My journey began at 7:30 a.m. with a gust of wind directly to the face as I cruised down Connors Hill on my two-wheeler. It’s amazing how easily the frigid air instantly wakes you up. After cutting through a trail by the Muttart Conservatory, followed by a grassy hill and the Low Level Bridge, I gazed in horror at the hill I would soon have to conquer.
My ascent up the hill was undoubtedly the most discouraging part of my newfound transportation. My legs immediately began to burn and my breathing turned into panting. After my push, I was in the heart of downtown.
This school year, I made a vow to myself that I would spend the smallest amount of money possible.
My commute to school and work last year cost me a substantial amount of money — money I essentially did not have. Due to a higher power much greater than my own decision-making, my 1996 Chevrolet Cavalier collided with a streetlight on an early winter night. My car was rendered useless, so I decided to cut my losses and sell it to a 1-800-“got junk” phone line.
I resorted to a cheaper and more eco-friendly mode of transport: biking. Being the saint that he is, my uncle decided to donate his somewhat rusted Venture Groundbreaker to my enterprise.
It is fascinating to people-watch while pedaling through the downtown area early in the morning. It seems like the characters that loiter around the core enjoy irritating unsuspecting people on their way to work. This was apparent the morning that I saw a man in a dark hoodie laughing maniacally while shooting foam balls with a NERF gun at anyone who crossed him (myself included).
I discovered that even though my bike could get me from point A to point B, it needed a couple of accessories to make my ride smoother. One was a bell. As much as I liked yelling “hey” or “coming through” to randoms, it became clear that I needed that crystal-clear “ding.”
With the weather in this city being as helter-skelter as a broken bridge, I soon realized that I needed some kind of adornment to combat the splash of dirty puddles. Next were the lights. Being a university student, I concluded that I was going to have quite a few late bar nights that would end with me biking home in the intimidating dark. If I were to pedal on the street at nightfall, I would need front and back lights to signal my presence to motorists and make sure they didn’t get any reckless ideas.
While searching for the accessories I needed, I soon discovered our city is home to quite a substantial bike community. Their haven is the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters Society (EBC) — a non-profit organization with two bike shops where cyclists can find parts, have their bikes repaired, or buy refurbished bikes. The location I visited was in a small building just off of Whyte Avenue. The outside was surrounded by bikes of various styles and colours. As I passed a magenta tandem bicycle and walked into the vibrant green building, I was greeted by a bearded man with bike-chain-oiled hands. On a dusty bookshelf were titles ranging from Bike Cult, Cyclepedia, The Bicyclist’s Bible, and my personal favourite: Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance.
Chris Chan, the executive director of EBC, is an unimposing man who is definitely more at home around a bike than anything else. You could tell where his passions lie just by looking at him. Perpetually dirty mechanic hands, a bright red t-shirt and an ever-present smile greeted me as he talked about his life as a cyclist.
Biking since 2002, Chan has made his life out of metal tubing, grease and rubber. He originally started riding in Waterloo, a town too small for good public transit but too big to be easily walkable. After picking up a bike at the local Recycle Cycle (an organization similar to EBC), he rode for four months while staying in the city, and he continued the habit after returning to Edmonton. Now Chan rides daily, doing what he loves as a method of transportation, a hobby, and a job.
Cycling to work requires more dedication than a Sunday ride. While many roads in Edmonton are bike-friendly and some even have dedicated bike paths, not every road is going to be perfect for your commute. According to Chan, on heavily trafficked roads, “[pullquote]The best thing to do is to be confident and assertive, and to ride following all of the same rules as you would if you were in a car[/pullquote] … Finding someone who already rides and maybe going for a ride with them is the best way to get into it.”
EBC was busy that day and the air was thick with the smell of rubber and oil. Each section of the store was occupied by a client or employee working on a bike. One employee was demonstrating how a gear system worked by spinning his pedals with a loose chain. Another, wearing a t-shirt that said “Don’t Worry, I’m a Bike Mechanic,” was installing handlebars on a red road bike. Someone else was holding two polished bike crankarms while contemplating which would work best for his particular bike.
Cycling isn’t difficult to get into. There is no need for a license or much money to start riding a bike everyday. Chan’s biggest piece of advice is to get a proper tune-up — a service offered at EBC. “Having it properly tuned goes a long way to making your ride properly enjoyable and easier,” says Chan. “Things like having working gears, having properly inflated tires and maintaining that tire pressure, having good brakes, good shifting, [and] a nicely lubed chain are all things that you can learn fairly quickly.”
A well-tuned bike is easier to use, making your ride more comfortable. Learning to take care of a bike gives the rider a sense of pride. While small bits of maintenance are easy to do, it takes initiative and a willingness to learn them. Places like EBC offer courses on how to take care of your bike and to make the most out of your commute. “We will help people with anything that they need, whether it’s mechanical or advice with finding routes as well as getting the right sized bikes,” says Chan.
As time went on, the room became more and more crowded as people approached the wall of pre-owned bike components. The section that seemed to stand out the most was the two walls of hanging vertical bikes. Some were complete while others were only frames or were missing crucial parts like chains or wheels. Someone once told me that EBC was a place where unwanted bikes go to sit and eventually die. After admiring both walls, I can surely say that this person was sadly mistaken. Every bike either had a reasonable price tag or a red sign on it saying “to be fixed.” Though it may have looked like a bicycle graveyard, EBC was the exact opposite. It was a place of bicycle resurrection.
On my way out, I easily found a cheap bell and a Kryptonite lock for half the retail price. I decided that I would buy the other parts I needed at a later date. As I walked my bike past the front door, an employee stepped outside and peered at my bike.
“Ah, a Venture,” he said gesturing at my ride. “I had one of those back in the day. You could use some air in those tires though.”
I squeezed both tires and felt the flat rubber between my thumb and fingers. He was right. I had been biking everywhere for over a month and I’d never thought about pumping my tires. The employee raced into the building and came out with a silver bike pump. “This will improve your ride,” he said, smiling. After filling the tires, I was on my way. “Come back now, ya hear!” he shouted with a chuckle.
I turned around and waved to him. Definitely.