When the training wheels and band-aids finally come off, learning to ride a bike is one of childhood’s most significant milestones. But when the carefree days of pedaling around the safety of your neighbourhood are gone, your old beloved bike might be left to rust away in the garage for years. Maybe you’d like to take it back out on the road, but things have gotten a lot more complicated since you first found your balance. Maybe restoring the bike is just too much work, and maybe the realities of the unfriendly Edmonton roads are just too stressful to handle. Luckily, you’re not the only one who’s uncertain.
Velofest Edmonton League and Organization (VELO) confronts fears like this all the time. To help dispel them, the collective of bike-lovers works year-round to bring the city’s various bicycle organi- zations together, promoting cycling as a positive component of Edmonton’s culture. Dubbed Bike Month, June is an especially busy time for VELO, with a full schedule of social events, educational workshops and awareness campaigns all dedicated to making cycling a more visible and accessi- ble activity in the city. From simple meet-ups and outdoor events to more serious discus- sions about gender relations in the cycling world, June is a chance to celebrate bikes.
Karly Coleman, VELO’s executive director, is dedicated to bringing as many new people into the cycling community as possible — whether you’re hoping to test the waters of the racing world, or just looking for a new way to get to work or school. It’s important, she says, to emphasize the individual needs of each potential cyclist: there’s no need to commit to a full suit of racing Lycra or hours of commuting through the snow just yet, nor will you be instantly stereotyped as the odd- ball hipster riding a one-speed through your neighbourhood.
“We are really reaching out to people who are either newcomers to cycling or are tentative cyclists — bike-curious, we’ll call them,” she laughs.
While Edmonton roads are often discussed as a notoriously hostile environment for cyclists, Coleman points to a perceived loss of convenience as a major barrier for bike-riders in the city. Cycling is, after all, an “alternative” mode of transportation, and in a sprawling urban centre like Edmonton, automobile use is a consistent norm.
Culturally set in our ways, creating an open and inclusive community of cyclists to promote bicycle education is a crucial part of reshaping traditional understandings about transportation.
“I think that in North America particularly, there’s a paradigm surrounding car use that makes every other mode of transportation not as convenient,” Coleman says, noting the perception of the car as the quickest, easiest way to go anywhere and do anything you want can be limiting.
“There are lots of options for people to learn how to ride and how to maneuver themselves in the cycling culture. And once they take that step — or pedal — inside, the whole world opens up to them. You’re so much more attuned to your environment and your neighbourhood.”
Coleman has been a committed cyclist in Edmonton since the early ‘90s, riding through the unpredictable elements year- round. But even in the wake of the well-founded fear of the city’s harsh winters, the push for better cycling education seems to be succeeding with more riders — even in arctic temperatures and deep snow drifts. All you need, Coleman says nonchalantly, is the right preparation and proper warm clothing.
“There was a time when I was winter cycling I could say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ to every winter cyclist, because I knew all of them,” she says. “And currently, that is not the case ... It’s just an astonishing amount of cyclists out and about.”
Edmonton Bicycle Commuters (EBC) is another significant resource for those looking to join or get back into the cycling world. In addition to offering classes about basic bike maintenance and road safety, the organization runs two community bike shops where old bicycles are refurbished and resold. With education and accessibil- ity an important part of the organization’s mandate, EBC executive director Chris Chan maintains a positive outlook on the ease of navigating the city on two wheels.
“Edmonton’s not that bad — the worst part is its size,” he says. “The cities of Toronto and Vancouver proper are much smaller, and Edmonton is continuing to expand. Sometimes people in the new neighbour- hoods south of the Henday or west of 99th street will email (EBC) and ask, ‘What’s a nice road to get downtown?’ And there really isn’t that great of a road, because they live really far away, and you can’t get around that.”
Conflicts between cyclists and drivers on busy city roads are almost inevitable, and Edmonton is no exception to the difficult balance between bikes and cars sharing the road. But even though Edmontonians behind the wheel have a reputation for being aggressive and ignoring speed limits, Chan has a positive outlook on the relationship between drivers and riders.
“Drivers give you a lot more space when they’re passing you in Edmonton, compared to other major cities I’ve been in,” he says, adding the weather and terrain is also not nearly as treacherous as many think. “It’s flat in Edmonton, it’s not windy in Edmonton, and we get a lot of dry, sunny days,” he points out.
It’s hard to perceive the city as a bike- friendly town, Chan says, because of the lack of marked bike paths on the roads. But in recent years, the city has begun to focus more on improving the network of bike lanes avail- able, and while it’s far from perfect, it’s an encouraging move. However, the lack of regular access to bike routes throughout the city can still be intimidating for an inexperienced cyclist — making an open community of bike riders and educators all the more necessary to help newcomers.
But beyond all the safety and repair train- ing that comes with getting back on a bike, the most important part of cycling educa- tion for Coleman goes back to the reason you learned to ride a bike in the first place. With the right attitude, the big scary world of adult cycling might not be so different from your childhood neighbourhood after all.
“It is so fun,” she enthuses. “You can always talk about environmentalism, health, how the bicycle is the most efficient machine in the world — but what it comes down to is the most freeing, liberating thing to do in the world is ride a bicycle.”
Before you get on the road, make sure you have a bike in good working order. Regular maintenance is important, and you should try to do a basic check every time you ride:
• Make sure there’s enough air in your tires. If they’re underinflated, you could end up with a flat.
• Check that your brakes are working: you should be able to squeeze them as hard as pos- sible without any mechanical issues.
• Make sure the chain isn’t rusty or squeaky.
• Check that the saddle is positioned properly, and not too low. The idea that you should be able to put both feet flat on the ground while sitting on your bike is incorrect.
• Ensure the handlebars and wheels are bolted on tightly.
“If you’re really familiar with your bike, chances are as soon as you grab it and start roll- ing it, if there’s something wrong, you’re gonna feel it — there’s not much to these things,” Cliff Vallentgoed, owner of local store Redbike, explains. “But you trust your life to your bicycle, so making sure it’s mechanically sound is a good idea.”
Almost all helmets are made from the same basic materials and subject to the same safety standards, so choosing one is more about the kind of riding you’ll be doing and the style you like. Helmets with a round, hard plastic shell are more durable for day- to-day use, but more streamlined options with vents might be more comfortable for people who ride athletically.
“The first bicycle helmets were these enormous plastic buckets and they were hor- rible to wear. They had no ventilation,” Vallentgoed says. “You might have seen one in every 50 wearing a helmet. Now helmets are comfortable and they look great, so there’s literally a lid for every pot.”
Thieves can easily cut through locks made of braided steel cables, so it’s best to use a sturdier U-lock to protect your bicycle while it’s unattended. Keep in mind your wheels also need to be properly prepared and locked up so they aren’t easy to remove. Also make sure you scrutinize the location where you lock your bike — in some cases, unusual things like saw marks can mean a thief has prepared the site in advance so they can steal bikes, even if they’ve been locked up properly.
“Even if you think you’ve got a very good lock, leaving your bike unattended in a high-risk area like campus can land you in trouble,” Vallentgoed says. “It’s hard to think like a bike thief, but that’s what it takes.”
Make sure you know the rules of the road. Cyclists have the same rights and responsibilities as car drivers, but sharing the road can be a challenge. In general, stay as far right as practicable, but make sure you’re visible to other drivers and are still able to navigate hazards on the road.
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