Free-wheeling in cycle city

Seeing Copenhagen by bike is as easy as getting a shopping trolley, writes Sam Vincent.

WHAT Public bike use.

WHERE Copenhagen.

HOW MUCH Free.

WHY GO Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen. Wonderful for your eyes perhaps, but unless you happen to be a certain Tasmanian peasant-turned-princess, the Danish capital can be woeful for your wallet.

Thankfully, the Copenhagen city council is here to help. In typical Scandinavian socialist style, the council provides tourists with an army of free personal guides. The best bit: they don't even talk.

Between April and December the city bike program grants free use of 2000 purpose-built bicycles, waiting for riders at 110 stands across the city. Just insert a 20-krone coin (about $4) into a bike's lock, releasing it from the stand for as long as you please. When you are done, find a stand, lock it up, and your coin pops free. It is a little like getting a trolley from the supermarket. The trolley comparison does not stop there - in order to dissuade thieves the bikes are exceedingly heavy. Still, this is hardly noticeable once you are cruising the streets.

Copenhagen is not the first city to offer free bikes to tourists. In the 1970s, idealistic Amsterdam locals repaired abandoned bikes, painted them white and left them around the city for free public use. But these "white bikes" were quickly stolen or trashed. Wary of this precedent, European cities with bike-sharing initiatives such as Barcelona and Stockholm require riders to register beforehand, with the bikes only available during certain hours - hardly ideal for passing travellers.

The lack of such restrictions makes Copenhagen's system the best. The bikes are available anytime, and may be taken anywhere within the city centre's limits. It is a credit to the Scandinavian emphasis on the common good that it works, with locals and tourists respectful of the bikes.

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Copenhagen is the perfect place for such a scheme, being one of the world's most cycle-friendly cities. Lanes reserved for riders are as wide as Australian bus lanes, and are constantly filled with beautiful locals perched on their retro racers. You are even allowed to take your bike on the metro outside peak times. This flat city is small and easy to negotiate, and cyclists are respected by motorists. The minority of motorists are sometimes even the victims of road rage directed from the saddle. Enraged cyclists will bash a bonnet if they think a car is getting too close. Such aggression, however, is not recommended on one of the free bikes, as their slow speed would make it hard to escape the car.

Instead, canny travellers should take the bikes to some of the spots that make Copenhagen truly wonderful. From the central radhus (city hall), it is an easy ride to colourful Nyhavn (new harbour), where sun-starved locals crowd the cafes at the first sign of summer. Park your bike and join them for a Carlsberg or three.

From there, clunk over the cobblestones to the self-proclaimed free state of Christiania, established in 1971 when hippies began squatting in a former army barracks. Accepted as a "social experiment" by the government of the day, it has begrudgingly been allowed to continue. Christiania's chief export is marijuana (take your pushy along pusher street to see why), followed by ... bikes. Needing a way to transport all those flower children, locals created a clever three-wheeled model with a large front bucket. You can get off your bike and try one in the many workshops within Christiania. The way out of Christiania passes by a sign declaring, "You are now entering the European Union."

The city bike project hopes to eventually have 5000 bikes to serve tourists. And should you happen to pass by Amalienborg Palace while riding one, be sure to tell the residents the virtues of seeing their city by bike, rather than from a horse-drawn carriage. Fred and Mary just don't know what they're missing.

FREE STUFF You don't even need to buy a map, perspex-covered street directories are attached to every bike.

BONUS Flying all the way to Copenhagen may not be great for the environment, but at least you can make it up to the planet with pedal power once you get there.

DETAILS For more information on the program see http://www.visitcopenhagen.com and www.bycyklen.dk.

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