Cycling in Germany – Rules, Hints and Tips
Last updated: 06 Aug 2020 / by Sam Williams
Germany may have a phenomenal reputation for the manufacturing of cars, but at its heart, it’s a country of bike-lovers.
Out of a population of 82 million, there are around 72 million bikes, so nearly every person in the country has their cycle ready and waiting.
Avoiding commuter traffic jams is one reason why many Germans have a bike. Cycling is a popular way to travel to and from work. However, for many it’s also a leisure pursuit with over 200 long-distance cycle routes crisscrossing all over the nation.
If you live in Germany, you’ll find that joining in the two-wheeled revolution is almost impossible to resist. Whatever you plan to use your bike for, our hints and tips will help you navigate those hypothetical potholes.
Before you even consider any other aspects of bike-riding, making sure you are safe should be your number one priority.
If you’ve ever ridden a bike in public before, many safety considerations will be second nature. However, if you’ve not been on the saddle since your schooldays, a refresher might be useful.
Here are some of the most important elements described by German Road Safety.
Getting your bike ready
Before you set out on your first trip, you should be certain that your bike is roadworthy. Your bike doesn’t need to be new as many second-hand bike shops sell used models that have been checked and approved as roadworthy.
A bike must have properly functioning pedals, brakes and a bell. It must also be lit up from both the back and the front, plus have reflectors. The reflector on the front should be white, and the reflector on the back should be red.
The tires and spokes on your bike should also be reflective. This ensures any vehicles who are approaching from the side will see you. If your tires or spokes are not reflective, the spokes must-have cat’s eye reflectors attached.
These are all mandatory requirements. If you attempt to use your bike without these requirements being met, prepared to be slapped with a fine if caught.
Don’t assume that you’ll get away without being noticed; in some cities, the police are particularly vigilant for cyclists who are skimping on safety.
This is especially the case in cities that have a reputation for being very accessible to bikes. North Rhine-Westphalia was voted as the best city in Germany for cyclists and the police keep a very close eye out for anyone breaking the law.
Wearing a helmet is up to you
The jury is out on whether wearing a helmet really helps when you’re cycling on the road. Some studies suggest that it doesn’t offer any more protection for high-speed impacts and isn’t needed for low-speed crashes.
There’s also a theory that wearing a helmet makes motorists behave differently around you, and take less care. It may also induce a false sense of security in the cyclist wearing the helmet.
Some cyclists won’t leave their home without wearing a helmet, others prefer not to wear one at all.
If you’re cycling in Germany, the law leaves it up to you to decide. You won’t face any penalties for not wearing a helmet on the roads even though the official guidelines recommend it.
One thing the experts all agree on is you’re expecting to go off-road or cycle on more challenging terrain, a helmet should always be worn.
Don’t cycle while under the influence of drink or drugs
There have been many campaigns worldwide about the dangers of drink-driving. Most people understand how dangerous it is to get behind the wheel of a car after drinking alcohol or taking drugs.
Cycling may seem like a great alternative, making it easy to get home after a couple of drinks.
However, in Germany, there are stiff penalties for cycling while under the influence. This may involve you attending court, paying a hefty fine and even receiving points on your driving license.
In short, cycling after drinking alcohol or taking drugs is a very bad idea in Germany!
Cycling with children
It’s not just adults who are encouraged to get on their bikes in Germany, it’s the whole family. This means even if you have young children, there is no reason you can’t all enjoy a day out on two wheels.
Children older than 10 years of age are expected to use the road or cycle lanes, just like an adult. Adults and children older than 10 years must not cycle on the pavement.
Below the age of 8 years, children may cycle on the pavement. Between the ages of 8 and 10, the child can decide where they prefer to cycle.
If your child attends school in Germany, they will have the opportunity to have a bicycle training course. There are also traffic schools in many German cities that allow the opportunity to safely practice moving around on the roads.
Rules around bike lanes
If you’re cycling and a bike lane is available, you are expected to use it. The only time you can use the road instead is if there are obstacles in the way.
You may notice some cycle lanes have a sign that says “Gemeinsamer Geh- und Radweg“. This means that both pedestrians and cyclists use the lane so you’ll need to be extra vigilant.
Another common sign is “Getrennter Geh- und Radweg“. This means that you are sharing an area with pedestrians, but cyclists have their own dedicated lane. You should use the lane that the sign indicates. It may also be marked on the ground.
If you spot signs that say “Verbot für Radverkeh” or “Verbot für Fahrzeuge aller Art“, you must dismount. These signs mean No Cycling and No Vehicles of Any Kind.
Use the correct hand signals
Before changing the direction, you should give a clear hand signal so any surrounding traffic can anticipate where you are going. If you are planning on moving to the right, you just need to hold out your right arm, and similarly, your left arm for left turns.
This may sound obvious but, in some countries, the reverse arms indicate movement. For example, in Canada, holding out your left arm at a bent angle indicates a movement to the right!
Right before left rule
Although Germany drives on the right-hand side of the road, it’s far more than simply switching sides. They operate a system known as “right before left” which means all traffic must give way to other traffic traveling from the right.
In practice, this could mean a cyclist traveling down a street will have to stop periodically to allow cars to come from the front to have the right of way. This is different from many other countries where there are stop signs for the traffic joining from the right.
Stick to the right-hand side of lanes and overtake on the left
It’s easy to forget about other cyclists when you’re in a cycle lane but Germany is full of bikes and there may be others much quicker than you.
Don’t drift into the middle of the bike lane and hog all the room. Remember your manners and stick to the right-hand side of the bike land at all times. This allows others to overtake you on the left.
You should never overtake a cyclist on the right-hand side.
Touring in Germany – Hot Tips
Now you know the basics of staying safe while cycling in Germany, it’s time to look at some more specific tips. If you’re expecting to tour the country, there are some lifesaving hints which could help prevent a minor disaster.
Those who have cycled around Germany suggest:
Make sure you always carry cash – there are lots of places that don’t accept card payments.
- Don’t forget that many shops close early and don’t open on a Sunday.
- There probably won’t be as many campsites as you expect. It’s preferable to plan and book in advance.
- Learn some basic German phrases as in rural areas, not everyone will speak English.
- Take a paper map of your route. A paper map is worth the investment as it means you have a backup in case of mobile signal failure or a dead battery. It’s also much easier to plan longer routes in a group on a paper map.
- …but buy your maps before you set off! It’s surprisingly difficult to find places that sell maps as you go. German tourist offices tend to focus on accommodation rather than cycle routes.
- Nappy rash cream is fantastic for providing relief if you are saddlesore. Always have a small tub in your backpack!
Bikes and Public Transport
Although it’s perfectly possible to get around the whole country without leaving your saddle, there may be times when you plan on traveling by bus or train. This isn’t a problem as bikes are largely welcome on public transport.
Providing you buy a ticket, you can take your bike on German trains (apart from the Intercity Express trains where they only accept folding bikes).
Lots of stations provide excellent access for cumbersome touring bikes with ramps and other facilities. You will often find allocated spaces close to the train doors for you to stash your bike while traveling.
The facilities aren’t always ideal, however, especially at smaller stations. You may need to drag your bike up several steps to board the train, and the doorways may be narrow. To prevent missing your train, it’s advisable to unhook your panniers before the train arrives.
If you are ambitious enough to be on a tandem, these can also be accommodated on the same trains – but the ticket will cost twice as much.
You can also take your bike onto buses, even though this is rarely seen in Germany. It can be useful if your bike develops a fault or a puncture and you need to travel to the nearest repair shop.
Buses typically have space for up to three bikes. This limit is rarely – if ever – an issue as hardly anyone takes their bike on a bus. Just like a train, you will need to buy a ticket for each bike you take on board.
Long-distance buses won’t normally accept bikes on board but you may be able to get a private coach company to agree. If you need this kind of arrangement, speak to a local travel agency who can advise.
The commitment to long-distance cycle routes in Germany is impressive; with more than 200 routes, there’s no part of the country which is out of reach.
German cycle routes cover both cities and rural areas, so whether you’re commuting to work or sightseeing, there’s no excuse not to hop on the saddle.
Local and long-distance cycle routes are usually very well-marked which means they are easy to navigate around. There has been plenty of investment in the infrastructure in recent years, so the quality of the surfaces is good overall.
However, that’s not universally the case, as there are still some routes that need substantial improvement. Most of these are in east Germany, where roads can be narrow and frequently cobbled.
Poor cycle paths are the exception rather than the rule, but you may still encounter them occasionally.
The German tourism site can help you find the right cycle route. You can add filters that you particularly want, such as lakes or mountains. You can also specify child-friendly routes.
Although cycle routes are open all year round, they aren’t maintained. Therefore those in the most exposed areas may be icy and dangerous in freezing weather. Cycle paths undercover, such as those in forests, may be safer during the winter.
Looking for Inspiration?
There are endless destinations you can explore if you plan a cycling holiday in Germany, or even just a day trip.
If you’re looking for some ideas, here are a few suggestions:
- Mosel Valley. A very popular region dotted with charming villages and vineyards, the Mosel Cycle Route follows the river and is an easy path to travel even for novice cyclists.
The Baltic Coast. The Baltic Coast cycle path provides sensational views over the ocean and when you want to take a break, you’re not far from stunning white sandy beaches and private coves.
- The Elbe River. The Elbe River Trail is the most popular of all the cycle routes in Germany and follows the water from Hamburg to Dresden. The route is very flat from start to finish so it’s another good pick for families or newbie cyclists.
Protect Your Bike
Whether you plan on sticking to the cities or touring round the country, it’s important to make sure you keep your cycle secure. Because of the constant demand, bikes are extremely hot property in Germany and there are many thieves constantly on the lookout for opportunities.
Locking your bike may make you feel secure, but there is a network of accomplished bike thieves that are well prepared. Many come with bolt cutters and will simply snip open your lock and take your bike in a matter of seconds.
Of course, many people use bikes every day in Germany without suffering a theft, but the risk is nonetheless still present.
Some measures you can take to lower the chances of your bike being targeted include:
- Use two different types of lock on your bike, including one on the wheels as well as the frame preferably.
- Don’t park your bike at a dark, isolated or unlit bike rack. Keep moving and find somewhere else instead.
- Get a bike theft insurance. It’s cheap and it will bring you peace of mind even in trouble times.
- Check the bike rack for any signs of tampering. Stickers can be a sign that the bike rack has been cut through and then covered with stickers. Thieves can then return, lift off the top of the bike rack and take your locked bike away to free at their leisure.
- Try and choose a more expensive and attractive bike to lock yours next to. This will makes yours seem unappealing by comparison.
- If you aren’t using a bike rack, make sure that the pole is not removable. Some have a screw base that can easily be undone and the bike taken. Lampposts are often a good alternative option to bike racks.