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Victory of the Bicycle

By Gregg Culver

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon when I set out on a trip through the urban cyclist’s dream that is Berlin. I rolled through turn-of-the-century Victorian-era neighborhoods, overlain with their painful, yet awe-inspiring histories, through the regal Schlosspark in Pankow, and over placid green fields on my way to the medieval town of Bernau. It was an amazing trip—the kind that makes you fall in love with the city all over again; the kind that reminds you how much you appreciate the liberated, panoramic perspective of traversing space by bicycle; the kind that washes away the worries of the week and cleanses your body of the excesses of the night before.

I had just been reflecting how marvelous it is to ride in a city where you never feel threatened or harassed from motorists, when a few minutes away from my apartment, a finely-waxed black BMW came dangerously close to me and honked, ripping me out of my cycling bliss.

Even when I lived in the States, where being honked at for no particular reason is not an unheard of experience, it was often pretty startling. But in Berlin, where after hundreds of miles of cycling I had never been honked at a single time, it was a particularly unpleasant surprise. As we both pulled up to the red light, I saw that it was a car full of young fellows of the trouble-making type—the type that one can imagine considers scouring the city for an unsuspecting target of their shameless ridicule a treasured pastime.

An odd chorus of taunts began, as they haughtily proclaimed in not so many words, that the automobile —particularly the suspiciously expensive model they were driving—was a status symbol whose attainment was more worthy of aspiration than the bicycle.

I tried to tell them that their actions were dangerous, but couldn’t control my annoyance as I was completely unable to comprehend how such a situation can happen in a city where bicycle transportation is such a ubiquitous, convenient and utilitarian phenomenon. The light turned green, but their taunts continued while they held up traffic, so I responded with a three word sentence, in which the final word completely changed the outcome of the situation, “Just drive asshole!”

At this point our paths diverged slightly, as I rode onto the bicycle path that adjoined the sidewalk and was separated from the road by parked vehicles on the left. They hit the gas, sped forward and I watched as they pulled over into an empty spot a few hundred feet ahead. The back door opened onto the bike path and one of the tough guys got out and blockaded the rest of the sidewalk. Suspecting what would have happened had I continued toward him, I found a hole between the parked cars on my left, hopped off the curb and reentered street traffic, hoping that would be the end of it.

Unwilling to let it go my antagonist ran out into the street, screaming as he ran toward me, “You call me an asshole?!?” I gave it all I could to speed up, slipping into the opposing lane to escape fist-striking distance as I replied in a scream, “No, I called HIM an asshole!” as I pointed to his friend behind the steering wheel. That statement, however, did not restore his vicariously damaged honor. Just as I passed him, he hurled his lighter at me, which flew between my arms and pedaling legs and exploded on the street next to me.
I rode as fast as I possibly could to the next intersection—four lanes of motor traffic, two street car lines, and a series of bike lanes that couldn’t possibly be safely crossed on a red light—and waited at the light as I reflected on the utter lack of concern in the faces of those around me. The black BMW sped to the corner and once again ejected my attempted assailant, who ran in my direction. I looked at him for a moment and took off up the street along the bike path, leaving him hopeless in his attempt to catch me on foot and forcing him to return to his friends, who then raced up the street to presumably wait for me once again at the corner.

This was the inevitable move I had anxiously been waiting for. I stopped on a dime, turned back down the sidewalk and slipped into the narrow cobblestone streets of the dense Gesundbrunnen neighborhood; leaving the bloated Beamer trapped in the busy automobile traffic of Osloer Strasse. I returned home heart-pounding and reflecting on our chase. In a battle whose outcome depended on the methods of transportation we had at our disposal, I couldn’t help but revel in the implicit victory of the bicycle.