I meet Juli by Eberswalder Straße U-Bahn on a hot Berlin day, before the summer turns into rain. She grins wildly, with eyes that light up when she talks about bikes and a beast of a bike that glints just as much. We cycle to Mauerpark and she talks about the bike she designed, and what cycling in Berlin is like for her. It’s the perfect spot for one of my first chats with a Berlin rider, with different cyclists looping through the park every few minutes.
Hey Juli. How’s cycling in Berlin going? What are you up to?
Good! Most of the Berlin messengers all meet up Friday evenings at this park in Mitte and get completely wasted. I’ve been there three or four times and they’re all really, really nice but as soon as you get on a bike with them, you’re just kind of like ‘No way am I crossing this street, on a red light, in the middle of the night when there’s still all this traffic. I am just not.’ They just go round the cars whichever way they like, and you’re just like ‘…I’ll catch you up.’
I was at this alleycat this summer and I wasn’t planning on going but loads of my friends were. They were all like ‘You have to do it, you have to!’ You pay five euros and do it. I thought: ‘Okay… fine…!’
I was freshly tattooed on that day and thought ‘Am I really going to do this?’ My whole arm was just wrapped in clingfilm and I was thinking: ‘I’m not allowed to sweat, I’m not allowed to get any dirty water in it. What the fuck am I doing?’ Especially because this group of cyclists that organised it – every alleycat they do it pretty wasted. On every shot you have to drink at least three or four shots to even do the game that you have to play.
“‘Ungemütlich’ is uncomfortable … All their alleycats are very uncomfortable.”
There were [checkpoints] where there’s this massive swimming pool where it’s completely filled with jello that’s mixed in with loads of alcohol and at the bottom of it there are beans. You have to stick your head in there and fish out the beans with your mouth. And then you cycle to the next station. It’s like ‘what the hell…!’ all the way until the end, I had this jelly stuff in my ears and I didn’t understand anything. It was terrible!
There was a station where you had to saw a massive metal tube thingy. It’s like ‘Look at my arms, how the hell am I supposed to do that?’ The good thing was that it was [run by] a bike shop by a friend of mine so he was like ’30 points!’ Those were the highest points I’d gotten so far! But I didn’t lose. I wasn’t in a team. I did this by myself and I’m really proud.
Are the challenges always like that?
From their group, yes. For example a year ago there was one that was more carnival-based. So every stop was fishing for ducks or popping balloons with a dart. It’s always different. Then there’s also the ‘crime alleycat’ where on every station you have to solve a crime. They’re called Radsportgruppeungemütlich.
I’ll ask you how to spell that later...
‘Ungemütlich’ is uncomfortable, so you get the idea. All their alleycats are very uncomfortable with jello and stuff. Especially because you don’t have a clue what the game are. So you just cycle there, you get there, and you’re just like ‘Oh god. Oh why did I do this?’
The first stop that was closest basically, so I took it as my first stop, was – have you been on top of the bunker at Gesundbrunnen? Gesundbrunnen is from here is straight over there. [Gestures] There’s a massive hill and under this is a massive bunker and on top there’s a route that goes up and it’s diagonal. You had to cycle up there. On every corner there was a person checking that you were going up on your bike and not walking. My gear ratio is incredibly high, so I was going up there dying when I got to the top. Do you know what the game at the top was? With sushi sticks you had to stack – on top of each other – dice.
That’s not what you want when you’re tired.
My hands were shaking because I was so dead. And then these chopsticks.. I was like ‘It’s not working!’
How long have you been riding fixed? Did you move start when you moved here?
Two years. When I moved here I was eight, when I had a small little tiny bike. It’s been a little bit longer than two years now and at first it was this really shitty Peugeot frame set that I transformed into a fixie. It was steel, way too heavy, broke almost every week. So that had to go. Then through an ex-boyfriend I met this bike painter.
”This looks really good. Draw on this frame.”
I was sitting there one evening just sketching some stuff and he was like “This looks really good. Draw on this frame.” It was this really expensive carbon frame that was broken but still, it was a beautiful frame that you could have hung somewhere, and he wanted me to draw on it. I was like ‘Can I really do that…?’ So I designed that frame and it looked really good. He offered me the job of doing [art] for him. He had a deal that every frame I painted, he would keep the money basically from what we sold and I would get this [gestures towards bike].
So I painted this frame myself. It’s all hand-made, it’s my own build. It took two weeks.
How do you do the glittery effect?
First I pained it white, then I put sticky bits where the seams are basically, and black on top, and clear lacquer with glitter – I mixed those together and then sprayed it on.
I’m not the kind of person to buy an expensive frame to show off – that’s not me. I did this for myself. I also have that frame tattooed. I have my frame on my body for ever and ever.
My fork was also a glittery design and about half a year ago I had a bike accident where it was a crossing and I was going straight, the lady in the car was coming from the right hand side and she just stopped right in front of me in the cycling way. I was like ‘what the fuck am I supposed to do now?’ I tried to use my brakes, but it didn’t work so I just crashed right into her. Nothing happened to me, it was fine but I completely smashed my bike. So that was a bit of a faff, seeing as the fork was carbon so it was broken and I had a carbon handlebars which literally just snapped in the middle. I got the pieces again but it was a shame because the handlebars were one of Cinelli’s oldest carbon designs because it was flat on top and went round to the bottom. It was a shame. It was a copy, but they don’t sell the copy anymore.
Juli is also really good at shouting at crits.
Do you think riding in Berlin is pretty safe?
Yes. No. I think it’s safe. They’re trying to make it safe but there are still so many crossings. It’s mostly the left-right massive across junctions where most of the accidents happen. Also the whole thing of people turning right [the equivalent of UK’s headline-grabbing left turn issue]. That’s a massive difficulty seeing as they just never look. If there’s a massive lorry and it doesn’t see you and it turns to the right and you want to go straight … and that just.. doesn’t work.
It’s an interesting change from the UK.
If you’re going pretty fast or want to go fast it just doesn’t work.
What I’m most angry about and when I seriously don’t see any mercy is these tourist travel bike groups. Uh! Every day. They’re terrible, they’re just so so unreasonable on a bike. It’s like ‘the light is red!’ and all of them just cross. Like ‘Oh I don’t care.’ Argh! They’re don’t have the rule of ‘you ride on the right hand side of the bike path so on the left people can over take you.’ They just don’t do that. They all cycle next to each other. Then behind them you’re like ‘dude I’m so much faster than you, can you just please let me past?’
So that’s the etiquette? Good to know. Who do you normally cycle with?
”Cycling for me is the definition of spacing out”It depends. I love cycling by myself because cycling for me is the definition of spacing out. Just being free. Just doing whatever you want to do. Not having one destination where you have to go.
I am in a fixed group. We’re called ‘Channeli’, so Chanel and Cinelli in one. That was a very drunk idea but it works, it’s quite funny. We’re making some t-shirts and I designed a logo – it’s basically Cinelli and Chanel combined. Cinelli have their ‘Chrome’ collection so it’ll be ‘Chanelli Rost’ (which is rust). Cinelli Rust. We’ll see. That’s four guys and me. It’s a lot of fun going around with them. I think what makes our group kind of interesting is that we are all in very different age groups and the backgrounds.
I don’t have a strong opinion about men versus women gender separation when it comes to cycling. I’ve got some girlfriends that ride fixed, but they’re also just a lot more trained than me. They’re more disciplined. They see cycling as something you train for and race in and win, and I can’t do that. That’s way too much pressure on it.
Other than that I ride with whoever’s there. I cycle round Berlin and I see messengers and they invite me to come and deliver things with them. It is a lot of fun.
But I think the most amazing thing about cyclists in Berlin. Wherever you go, they’re really nice to you.