This is the first time I’ve actually enjoyed cycling in a city. Previously I have been a car-watcher on two wheels, a fume-breathing pothole dodger, my existence begrudged by every four-wheeled, “proper” road user. Now, just outside the Tivoli Gardens, an older lady shoots past me on a shopper-chopper with a cheery “Hihi”, which alerts me to the fact that I am on the wrong side of the bike lane. Imagine: a bike lane broad enough to allow safe overtaking. At the traffic lights there is a purpose-built leaning rail so my feet remain on the pedals; once across the junction, there is a waste bin specially angled to catch litter from cyclists.
In the light of this initiation, I am amazed that the Tour de France has never previously hit Copenhagen or Denmark, but 2022 is genuinely the first time. The lord mayor of the city, Sophie Hæstorp Andersen, tells me: “For us Copenhageners, cycling is a way of life, and we are proud to be called the world’s best cycling city. I’ve been watching the Tour since I was a girl and now, like the rest of Denmark, I can’t wait to see the riders in town.” All those soigneurs, grimpeurs, rouleurs and possibly even the rare stagiaire will be swooping around these streets before heading out for two more stages in the countryside (check out James Witherell’s book Bicycle History for wonderful jargon). This July will also see a relaunch of the women’s Tour, which starts in Paris – an event that has had a fitful history since its inception in 1955, but hopefully will finally ignite the public imagination.
We start at the Torvehallerne covered market, to stock up on cake, smørrebrød and coffee. My guides, Christian and Roman from Cycling Copenhagen, point out that everyone cycles – even four-year-olds ride to school in their capital city, something for which I imagine a UK parent would be prosecuted. “Cycling here is part of the hygge mentality,” says Christian. “We want to feel awake and healthy in the morning.”
Our plan is to follow the route of the Tour’s time trial, taking diversions. First stop is Queen Louise Bridge, said to be the world’s busiest bike route, where a digital counter tells us how many cyclists have passed this way in the previous four months: about 1.2 million. We watch them pass, and it is the demeanour that strikes me, the confidence and vigour with which they cycle. Here’s a young couple, she laughing in the wooden cargo box while he pedals, then a glamorous rider in crocodile-skin boots and tailored robes followed by several earnest young musicians with instruments. There are no hi-vis vests or helmets and, because the bike lanes are clean, no special gear to ward off scrapes and scummy puddles.
Next to Parken, the football stadium, where we pause to watch some four-year-olds getting trained on a purpose-built replica of city streets, complete with traffic lights and an angled bin. It takes planning to make utopia, something Christian is keen to point out. “We had a bike culture from the beginning – our first bike lane was built in 1908. But the architect, Jan Gehl, made a lot of the important innovations.”
Gehl brought in bike lanes separated by a kerb, a vital development, and also street parking that put a line of cars between traffic and bikes. With buses, taxis and trains all capable of carrying bikes, clear intersections, plentiful bike-parking, and a six-second bike advantage at all traffic lights, it is no wonder that over a third of Copenhagen residents commute by bicycle: it’s faster.
The best-known Copenhagen icon, the Little Mermaid statue, will be the location for the first test for the Tour’s pro cyclists, with some sharp turns near it, then there will be a cobbled section through the Amalienborg royal palace. (Yes, the Danish royals cycle too, sometimes taking the kids to school in the cargo box.) There’s a sharp right on the cobbles outside the house of Frederik, the crown prince. We head past the church and up to the Botanical Gardens to see the mangrove forest and palm house.
Over the next few days, I explore further afield. There are elegant bike bridges here that link the city across its central waterway to the suburb island of Amager, and radically cut journey times compared with cars.
Taking one such bridge I explore the hippy haven of Christiania, now mostly a sleepy waterside labyrinth of fascinating DIY homes. There is a whiff of its former anarchic glory in the market place where drugs are openly sold, and muscled youths with big dogs suggest a darker side. Copenhagen’s cultural resurgence has been led by this northern end of Amager island, an area that was once port facilities or military zones, but is now filled with interesting restaurants, cafes and leisure facilities – all done in inimitably creative style. The Amager Bakke eco-power station also houses the world’s tallest climbing wall and a ski slope (it is possible to climb the 80m wall and ski down).
Out here you will find Noma, consistently voted the world’s greatest restaurant, and its many spin-off progeny, including its burger joint POPL. As you might expect in Denmark, there is nothing formal or snobbish about it, just great burgers – and it is perfectly placed for cyclists near the Inderhavns bike bridge. Amass Fried Chicken, despite the name, is more of a place to dress up a bit. At Bistro Lupa we get foraged vegan food. “Have you ever tried cowslips?” asks Jason, the owner, who then serves up a tremendous feast of delicate and unexpected flavours. The pandemic, he tells me, gave him the opportunity to develop a whole new array of dishes.
The next day, when I meet Anders Mielke, the man behind popular local bike podcast Forhjulslir, he also points to an unexpected benefit of the pandemic. “If anything, it has increased the city’s love for cycling,” he says, “People have formed little cycle groups and clubs. Now the excitement about the Tour coming is more than ever.”
The Tour de France will do three stages in Denmark – 1 July in the capital, 2 and 3 July further into the country – before heading off into France. But in my opinion, the yellow jersey will not go with them: it will stay in its natural home, Copenhagen.
The trip was supported by Visit Denmark. Kevin Rushby stayed at Absalon Hotel (doubles from about £130) near the central station, with bikes available. Cycling Copenhagen runs a variety of guided city tours from about £40. Travel transfers and car parking were provided by Holiday Extras, which also provides travel and medical insurance