While we no longer ride out with a lamp and a whistle, cycling today has become a part of life

“I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride it where I like” are the lyrics of a famous Queen song. Freddie Mercury may never have ridden his bike through Vienna, although he played here often enough, but he would have surely enjoyed exploring today’s bike friendly city on two wheels. After all, Vienna has undertaken tremendous efforts in the last decade to adapt the city to pedal power, resulting in over 1,300km of bike tracks and lanes providing a smoother and safer experience than ever before.

Now celebrating its 200th anniversary as a means of individual transport, the bicycle has become part of life in Vienna.

Invented in Mannheim, Germany, in 1817, within a year the first bicycles, made entirely out of wood, were up for sale in the Austro-Hungarian capital. It took until the 1880s for the “modern” bicycle to really conquer Vienna, as high tech stuff features like rolling bearings, wheel hubs, flexible metal spokes and wheels made of solid rubber were integrated into the design and production process.

bicycle bike birthday travel
Fischerrad (1853). // © Wikimedia Commons

Taking the Tall Bike

Let’s talk design: All the cool kids back then were riding the so called pennyfarthing, which had a huge front wheel (the ones you’ve seen in silent movies and on old postcards) or the tricycle for adults, with two back wheels for stability. As funky looking as they seem to us now, those models were neither the safest nor the most practical. This soon led to the invention of the “safety bicycle,” whose pedals powered the back wheel only and were conveniently close to the ground – the blueprint for all modern bicycles.

While bicycles became more and more popular, they were almost exclusively a form of recreation and banned from public roadways, considered a hazard for both pedestrians and horse carriages. Whirring up quietly from behind, they were often not heard by other road users, which even today is one of the biggest dangers for cyclists.

It didn’t take the orderly Viennese long to create the first Fahrradordnung (bicycle traffic regulation) in 1885, stating which roads were barred to cyclists – basically all major routes like the Ringstrasse and the Kai. Carrying a lantern and a whistle was mandatory. So take a moment and summon up the picture of a guy riding along the 19th-century Mariahilfer Strasse on a high wheeler, carrying a lantern and blowing a whistle to clear the way. First thought? Happy to oblige!

Geek up Your Bike

We have come a long way. Today, people glide along barely touching the pedals of their e-bikes, wearing high tech helmets and following instructions from the GPS that is conveniently attached to the bike’s frame.

bicycle bike birthday travel
Draisine (1817). // © Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of a GPS and the apps that make use of it: The app “AnachB” lets you choose your means of conveyance from public transport, bicycle or on foot and will find the perfect route through Vienna, Lower Austria or other Bundesländer. Another great option is the more community based “Bike Citizens” app that acts as a GPS, and features bike tours created by local users, suggesting points of interest along the way. It also shows you the location and status of the nearest City bike stations, where you can borrow a bicycle if you don’t have your own (pro tip: this feature is also included in the Wiener Linien app). “Bike Citizens” also lets you share on social media the distance you have covered – after all there is no point in working up a sweat without the chance to show it off to your virtual friends.

Two-Wheeled Lifestyle

In recent years, numerous hybrids of bike shops and cafés have popped up across the city to serve the two-wheeler crowd. Radlager in the 4th district was the first one to specialize in fixing vintage bikes while selling great snacks and coffee on the side – which has now become the star attraction, and the bikes making nifty accessories. If you are looking for a deal on second-hand bikes, the bike flea market at WUK might be your best bet: Every first Wednesday of the month from 15:00 to 18:00 (except in January), buyers and sellers of old bikes come together – there are some great deals to be found, but be sure to come early or all the good stuff may already be gone.

At Reanimated Bikes in Neubau, bicycles that are no longer useable get taken apart and rebuilt for a second life on the road. Richard Zirkl, founder of the store, has noticed a growing interest in quality: “Most people who shop here are not just looking at the price tag but want to buy a quality product,” he says. “Also, the fact that we are producing locally is a strong argument.” If your main concern is aesthetic, Chic Style in the 1st district is selling individually designed single-speed bikes. You can choose the color of each part of your future bike – so you’ll really make an impression at the next stop light!

Discovering the City

Even though biking is now a lot safer, there are still 8,000 days of sick leave per year in Vienna as a consequence of cycling accidents – many of which could be avoided if everyone practiced good sense and followed simple traffic rules. But other than this one downside, traveling by bicycle combines many benefits: No more worries about crowded U-Bahnen or polluting the planet, or (best of all) no time wasted finding a parking spot! Just lock your bike to the nearest post.

bicycle bike birthday travel
© Reanimated Bikes Vienna

The biggest plus, however, is the speed at which you are traveling at, which is just the right pace to let you take in everything in your surroundings: Instead of seeing a journey as merely getting from A to B, cyclists discover things that are locked away from people trapped in the darkness of a metro tunnel or the isolation of their cars.

Especially in Vienna, less vast than London or Berlin, a bike is just the perfect vehicle to discover the city. Once you’ve done that, you can move on to explore some of the many tracks that run through the Wiener Wald or along the Danube all the way to Bratislava. Just don that helmet and take off.

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Andreas Rainer is a journalist and writer based in Vienna. He lived across the pond in the U.S. and Canada for three years which gave him a new love for Vienna from an outsider's perspective. He headed the Vienna branch of the San Francisco based food app Yelp for the past six years, making him a prime source of insider knowledge on new restaurants hidden bars. He authored the Guide Book Vienna for Germans (2017) and made the short list (2015) and long list (2016) for the "Wortlaut" short fiction contest, tweets at @an_rainer