Montreal, perhaps North America’s most bike-friendly big city, is finally looking at ways of making it easier for people to ride a bike through the winter. Here’s what we learned on a recent trip.
Montreal, perhaps North America’s most bike-friendly big city, is finally looking at ways of making it easier for people to ride a bike through the winter. Here’s what we learned on a recent trip.
So you think your city would benefit from more people riding bikes year-round? You want to encourage them to try riding in winter by staging an awesome mass event, full of fun and frivolity that shows people riding in winter can be enjoyable, safe and sane? And you like parties?
Then here’s some lessons for you, courtesy of the Lune D’Hiver, or Winter Moon ride, staged this week in Montreal by Velo Quebec. I was invited to take part in the event, and came away with a few ideas from a city that excels at hosting mass bike parties. Here are a few.
Those massive fields of ice aren’t going to clear themselves.
Sure, you could just throw a bunch of people onto the streets with their bikes and have a ball. Or you could get serious and close streets, encourage people of all types to take part, advertise weeks in advance and, most importantly, make sure the streets are cleared of snow and ice.
Granted, Montreal has its share of problems when it comes to plowing, but after a week of snow and ice storms, look at the mess city workers had to clear early in the day to prepare for Lune D’Hiver. Your city has no excuse.
If it’s winter, and it’s night, you need lights. Encourage participants to light up the night, with their bodies and bikes. This sweet number was just the loaner I was given for the event, and even it was blinking like a kid at the optometrist. Other participants had their entire bikes bedecked as rolling beacons of light.
Yeah, that’s a Christmas tree. And it’s February.
The last thing you want at a winter-bike event is to have in comprised completely of a bunch of people who fit the stereotype of a winter cyclist: young(ish), athletic(ish) men who define themselves as winter cyclists. In other words: dudes like me. Nobody wants that.
To make your event a success, make sure you get everybody else to take part: Young, old, children, the elderly. All genders and colours. Diversity is the key to a good event, and to a healthy population of winter cyclists.
OK, now that Lesson 3 is out of the way, don’t forget to appeal to those die-hards who have pioneering winter cycling for years, and who rode without the benefit of things like bike lanes, snow removal and fun mass rides. Guys like my new friend Claude. These guys rule.
Because you can’t have a fun event if its organized by a bunch of urban planners and traffic engineers.
I know it’s asking a lot to plan your event so that it ends at an outdoor electronic music festival that is beloved by citizens, draws thousands of people, most of whom are young, attractive and dressed as if going to a rave in Reykjavik, offers warm drinks (and drinks to warm you), food trucks, light shows, an ice bar and more. Like Montreal’s Igloofest. But you could try.
1. I like winter. I like the consciousness of it, how it demands attention. Everything else in our life is always being made more convenient. Not winter. Winter will not bow to your busyness.
2. I like being forced to slow down. In the summer, I always feel like I can never ride fast enough. In winter, whenever I go too fast, a patch of ice reminds me that, no matter where I’m going, arriving 30 seconds earlier will not improve my life meaningfully enough to accept the risk.
3. I remember being at a house party late one night during a particularly brutal cold snap. As we opened the door and the cold slapped our faces, I remember thinking that, if we had chosen the wrong jacket, or took a wrong turn somewhere, we might die on the way home that night. It somehow made me feel closer to everyone else at the party. But I had been drinking whisky for several hours, and everyone looked at me funny when I told them. We decided to walk home.
4. I like the getting dressed for a winter bike ride. Remember that scene in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando, where he gears up to invade the island to rescue Alyssa Milano by applying black makeup to his biceps and jamming a knife into a scabbard? That’s how I feel, except with a toque I got for free from a hotel.
5. I like laying fresh tracks in snow. It feels like a base human instinct, something buried in the reptilian part of our brain. Sometimes I go out of my way to lay fresh tracks in snow, but it’s always worth it. Well, except when it makes me late for work.
6. On nights of fresh snowfall, street lights are reflected off the powder in a way that gives the city a warm orange glow. Snow muffles the sound. My pedalling keeps me warm, I can see my breath, and I cut fresh tracks in the powder. I love those moments, even with LED streetlights making the glow feel more blue than orange.
7. In the dark, which comes early in winter, it’s easier to see into the windows of the houses I pass. That sounds creepy, but I don’t mean it that way. Mostly, it’s just people watching TV. I like to see what they are watching. Usually, whatever they are watching makes me feel great because I’m outside enjoying my ride while they are indoors wasting their life. Unless they are watching Wipeout. Then I wish I was home watching it too.
8. The easiest part of winter cycling is staying warm. The hardest part is staying cool enough that you don’t sweat. Here’s where I go wrong: I worry about getting cold, so I dress in extra layers, which makes me too hot after I start pedalling, so I struggle to peel off layers and stuff them into my panniers without stopping because I don’t want to be late for work. Then, I arrive at work in a steaming T-shirt and a vow to stop overdressing. Repeat the next morning. Don’t be like me.
9. There was a time that I teased people who wore ski helmets while riding their bikes in the city. I thought they were being dramatic about the cold, and they looked ridiculous. Then, one morning, I tried it. I don’t tease them any more.
10. One of the great joys of bicycle commuting is passing lines of cars stopped in traffic. I admit it’s a smug kind of pleasure. This is even more satisfying in winter because the tailpipe exhaust adds dramatic tension to the scene.
11. When I first started riding a bike on city streets, I worried about taking the lane, which is an expression that means riding in the middle of the road instead of near the curb. In winter, the curb lane is often filled with snow, so taking the lane is sometimes required. For a long time, I didn’t like doing this because I felt guilty for slowing the cars behind me. I no longer have that guilt. I don’t know why, but I like it.
12. People think you must be stout and hardy to ride a bike in winter. You don’t. I try to tell them that, but they think I’m being modest and self-deprecating. After this happens several times, I’ll agree with them and sarcastically exaggerate how difficult it is. They usually don’t recognize it as sarcasm, and instead walk away feeling satisfied that their world view has been confirmed.
13. If somebody tells me they hate winter, I often ask why. Frequently, they say they hate winter driving. Some say they feel trapped indoors. Car commuting exacerbates both of these problems. Riding a bike fixes them.
14. Science says being outside is good for your brain and body, even if you don’t particularly enjoy that outdoor time on a windy and cold winter day. Riding a bike makes your life better, even if it’s sometimes hard.
15. I like how riding a bike in winter has changed my perspective on winter. Before I rode regularly, fresh snowfall and cold weather made me shudder. Now, I look forward to those days because it means the city will be prettier and the odds of a passing car throwing salty mud onto my face are reduced.
Why are two icons of the Canadian automobile industry pouring resources into the creation of a electric bicycle being sold around the world?
For Frank Stronach and Fred Gingl, two Canadians who powered Magna into one of the world’s strongest auto-parts companies, the answer is simple: The future.
In the late 2000s, the pair, through Magna, purchased BionX and honed the company’s electric-bike-drive system. The system, which is integrated into the bike’s rear wheel and is powered by a battery affixed to the frame, offers an electric assist to the pedaling rider, and can now be found on e-bikes all over the world.
But in late 2016, the pair took the idea further in the form of a complete bike. The Elby is a high-end integrated e-bike that Gingl has high hopes for, not just as a business venture, but in helping push a fundamental change in our transportation system.
“I’ve always wanted to change how we get around, even from my early days in the automotive industry,” Gingl wrote to me in an email. “The bike is an inherently efficient mobility solution with so many health benefits for the individual, not to mention the way it eases traffic congestion and abates pollution for us all.
“It’s been tried and true for over 100 years, but if we could work to build a bike with an adaptable, regenerative drive system, we could make it a convenient option for everyone, not just an efficient option. And if we can make it convenient, we can really change how we move from point A to point B.”
That ambition is obvious in the Elby. I’ve ridden e-bikes before, but none feel as complete. The machine feels like it was designed from scratch as an electric model, not a traditional bike supplemented with a motor.
Still, the big question remains: Will the Elby be the model that breaks through the North American market? E-bikes are already ubiquitous in China, and they are quickly being adopted in some European markets, after years of skepticism there. But in North America, reaction to the promise of e-bikes has always been an enthusiastic “meh.” Sales are on the rise, but they remain small.
The bike sure nails one of the requirements for North American tastes: Tech. Comparing the Elby to other brands is a bit like comparing an iPhone to an old Blackberry. When the Velofix mechanic who showed me the bike — the mobile bike shop has a deal to deliver and service Elbys — called it the “Tesla of e-bikes,” he wasn’t far off.
Gadgetry flows through nearly every part of the bike. Most importantly is the electric-assist motor. You can set it to four levels, depending on how much help you need. It also includes a throttle for those times when you’re feeling especially lazy. The motor tops out at about 30 km/h, to ensure it remains a bicycle in the eyes of the law in many jurisdictions.
The Elby also has a a mode that regenerates power from the back wheel to charge the battery, not dissimilar to an hybrid car. When descending a hill, tap it into regenerative mode to give the battery a jolt.
It’s powered by an on-board computer that can even be swapped out for your smartphone with a Bluetooth app that includes turn-by-turn navigation. That includes a USB port so you can charge your phone while you ride.
All that is pretty cool, but it’s all a bit secondary to the important part of any bike: How it gets you around.
On this, I found the Elby performs very well too. The 500 watt motor and range of 90 miles (144 kilometres) is bigger than most e-bikes, but I find this stat to be a bit of a non-starter. If you’re riding 150 kilometres in one go, kudos to you, but most commuters won’t go a fraction of that distance in a given trip. So in practice, that range means, basically, you need to plug it in for recharging less frequently.
With wide tires and nice stiff aluminum frame, the bike rides well, and it’s certainly an attention grabber. I had a few people cast a sideways glance at the step-through frame, but I like the design. Step-throughs are comfortable, easy to ride and criminally overlooked in North America. By building the hefty lithium-ion battery into the bottom of the frame, the Elby has a low centre of gravity that feels almost supernaturally stable (don’t test that too much, please).
Elby trumpets the toughness of the bikes, saying it was designed for all weather conditions. I certainly tested those claims, having given the bike a test through several weeks of the harshest winter we’ve faced in years. All in all, the bike held up well. The stable design and wide tires did well on ice roads and the snirt (for you sun-belters, that’s a slippery mixture of snow and dirt), and the pedal-assist certainly came in handy when plowing through small drifts of snow.
After years of having smartphones die in my pocket during -20 C commutes, I didn’t hold out much hope that the Elby’s battery would fare well in the cold, but it did surprisingly well. I certainly noticed a decline in longevity of the battery in such cold weather, but it never stranded me to pedal a 55-pound machine uphill all the way home without a little help. In fact, I came to reply on the pedal-assist so much that I had to start dressing warmer for my commutes, because I could no longer rely on my usual pedaling pace to warm my body from the inside.
Back to that big question: Will the Elby be the model that finally drags e-bikes in the mainstream? Perhaps, but it first needs to overcome a problem of value.
I don’t mean price. In a world of $10,000 carbon-fibre full-suspension mountain bikes, The 9-speed Elby’s $3,700 US price tag isn’t astronomical, especially among e-bikes, but it’s a lot to expect in a culture that doesn’t value utility bikes enough. That’s the cultural problem that needs to be overcome.
Part of that will be identifying those who can benefit most from e-bikes. It’s become a bit of a cliche to say e-bikes are a boon for older riders who have lost a step, but it’s true. It’s also true that e-bikes are ultra-practical, especially for commuters. And trips to the grocery store are a breeze with a good set of panniers.
This is the perfect time for e-bikes, which have been called the most environmentally friendly motorized machines ever devised. There’s a gap in most North American cities right now: As bike infrastructure is slowly built out, there are still long distances that many commuters must overcome to reach those bike lanes. The Elby can fill that gap.
“People have a greater understanding of the role technology can play in improving the quality of their lives, their communities, and the wider world. We’re aware of our impacts and want to be responsible with them, while also enjoying ourselves,” Gingl gold me.
“Elby’s the perfect solution for someone like that. Now all we need is safer commuting infrastructure to keep up with the abundance of electric vehicles that are about to hit the market.”
Calling everyone who rides a bike. In winter. And loves it.
We’re giving away two tickets to the world premiere of Bicicles, the Documentary, a look at winter cycling here in Calgary. Created by Calgary filmmaker Kim Kelln, the documentary follows the commutes of a cross-section of people on bikes through the Canadian winter.
If you’d like to win a pair of tickets to the premiere, which takes place Feb. 11 at the Globe Cinema in Calgary, send us a photo of your winter bike commute. We’ll choose a winner from the submissions.
Or, you can support the film the old fashioned way, by buying a ticket.
Here’s the trailer, which features snippets of an interview from yours truly.
— XtrnalCmprshnEngn (@CPThighside) January 20, 2017
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— Doug D (@coldbike) January 20, 2017
Via Kevin Schindel:
— 🚲❄BikeBike Inc.❄🚲 (@BikeBikeYYC) January 20, 2017
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— Darrin Searancke (@DarrinSearancke) January 20, 2017
A post shared by Darrin Searancke (@djsearancke) on
— Garfield Hiscock (@GarfieldHiscock) January 23, 2017
Thanks to everyone who submitted photos. It’s great to see so many people out there enjoying winter on two wheels. A random winner was chosen from the entries. Congrats to Kevin Schindel!
You’re fat off shortbread and turkey. The consumer orgy haze of Dec. 25 still lingers. You can remember nothing on New Year’s Eve after Mariah Carey. Sounds like the perfect time to start a new habit!
So here, future winter cyclist, are some suggestions to get you going in 2017.
When you’re staring out your window at blowing snow and icicles, it’s easy to talk yourself out of riding your bike. “It’s too cold,” or “It’s too slippery,” or “The elaborate series of mental defenses that I rely on to convince myself that winter doesn’t exist have temporarily broken down.”
So your first resolution is to push through those nay-saying thoughts. Remember, there are easy ways to deal with the cold, snow and ice (warm clothes, well-chosen routes, and slowing down, respectively), and riding a bike to work in winter feels great, keeps you in shape, and makes the season a little less intimidating. You’ll almost never regret riding, but if you’re like me, you’ll kick yourself all day when you avoid riding on a day when you could have.
Sure, it’s great to commit to riding your bike more in winter, but there’s no reason to be a zealot. If the weather drops below where you feel comfortable riding, if the plows haven’t been to your neighbourhood yet, or if an overnight ice storm freezes your studded tires to your lawn, don’t feel pressured to ride. Take transit, car pool or drive your automobile. There’s nothing to be gained by punishing yourself. Even riding a few times a month during the winter is a win, so don’t feel guilty for taking days off. Keep it fun and realistic.
I get it. When you beat the elements on your bike and waltz into work with a steaming head and your feel-good pheromones raging, while everybody else is huddled against the cold and complaining, it’s tempting to brag. Your co-workers will encourage it by expressing disbelief that you’d be crazy-brave enough to ride in this weather. Resist the urge. You are not tough for riding a bike in winter. You are not exceptional. People do it all over the world every day. Bragging about it makes winter cycling seem like something reserved for macho athletes, not right-thinking norms who just want to get to work on time. Winter cycling will never get into the mainstream if everyone who does it brags about it. Stop it.
It’s a bike with monster-truck tires. It tears through powder. And it’s a blast.
Fat-biking has been one of the great bike-industry success stories of the past decade, and with every major bike maker now pushing multiple models, this is the time to try it. Rent a bike, and go find some snow-covered trails or some fresh powder in your ‘hood. Finish at a coffee shop for some apres-bike warmth. Even if you don’t regularly ride a bike for recreation, give one a try. It may change the way you think about your winter commute, and you’ll have fun.
Unless you are a cat burgler or Batman, the darkness of winter can be a challenge when riding a bike. The good news is that LED technology has made bike lights much more affordable and efficient than they once were. So buy them, share them, charge them, and use them, for your bike, your body and your wheels. The more the merrier. Here are my basic guidelines: Two white ones of the front, two red ones on the back (two lights, according to some studies, make it easier for motorists to judge your distance). Make sure they are pointing to the ground and not into the eyes of passersby. Refrain from blinking lights unless you feel the added visibility is absolutely necessary. Don’t rely on reflectors.
Choosing the right gear can make your winter commuting life easier. Fenders are great. Studded tires work wonders on ice. A good base layer of merino wool will keep you toasty. Decent gloves and footwear are important. Lights are key (see previous resolution). Making good choices in winter will just make your life easier.
Everything mentioned in resolution No. 7 stands, but let’s not go overboard. As much fun as it is, you don’t need to drop thousands of dollars on gear in order to ride a bike in winter. A junker of a bike may work better for you than a shiny new model because snow, salt and slush can quickly rust your components. Cheap old winter boots will keep your feed just as warm as those $600 fat-bike boots. A good pair of ski mittens may work just as well as those expensive pogies. I’ve used the same bargain-basement balaclava beneath my helmet for years. All kinds of great winter-bike gear is now available, thanks to the popularity of fat bikes, and it is certainly nice to have. But very little of it is essential. Just get out there and ride.
Somewhere in your office is a summer cyclist who longingly watches with envy as you ride your bike home through the snow. Alas, an irrational fear of winter is clogging the brain of that poor cyclist. Help that person. Offer a nudge. Explain how much you love riding in winter, provide some gentle advice, and deliver support until they feel comfortable. Don’t shame that person if they don’t do it because, well, nobody likes an asshole. But everybody likes that helpful and encouraging friend who inspires them.
Great bike cities all look the same in the summer — well build, safe and connected bike lanes inhabited by smiling, happy people on bikes. Winters, however, are different everywhere, so cities that are serious about becoming bike-friendly must adapt to local conditions. Encourage your city to help make it easier. The first step is to improve overall bike-friendliness. Advocate for improved policies, laws and funding for bike infrastructure. Once a good network of safe bike lanes is built, make sure the city is maintaining that infrastructure in the winter by plowing it efficiently, de-icing it when necessary, and, generally, taking the job seriously. Remember: If you plow it, they will come.
Winter can be dark. It can be cold. It can be harsh. But winter can also be a time of great beauty, pleasure and renewal. If you spend most of the season hiding from winter, you are unlikely to enjoy it, and even more unlikely to try riding a bike through it. So change your attitude. Find something you enjoy in winter — skiing, skating, a winter festival, walks in the snow, licking telephone poles — and commit to doing it. The more positive experiences you have in winter, the less you’ll feel intimidated by it. That is the first step to having a well-adjusted relationship with winter. You may never love it, but if you move beyond hatred and dread, your life will be much better. And someday, you may find yourself riding a bike through it.
Monday was a big day for Calgary. After an 18-month pilot project testing out a downtown network of separated bike lanes, city council voted to make the project permanent. It was a squeaker of a majority vote that approved the pilot project in the first place, so its permanence was never assured.
In the end, more city councillors voted in favour of keeping the network than approved the pilot project in the first place, which means several changed their votes in favour after seeing the bike lanes in action. “I was a person that didn’t support this in the beginning. I thought this was madness,” Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart told reporters after the vote. “But, to see how it’s evolved, and how it’s working and to see how people are starting to get the fact that this is shared public space.”
In a city known for suburban sprawl, a love of the automobile, and public works timidity (the city is still debating whether extra money should be spent to bury a commuter train line, even though its at-grade predecessor is regularly plagued by bad weather, tangled traffic, errant motorists who crash into it and, all-too often, pedestrians getting run over) installing an entire network of separated bike lanes all at once was a bold step. It could have easily backfired — opponents cited the costs, the disruption on downtown traffic, and the displacement of parking spaces, among other things, as reasons to hate the idea.
In the end, it seems that installing the entire network all at once worked because it offered up the big picture. It might have been easier politically to build the network one lane at a time, as most cities do, but the uptake on a lane with few connections would have been slow. In this case, dropping down a well-thought out network gave cyclists and would-be cyclists a broader peek at what a cycle-track network can do, and, more importantly, have them somewhere to go.
The network didn’t succeed because of its boldness. It succeeded because it was practical. But in the politically charged climate around cycling, boldness was needed to ensure it was functional.
It wasn’t smooth sailing for the entire network, and perhaps it never will be. One things that seemed to placate opponents on city council was assurances that the network will continue to be tweaked to fix problems that arise.
Such tweaking was one of the city’s best practices since the bike lanes were installed. During the 18 months of the pilot, city planners reconfigured conflict zones, rejigged transition points, and adjusted intersections. This was crucial to the network’s success, and to public support. If people feel that problems will be fixed, it tends to dial down the opposition.
Part of Monday’s decision was a re-investment in the network to focus on areas that still aren’t perfect. And, let’s face it, there are many of them. In fact, one of the more troubling aspects of the pilot project was the fact that the number of bike collisions on these routes actually increased, which was contrary to the experience of separated bike lanes pretty much everywhere else. It turns out that most of those collisions were minor, occurred early in the pilot project, and were mitigated (mostly) with some design tweaks.
That’s why tweaking is important. Let’s hope that attitude of constant improvement carries into the future.
The debate, both before and after the pilot project was installed, focused largely on numbers. Were there enough cyclists in the city to justify the expenditure? It’s a fair question, but before the installation, it was a chicken-and-egg scenario: how were we to know how many people would ride a bike before they were given a chance to ride?
As a result of that debate, the network became almost certainly the most scrutinized 6.5 km stretch of asphalt in the city’s history. There were more than 80 measures that were taken to judge the pilot project’s success, part of which was the installation of an array of automatic counters that post daily results to a public website.
This data was key to the debate throughout the project, probably because there was such uncertainty about it to begin with. Having solid, reliable data is key when such uncertainty exists.
Data is great, sure, but if the debate around Calgary’s bike-lane network proved anything, it’s that even data can be politicized.
Despite the 82 measures that were taken to gauge the success of the project, critics still found ways to poke holes in it. They said the wrong measures were taken, the data was manipulated, and the numbers were unreliable. For as much as good data is key, there’s also a risk of being over-reliant on numbers.
Safe cycling, or at least the perception of safe cycling, isn’t a completely data-driven exercise. Example: Cycling is, according to some studies, just as safe as walking or driving a car, but the perception among many would-be cyclists is that it’s dangerous. Part of what makes separated bike lanes work is that they are safe, sure, but also that they build the perception of safety. I’ve often said that riding in a safe bike lane is something you feel in your gut more than your head. They just feel better to ride on.
It’s difficult to quantify these social or psychological aspects in numbers, and they risk being lost if the emphasis is too much on cold, hard data.
Calgary’s cycling community spent much of the evening after the city council decision backslapping, and there is nothing wrong with celebrating. But let’s also avoid getting smug about this political victory. This is the first step in making Calgary a truly bike-friendly city, and much work remains. Despite the success of the pilot project, and the increases in the number of people riding, those numbers remain small. If this pilot project proved anything, it’s that there’s only slightly more than potential in Calgary right now. To turn that potential into people on bikes will take work: improving connections, solidifying the network, educating everyone in the city and improving safety. Let’s get on with it.
It’s not easy being an independent musician in Canada. The pay is low. Tours are difficult because of the long distances. The wolves sometimes stalk you.
OK, that last one may only apply to one musician in Canada: Felipe Gomez, a Chilean-born bass player living in Saskatchewan who has, for the past several years, been riding a bicycle to gigs all across Canada. I mean that literally: He has crossed Canada with his instrument on his back, across tens of thousands of kilometres, stopping for tiny gigs all along the way, once even being paced by wolves.
I met Gomez last year while participating in a snowy group winter ride on a cold Saskatoon afternoon. I wasn’t sure what to make of him when he first pulled up beside me and started chatting, recounting some unbelievable road stories behind a big smile in his accented English. When he told me he had recently returned from a bike-and-bass tour, as he calls them, of the far north, I was skeptical. When he said that included riding his bike up the Dempster highway, and the associated ice bridges, to the Arctic coast in the middle of winter, I was tempted to just pull away from this deranged liar.
But his stories kept coming, and he won me over with his infectious positivity and photographic evidence.
Now, at a time when most Canadian musicians are parking the touring van for the winter, Gomez is finishing up a snowy 4,000 kilometre journey through northern Saskatchewan, where he performed gigs and spoke at high schools that rarely see travelling musicians, and never on bicycles. It’s safe to say that Gomez may be the world’s most accomplished winter-bicycle travelling bass player.
“I have done about 14,000 kilometres in Canada so far. Nunavut is the only place I haven’t cycled yet,” Gomez recently wrote to me in a Facebook message from who-knows-where in northern Saskatchewan. “I’ve learned that, in geography, Canadians all live in really different terrains, but at heart they are quite similar: They are all proud of their land, and often really generous with food and offers of places where I can stay.”
Epic bike rides in Canada are hardly rare, but Gomez seems to approach the entire experience differently. He’s not out to prove anything. Rather, he strikes me as a true explorer, with a desire to see as much of his adopted country as he can, and meet people along the way through his music.
Throughout his journeys, he’s adopted an inspiring mantra, which he recounts in speeches in school auditoriums between music gigs. He encourages kids to be unafraid of failure as a way of taking the kinds of risks that make life richer.
“I’ve learned that it is OK to fail at something, but fear can’t be the one thing that makes decisions for me,” he says.
He’s also become an advocate for winter cycling, in a different way than the extreme athletes who tend to undertake such epic trips.
He says his long, cold journeys started innocently, when he asked a friend in the bike industry if it was possible to travel on a northern ice road by bicycle. “I guess I was hoping for him to tell me that I was crazy and don’t do it,” he said. Instead, the friend gifted him with a bike and said he should try it. “Next thing I know, I am cycling the Dempster highway in -20 C with my bass.”
Indeed, it’s difficult to complain about a cold weekday commute when Gomez posts a smiling photo of himself in a stark winter landscape that is 200 cold kilometres from the nearest town, followed by smiling photos from such isolated places as Stoney Rapids and Uranium City, Sask. In the hands of someone else, such posts might come off as humblebrags. From Gomez, it feels like he’s actually reveling in the experience.
“I’ve learned that you don’t have to be ‘hardcore’ or ‘extreme’ to do this. All you need if you are on the city is to jump on the bike,” he says. “I’ve been in communities in northern parts of Canada where people bicycle ice roads to go to work, with no special gear or even fat-tire bikes, just normal bikes.
“After a 10 minutes ride to work in a cold refreshing day, I promise you that you will have a way better day.”
Gomez says the more he rides, and the more he sees of Canada, the more he wants to share his story. He has an event planned in his adopted home town of Saskatoon on Dec. 14, and more journeys lie ahead of him.
“I want to share the beauty of this country, and invite kids and youth to explore the outdoors and live and active life,” he says.
It’s the zombie of urban issues. The idea that refuses to die: Bicycle licences. Cue blood-curdling scream.
For those feeling uneasy about the growth of cycling on our city streets, one knee-jerk response always seems to be the suggestion that bicycle licences can somehow fix whatever problems they think exist. I’ve written much about licences in the past, but the issue still gets raised regularly, including in my inbox.
So in response, here are reasons that I think bicycle licensing is a bad idea:
According to some opinion polls (and we know how accurate those are, right U.S. electoral college voters?), the idea of bicycle licensing is a popular one. But when you get a little closer to the issue, their reasons people support the idea vary. Is it to control scofflaw cyclists? Is it to raise money for bike infrastructure? Is it to register bicycles in case of theft?
With so many motivations, it’s difficult to determine which problem licensing is intended to fix. One of them? All of them? Because of that vagueness, proposals often strike me, not so much an argument in favour of licensing, as much as a scattershot attempt at finding some reason, any reason, to limit cycling.
If you feel like licensing can solve a true practical problem, then it’s worth discussing. But if you’re using bike licensing as a vague way of stopping something you don’t like, then your proposed solution is bound to be dumber than the sum of its parts.
Over the decades, many cities (including my own, which ended back in the 1970s) have tried to licence bicycles, for a number of reasons. Nearly all of them have failed because it’s really difficult to operate a bicycle licensing program properly. It’s logistically challenging, time-consuming and expensive. It tends to fall to police or firefighters to manage it, and they usually have better things to do. It also requires mass buy-in from the public, which has proven impossible in many places. That’s why so few cities do it anymore.
An example: In 2010, San Jose, California abandoned its bike licensing program after decades because it was widely ignored and expensive to manage. “The program doesn’t make enough in fees to cover the cost for busy cops and firefighters to create and maintain a useful license database,” wrote the San Jose Mercury News. It was the same story in Toronto earlier this year when the idea was rejected. As it was in many other cities around the continent who have tried, and then rejected, bike licensing, usually after the requirement was widely ignored by bike-loving citizens.
In theory, it’s possible to operate a successful system (Honolulu has one of the rare systems that seems to actually work, if you don’t count those who ignore the law, and the homeless who see it as a pretense for cops to steal their bikes), but with so many cities trying and failing, it takes a special kind of stubborn to think it will work elsewhere. In other words: It’s been tried, and it’s failed. It’s time to move on.
Some people are understandably angered by cyclists who don’t obey the rules of the road. This is a real problem (caused often, I’d argue, because poor infrastructure gives cyclists few legal and safe options), and there are several ways that it can be deal with, including licensing. But since most cities can’t get their shit together to even operate a proper licencing system, it makes you wonder how effective the system would be in changing cyclist behaviour.
Besides, some cities have already devised a system to improve cyclist behaviour. It’s called bike-friendliness. Visit the world’s great bike cities, and you’ll see how a mix of education, bike infrastructure, and a culture of tolerance and mutual respect on the roads can solve those scofflaw woes.
But if that sounds like too much work, we could try another solution: simply enforcing the laws that already exist to manage the behaviour of all road users, including cyclists.
The idea of requiring cyclists to purchase a licence as a way of generating money to pay for new bike lanes makes intuitive sense. The problem is, it almost never works. As already discussed, the logistics of operating a city-wide bike licensing system are so complicated and expensive, they often cost more than any revenue they might bring in, especially if the licensing fee is low enough to encourage compliance. In fact, some programs end up costing taxpayers money rather than generating it.
On a larger scale, this is a question about user-pay government services. If you really think cyclists ought to pay for infrastructure, beyond the taxes they already pay, that’s a debate worth having (provided user-pay requirements are adopted for all road users, not just cyclists). That, however, is a separate conversation, except in the idea that licensing seems to to be an inefficient system for collecting that user fee.
In many cities, bike theft is a problem. A big problem. But licensing doesn’t stop theft, it can only help reunite recovered bikes with their owners. That’s why you should record the serial numbers of your bikes, and report them if your bike is stolen. If you do so, you’ve just eliminated the need for a mandatory bike licensing program.
Beyond the points listed above, my sense is that many of those who support bike licensing do so out of a warped sense of equity. This is the car-equivalency argument: motor vehicle operation requires a licence, therefore bicycle operation should too.
The problem is that bikes and cars are not the same. The reason we, as a society, require licensing and insurance for cars is because of the mind-boggling destructiveness of cars on both our property and our species — motor vehicles cause so much mayhem with such regularity that we require their operators to be tested for their skill, and have the capacity to pay for the destruction they will almost inevitably wreak.
Bikes are not like that, therefore the requirements should be different. Sure, bikes are involved in collisions, but compared to the destructiveness of cars, the damage inflicted by bikes is laughably small. On a personal level, the health benefits of riding a bike probably outweigh the risk, and you might reasonably win an argument saying that bikes offer a net health benefit to society. To think we should more heavily regulate something that benefits society as a whole is stupid. We should regulate things that harm society. Cycling should be encouraged.
To recap: There may be a good argument in favour of bike licences (and I hope you’ll let me know if you have one), but the graveyard of bike licensing is filled with the corpses of well-meaning initiatives that died because of bureaucracy, apathy, mismanagement, misguided notions and all-around stupidity. At some point, it will be time to kill this zombie for good.
Thanks to the helpful tweet below, I adjust the wording of Calgary’s bike-sharing plans to reflect the fact it ended in the 1970s.
— Mike Siewert (@MikeCword) November 24, 2016
By pounding over the hills of San Francisco in a 1968 Ford Mustang GT, a scowling Steve McQueen, in the unfortunately spelled action movie Bullitt, managed to define coolness for a generation of baby boomers, in spite of the corduroy blazer.
But those days are long gone. These days, driving a muscle car in that manner is more likely to get you shunned by hordes of millennials waiting in line for the Google bus. For them, what’s more likely to impress, if a vehicle chase scene in a movie are what defines the outlook of a generation, is this one.
That’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush, a chase scene masquerading as a B-list action movie that attempts to cash in on the generation-defining outsider esthetic of the bike messenger, and, more specifically, the bike: The fixie. Or, as the movie rather clumsily puts it: “Fixed gear. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to, either.”
You see fixies everywhere you see millennials these days, and not just the organic kale kombucha market: They are all over cities, typically with ostentatiously coloured rims and narrow handlebars, delivering their bare-headed passengers to their destinations via spanking new bike lanes.
For those of a more, well, experienced generation, however, the appeal of the fixie can be a little elusive. One gear that you can never stop pedalling? No brakes? Kids these days, sigh.
As somebody claiming a place, in outlook if not chronology, as a bridge between those generations, I decided to do my part to close that generation gap with my latest Shifter challenge. The ultimate millennial bicycle chore, albeit a simple one: Riding a fixie to the local craft brewery to pick up a six pack.
I’ve only dabbled with fixies in the past, so I’m not exaggerating the role of a fixie n00b. I convinced my cousin to lend my his well-trod machine, resplendent with bright orange rims, bullish pursuit handlebars and, thankfully, two sets of rim brakes (yeah, yeah: true authenticity would call for no brakes at all, but the learning curve of using pedals to stop is steeper than my tolerance for the risk of dropping a six pack).
The absence of sagging cables and dangling derailleurs gave the fixie some handsome and clean lines, so I knew had to match. I pulled on my skinniest jeans, wrapped a messenger bag around my shoulders, installed Snapchat on my phone, and I was off.
Hearing JGL say “the pedals never stop turning” is one thing. Actually pushing off on a bike when the wheels never stop turning is another. Your intellect may be ready for it, but your feet are not. The pedals of the fixie felt like a sentient being. They revolved independent of me, as I if they were driving and I was just a passenger. They felt like Google Car, for bikes, especially as I fumbled to get my Blundstone into the toe clips. (A side note: Pedal clips? Really? Sure, they worked for Stephen Roche in the 1987 Tour de France, but really?).
Still, once I got a rhythm down, I rode with few problems. For a while. It’s funny how a fixie makes you realize how often you coast on a bike. Like when you approach a curb and attempt to pull your front wheel over it. Try that sometime without stopping your spinning. It’s hard. And weird. I wouldn’t say it was dangerous, but wasn’t not dangerous.
I steered toward one of those steep and narrow foot bridges over a busy thoroughfare that Europeans point to as proof of our hatred of pedestrians, wishing only occasionally that I could shift gears on the way up. I rolled down the other side with my feet held wide and the pedals spinning furiously and independently. I was getting into a groove now.
Until I reached the brewery and encountered my next problem: for all its clean lines, there was nowhere on the bike to pack my beer. No rack. No basket. Not even one of those hipster leather beer carriers that I usually mock. I guess millennials are more practical than they are given credit for.
I emptied my six pack into my messenger bag and gingerly pedalled for home, hoping that my lurching cadence wouldn’t result in broken bottles. The rest of the way home was uneventful, but left me wondering why or if I would ever choose to ride a bike like this.
To recap: Compared to a plain old freewheel bike that you might see a Gen Xer ride (if most Gen Xers weren’t always driving expensive crossover SUVs two blocks to their kids’ school drop off because they are afraid little Johnny might get hit by someone else’s expensive crossover SUV who is also driving because of fear of other vehicles), the fixie has a few challenges: As a newbie, it was tough to get started. Difficult to stop. Challenging while climbing hills. Frightening to descend hills. Awkward to mount small curbs. And this model was definitely lacking in cargo space.
On the positive side: Well, the bike looks good. Fixie adherents often tout the control the fixed-gear provides, but lacking experience meant I felt the opposite. I did enjoy the responsiveness of the bike while rolling at speed, and with with time I may end up being able to do those rather awesome slide/stop things you see in alley cat videos, but until then, sorry millennials, but I’ll be hauling my beer in the ugly rack on the back of my plain old three-speed.
Some riders of fixies came to their defence. Here’s a few of their thoughts:
The appeal? Practical. Stylish. Honest. Affordable. And makes you tough as fuck if you do long rides on them. https://t.co/oFmuD0Tii6
— MakeBikesGreatAgain (@TheCritninja) November 7, 2016
— ⛄BikeBike Inc.⛄ (@BikeBikeYYC) November 7, 2016
— Scorchers YYC (@ScorchersYYC) November 7, 2016
— Jon (@samuriinbred) November 7, 2016
— Ryan (@carfreeyyc) November 7, 2016
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"You too Ken. See you in the snow! "
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@ Howard Taylor
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