Friday 20 July 2007

Dickes B: Home on Der Spree--My Return to Berlin

Symbol of Berlin: the Brandenburg Gate

June 23-June 29, 2007

I lived in Berlin from 1998 to 2002 and have returned several times since. It is an extraordinary place: perhaps not the most beautiful in Europe, but among the most interesting. Its combination of history, architecture, cultural excitement and sheer livability makes it hard to match. Since I was paying a lot for airfare from the United States to Europe for this year’s bike trip, I decided to make the most of it and spend a week in Berlin visiting friends and enjoying the ambiance of the city before catching a train and going west to France.

My departure from home to the Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington went quite smoothly; my new Performance bike case fitted quite nicely in front of the back seat of a standard taxi. But as I rolled up my pile of luggage I could see the dollar signs flash in the eyes of the Continental staff. “A bicycle case!”, they cried, and their tongues lolled out with joy and anticipation. I had read that many airlines had changed their rules about bike cases and instead of them now being counted as the second piece of luggage, they were to be measured and oversized cases would be charged accordingly. Continental deems an oversized bike case to be anything bigger than you would need for a child’s tricycle with the wheels off so I was stuck with a bill for US$ 190 for a return trip for my case. There is not much than can be done about this when you are standing at the airport ready to go on holidays, so out came the credit card...One of the staff wanted to charge me for overweight baggage as well but apparently paying for a bike case covers that. The Performance case, which cost me about US$ 175, is about the smallest I have seen for a full-sized bicycle. It needs a few additional handgrips but otherwise worked very well.

The flight to Newark was fine but then there was quite a delay before we got going on the next leg of the flight. Newark Liberty International is not a very nice place but the charm of the place is probably no different from most big city busy airports. I wandered around for a few hours and then we finally boarded and it was off to Berlin, arriving in Tegel only about an hour late. I had a very pleasant taxi ride and was soon camped out with my friends.

On the flight across the Atlantic I had somehow become obsessed with the idea that I had left some of the parts of the bicycle in my living room in Washington. I could not remember putting components of the stem back in the case after they had popped apart when I dismantled the Tarmac so I spent a pretty restless night on the flight. However, I did know that in Berlin there were good bike shops where I could get anything that I needed. Last year I was on the flight to Europe when I realized that I had forgotten to pack my cycling shoes but we were able to get a suitable pair surprisingly easily in the middle of the Black Forest. So before I took a nap in Berlin, I very carefully took the bicycle out of the case and put it back together. To my delight, everything was indeed there and there was no damage whatever from the trip. I was always apprehensive about shipping my bicycles and with one this expensive the strain is even more apparent. I could not resist and ended up taking a forty minute ride, going past Berlin landmarks such as Alexanderplatz, Unter den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate before returning.

That was one of only two rides I was able to do that week since the weather was wretched. For late June it was very cold and every day there was howling wind, or else pouring rain. I took a few pictures in the brief interludes of sunshine and visited friends and family for the most part.

Since this blog is about cycling, I will focus on the other bicycle-related things that I did. At the intersection of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstrasse is a beautiful showroom that belongs to Volkswagen AG and is meant to highlight their various brands of cars, from Bentley and Bugatti to Volkswagen and all the way down to Skoda. The place is enormous and there is a nice restaurant and an art gallery. An exhibition was about to open devoted to prints by Chagall, Picasso and Dali but of particular interest to me was a little exhibition opening in the Skoda area. There was one of the slightly goofy-looking Roomsters vehicles, decked out in full Team Gerolsteiner colours and festooned with a fleet of Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL bikes, while next to it was a Skoda Octavia sedan with a roof rack and some bicycles marked “Skoda RS.” The area also had a lot of photographs of pro racing, and the motto: “Skoda: Motor des Radsports” (or Skoda: the Motor of Bike Racing).

The Roomster, which I first saw at last year’s Tour de France, may look a bit odd but it appears to be very practical and you can even get it with an internal bicycle carrier that will allow you to carry two bikes in its roomy interior. It has huge windows and even a panorama glass roof and with a diesel motor would be very economical. Unfortunately these cars are not sold in North America. I guess I need another European posting so that I can buy one.

Now, here is a bike shop!

One of my other stops on my tour of my old haunts of Berlin was Stadtler, a huge bicycle shop in the western part of the city. This was once housed in a tiny ramshackle two-storey building but when I lived in Berlin the store moved to much more spacious surroundings in a former streetcar depot. The space is shared with a big grocery story and Stadtler itself is divided into bicycling and motorcycle accessory departments. It is always fun to walk around and see what is new. When the store opened in 2000, it had not only full lines of accessories–everything from tires to clothing to high-end frames–but also had extensive offerings fo excellent bicycles such as Pinarellos and Colnagos. This time the Italians were not so much in evidence and besides Treks Stadtler had a lot of Cervelos, including the very high-end P3 time trial bike. The store has an indoor test area and if I would have had my shoes with me I would have requested a spin on a P3 with full Campagnolo equipment (including a disc rear wheel), although I did notice the bicycle was chained to its stand. Lowering my sights, I got some excellent Roeckl gloves on sale.

The Thin Man on his tall Moots

I did manage to go for a more serious ride than my brief test spin when I caught up with the Thin Man, a fellow Squadra Coppi team member who is now living in Berlin and who works as a freelance journalist. He has covered a lot of interesting science stories and his stuff is definitely worth a read. When we met I was impressed that he appears to be the Talles Freestanding Moots Rider, although I understand that there are issues with this and that he must substantially dismantle his bike before it will fit into a case.

Me at Schloss Börnicke

We met not far from where I was staying in Landsberger Allee. Of course, the first thing that happened was that my bike computer stopped working as the magnet housing came loose and I lost the part holding the magnet in place, although not the magnet itself. The weather was not so great, being grey and windy, but we headed east through the traffic in the direction of Bernau and had a very enjoyable ride that brought us to Schloss Börnicke, on the outskirts of Bernau. This is an old little castle that needs some TLC and is the scene for alfresco opera productions in summer. We stopped for some photos and then turned around and headed back to Berlin into a brutal headwind. I think I got more from drafting Andrew than he did from me, but we managed to get back before it rained on us. With those 50 kms, my cycling in Berlin was at an end and I took the bicycle apart and put it back into the case.

Another Brandenburg Gate: this one made from chocolate!

On Saturday, June 29th I took a taxi to the Ostbahnhof and settled into the high-speed ICE train heading west. Andrew came on at the new Hauptbahnhof and after nearly eight hours of travelling time and changes in Offenburg and Strasbourg we found ourselves in Alsace in Colmar. A brief taxi ride–it is amazing that you can fit two bike cases, two big bags and three people into a Renault Espace with no problem-- and we came to our gite, or holiday home, in the village of Hunawihr, in the vineyards of France, ready for a week of cycling adventures.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice trip. Would love to get back to Berlin (visited when I lived in West Germany, in the mid 80s).

Karma is what resulted in that $190 bike case charge. Should know better than to refer to National as "Ronald Reagan Airport".