I Spent a Week Riding Absolutely Everywhere on a Segway
From tourist spots to a meeting at the office, I wanted to understand whether being on a Segway feels as ridiculous as it looks.
All photos: Viktoria Grünwald
This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
Riding a Segway is a bit like having sex with your socks on, and it is undoubtedly the most ridiculous-looking way to go to town. There's nothing elegant or attractive about people on Segways, bumping along the streets of our cities, looking like stick figures riding vacuum cleaners. But there are so many of them around that surely there must be something to it? If it's not sexy at all, then at least it might be comfortable?
I was recently struck by the curiosity to find out whether that's the case, or whether riding on a Segway feels as ridiculous as it looks. So for an entire week, I went everywhere via Segway—regardless of the destination, weather, or time of the day. The only recorded death by Segway so far is that of the former company owner James Heselden. So I felt confident that very little could go wrong.
Day 1: Balance Sensors
Stepping on a Segway for the first time feels a bit like strapping into a roller coaster at an ancient, low-budget theme park. This is totally fine! I think to myself, unconvinced. The Segway man explains how balance sensors and dynamic stabilization work and everything seems perfectly simple to me, in principle. Between my ankles, five green lights flash in a hypnotic circle. "If they light up evenly, you're good to go," the guy tells me as I stare at the warning sticker above the lights that depicts a stick man falling backward with the disclaimer: "Risk of death."
Ten minutes later, I'm rolling through the center of Berlin. The controls are pretty straightforward: Tilt your hips in the direction you want to go and center your weight to remain stationary. As soon as you learn how to drive a Segway, you quickly realize why it looks so ridiculous. The stiff, robotic movements, the rattling sound that's reminiscent of pulling a roller blind down too quickly and, of course, the helmet.
At Checkpoint Charlie, I weave through the crowds of tourists the best I can. The Segway can go about 19km per hour [11 MPH], but since I'm still feeling a bit unstable and operating a vehicle that requires a big swing of the hips rather than a brake pedal to come to a complete stop, I make my way through the less crowded neighborhoods of east Berlin at a slow and steady pace.
As I roll, I'm being stared at by kids and adults and every other variation of sentience. On one street, I look directly into the cold, leering eyes of a French bulldog squatting next to a fire hydrant. Its owner stops mid-poop-scoop to gawk at me.
Day 2: The Commute
It's 8 AM on a Monday morning. The iconic Berliner Fernsehturm television tower is veiled in fog and the streets are brimming with cyclists on their way to work. Normally, I'd take the underground train to work, but today I'm on the Segway, which forces me to quickly come to the realization that I have no idea how to get to work when traveling above ground. I put the address into my phone, stuff it into my pocket and get going.
There's just one problem: I'm moving too fast for pedestrians to ride on the pavement and too slowly to join the street traffic. In the bike lane, cyclists furiously ring their bells at me as I travel at the speed of a wounded turtle. On top of all this, I'm lost—my mobile navigation app is completely overwhelmed by my movements and I spend ten minutes looking for the right exit on one big square alone.
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After another ten minutes, I completely give up on my phone. It's -2 degrees [28 degrees Fahrenheit], my brain is turning into mush, I'm standing on a fucking Segway, too lost to move. I want to laugh in despair, but I've lost control of my face muscles, frosty as they are.
Seeing as I'm already late for work anyway, I decide to roll along the canal instead. Tourists saunter along the banks as I use this spontaneous morning out of the office to test the limits of my Segway. Could I win a race against a seagull? No. Will turning around in a circle too quickly make me puke? Surprisingly, no. How quickly will I lose balance if I blindly reverse? Very quickly.
Day 3: The Berlin Wall
Given how much tourists love getting around Berlin on Segways, I decide to see what the fuss is about and hop on the Segway to take in my city's main attractions. Our first stop is the East Side Gallery, where I roll alongside what remains of the Berlin Wall. Since the Segway has no shock absorption, a small part of my nervous system dies with every pothole I hit. I stop in front of the infamous kiss mural where about 20 people are waiting patiently and no one seems impressed by my presence and the fact that I'm slowly wheeling toward this piece of prime tourist real estate.
My next goal is to ride under the Brandenburg Gate, where I've never been, despite having lived in Berlin for several years. Nearby, I find a naked man on a bike, arms outstretched to the sky, his hands forming peace signs. "I appoint myself as the German emperor! Germany for the Germans!" he cries. He's not completely naked, in fact—he's wearing hiking boots and a blue sock with a picture of an elephant, on his his penis.
His bicycle is flanked by two German flags and a homemade peace dove made of cardboard. About 30 onlookers have formed a crowd around him—tourists, rickshaw drivers, a small Asian man in a zebra costume, and an Elvis impersonator. I feel confident here like no one is watching me. Instead, the elephant's trunk draws the crowd's attention. Maybe Brandenburg Gate is a safe space for Segway riders, as long as there's someone freakier hanging around.
Day 5: Segway Yoga
Last night I dreamed of Segways. I was riding downhill but the brake wasn't working, and just as I was about to drive off a cliff I woke up. Even when I'm wide awake just having breakfast, I can't get Segways off my mind. I constantly feel like I'm swaying from side to side.
I might as well get back on it, so I throw on some sportswear and make my way to a nearby park. I've recently read about something called bike yoga—a craze that started a few years ago where riders twist themselves into the lotus position while seated on their bikes. There's even a group here in Berlin that's offering courses.
Since Segway yoga doesn't exist (yet!) I decide to improvise with what I've got. I ride freehand and extend my arms out in front for core strength, then I give my hands a good stretch to improve flexibility. Through Segway Yoga™ I feel a strong energy flow between me and my vehicle.
This new, healthier version of myself should involve a well-balanced and nutritious diet, so once I finish up my workout I head to a fruit-and-veg market, where vendors sell their wares from colorfully striped tents. I exchange friendly greetings with some retirees, while others throw me disapproving looks.
"Well isn't that something! But how do you prevent yourself from toppling over?"
"It balances on its own," I respond. "Automatically!"
"I see! Isn't it amazing what they come up with these days!"
At one vegetable stand, I meet Deniz, a twenty-something with a full beard and a bomber jacket. "Woah, that's fantastic! I've always wanted to give one of those a try," he shouts out, before punching his colleague on the arm. But the fact that I'm driving his dream vehicle doesn't stop him from driving a hard bargain. When I ask him if he can give me a good deal for six clementines, Deniz's price remains firm, even after I offer him a ride around the market on my Segway.
Day 5: Work
As I make my way into the office on this crisp Thursday morning, I feel everyone staring at me. I play it cool and pretend like I don't notice them checking out my wheels. "What have you got there?" a colleague asks. I ride the Segway into the narrow, glass room where we have our morning meetings, and I'm faced with eight speechless editors. The tires make a squeaking sound as I roll across the room. As we discuss pitches and the key topics of the day, the motor gently purrs, just loud enough to drive everyone insane.
"Is that... part of the article?" my boss asks. "Can we turn it off, PLEASE?!"
After the meeting, our Editor-in-Chief approaches me. "Under normal circumstances, you would have been removed from that meeting," he says. "But... um... can I give it a try?"
Five minutes later, he's racing through the editorial office. He leans forward and speeds past desks, nearly knocking over shelves and crashing into crates. This goes on for about 20 minutes.
He proceeds to test out the fine motor skills. This man, who usually rips our articles and ideas to shreds within seconds, is now turning around in circles on a Segway in the middle of our office. "Woah, even if you go slowly it makes you really dizzy," he tells me breathlessly. Tell me about it.
Now the entire editorial team wants to give it a try. Our social media editor asks if we can take it outside into the courtyard. Another colleague, who usually writes about gang crime in Berlin, sways his hips in a circular motion and gives his verdict: "Once you've tried it out for yourself it doesn’t seem so ridiculous anymore."
Day 6: Escape
It's time to get out of Berlin. As Vin Diesel taught me in Furious 7: "They say an open road helps you think. About where you've been and where you're going."
I speed right through the city, hugging the curb on the narrow patch of asphalt between the road and the pavement, where you're either in someone's blind spot or in the path of swinging car doors. As I ride past a cyclist towing his children along in a little trailer, I yell that he's going too slowly. The further behind me the city gets, the closer I am to freedom. The wind feels great on my face.
I stop only when I see the sun setting on the Brandenburg countryside. I've reached bus stop 256—the final stop before the great unknown, before true freedom.
The narrow streets are lined with apartment blocks and bungalows, just wide enough for a single car, or a Segway. There are no street names around here, just numbers.
A mother and a little boy in a blue coat emerge from one of these side streets. He points to me and asks, "Is that magic?" His mother continues to drag him along. "No, sweetheart, it's a Segway," she replies. "When you're a grownup, maybe you can have one, too."
I don't want to give the Segway back, I don't want to return to how it was before. I hold my hand up against the wind and light a cigarette, and reminisce about how this past week has shown me what true freedom is: riding on the pavement, even when it's not allowed.
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This article originally appeared on VICE DE.