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Fixed-gear bikes spark police crackdown in Berlin

They’re sleek, fast and illegal in Germany: fixed-gear bicycles. Marc Young reports on how trendy fixie riders have sparked a police crackdown in Berlin.

Fixed-gear bikes spark police crackdown in Berlin
Photo: Andy Armstrong

In a country where cyclists are expected to have a working bell on their bikes, it was probably only a matter of time before fixies fell afoul of the law in Germany.

Evolved from indoor track bikes with no gears and brakes, fixies have long been favoured by couriers and other cycling enthusiasts in big cities around the world. But a surge in popularity in Germany has prompted an unprecedented backlash by traffic cops in Berlin in recent months.

“Interest in fixies has exploded in the past two years,” said Dustin Nordhus, owner of the Cicli Berlinetta bike shop in central Berlin. “Everyone sitting in an office all day thinks they’re cool these days.”

Nordhus has filled his shop with gorgeous high-end racing bikes that are street legal, but he also makes custom track bikes for a growing market of fixie riders.

Since there’s no freewheel on a fixie, the pedals continue to rotate as long as the bike is moving forward. This means the rider either has to slow the bike by fighting the momentum or brake by locking up the back wheel to skid to a stop.

Seeing what they considered a growing danger to traffic safety, Berlin police announced this spring they would begin cracking down on fixie riders. Since only April, they’ve confiscated 18 bicycles.

“Fixies have become a real problem,” Rainer Paetsch, a Berlin police official for traffic issues, told The Local. “It wasn’t a hunt, but we decided to do something to undercut this trend.”

To get their bikes back, cyclists have to pay a fine and convince the authorities they won’t ride them on the street anymore – or at least show an inclination to install brakes on them.

“For all I care they can ride them in their backyards,” Paetsch joked. “We just want people to realise it’s too risky to ride them around the city. Then we’ll be content that we’ve helped improve traffic safety.”

Excessive enforcement?

But one rider who lost his bicycle last month said the police were taking the issue too far.

“This criminalisation is completely overdone,” Stefan, a 30-year-old bike courier, said on the edges of European Cycle Messenger Championship in Berlin in early June. “I was stopped by eight or nine cops who looked totally bored. I tried to tell them they were taking away how I make my living, but they didn’t seem to care.”

As an experienced track cyclist, he said riding a fixie actually made him more aware while negotiating city traffic. But he admitted many people are now buying fixies just because they’ve become cool.

“It’s the trendiness that’s the real problem,” Stefan said, adding that he was slapped with an €80 fine and three points on his driver’s licence for traffic violations.

But Benno Koch, Berlin’s official ombudsman for bicycle issues, said all the hype surrounding fixies had left the police with little choice but to crack down.

“I’ve been getting lots of calls from worried fixie riders,” he told The Local, explaining that he had been able to defuse the situation somewhat by hammering out the conditions cyclists can get their confiscated bikes back.

Koch admitted that most of the city’s hundreds of fixie riders were probably excellent cyclists, but warned others from joining the fixed-gear trend.

“The people that ride these bikes have to know what they’re doing,” he said. “And in my opinion fixies really ruin your knees. You’re not young forever, how far do you really want to follow the hype?”

But anyone still choosing to hop on their fixie in Berlin might want to consider getting a brake installed soon – the police will start their next round of citywide traffic checks in July.

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WILDFIRES

‘Unprecedented’: How explosions and fires have rocked Berlin’s Grunewald forest

An "unprecedented" fire broke out on Thursday around a German police munitions storage site in a Berlin forest. Here's how events unfolded and the reaction.

'Unprecedented': How explosions and fires have rocked Berlin's Grunewald forest

What happened?

Emergency services were called out after explosions were heard in the ‘Grunewald’ forest in western Berlin in the early hours of Thursday morning. 

It then emerged that a fire had broken out near a police munitions storage site, all on one of the hottest days of the year when temperatures were forecast to reach around 38C in the German capital. 

As explosions continued at the site, sending debris flying into the air, firefighters weren’t initially able to get near the flames to extinguish it. Emergency services set up a 1,000-metre safety zone around the area.

This aerial photo taken by the Berlin Fire Brigade shows the fire in Grunewald.

This aerial photo taken by the Berlin Fire Brigade shows the fire in Grunewald. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Berliner Feuerwehr

Later on Thursday afternoon, Berlin fire brigade spokesman Thomas Kirstein said the situation was “under control and there was no danger for Berliners” but that the fire was expected to last for some time.

No one has been hurt by the fires. Around 250 emergency workers were deployed to the site.

READ ALSO: Blasts ring out as forest fire rages in Berlin’s Grunewald

How was the fire being tackled?

The German army (Bundeswehr) was called in. They sent a tank aimed at evacuating munitions at the affected storage site as well as remote-controlled de-mining robots, while drones circled the air to assess the emergency.

Water cannons were also deployed around the safety zone to prevent the fire from spreading.

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey interrupted her holiday to visit the scene, calling the events “unprecedented in the post-war history of Berlin”.

Giffey advised people in Berlin to close their windows but said the danger was minimal as there were no residential buildings within a two-kilometre (1.2-mile) radius and so no need to issue evacuation orders.

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey speaks at the scene of the forest fire on Thursday

Berlin mayor Franziska Giffey speaks at the scene of the forest fire on Thursday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Wolfgang Kumm

“It would be much more difficult if there were residential buildings nearby,” she said.

What caused the blaze?

That’s still unclear. Police say they are investigating what started the fire exactly. 

The store in question holds munitions uncovered by police, but also unexploded World War II-era ordnance which is regularly dug up during construction works.

Giffey said local authorities would “have to think about how to deal with this munitions site in the future and whether such a place is the right one in Berlin”.

Is Grunewald a popular site?

Very much so. The sprawling forest on the edge of Berlin is home to lots of hiking trails and is even near some popular lakes, such as the Krumme Lanke. It’s also near the Wannsee and Havel river. 

Map shows where the fire broke out in Berlin's Grunewald

Map shows where the fire broke out in Berlin’s Grunewald. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa Grafik | dpa-infografik GmbH

Authorities appealed for the public to avoid the forest, which is regularly visited by both locals and tourists.

Deutsche Bahn said regional and long-distance transport was disrupted due to the blaze.

A part of the Avus motorway between Spanischer Allee and Hüttenweg was also closed in both directions, as well as Kronprinzessinnenweg and Havelchaussee, according to the Berlin traffic centre.

Aren’t forest fires and strong heat causing problems elsewhere?

Yes. Authorities on Thursday said no firefighting choppers were available as they were already in use to calm forest fires in eastern Germany.

However, they also said the 1,000-metre safety zone applied to the air, so there was a limit to how useful it would be to drop water on the fire from above.

The German capital is rarely hit by forest fires, even though its 29,000 hectares of forests make it one of the greenest cities in the world.

Brandenburg, the region surrounding Berlin, as well as parts of eastern Germany have for days been battling forest fires.

Parts of Germany were also recently hit by forest fires during heatwaves this summer. 

Temperatures were expected to climb as high as 40C across parts of Germany on Thursday. However, it is set to cool down on Friday and thunderstorms are set to sweep in from the west.

With reporting by AFP’s David COURBET

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