Tag: Road Bikes

This temporary car-free haven shows how people on bikes flock to safe routes

It was while screaming downhill, past hundreds of other cyclists who were slowly climbing in the opposite direction, that the thought crossed my mind. “Huh,” I thought. “This is a thing.”

That was on the weekend as I happily rode the Highwood Pass for the first time, a local highway that, for a few weekends a year, becomes a haven for, as I discovered, scores of fellow cyclists. But seeing so many people on this route made me realize something else: It’s rather amazing what people will do to find a good car-free route to ride their bikes.

This gives you an idea how many people rode the Highwood Pass last weekend.

A post shared by Tom Babin (@tombabin) on

First, some background. The Highwood Pass is just another highway, but it has some special qualities. It’s called the highest paved route in Canada, and it cuts through some achingly beautiful alpine scenery in the eastern slopes of southern Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. It happens to be near where I live.

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The Highwood Pass in Alberta offers some stunning alpine views.

For years, I’ve heard about a special moment on the pass. The road is closed to motor-vehicle traffic during winter to offer a respite to wildlife during times of year when food is more scarce (the route passes through a provincial park). It also receives a shit-ton (for you Canadians, the metric version of that would be “shit-tonne”) of snow, so I’m sure there’s a snow-clearing budget officer somewhere who breathes a sigh of relief every autumn when the gate is lowered to close the road.

That makes for a unique situation. For a short time each spring, usually just a weekend or two, there’s a window of opportunity for cyclists between the time the gates remain closed to cars and enough snow has melted to make the road passable on a bike.

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The gates to the highway are closed every winter to offer some respite to wildlife.

The result: Hundreds of people on bikes flock to the area for a chance to ride the pass without any cars.

It’s a wonderful experience for cyclists. Arriving early gives a rare chance to enjoy a quiet highway, with stunning mountain vistas and wildlife sightings. Arriving a little later gives an opportunity to take part in a communal bike-friendly atmosphere as all kinds of people unload their bikes at the gate and start climbing.

While the early riders tend towards the MAMILs (middle-aged men in Lyrcra, God bless them), by midday, while descending the pass, there were innumerable women, families and kids heading upwards, including at least one hearty grandmother pedalling her way up the mountain on a shiny new e-bike.

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For a few weekends each spring, before the highway opens for the season, the snow melts enough to create a car-free route for cyclists.

What made it all possible was one thing: A lack of cars. If the road was open to vehicle traffic, the number of people enjoying the ride that day would dwindle to a handful of those brave and hearty souls who feel confident in their ability to stick to the shoulder of the highway while innumerable vehicles blow by at freeway speeds. 

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Snow on the highway still lingered near the summit of the Highwood Pass during this year’s ride.

While I was delighted with the opportunity to undertake this ride, it also struck me as a little sad that such opportunities weren’t more common. I’m not naive enough to think that a highway, built with millions of taxpayer dollars, would ever be turned over exclusively to cyclists, but the fact that so many took advantage of a tiny window of opportunity to enjoy a safe ride free of cars is telling.

Many jurisdictions enable road closures for specific bike events, for everything from ciclovias to gran fondos, that draw innumerable people on bikes. It’s proof there’s a hunger out there for safe bike routes, whether they are recreational of functional. This little highway during this one weekend was just another manifestation of that desire. 

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The summit, where hundreds of cyclists stop to take in the view each spring.

For me, on a more visceral level, it took me about half the ride before I realized I could stop my subconscious habit of glancing over my shoulder to see if a car was coming up from behind, which prompted a simple thought that, I’m willing to bet, was shared with many others that day. “This,” I thought, “is pretty nice.”

Are our irrational consumer tastes holding us back from more bike-friendly lives?

Several years ago, Zak Pashak was in the market for a new bike. Not an expensive carbon-fibre race machine, or a $10,000 status symbol. He just wanted a simple, practical bike that wouldn’t require a lot of maintenance, time or money.

But he was quickly turned off by the athletic focus of the bike shops he visited, where salespeople pushed him toward tricked-out bikes well beyond his needs. Eventually, he found a bike that worked, but the experience planted a seed in his brain.

Today, Pashak is a bit of a folk hero of the American bike scene thanks to his company Detroit Bikes, which uses Motor City mechanical know-how to churn out American-made versions of that bike he had such trouble finding all those years ago: Simple, reliable, sturdy, well-made city bikes without needless bells and whistles.

“I just thought there’s people like me who want to buy a bike, and they can’t,” Pashak told me recently.

DetroitBikesManufacturing from Detroit Bikes on Vimeo.

 

But the market for such bikes in North American remains small, which leads to a bigger question: Why are so many North Americans reluctant to embrace the kind of bikes Pashak is building? And is that reluctance holding us back from more bike-friendly lives?

Several years ago, I had an almost identical experience as Pashak. After a tough winter of bike commuting, the constant need to fine-tune my slush-saddled commuter bike had sapped my already limited gearhead tendencies. At that point, I was in desperate need of a bike that wasn’t so damn needy.

Yet, I struggled to find one. After months of searching, I finally came across a bike so nondescript I might have missed it had my state of mind been different: Comfortable steel frame, three-speed internal hub, no-fuss matte black finish. It even had coaster brakes — I didn’t even know foot brakes were even a thing anymore.

Years later, I still ride this bike nearly every day, and I love it. It’s the easiest, most practical and efficient ride I own. Best of all, it demands almost nothing from me. 

The A-Type by Detroit Bikes.

Such city bikes are much easier to come by these days than even five years ago. But when shopping for a new ride, many consumers, especially those not already immersed in the bike world, tend to default to the standard machines we’ve been sold for several generations now: mountain-bike style frames brimming with gears, often upsold to include suspension systems and carbon parts.

These can be great bikes in the right situations (like, say, scaling a mountain), but for some casual city cyclists, they can be expensive, impractical and sensitive. The risk is bigger than just a consumer choice. If you’re trying to use your bike for more than recreation, it can be completely discouraging if that bike doesn’t support that kind of lifestyle. If you’re bike is uncomfortable, you’re less likely to ride on a sore ass. If it can’t carry stuff, you’re less likely to use it for errands and shopping trips. If it’s loaded with needless gears that are in constant need of adjustments to prevent them from annoying rattling and rough shifting, you’re less likely to choose the bike.

So why do so many of us buy them?

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Pashak likens it to the consumer demand for impractical SUVs. Most consumers have no need for off-roading gas-guzzling 4x4s, but they still sell by the bucketload. We tend to have a weakness for aspirational consumer goods, and we conflate stuff with lifestyle.

You really see a contrast when visiting the great bike cities of Europe, which are overflowing with practical, unsexy, well-used bikes in all manner of black. Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize says Danes see bikes, not as status symbols, but as household appliances (he likens them to vacuum cleaners, which was an apt analogy, until we also managed to turn vacuum cleaners into fetishized status items. Thanks, Dyson).

I’m not saying everybody needs the kind of bike that Pashak is building — hell, I’ve never even tried a Detroit Bikes model — I’ve just seen how my own practical ride has made it easier to choose a bike as my transportation choice more often. I still love my road bike and my mountain bike, but they stay in the garage when I’m headed to the pub or grocery store.

Where I see hope in this scenario is the always reliable North American quality of laziness. Perhaps the only thing we value more than consumer status symbols is convenience. And if you’re looking for convenience, not much beats a reliable, time-tested, ultra-practical, universally unsexy, plain old bicycle.

 

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