Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Have I got a bike for you!

Me and my lovely new ride
For over two years now I have been happily riding throughout Vancouver on an upright, step-through bicycle, also known as a city bike, or a Dutch-style bike. Prior to this, I could be found on a heavy mountain bike, complete with twenty-one speeds, shocks and extremely straight handle bars. It was a good bike, and got the job done, but after spending years hunched forward and putting a lot of strain on my wrists, shoulders and back, riding my bike was becoming less and less enjoyable. So when I saw images of people riding upright on beautifully sleek bicycles on photo blogs like Vancouver Cycle Chic and the other Cycle Chic blogs, making the switch was a no brainer.

Living in a city where at least three-quarters of my fellow riders are on road bikes, hybrid commuters and the occasional mountain bike, when I'm out on my city bike I tend to stand out, even more so when I'm on a family ride, riding alongside my husband and daughter on their upright bikes. However, instead of feeling like an outsider, I feel more like I'm holding onto this big secret that has yet to be revealed to most people. That secret? Riding an upright bike is a pretty spectacular experience.

It happens almost every day I'm out riding that someone, a friend or complete stranger, will compliment me on my bike, most notably that on its beauty. This has only increased now that I'm the happy owner of a shiny new, red Papillionaire Sommer. I do enjoy the compliments, but I can't help wondering why more people don't choose to ride upright bicycles. With all the adulation, one would think that there would be an increase in the number of people out there on city bikes. Still, I'm one of the few people I know who chooses to ride upright. Perhaps it's just a lack of education of what it is upright bikes have to offer. So here it is, I'm going to share with you the joy of riding a city bike, and why it just may be the bike for you!

Riding upright I can see everything around
me, and people see me, too!
There really are many advantages to riding this classic style of bike, aside from being told that you look "like a photo" as you bike along (yes, this has happened to me). Most notably, for me, was the reduced strain I was placing on my body. As I mentioned, riding hunched on my mountain bike was doing a number on my back, shoulders and wrists due simply to my weight being heavily dispersed forward. Almost as soon as I switched to an upright, I noticed how my back and wrist pain nearly disappeared, and I could ride much longer distances and all that would really hurt was my bottom after spending hours in the saddle. Instead of riding my bike being a chore, I love heading out for a day of riding, whether for errands or just enjoy riding throughout my city. 

In addition to less bodily strain, I feel incredibly safe riding around on a city bike. Because the nature of the bike is to sit upright, I can see everything around me easily without having to crane my neck around to check blind spots for passing bikes and cars, or checking for oncoming traffic at intersections. And while I can see more clearly, sitting so straight means drivers see me more clearly as well. Because I'm not leaned forward, I'm not hidden by parked cars as I come to a traffic circle or intersection, and it's hugely comforting to know I'm that much more visible to those I share the road with. Along with being more visible, it's a natural tendency on an upright bike to ride at a slightly slower pace. Due in part to my body position, the materials used to make city bikes and that most max out around 7 speeds, it is unlikely that I'll be racing from point A to point B at high speeds. This means I have time to see the traffic around me and react quickly to the erratic and unpredictable behaviour from drivers, fellow cyclists and pedestrians.

Outside of all the practical reasons to choose a city bike, there's one really important reason why I choose to ride an upright bicycle. I ride the bike I do because when I'm out on a ride, I want to fully experience the world around me. I want to see everything I can, which isn't easy with a more leaned forward position on a bike. Just yesterday, I took an unexpected morning ride with my husband along the seawall, and the sights I was privy to were such a great part of my morning. From the tug boat pulling a barge into False Creek for a pick up (not an every day occurrence), to the beautiful skyline through the foggy clouds, and the still water in the Marinas, I was completely in awe of the beauty unfolding before me. I also had my day brightened by many complete strangers smiling at me as I passed, making eye contact and saying good morning as they went about their days. Riding my upright bike I feel so connected to the people and the places I pass, and I would be remiss to not have those moments because I was hunched over on a bike focused only on the road ahead of me.

When all's said and done, the best bike for you is one that makes you happy and eager to get back on it for a ride. What I hope, though, is that this post gives you a better understanding of why city bikes aren't just for show, and could quite possibly be the bike you've been searching for all along. While the simple bicycle has evolved so much over time to meet the needs of the racer or the mountain biker, there is something to be said for the early 20th century design. One meant for transportation, not just for recreation, and designed for civilized travel, dressed in even your Sunday best. I am personally very happy to see a resurgence of the city bike, and invite you to join me as I travel through my city and others at a leisurely pace, enjoying every aspect of my surroundings and the people I meet along the way!

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

It's tradition, not politics

There's nothing political about
enjoying the simple act of riding a bike
As 2014 gets into full swing, while I'm not one to make New Year's resolutions, I have set a goal for myself, and that is to stop focusing so much on the negative politics around my lifestyle, specifically, the fact that I ride a bike. What has prompted me to take this path? Quite simply it's because I don't feel that what I do just is political, because it isn't. Or at least it shouldn't be. Sure, installation of new infrastructures and changed policies are done at the political level. That does not mean, however, that everyone who chooses to ride a bike is doing so to make a political statement. In fact, I would argue that that's the last thing on most cyclists minds when they hop on their saddle.

Speaking personally, when I unlock my bike and think about setting off for the day, I'm not thinking, "I'm going to change the world today!" It's usually more like, "Ok, where am I going, and how do I get there by taking the least amount of hills?" Riding a bike to get around is no different that choosing to walk, take public transit or drive. All I'm doing is trying to get from one place to another in the most convenient way I know how. The same can be said for my husband, Chris. When he wakes up in the morning, the first thing he does is look at the weather, and if it's not pouring with rain, he gets excited to ride his bike to work. Not because he gets to be "One Less Car", but because he finds riding to work much for refreshing and enjoyable that stuffing himself like a sardine in the bus that takes him to the office.

There was a time, in the not so distant past, when riding a bike had nothing to do with having a political agenda. I think back to my own childhood and teen years, when riding a bike was how I got around. Not because I was bent on saving the environment, but because my friends were all a bus or bike ride away from where I lived. Even before my time, I have heard stories of my parents riding from their respective neighbourhoods in Montreal to see each other because that was the fastest and easiest way to do it. I'm positive my grandparents rode bikes around, too, although I haven't heard many stories about it because riding a bike around isn't that remarkable of a means of transportation. It's just what people did and still do to get from point A to point B.

So why all the politics nowadays? There are a myriad of reasons I can think of, but as I said, I'm trying to move the conversation away from a political mindset, and more towards looking at the human aspect of riding a bike. What gets lost in all the rhetoric thrown around is that riding a bike is a very human activity, and when we start thinking of it more in that light, the more the frustration, anger, and combative dialogue will start to dissipate, opening up the conversation to something a bit more amiable. 

Riding a bike is a tradition we have been passing down from generation to generation for over a hundred years. It is the great mobilizer, allowing people of all ages, abilities and incomes the means to travel throughout their neighbourhoods and cities freely. Children learn the freedom of being able to transport themselves without relying on their parents. Many people with disabilities or ailments find a bicycle gives them mobility and the independence their situations would otherwise limit. And cycling is cheap, meaning practically anyone can afford the cost to purchase and maintain a bike as their means of transportation, increasing the mobility of even the most financially strapped of our citizens. 

So it's time to move away from the divisive language, focused almost entirely on an US vs THEM mentality. Everything that happens in our neighbourhoods, cities and beyond is a WE conversation, and how we influence a positive quality of life for all our citizens, regardless of their means of transportation. I will do my part, and continue to write about riding a bike is a positive, human activity for my family and I. Hopefully, one day in the near future, I will begin to see this same positive dialogue start throughout my own city. 

Friday, 3 January 2014

The Road is Long...

Three days have passed now since the Velo Family returned from our Christmas Holiday on the Pacific Coast. While I'm glad to be home in my comfortable bed and familiar places, it is always sad to see the end to a holiday, especially one with so many memorable moments. Our whirlwind tour of San Francisco left us wanted more but grateful for what we did experience, and the unseasonably warm weather in Venice Beach and Los Angeles gave us some much needed fun times in the sun. It was the trip home, however, that inspired our journey to begin with. Since moving to the West Coast in 2007, it has been a dream of my husband and I to drive along the Pacific Coast Highway and see all the natural beauty we'd only seen in movies. So with about four days until our rental car needed to be returned, we set off North from Venice Beach for the slow, jaw-dropping trip home.
This trip I also rediscovered my fear
of tunnels through mountains!
A washroom break in Morro Bay gave us this
lovely and unexpected view
Our first day of travel would take us to Santa Cruz, CA, with stops along the way whoever the mood caught us. It truly was more beautiful than I could ever have expected. Having just spent three days along the Coast, I was well aware of the majesty of the waves, but nothing could have prepared me for spectacle of the massive waves meeting the cliffs along the coast. Words and photos could never truly depict the reality, and I was instantly thankful for our determination to do this trip, despite the obstacles we faced on our trip down from Vancouver. With many stops along the way, what should have been a seven hour trip quickly became nearly double that, meaning we didn't have the time or the daylight left to take a walk through Big Sur and see the giant redwoods. It's always good to have excuses to come back though!
We also met this guy in Morro Bay, just hanging out having a nap with his buddies

It's hard to complain when this is
the backdrop to your road trip!

The next few days saw much of the same, with many more stops along the coast, including a return to Cannon Beach, OR and some self-indulgent stops in Astoria, OR to visit the Goonies House, and Snoqualmie Falls in Washington to see the iconic scene featured in the opening of the 90's TV series, Twin Peaks, and a stop for some cherry pie and a "darn good cup of coffee". When we finally reached our front door, the whole family was exhausted and thankful to be out of the rental car and in the warmth of our home. After settling back in, I had time to reflect on our travels, and what new perspectives the journey gave me.

Muir Woods just outside of San Francisco is surprisingly busy on Sundays, so we were forced to discover Muir Beach instead...what a shame ;) 
The kids in awe seeing the beach from "The Goonies". I've yet to see Cannon Beach not covered in fog. One day...
Even though it's not sunny like California, the Pacific Northwest is home to many beautiful landscapes as well, like the majestic Snoqualmie Falls.
With views like this, it was
worth travelling by car

Not so much a revelation, but one thing I appreciate from our trip is that most of what I was able to see and experience on the coast we could not have done without a car. There is little access to many of the places we stopped unless they were more well populated places like Santa Cruz or Cannon Beach, where bus lines and travel groups are organized to allow people to travel there. I do know people who have cycled along the Pacific Coast Highway, but haven driven past many brave people on two-wheels, it is not an activity for the faint of heart, rubbing shoulders with fast moving cars and breathing in exhaust along the way. So had we not buckled down and rented a car, our trip would have been missing all the spontaneous stops along the beautiful coastline.

The view from one of our many spontaneous stops along the way
Winding our way along the
California Coast
The view on a windy morning in Santa Cruz.
There are certainly worse places to have a stopover during a road trip!
They were always much happier when not
trapped in the back seat of a car

What I also learned is that I don't miss long car trips at all. My entire childhood was spent like most other people my age. Road trips with the family to visit relatives long distances away, for family camping trips, and even the long haul from Southern Ontario to Florida for a stay in Disney World. Even as adults, Chris and I would make similar trips throughout Ontario and Quebec to see friends and family. Now, after almost four years without a car, I have forgotten the monotony of long car trips, and the stress of driving itself. Be it our car trouble on the highway heading into Los Angeles, or the never-ending winding roads along the coast, it was not long before I was dreaming of the relaxing experience of travelling by train or plane. And then there was our children, not accustomed to being stuck in small spaces for hours on end. Without making you relive our trials and tribulations of siblings fighting or car-sickness, I can tell you I am not eager to get back into a car for an extended period with my kids any time soon.

After our eleven day road trip, I feel
like we have so much to be thankful
for and to look forward to!

Our family road trip over Christmas was epic to say the least, and a very long time coming. We have some wonderful memories that will stay with us always, as well as a continued desire to explore all that the Pacific Coast has to offer. My husband and I can now officially mark some 'to-do's' of our travel list, and add a few more for future travels. We have also re-affirmed our choice to live car-free, fully understanding all the stress and cost involved with car-ownership. We certainly don't regret our decision to take this slow, car-centred trip, as we were able to have experiences we wouldn't have had otherwise, but we also know we won't be rushing off to the dealership anytime soon to get a car of our own. In the end, it was exactly the trip we wanted and needed to take, satiating our need for travel for the time being, and leaving us excited for family adventures to come!

Chris and I share a geek moment from our childhood at the Goonies house
Oh no! The Fremont Troll in Seattle has our kids! Poor guy ;)