Viva le vélo

I wrote a novel for twelve year olds that features bicycles. The novel is set in China in 1902, when the bicycle was a fairly new technology. Many key features of the modern bicycle were present in the 1902 bicycle.

So, why bicycles?

When I was in Africa for six months in 1991-1992, Chinese bicycles were everywhere. If an African owned a vehicle, the vehicle was most likely a Flying Pigeon, manufactured in China. I rented them from time to time.

I met my first bicycling mentor long before, when I was 20. Two UBC law students and I had a summer job at a legal aid office in New Westminster. Our mission: to write and print a series of pamphlets about recovering from debt. We named the series Life After Debt, and each pamphlet had a life preserver on the cover. We covered topics from how to talk to creditors, to wage garnishing (which I always envisioned as putting little candied cherries on paychecks) to bankruptcy.

I was fortunate to have the job. It was not far from my mom’s apartment in Coquitlam, where I stayed for the summer between university terms, and the pay was okay.

The distance from the apartment to the legal aid office was only about five miles (eight kilometers). But to get there by bus took over an hour, with transfers. I could drive, but my car was not very reliable and I shared it with my brother.

One of my co-horts, Greg, a second year law student, had spent a previous summer bicycling from Manitoba to Prince Edward Island. It seemed like an almost impossible feat. I was daunted by one hill in the five miles between Coquitlam and New Westminster, and the distance from Winnipeg to PEI was over a thousand miles, with hills galore.

Greg said, “There are no such things as hills. Just use a lower gear. What’s really bad is wind.”

With some tips from Greg, I took some of my scrimped summer job money and bought a twelve-speed bicycle. It was a much nicer one than my previous ten-speed, which I had given away when I moved.

When I rode my bike the five miles to work the first time, it took me a solid hour each way. Just finishing that ride once was a big event for me. It involved going up and over a bigger hill than I’d ever done before, a hill that turned out to be much more of a mental obstacle than a physical one. All I’d done, previously, was to bike the mile between home and school, and around town with friends, and if we encountered a block of hill we got off and pushed our bikes up it.

In only a month, though, the ride went down to half an hour. And I became a devoted bike commuter.

I don’t know if it I’d have done it without Bicycle Mentor Greg. There were many details:

Changing a flat by the roadside is no big deal. Get a portable pump and a patch kit.

Pedal with a steady cadence of 60-90 RPM. In the long run you’ll be a more efficient and effective cyclist this way. (This one took me a long time to learn.)

Shift gears up or down to keep your cadence steady. (So that’s why having more than two gears is useful.)

Follow the rules of the road.

Be visible. Use clear hand signals.

Be predictable. It is easier for cars to cooperate (and not kill you) if you behave as expected in traffic.

Don’t dismiss bike shorts. They help.

Carry water on your bike.

Yes, wear a helmet. You’re not immortal.

Close your mouth. You could get a bee in it.

Keep going.

There are many more details I don’t remember, but they all went into transforming a one-hour grind of will and suffering into an enjoyable 30-minute bike commute.

I’m grateful to Greg. Not sure I agree about the nonexistence of hills, but that’s minor.

Years later I graduated to a very fine 21-speed touring bicycle. I rode it from Vancouver, British Columbia to Richmond, Virginia with a friend. We crossed mountain ranges and faced headwinds over the entire state of Wyoming. I learned new things, but much of it was details on top of basic things from Greg.

On that trip we had dinner once with a party of three cyclists who were also traversing North America. They were retired bicycle racers, now with families and jobs, who got together once a year for a big ride. They too said wind was a most formidable foe. They said ride early; the wind is stronger in the afternoon – amazingly, we had faced that truth every day for a month, but it never hit our consciousness until they mentioned it. They also looked at how we strapped our equipment on our touring bikes, and said, “You could streamline that and lower your wind resistance.” It made a difference. In fact, following their example we boxed and mailed away a bunch of equipment we weren’t using. Who needs unnecessary bulk?

Not a cyclist.

The route I took across North America added up to about 3,700 miles. It took two months, with an average of 60 miles of cycling per day. We saw amazing scenery and met a number of interesting characters on the road. (More about all that in another blog post.)

I really appreciated the advanced technology of my new bicycle. The gear shifters did not go out of alignment once in 3700 miles. I had excellent tires, and only had one flat that whole time. I came to the feeling that bicycle travel is so easy and great and so much better for the environment and my personal well being than cars, I wished for a world where bicycles had taken off the way cars had in America.

To some extent I saw that in Africa and Asia. So I had to write about it.

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