Thursday, February 19, 2015

The alternate universe of fat biking

It changes the whole experience of biking, said one of the guys at the shop.

He wasn't just talk about the extra stability and snow-busting power of the extra-wide tires.

Having had my bike for a week at that point, I thought I knew what he was talking about. Sort of.

Sometimes, I wish I could just have a normal ride like old days without someone commenting on my fat bike, he said ruefully.

I haven't had quite the extreme experience he refers to, but the interactions I now have around winter cycling are certainly very different than with my mountain bike.

Then, people would ignore me "in person" (that is, in my building, or when I was locking up), and swear at me from their cars.

Now, everybody has to comment. Cool tires! (Look at the width, people; I didn't just switch these out with whatever the store put on a mountain bike -- the whole frame had to be redesigned to fit these puppies.) Now that's a good bike for winter. (As though you would know because you've tried it?) Look at that bike!

But the clincher today was when a man in his car rolled down his window at a stoplight, not to swear or chastise, as was the most common reaction with my mountain bike, but to start a conversation about my fat bike.

Yes, we have truly entered a different world.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The anti-bike blog

It has become a weekly, almost daily occurrence. A how-to article or blog post will come across my path – usually in my facebook feed – touting the wonders of winter cycling.

Not one to learn a lesson quickly, I keep clicking on them. Inevitably, I navigate away in frustration.

It’s fun! It’s easy! Anyone can do it! You don’t need special gear; you can even look chic while you’re doing it. Oh, and get off your high horse – being a winter cyclist doesn’t make you special.

This is the message of all these articles.

Lies, I tell you.

Now, far be it from me to dissuade people from cycling, but I think we may need different words for the varying circumstances that fall under the umbrella term “winter cycling.”

Take Vancouver and Seattle, for example, where bicycle enthusiasts will talk about “winter” cycling. I’ll grant you that a bone-chilling, relentless, drenching rain is its own special brand of miserable to bike in, but it’s not -40C before windchill.

Toronto and New York, I believe you that a repeating cycle of freeze and thaw makes for treacherous, icy roads, but it’s not 2 months straight of -20C and below when nary a snowflake melts.

Montreal, I understand that fresh snow, while beautiful and peaceful, is a bit of a challenge to bike through – because we get that too.

It just seems like winter cycling in Winnipeg and Saskatoon and Yellowknife is in a different league than the fair-weather cities where the authors of these articles evidently dwell. Those of us who cycle year round in continental extreme may not be superhuman (ask anyone I went to high school with and they’d fall over laughing if you used words like “athletic” or “energetic” or “hard core” [not followed by “nerd”] to describe me) but we do have an extra measure of stubbornness or persistence in the face of discomfort and potential danger. It’s probably more a mental strength than a physical strength, but the point is, I don’t think “anyone can do it” quite cuts it.

It may not require special gear, but at very least, it takes the kind of appropriate winter wear pathological drivers often neglect to own. And frankly, it IS easier with special gear.

You don’t need to wear ski goggles and a neoprene and fleece mask that makes you look like Darth Vader, but it sure is easier when you do.

You don’t need the special lobster mitts or the fantastic handlebar encasing hand-warming system pogies, but you’re likely going to want better mitts than the fancy but paper thin leather gloves you wear in your car.

As for looking chic while you do it – thank you, Amsterdam, for reminding us that you’ve never had personal experience with the formula that the attractiveness of your clothing is in inverse proportion its appropriateness for the plunging mercury.

You could simply use whatever bike you have, but why would you want to if you can possibly afford an alternative? Even more true in the freeze-thaw locations than in Winnipeg where salt simply doesn’t work half the time, why would you subject a lovely summer bike to the ravages of water and sand and salt that characterize winter roads?

As for wider tires, I believe bike couriers – for whom a bicycle is an extension of their very bodies – when they say skinny slicks work great for them, cutting through the snow and rolling safely over ice; I just don’t believe it would be so for me. I know from experience that the wider the tires, the more stable I feel – and the more confidently I ride, the better everything goes. My fat bike is definitely more work to pedal, and yes, it’s a tad embarrassing when a long-legged, skinny-jeaned hipster flies past me on his 10-speed-style fixie as though I were standing still, but it’s so worth it when I’m dealing with road snakes, and mercury ice and brown sugar and mashed potatoes.

I was infuriated when one of these authors who was extolling the merits and accessibility of winter cycling wrote that he puts his bike away when it reaches 5 degrees: anything below that is just too much. If that's Celsius, I can’t call him enough names. Even if that’s in Fahrenheit, -15C  would still have you sitting out 80% of a normal Winnipeg winter.

Don’t you tell me what it takes to bike in winter, bub.

Cycling in winter means covering every inch of my body because exposed skin will become frost-damaged over the course of my commute – but wearing a light coat that wouldn't suffice for standing at a bus stop, because as long as I keep moving, I’ll warm myself up. Cycling in winter means fat tires to deal with a plethora of weather-affected road conditions from slippery to uneven to rock-like (manhole covers are terrifying given the myriad ways that small stamped metal surface oozing rancid air may differ from the snowy pavement), not to mention the ruts and potholes already existing in the pavement. (By the way, the snow does NOT fill up the potholes, rendering the road surface even.) Cycling in winter means having enough energy to keep cranking the wheel around and around despite all the forces of the universe attempting to convince your muscles and the components of your bike that it’s simply too cold to move.

Finally, cycling in winter means a constant terror of falling, an ever-present fear that translates into tremendous triumph. I wouldn’t say winter cycling is fun, but simply by virtue of making it to your destination despite the odds, despite the scorn and bafflement of others, each trip is a victory, and there’s a certain pleasure in that. It’s satisfying to get around on your own power despite conditions most people think are unbearable. It’s energizing to be out there in the elements and undefeated by them.

Sure, winter cycling is doable, and there’s even something great about it. Now that you’ve got the story straight, will you join me?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Is this a test?



There’s a boil water advisory in Winnipeg tonight. I can’t help but feel like this is a test. 

Given the news about Winnipeg lately, I see a certain poetic justice in this development, whether it’s some machinations of new mayor Brian Bowman to take a litmus of Winnipeggers’ true resolve to work toward mending relationships with First Nations people in our province, or whether it’s God giving us just the littlest taste of the hardship our fellow citizens face.

Awareness has been growing for some time that we truly have a problem in this city. I think the human rights museum began to bring to some Winnipeggers’ attention the irony that such an edifice was to rise on land that is still contested to be stolen from First Nations people and sacrilegiously used by the oppressors. The Idle No More movement, the Eighth Fire tv series on CBC, Michael Champagne’s Meet Me at the Belltower initiative, and the election of MLA Kevin Chief have all been steps of Aboriginal people asserting themselves as people with agency and self-determination. Then, this summer, the unbelievably awful murder of Tina Fontaine followed closely by the tragic death of “homeless hero” Faron Hall and a brave Rinelle Harper's narrow escape from a vicious assault, plus the inquest on the senseless ER death of Brian Sinclair finally made “the divide between Winnipeg’s Aboriginal residents and the rest” an inescapable reality discussed in the news, by the chief of police, and by the mayoral candidates.

So the Maclean’s headline calling Winnipeg Canada’s most racist city shouldn’t have surprised anyone. It was sensationalist and perhaps melodramatic in presentation but not untrue. (Why did they put that picture of Rosanna Deerchild on the cover, though! She’s a beautiful woman with a sardonic wit and feisty spirit – why portray her as a hopeless, angry victim?)

The new mayor, who quietly claimed his Metis heritage as he took office, responded quickly to the story by owning up to the problem and promising to confront it. He assembled a host of Aboriginal leaders to speak to the issue in a hastily called press conference.

And now the water. I’ve never experienced such a thing before, or at least, not in the developed world. But what has it to do with First Nations people?

The city of Winnipeg enjoys its usually healthy and reliable drinking water due to an aqueduct that brings it from Shoal Lake. Our gain, however, is local Aboriginal people’s loss. Shoal Lake 40 First Nation was dispossessed of their land and moved onto a peninsula subsequently cut off from the mainland. The cruelest irony is that the isolated community has been under a boil water advisory for almost 20 years.

So, Winnipeg, how will we respond to our evening of inconvenience? Will we complain and move on? Or will the momentary inconvenience move us to compassion for the years of frustration and danger our own fellow citizens face?

Having confessed our racism – or grudgingly admitting it when the charge was laid bare before us as a national shame – will we step up and call for justice? Or accept second class treatment for the unseen and forgotten?


ASIDE: It's too late to figure out how to weave this into the larger argument, but I've wanted to say it ever since serial killer Charles Lamb hit the news for preying on women in Downtown and the West End.


Racism isn’t just name calling. It’s also indifference to the suffering of others. The Maclean's article quoted edgy FreeP columnist Bartley Kives defining white privilege as “not being worried your daughter is going to be raped and killed because of who she is.”
 
This reality struck me particularly when I heard how frightened women were by the Lamb situation. I walk the same streets after dark and feel no fear -- because as a middle class white woman, I'm not the target. And I felt the weight of my privilege.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Beautiful decay

Touched by Midas,
autumn arms shower gold
and the stench of death.

*I'm not saying this poem is any good, but these images struck my fancy as I rode in the glorious days before winter's cruel skin grew over every surface.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Winter update

Since I've already got an entire transition month of biking notated here, it seems a good place to journal my season switches.

November 11, I was still on my Skyline despite trace amounts of snow and significant chill. The next day, a snow covering and slippery streets advised me to get out the mountain bike.

By Friday, I realized it was dry enough to take out the old Skyline again for a much faster ride (since my seat post refuses to stay at the height it is set. Despite no sign of it even in the wee hours of Sunday morning, by daylight, there was a heavy blanket of snow that convinced me winter is decidedly here to stay.

Welcome back, slowness and fear.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

On seeing

If we are to love our neighbours, before doing anything else we must see our neighbours. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.

--Frederick Buechner


To really see people, as Buechner urges above, is not so simple as telling them the right story.

My boss and I sometimes talk about how in our zeal to "reach the lost," evangelicals sometimes fail to actually like people. Of course, we would all decry treating people as projects, but it's really quite easy to do. We so easily focus on "the need," be it spiritual or material, that we reduce people to what they are not. 

I'm not convinced that the starting place of the good news should be convincing people of their sin and need for salvation. I think we tend to have an niggling conviction, however hard we try to quash it, that there is something broken in us. The good news starts with the fact that we are made in the image of the Creator. Despite the inevitability of things that are wrong with us, there is something inherently right as well. Seeing the Creator's loving fingerprints on us is the beginning of the hope of the gospel.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Why I hate the #OctoberDressProject

You wouldn't expect it of an eco-crusading, habitually opining, gimmick-embracing (Commuter Challenge, anyone?!) person such as myself, but I don't like the October Dress Project.

It's an initiative, usually celebrated with daily pictures on social media, to wear the same one dress every day for the month of October.

What's not to like about an event described as "anti-consumerism, pro-simplicity, anti-conformity, pro-imagination"? Why do I objection to promoting the humility (in Western culture) of wearing the same article of clothing day after day?

Its execution entirely misses the point.

If only the single dress wardrobe actually meant simplicity, I would champion the project, but  iterations of the dress project I've seen have instead been a celebration of excess. They become a celebration of how many different ways you can dress up that garment so no one will even notice you've been wearing the same one dress for 31 days.

One dress, yes, but 15 different scarves, 5 pairs of pants, 10 pairs of shoes, 31 sets of earrings, a rainbow of coloured tights and a handful of hair accessories. Not to mention different shades of lipstick to match the various colour schemes. And the likelihood the one dress was newly purchased for the project.

If this is a taste of paring down a closet and cutting down and the stuff one owns, I hate to think what the full meal looked like.


And then there's another October project where the same ostensibly virtuous principle is obviated by the execution. This time, to celebrate clothing and conscience, buy a $20 outfit at a thrift store and take a picture of yourself wearing it. Yay, thrift stores.

But the emphasis is still on more, rather than reduce, it's on new (albeit to you) rather than make do (with what you already have).


I'm reminded of a saying usually applied to houses, but which I think holds a kernel of truth for a variety of arenas: the greenest* house is the one that is already built.

As long as our educational initiatives intended to create awareness of simplicity and making do with less are predicated upon getting or showing off more, we haven't learned anything and no real change in our behaviour will occur to help us lead to lasting change in our world.


*(most environmentally friendly/sustainability minded)