Category: People (Page 1 of 2)

After the road rage: Five rules for rural-road users to avoid bike-car conflicts

Last week, I penned a rant about being accosted by an angry dude in a pickup truck frothing at me for existing on this mortal coil while riding a bike on a rural road. Sure, I was still slightly pissed by the whole experience — being screamed at by a stranger tends to stick in your craw — but I was more baffled. I genuinely wanted to know why there’s such hostility to bikes on rural roads.

The reaction wasn’t exactly what I expected. Consider me enlightened.

Rather than the usual chorus of support from fellow cyclists, their reaction was rather muted, many saying they feel safer in rural areas than cities, despite a few bad apples. Even more interesting was the reaction from a few rural folks, who opened my eyes a bit.

What’s being rural car-bike conflicts? Something simpler than I originally thought. Photo by Tom Babin.

Two things came out of those conversations for me. One: There is some truly appalling behaviour by those on both sides of this issue. Tongue-lashing an innocent cyclist for the actions of others is one example. But if you’re the cyclist shitting in the bushes of a rural property owner, you need to stop right now. Seriously, that’s messed up.

But more importantly, it dawned on me that this conflict isn’t some deeply rooted culture war or evidence of some long-held moral differences between urban cyclists and rural property owners, as I originally mused. The conflict is rooted in something much simpler, the same source of motorist-cyclist conflicts in cities: insufficient infrastructure.

What I heard from most rural landowners is that they fear inadvertently striking a cyclist in their car, and on narrow rural road they feel there isn’t enough space for two passing vehicles and a bike. And this happens mostly on roads that lack a shoulder.

That’s it. Some roads are too narrow. Yes, it’s the law to share the highways, and cyclists have every legal right to be on these roads, and cyclists are often stuck in a conundrum because the roads with the least traffic are also those that lack shoulders. But, simply put, rural drivers worry that the presence of cyclists on a narrow road doesn’t leave enough space to pass when the opposite lane is occupied, and it can be difficult to slow sufficiently at highway speeds when approaching cyclists unexpectedly.

So with that in mind, I came up with a few commandments for both motorists and cyclists that may help reduce conflicts on our rural roads.

  1. Thou shalt show respect to all users of the road, and not unfairly malign an entire group of road users based on the actions of a few members of said group.
  2. Thou shalt not bandy about the word “entitled” in conversations about road use, acknowledging that all types users on occasion display an attitude of entitlement over public roads.
  3. Cyclists shall plan routes on rural roads that have wide shoulders wherever possible.
  4. Motorists vow to pass cyclists with sufficient space wherever possible.
  5. All road users agree that insufficient infrastructure and not human behaviour is the root of most conflicts between users, and focus their energies, not on each other, but on the forces that can build sufficient space on rural roads for all users to feel safe.

One last point, that is less a commandment than an observation: Maybe it’s time to recognize that road cycling isn’t going away, and rather than just tolerate it, it should be accommodated. Let’s identify safe routes and encourage cyclists to use them, as has already happened in many jurisdictions. Let’s see road cyclists as an opportunity and cater to them (a weekend food truck on a well-placed route, perhaps?). Look at how bicycle tourism has become a true industry in other jurisdictions. There is opportunity in those hordes of people in Lycra.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to respond to this issue. Let me know what you think about the commandments above.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

Hey road-raging farmer: Why do you hate cyclists so much?

I got road raged by a farmer.

A friend and I were on our road bikes on a rural Sunday morning ride recently on the outskirts of the city. It was a warm and smoky day, and we had pedalled about 50 kilometres when we turned off onto a secondary road. There was no shoulder on the highway so we were hugging the right side. We weren’t riding two abreast, but we weren’t exactly single-file either — we were chatting, which is one of the joys of riding with friends on a Sunday morning.

A highway ride that didn’t result in an angry farmer. Photo by Tom Babin.

The pickup truck approached from the opposite direction and I knew immediately that something was up because the driver-side window was rolled down and I could see a reddening face. The driver did a U-turn on the highway to confront us, shouting unintelligibles the entire time. I rolled my eyes — every cyclist knows an angry motorist when he sees one — and slowed down, mostly to avoid getting run over. He pulled his truck up beside me.

I told myself to stay calm, and I sat back and waited while he frothed. I let him shout his bit, and he calmed down enough that I stopped fearing for my life. Then, he squealed away.

I’ve encountered angry motorists before, but none as furious as this, and none seemingly set off by my mere presence. It was unnerving. It laid bare my vulnerability in that situation. We got our wits about us and finished our ride, but the joy of the morning had been sucked dry.

I tell you this not as a precursor to a rant about entitled motorists and their irrational anger toward cyclists, but as a plea to help me understand. As I recounted this story over the next few days, nearly every cyclist I spoke to had a similar story. What I’d like to get out of this is reasonable answers to a simple question: Dude, what’s your problem?

I’m being serious here. While Mr. Angry Farmer in a Pickup Truck wasn’t in his most articulate state, he did shout a few nuggets that gave me an idea of what his problem was. “You cyclists!” “I have to live out here, this is just a joyride for you!” “Last week, I passed 200 of you guys!” “This is my life!” “Once, some cyclist was mad that I dropped manure on the highway. I mean, who the fuck do you guys think you are?”

This road ride, on a closed highway, resulted in zero angry farmers. Photo by Tom Babin.

Based on that, I’m making a few assumptions. I suspect he feels his homestead is being invaded by outsiders. I suspect he perceives all cyclists as disobeying the rules of the road, and he doesn’t want to be responsible for inadvertently running over a cyclist. I also suspect his anger goes a tad deeper, fuelled by a vein of discontent throughout rural areas because of a perception (rightly or wrongly) that rural life is being disrespected.

So I can empathize, even if this is just my speculation. But still, it’s difficult to square the reaction we received to our behaviour — we were riding a bike on a quiet public road on a Sunday morning when traffic was almost nonexistent. I take some responsibility for the situation. We weren’t, at that moment, following the letter of the law requiring strict single-file riding (although I tend to agree with those advocating for a change to improve visibility,) and I apologized. My sense, however, was that Mr. Angry Farmer in a Pickup Truck wasn’t nitpicking the nuances of the traffic act, it was our mere presence that set him off.

So here’s my plea, to those who live in rural areas and honk or scream at cyclists: What’s up? What’s so bad about our presence? What’s so awful about sharing the highway that it comes down to threats and anger? Is momentarily slowing down and passing bikes really so burdensome? Is this really about cyclists, or are you projecting larger grievances onto unsuspecting passersby? And do you really want to rid the world of people out riding bikes for pleasure and fitness on weekend mornings?

Seriously, help me understand. Leave a comment below, or drop a note on Facebook or Twitter. Let’s see if we can better understand each other.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

How to ride your kids to school in a cargo bike

“I’d like to ride my bike more, but I’ve got to take the kids everywhere.”

That’s a pretty common sentiment among parents these days, and it’s easy to see why. Kids today are scheduled and busy and in need of transportation constantly.

Lindsay Bliek certainly understands it. She’s mom to two busy young girls. But Bliek has also realized that using her bike to get around makes a whole lot of sense.

I tagged along with Lindsay recently while she rolled her kids to school in a cargo bike, and she offered a little insight into how (and why) she (and her girls) love their bike.

Linday writes a great blog at This Mom Bikes (which you should read), and some of her work has been adapted here on Shifter. You can also follow her on Twitter.

That’s Lindsay Bliek and her kids on their bike in their Halloween costumes. Photo swiped from her awesome blog, thismombikes.net.

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You can also follow Shifter on Facebook or Medium.

Follow Tom Babin on TwitterFacebook or Medium.

Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

An injury ended my bike-riding streak. Until others picked it up for me

The front tire wasn’t a front tire as much as an oversized windshield wiper clearing snow from the glass. The transformation was rapid, and complete: Now I was pedalling down a riverbank utility road, and now I was thinking how lovely it is when the brown city gets a fresh set of linens, and now my front tire was skidding across the ice hidden beneath the snow—and now I was clearly falling.

And now, sitting propped up on an emergency room stretcher, I was signing my name to a form without lifting the pen off the page before things went black under a veil of fentanyl and propofol.

The scan shows the dislocated shoulder bone back in place (it looks like a pork chop) and the chunk of bone that fractured off.

Frickity fracture

The fall happened on March 30. I was riding back home with a friend from a meeting of Coffee Outside. For more than three years a growing group of bicycle commuters in Edmonton have met on Friday mornings in all weathers and temperatures, usually in Faraone Park by the High Level Bridge, to say hello and talk about the things we have in common—the love of riding in the city, the obstacles that test that love, and coffee. Steffen and Chris bring tea, but they are outstanding fellows, so we don’t judge. Darren has retrofitted his cargo bike into a rolling coffee machine. We call him the handlebarista. Karly has the stories and timing of a standup comic. Everybody is remarkable. I always pedal off to work after Coffee Outside grateful that I’ve fallen in with a band of beauties who ride bicycles, in part, because bicycles are so easy to stop and so easily frame conversation.  Coffee Outside is a support group. It gets in you, even to the point that it was unthinkable on March 30, the statutory Good Friday holiday, to sleep in and miss spending time together.

March 30 was also Day 278.

I had pedalled a bicycle for 278 consecutive days, a streak stretching back to the end of June last year when I had decided, for no reason other than the calendar exists, to try to ride a bike each day for 365 days in a row. Okay, there were three other reasons. First, I wanted to demonstrate that bicycle riding in Edmonton wasn’t just a May-to-September proposition. Second, for myself, I wanted to see each day as kind of non-renewable resource. Under the slowing influence of Coffee Outside or not, I was feeling the days whipping by. Whipping by like the sound of O-Pee-Chee hockey cards through the spokes in my green bike’s back wheel growing up in the northeast end alleys. So the idea, back on June 26, 2017, was to write each day a thought about bicycle riding, and to add a photo or a still from my handlebar camera.

Keeping some kind of record, yes

Of course, recording the days in graphite and paper and pixel didn’t make the days go by any slower. But there is a consolation in being able to recall a fragment of July 3 or November 26 or  February 9,  in remembering what time has torn apart. It’s like standing in front of a tombstone of my days and at least knowing I was alive and aware and grateful for specific things and people on July 3 and November 26 and February 9.

July 3: Holiday Monday. I pedalled to the Sugar Bowl to meet Spell and Fitz. I wanted to show them the downtown bike network, and to laugh. Missions accomplished. “I can pedal [the two minutes] over the High Level Bridge, but then let’s stop for a drink at Cracker Jacks!” Spell said of the new wave dance club closed for decades. 

Spell, left, and Fitz, behind, on the Edmonton network

November 26:  I stopped on the snowy footpath in Laurier Park to watch the chickadees.

Handout



February 9: “Take my bike,” Pekka said as we walked along the Moscow River. It was a happy group I was part of during the World Winter Bike Congress. We had spent a couple of hours together listening to Pecha Kuchas in a bar under the Krymsky Most. Pekka pointed. “Ride across the bridge and then look out at the view. We’ll wait here until you get back.”

Pekka shoulders bike, Moscow


I stagger at sight, Moscow


This was the streak kept alive on work commutes and weekend errands. It kept going during time away spent in hideouts from Banff to Prague. The streak maintained its unbrokenness on days with rain and sun and snow and wind and dark. But it broke for good on March 30 along with a piece of my left shoulder. And a piece of my heart. I was sad. That’s the truth. I loved the watching the notebooks fill up with fragments of days I would never be able to recall without pickling them in words and images. I loved piling up the Atoma booklets and squaring them and putting them back on the shelf. I had managed to put time in space.

I announced the end.

It’s over…

The idea to include a call to action in the Twitter post was Darren’s. He was the friend riding with me the morning of the fall. He said people would pick up the streak. Darren has a lot of good ideas. You can see one of his good ideas in the Go Pro video of my fall. His good idea was to take the less icy path down the hill and not fall.

(When I play the video back and see that shiny scene and hear myself laughing like a boy and knowing now that in exactly 16 seconds I will be in agony in the snow, I hear Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream pretty much nail it.

And ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up.
So quick bright things come to confusion.)

The reaction to the Breaking News post took a little more of my heart with it. Friends started sending pics of their bike rides, or, in the case of the first pic sent, of reasonable facsimiles. Stacey’s pic counts because she is moving outdoors in winter and because she has agreed to ride the bicycle network with me.

Thanks, Stacey!

After that, pics came from Lana, Kory, Janet Joy, Darren, David, Karly, Tom, Chris, Doug, Shelagh, Varina, Ben, Andy, Eric, Isla, Kent, Tyler, Eden, Carson, Robby, Kyle, Kory, Claire, Dave, another David, Theresa, Abby, Eric, Nick and tell me, please, if I have neglected a friend in the honour roll. Pics came from neigbhourhoods in Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Maryland, and Cambridge in the United Kingdom. More than a few came from the Oliverbahn, the stretch of protected bicycle lane that runs like an artery through Edmonton’s Oliver neighbourhood.

Greetings from the Oliverbahn.

I am a very fortunate recovering bicycle crasher. After the fall, I received everything I needed when I needed it. A friend with good ideas who got me to safety, and my bike to safety, too. My wife who got me to the hospital and stayed by my side and brought me a hamburger and lobbied for more painkillers. Healthcare workers who have seen way worse but knew I hadn’t felt any worse. People who have sent me messages or books or just asked how it’s going. People who gave me Percocet.  And my friends who have stopped in their rides and in their days over the last month to keep the streak alive in a bigger way.

Sure, it’s a silly streak. But it got meaningful when it wasn’t just silly me. It got real when I watched take shape the third reason for the streak. And that was in realizing this: we fall alone, and we get back up together.

Ride across the bridge and then look out at the view, Pekka said.

We’ll wait here until you get back.

This post originally appeared on Glenn’s blog. 

Why there’s value in posting all of your little daily bike rides to Strava

The icefields parkway.

I will not forget the feeling of pedaling up Sunwapta Pass. Feeling was all there was. Pain feeling. And the feeling of being alone and in a test of will against that switchbacked ramp of asphalt and stone between Banff and Jasper, Aklberta. Out of gears now. And now just trying to keep a semblance of cadence. Passing automobiles heaved. I could hear them working from behind and then watched as they moved alongside and out of sight. Don’t look up! Look down. The vicious slope is not as obvious looking straight down. Look down, look down. So, I looked at cracks in the pavement and at wooden guardrail posts and shards of shiny glass. I watched tiny pieces of highway gravel inch backward as I pedaled ahead, knees straining, lungs stretching. Wheels turned like second hands. Eternal alpine grandeur surrounded me—and I watched gravel and glass go by. I measured my progress in bits of glass and gravel. My heart pounded. Legs turned. I breathed staccato: in-in-in-out. My Miyata 1000 kept going. The sun stared. For the climb, I had written an inspirational quote from Dylan on a recipe card and tucked it in the plastic coverlet on the handlebar pannier. But literature didn’t help. Magic did. I imagined there was a piece of rope knotted to my ribcage. The other end of the rope was at the top of the pass and someone up there was cranking a spool, slowly, gently collecting me up. I invented this mechanism out of thin air. And it worked. Because I eventually made it to beautifully level ground at the top—2,035 metres—and I felt the rope slacken. Euphoria. I had climbed a pass in the Rocky Mountains on my beloved bicycle. What looks large from a distance close up ain’t never that big!

Me and my Miyata on that trip.

That was years ago when bicycle riding still meant high adventure. Those knees are over and they’re not coming back. I still ride my bike, but my trips are more humdrum. Recently, for instance, I pedaled from our house in west Edmonton to pick up chicken and fixings at a favourite restaurant on 124 St. I put those goodnesses in a cardboard box and secured the load to my mountain bike’s back rack  before popping back home down back lanes crevassed by spring thaw. No tow rope trick. No negotiation with existence.  The round trip took 46 minutes. I covered 12.4 km. And the ride included 58 metres in elevation gain.

Legging it for chicken.

The humdrumstick ride data is from Strava. Full disclosure: I have a minor addiction to the app, even though I don’t use it in the mainstream manner. Strava, or sträva in Swedish, means strive. The app is aimed, by its own blurb account, at the full spectrum of athletes “from Olympians to weekend warriors.” Testimonials from runners and triathletes and bicycle racers get podium places on its website. The Strava app lets you get competitive any time you want, says one fan. My friends on the app are routinely laying down 100 km rides in the Calgary foothills or 60 km cross-country ski tours in the Gatineaus. Before work. These are strivers. They make great efforts, they fight, they battle, and they share their stats and personal bests and calories burned with the rest of us.


Little Pharma.

Here’s a modest proposal for the rest of us: let’s share our banal rides right back! The 1.3-km pedal to the drugstore. Put it on Strava. Call it Little Pharma. The 1.1-m trip to the grocery store for milk for coffee in the morning. Put it on Strava. Ride for Beans. The short trips to the bakery, the pub, the bookstore, the florist, the neighbourhood restaurant, the bike shop, pretzel shop, the chicken restaurant, wherever, let’s put them all on Strava, or on whatever other app records our little revolutions—those destinations between 1 km and 6 km away that are reasonable to get to on a bike, especially on the weekend.

Lana, on the importance of those little rides outside your commute.

My friend Lana from Ottawa helped me see this route to stitching our bikes into our everyday lives. Riding a bicycle to work may be the bigger win, eventually bringing protected infrastructure with it, but riding a bicycle to work can be a lot of work, especially for the first-time, two-wheeled commuter. There are obstacles. Safety in traffic, changes of clothes, storage of machine, sweating of body, matting of hair, thefting of bicycle, mild ridicule, changes in weather, and so on. Bicycle commuters who have overcome these challenges risk appearing beguiling to others who see in clear sight where the obstacles lie. It’s also valuable, Lana reminded me, to encourage folks to pedal to locations that, if they’re fortunate, still sit within a few kilometres of home.

And to remember that advice myself. It’s healthy, reasonable, sensible advice. And it takes work.

It’s work because going from zero to something is just as difficult, if not more difficult, than going from something to something-plus-one. I accept that was not the language of proper physics. 🙂 Trying again: It can be work out of proportion to the distance travelled to ride a bike the few kilometres to get a prescription or a loaf of bread or 10 pieces of chicken. Once more: it is easier to pedal the few blocks for chicken if I am already the person who pedals to work. Or, again: what looks small from a distance (riding for errands) close up is actually quite big. Or, in conclusion: driving a car is pretty easy!  The real work of riding a bicycle for the mundane stuff of life is on the pre-pedaling side of pedaling. That’s where the little lazinesses lurk. That’s where the transportation status quo calcifies into place like a Latin cliche. Naming these challenges and surmounting them is the task at hand, and foot.

The mail/wine run.

My friend Tim is a great bicycle rider. He commutes, he races. Last year he rode along gravel roads from Coleman in southern Alberta to Hinton, which was approximately 687.6 km farther than my ride to Northern Chicken. I Facebooked him this Big Pedal question:

“Compared to all your striving, what is the value of someone deciding not to take the car to the grocery store for a loaf of bread and eggs, but to ride a bike there instead?”

He replied with some poetry:

“The value comes from the same things on a short ride as long. The value is created by seeing what was not previously seen, hearing what could not otherwise be heard. Those moments may not come as often on a short ride over the same familiar roads, but they are there.”

Life being life, we all have more short rides than long ones. More groceries to get than Sunwapta Passes to climb. Choosing to make the many short trips on bicycle, or even one of them, is uphill work. It’s work worth doing–and worth telling Strava about.

This post originally appeared on Glenn’s blog. You can find him on Twitter here. 

Face it, riding a bike takes work. That’s one of its joys

Here’s one thing about riding a bicycle that’s worth being honest about: it takes work.

Yes, riding a bicycle is all those other oft-celebrated things, too. It’s relaxing, fun, healthy, it’s sustainable and eco-friendly, nostalgic, convenient and social. Riding a bicycle is economical and efficient and therapeutic. Pedalling a bicycle makes a connection between city and rider not possible in an automobile. Riding a bicycle is exhilarating. Riding a bicycle is freedom.

It’s also work.

The work of riding a bicycle can be hidden under the poetry of riding a bicycle. I will always remember the day a friend at work texted me, after having renewed a lagged friendship with her bike, a message that was music to my ears:

I knew immediately what Laurie meant. I felt it in my old bones. A green Mustang two-speed was my first declaration of independence growing up on the streets and alleys of northeast Edmonton. That precious bike took me out of the orbit of domestic surveillance, such as it was in the 1970s, the golden age of parental benign neglect. Still, I got to the landmarks of my childhood—Bing’s corner store near Delwood Road, the St. Francis football field, the newspaper shack on Fort Road, the hills on the far side of Yellowhead Trail—by myself, or, what was better, rolling there with a gang of my friends.

Bing’s, back in the day.

These days, my red Rockhopper is my ticket to freedom. I redeem that ticket at the end of every abstract, unsatisfying and stressful work day. By the time I have pedalled my daily commute’s 10 kilometres home, under trees and sky, across real asphalt, I invariably feel better, lighter, happier. Friends who understand neuroscience explain this is because physical activity stimulates the drip-release of brain chemicals that regulate my emotions. I am not aware of these processes as they lift my mood a notch or two, but I trust there is something like this at work.

My bike at IGA these days.

The work of bicycle riding is easier to see when I contemplate what I can see and feel from the saddle. Feet press, calves fire, quad muscles lift and fall, lungs expand—and all this just to achieve a comfortable cruising clip. Confront a rise in the road or a shard of headwind and there is more work to be done. There is still more work if any level of negotiation with lactic acid is required to keep going. There is also the work of the nerves. Less so, admittedly, now that protected bicycle lanes have materialized in cities, including Calgary and Edmonton, but, still, this work of vigilance is required in what remains an automobile landscape. And, then, the work to ignore the little aches and pains that come from using our own muscles to power the bicycles that makes us feel so…well, so…freakin’ …free.

Machine, man.

When you stop to think about it, this feeling of freedom known to bicycle riders is the result of a very curious, very human kind of work: the work with—or in—a machine. Bicycle riders may sing paeans to their automobile-free mode of transport, but they benefit from a technological partnership just the same. It is just as true to say I feel so frickin’ free on this as it is to say I feel so frickin’ free when I apply to myself a prosthetic device of tubes, gears, chain, teeth, cranks, cassette, saddle, stays, cables, rubber, rims and spokes. Granted, not in the iambic pentameter of the text message, but the list of the bicycle’s artifice, all the infrastructure it needs to help produce the freedom, is also the truth.

Beautiful out there today.

These thoughts rolled around in my head today as I pedalled my fatbike along the side streets of Edmonton, the host city of a dump of glittering snow a day ago that has now turned to slurry. It is beautiful to move by bicycle in this enchanted setting. It also takes work.


Actually, these thoughts about work and bicycle riding have been rolling around in my head since Russia. Earlier this month, I joined a small band of Canadian bicycling advocates in Moscow for Winter Bike Congress 2018. It was too much fun. The closed-streets ride along the river to Red Square with my wife and thousands of others was revolutionary joy. But all of that is another story.

Shelagh in Moscow.

The last day of the conference featured awards handed out by the Winter Bike To Work Day organizers. Winter Bike To Work Day is an annual event to get people—especially in places where bicycling is still thought to simply be a summer recreational activity—to commit to ride their bicycle to work, in winter, one day a year. There is a friendly competition on the side, as participants register on behalf of their cities and cities go head to head for bragging rights. Novi Sad, the second largest city in Serbia, won the day with 1,393 registered riders. With 1,165 participants, Denver placed second. For the record, Edmonton finished 10th, and, with 218 winter riders who worked their way to work, was the top Canadian city.

With Torrin (left) and Anders (right) of Winter Bike To Work Day.

Today, as I navigated my way on 20-psi tires back from the grocery store, I lost some of my grip on Winter Bike To Work. I mean: what work was that little word To doing? Was it a preposition indicating location; that is, the workplace? Or was it part of an infinitive verb, to work? Are we celebrating riding a bicycle, instead of an automobile, to one’s place of employment, or is the emphasis on the labour necessary to move a machine in order to be then moved by it?
I suggest we accept both readings. The first because it’s obviously true, and the second because it keeps open a path to another reason, whether in summer or winter, to ride a bicycle. We ride to where we are going. And we also ride to how we are going. Riding a bicycle imprints on us from a young age an egalitarian truth. The I doing the work is the I enjoying the freedom. Frick.

This piece originally appeared on Glenn’s blog. Follow Glenn on Twitter.

A practical guide for choosing when to ride a bike

The short answer to the question is easy: When should you ride a bike? Always. Any trip is better on a bike. It’s more fun, healthy and invigorating than driving a car. It’s often faster than public transit and always faster than walking. And it’s more affordable than Uber, a taxi or car-sharing program. In short, it’s, like, the best thing ever.

But using a bike for every trip in the real world only works if you’re a Dutch idealist or some kind of neighbourhood shut-in. Sadly, for the rest of us, particularly us North Americans, choosing a bike for many trips is a conscious choice. And as such, there are factors that go into making that choice. As someone who has spent years manipulating situations to accommodate bike rides, here is some advice on when it’s advisable to choose a bicycle.

Bike pics from Montréal

Short trips in your community are the low-hanging fruit of a bike life. Photo by Tom Babin.

In the ’hood

Research from multiple countries has found that bikes work best, and are the chosen as a transportation mode most often, for trips that are shorter than five kilometres. These are the no-brainer bike trips. At that distance, almost nothing is as fast in an urban setting as a bike. Most trips of this length can be completed without breaking a sweat (emphasis on most), you can roll right up to your destination rather than parking on the far side of an absurdly big parking lot, and you’ll arrive riding a wave of feel-good pheromones.

So maximize the number of times you choose a bike for short trips. Neighbourhood errands, trips to the local pub, joy rides for ice cream – all of these are the low-hanging fruit of a bike life. And put the grocery store at the top of your list. With a simple rack and basket, you will be surprised how many bags of groceries you can hump home with ease. And if you find yourself enjoying those grocery trips a little too much, look at buying a cargo bike. I once took a cargo bike to Costco on an experimental jaunt, and I managed to fill my cupboards for days.



Commuting

Bicycle commuting is a surefire way of transforming what, for many people, is the worst part of the day into the best. With more workplaces offering amenities to cater to bicycle commuters, such as bike lockers and showers, it’s also easier to ride for longer distances and not worrying about getting too sweaty or rumpled on the way.

It’s not just you. If you have kids, riding with them to school sets them up for mind and body success in myriad ways. Plus, they’ll be burning off excess energy that might otherwise be directed at annoying you.

Either way, commuting is a simple way to get more saddle time in your life.

Urban cycling in Vancouver

What date night isn’t made better with a bike? Photo by Tom Babin.

Non-traditional places

Automobile transportation is implied in many of our destinations. But it needn’t be. There are many times when a bike makes more sense. Few things are better after gorging yourself at a dinner party than a refreshing ride home. Date night on a bike is like two dates in one – nobody remembers the romance of the car ride home from a Nicholas Sparks movie, but they will if it’s a bike ride. Need to drop your car off for repairs (because, damn, those things require a lot of service)? Put your bike in the trunk and ride home. Home Depot? I’ve done it. New refrigerator need to be picked up? Yep, I met that person and their cargo bike. There are also endless photos on the Internet of couples riding their bikes to their wedding. Because why not?

Cargo Bike

If you have heavy hauling needs or are partial to Costco, consider a cargo bike. Photo by Tom Babin.

Longer rides

The difficult part about living in a city that was built for cars is the long distances between places you need to get to. This can be discouraging if you have multiple places to be and your chosen mode of transportation is a bicycle. Unless you’re up for logging hero miles crisscrossing a sprawling city to impress your Strava friends, there is another solution. Go multi-modal. Most city buses and commuter trains these days welcome bikes, so take advantage. Bringing a bike on transit not only gives you more time on the two wheels, it shortens the amount of time for what planners like to call the first and last mile. This method of combining a bike with another method of commuting is also part of the reason bike-sharing programs have taken off in so many cities. You can take public transit most of the way to your destination, and then hop on a short-term rental bike for those last few blocks.

Just do it

You don’t have to be a automobile-hating zealot to recognize that replacing car time in your life for bike time will make your life better. If you aren’t ready to ditch your car completely, there are plenty of opportunities to make your life better with time in the saddle. You just have to find them.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 

How to ride a bike slowly (and why you would want to)

This sounds stupid, I know, but one of the keys to happy urban cycling is learning how to slow down. Riding more slowly in a city is safer, calmer, more relaxing and is conducive to being in the moment and enjoying the surroundings.

So why is that hard? Because much of the bicycle industry is working against it.

In North America, the bicycle industry is still dominated by a mentality of athletics. There’s money to be made by selling bikes as a piece of sporting equipment, so that’s what draws the attention of the industry. Road bikes, mountain bikes, triathlon bikes, cyclocross bikes and even fat bikes are built to go fast. They are built for racing.

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The bikes of these professional racers are built for speed. Photo by Tom Babin.

That approach has led to some amazing technological breakthroughs that have benefited all cyclists, but you don’t need any of it to ride happily in a city. In fact, much of that tech impairs your ability to ride slowly and comfortably. Those feather-light, high-performance bikes feel like riding a thoroughbred — they hum beneath your fingers, pulling to go fast whether you want them to or not. It can be exhilarating if that’s your goal, but taking them through an urban setting is like using a racehorse for a children’s pony ride — superhuman restraint is required to keep them under control.



Part of the problem is body position. Bicycles with humans aboard don’t exactly create a shape that slips through the air, so much engineering brainpower has gone into designing bicycles that torque the rider’s position into one that’s more streamlined. The result is that many bikes force the rider to into a low, forward-leaning position. This works wonderfully if you are descending Mount Ventoux with 100 other pros chasing, but if all you are doing is heading to the liquor store for a six pack, this position can be uncomfortable, unforgiving and needlessly fast.

Urban cycling in Vancouver

Slow bikes position your body in a way that changes the riding experience. Photo by Tom Babin.

I’ve found that these factors influence your mentality on the bike. When you ride a bike built for speed, you naturally want to go fast. The ride becomes a race, against others or yourself. I’ve often caught myself on my commute home in self-congratulatory mode after climbing a hill faster than a fellow bike commuter who had no idea a race was underway.

Being fast isn’t inherently bad, but when the ride is a practical route for transportation the sacrifices for speed can be. The price of speed is collected in things like comfort, safety, robustness, frustration and something that might be described as pleasantness. 

Urban rides, with their many stops and proximity to other humans on foot, work better when the speed is reduced. These rides are most enjoyable when you can sit back, watch the surroundings, obey traffic signals and arrive at your destination faster than a car and without smelling like a workout room.

Yes, you can just reduce your pedalling cadence to go slower. But doing so on a fast bike is difficult. Eventually, you’ll find yourself pushing the speedometer up until you catch yourself breaking a sweat and patting yourself on the back for your time.

I’ve found the best way to slow down is to ride a slow bike. The frame of an urban cruiser will put you in a comfortable and slow upright position, and minimal gears will keep your speed below the limit. A basket or carrier will give you plenty of hauling space, with just enough risk of losing your load to keep your ride in check. All of these forces conspire to do one thing: Make your ride pleasant. You’ll notice your surroundings. You might catch sight of an acquaintance and have time to wave or stop for a chat. You’ll see your city in a new way. Yes, it will increase your transportation time, but I’m betting not as much as you think.

It’s a different way of riding a bike, and it has its own unique pleasures. But you might want to keep that racing bike on hand. You never know when a race might break out.

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Tom Babin is the author of Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling. 


Readers had some fantastic ideas for slowing down. Here are some of them:

 

Forget all the other reasons you should be riding a bike. This is the one that matters

A new study offers perhaps the most definitive reason yet why society should be doing more to encourage cycling, and serves as another reminder that the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks.

This British study took a comprehensive look at the health benefits of bicycle commuting, and the results are staggering. Over the course of the study, the 263,450 subjects who were under review had a 41 per cent lower chance of death than those who didn’t. “Cycle commuters had a 52 per cent lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 40 per cent lower risk of dying from cancer. They also had 46 per cent lower risk of developing heart disease and a 45 per cent lower risk of developing cancer at all,” the study’s authors wrote.

Vancouver cycling

Bicycle commuting has major health benefits that far outweigh its risks. Photo: Tom Babin.

Just let those numbers soak in a bit. They truly are significant. If a pharmaceutical company created a pill that could reduce your chance of dying by almost half, with particular success against those stubborn scourges of humanity of cancer and heart disease, it would be heralded as a wonder drug. Luckily, this pill is already hanging from the rafters of your garage.



Two things struck me particularly from the study.

In their analysis, the researchers accounted for the risk associated with road accidents, which offers further evidence that even the supposed risks of riding a bike are vastly outweighed by the benefits of riding. Put another way: Our irrational fear of the relatively small risk of a blow to the head is overriding the guaranteed health benefits of bicycle commuting. Our assessment of risk in this context is, to be blunt, pretty messed up.

This mirrors the message of this new Australian documentary arguing against the country’s mandatory helmet law. In it, public health doctors and advocates express the same message: the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risk of injury, so we should be doing more to make it easier to ride bikes daily for transportation.

Which leads me to the second aspect of the study that really caught my attention. Of most benefit here wasn’t just riding a bike, but bicycle commuting. This is a pretty significant distinction.

That distinction is the difference between encouraging people to get out and exercise and making it easier for people to simply use a bike in their everyday lives. The medical community has been encouraging us for nearly a century to do the former, and despite the mainstreaming of things like running and going to the gym, we keep getting more sedentary, more obese and more unhealthy. That approach to health isn’t exactly a ringing success.

But this study seems to be mirroring what many cycling advocates have long said, and what bike commuters preach about all the time: Active living works when it’s part of our day, not an add-on.

The study found most of the benefits from cycling come in those situations in which cycling has already been built into the daily lives of people. In the world’s great bike cities, for example, people don’t bike because it’s good for them any more than they bike because it improves the street life of the city or because, God forbid, it reduces their carbon footprint. If you ask them, they will tell you that they ride a bike because it’s quick and easy.

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Bicycle commuting, in particular, was found to have major health benefits far beyond recreational cycling. Photo: Tom Babin.

“Policies designed to affect a population level modal shift to more active modes of commuting, particularly cycle commuting (eg, cycle lanes, city bike hire, subsidised cycle purchase schemes, and increasing provision for cycles on public transport), present major opportunities for the improvement of public health,” according to the study’s conclusion.

Therein lies the solution. If we want society to realize that 41 per cent improvement in our health that comes with bicycle commuting, we need to make it fast and easy to get places on a bike. That means continuing to accommodate bikes on our streets and building cities around the idea of active transportation. We’ve already started in most cities. We just need to hurry up.

Here’s why people ride their bike to work

On Bike to Work Day, I asked people a couple of straightforward questions about their chosen commuting mode. Here’s what they said. Take note of how many who said they ride for environmental reasons, for ideology, or because they hate cars (hint: none). 

 

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