This year I’ve made biking my main form of transportation, which means I’m almost sweating anytime I arrive somewhere. It also means I’m instantly hated by 60+ year-old Austrian woman, who—not incorrectly—see bikers as a direct and willing obstacle to their afternoon walks to the grocery store.
My bike, dubbed “Der Racer” by my roommate, is a road bike with London-Style North Road handlebars and down tube gear shifters. Though dulled by at least twenty years of ownership, on sunny days its frame still shines with a nearly timeless electric blue.
I thought I was being hosed when I bought it. He spoke with an Eastern European accent and kept making jokes about how I resemble a German Formula 1 racer.
“For you, special price. Top bike, special price.”
Still, I bought the bike. I think I bought it for three reasons. First, I romanticized the novelty of it. Second, it was practical for my commute. Third, buying a bike symbolized my full-fledged commitment to habituate myself to a city I had come to love.
Four years ago, I arrived in Vienna on a semester abroad and slowly oriented myself with public transportation. I made an arbitrary point of stopping at each station of the five underground lines. I could descend into the metro and emerge in any one of the city’s 23 districts. This was no longer enough. I wanted to ride by restaurants and roadside mattresses and statues of Goethe and mothers pushing strollers. I wanted to see the things that happened along the way, the things that flickered between the trees.
Occasionally I’ve been the “thing that happened along the way.” I once steered my thin tires into the crease of the streetcar tracks and rolled sideways over my handlebars in front of my barbershop. She smirked at me when I came in for a haircut the next week.
Three weeks later I was back in shop where I’d bought the bike. My bike had broken down while riding to church. The handlebars were loose and some weathered screws around the chainset had given way. Ten minutes into the service, I was still four kilometers away from the building with grease-covered hands, a scraped elbow, and a half-guilty conscience. My dad hadn’t even been allowed to ride a bike on Sunday; here I was, his oldest son, wiping the sweat off my brow trying to repair one. I was quick to recall the red-lettered words of Luke 14:5 in my mental quest for absolution.
“Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day, will not immediately pull him out?”
Despite my original prejudices, Mr. E of E & E Fahrräder was nothing but helpful. He fixed the screws, tightened the handlebars, and realigned the brakes so they hang underneath the handles. He did the last part because Sebastian Vettel’s doppelgänger deserves racing brakes, he said. These are the moments I’ve gained because of my bike.
But bike riding in Vienna hasn’t been the entirely habituating experience I expected. I’ve come to understand a distance that comes on a bike, a distance that can’t be eliminated, that reaches beyond the disdain of any 63 year-old woman. I can bike down each of Vienna’s alleys. I can scrape my elbow on any number of her streets. Still, the city will never be completely mine.
Tomorrow morning I’ll wake up in my apartment in the 17th district and bike to school, eastward to the city’s 3rd district. I’ll bike through my neighborhood, past the grayed apartment buildings and Kebab stands run by Turkish immigrants. I’ll be ride along the 1st district’s gilded Ringstrasse, past old men on their morning walks and underneath the looming Lindens and Norway Maples, lurching over me from each side.
This place and these people, I know now, are like me in a thousand ways and unlike me in a thousand more. Still I’ll be riding in a city I love, headlong into a rising sun.