In Berlin, cycling is more than just a means of getting from A to B. It is a whole lifestyle - and fits perfectly into the eco conscious mindset of the local crowd. We asked our bike expert Sascha Möllering a.k.a. 60 seconds to put together the coolest projects and insider stories from the Berlin cycling scene. ENJOY!
Do you remember it? That feeling when the training wheels – or your dad’s belt around your hip – finally came off and you were actually riding a freaking a bike? For me, this was a magic moment of freedom, suddenly I was able to go anywhere, anytime in the blink of an eye. My radius for potential discoveries and mischief grew by an order of magnitude from one moment to the next. And this is what cycling – in Berlin and elsewhere – is all about: freedom.
For me, the bike was always the natural choice to get about; on most trips under 10km it is fastest, you can start and end anytime, anywhere, after the initial purchase of a bike and lock, cycling is virtually free, it’s a great workout and you even add value for society as a whole.
Admittedly, cycling in Berlin isn’t always fun, largely due to non-existent infrastructure and aggressive motorists. But nothing beats the feeling of breezing through empty streets on a warm summer night. The wind in you hair, the silent buzzing of your tires and the whirring of your hub - they all melt in with the sounds and smells creating this unbelievable fabric that makes Berlin, Berlin. On a bike you’re always a part of the city, like a fish is part of the pond society, while in a car or the subway, you are an alien only briefly surfacing for a specific task, before disappearing again in your steel cocoon.
CYCLING IN BERLIN: THE HISTORY & WHERE WE ARE TODAY
In some aspects Berlin is the perfect cycling city. It is more or less completely flat, we have wide roads thanks to the Prussian military and less people own a car here than in any other big city in Germany. The latter is a product of low wages and a great public transport system not necessarily a conscious decision. While in the 1980s and ‘90s it was mostly people like me, who rode their bikes all the time, fundamentalists, preachers of the bike gospel that were and are convinced that bikes have a role to play in saving the world. And then around the middle of the noughties something changed. A lot of people started to review their transportation solutions. Just looking at my friends, this was when a lot of them started to notice, their cars only ever left their parking spots for Ikea shopping or holidays. Riding a bike or taking public transport became the more rational choice. So, cycling started to transform, following two trends; a)it turned from a fun hobby to a serious commuting option, that was quicker and cheaper than any other mode of transport; and b) it became a lifestyle for the hip and progressive.
Bikes became a tool of distinction as well as one of transport. Suddenly not only Mountain-bikers and roadies with their very specific and limited use of bikes started to spend 1.000s on their contraptions, but coders and marketing people in the start-ups and creative industries as well. One very visible marker for that was the Berliner Fahrradschau – a trade show for bikes, clothing and accessories that revolved around the idea of cycling as lifestyle. The now defunct gathering brought together such different people that were only unified through their love for two-wheeled transportation. The vibe of these shows, especially in the first couple of years was absolutely amazing. Seeing heavily tattooed messengers with their fixie-bikes shooting the breeze with a guy who creates functional suits for the cycling business man and the woman who teaches refugees how to ride a bike, really was something special. In the end, they couldn’t compete with the bigger, more mainstream Velo Berlin, who were forced to become a bit more avant-garde in turn. The grassroots buzz might be gone, but it now is a professionally organized tradeshow for all cyclists – even those that wear one of those ridiculous hi-viz vests voluntarily.
IS BERLIN A CYCLING CITY? LET'S TALK POLITICS...
Sadly, the latest relevant numbers for Berlin are from 2013, back then the modal share for the whole city was 13%, that means that 13% of all trips were done on a bike. In the inner city this share goes up to about 18%. Since then cycling has seemingly exploded, not because but despite what our local administration is doing. For a long time Berlin wasn’t even able to spend the money they did set aside to improve on bike infrastructure, mainly due to a lack of qualified personnel and complicated permit processes. So the city was happy to take the praise for more cyclists but not really doing much to help it along.
That started to change late in 2015, when Volksentscheid Fahrrad (~ Referendum Bicycle) entered the stage when they locked a golden bike in front of town hall with 10 demands for better cycling. First the higher echelons of local politics didn’t take the group around Heinrich Strößenreuther very seriously, but when they collected more than 100.000 signatures in just three weeks, shortly before the next election, they realized for the very first time that cyclists are actual voters. To avert the next step of the inititiave; a proper referendum, that would have put all those demands on the agenda as an actual law, they entered negotiations and a round-table came up with Europe’s first mobility law (MobG – sounds like a rapper, doesn’t it). That was put in effect almost exactly a year ago in the summer of 2018, since then – not much.
But - and let me make this very clear - compared to most other big cities, cycling in Berlin is a dream! Yes, we still have a long ahead of us, but we’re getting there and motorists are already used to giving bikes space, and only a small minority has yet to realize, that in the end, more dedicated infrastructure speeds up traffic for cars as well. For someone like me with a long inside perspective it’s just hard to acknowledge how we’ve already got considering the cyclist’s and pedestrian’s paradise in my head.
Now, after this little angry sermon, let me tell you about some really cool things from the Berlin cycling community.
10+ COOL PROJECTS FROM THE BERLIN CYCLING SCENE
Critical Mass Berlin
The Critical Mass (CM) has been around since the 1970s. As so many cool things it started in the Bay Area, San Francisco to be exact. It’s a worldwide community ride that happens every last Friday of the month.
In Berlin, a group of messengers have been doing this at least since the end of the 90s, with first only a handful of people and it only started picking up a larger following around 2013 and really exploded in the last three years. These days, in summer a couple of 1000s cyclists meet at Mariannenplatz, before conquering the streets of Berlin.
What makes CM special: it’s not a demonstration, it doesn’t have an organizer and it doesn’t have a fixed route. Instead it uses a loophole in German traffic law. If more than 15 cyclists ride together, they’re counting as one single vehicle. Which means, when the first in the group is crossing an intersection on a green light – all the rest can go as well, even if the light turns red.
If you’re in Berlin for one of those, make sure to join, it’s one of the nicest things you can do in Berlin.
Berlin Bike Tours
Platforms like komoot and others offer dozens of great rides you can do on your own, according to your own tastes and pace.
If you like a more social experience I suggest going on a guided bike tour with the likes of Berlin on Bike. They offer classical highlights tours for the Berlin newbie, that gives you an overview of all the major sights, plus some insights into gentrification and the changes since the fall of the Berlin Wall. If you’re interested in the latter specifically, they offer dedicated Berlin Wall and Cold War tours. As a repeating visitor you’ll probably be better off with one of their Alternative Tours.
[Disclaimer, I write for Berlin on Bike and guide a Berlin Street Art tour every Friday afternoon.]
Only in Berlin: Riding Tempelhof
Tempelhof airport is among the best things Berlin has to offer; more than 3km3 of completely open space and riding you bike on an actual runway is kind of magical, especially considering the fact, that this was the first commercial airport in Europe.
Where To Rent A Bike in Berlin?
If you just need a bike real quick to get from place to another and both of them are inside the ring, you’re ok using Jump by Uber, mobike or one of the other sharing operators. But if you need vehicle to cruise around all day, you’re better off with a regular rental service like Berlin on Bike or Fat Tire. These all charge around 10€ a day with a decent selection of bikes.
If you want more style and speed on your ride and are willing to spend it more, there’s the shop of Berlin manufacturer 8bar , that rent sleek and fast single-speeds and racing bikes starting at 18€/day. Radkreuz are offering proper road racers starting 25€/day, but I only suggest those for training purposes, as a means of transportation, they’re not very good, because a lot of roads are in a bad state or even cobblestones.
To wrap that up, I want to introduce you to two companies with a slightly different business model. First there is listnride, the airbnb equivalent for bicycles, where you can get everything from a cruiser to a tandem or a proper full-suspension Mountainbike (yes, there is good mountainbiking to be had in Berlin).
And last but not least, we have Rent a Bike 44 in Neukölln. They collect cheap, rundown bikes, fix them and rent them out for as little as 4€ a day, the idea being, that a bike should be cheaper than a day pass for public transport. None of the bikes are especially stylish or great, but they are unbranded and in good working order, so you’re not even recognizable as a visitor and can just flow along traffic without anybody being the wiser.
IMPORTANT TIP: Whatever you do, please never rent a bike from a Späti or a restaurant. These red bike stands in front of small shops all belong to the same operator and at least half of their bikes are a security risk for you and others.
Cycling As A Tool For Integration And Social Development
Internationally World Bicycle Relief is promoting cycling as a meaningful tool for development, but until a short time ago, that fact got largely ignored in the global north. That changed shortly after a huge influx of refugees in 2015.
That’s when people got together and created Bikeygees, an NGO that teaches women – not only, but mainly refugees - how to ride a bike and donate them bikes once they’re comfortable enough to take part in Berlin traffic. Mobility is essential if you want to participate and connect with the society you’re part of and it’s amazing to see, how much change this simple tool and knowledge makes possible. For some of those women the experience to be independently able to move around was transforming in a way that is hard to grasp for us. So, if you happen to have an old bike lying around or tools or locks, or if you want to help teaching, please contact them.
Rückenwind is another initiative combining bikes and support for refugees that goes even further and is open to both genders. In their Neukölln workshop, refugees and locals get together to repair bikes, teach how to ride, and helps them get jobs and much more.
All in all, there are dozens of grassroots project surrounding bikes, so if you look for a place to actively participate, you’ll find something not too far.
Berlin's Coolest Bike Shops
DIY-Bamboo bikes: Ozone cyclery offers workshops to build your very own bamboo bike. So not only, do you get a bike that has been made from a sustainable source, that is exactly to your geometry specifications, you get a bespoke bike, that you made yourself – of course there’s always help and support available. Their latest project is a bullitt-style cargobike!
Standert Bicycles amazingly enough was the first combination of bike shop and café when it opened a few years ago. They design their own frames as well and combine them with sensible components to create sporty, urban bikes that look just as good on the road as on the wall of your living-room (yes, I want one, in case you’re wondering). On top of that they are a big hub for the messenger community, and do regular group rides after work and on the weekend.
Tip: Learn about the story & values of Standert Bicycles in this episode of the GreenMe Podcast >
Another fascinating one-stop-shop for all things velo is BICICLI that is not only a sales showroom, but offers solutions for companies, that want to decarbonize their fleet and figured out ways to give people company bikes, for very little cost, finance these ideas and much much more.
Last but not least: according to most, radspannerei builds the best custom wheels in town. If they’re not doing that, they are a typical neighbourhood bike shop, that’s happy to help out everyone.
Berlins Best Frame Builders and Manufacturers
The most prominent and successful of those is probably Schindelhauer, whose bikes all come with a gates drive instead of a chain. That makes their sleek urban creations extremely low-maintenance. The typical cutout in the seat tube to narrow the wheel base, creates a very nimble ride, ideal for zooming between cars and pedestrians in a crowded city. Technically those bikes are designed and assembled in Berlin with the real frame production happening in Asia, nonetheless they are local heroes with a huge following, especially in the messenger scene.
Other notable bike creators
Ostrad is a small and cozy old-school bike shop with an attached workshop where they build beautiful lugged steel frames. Each bike is one-of-a-kind product manufactured exactly to your specifications.
Meerglas focusses on extremely well-made and beautiful randonneurs and gravel bikes, for those of you, who want something that takes you everywhere – even around the world. Sharing both that philosophy and a workshop is Fernrad.
Wheeldan is Berlin’s only frame builder to use titan tubes for his projects.
Big Forest is in Potsdam and famous for his gravel and mountain bikes with clever design solutions.
This list is by no means complete, but I think a good start, if you’re really looking into getting a custom-made bicycle frame from Berlin.
MORE TIPS AROUND CYCLING IN BERLIN (AND BEYOND)
- Café and bike repair place in one: Take A Brake and Kaffee A.Horn in Kreuzberg
- Berlin Bicycle Market: If you’re looking for a new used bike, this is YOUR event - happening in Kreuzberg and Moabit until October
- Bicycle Demos & events: Sternfahrt, Berlin Cargo Bike Race
- Radbahn: A utopian project aiming to transform the unused space under the famous metro line U1 into an enormous bicycle highway
- Mitradgelegenheit: A subgroup of the Bund Jugend, Mitradgelegenheit wants to unite and motivate cyclists to meet up and ride together - for more safety, visibility and fun
HOW DO YOU LIKE OUR CYCLING IN BERLIN GUIDE?
Is there any project to add? How do you prefer to get around the city? We'd love to know!
Share your thoughts with us in the comments (right at the bottom of this page).