I’ve learned the most terrifying thing about being on a bicycle has nothing to do with your own personal safety.
I’ve learned this even though, like any cyclist who has hit busy streets more than once, I’ve had my share of near misses.
I won’t soon forget the worst one. I used to live in Vancouver and bike through downtown, over Lions Gate Bridge and into North Van several times a week for work. I was riding often enough that someone somehow convinced me to get those clip-in pedals with the cute matching shoes that result in your feet being stuck onto the bike. The main purpose of these clip-in pedals – which in the bike business, for a laugh, are called “clipless” pedals – is that they allow you to cycle more efficiently because your leg provides power both on the down stroke and up stroke. The secondary purpose of those pedals is to provide everyone around you a good laugh when you fall over.
It’s inevitable: one day you’ll pull up to a stop sign or come up too quickly behind a car, forget to unclip your fancy shoes from the pedal, and fall straight sideways. You can’t catch yourself once you start falling because your feet are glued in place. To get an idea of what this looks like, picture a stoic owl standing motionless on a fence post, then picture that owl toppling sideways without moving a muscle. Also, picture the owl wearing Spandex.
So, anyway, I’ve done that. It hurts the elbow, the shoulder, and the pride. I eventually learned a trick to prevent the fall. If you are falling to your left side, your left foot is basically paralyzed because you cannot flick your ankle to get it off the pedal, but your right foot can flick itself free. So I learned, when I started to fall, to free my right foot, roundhouse kick my right leg over the back wheel and land it on the left side of the bike like a terrified pretzel kickstand. To be honest I didn’t actually “learn” to do this – one time my body just reacted that way. To this day I’m still astounded that my leg moved like that without requiring a subsequent groin replacement.
The scariest time I pulled off such a manoeuvre was when I was on a busy, narrow road, almost home after a long ride. A bus in front stopped abruptly, and as I quickly approached it my brain toggled between the options of swerving into the oncoming lane to avoid the bus and skidding into the back of it. I eventually slammed on the brakes and, a few feet from the back of the bus, felt that dreaded momentum swing that told me I was about to fall over. That’s when my right foot flung into action, performed the miracle manoeuvre and landed on the other side of the bike, right on the centre line of the road, just a few feet from oncoming traffic.
Most cyclists who have been on the road for even a small amount of time have similar stories, if not much worse. I got lucky. But it was a heart-in-throat moment.
And yet, despite that close call and others like it, I never really thought much about cycling safety and all the infrastructure, or lack thereof, that goes into that concept. I was, after all, a grown man making informed choices about how I got to work, which routes and risks I would take, and whether or not I really was going to wear shorts with butt padding.
I never felt like I was in the great war of our time between cyclists and drivers. But then I had kids. And the first time one of my kids touched a public road on two wheels? World War B. I was instantly radical: All bike lanes should be physically separated from car traffic. No wait, the speed limit should be 12 kilometres per hour! No wait, every third road should be closed to cars!! No wait, drive all the cars into the ocean!!!
Watching your child weave and wobble on any sort of road next to automobiles unleashes an inner Mamma Bear that mauls any of those silly “bUt CyCLisTs DoN’t StOp aT sToP sIgnS” type arguments. When you see a little human with undeveloped motor skills and physical awareness forced to navigate the same space as an SUV driver who promises he only checks his phone at red lights, you realize what an unfair fight it is.
Now when I look at any route intended for cycling, I picture a seven-year-old trying to navigate it, not a man with fancy death shoes. And if I’m headed somewhere with my kids, I look up whether there are safe cycling routes. And if not, why not?
It’s Bike to Work Week, and Vancouver celebrated by ... scrapping a pandemic plan that made cycling in Stanley Park much easier. Commuter me would have shrugged that one off and kept on pedalling down the causeway. Parent me was planning on enjoying that delightful-sounding ride with my kids.
It’s fighting time. Get your butt pads on.
Andy Prest is the News’ sports editor. His humour/lifestyle column runs biweekly. firstname.lastname@example.org