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A Cycling Tale of Sweden

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A place where two-wheels have taken over from four-wheels, and where houses are built with ramps so that you can saddle up before even leaving home.

“So we're going to cycle over the Oresund Bridge?” I asked my budding travel companions. A thought flashed through my mind: “If they say yes, I'm definitely going to take a rain check.” I was heading off with a small group on a bike tour to the south of Sweden, but only a week before the departure I suddenly began to look for reasons to stay at home. I can just picture it, traipsing along at the tail end of the group, I twist the handlebars the wrong way and in the rush of anxiety, I run over an innocent Swedish pedestrian. The fear was not unfounded. In the past three years I'd ridden my bike approximately twice – all the way to the local shops. “No,” they said, “Bikes don't go over this bridge.” The frantic bike race in my imagination shrank by one stage, and I decided: ok, let’s go.

You can get to the south of Sweden in various ways, we chose one of the simplest – flying to the capital of Denmark, and from Copenhagen airport taking the train across the strait. The first few kilometers were in an underwater tunnel, then we popped back up into the light and climbed onto the underbelly of the Oresund Bridge. From the windows of the train car, neither the masts of cable structures nor border signs were visible – only the water of the strait, which looked like a sheet of crumpled foil. After about 20 minutes we arrived in the center of Malmö, the home of cycling in Sweden with its 500 km of cycle paths, a place where two-wheelers have the upper hand over their four-wheeled cousins.

At the hotel reception, we were presented with two sets of keys each: one for the room, the other for the bike. Lots of hotels in Malmö work like this: settle in first then grab a bike (sometimes even at no extra charge). Our new two-wheeled companions were waiting for us around the corner in the parking lot. I was given bike number 646, somewhat worn out and a little old-fashioned but at least with three gears. I grabbed hold of the handlebars, putting my left leg on the left pedal, and swinging my right over to the other one I was already moving, sitting back nicely in the saddle. It wasn't strictly necessary to do this trick – 646 didn't have a frame – but it seemed to me that hopping on like man suited me perfectly well, and it also meant that from the off I could declare myself a seasoned cyclist.

Leaving the parking lot, we plunged into the thick of the Swedish bicycle traffic. Clinging to the handlebars, I followed the others around the old merchant houses, design studios, the monument to Charles X and the austere brick castle. We crossed squares and bridges, trying not to stray outside the orange line marking the edge of the cycle path. The able-bodied Swedes and Swedettes cordially overtook us in their colorful helmets, and timid cars gave way before us. Our group stayed clear of the pavements, as riding on them will land you with a hefty fine. At the crossroads, stopping at the red, we deftly clung to handrails, made especially for cyclists, so as to avoid having to step off. By the middle of the day, the handlebars seemed easy to steer, and with my spine straight I could take a break, or, as they say in Sweden, a fika, which means coffee and a friendly chat.

There are several dedicated cafes for cyclists in Malmö where, once refreshed, you can pump up your tires, and, if needs be, repair your bike. We chose just such an establishment to have a classic fika, accompanied by a signature Swedish cinnamon bun. Adorning one wall were various bicycle parts, repair kits and tires, and on the other – a picture that depicted a man shaving his legs. We asked the bartender about the story behind the canvas. “It's nothing special,” he said, “some cyclist shaving his legs to improve aerodynamics.”

Although there's no need to worry about aerodynamics in Malmö, there’s nowhere to race, you can get from one end of the city to the other in a little over an hour. The pedestrian here easily becomes a cyclist. You can rent a bike from any of the specialist shops dotted about, but the most popular option is the city's own rental service. Even high-ranking government officials who live with the idea that it is indecent to ride a car use them. Simply download the smartphone app, find the nearest municipal parking spot, select the bike of your choice and pedal to the office. Locals buy annual subscriptions – it works out cheaper than paying by the hour. Although they haven't completely swapped their own “iron horses” for the rental ones, they treasure them and look after them as if they were household pets.

Cycling science in Malmö is booming. Along with bike libraries and workshops, where anyone can learn to repair their mounts, there is also a commune for these new centaurs – seven-story buildings without parking for the contemptible cars, with elevators designed for a man and his bike, and with ramps instead of stairs so that he can saddle up right in the apartment. When a local resident happens to leave the city, he leaves his bike on a huge overspill parking lot for 1,500 places right under the train station. And it doesn't cost a crown – payment is only taken for storing the bike in its own lockbox.

When it was time for us to leave Malmö, we returned the bikes to the hotel parking lot (“Goodbye, dear 646! I’ll think of you in Moscow”) and went to Helsingborg, where the 370-kilometer Kattegattleden tourist route begins. It was opened two years ago and the Swedes are terribly proud of its ecology.

The appointed path stretches along the strait and is divided into eight sections. Each of them has something special to offer: on the first – the royal Sofiero Castle park with Europe's largest rhododendron nursery, on the second – vineyards, on the third – steep hills and golf courses. The meandering bike path sometimes diverges from the shore and runs through a beech forest, a village or an oat field with windmills on the horizon.

A stubborn cyclist, with the goal of covering the entire distance, will need to set aside three weeks. We decided to traverse the first section at a minimum – especially as at any stage of the route you can interrupt the journey, and give your bike back.

This time I was in the saddle of a dapper “black stallion” from a Helsingborg rental. At the starting line we were joined by a guide, a charming Swede called Freya, who knew all the ins and outs of the route. In a black bicycle suit and black helmet she sat on an outlandish black beast, which upon closer inspection proved to be electric. I appreciated the advantages of this bike at the 15 kilometers mark, when Freya, at the head of the caravan, announced with some excitement that there was a long climb ahead. Seemingly our little trek along the sand dunes and the wide northern beaches has turned into a full-on race.

We were in good spirits – the air carried the scent of iodine mixed with the aroma of roses, and our lunch of smoked fish was taken in a small cafe near the water from where we could easily see the Hamletesque Kronborg Castle on the opposite side of the Oresund Strait. But the ascent was an inevitable part of the landscape, I shifted to second gear, put my back into it and the bike began to squeeze out the last of my strength. Soon, on the top of the hill arose the silhouette of Freya and her “racing car.” She waved her hand encouragingly.

I wasn't noticing anything around me at this point, although I suppose that the amazing scenery for which the Skåne region is so famed was still there. I was ready to give up and push the bike the rest of the way, then out of nowhere remembered how as a child I won a ski race among the girls from the 6th class – and I continued my charge to the top.

As a reward, Freya gave me a ride on her magic electric bike, and I realized that on a beast like that I had every chance of getting to Gothenburg today. But no matter how shameful this may sound, we quit the race without reaching the finish line. On the way Kattegattleden our team rode 25 kilometers, which means that there were 345 in front. There's something comforting about this number.

Route Details

  • The Kattegattleden route (a cycle path of only 370 km) runs from Helsingborg to Gothenburg.
  • From the malmobybike.se city rental website, it's a simple matter to download the app, which shows where you can find available bike rental stations, the number of free bikes there and parking places. You can buy a ticket for renting a bicycle there: a card for 24 hours costs 80 SEK, while for 72 hours it's 165 SEK. Time limits apply in the city: in an hour the bike should be returned to the nearest parking lot, where another can be taken if required.
  • Those wishing to ride the whole of the Kattegattleden can buy a package, which includes luggage transportation, hotel accommodation, food in cafes and maps with the sights marked on them. Bike rental is extra.

Text: Maria Vorobieva
Published on: March 23, 2018