle with the shop. To think every day, how am I gonna pay this bill and that bill? I decided, I’m closing the shop and going on a trip.

Do you have a lot of stock left?

Yeah. A lot. I have a storage space and my apartment – I still have track bikes in my apartment right now. They were hanging on the wall in the shop – World Championship bikes and Olympic Games bikes. People would ask me – aren’t you selling these? Don’t you need the money? I’d say, aren’t you into culture? Or are you into hanging it in your apartment as a collectors item?

I decided to make an exhibition in Japan about my trip. End of October I hope to have a little exhibition in Tokyo to show my photos and sell t-shirts. I still sell stuff online but I plan to close that down soon. I got some sponsors for the trip – I contacted a few people and told them I wanted to do this trip – can you give me some cranks? Can you give me some wheels? So a lot of folks helped with putting a bike together. The frame is titanium from Kocmo, in Stahnsdorf – they’ve been making titanium frames since 1994. Continental is supporting me. I’m waiting to put this bike together, then I’ll go.

After that, I’ll come back and see what happens. Right now, I can’t imagine ever doing something like Keirin again, but if I do something like that it will be just a couple of times a week, but wholesale. And maybe have once a month an exhibition – sell t-shirts and drinks, and maybe go more into the cafe direction. But right now, I’m a little bit over Berlin. It still has cool parts, but Kreuzberg- I like it, but it’s become like Brooklyn, it’s like East London. It has something, but in a way it’s losing it. You know, Manhattan also used to be a cool place…

Do you think Berlin is a good city ride in? Is it safe?

Unless you don’t go to Neukölln, or Wedding, it’s safe! That’s the funny thing – they have critical mass here – and when they do it, they kind of miss the point. When they started doing it here, cycling wasn’t so big, but now it’s really big, so in a city like Berlin, we don’t really need a critical mass anymore – because cycling here is so visible. It’s more of a political thing. If you do critical mass, you should have banners saying ‘we need more bike lanes’ or whatever – but don’t meet up and be 5000 people for three hours just to annoy car drivers. In New York, when they do critical mass, they’re nice to car drivers…

Do you think the infrastructure here is good enough, or should it be improved?

It could always be better. I think what they should do is what they have in London, where car drivers have to pay to get into the centre of town. Or in New York, where there has to be two people in each car. There’s definitely too much traffic here, and too many cars. Now they’re building a new autobahn. Bike lanes should also be green or yellow or blue, not red.

Is cycling getting more popular here?

It’s getting more popular. What’s missing are the mountains!

Do you think Berlin has a strong cycling culture?

I don’t know if I would call it a culture, really. A lot about this is because it’s cool. That’s the funny thing, I mean in New York, you have the messengers and ‘alternative transportation’ geeks, but they mix. In Berlin, you have the cool fixed gear riders – which maybe I’m a part of too – and you have the geeks at ADFC, but they don’t talk to each other! And that’s so Berlin. I think people should do more together. I think 8bar, or the She36 girls, those are the people who have really good ideas about making it more fun, and not so serious.

I think the big, big problem with the cycling scene is the lack of women. And I think that’s because of the attitude of the men. For the men it’s a fucking competition: I’ve got the nicest titanium frame with Campy Record, and SIDI shoes, and I’m faster than you, and I did 289km yesterday. And for the women: they meet in the park, they drink coffee, and do tricks on a fixed gear bike and have fun, they connect. We need more women in this scene. If you focus more on women, more women will come, more guys will eventually come and it’ll be more fun for everyone. If you have a race like Fixed42, with 600 men and only 80 spaces for women, naturally not every male cyclist will be serious, but of those 80 women, every woman will be really serious. So the women who just want to have fun don’t even think about registering.

Thanks Mortimer.

Follow Keirin on Instagram

All photos courtesy of Mortimer.

21st May 2018 0 comment
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Berlin Fahrradschau 2018

Starting in 2010 with 90 exhibitors and 5000 visitors and now with over 300 brands exhibiting to over 13,000 people, the Berlin Fahrradschau is a fantastic event for anyone in Berlin (or nearby) interested in cycling.

Held every year at Station-Berlin in buildings of the former Dresdener Bahnhof near Gleisdreieck, the BFS offers visitors the opportunity not only to drool over some of the coolest bikes available, but also to check out live races, workshops, talks and panel discussions. It’s also a great chance for Berlin bike manufacturers, teams and organisations to promote themselves.

The BFS started Friday 23rd and finished Sunday 25th of March. We started off by riding the Brooks/Tortuga Cycles gravel ride on Friday morning, before going to the show proper on Friday evening to check out an interesting panel discussion about the future of German fixed gear racing. Several key players in the scene were involved, including the German fixed crit series, Rad Race,  8bar, Standert bikes and Messpack.

On Saturday we went back to check out the bikes.  Many Berlin bike brands were at the show, including 3 we met last year for our 5 Berlin bike manufacturers feature: Fern, 8bar and Meerglas. Additionally, we saw beautiful bikes from Cicli Bonanno, Wheeldan and Schindelhauer.

In the vast room behind the exhibition hall there was live BMX, trials bikes and bike polo, also with a space to try out bikes from the show.

On Saturday evening we trekked up to Hohenschönhausen to check out the Rad Race Last Man/Woman Standing,  an evening of fixed gear crit racing. It was great fun, with a real party atmosphere – check out the link for a great write-up with pictures. As you can see from the results, several of the top 10 riders from both the womens’ and mens’ races were from Berlin teams: 8bar, Schindelhauer and Messpack. Watch the official Rad Race video below.

On Sunday it was back to the show to check out the Standert Points Cross race, which used both the ‘backyard’ behind the exhibition hall and the indoor events room itself to create an awesome, challenging cross-country course. Check out tons of great pics in the link, or the youtube video of one rider riding the course below. It was really cool to see a cyclocross race like this in the middle of the city and the shorter track meant the crowd got to see a lot more of the action than at a classic cyclocross race.

What bikes were hot?

As expected, adventure/gravel/all-road bikes were super popular, with countless manufacturers big and small showing off bike-packing rigs with drop bars and fat tires. Traditional touring set ups with panniers seemed less popular.

A big range of slick urban/city bikes was also on offer, hopefully indicating that city cycling and commuting are on the up and up. Cargo bikes also seemed to be quite popular: we saw lots of people trying them out and there were several exhibited at the show.

Fixed gear and single-speed bikes seemed to be as popular as ever, with a huge selection of sexy bikes to check out from 8bar, Standert, London’s Brick Lane Bikes and Hamburg’s Suicycle.

We didn’t get to see and do everything at BFS18, but what we did see and do was fantastic, and we can’t wait for next year. If you haven’t been yet and are even moderately interested in cycling, definitely check out next year’s show.

 

31st March 2018 0 comment
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BFS18: Brooks England & Tortuga Cycles gravel ride

‘Gravel grinding’ is a fashionable term in the cycling world at the moment, conjuring up images of epic adventures riding through beautiful and remote landscapes, the only sound being the crunching of stones underneath your wheels. Riding dirt roads bridges the gap between road riding and mountain biking, and also offers a chance to ride swiftly and safely without being surrounded by cars.

Then there are the bikes: resembling racing bikes to the untrained eye, the difference is in the rugged tires, designed to tackle different types of unpaved roads and paths. Powerful disc brakes are also considered de rigueur for such riding, where being able to stop very quickly is essential.

I would be lying if I said that the hysteria surrounding ‘gravel grinding’ (or whatever your preferred name for it is) hadn’t rubbed off on me. I have a bicycle designed to be ridden both on and off road, and I was keen to explore the unpaved roads surrounding Berlin. For this reason, after seeing it advertised on facebook, I was very keen to get involved.

Tortuga Cycles is a bike shop in Prenzlauer Berg which caters less for pure road riding and more for gravel/touring/adventure cycling pursuits. Brooks is a prestigious British company renowned for its high-quality saddles, some of which have stayed more or less unchanged for over 100 years.

The event was organised by Brooks and Tortuga, using the shop as the starting point. We arrived just after 9am, and were greeted by Luca and Mirko from Tortuga with a welcome espresso. Bregan from Brooks was already on hand, fixing riders up with Brooks saddles to try out for the ride.

By about 10am, around 30 riders had assembled, my girlfriend unfortunately being the only female rider in the group. There were a variety of beautiful bikes both inside and outside the shop, most set up with heavy duty tires for the day’s muddy course. One brave rider had even brought along a fixed gear.

The idea for the day was to have two separate rides: 50km at an average of 20km/h and 70km at a 24km/h. After separating the men from the boys (and girl), the group was split into two, ourselves wisely deciding to ride the shorter, slower route.

We set off together, riding north out of Prenzlauer Berg through Malchow, then Blankenburg, then Karow. After about 10km, the two groups split off from one another, with the faster guys embarking on a slightly longer route including a short race, the winner of which winning a free Brooks saddle.

The ride was mostly off-road, covering everything from canal towpaths to dense, smooth gravel and muddy forest single track. Unfortunately, the weather was cold and wet, making what would have been a relatively straightforward ride a lot more taxing, due to how slippery the course was. Although my bike has pretty capable Clement X’plor USH tires on it, something a little chunkier would have been more suitable.

The highpoint of the ride was a loop around Schönower Heide, a nature reserve north of Berlin, where we had the opportunity to ride near wild horses, buffalos and deer. The route eventually looped back down to Berlin again, before finishing in a Pankow cafe for food and drinks compliments of Brooks.

With supportive guidance from Jambi, the ride was a pleasure, and a great opportunity to meet some other local riders. It was also great to see just how much gravel/track stuff is available right on our doorstep here in Berlin. I will definitely be riding these routes again, albeit next time in slightly dryer weather.

If you want to ride these for yourself, you can find the 50km route here and the 70km route here.

Here are a selection of photographs:

25th March 2018 0 comment
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Visiting Berlin’s DIY bike workshops

As much as I love cycling, I have to admit that my bicycle mechanic skills leave a lot to be desired.

My commuter bike – not that my commute is particularly taxing – was in need of a few tweaks and a bit of general TLC. I had also recently purchased a set of fancy new Schutzbleche (mudguards) to install, sick of constantly having a wet backside at the merest hint of rain.

I foolishly believed I could do the above jobs alone. My first attempt to install the mudguards in my apartment was wholly unsuccessful, leaving me not only with dirty hands and a dirty kitchen floor but also a distinct feeling of pessimism, doubting that I’d ever be able to accomplish any kind of true bicycle modification at home.

It was a happy accident then, when I subsequently discovered a website with a list of Berlin selbsthilfe Fahrradwerkstätte (self-help bike workshops). There are quite a few places on the list (published July 2013) dotted around the city, usually operating on a donation-based payment system. I decided to take myself, my bicycle and its new mudguards to two of these workshops to see whether I’d have more luck with their tools and expertise than I’d had at home.

Regenbogenfabrik, Lausitzer Straße 22, Kreuzberg.

Enlisting a friend, the first place we visited was the bike workshop at Regenbogenfabrik (translated as Rainbow Factory) on Lausitzer Straße in Kreuzberg, a squat started in the early 80s that also includes a hostel, cafe, woodshop, bakery and cinema.

The bike workshop is housed in a colourfully painted shed towards the left of the central courtyard. As we went in, we were welcomed and shown to a free space with a stand to clamp the bike to. Another room adjoins the main workshop, filled with hundreds of wheels, forks and other assorted spare parts. Tools line the walls, and every inch of space is filled with some kind of bicycle paraphernalia.

With some trepidation, I clamped the bicycle, removed the wheels and started to trying to work out how on earth to install the mudguards. A kind, middle aged man called Mattis was on hand to help, one of three volunteer mechanics circulating to assist if we needed anything.  

After about an hour of sweating and swearing, we came to the conclusion that the front mudguard and my bicycle were in fact completely incompatible. Being a racing bike, the limited clearance between front tire and fork wouldn’t allow installation of the mudguard without hindering the free spinning of the wheel. Nonetheless, Mattis was extremely helpful throughout, doing a lot of the work while I took pictures and let my friend get her hands dirty instead.

On to the rear mudguard. It went on without a hitch, although the small part which clamps it to the brake mount was rubbing on the wheel. It might temporarily work without this part, said Mattis. Indeed it did, and was enough to get us out of Kreuzberg and to Mitte where we could see if the folks at Hubschrauber could help with a more permanent solution. The fee for our 2 hours at Regenbogenfabrik? A paltry €6. That seemed a little low, so we tipped them and also donated the incompatible front mudguard.

Hubschrauber, Geschwister-Scholl-Straße 7, Mitte.

Hubschrauber is a bike workshop at Humboldt University, housed in an outbuilding within the campus at Geschwister-Scholl-Straße. The workshop is bright and clean, the walls again lined with every tool you can imagine and there are two bike stands available in the middle of the room to clamp your bike to. Similar to Regenbogen, Rat und Tat (help and advice) from mechanics is also available, and donations are welcomed. Humboldt University provides the space; the staff work as volunteers.

We arrived at Hubschrauber on Friday evening and mechanic Chris wasted no time helping us fix on the rear mudguard that we hadn’t quite been able to attach at Regenbogen. It turned out that we needed instead a metal clamp to bend into place, fixing the mudguard to the rear brake mount without any rubbing. Despite my complete lack of ability, it was surprisingly easy, given Chris’s expertise. He also showed us how to perfectly adjust the placement of the mudguard to ensure optimal, non-rubbing fit.

Additionally, Chris showed us how to dial in the brakes on the bicycle, one of which hadn’t been working well for a couple of weeks.

At the time we visited, Hubschrauber was busy with bike fans young and old, working together with the in-house mechanics to solve their various bike-related problems. An older gentleman learning how to build a wheel told us that Hubschrauber had been around since the early 90s . The staff were cordial and knowledgeable, the atmosphere friendly and social. There was a definite contrast between the grittier, slightly more alternative vibe at Regenbogenfabrik, which was similar in atmosphere and appearance to many of Berlin’s well-known squatted housing projects.  Chris asked us for €5 to put in the donations box. 

I’m really happy that I decided to explore this side of Berlin’s bike scene. Not only did I meet some great people, but I actually came away having learnt something and got my bike fixed for a very modest outlay. If you have something that needs fixing on your bicycle, visiting either one of these workshops could be a truly invaluable experience.

If you’ve used the ADFC’s workshop at Brunnenstraße or the Technisches Universität workshop, let us know how you got on.

20th March 2018 0 comment
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Die fLotte: free cargo bikes to rent in Berlin

The ADFC (allgemeiner deutscher fahrrad-club) has recently started Die fLotte, a new initiative to provide free cargo bike rental to people in Berlin.

According to the Flotte website, Berlin is one of over 40 German cities offering free cargo bike rental, often with support from the local ADFC.

Why a cargo bike?

Whether you want to move your children from A to B, haul a load of heavy shopping or even move your belongings to a new apartment, cargo bikes offer an environmentally-friendly, cost-effective and fun alternative to using a car. They also mean one less car being used: less traffic, safer streets, cleaner air and less climate pollution. Riding a bike also keeps you fit and healthy and looks cool!

Getting hold of one of the bikes

There are currently 7 cargo bikes in the fleet: (names including Lotte, Luise and Walte) with some being better suited to transporting children, and some better for hauling stuff.

If you want to use one of the bikes, the registration process is simple. Simply register here, check the bike you’re looking for is available (you can use it for up to 3 consecutive calendar days) and click ‘book’. You will then receive a confirmation email and code word.

Next, go to pick up the bike with your personal ID (which is photographed or copied) and code word, fill out and sign the form and the bike is yours. A lock is also provided.

When returning the bike, chain it up to something unmovable and ensure you hand it over in person to someone at the rental station.

Although the service is technically ‘free’, donations are welcomed.

What bikes are on offer?

For those of you who don’t speak German, here is a list of the bikes currently available with a note about their specifications and suitability. To see the locations and pictures of the bikes, click here.

Bella is a 3-wheeled Bakfiets Cargo Trike Classic Wide and can house up to 4 small children on its two folding benches. The box can handle up to 100kg of weight and the rear rack another 50kg. 8 gears and powerful hydraulic brakes complete the package.

Inge is another Cargo Trike Classic Wide form Bakfiets.

Lukas is the fleet’s third Bakfiets Cargo Trike Classic Wide.

Lotte is a Bakfiets Cargo Trike narrow.  This bike is 10cm narrower than Bakfiets’ Cargo Trike Wide.

Lisbeth is a Pedalpower Long Harry, the oldest and most experienced model in the fleet. Lisbeth is a two-wheeled cargo bike and has a platform instead of a box, making it unsuitable for carrying children. It has 5 gears. (Pedalpower is one of Berlin companies we met for our 5 Berlin bike manufacturers feature.)

Luise is a Bakfiets Cargo Bike Classic Long, and the fastest bike in the fleet. It has a collapsible bench for up to 2 children and can carry 80kg in its box and a further 50kg on the rear rack. Despite its length of 2.50m, it is agile and quick to get up to speed.

Walter is a PFAU-tec Jumbo. The box can carry up to 60kg, but has no benches for children to sit on. The maximum rider weight is 100kg.

If you use one of the bikes, please let us know how you got on.

 

11th March 2018 0 comment
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A tale of two cities: London vs. Berlin

Having grown up in London and done a lot of cycling in and around the city, every time I visit home I am keen to see how the cycling culture there is developing.  While travelling around London, I often find myself reflecting on how the burgeoning cycling culture in Europe’s largest city compares to Germany’s capital, after spending almost 4 years as a citizen of Berlin. Here are a few key observations:

1) Cycling has become really, really popular

I haven’t lived in London for a few years, but I’m sure that when I did nowhere near the amount of people were riding bikes as do now. Since the introduction of the congestion charge in 2003, bike use has grown exponentially, and seemingly at an even more accelerated rate in the last four or five years. A new report claims that cycling superhighways are “moving five times more people per square metre than the main carriageway.” According to official statistics, morning cycle use will soon overtake car use, if cycling’s popularity continues to increase at its current trajectory.

2) Commuting in London is serious business.

Riding your bike to work in London isn’t like riding your bike to work in Berlin. In Berlin, most people seem happy enough riding along at a normal pace, minding their own business, with those who ride as fast as possible being the exception, not the rule. It’s a normal part of everyday life, just like going to the bakery in the morning and buying 15 Schrippen (Berlinerisch for Brötchen) or starting your morning sitting on the U-Bahn with a bottle of Sternburg. In London, on the other hand, commuting is a fiercely competitive sport, with each athlete trying desperately hard to outdo the other. The speed people ride at is quite frankly, terrifying.

3) Londoners have fancy, fast bikes.

If you want to ride from your trendy East London apartment to your trendy East London office, and you want to do it fast, you don’t want to ride a sluggish old bike. No; you need the most modern, most expensive and most fashionable bike you can afford. Fast, light, racing bikes seem to dominate the bike-commuting landscape in modern-day London. As we reflected on bike culture over pints, a bike mechanic friend mused that the racing bike has become the modern day urbanite’s status symbol, just like a flashy car once was. I wouldn’t disagree. Things feel really different in Berlin, where most people ride pretty ordinary bikes and where it’s a lot rarer to see somebody on a super high-end bike.

4) Cycling Superhighways.

The redesigned London Cycle Superhighways (google for images) are a revelation, and cycling along London’s busy roads is obviously so much better than it used to be. They are wide enough to accommodate a considerable volume of cyclists, often totally separated from car traffic, and most importantly, a lot more visible to motorists and pedestrians. Berlin could really take a leaf out of London’s book to improve cycling safety on some of its busy roads.

5) Londoners shop in fancy bike shops.

It’s no secret that London is an expensive city, populated by plenty of people with plenty of cash. Bike shops reflect this. As well as ’boutique’ stores such as Brick Lane Bikes in Shoreditch and Cloud 9 Cycles in Bloomsbury, the chain stores also seem to offer an extensive range of high end bikes, especially in comparison to the average Berlin store.

6) Cycling is primarily a younger man’s game.

It seems middle-classed young men virtually dominate London’s cycling population. I saw many fewer women, hardly any older people and almost no children riding in the city. I’d love to know why. Is it more dangerous? Is there less of a cycling culture? Thankfully, in Berlin cycling demographics seem a lot more equal.

​​

 

9th March 2018 0 comment
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Tempelhofer Feld

Tempelhofer Feld is the best place in Berlin.

There, we said it.

It’s also one of the best places to go for a ride in the city: central, accessible to all, away from cars and totally, totally Berlin.

The best thing about cycling on Tempelhofer Feld is its inclusivity. Are you a parent, looking for somewhere to let your child safely learn to cycle? Do you have a €4000 racing bike you want to ride at 30km/h? Do you want to have a gentle (or not so gentle) ride to unwind after work? Do you want to hire some bikes and show your guests one of Berlin’s best spots? You’re in luck, because you can do all of those things here. 

Your first impression might be that the field is vast, but from two wheels it doesn’t seem so big. This ride is an easy 11.4km and will take no more than an hour even with several stops.

We recommend starting from the Neukölln side at Herrfurthplatz/Herrfurthstrße: there are several great food and drink options in this cool Kiez to explore before or after your ride. The field is not hard to find, just look to the end of the road and follow the huge void.

Cycle onto the field, pause to have a look at the map, or quickly climb the few steps to the observation deck on your left and gaze out at the vastness ahead of you.

Get onto the path, cycling towards the right past the first block of toilets. Follow the path anti-clockwise as it snakes around the perimeter of the park. After a while, you’ll come to the beer garden. There are also several table tennis tables in this shadier part the field, so pack your paddles and balls before you set off.

Continuing anti-clockwise, you’ll see the huge former airport terminal building looming ahead of you as you come to the tennis and baseball area. This building was designed by Nazi architects and completed in 1941. It was an integral part of the Berlin Airlift in 1948-49 and an incredible place to see if you have the chance to go inside. Tempelhof was an operational airport until 2008.

Stick to the path and continue towards to the terminal. Start edging towards the left, get back onto the main path and continue anti-clockwise directly in front of the terminal.

Cross over the two runways, get onto the perimeter path and start cycling east. After a few hundred meters you’ll spot another observation deck on your left.

On the way to the south-east corner of the field, keep your eyes peeled for the skatepark to your left. It’s worth getting off the bike here and checking out local BMX riders and skaters attempting tricks.

Near the south-east entrance to the field at Oderstraße, you’ll find Picnic, a small cafe where you can pick up a cold drink or piece of cake to sustain you through the next part of the ride.

Continue north, with the unique ‘Gemeinschaftsgarten’ (a community garden of improvised hippy-esque allotments) on your right and turn left onto the second runway, cycling all 2km of it. Look out for kiteboarders!

Once you get to the end, turn left and left again and repeat the process, this time cycling west along the parallel runway. Tempelhofer Feld can be very windy, and it’s fun to see how much difference the tailwind (or headwind) makes to your speed on the bicycle.

After you finish on the second runway, continue past the community garden and turn left, eventually exiting the field where you came in.

If it’s Summer, feel free to bring your disposable barbeque and do some ‘grilling’, as the Germans like to say. Just make sure to take your rubbish away with you!

7th March 2018 0 comment
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My new bike, superfluous rental bikes and other stories.

I talked a bit in a recent post about a new bike I had spend months obsessively collecting the parts for. Well, it’s finally no more just a collection of obsessed-over parts, but rather something that I can actually ride. And ride very well, it does. Still, that’s not quite enough to stop me obsessing about how I can further optimise it.

Here’s a very Berlinesque picture of it, outside my very Berlinesque graffiti-covered apartment building. Isn’t it beautiful? If you see me riding it, say hi. You can’t miss it.

In related news, I came across this interesting story on the internet recently. It talks about a Turkish woman who divorced her husband, claiming that her mental health was been negatively affected by her husbands all-consuming bicycle obsession. She says that her husband abandoned her, instead devoting all of his attention to cleaning and fixing his bicycle. Thoughts? Is this really a valid reason to divorce somebody? Jury’s out on that one.

In other news, I also came across this incredible photo essay of China’s huge bike share graveyards. 1.5m shared bikes on the streets of Shanghai (London, in comparison, has only 11,000 Santander shared bikes) has lead to pavements being literally filled with unused, superfluous bicycles. Consequently, huge ‘graveyards’ of said bikes exist, as city authorities are forced to take the initiative and clear the pavements of them; the bike share companies refuse to do it.

The pictures are incredible, and raise a number of questions. Do we really need so many shared bikes on the streets of our cities? Is it not better just to own your own bike? Will this happen in Berlin? You have probably noticed a huge increase in remote rental bikes parked (dumped) carelessly on the streets of Berlin (Byke, Mobike etc.) What should we do about this? Is it a problem or is it good to have so many shared bikes available?

As always, happy and safe cycling.

Ben

 

 

25th February 2018 0 comment
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