“Push your legs out, like you’re ice skating,” said Peter Rossteutscher, who was advising me on how to best power a replica of the first “bicycle,” which was not yet equipped with pedals. While gracelessly stomping my feet onto the ground, I barely managed to turn the wooden steering bar in time to make a wide, arcing turn, grateful that this test ride was confined to a paved courtyard.
A mile away and some 200 years earlier, Karl Drais, 32, had set out atop a similar two-wheeled-and-wooden contraption he had designed as an alternative to horse-drawn wagons. He had chosen the only navigable road out of town, nonetheless rutted by carriage wheels, and went on a round trip of about nine miles — “the first bike tour in history,” joked Rossteutscher, who is working with the city to organize a summer of bikerelated events honoring the bicycle’s bicentennial.
Drais’s “laufmaschine,” or “running machine,” which was launched on June 12, 1817, is considered to be the first means of human-powered, two-wheeled transport and the archetype of not only the bicycle but also the automobile. Credit for that came from another Mannheim resident, Karl Benz, whose motorized, three-wheeled invention of 1886 borrowed from bicycle technology.
While the Benz name became known internationally for luxury cars, Drais was not so fortunate. Initially, his invention, also known as a velocipede and dandy horse, was too expensive for common folk and was derided as a toy for the wealthy. At the same time, velocipedes were quickly banned from the city’s few roadways, relegating them to a second-class status that will ring true to today’s cyclists. In Mannheim, they were cordoned off in the palace garden.
Furthermore, Drais saw his design copied and improved upon by others. (He’s also credited with inventing the earliest typewriter with a keyboard in 1821 and other handy devices.) Later, he was shunned as a political radical and died penniless in 1851.
By the time I met with Rossteutscher for a spin and to loosely follow Drais’s inaugural journey, I had become well-versed in the history of the bicycle at the city’s sprawling, industry-minded Technoseum. It always features a small space dedicated to Drais and the bicycle, but through June 25 has a much larger exhibit to coincide with the anniversary.
I also cycled a bit on my own a day earlier to explore Mannheim, which retains an air of industriousness (not to mention whiffs of cocoa from a chocolate factory) aided in part by its location at the confluence of the Rhine and Neckar rivers in Germany’s southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. Thanks to housing one of the continent’s largest inland ports, Mannheim is the base for many multinational companies, including John Deere’s largest factory outside of the United States.
While all this industry doesn’t translate into a postcard-pretty city, a little scratching at the surface uncovers an interesting (and sometimes edgy) mix of people and places.
The city’s most famous building is the Mannheim Baroque Palace, said to be the largest in Europe after Versailles in France. Most of its 500-plus rooms are now used by the University of Mannheim (with 11,000 students), but a few remain preserved and furnished in original 1720 style. At the museum in the heart of the busy campus, visitors can climb the grand staircase to view several rooms with gorgeous, ornate plaster ceilings, fine furniture and treasured musical instruments. For more baroque splendor, the nearby 18th-century Jesuitenkirche, or Jesuit Church, is worth a look. Another famous spot is the 200-foot-high water tower, which was completed in 1889 and is surrounded by manicured gardens and a sprawling art center (Kunsthalle), which is receiving an ultracontemporary overhaul and is set to reopen in December.
Mannheim’s downtown, dating to 1607, is laid out in a quirky chessboard grid, with letters and numbers based on a street’s position in relation to the palace, hence its nickname “the City of Squares.” For instance, town hall is E5, city hall is N1 and the new upscale shopping mall is geographically named Q6 Q7.
Bargain shoppers head to “Little Istanbul” in the western city center, which especially draws crowds to its bridal shops because of their low prices and elaborate designs.
My favorite area, gentrifying at a snail’s pace, is Jungbusch, where mostly Eastern European immigrants coexist with hipsters, rockers, artists and, on weekends, partying students visiting the area’s bars and restaurants. Along a canal bordering the neighborhood is the nationally famous Popakademie, a school focusing on the popular-music industry; C-Hub, a new creative work center; and the Port25 art gallery.
One of the first of a new wave of businesses to open in Jungbusch was the vegetarian-vegan restaurant Kombuse, co-owned by Idaho native and local booster Jon Sternberg, who moved there in 2004.
“Mannheim is an industrial city, which is a little romantic in a way, and not touristy,” Sternberg said. “You meet cool people, and there’s a lot of artsy underground stuff that you wouldn’t expect to find.”
Sternberg helped start the city’s monthly “critical mass” rides, at which cyclists draw attention to their needs.
Ironically, Mannheim isn’t what you’d call bike friendly, though Rossteutscher and others are working to improve the infrastructure and are using the bicentennial to push for a few much-needed bike lanes along major arteries. A popular bike-share system, started in 2015, has boosted the number of cyclists.
Rossteutscher convinced me to not follow Drais’s route, as the onetime carriage road is now the main artery out of town. Instead, he started the tour in the former garden, recently adorned with clever bike-themed posters by Mannheim-based street-artists’ collective Zebrating. We then followed the Rhine to a beach outside the city and, after skirting the port, we paid homage to Drais at his inaugural turnaround point. It is marked with a modernist, bicycle-shaped sculpture, which was erected in 2003.
We ended the ride on a bike trail along the Neckar, just beyond the 100-acre Luisenpark, which combines a botanical garden, zoo and recreational park. Rossteutscher had packed a couple of Mannheim-branded Radlers (the word for cyclist in the Bavarian dialect) — a low-alcohol beer-lemonade mix. We clinked our bottles in a toast to Drais, who was finally getting his due.
Daniel is a freelance writer based in the Netherlands. Her website is bydianedaniel.com.
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Radisson Blu Hotel, Mannheim
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A popular rock-themed boutique hotel near the Mannheim train station. Rooms from $97.
Henriette Burger Bar
This hip burger-and-fry joint became an immediate hit when it opened in Jungbusch late last year. Burgers from $7.50.
Kombuse Bar and Cafe
The Jungbusch pioneer remains popular for its veggie-vegan dishes and cool vibe. Sandwiches, burritos and veggie burgers from around $5.
Emma Wolf Since 1920
A much-heralded recent arrival, with a Michelin chef at the helm. Located at the Q6 Q7 mall. A three-course prix fixe dinner starts at $53.50.
Mannheim Baroque Palace
Most of the space in this 18th-century palace is used by the University of Mannheim, but visitors may view a few well-preserved spaces and their furnishings. Adults, $7.60; students and children ages 6 to 15, $3.80; ages 5 and younger free.
The museum, which includes a permanent bicycle exhibit, brings the history of industrialization to life. Through June 25, the special exhibit “2 Wheels — 200 Years” traces the technical and cultural history of cycling. Adults, $8.75; students, $5.50; ages 5 and younger free.
Bike bicentennial events
On June 10 and 11, the Monnem Bike Festival (Monnem is a nickname for Mannheim) features bike parades, acrobats and other events. On Sept. 16, the Monnem Bike Show presents a multimedia event including theater, music and light in the courtyard.