‘There’s no need to join a gym when your nursery run is 30 minutes by bike’

Feeling comfortable with cycling is an important stage on the road to settling in to family life in Denmark, writes guest columnist Emma Firth.

'There's no need to join a gym when your nursery run is 30 minutes by bike'
A Danish cargo cycle in action. File photo: Martin Lehmann/Polfoto/Scanpix

It took us a while to hop on the bike culture here in Copenhagen, which made us stand out like a sore thumb, as a whopping nine out of ten Danes own a bike.

But once we committed to this mode of travel, it made a huge difference to experiencing life in Copenhagen. It hasn’t been a straight forward ride and as always, throwing a toddler into the mix makes it that little bit more interesting/fun/hard work.

Firstly, there are the options of bikes, bike seats and cargos.  Cargos are the investment pieces. From new, they cost up to 16,800 kroner (£2,000). Second hand you’re still looking at parting with nearly half of that. But they act as a car – sort of. In the standard cargo, you can fit two children, or an adult (yes I’ve tried), transport your groceries/Ikea shelves, they are covered to protect your little one from the elements and they have four wheels, so it’s like riding with stabilisers. 

So it was September and we finally got the cargo bike we had been pining over. We could start living out the Danish dream of cycling around the streets of Copenhagen. Except it rained. In fact it pelted it down, every time we seemed to be on the bike. As the downpours relentlessly battered my every pedal, I started to learn how heavy a cargo bike is to move. I would get to my destination soaked through, exhausted and in serious need of a pastry. Luckily, I have now got fitter and used to cycling a heavy bike and there have been better weather days than those first few downpours. When the sun is shining on you, there is no better feeling, or way to wake up in the morning. There is also no need to join a gym when your nursery run is 30 minutes on the cargo, 30 minutes back and then repeat for pick up.

And then there’s my passenger, Lydia. When you picture Copenhagen parents cycling with their children, it is probably one of calm serenity, the healthy, happy lifestyle. And that is what I’ve witnessed here. For Lydia, like me, it’s taken a while to get there. Definitely not something inherited in our Danish genes. Five minutes after setting off, she would scream, wriggle, kick her legs out and basically give the impression to every passer-by that her mummy was torturing her. Our commute to nursery would involve at least five stops as I bribed her with food, drink, music, toys or any sort of encouragement that we were nearly there – sort of.

Cycling in the rain — a common Danish scenario. Photo: Rasmus Flindt Pedersen/Polfoto/Ritzau

Other new-found experiences included emergency stopping in the cycle lane as I tried to retrieve toys, beakers or shoes thrown out on the street. One time her favourite talking toy went into a main road. Cue a sprint, drop and grab that any PE teacher would be proud of. ‘Miss Norah’ and her annoying voice live on to fight another bike ride. A few weeks in, Lydia started to understand there was no getting out of this and began, miraculously, to entertain herself on the journeys. But it does involve a little encouragement from me. You know when you talk nonsense and sing badly and loudly in the car to entertain your child, or just yourself. Well, I now have to do that in the open air; my English tones ringing through every passer-by’s ears. Sometimes I have to do it while stationary at traffic lights.

READ ALSO: Networking in Denmark: Not as scary as it seems?

After about a month, we bought a standard bike, to make journeys sans Lydia a little quicker and so we didn’t have to share one bike. When I first used this standard bike, I actually went into a bike repair shop to check something wasn’t lose with the steering. No Emma, you have just been used to cycling with the stabilisers of the cargo and now wobble around like someone who has never ridden before. So that was embarrassing. After getting used to cycling again, (a.k.a. like a normal person on a normal bike), I was ready to try Lydia on the back. 

I was initially nervous. What if she falls out? What if I lose my balance? How do I check she’s still in there?!  But she was not only absolutely fine, she went ‘weeeee’ and loved it. And still does. As I’m getting more confident, I am also enjoying it more and more. The bike is a lot lighter than the cargo so journey times don’t take so long. I’m also able to chat more easily and – my favourite – more subtly to Lydia rather than bellowing through the cargo cover.

I’m still aware I am carrying very precious cargo behind me and I get a little nervous on wet ground, bumps and when the bike lanes merge with the road. Oh, and when Lydia decides to do a little jig on the back, shaking my balance all over the place. And that’s why overall, especially in winter and on long journeys, I feel safer on the cargo bike. I can’t slip on the roads when it’s wet, icy or snowy and Lydia is protected from the elements in her little pod. 

But many Danes with one child just wrap up their offspring and pop them on the back of the bike and power cycle ahead. And what has struck me most is not only the ease at which they do this, but the fact many cyclists, including some parents, don’t wear a helmet. Wearing a helmet is not part of the law in Denmark and The Cycling Embassy of Denmark says that just 35 percent of Danes wear one.  The cycling infrastructure and bike lanes are so superb in Denmark, I can see why this is the case.

Over the last 15 years, there has been huge investment (around one bilion kroner or £115 million) in Copenhagen to make people cycle more than drive. Last year, bike sensors recorded that there were, for the first time, more bikes on the road than cars. Imagine that in the London – more bikes than cars.

Add to the fact that, according to the Danish Road Safety Commission (Rådet for Sikker Trafik) during 2010-11, 16 percent of people killed on the roads were pedestrians and 12 percent were cyclists – you can start to understand why helmet wearing is not considered a priority in Denmark.

That all said, I can’t shake off the British genes in me and all my family wear helmets. We are also novice road cyclists and haven’t been cycling every day on the roads since childhood. Does it make me feel less Danish? Sometimes – but the fact my little family can cycle around a capital city, without needing any other mode of transport, and now without the need for toddler bribes, is enough of a Scandi winner for me. 

READ ALSO: Danes want to make bicycle helmets the law

Emma Firth is a former BBC journalist and TV producer who freelances in Copenhagen. She moved from the UK to Denmark in February 2017 with her husband and one year-old daughter. Emma is half Danish and documents her experience of moving to Copenhagen in her blog Living The Danish Gene.

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OPINION: If you can’t go home for Christmas, Denmark is a good place to be

After missing out on seeing his family for Christmas 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett got to try out Danish Christmas for the first time.

A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve.
A Danish dining table on Christmas Eve. File photo: Vibeke Toft/Ritzau Scanpix

We’d always planned to spend last Christmas in the UK. My daughter was born in March 2020, coinciding with the outset of the global coronavirus pandemic but, as worrying and uncertain as everything was at the time, we were sure it would have all settled down in nine months’ time. We started planning for her to spend her first Christmas with her grandparents, cousin and the rest of our extended family in England.

As we all know, this was far from how things turned out. The autumn and winter of last year saw spiralling Covid-19 cases across Europe and countries responding by introducing more and more restrictions, including on travel.

I’m not sure exactly when we conceded we’d have to cancel our plans to go to the UK for Christmas in 2020, but I do remember the look of resignation on my parents’ faces when I let them know. The writing had already been on the wall for a while by then.

Visiting my partner’s mother in December, I looked out of the window at the greying skies over Jutland, the dim lights of a distant Føtex store and the limp red and white pendants on flag poles as bare as the trees, and nothing felt familiar.

This was because, despite having lived in Denmark for almost a decade and a half, I’d never spent Christmas in the country. Every year I’d head home by the 22nd or 23rd, usually returning just before New Year to enjoy the rowdy firework displays in Aarhus or Copenhagen after a week of putting my feet up and savouring the familiarity and comfort of Christmas at home.

Denmark famously has its own Christmas traditions, comparable but certainly different to the British ones. I knew about them – I’ve exchanged information about national Christmas customs with many Danes over the years – but never witnessed them first-hand.

The big day came around quickly, not least because it all happens on the 24th, not the 25th.

Festivities did take a while to get going, though. Not until 4pm in fact, when ancient Disney Christmas special From All of Us to All of You, known in Danish as Disneys juleshow began on main TV broadcaster DR. Usually I’d have been watching an early-1980s David Bowie introducing The Snowman around now. A cup of warm gløgg (spiced red wine with raisins and almonds) was thrust into my hand, and I missed Bowie a little bit less.

After a couple more glasses of gløgg and wine, we sat down for Christmas dinner: roast duck, brown potatoes, boiled potatoes, gravy and red cabbage. It was of course already dark and a prolific number of candles were lit on the table and around the room, adding to the festive feeling of the star-topped tree, paper hearts and other decorations.

For dessert, we had risalamande, the popular cold rice sweet mixed with whipped cream, vanilla and chopped almonds and served with cherry sauce. By tradition, one whole almond is left in the dessert and whoever finds it wins a present, which is customarily a julegris, a chocolate pig with marzipan filling. This game is often fixed so that a child (or children) wins the prize, but the only child present was a nine-month-old and I ended up finding the almond in my bowl.

Then it was time to dance around the tree and exchange presents. Most of us had too much dessert, so it was a more sedate affair than I expected. After the little one was fast asleep we sat back on the sofas and had a couple more glasses of wine or maybe a few snacks.

It was all over before Santa traditionally lands his sleigh on rooftops and hops down British chimneys in the small hours of Christmas morning.

Danish families with young children often assign someone to dress up as Father Christmas and come round to deliver the presents to excited youngsters before dinner on Christmas Eve.

Maybe I’ll get the chance to audition for the role next year because our Danish-British family will be in Denmark every other Christmas for the foreseeable future – by choice, not restriction. I’m looking forward to it, because my first Danish Christmas gave me a better understanding of why this time of year is loved by so many Danes.

READ ALSO: My five favourite Danish childhood Christmas memories