So it’s hard to beat Sweden in summer for cycle touring, but despite our somewhat haphazard rambles, we had one date on the calendar for more than a year; the July 1st opening stage of the Tour de France in Copenhagen. Le Grand Départ!
But wait, isn’t the Tour de France in France? Yes, the majority is in France; however, more recently, they start in a nearby country for the first 3 stages (of 21) to help share in the experience and spread the Tour love across borders.
In recent years, the tour has started in Belgium, Spain, Italy, Netherlands and the UK. But this was the first time it had visited cycle-crazy Denmark.
And since we had been moving a lot in the previous month of cycle touring (a few 2 night stops but mostly single touring nights), we decided to head to Copenhagen early and get an apartment for a week in advance of our long-standing 2-night hotel reservation just a 100 meters from the course.
So we crossed from Helsingborg, Sweden to Helsingør, Denmark by ferry across the Kattegat Strait. This short 20 minute crossing was the primary crossing point until the completion of the Oresund bridge/tunnel in 2000, so has robust infrastructure on both sides of the crossings and multiple automated dock structures to load and unload trucks, cars, passengers and the occasional bikes. Very cool.
It’s still busy, and the Swedish side has a shiny new intermodal station, with great connections for rail, bus, and ferry passengers. As with most European vehicle ferries, bikes load with the cars and trucks, so we made our way around the maze of approach lanes and signs to find our way to a toll booth station where you ride up to window and buy your tickets for the next ferry out.
As always, it’s a bit of a rush to ride on and off in between big rigs and loading cars, and in this case, no stopping for any immigration as this is an internal EU crossing.
We highly recommend taking ferries where you can if bike touring, even if there is another option, as you get the continuous experience of the landscape, get to see some of the seascape, meet other cycle tourists, and can tune into the subtleties of the cultural infrastructure differences in every country. And yes, France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands all are unique cycling experiences. More on that later.
Our friend Jason met us about half way along the way on the 50km ride into Copenhagen, and it was great to have an escort and some engaging conversation with a familiar face. Jason is a professor from San Francisco, and was spending the month in Copenhagen, continuing his field studies and collaboration on the politics and implementation of transport policies in Copenhagen and San Francisco.
Jason has literally written a book on the topic, and has great insight on how Copenhagen has become one of the worlds leading bicycle cities; however, noting the challenges facing a lax continued investment in car free space and the troubling growth of auto mobility throughout Denmark.
His insights would align with some of our experiences in Copenhagen and beyond as we toured across Denmark. The country has fantastic cycling infrastructure, but we did find traffic a bit heavy and passing often surprisingly a bit close compared to Sweden and Germany. And some interior towns and cities had very few bikes and large drive through bakeries?!
Our apartment was in Norrebrø, a trendy and leafy neighborhood just outside the more touristed core of Copenhagen. The neighborhood is great, so we took a chance on an Airbnb with only a few sparse reviews. It was fine, but had a few issues.
First, although it looked out over the beautiful trees of the adjacent cemetery/park, it was fronted by a fairly busy two-lane road. And since we were there during a rare heat wave, we were faced with the choice of open windows for ventilation or traffic noise. Secondly, we discovered that under the bed was full of clutter with years of thick dust. Cheryl, being the amazing travel companion she is, spent the better part of an hour cleaning under the bed to spare me from the misery of my dust allergies for a week.
We don’t use Airbnb very often, but this apartment highlighted some of the challenges of the platform. It had a few sparse 5 star reviews that we feel in retrospect were probably left by friends, and the lack of a specific location when choosing a rental is unprecedented in the lodging industry….and very annoying to me. You should know what you are buying when spending $1000++ for a weekly apartment.
Our week in Copenhagen was great, but let’s just say, there is now one very detailed review of this apartment, letting prospective guests know exactly the trade offs of what they are getting. I wrote the review that I wish I had read before renting. And to be clear, the apartment was a fine base , but we are particularly sensitive to traffic noise after spending months on the peaceful saddles of our bikes, so would not have chosen the place if fully informed.
Copenhagen was in full embrace of the Grand Depart, and the run up to the opening stage was a blast. Tour signs, decorations, stages, and buzz everywhere. Watching the time trial was fantastic as riders came by every minute, so there was hours of fun with the spirited Danish everywhere along the course. Seriously, every meter of the time trial course had at least a few people at the rails, and 10 or more thick at the popular spots. And yes, it helps to be 6’-5” to have a clear view almost anywhere.
The other interesting aspect of visiting at the end of June was the Midsommer celebrations and the somewhat bizarre 2-week tradition of “studenterkørsel”. This consists of students who are graduating from “gymnasiet” schools (upper secondary school) hiring old military/farm trucks to drive around and pick up other grads, visit each family, and generally rolling around Copenhagen (or anywhere in Denmark) blasting music, drinking, and dancing into the wee hours.
You can hear them coming blocks away and it’s all very charming at first, but after the third day or fourth day, the charm starts to wear a bit thin. Oh, and did I mention they all wear little sailor hats, unique to each school. This is just one of the quirky and unique traditions in the Scandinavian countries, as they express incredible individuality despite their low populations. (Denmark is smaller than the SF Bay Area!)
After riding the time trial course with 50,000 other crazed cyclists the morning after the first stage, we headed off to Copenhagen central for our intercity train to Nyborg, with the goal of catching the finish of Stage 2.
Despite a slightly frightening overcrowded situation with our loaded bikes on the woefully inadequate train platforms of the main station, we managed to beat the peleoton across the Great Belt Bridge to Nyborg. It was one of the busiest travel days of the year combining a summer Saturday, the TdF, and the massive Rosskilde music festival! Whoaa, we were missing our more usual shoulder season travel times.
The Danish train system is ok, but is not as extensive or user friendly for tourists or bicycles as other Northern European countries. You have to reserve bike space on intercity (IC or ICL) trains and they are all high boarding trains, so it’s necessary to hoist your bikes up after scrambling to load your bags. Some of the less common regional trains are first-come first served for bike space, as well as the S-trains around Copenhagen. Secondly, the DSB App and website will not accept US credit cards, and has only one bespoke mobile payment system, which you can only sign up for with a Danish phone number!
So we had to go CPH central and wait in the queue to buy our paper tickets and paid 3x as much as the discounted tickets still available on the App the day before….There are a lot of somewhat protectionist schemes in the Scandinavian countries, such as most shops in the Netherlands not taking visa and Mastercard, only “Maestro”. But I get that you want to keep the money and jobs local, and not pay Visa or Mastercard 2% of every transaction in your country with no benefit of employment or trickle down from the company profits.
I should note that once you are on the trains, the staff and seating is all very comfortable.
It was cool to take the train across the 18km Great Belt Bridge in advance of the peloton as you got an appreciation what they were going though. The bridge was closed for the Tour crossing, but you unfortunately can’t cycle across the bridge. (or maybe fortunately given the ever present winds.).
Once at Nyborg station, we scoped out a good spot about 1.5 km from the finish line and enjoyed the local crowd, some of whom had been there all day (and perhaps drinking!?) Since we were on fully loaded on our bikes, there was no chance of fighting the thousands who had jockeyed into the finishing sprint stretch. And although they went by fast, there were a lot of stragglers due to a crash that split up the peloton about 2km from our viewing spot.
After the stage ended, we rode to the accommodation we had booked about 25km north of Nyborg as the town itself was booked solid. It all worked out great, as we were able to escape the race area quickly, hit a supermarket, and have a lovely early evening ride to our modest row holiday apartment.
The next few days we had some great cycling across Funen, a vast island in the center of Denmark that is linked to Sjæland by the Great Belt and then onto Jutland by the Little Belt Bridge. It’s a nice rolling area of forest and farmland and really fun riding, especially when you get a bit lucky with the winds, which magically turned from the east to the west as we turned in the same direction! Nice.
We had a great visit connecting with some of my step family on the lovely coast for a few days, which gave us more opportunity to ask questions about the idiosyncrasies of life in Denmark. But as much as we would have loved to linger a bit longer enjoying the Danish summer scene, we had another deadline of getting to the Hoek of Holland to catch a night ferry to the UK on the 15th. So we spent the next few days riding south towards the German border and then made our way across to northern Holland by a few strategic train hops.
It was a bit hectic as the trains and station transfers in were a bit crazy, and one of our well planned regional trains from Flensburg to Hamburg stopped midway and let everyone off in the middle of nowhere due to a sudden line closure. So instead of waiting for buses that might take hours to get there and pick up the hundreds of stranded passengers, we loaded up our bikes and headed to the next station, hoping to bypass the issue.
Well, that still didn’t work as the next 3 stations were closed, so we came up with a Plan B, head 40km East to Kiel, a former Hanseatic League city and enjoy a night there, as we had heard the line to Hamburg would reopen the next day.
Although sometimes traveling with bikes on trains is (very) stressful, it also gives you a unique freedom to pivot when an issue arises! This flexibility helped us again as the line from Hamburg to Groningen, Netherlands has been closed for years near the border, due to a failed rail bridge. But we were able to bridge gap easily by riding from the last Deutsche Bahn station in Germany to the first town on the Dutch rail system 20 km away!
So we breathed a big sigh of relief as our local and mellow Dutch train rolled towards the famous cycling city of Groningen. We decided to spend two nights there to enjoy it sufficiently, but then realized as we headed out two days later that we left ourselves a bit of cycling challenge to make our ferry to the UK on time, especially with the “hills of the Netherlands” (aka wind!)….more on our next leg soon.
Happy August to all -:)