Denmark Sketch: The School Run on Two Wheels

We’re not quite in the habit yet, though the mornings are light again. There’s always ‘something’: someone’s sick, or I have to drive straight off to an appointment, or there’s a bulky planet costume to take with us, or we have to drop MT at work, or, more truthfully, two out of three of us are just not morning people. But today everyone is up and bright and breezy, so, lunches in backpacks, clothing layers added after much cajoling, we have plenty of time to cycle to school.

I adjust the straps on 6yo’s helmet (why do they need adjusted every time?); we haul the bikes out of their shed, kick up the stands and off we go. As we turn the corner I realise that 7yo hasn’t even put his helmet on. We go back, unlock the shed, and for a second time, ‘ Are we all ready?’

A bike path leads off from our quiet residential street on to a whole cycle network, and once we’re on it we don’t need to join any roads at all to get to school. But we follow the road to a neighbouring cul-de-sac to access the network, cutting a corner. As we pass between the last two houses before the bike path, it feels like we have encroached on gang turf. Hundreds of seagulls are lined up on each roof, facing each other. I have no idea why these two houses. Great flocks of them swoop around overhead, filling our ears with swooshing and fluttering as they disturb the air. This gang warfare, if that’s what it is, is balletic, West Side Story without the snapping fingers.

The bike path takes us round by a park, beyond which we can hear the sounds of children gathering at the local school – but we head off in the opposite direction, towards the international school. I let the boys go ahead of me, now that we’re away from the roads; not that they get far ahead. It’s almost harder work slowing to 6yo’s pace than going at speed. His bike is already almost too small for him, since we bought it last summer, but we needed him to be comfortable with it then; he had to get used to cycling outside the protected confines of a compound. He pedals furiously as I saunter behind. 7yo is impatient and trying to overtake, but at least it makes 6yo speed up to prevent it.

We get to an underpass and freewheel under the road; no need here to even cross the traffic. Crossing this threshold feels like leaving Hobbiton. Our suburb is recently-built, and somehow kind of sunken in the land, surrounded by grassy mounds and crops of woodland that cushion and obscure, with no view of the horizon. It’s comfy and contained, truly sleepy. But now we’re on the other side of the road, on a two-way cycle path separated from the cars by a wide grassy area with a ditch, and we can see far across the flat country. There are a couple of large houses here, but we cycle alongside a large open field, satisfyingly planted in neat rows so we can enjoy that cinematic perspective of the rows beside us sweeping past as the further rows and distant farmhouse remain static. After the field we pass a wooded area where a wood pigeon’s trill instantly transports me back to childhood holidays in a Fife village.

There’s traffic on these paths in the morning, going in both directions to the two schools. We have to keep to our side, and overtaking must be well-timed. Towards us, large groups of children cycle together. I see one or two parents in one of the groups, but most children are cycling independently, including some about the age of my own children. I wonder when I’ll feel Danish enough to send my boys off on their own to school. (Or when they’ll be organised enough…they’ve had too many years of being chauffeured through chaotic traffic, too many days when despite being told to tidy their own clothes or unpack their own bags, they knew there would be someone else – not even mum – coming along to diligently pick up the slack. If any country can cure them of their learned reliance on others, it’ll be independently-minded Denmark.)

Then we do have to cross a road; we stop at the miniature cyclist-height traffic lights where we wait for the green-lit bike, and cross safely. There’s another road leading to the school entrance, but the blue-painted pathway that crosses it tells us it’s our right of way. Sill, I toss forward my warning through the breeze: ‘Slow down! Keep watching!’ I’m still amazed by the trust Danish cyclists place in drivers, sailing round roundabouts and across junctions without any doubt the the cars will pause or part for them. As a driver, it’s taken a lot of getting used to.

So we don’t turn into the road, busy with drop-offs and parents thinking about where they have to be next; there’s a bike path just beyond, which circles round the building, through woods and takes us to the bike racks. There’s no need to go through a gate or enter school grounds – the school is open and unbound.

Two of the boys’ friends run to greet us – brothers too, the same ages. One is proudly displaying his fidget spinner. After I’ve helped 6yo remember his bike lock code, his little friend catches me out in my inattentiveness. ‘This is my bike!’ he announces with a grin. ‘Oh, that’s nice, you’re bike-rack neighbours today,’ I say. But it takes another kid to point it out: he’ s straddling a glittery purple balance bike, rusted and grubby, far too small for him. He’s delighted his joke has caught me out. ‘ It’s nobody’s!’  he exclaims. ‘It’s been here for years!’  Many bikes are not even locked, or have helmets hanging from handlebars or sitting in baskets. But my boys take their helmets inside to their cubbies and go off to play – there’s still time before the bell goes. I wonder if it’s only reformed latecomers who know this simple joy of being in good time for something.

Bike path and field
From the bike path

On my way back the paths are quieter now – two-wheeled rush hour has passed. I stop for a photo of my favourite field, despite the grey sky. I pass one of the mums I noticed on the way out, each of us doing the inverse of the other’s journey. This time I take a shorter shortcut, crossing the main road at street level and briefly joining actual cars before pulling into the neighbouring cul-de-sac, but I won’t be telling the boys about this one. I freewheel round the corner on to our street, feeling so much the better for the school run en plein air. I lock the bike away, where it will stay until 4 o’clock, when I will reach for the car keys and then remember, that I should have got on my bike already.

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