I had high hopes for Fat Tire Bike Tours’ Raw Berlin Exposed Tour. I had seen all the main tourist sites in Berlin and wanted to go deeper. I also wanted to ride a bike after seeing how popular cycling is in Berlin, a city with amazing bike infrastructure.
The Raw Berlin Exposed Tour promised to show me the underbelly of Berlin, the side that’s familiar to locals but skipped over by most tourists on their way to the Brandenburg Gate and other over-hyped tourist attractions.
It was 10:05am on a Tuesday and I was running late. Only after the tram doors closed did I realize I hadn’t bought a ticket, though in all fairness there wasn’t a vending machine on the street platform. Bad things apparently happen to people caught without tickets, and my blood pressure surged every time I saw anyone remotely resembling a fare inspector at the next stop. The tram doors opened onto Alexanderplatz at 10:29am.
I dashed to the Fat Tire Bike Tours bike shop/office on the side of the Berlin TV Tower. “Can I help you?” bellowed a voice in an English accent from behind me. “I’m here for the 10:30 Raw Berlin Tour. Is there still room?”
About a dozen people were waiting for the Raw Berlin Tour when I joined them outside in front of the TV Tower. We hung out for another 15 minutes waiting for stragglers. At €24 a pop, it’s expensive to leave customers behind.
Our tour guide, Tom, was a tall and lanky English chap donning skin-tight jeans. He asked for a volunteer to be his “rear-end-man.” Since the group was so big – we numbered 16 by the time we left – he needed someone to stay in the rear and make sure nobody got dropped. “You’ll get a free beer and a mystery gift if you volunteer.”
I took Tom up on his offer and regretted it most of the tour. The tour was advertised as “suitable for all fitness levels” and some people took that to mean that cycling skills are optional. There were customers clearly hadn’t ridden a bike in decades, if ever at all. It was painful to tail behind a woman who couldn’t steer or pedal faster than three times a minute.
In an ideal world, Fat Tire Bike Tours would make sure people know how to ride bikes before letting them on the tour, but that would scare away customers. At the very least, they should beef up the safety briefing to include some basic etiquette such as looking before entering roadways, trying to keep one’s bike straight and not riding three-abreast on narrow roads. If I lived in Berlin I’d probably say that Fat Tire Bike Tours is a total nuisance if not an outright hazard.
Tom clearly knew his stuff but he spoke far too quietly. I couldn’t hear him much of the time and had to squeeze my way to the front of the crowd. He’d also start talking before the whole group had caught up so those of us in the rear would miss out on some good bits.
As for the sights, I really enjoyed the places we visited. My favorite stops were a former train station-cum-street food/music park, and the former Tempelhof airport. Unfortunately we didn’t spend more than 15 minutes at either place, but I can always go back on my own and linger.
We stopped at a Turkish market for lunch. Most of the market is focused on selling fruits and vegetables rather than prepared food, but the food is good and cheap once you find it.
Don’t get me wrong, I really did enjoy myself and made a new friend on the tour. I love bicycles and Berlin is an extremely bike-friendly city: it’s flat, there’s great bike infrastructure, and drivers are much more considerate than in America. It’s hard not to have a good time on a bike in Berlin, and I’d recommend every visitor try it out.
Our group was way too big. 16 is a lot of people. It was hard to stay together, and extremely awkward trying to cram 16 bikes at some of the stops.
It would have also been helpful to be given a map of the tour in case anyone got lost, or if we wanted to return to any of the sites ourselves. Despite my gripes, I’d probably still do the tour if I hadn’t been on a bike yet in Berlin. It was a good introduction to biking in the city, and I wouldn’t have found many of the sites on my own.
So what was the mystery prize for being Tom’s rear-end man? My own piece of the Berlin Wall. And a bottle of beer from the office fridge, which I gave to a fellow tour mate.