This article was published in 2004, in Newsletter 56.
It was a vague ambition to cycle round the North Sea that led me to investigate the cycling facilities in Denmark. I was not disappointed. A network of National Cycle Routes has been in existence since 1993 and now boasts more than 10 000 km of marked paths and cycleways, sharing with motor traffic only on the quietest roads and separated by kerbs on most of the others. Dreams of travelling the rough and windy North Sea route rapidly dissolved in the face of reality: we have been commuting cyclists for many years but had never before tackled an entire holiday on two wheels. There had to be a better place for ‘beginners’.
The island of Fyn (Funen) provided everything we could have specified. Resting between the two mainland areas of Denmark and two belts of the Baltic Sea it is something of a time warp. Pretty seaside towns are strung along the coast whilst travel inland is rewarded by the sight of a succession of half-timbered manor houses, a remarkable fairy-tale castle and very gentle hills to extend visibility. The whole island can be circumnavigated in just three days (even by ourselves, we reckoned, had we really wanted to) but there are better things to do!
We arrived on Fyn soaked to the bone after a day-long journey in fine weather across Jylland (Jutland). The storm we had left behind in England had caught up with us at the last moment! This leg of Route 6, which begins at the port of Esbjerg, is not an inspiring one although it provides the obvious feeling of achievement gained by arriving on Fyn by one’s own power. The very name Fyn means ‘all’s well’ and it soon was; installed in a delightful quayside guest house we quickly assessed how much cycling was a way of life, at least in this town. Everyone seemed to be on a bike and almost every bike was loaded to capacity. Baskets and panniers filled with shopping or fishing tackle, trailers trundling behind with small children. People of all ages, shapes and sizes far outnumbering the cars.
This was generally the theme all over Fyn. Time and expense has gone into developing an infrastructure of well-maintained cycle routes, largely free of any debris, and as a result people use them. We even found a significant number of hotels designated as Cycle Friendly. I believe a similar scheme exists in the UK. Those we visited provided lockable space for our bikes as well as a friendly welcome even when we were wet. (Yes, expect rain in Denmark. In fact we only had two really bad downpours in ten days and we adjusted our plans accordingly.)
The charming island of Ærø (Aeroe), off the south-west coast can be circumnavigated in a day so I was at last able to achieve my ambition to ride the whole way round something, even if it was not quite the North Sea, or even Fyn itself. The hour-long ferry trip from Faaborg, passing little islands on the way, was a joy. (Now I could see the why the Vikings were so keen to take to the seas; the choppy waters around Britain must have come as a nasty surprise.) It is an island of farmland, campsites and fishing villages, the most conspicuous, Ærøskøbing, being virtually unchanged since the 16th century. Windmills form an integral part of the scenery, quietly working to provide 50% of Ærø’s electrical power.
The only city on Fyn is Odense (ask a Dane how to pronounce it!) and it is about twice the size of Cambridge. If you think Cambridge is ‘cycle city’ you haven’t seen Odense. Planners have made extraordinary efforts to make cycling safe and accessible to all and have built 350 km of cycleway not just in the city centre but reaching out into the leafy suburbs and the woods and parks beyond. Oh well, Cambridge has more interesting architecture!
We flew by Ryanair to Esbjerg from Stansted, the cost being a fraction of the Harwich ferry. An additional phone call booked our bikes for £15 each way. Owners of valuable machines might be inclined to pack them in special carriers (indeed it is recommended), but our bikes were carried at our risk, and we simply loosened the handlebars, removed the pedals and deflated the tyres. This last operation was a bit of a nuisance, as anyone who has attempted to reinflate a tyre using a pocket-pump can imagine! We later discovered that even small towns in Denmark provided an air line somewhere on the main street.
Will we go again? Certainly we will, but not before I have (a) learned just a few words of the impenetrable language and (b) learned to look behind me to the right. And maybe, one day, I will cycle right round the North Sea!
The technical side
Jane has written her travelogue article re Denmark, so here is the technical appendix written by the other half. As usual, we don’t totally agree.
The first thing I noticed was not the ‘facilities’ but the considerate behaviour of motorists. In Newsletter 53 we reported a journal article which said that as cycle numbers rise cycle crash rates fall. My experience in Denmark suggest an alternate hypothesis, and that the link of cycle volumes to crash rates, although correlated, is not a causal one. In Denmark some 50% of people cycle, which means that the percentage of drivers who cycle will also be much higher than the UK. Hence my alternative hypothesis:
Crash rates of cyclists are reduced as the proportion of car drivers who also regularly cycle rises.
At no time on our 500 km ride were we deliberately or negligently threatened by motorists, and at no time did we find a cycle lane so obstructed by a motor vehicle that we couldn’t easily pass. On minor roads traffic did not seem to be in a hurry, and drivers of large vehicles were considerate when passing. I found it difficult to get used to motorists from side roads giving way to us on a cycle path, and had an unjustified fear that I’d need to brake heavily as they stopped across my path, as motorists do in Cambridge.
So what’s the engineering and maintenance like?
We did find some lapses in the high standards on our trip across Jutland on National Route 6, and of course we had to encounter the worst in the middle of a thunderstorm: a busy main road with perhaps a metre of tarmac for the cycle lane separated by just a white line from heavy vehicles. We also had some trouble with debris washed into cycle lanes by recent storms, requiring caution, but I’d expect these lanes to be more frequently swept than those in the UK.
On the signposted cycle routes we used, many main roads in rural areas had fully segregated cycle paths, with priority over side roads. At the entry to villages, speed reduction ‘narrowings’ were common with a ‘cycle bypass’ provided. In urban areas a cycle track is often provided on both sides of the road, segregated by a ‘half’ kerb with another kerb before a narrow pavement. These seem to be normally treated as ‘one way’.
Odense, about twice the size of Cambridge, was the only big city we explored, and in recent years considerable money has been spent on cycling infrastructure. We found a wide pedestrian and cycle path (an old railway?) running east from the station which crossed above the main roads, went through parks and public housing, and emerged onto the rural network of minor roads. (What’s ‘The Chisholm Trail’ in Danish?) There was also a free ferry for people and bikes over the ship canal, which obviously formed part of a cycle commuting route to villages north of the city.
What innovations could transfer to Cambridge?
There were a number of locations, both outside bike shops and in the city, with free air lines for pumping up tyres, and we also saw a display that gave the number of cyclists counted (automatically) at that point each day. It read 7359 at 19:00hrs. On returning I found via odense.dk a couple of other interesting points worth further investigation. Firstly they have a Kiddy Trailer loan scheme for parents whose children are about to start nursery school, which is of course just the time when parents might otherwise start using a car for ‘the school run’. Secondly on the cycle route approaching one major junction is a series of green LED lights. These are lit in sequence so as to allow cyclists to adjust their speed so as to arrive at the junction ‘on the green’. How wonderful that would be approaching Brooklands Avenue junction from Hills Rd railway bridge.
One oddity I never assimilated was the ‘wide’ left turn. To quote from the notes on the excellent ‘Denmark by Bicycle’ planning map by the Danish Cycling Federation:
In Denmark cyclists must always make a ‘wide’ left (our right) turn: Cross, keeping to the right side of the roadway, to the opposite corner and wait until the road is clear before continuing in the new direction. In light controlled crossings it is not necessary to wait for a green light in the new direction.
So if you’re going straight you must wait for green, but if you’ve just executed the first part of a ‘wide’ turn you can cross on red, as long as it is clear?
I think that as it has been some time since the Campaign has had a ‘technical’ trip abroad Odense would be a good candidate. Finally we’d like to thank Tony Raven for saying that Denmark, and in particular Fyn, was the place to go.