What’s your ride? Fixie, mini or cruiser? Road, mountain or city? And what’s your scene? Freak bikes, bike showgirls or naked rides? Sunday cruising, or Critical Mass? Or do you just like pedaling along the seawall on a sunny day?
Whatever bike style turns your crank, you’re probably not alone. Bicyclists, bike-based communities, and groovy forms of bike culture are bustin’ out all over Vancouver.
Some of these communities have an activist bent, like Critical Mass, the monthly group ride that aims to encourage cycling while showing drivers that bikes “aren’t blocking traffic; they are traffic.” Others provide avenues for personal expression, like the freak bike folks who vie to weld together the funkiest (although not always the most stable) “Frankenbikes.” Fitness (and a competitive streak) propel the aerodynamic road cyclists who log four-hour Sunday tours, while thrills and the threat of spills draw the log-balancing mountain bikers. Meanwhile, those who join Beverly’s Dial-a-Doo Wig Ride for cruiser (and wig) aficionados are all about easygoing fun.
Whatever’s behind the drive to ride, sustainability advocates are applauding (and trying to accelerate) the biking boom. Bikes are high-impact stealth weapons against climate change. Sustainable transportation consultant Richard Campbell says personal vehicles produce a whopping 30 per cent of Metro Vancouver’s greenhouse gas emissions. So every time a bike subs for an SUV – or even a hybrid – the climate scores. And bike rides could conceivably replace a lot of car rides: the average car makes 2,000 trips of three kilometres or shorter every year. According to TransLink, in Metro Vancouver one-third of trips to work are under five kilometres.
Biking instead of driving also cuts down the air pollutants behind smog, which contributes to serious health problems such as asthma. Transport Canada estimates the transportation emissions spewed between 1997 and 2020 will cost our health-care system somewhere between $11 billion and $38 billion.
Bikes are extraordinarily efficient transportation, in terms of turning energy used into distance travelled, points out Campbell. And they also make superb use of natural resources, when you consider the metal, plastics and energy that go into making a bike, compared to a car. Campbell explains that an underground parking space costs about $40,000 to build, while above-ground ones cost at least $5,000. “Then there’s the materials and energy to build and maintain the roads, bridges and parkades cars need,” he adds. “A dumb bike is better than a Smart car,” Campbell quips. “If everyone on the planet drove even a small car we’d be in a lot more trouble than we’re in now, but everybody could sustainably ride a bike.”
While everybody might be able to sustainably ride a bike, most Vancouverites won’t practically be able to ditch their car (or cars) entirely anytime soon. However, Campbell’s stats do underscore the collective benefits of cycling rather than driving whenever possible, even if that’s only for a quick trip to the corner store.
But even if people don’t drive any less, but simply bike more, society wins. Biking reduces the risk of health problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity. A recent U.K. study suggests that new cyclists biking short distances can reduce their risk of death by up to 22 per cent. Furthermore, according to Campbell, “bikes build community. They put a face to the vehicle. You’re more likely to stop and say hello to a friend on a bike than in a car.”
The good news is that biking in Vancouver is growing. The number of bike trips to work in Metro Van doubled in the past decade, an increase that planners attribute to improved biking amenities such as more bike paths.
That’s precisely what got mobile hairstylist Beverly Penney back on a bike. Penney had grown up cycling, but gave it up when she came to Vancouver because she found biking on Vancouver’s mean streets too nerve-wracking. Once bike paths became more available, Penney got back in the saddle, choosing a particularly cushy one when she picked a cruiser (the vintage and recent retro-styled bikes built for style and comfort, with wide, well-padded seats) as her trusty steed.
Now Penney even runs her business on her bike, commuting between her clients (who are mostly in Yaletown) on her “Betty,” a five-speed white cruiser with pink wheels, pink saddlebags, a matching pink bike radio and a trailer (emblazoned with “Beverly’s Dial-a-Doo” in pink crystals) in which Penney totes her porta-sink, mini vacuum, chair cover/hair catching mat, tripod mirror and other supplies. “Business is going really well,” says Penney. “Customers really like the green aspect.”
Penney also organizes an annual ride for the Vancouver Cruiser Riders. For Beverly’s Dial-a-Doo Wig Ride (on June 14 this year; www.vancruisers.ca), cruisers sport wigs and corresponding outfits, toodle around the seawall, then strut their stuff in a cruiser fashion show; last year Penney sported an enormous pink beehive. “The whole thing’s really social, and it’s a great way to meet people. Everybody has a great time,” Penney enthuses. Penney says 30 to 120 folks attend Vancouver Cruiser’s monthly outings.
Fixie riders also organize a lot of fun events, but they have a completely different bike esthetic from the tush-pampering, matched-everything cruisers. Fixies, or fixed-gear bikes, are lean, mean transportation machines.
Originally used mostly for training on indoor race tracks, fixies don’t have a freewheel. They usually only have one gear and they often don’t have brakes (riders slow down by resisting the pedals.) Their stripped-down design makes them ultra-lightweight and reliable, and they can also be cheaply assembled from spare parts. Those features made fixies the bike of choice for couriers and DIY-ers; more recently, the numbers of fixies exploded as the bikes became the vehicle of choice for counterculturish twentysomethings.
Wendell Challenger, the man behind www.fearlessgearless.com, the online hub for Vancouver fixie riders, started riding a single-gear bike in 2000. Like many fixie fans, Challenger appreciates their purity and simplicity. And while Challenger suggests the bikes have become a bit of a fashion accessory of late, he has nothing but praise for fixie culture overall.
“Fixie riders throw great events for each other – parties, underground races, trick riding – totally outlandish stuff that mocks traditional North American competitiveness,” says Challenger. “They’re really fun and inclusive, and the whole scene has an anti-establishment, self-reliant ethic that basically asks, ‘What do you really want out of life? Do you really want to work a lot so you can buy a big-screen TV in the burbs?’ And they don’t take themselves too seriously. What’s not to like?”
Another group of riders that don’t take themselves too seriously are the freak bikers – but their two-wheelers are anything but stripped down (and they often have more than two wheels). Freak bikes are cycles with unusual proportions, from choppers that mimic Harleys, to minis made from kids’ bikes, to tall trikes that recall turn-of-the-nineteenth century cycle experiments.
Usually self-made, freak bikes are designed to turn heads, says Jim Hoehnle, who has seven freak bikes (three complete, four in process); he’s also helped dozens of people build their own. The bikes are not only personal artistic avenues, says Hoehnle, “They give people something to smile at. And they say to non-cyclists, ‘Hey you could be stuck in traffic, or you could be out here having fun, like us.’”
Of course, in terms of bike scenes in Vancouver, the most visible – and intentionally so – is probably Critical Mass. Modelled on a San Francisco ride, the controversial protest-cum-celebration – dubbed “a grassroots reclamation of space” – was started in Vancouver in 1997 with the goal of raising awareness of bicycles as vehicles with a right to be on the road. The leaderless rush-hour ride, held on the last Friday of every month, now often has hundreds and occasionally over a thousand riders. (Critical Mass is now a global phenomenon, with rides in 24 countries from Lithuania to Israel, and spin-offs such as the World Naked Bike Ride.)
As Vancouver’s Critical Mass ride has grown, so has conflict with drivers, particularly when Critical Massers block car traffic along bridges and major arterials, or at intersections. “I think the ride empowers cyclists who participate, and builds the cycling community,” says one long-time Masser who prefers to remain anonymous. “But I don’t know if it helps cycling’s image with the public.” Paul Bogart, owner of the Bike Doctor stores and another stalwart Critical Mass rider disagrees. “Ninety-eight per cent of the reaction is really positive, or at least not negative. Cars cause congestion, not a once-a-month ride.”
While their perspectives vary, for many people in these subcultures, bikes have become central to their lifestyle and identity. These people are now producing heaps of bike-specific culture. They sport bike tattoos, they make bike art and they write bike songs. They produce bike operas (the Rocky Dino Show, featuring bike-riding dinosaurs) and bike movies (such as the recent feature doc You Never Ride Alone.) There’s a local bike radio show, and bike magazines, such as Momentum (www.momentumplanet.com) and Urban Rider. There are even bike showgirls (the B:C:Clettes) and an all-boy bike-inspired dance crew (the Brakes).
While all this bike-focused activity supports and encourages cycling, the real velo-vanguard may actually be those who don’t wear their velo-love on their reflective Gore-Tex sleeve – people like Maricel Bongco, a recent bike commuting convert. Bongco, a polished woman who wears
a stylish trench coat and coordinated purse when she meets me on her lunch break, counters bike commuter stereotypes, as both a female (an estimated 60 per cent of regular cyclists in Metro Van are male) and a someone whose work demands professional attire. (Bongco works for a high-end furniture company.)
Bongco used to commute by car, but hated dealing with traffic. The idea of biking to work intrigued her, but she worried about safety (a common barrier). So last summer Bongco took the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition’s one-day Commuter Cycling Skills Program (www.vacc.bc.ca/bikeskills). “From then on I was hooked,” says the mother of two, who now bikes the nearly four kilometres to work (and four back) five days a week in the summer (less in the winter) with her work-day wardrobe in her backpack. “Cycling to work gives me a feeling of liberation. It clears my mind before and after, and I don’t have to go to the gym. I really love it.” And she’s converting others: her husband is planning to start bike commuting this summer.
Only two per cent of Metro Vancouverites currently get around by bike, compared to 76 per cent who use cars. So getting more people like Bongco on bikes is essential if bikes are going to have a real impact on sustainability. People are working on that from a bunch of different angles; for example, getting people who normally wouldn’t bike into the saddle was part of why retailer Jorg & Olif started selling its urbane Dutch city bike imports locally.
Unfortunately for those charmed by some of Vancouver’s grittier bike subcultures, experts are predicting their demise. Gordon Price, the former Vancouver city councillor, current SFU prof and seasoned sustainable transportation advocate, visited Paris this past winter to inspect that city’s superbly successful Velib bike rental system. Price thinks city-wide projects like Velib, which facilitate bicycling as mass transportation, are the wave of the future.
“You combine peak oil, climate change, quality of life issues, and if you don’t have a serious bike strategy you aren’t a serious competitive city,” says Price. “Paris is doing it. London is doing it; they’re pouring 400 million pounds into creating major bike arterials. Vancouver’s going to have to keep up. Biking’s going to lose its alternative lifestyle status, but that’s a price I think we should be prepared to pay.”
Given the environmental, health and social costs of not shifting to biking as mass transportation, Price is probably right. So spin yer wheels, bike scenesters, while you may – and as the bike activists say, “Vive la vélolution!”