Archive for the ‘cycling’ Category

A week of riding a bicycle around Vancouver reminds me of the first time I took a boat up the Fraser River. Seeing the region from the water, I became aware of industries and activities that most people drive past every day, never imagining nor seeing. In the same way, riding a bike – often on trails and routes that run parallel to main roads, rather than on them – is making me discover corners of the city that I thought I knew. It’s as though I’m continually crossing over into an alternate universe from the one I’ve lived in most of my life.

The small revelations are all the more surprising because, as someone who until a few years ago did some serious daily running, I figured I already knew more than most about the hidden pockets of the city. Yet riding along the south side of Burnaby Lake, I discovered trails that I either never imagined, or had forgot years ago if I ever did know them. Half a kilometer away, traffic on the Trans Canada roared past, yet I was alone on trails through partly reclaimed marshland that gave a green and brackish impression of eternity.

Then, on Friday, I was on the first few kilometers of the Central Valley Greenway, where it crosses from New Westminster into Burnaby. The route passes through Hume Park, which I have been passing for years in cars and on the bus, but of which I’ve been only vaguely aware. To my surprise, the path through the park was surrounded by the tall and dripping green of secondary trees, and passes a semi-professional baseball diamond I never knew existed, and exits into a small urbane oasis of calm only a couple of blocks from the busy streets that made up my definition of New Westminster.

Coming back, I detoured from the Greenway up a steep hill to a path beside the small switching yard for the trains. I’ve run along this part of the Greenway for years, figuring I had a shrewd idea where the path up the hill must lead – but I was wrong by three or four blocks. In fact, the distance from the Greenway to the end of this detour was at least half a kilometer longer than I imagined. In the middle of the city, less than two kilometers from where I live, was a stretch of woodland where I was completely alone, except for the occasional dog walker.

Much the same discovery awaited me this afternoon, when I took the Skytrain to the Main Street station and rode to Granville Island. I was vaguely aware of the Olympic Village, Vancouver’s white elephant from the Winter Games, and the fact that the seawall wound along the south shore of False Creek, but both were far enough from my usual haunts that I had never seen them up close. But today I had a chance to see them up close – even if I did have to keep more than half an eye on the crowds of pedestrians and dawdling cyclists. The Olympic Village struck me as a piece of post-modern minimalism that would benefit from more trees and garden, and I much preferred the older condos closer to Granville Island, but the point is that I had seen neither. I even discovered pubs and restaurants that must cater to a severely local crowd, because I had never heard of them.

The illusion of a parallel world is all the stronger because I’ve met more people in a week than I have in all my years of riding in a car or among the anonymous, iPod-deafened crowds on public transit. Cyclists, I’ve discovered, actually talk to each other. Unlike most of the people you encounter in public, they have potential topics of conversation with each other – and their chosen means of transport actually makes conversation possible.

After all, as a cyclist, you know that any other cyclists is one of the few percent who have chosen a means of transport that depends on their own muscle power. And while the bike routes are mostly well marked, there is often the need to ask directions, or maybe the need to borrow a pump or repair kid.

But, whatever the reason, cyclists talk to each other as they cruise along or wait at lights. One couple even volunteered themselves as guides for several kilometers before we parted ways.

Possibly, my reaction is colored from the wild exuberance and nostalgia I still feel from being back on a bicycle. But I am tickled by the small discoveries I’m making – and more than a little smug that I am now part of a small minority that knows the city in a way that most of its inhabitants never will.

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“I’m going back on the bicycle,
I just can’t pay the bills,
I’m going back on the bicycle,
And freewheel down the hill.”

–Tommy Sands

In my teens, I was welded to my bicycle. I used it to run errands in the village, and in the summer I would organize forty kilometer rides out to Horseshoe Bay or the University of British Columbia. But as an adult, I let my bicycle rust on the porch until it was beyond reclaiming, and walked or rode in a car – until today, when I spent the afternoon becoming a cyclist again.

I’d been contemplating the move for some time. For one thing, I only preserve my sanity when riding an exercise bike at the gym by doing interval workouts – and even then I have to grit my teeth against the sports and diet talk around me. For another, Burnaby, the city where I live, has kilometers of urban cycle trails, including the Central Valley Greenway, which goes all the way into Vancouver, as well as dozens of trails through the nearby green belt. Just as importantly, now that I’m by myself, I felt the need of doing something new, something just for me.

Still, for a while I thought I wasn’t fated to be a cyclist again. Twice when I planned to find a bike, the Skytrain broke down. Two other times, I had a swollen ankle that kept me near home. Another time, a friend arrived unexpectedly in town, causing me to cancel my plans. But today, the stars were finally aligned, and shortly after noon, I arrived at the shop and started trying bikes.

Supposedly, you never forget how to ride. But in my case, that’s a half truth: in my first effort, I managed to stay upright, but I wobbled like the backside of a duck.

Fortunately, my inner ear and muscles soon started half-remembering the skills I hadn’t used in years, and within twenty minutes I was no longer disgracing myself quite so badly and could almost look over my shoulder without veering out of control. If I couldn’t turn on a dime, I could just about manage the maneuver on a baseball diamond.

I did, though, need to go back and try the first bike again. The first time I tried it, I was too busy clinging to the handle bars and trying not to yelp with terror when the bike store employee gave me a push.

I had come with a definite idea of what I wanted – a refurbished bike, with racing handle bars, and a good gear ratio so I wouldn’t bang my chin with my knees when pedaling on the flat. But a slightly used hybrid (half mountain, half road) was almost the same price, gave a better ride with regular handle bars, and gave me more options for the kinds of riding I was likely to do. So that’s what I ended up buying, even though twenty-one gears seems a ridiculously large number.

Then it was time to accessorize. When I was a teenager, I just hopped on my bike and rode. In contrast, today the law requires a helmet and a bell at the very least (never mind that I would forget all about the bell and most likely shout on any occasion when it might be useful). If I ride at night, I need a rear reflector. A basket and lock were necessary for quick hops to the store. I also wanted fenders, since the idea of my back being spotted by mud didn’t appeal – and, living in the Lower Mainland, sooner or later, I knew I would be riding in the rain. Still, somehow I fought the madness and managed to keep my spending down to only ten dollars more than I had planned.

“How are you going to get home?” the store clerk asked.

I had planned to take my new purchase on the Skytrain and only ride a couple of kilometers home, but in a fit of bravado I said, “I’m going to ride it.”

“Good for you! Way to go!” The clerk enthused. But when he asked me where I lived, I couldn’t help imagining that he looked glad to think that he was unlikely to be on the road while I was. He’d seen me testing bikes.

Since home was ten kilometers away, I was already repenting my rashness. Yet I couldn’t back down without condemning myself as an empty boaster, even if nobody except me would know. So I set off, my hands a little uncertain on the gears, worrying that any moment I was going to end up curled in a ball, like the centipede who become uncoordinated when asked how he walked. So long as I didn’t think too much, I kept telling myself, I could trust my old reflexes to get me home – even if I took three hours to get there, and walked most of the way.

But you know what? Within a kilometer of leaving the store, I was having the most fun I had had in over a year. Like walking, cycling keeps me in touch with what’s happening around me, but it has the advantage of letting you travel reasonably quickly.

Moreover, unlike a car, a bicycle is a machine that enhances your muscular effort. Where a car simply carries you, a bike improves your efficiency, helping you to climb a hill more easily in lower gears, and to travel farther with each revolution of the pedal in higher gears.

The result was a wild joy in my heart, of a sort that only the best of runs can provide. I felt strong and unlimited, as though I wanted to sing but too many songs were clamoring to be sung for me to know which to voice first.

Thirty minutes later, I was regretting the end of the trip, and only the knowledge that I had to get other things done kept me from prolonging it.

I’m sure that my muscles will pay the price tomorrow. But I’m going out for a ride tomorrow, too, hoping to recapture more of that strenuous pleasure from my teen years that I’d forgotten.

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I’m lucky in my choice of exorcisms. When things get too much, other people get too drunk or turn on the people around them. But through no virtue of my own, when I get restless from too long at the computer, or overwhelmed by all that I can control or haven’t done or should have done, I get rid of the tension by violent exercise. Something about the lightheaded edge of fatigue calms the frustrations that would otherwise build up like a slow poison.

The physical aspect is one aspect of the release. When I reach the point when my lungs are burning from my effort and my legs and arms are nearly trembling, not much room is left for depression or self-pity. At that point, I’m held upright by the adrenalin and the endorphins swamping my blood. To a point, the harder I exercise, the longer I can exercise – or so it seems.

But, for me, the most important aspect is the mental. All exercise, whether inside or outside, running, cycling, swimming, or walking, consists of repetitions of a few simple actions such as the movement of the legs and arms, and the regular intake and outake of breath. These repetitions make exercise a form of meditation, a heightened state of paradoxical quiet, for all I can hear my laboring breath with my ears and feel my increased heart rate. It’s rare that I don’t come back from a run with the problem I was working on solved, or with a stoic optimism replacing my doubts and uncertainty. Exercise tells me, not that my mental state doesn’t matter, but that there are other rhythms in the world that keep me going and that are somehow enough in themselves.

For most of my adult life, my exercise of choice has been running – and I mean running, not jogging, because the pace I set myself was always a demanding one. However, in the last few years, I’ve branched out more in an effort to preserve what’s left of the battered cartilage in my knees. And, in doing so, I’ve found that each form of exercise with its characteristic set of repetitive motions is its own form of meditation.

I don’t know about anyone else, but for me running is a creative meditation from which I retrieve the structure of the piece of writing I’m working on, or an idea to develop. By contrast, swimming, while often leaving just as tired as any other form of exercise, has a calming effect – perhaps because even the breast-stroke that I prefer involves a deprivation of the senses. Cycling, though, is best for an all-out assault on negative emotions of all kinds (or at least the intervals I do at the exercise room are), while walking is more contemplative, and brings a deeper awareness of trees and temperature and people. But all of them leave me focused, relaxed, and renewed. The best days are usually those that involve more than one of these types of meditation, and the main advantage of holidays is that I can fit more of them in. It’s a rare day that I don’t burn over 800 extra calories, and a satisfying one when I burn more.

I suppose that the long-term fitness that my exercise regime bestows helps me deal with tension, too (I have to get something out of it; I have a heavy build that, with my clothes on, doesn’t look fit). But it’s the day to day relief that I value the most, especially at the end of work. So long as I can exercise, I rarely have trouble sleeping or keeping motivated. I count myself lucky that my escape from myself takes such an effective and easy to obtain form.

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