Lee’s Lowdown: Back To The Bike!
Lee Rodgers has been off his bike for a few weeks due to back pain, this has allowed him time to turn his eagle eye on a different problem – Urban Cycling. The Canadian City of Toronto is facing up to the dilemma of cyclists putting their lives in danger on the roads and have plans for 525 kilometers of cycle lanes. Lee’s Lowdown on city cycling and getting fat.
It’s been a weird week for me, for a variety of reasons, the main being that I decided to start riding my bike again after a three-month hiatus. Two months of that were due to back pain, the severity of which you cannot fully understand until you experience it yourself. I remember a Pro Tour rider pulling out of the Vuelta last year citing back pain and I thought ‘How bad can it be?’
Well, now I know… Anyway, riding again after a 12-week break is odd, and not just because I hadn’t shaved my legs in three months. I felt super twitchy and kind of vulnerable out there, constantly looking over my shoulder and doubting my line on corners. I was reminded of the late mayor of Toronto and his line about cyclists not belonging on the road, that we were ‘swimming with the sharks’. We do belong on the road but he was right about the latter, we’re literally floating along with massive steel fish piloted by often irrational, unfocussed people.
If you think about it, it might be worse than swimming with sharks as at least sharks are true to their nature, whereas humans can just sometimes be downright hateful, spiteful folk, angered beyond belief by the sight of an adult in lycra. I think the main reason for this hatred, beyond the fact that these people probably hate themselves in many ways, is jealousy. It’s surely no coincidence that when Ford, who declared that ‘the war on the car stops here!’ as soon as he got into power (and just after he got into crystal meth), was morbidly obese and had obviously eschewed exercise to work on getting his belly to beat the universe’s rate of expansion.
Whilst talking about weight we should also note that for ‘normal’ people, the average cyclist looks scarily underweight, even, shock horror, outside of the USA. I realized this recently when, after 2 months of eating like a bike rider but not actually doing the riding part, I put on a few kilograms. My cycling and non-cycling friends reacted totally differently.
Cycling friends generally said something like:
“Jeez you look… different. Looking kind of fat dude…”
“Yeah, er, thanks, I’m not riding much.”
Non-cycling friends generally said something like:
“Lee, you’re looking good! Really healthy!”
“Yeah, thanks, I’m not riding much.”
Back to Toronto, things are, it seems, getting better by the week. Since Ford left office there has been a move back to creating a sustainable cycling culture in the city and to get more people on bicycles, with a new plan in place to add 525km of cycle lanes in the city. However the details of the plan are still a tad sketchy but it does seem that the political will is there. Councillor Jared Kolb, executive director of Cycle Toronto, is optimistic about the plans.
“I think the rhetoric has moved beyond that ‘war on the car’ mantra, and has moved into imagining and realizing that cycling is a crucial way to get Toronto moving,” Kolb said. “There’s a project in every ward; there is something on this plan that every councillor wants to see.”
The police, in the last few days, started a major crackdown on parking in bike lanes, issuing 273 tickets which will see $40,000 paid back in fines.
However, as usual there are sticklers who cannot see the long-term benefits of this plan, such as Councillor Stephen Holyday, who said he supports more cycling infrastructure in the city, but “only where it makes sense.”
“I hold a very high test for any time there’s an attempt to take out a live lane of traffic. We live in a very congested city as it is,” said Holyday. “Often you are inconveniencing the majority for the desires of the minority, if the ridership is low.”
Holyday’s viewpoint is a kind of ‘Yes, but…’ approach, and you know from his comments that he’s likely to not agree with any major plans to open up bike lanes on main thoroughfares, exactly where bike lanes are needed to convince people to get out of their cars and onto bikes.
But imagine taking a city center, making it more difficult for private cars to drive through the center and actually making the bicycle the preferred mode of transport. This is exactly what they did in Groningen, the Netherlands, and when they did, there was uproar.
‘They said it wouldn’t work, there was uproar! All the shop owners complained, and then wonder of wonders, the world did not collapse. The police saw that yes, people could learn a new system, and it worked.’
The average person in Groningen rides a bike 1.44 times a day, and the bicycle is used for just about everything, from commuting to work to transporting furniture – even refrigerators.
Take a look at what the local council did in 1977 – yes, 1977! – in Groningen in this great little short film.
People will say that Toronto is not Groningen, and they are correct, and whilst we should applaud cities like Toronto for making plans to increase the numbers of people on bicycles, what we really need is more radical plans such as the one they have in Groningen. As the man in the video says, there was ‘uproar’ when the council made plans to ‘bicyclize’ the city center, but after almost 40 years, imagine the uproar if they decided they were to now reverse the plans and allow cars, once again, to take over?
We need brave councilors and mayors that are willing to eschew the short-term and to look instead to create a future for which they can begin to plant the seeds for a whole paradigm shift with regard to how people in cities view the bicycle as a mode of transport, or, perhaps more fundamentally, as a mode of living.
More people on bicycles in cities means less cars and therefore less pollution, but it also means healthier and, perhaps even more importantly for cities facing ever greater problems in terms of the environment and overcrowding, happier people.
Lee Rodgers is a former professional road racer on the UCI Asia Tour circuit now racing MTB professionally around the world. His day job combines freelance journalism, coaching cyclists, event organizing and consulting work. You can keep up with his daily scribblings over at www.crankpunk.com.
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