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Copenhagen by bike, to take part in the social whirl

August 02, 2009|Susan Spano

COPENHAGEN — It seems as though everybody bikes in Copenhagen: moms pushing kids in three-wheeled bike carts, chain smokers, mail deliverers, homeless people and beautiful women in low-cut frocks, as well as Mayor Ritt Bjerregaard, who ran for office on a pro-cycling platform.

The Danish capital has 1.15 million people, 2.5 million bikes and 225 miles of dedicated bike lanes. Forty percent of the population cycles to work all year in a city that's about the same latitude as Anchorage.

In this eminently eco-correct town -- where you can stay in a CO2-neutral hotel and eat sustainably harvested sashimi -- using pedal power is more than just a money-saver. It's what everyone can do to fight global warming and improve the quality of life.

It helps that the city is compact and flat -- topographical inducements for locals to bike. They favor stylish, Danish-designed models (including those made by cycle artist Rasmus Gjesing) and follow the same traffic regulations as drivers.

Lately visitors have started to tour Copenhagen by bike, discovering that they can cruise between Tivoli Gardens and the Little Mermaid statue in a matter of minutes. The city helps by providing bicycles at 110 stands in the center, free for use with a deposit of about $4. Rentals are available at most hotels.

Ride with a guide

And then there's Bike Copenhagen With Mike, a program devised and guided by Mike Sommerville, a Copenhagen native whose cool orange-framed glasses contrast nicely with his stevedore physique.

While touring five continents, largely by bike, he realized that people travel too hectically. So two years ago he introduced bike sightseeing to Copenhagen.

I found on one of the tours last month that riding around town with Sommerville makes you slow down and suck up Copenhagen's fresh air.

My group of about 30 cyclists breezed through the city in three hours, covering about 14 miles and seeing an array of sights from housing estates on the outskirts to the Danish royal family's elegant, four-sided Amalienborg Palace in the center. Pedestrians waited tolerantly at crosswalks for the bevy of bikes to pass. Sommerville set the pace, calling a halt only to talk at about half a dozen spots.

We stopped first at the Copenhagen History Museum on the south side of town, where a miniature porcelain model of the city, circa 1530, decorates the courtyard. Sommerville -- a man of few words, most of them colorful and opinionated -- gave us the abridged version of Copenhagen's past, covering the long reign of King Christian IV, who built 80% of the city's historic structures, had two dozen (and maybe more) children and died of alcoholism and obesity in 1648.

Then we wound around the lakes on the west side of town, headed for the poor, ethnically mixed Norrebro neighborhood where Sommerville described Denmark's social welfare system. If you're poor, Copenhagen's the place for it, Sommerville said. If you like to pay income tax (45% to 59%), it's good for that too.

Our Norrebro stop was at Assistens Cemetery to see the grave of Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen was born in dire poverty and ran away from home at age 14, landing on the streets of Copenhagen with little more than his imagination. Andersen's fairy tales are now known all over the world, but he was an ugly duckling of a man, little admired in Denmark during his lifetime.

After that the group stopped by the Little Mermaid statue on the harbor, where the water is clean enough for swimming and the theme is environmental protection. In Denmark the environment is not just a matter of conscience; it's big business. Windmills generate 20% of the nation's electricity, and engineers are working to harness the power of ocean waves.

Royal behaviors

At nearby Amalienborg Palace, Sommerville discussed the exploits of Danish princes Frederik and Joachim and the habits of their mother, well-loved Queen Margrethe II, who has ruled for 37 years. She's a chain smoker and is said to consume four packs a day, but she no longer smokes in public, Sommerville said.

On our way back to the train station we rode along the harbor, taking in some of the city's striking contemporary architecture, including the new Opera House, designed by Henning Larsen. When we returned to the station, I thanked Sommerville, turned in my rental and headed back to my hotel on foot.

I wished I still had the bike.

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susan.spano@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

If you go

BIKE COPENHAGEN

WITH MIKE

011-45-26-39-56-88, www.bikecopenhagenwithmike.dk, depart from Copenhagen Bikes at 11 Reventlowsgade on the west side of the main train station. Tours available through Sept. 30. The tour costs about $30 and bikes can be rented in the cycle center for about $15.

MY BIKES

57 Store Kongensgade, 011-45-33-11-12-11, is a small shop near Amalienborg Palace that sells custom-made bikes designed by Rasmus Gjesing. Be warned: The bikes are not inexpensive, including one called the Killer for $4,300.

WHERE TO STAY

I like Ibsens Hotel, 23 Vendersgade, 011-45-33-13-19-13, www.ibsenshotel.dk, a well-run, modest place on the west side of the city center; doubles start about $200.

WHERE TO EAT

Sticks n Sushi is a chain of eight terrific contemporary Japanese restaurants in Copenhagen. One is just down the block from Ibsens Hotel at 59 Nansensgade, 011-45-33-11-14-07, www.sticksnsushi.dk. Reservations are recommended and expect to pay $30 to $50 per person.

Nytorv Restaurant & Cafe, 15 Nytorv, 011-45-33-11-77-06, www.nytorv.dk, is an old-fashioned place in the center of town that specializes in open-faced Danish sandwiches; $20 to $30 per person for a light meal.

The Taco Shop, 57 Farimagsgade, 011-45-33-32-83-30, serves tasty, homemade Mexican fare, eat in or to go; $10 to $15 per person.

TO LEARN MORE

VisitDenmark, P.O. Box 4649, Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163, (212) 885-9700, www.visitdenmark.com.

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