For my last interview of last “season”, I rode my bike south to Elbow Park to meet up with Ellen Hadley and Andy Sharp. We met at their place after work to talk about riding bikes in the winter. It was the end of January and the weather was about what it’s like now – more like shoulder season weather than “real” winter. However, it was “real” winter when I went back a couple of weeks later to take pictures as they headed out to work in the morning – snow and the temperature was about 25 degrees colder. However, there’s nothing like a kiss to keep you warm on your way to work ….
Ellen teaches grade 9 at a small school in South Calgary. Andy is a software developer and he works downtown. Both ride their bikes to work every day.
Ellen says her commute is the perfect distance. It mostly just follows Elbow Drive all the way from home to school. It only takes her about 30 minutes in the winter on her fat bike. She says that drivers are pretty respectful and will talk with her at the lights, commending her for biking when the weather’s especially bad. There are no bike lanes on her route but since she’s riding against the flow in the morning and on the way home, traffic isn’t that bad. Since Elbow is a major artery, it gets cleared pretty quickly, not that it matters that much this winter.
Andy only has a short ride up and down 8th street into downtown. He says that the most annoying part of his ride is the underpass – it’s narrow and if you’re trapped behind anything big, like a bus or two, there isn’t any room to squeeze by. You sometimes just have to wait it out until the lights change.
Andy is also a fat bike rider. The Mukluks are recently acquired. He says that he was looking for “a good excuse to get a fat bike”. He thought it would be a fun reason to get on a bike in the morning.
Last year was Ellen’s first year to winter commute by bike. She started on studded tires but once she tried out the fat bike on snow she was a convert. She likes the squishy, fun feeling you get from riding on the balloonie tires. Besides, they seem more stable than the studs she was riding with before, especially when there was less snow.
Ellen uses a touring bike when the non-winter riding season rolls around. She finds it trusty, reliable and comfortable. She also has a general riding around bike for the summer, and a nice road bike for distance workouts. Andy’s summer commuting bike is a Brodie with an internal hub. He also has an old hard-tail mountain bike, a full suspension bike for actual “mountain” biking, and a carbon frame road bike for joining Ellen on those distance runs. They mentioned that there’s a unicycle hanging out in their garage that they’ll get around to sometimes.
Ellen said that as a teacher she feels that she’s setting a good example for the kids at her school – showing them that you don’t have to drive your car everywhere. It seems that she’s having a bit of an influence.
There aren’t any actual facilities at the school for Ellen. She packs her clothes in her pannier and changes in the staff washroom. There are bike racks outside the school but Ellen says that she doesn’t want to risk her bike so she brings it inside and parks it in the art room. To keep the tiles from lifting (again) she parks it on a rubber mat.
Andy just leaves his bike parked outside downtown. The building he’s in has underground parking but he feels that it’s too much hassle to get inside. The building has changing facilities and a full gym but he doesn’t take advantage of them. He says that he “hates changing clothes just because he hops on his bike.” When it’s cold he’ll just pull a pair of snow pants over his work clothes and away he goes. His commute is so short that changing clothes would take longer than the ride.
The fat bikes are ideal for off-road winter cycling, but they haven’t done a lot of that yet because they thought their options were limited, especially after a bad experience at Pocatera; mountain bikes are allowed on the trails in the summer but, apparently, not so much on the ski trails. Well, that’s the official version, although serious skiers were more welcoming. That got us talking about making winter biking an official winter Olympics sport.
We talked about the best and worst things about riding your bike to work. Ellen said that that on a snowy day, instead of just going to work, it’s “like a little adventure” along the way – a bit exciting, a bit out of the ordinary, and “really fun.” Andy’s take was a bit more prosaic – it’s the “same as summer,” he said. It’s about the exercise, being outside and breathing the air, and not being in a car. What he doesn’t like about winter biking is the extra clothes you need just to hop on your bike to get to work.
Ellen and Andy don’t consider themselves to be “elite”, but maybe they’re just a bit out of the ordinary because they bike so much. They do like participating in endurance events though – Ellen completed the Whistler Ironman last year, and her and Andy will be doing it together this year. Then, just for fun they rode their bikes from Calgary to Fernie a couple of years ago.
When Ellen lived in the North and commuted to South Calgary, she said she’d use the 7th Street cycle track just because she wanted people in cars to feel “positive about he expenditure on the infrastructure.” Riding the cycle track or not makes no difference to her because she’s comfortable riding on any road (e.g. Highway 22 to Fernie). But she does like the idea that her mom who wants to get riding, and other people like her, will have a protected space that she will be more comfortable riding in.
Andy’s all for it if it will get more people cycling, but he feels that there is lower hanging fruit that they could tackle first. As an example, he pointed to anything on the North side of the Bow River. The bike paths are great but you shouldn’t be using them for commuting – they rarely go where you want them to and the speed limit is weird – too high for pedestrian comfort and too slow for bikers. But once you get on the road there’s all kinds of shifting traffic patterns. You either have to dodge pedestrians on the bike paths, or you have to duel with cars. He said that another area that could be improved is the flyover into Bridgeland – cyclists and drivers both seem to be confused about what to do. Even worse when you’re coming into downtown and you wind up in the middle of 4th Avenue.
He thinks that cycle tracks are great, but they’re expensive and high profile. Maybe we could tackle a lot more of the simple things that would make riding easier. Things like cleaning up the transitions that sometimes don’t seem to be well thought out. Ellen mentioned that the bike lanes in Vancouver are fantastic. You never feel that you’re going out of your way at all, and you have some control over your movement at crossings with the crossing buttons.
Safety is very important to Andy when he’s on the road, but he doesn’t feel unsafe when he’s riding in traffic. There are “very few cars on the road that want to run you over.” Ellen said that having ridden for so long that it just seems safe and natural to ride with the traffic.
Andy is a big believer in just getting on your bike and going, but he recognizes that helmets are safer and they’re good things to wear. However, he does not think that helmet laws are a good thing – he doesn’t want there to be barriers keeping people from just “getting on their bikes and going.” He says that every time you implement a helmet law, ridership goes down because “people see it as advertising that cycling is unsafe because you need to wear a helmet for it.”
Ellen said that licensing is a “really bad idea.” It’s just another obstacle to getting people on their bikes. When you’re riding your bike you’re still liable for the traffic laws. It’s up to the cyclists to behave in a manner that is road flow positive. However, people have to realize that a car driving poorly and forgetting to obey the rules has a high chance of damaging a lot of property or hurting people. Cyclists have a high chance of only hurting themselves if they’re driving poorly.
Ellen says that part of the pleasure of biking is the freedom – just get on your bike and off you go. It’s just so easy. Having that controlled externally interferes with her concept of what biking is all about – and it’s just plain aggravating.
Andy added that a lot of people were blaming cyclists for the additional presence of the bike lanes – an unfortunate, us-vs-them attitude. He reminds us that the “City isn’t putting in bike lanes because of the people who are already cycling. They’re putting in bike lanes to try to encourage the people who are siting there in their cars who aren’t cycling; to try to get them up; to lower the bar to cycling.”