The touchscreen in front of me insists I’m from Azerbaijan. My best friend and I are standing in front of a column and trying to rent a city bike for me. Scores of them are standing there in the sunshine, waiting. It’s a beautiful summer day. Opportunities to just feed coins in to a slot if you want to get something are becoming fewer and fewer. I have to register an account with the bike company and I get increasingly foul-mouthed as the country list won’t budge. We try to download the app on our phones. After several attempts with three different devices in this digital age it works. The app then tells you what to do. There’s another touchscreen on the bike. Where? I locate it between the wheels, hidden underneath a metal lid with the bike number on it. After another series of pushing buttons, starting again, tugging on the lock the bike is finally mine.
It’s heavy, but this is somehow reassuring. Having asked most of my friends to push their bikes, I feel confident with this phase of the journey. We take a wide, shaded path, the tall leafy trees of the Hamburg Stadtpark meeting overhead. Everything is green and wonderful and the slightly grainy terrain underfoot immediately reminds me of my recent cycling course.
“The time has come, the walrus said.” With my first attempt to get on it feels like I’m trying to climb the Empire State Building, so we lower the saddle. To be on the safe side I let a few cyclists and walkers pass, and then off I go! The still present issue is getting both feet on the pedals and starting to cycle in time, but that works out quicker than I expected. Otherwise I just brake and try again. When I do get going, the beginning is sometimes still a bit wavy, but the width of the paths around us is perfect, and with me keeping a lookout for senior citizens, bike enthusiasts, dogs and children I feel confident.
The park with its almost 150 hectares is the best training ground for the first real bike ride outside of my course and my friend’s triumphant “You’re doing it!” makes the whole experience all the more enjoyable. We occasionally ride side by side and she warns me about upcoming turns. I make every curve, even if it doesn’t really feel like I know what I’m doing, but the (hopefully) elegant turns do wonders for my self-esteem. We can even chat, only I look straight ahead while doing it and keep a very firm grip on the handlebar.
This afternoon trip brings several profound discoveries with it. For example, even the smallest incline that you wouldn’t notice walking becomes immediately apparent when you’re on a bike. Duh. I sweat as I pedal harder, feeling like the wheels are sticking to the ground, and a few minutes later I’m amazed at the speed with which the bike is rolling along without me doing much. “We’re going very slightly downhill!” my friend calls. I can’t see it, but I can definitely feel it. Can I brake, can I brake?! Yes, I can brake! Gentle braking, slowing down in time, check! Successfully passing other people, check!