Friday, April 30, 2010

A couple of things

I'm back on the road after a week off at the Festival (I book a Vrtucar during the Festival because of all the running around that needs to be done, so since the 21st I've been behind the wheel.) And that's Thing One:

Oh, my people. Cyclists, cyclists. I know you know this already but knowing and doing are apparently two different things. When I don't know whether you're going to obey the actual rules of the road, or the "cyclist" version of the rules of the road, things get hairy. I had to slam on the brakes once because a guy came cruising along the sidewalk, on the wrong side of the road for the direction he was going, and darted across the crosswalk against the light, as I was trying to turn right. Good thing I was trying to turn right, and not just rolling straight on through the intersection: it meant I was already going slow enough that I could slam on the brakes.

Turning left by crossing a couple of lanes, then cruising straight down the yellow line for half a block, then pedalling the wrong way into the oncoming lane while angling for that turn? Spooky. And let's talk about stunt bikes with bitty tires that wobble back and forth every time you pick up steam. Weaving and wobbling along, at the side of a road like Bank Street? Also spooky. Popping out from between parked cars? Yup. Spooky. I'm the driver that slows up and gives you room, remember, but I have to be able to see you. Or predict where you're going to be. I have said this before and I'll say it again: when everyone knows what to expect of everyone else, things are cool. When no one knows what to expect from anyone else, things are uncool and people could get hurt.

However, to the cyclists I did see (lots of them) who signalled, stopped at lights, shoulder checked, and generally behaved like cars - thank you. You, I didn't tense up while passing.

Thing Two: Mostly unrelated to Thing One. Today was my first trip downtown in over a week. I was on my way back up Bank Street, past Billings Bridge (this is where all my run-ins seem to take place) when an elderly couple in an elderly minivan came along and turned off Riverside. It's one of those intersections with the eased right turns. I was just crossing, and they came around the corner and right up on my back tire. I didn't notice them slowing up at all. I don't know if they heard me shouting, "Whoa. Whoa! WhoawhoawhoawhoaWHOA!" at them, as I started pedalling frantically to get ahead of the van, which was looming up behind me with no sign of stopping or slowing, almost as though they hadn't seen me. The woman, in the passenger seat, looked out the window at me with a vague, inscrutable smile as they passed me and I screamed, "What are you DOING?!?" at them. Maybe they were completely aware of me, and knew they weren't going to hit me: but I don't know that. It's always possible they hadn't noticed me. I feel very small and very transparent sometimes, on my bike.

It was another case that reminded me why I drive the way I do, when I have a car. I don't want to scare the cyclists. And to be totally honest, I'm a bit of a scaredy cyclist. I wonder sometimes why it doesn't stop me. I know a lot of people who have said they don't bike because it's too scary to tackle traffic. And I'm not the world's biggest risk-taker. I'm not the people I mentioned above, who duck and weave through traffic on their bikes. I'm stuck somewhere in between the sidewalk riders, who are too scared of traffic to try and ride in the roads, and the daredevils that thread the needle between city buses at high speed. This incident made me pull over and collect myself: and I actually caught myself wondering if it was wise to actually go back out there. But go back out there I did.

Thing Three: I just spotted this Facebook group, to support a friend of a friend of mine who is going to be biking 40K for the Foundation Fighting Blindness. 40K, you might say. Big deal. Except that Kathleen has retinitis pigmentosa. She's legally blind, and will be biking to Bells Corners and back. Now that's cool. Her sponsorship page is here if you want to give her your support.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

We interrupt this blog...

.... to bring you the Ottawa International Writers Festival. Today is setup day: I'll be heading off to pick up my Vrtucar in about 10 minutes, then the Festival will open up its huge jaws and swallow me for a week. Visit us at to see what I'm going to be doing between now and the 28th of April.

When I come back: Mike's going for a tuneup and I start trying to find a day to ride out to Gatineau Park!

Monday, April 19, 2010


It's good to have some goals, right? I have been daydreaming, since midwinter, about taking a day or two out this summer to take some long road trips. Now, I know Mike needs a serious tuneup before that happens. Today, on my way to Vanier, I realized that I can't even really rely on him to change gears when I want him to. (If you saw a cyclist around 6:45 AM on Alta Vista, her legs madly flying around like she was desperate, it's just because I couldn't shift to a higher gear to save my life.) But once Festival wraps up, it's off to the bike shop with Mike for an overhaul. And then, I think I want to start covering some serious distance.

I know he's not really built for the long hauls the way those leggy racing bikes are. Meh. I bet Mike can handle it. And I'm just masochistic enough to try the long distances on a mountain bike that weighs ... I don't know what he weighs. A lot.

So, I've been eyeing the University of Ottawa Heart Institute's Bike for Beats charity ride. I'm looking at the 100 km ride, actually. I mean, why not? Last Thursday, at a conservative estimate, I did 24 miles in a day (what with needing to get to work, and rehearsal, and my radio show, and other errands.) That's like 38.5 kilometres, as part of my regular getting around. Is an extended ride different? I guess I'll find out. If I do sign up, rest assured I'll let you know.

I occasionally also have these mad fantasies about, say, biking home to New Brunswick for a visit. I've always admired the people that do long un-automated journeys, whether it's hiking the Appalachian Trail or sailing across the Pacific on a raft. I've always been sort of envious of them. I imagine the stillness that must eventually settle in, the rhythm, the enforced slowing down of the brain that happens when you're no longer whizzing along at 120 km an hour; when you simply can't whiz along at that speed. The exhaustion and the pain too - I can be (ask some of my friends) annoyingly enthusiastic about pushing myself to my limits. I've dragged friends up mountains that I maybe shouldn't have.

But there is also something about consciously crossing distances, and taking the time to get somewhere. I heard that the author Will Self insists on walking into town from the airport whenever he lands in a new city, because that's the best way to ground himself in the new landscape. I can... um... kinda see where he's coming from.

But before I run off into the Blue and get myself drownded, as the hobbits would say, I think I'll set my sights a little nearer. Like biking 100 km in the fall.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Copenhagenizing Ottawa

Marie Lemay actually does seem to be walking the walk. The CEO of the National Capital Commission was part of a panel on cycling coordinated by David Byrne at the last Writers Festival, and I spoke to her briefly afterward about the paths, winter commuting, and other urban cycling. It seemed like she really was committed to making Ottawa even more bike-friendly than it already is: and this even given that she isn't, herself, an 'avid' cyclist. And this morning I spotted this article by the Citizen's Kate Jaimet on the NCC's plans to send a delegation, along with representatives from the City of Ottawa, to the Velo-City Global 2010 Conference in Copenhagen.

I like that Lemay seems to have realized that biking could be made a whole lot easier in this town if the City and the NCC put their heads together. And I liked that the realization that they need to actually sit down and think logically, from a cyclist's perspective, about cycling infrastructure, came when BIXI did their test run here last summer. They looked at a map of the city and said, well, okay, we'll put stations here and here, and then people who actually knew the lay of the land - from a cyclist's perspective - said, no, you can't do that, people will get hurt. Now they need to take that and apply it to situations like the path/bike route connections.

(This morning, on my way from Carleton University to Vanier, I biked south on Bronson, crossed Riverside at the bridge over the Rideau River, took the ramp down and around to Riverside heading east, and then pulled up at the side of the road - a four-lane parkway - to scout for oncoming cars and duck across it. Then hopped over the edge of the road, crossed a dozen feet or so of grass, and turned on to the Riverside pathway. Now really. People wouldn't want to get on the bike path from Carleton campus without having to play chicken with an SUV? Where's the pedestrian bridge?)

So here's hoping one of the city's councillors can see their way clear to going to Copenhagen with her, and with the mayor of Gatineau. I'd say I hoped Mayor Larry would go, but I can only suspend disbelief so far. But with luck he'll send someone from Council, not just a staffer. The city's put in dozens of useful bike racks this spring: that encourages me. People really are thinking of making Ottawa a bike town. At least, it looks that way.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Winning the approval of the younger generation

I was waiting - with Mike, of course - for the elevator to ride up to my apartment this afternoon when a boy, who I guessed was about 7 or 8, banged through the front doors with his bike. He walked it in between me and the elevator doors and leaned on the wall, and I felt a little of that irrational, don't-you-butt-in-front-of-me annoyance that you get when people walk in front of you while you're waiting. On his side, I think I saw him glance sidelong at my helmet and general air of slightly-dorky-grownup-ness.

The elevator arrived and the doors opened, and he wheeled his (much smaller) bike in. While he was considering where to wedge his bike to make room, I flipped Mike up onto his back tire and walked him into the elevator - I've had a lot of practice at that lately.

"Whoa! Sick!" the boy said. So I grinned, and he asked, "What floor?"

"Nine," I told him.

"Sick nine," he added, and pushed the button for me.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Reality. Ugh.

So the temperatures soared up to July-like levels last weekend... but this week it's raining, cold, and I swear I felt ice pellets in the wind this morning on my way to work. But how easily our brains get reset! A month or two ago I was content to pull on my woolies, double up my gloves, put a hat on under my helmet, and head on out. Now? Now I get up, throw on a T-shirt and my shell, shove my feet into sneakers, and step out the front door into wet cold wind, spitting rain, and regret. It used to be habit that I would pull my gloves out of their little cubby in my hall closet out of sheer habit: now, well... my hands were freezing, stiff, and pink by the time I got to work, because gloves just didn't occur to me before I got outside.

Oh well. It'll pass. And in the meanwhile there are still badass bikes like this one that I stumble upon as I'm shivering my way around town, and just have to stop and get pictures of. 

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Riding for the fun of it

... strangely, not something I do that often. I mean, I love my commute to work, it's beautiful and usually fun. I like riding to events and meetings and all that, I like heading out on the fairly long trek to get to the West End when I need to visit Mountain Equipment Co-op. But I don't, often, get a chance to go out just for the hell of it.

So today, when it was a beautiful, slightly windy, warm, summery day, and it happened to be Easter Sunday so there was nothing else I needed to be doing, I hopped on the bike to go out to Mer Bleue, a large conservation area in the south of the city. You would never know, from the picture, that you're about a minute from the 417, and about ten minutes from the city, would you? Out here it's just fields, gravel roads, and farmland. This is the Greenbelt, long may it remain, um, rustic.

Walkley Road, which is what this road turns into as it curves off and vanishes at the right of the frame, is a four-lane main artery with exits to the highway snaking off of it, and the ride out to this point is pretty outskirt-urban: watch out for horrendous gutters in the pavement, try not to be afraid of the cars that are jetting their way up to highway speed, hold your breath, pedal hard and pray as you cross the mouths of the highway exit ramps. But then you get to this corner, and head on down Ramsayville Road, and suddenly, almost jarringly, you're in the country. Like, there are turtle crossing signs.

You keep going for another couple of miles until you get to the parking lot for the Mer Bleue boardwalk, which takes you out over a huge peat bog and marsh. So I walked around that, then headed back to the parking lot - running into, on the way, a couple of my friends and their son. Great minds think alike, apparently. So we talked for a bit and then I hopped on the bike to head home and they climbed into their car.

Switching gears when I hit the country roads was strange. As a kid I lived along a country road - the kind with asphalt just laid down and dirt shoulders, ditches running along the sides. That kind of road is different. For one thing, I had to watch how close I was to the edge, to avoid the drop and skid that going off the asphalt would cause. And then there was getting into the pace - not having to keep my head on as much of a swivel, not having to stop at corners, hitting a travelling stride. I could imagine being on a long road trip, even though it was only a few miles to the bog.

And then there was the fact that I had time, on the way home, to poke around on some of the gravel tracks to the side of the road. One, right across from where Ridge Road intersects with Ramsayville Road, with an NCC sign that just said "Greenbelt," was a rattling gravel road that ended up at the bottom of a high-tension wire tower. Not the most exciting destination, but it was at least up at the top of a slight rise, and I could look out over the fields and see the highway and the buildings where the city starts up again. So I did a loop around the tower and headed back out. Not all detours get rewarded by a great view, but that's okay.

I also got curious at the corner (the one pictured above) because I often see cars parked there - I think they're usually letting their dogs off leash, because beyond the gate and up the dirt road there was just a large, dug-up stretch of hillside that looked as though someone was building an extension of the road. But, I pedalled along, kind of enjoying the chance to break out Mike's more mountain-bike-ish qualities, and over the hillside there was another field, a patch of water with geese resting on it, and a few dirt tracks. Maybe next time, I'll see if the tracks between the fields take me anywhere... but this time I headed back to Walkley Road.

But it was really nice to be able to just go wherever, on impulse. And by the time I was a couple of blocks from home, I was back into my city-paced stride and very tempted to keep going, because the rhythm had clicked and I was well into second wind. But, I was getting very hungry, so I turned in on my street and went home for dinner instead.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

And now Mike climbs walls too!

I didn't make it to the Critical Mass ride... I started putting up posters for the Festival and when I finally got to Confederation Park it was ten after six. Ah well. Next time.

But I was due to be meeting some friends for dinner at 8:00, so I decided to spend the intervening time sitting with a beer on a patio in the Market, because it was a beautiful afternoon.

And heading through the Market I came across this vertical bike rack, on Clarence I believe it was. It must be new - at least, I don't remember ever having seen it before. And it was in use, which gives it points. Okay, so it's not automated, or lever-activated, and it doesn't suck your bike up into the depths of a creepy bike mushroom, but still, I had to stop and check it out: and as it was right across the street from the Heart & Crown (which has a patio), I also got to try it out. That's Mike in the picture, the dark blue one. Just hanging out.

This spring, I've noticed extra bike racks popping up all over town. Instead of the single ring-and-post racks that have always lined the downtown streets - which are picturesque enough, and don't inconvenience pedestrian traffic or look 'cluttered,' but which really can only handle one bike each, if that - these new racks are full parking stations, with multiple spaces for at least a dozen bikes each. And there they are, taking up sidewalk space. Go to the corner of Bank and Somerset outside the Hartman's for a great example. They're not 'beautifying,' they're functional, and thank God for that. 'Beautiful' bike racks so often have very little to do with cycling, and much more to do with someone's idea that bikes are somehow quaint and/or hip.

Huzzah, I say. It's encouraging to see useful bike space proliferating downtown. And then I come across this rack. Also more functional than attractive. And displaying a certain amount of nice, simple, outside-the-box thinking. The idea, with these, is to maximize bike space and keep parked bikes out of the way. I've seen lots of variations: this particular one is pretty simple. There's a metal shelf for the back tire, and a peg that hooks through the front tire (you then push around a little curved bar to secure the whole thing.) You thread your lock around the main metal strut, or there's a little hinge that you are intended, I guess, to run a chain through. The whole thing's versatile enough that you could use a U-lock or a chain with it, equally. It was also a lot easier to figure out at first glance than the Rack-and-Roll racks on the buses, although that might also have something to do with not feeling like you're holding up a city bus and everyone on it while you try to figure out the levers and bars.

The only problem I have with it is that to use it you have to upend your bike, tip it up onto its back wheel, and then lift it about a foot or so to hook the peg through the front tire, then nest the back tire into the base. That took a little doing for me, and I can easily imagine someone not being able to lift their bike and control it like that. The front wheel can flop around even when you're, like me, used to tipping the bike to get it on crowded elevators. No, it wasn't a huge trial for me to get Mike into the rack - it was actually pretty easy - but it's still easier to roll him up to a light standard, or telephone pole, or parking sign, and lock him to that. And if I had panniers on the back rack, which I didn't today, that would have come into consideration.

But, it was still cool to try it out, and it was nice to know that in some tiny way, by using this rack, I was encouraging whoever installed it. Letting them know that yes, there is a need for practical, usable bike parking in the downtown core, and 'if you install it, they will park.' I don't know if the novelty will keep me using this rack when there are so many street signs and iron rails. But when I think about it... maybe it will.