Cycling in Scandinavia is a way of life, writes Alison Stewart.
We have embarked on a 30-kilometre "Zen evening cycle" of Copenhagen designed to "calm the monkey mind". It's "meditation on a bike" which means no talking on self-styled "ugly duckling" Mike Somerville's bike tour.
The trouble is, it's getting dark. How do you silently alert Mike that he is out of sight in the gloom and your husband is out of sight behind?
My monkey mind is in turmoil. We are in Copenhagen's Freetown Christiana - no lights, dirt paths, lots of amiable dope smokers and utterly lost. Taking the Zen approach, I stop.
Eventually, my husband appears, wobbling along blindly. And after a bit, Mike returns for his ducklings.
I am relieved to learn that, "When we bike, the city does all the talking, when we stop, we do the talking". Mike's eccentricity is part of his charm, combined with his passion for Copenhagen and Denmark from a cyclist's perspective. In a way, his love affair with bikes epitomises all of Scandinavia's approach to city cycling - it's a normal way of life.
And as serene (mostly) as his evening cycle is, Mike's day tours are the opposite. We know this as we did our first European city cycle tour with him in 2010. Mike doesn't just give you a famous landmarks tour, he shares his knowledge on 10 "talk stops" about Denmark's 1000-year history, design, culture, politics and philosophy, occasionally quoting his favourite Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.
Mike's own potted philosophy goes something like this, literally - "Hop on the bike, carbon neutral discovery, helping Mother Earth, put on big smiles, raw authentic street soul, with doses of angel spirit!"
As Mike says, "We don't have cyclists in Copenhagen; we merely have people who happen to ride their bicycles." It hasn't always been thus. In the 1960s, Copenhagen was car-clogged before visionary politicians rendered cycling normal. Now, the culture leans away from Lycra crouch and more towards upright urban cycling or "Grandma's bicycles," as Marion, our Copenhagen Tauck guide describes them. "Thicker wheels and not so bumpy on the cobblestones."
It's the same story in Stockholm, Oslo and all places between - enough to give bike-hating shock jocks a coronary. I love guided city bike tours for a potted city introduction, but for those who just want a bike, Scandinavia's major cities all have city bike rental schemes. Our Sheraton Stockholm hotel prominently displays a "rent me" bike in the foyer and sells the city's three-day Stockholm City Bikes bike-sharing card ($26). About 1500 bikes are available at more than 120 bike stands. You check your bike in and out using the card and using the bike for up to three hours each time.
In Oslo, Norway City Bikes operates a similar system (also available in Trondheim, Bergen and Drammen). Oslo bikes are available for three-hour stretches from more than 100 bike stations. After three hours, you simply pick up another. Tourists can rent 24-hour smartcards from the Tourist Information Centre next door to City Hall for 100 Norwegian krone ($17).
Copenhagen is replacing its city bike scheme, operating since 1995, with Gobikes. They have GPS and battery packs for transformation to an electric bike. Currently, 250 bikes are being rolled out at 65 stations in Copenhagen and Frederiksberg and there should be 1260 by next March. The cost is 20 Danish krone ($4) an hour or $5 if the electric motor is used.
Marion tells us 40 per cent of fellow Copenhageners commute by bike. "We love to bike - it is a little child's first wish for a bike," she says. "We are a city of green copper spires and bicycles."
Meanwhile, back on our Zen evening cycle, Mike, who has biked the world, including across Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, sets a cracking pace. As the light fades, we join his "never- ending flow of Copenhageners on bicycles - a symphony of human power". The ride takes us from the busy city streets of Indre By and Vesterbro, through the Carlsberg Elephant Gate and Tower into the charming residential streets of Valby, then south towards Sydhavn, and across into the Vestamager district, where cows and sheep graze, people walk their dogs, bring in the fishing nets and sit out having sundowners.
The writer was a guest of Travel the World.
Thai Airways flies daily via Bangkok from Sydney and Melbourne to Stockholm (20hr 40min), returning from Oslo from $1842 including taxes; see thaiairways.com.au.
Travel the World has a 14-day Tauck World Discovery Scandinavia journey by motorcoach and overnight ferry through Sweden, Denmark and Norway. The tour costs $US5690 ($6050) a person and includes hotels, most meals, guides, admission fees, diverse excursions and free time for cycling. See Travel the World's website, traveltheworld.com.au, or call 1300 857 437.
Bike Mike Tours, Copenhagen. Variety of daily tours DKK290 ($56) including bike rental. See bikecopenhagenwithmike.dk.
Stockholm Adventures bike tours. 2½-hour city guided tours. SEK399 ($64). See stockholmadventures.com.
Viking Biking, Oslo. Daily 3-hour tours along car-free paths, parks, and the fjord. NOK250 ($43). See vikingbikingoslo.com.