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The secret lives of cyclists

The guy who opens the door looks as if he is about to embark on the Tour de France: he’s wearing a turtleneck tricot and one of those cycling caps with the tiny visors. But this is just the way Dustin dresses every Monday morning...

Dustin, owner of the bike shop Cicli Berlinetta.
Photo by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

The guy who opens the door looks as if he is about to embark on a 1970s-era Tour de France: he’s wearing a yellow turtleneck tricot and one of those cycling caps with the tiny visors. But Dustin is not planning to go out on his bike today – this is just the way he dresses every Monday morning…

Cycling is Dustin’s life. On the wall of his living room, five bikes hang behind the television set. They are as carefully arranged as paintings. “I guess you could say I’m a freak,” he says, smirking. Dustin, 40, has been a bike messenger for more than 10 years. In 1995, he cycled all the way from London to Berlin; he loved the free spirit of the early post-Wende years, so he stayed on. Now, he sells rare Italian vintage bicycles out of Cicli Berlinetta, a shop he runs three storeys below his Fehrbelliner Straße apartment.

It’s people like Dustin who are the beating heart of Berlin’s bike culture: cultishly passionate cyclists; men and women who have lived their lives on two wheels. They try to do something else from time to time, to work at other jobs and maybe even get a degree – Dustin went to university in Vancouver – but they always end up doing the only thing that really gives them satisfaction: cycling.

As Dustin explains, bike culture revolves around the couriers – the clothes they wear, the cycles they ride. They set the trends. But Berlin is a tough city for couriers. In New York, they hardly ever leave Manhattan. Here, they are constantly riding from one end of the city to the other: from Grunewald to Köpenick to Lankwitz to Mitte and back again. And it’s a fiercely competitive field, so the ones who make a living at it cycle up to 150km a day and are lucky to go home with €100 in their pocket. Near-death situations are routine.

Life is a bit easier, it seems, for the non-professionals: in Berlin’s Kiez culture, where most necessities are no more than a couple of kilometres away, a bike means no costly tickets and no rush-hour traffic jams. “Over the last couple of years, there has been a considerable increase in [the number of] bike riders on the streets,” says Mo. He stands behind the counter at Keirin, a “Cycle Culture Café” with an adjacent repair shop at Schlesisches Tor that’s named after a track cycling sprint event.

Mo, 36, and his business partner Gary, 43, have found that people seem to want to be on the move these days – a development that fits perfectly with the Neuberliner’s newfound eco-consciousness. Over the last years, casual riders have started to care more about quality and individuality, and to accept the fact that a good bike might cost €1000.

“Bikes are the future,” Mo says. Then he shakes hands with a man who looks like a cyclist version of Mad Max. He is wearing a helmet, forearm protectors and knee pads, and he probably didn’t take them off to drink his coffee. Leon has been a bike messenger for 24 years: he deserves to wear armour.

Couriers have a reputation for recklessness – for crazy, breakneck manoeuvres – but Leon’s sheer presence proves these prejudices wrong. Good couriers know exactly what they’re doing. But the suicidal image doesn’t come out of nowhere – take the track (a.k.a. fixed-gear) bikes that hit the scene about 10 years ago. These were originally designed for races at velodromes. They have only one gear and the back wheel is fixed, but what really makes them unsuitable for street riding is the fact that they don’t have breaks.

Dustin from Cicli Berlinetta was one of Berlin’s track bike pioneers. A decade back, it was the new hip thing; the fad really caught on two or three years ago. “After a while,” Dustin says, “a normal bike becomes boring: you start wanting something more dangerous, a new challenge.” He’s in it for the kick, the drug-like high.

On his track bike, Dustin bombs through the city, riding through teeming intersections when the red light was against him. “There is always an opening,” he says. And then he explains how, if two cars drive straight towards one another, one will always brake to avoid a crash.

According to Dustin, 99 percent of drivers will let a track-bike rider through – so, it’s up to him to see in a split second whether he’s met the one percent that would rather kill him. The first time it happened to him was at the intersection of Friedrichstraße and Unter den Linden. It was scary, but also a total hit of adrenaline. It made him feel alive.

Cyclists like Dustin get shiny eyed and philosophical when they talk about riding track bikes. “You are the bike and the bike becomes you,” Dustin says. Mo from Keirin just smiles conspiratorially and says, “Track bikes are the best.”

Because of the fixed back wheel, a track bike rider must pedal constantly. According to Gary, “It actually feels like walking – it’s very instinctive.” This way, he says, experienced riders are in complete control of their rides: “The amateur on his flea market boneshaker with grocery bags hanging from the handlebars is way more dangerous than a courier on a track bike.”

But they still have the aura of the extreme. And last year, the Polizei started to crack down on the fixed-geared two-wheelers, which by that time had become infamous in the local media as “fixies” or “Bahnräder”. So, it’s no wonder that the majority of hobby cyclists have been attracted by another trend: single speed bikes. These are light, classy, simple and, because they don’t have a gear box, clean-looking.

Clumsy mountain bikes have nearly disappeared; instead, customers of shops like Cicli Berlinetta have increasingly come to care about design – they want sexy bikes. Dustin himself owns ones that are copper- or even gold-plated: the most expensive one was valued at DM 17,000 when new. It’s an insult to describe bikes like these as “a means of transportation”.

Mo got fed up with the harsh courier life three years ago. Since then, he has dedicated himself to turning Keirin into a sort of museum, complete with original GDR champions’ bikes and photographs of famous track races. He still gets out his own bike every other day and goes for a ride: it’s the perfect way to relieve stress, he says. To Mo and his fellow disciples, cycling is an art form – a symbol of freedom and a state of pure independence.