An Open Letter to Active Transportation Advocacy Groups

(I originally posted this to Facebook, but the response I got there convinced me to post it here.)

Dear Active Transportation Advocates & Advocacy Groups:

I’m fat.

Until very recently, I rode a bike everywhere.

I was still fat.

I’m not alone. Oh sure, there aren’t many of us in Vancouver, but there are in other cities.

If you want to convince more atypical people to adopt active transportation as a lifestyle choice, STOP DEMONIZING FAT PEOPLE and stop using the “obesity” scare word. It makes you look like smug a-holes.

Here are a few free tips on how you can get more people on bicycles:

  • Talk about how much fun it is to ride a bike.
  • Tell them that riding a bike makes you feel like a kid again.
  • If they’re slightly libertarian, tell them how riding a bike makes you feel like you’re getting over on society (which I personally enjoy).

Tying desired cycling improvement to behavioral and “health” outcomes is a surefire way to keep people off their bikes, particularly if they’re already feeling beaten up by the fitness/health industry.

Signed,

A Fat Person on a Vespa (for now, until she can ride her bike again).

Scenes From A Bike Lane

I felt my lungs expanding, the tension leave my body. I’ve been away from my bike for much too long, and although last week’s aborted turn left me in poor spirits, today’s abundant sunshine and early-spring warmth lured me back to the saddle. The sun was both blinding and restorative, and I felt the sap begin to flow through my creaky joints. I pointed my bike north and east with no particular destination in mind, but was very happy to find myself headed toward one of my favourite watering holes. I didn’t dally; I stayed only long enough to enjoy one small beer and to make a sadly necessary phone call to my cellular provider.

West Hotel on the Carrall Street Bike Route

I pedaled south toward home along the Carrall street bike route, and stopped at the red light. A man sat just to the right of the lane in a camp chair, a large duffel bag at his feet, and a baseball cap perched insouciantly on his head. He called out: “Nice bike, mama!”, and since the compliment was about my bike and not about me, I thanked him. We talked about how lovely the day was, how it was great to see so many people out and about again after a long (yet unseasonably warm) winter, and how the little pleasures, like riding a gorgeous bike on a beautiful day, or finding a thoughtful spot where you could read a book meant so much, and were overlooked by so many. I asked him what he was reading; I’m a librarian whose interested in people, so I almost always ask. Sadly I can’t remember the title, Yakuza…something. About an Iranian in Japan.

He told me a little about the time he spent 7 weeks in Japan working as a bartender, hanging out with people who were strippers & iand gangsters from Japan’s criminal underworld. In the middle of telling this story, he paused, looked me in the eye and said “It’s nice to have a conversation. We’re bringing it back.”

Scenes From a Bike Commute: Good Girl

A middle-aged woman with a riot of luscious gray curls crossed the street in front of me as I waited at the stop sign. She was walking a small, skittish dog, and as she drew nearer I heard her say “Good girl!”

“Look at you, all colour-coordinated!” she said to me as she crossed. I’m wearing a white cardigan over a turquoise sweater, blue jeggings rolled up to my calves, and mint-green and white New Balance 501s. You already know what my bike looks like.

She continued, “That’s really part of it, isn’t it? If you’re going to have to ride your bike, you might as well look good while doing it.” I laughed in agreement, and pedaled away.

But I still don’t know if the “good girl” was for me or for her dog.

Scenes From a Commute – A Boy and His Bunny

I don’t exactly recall how this exchange between strangers turned into one of my favourite things about my daily ride through my neighbourhood, but I’ve lived long enough to know that life will always find ways to surprise me.

Because I don’t cook much these days (standing for longer than 5 minutes at a time is too difficult), I spend a lot of time going to the faux-fancy market down the street from my apartment for ready-made meals. I usually stop on the way home from work, park Rizzo out front, and hobble my way inside without so much as a second glance at other people on the street. But when someone is sitting in front of the store with a tiny tan and white rabbit,  I can’t help but notice.

The rabbit’s owner is a youngish man, probably in his early 30s, and is in a wheelchair. He keeps his hair buzzed short, and the most brilliantly blue eyes I’ve ever seen. They’re the kind of blue that can’t be disguised by nightfall. Yet as bright as they are, some days they seem a little vacant. I say that without judgement, because I have no idea what he has to do to make it through his day, but it is something I notice whenever I see him.

I wanted to know more about this man, and about how he and his tiny little friend found each other, but I was shy and he was wary. It wasn’t until the third time we saw each other in front of the store that we finally exchanged words.

“Hey, you weren’t limping like that when I saw you the other day,” he said as I awkwardly dismounted from my bike. His voice was friendly, but concerned. I didn’t want to give him my life story, but I explained how I get these shots in my bad knee and for a few days afterward, walking is really difficult. He gestured to his legs. “I know,” he said, with a heartbreaking amount of tenderness in his voice. I felt like an oblivious and privileged jerk.

I asked him if he needed anything from the store, not because I’m hesitant to give panhandlers money, but to make this encounter a little more personal. I thought he’d ask for something to eat or something for his pet, but instead he asked for lemonade drink crystals, the kind of sugar-laden goodness that I haven’t been able to enjoy for years.

On a different night he saw me leaving the drugstore. “You’re walking pretty good today!” he said as I walked to my bike. I was on the way to meet friends and couldn’t stop to chat, but as he saw me riding away he called out “You’re riding pretty good, too!” I rang my bell as a salute and pedalled away with a wave.

On Thursday, at the end of an emotionally and physically demanding day, I saw him in front of the grocery store. Part of me was happy to see him. He had some track lighting in his lap, and his little brown buddy was sitting at his feet, calmly sniffing the sidewalk. I was having a hard time finding a place to lock my bike when he wheeled over and parked his chair at the end of the bike rack. “Hey, why don’t you just leave it here? I’ll watch it for you.”

And even though I eventually found a place to lock up, for the briefest moment I trusted him enough to seriously consider his offer. I can’t explain why, but I did.

He said, “You’re limping pretty bad today,” and this time I could clearly hear the concern in his voice. I tried to downplay it, to divert attention away from it, but he wouldn’t let me. “I know what that’s like, to enjoy something that seems so easy, but then you have days when you just can’t make things work. One day I was jumping my bike off stairs and trails, and the next day I’d lost everything.”

The silence was awkward and pregnant, and all I could do was sheepishly agree with him. For some reason I felt ashamed, and I most certainly felt exposed, seeing that the mask that I wear every day had been so artfully and carefully stripped from my face by someone who didn’t really know me at all.

I asked him about the lights, and he told me some guys from the construction sites across the street gave them to him. “I’m going to take it home, put them over a little sod that they gave me, and plant her a little garden in my apartment. I know a little something about lighting. I used to work construction before.” He didn’t have to say before when, because we both knew when he meant. Before his accident, he had been a construction foreman. He’d also been something of a daredevil on a bicycle.

“Yeah, a couple of days before I had my accident over on the north shore, I jumped my bike off the roof of the convention centre onto the bike path below. It was CRAZY!” he said, and his eyes lit up and his face was more animated than I’d ever seen it.

I offered to buy him something from the store, and he accepted, and asked me if I wouldn’t mind “throwing in some parsley for her.” After I made my purchases and handed him a bag with a sandwich and some parsley in it, I stuck out my hand and said “I’m Cecily. What’s your name?”

“I’m Theo. Nice to meet you Cecily,” and he tenderly shook my hand. As I worked at untangling my bike from the pretzel of cables, handlebars and locks, I heard him mutter my name. “That’s a nice name. What’s that from?” I tried explaining the Cicely Tyson/Cecily thing to him, but he hadn’t heard of Ms. Tyson before, and that’s when I realized just how young he really was. “I’ll try to remember it but I might not always get it right. Don’t get mad at me, OK?” I promised him I wouldn’t, and said he could just call me “C” if it was easier.

We talked a bit more about bikes, about pets (the rabbit’s name is Babies), and then I turned to pedal home. As I rode away, he called out “Keep going, you’re almost home!”

I don’t know whether getting so familiar with a panhandler is a good or a bad thing, and I’m not really sure I care. Instead, I’d rather work from a position of trust and openness rather than suspicion. I may come to regret it at some point; I sincerely hope I don’t. But until then, I’m going to enjoy getting to know Theo and Babies a little better as I’m sure to run into them again.

Besides, I want to hear more about Babies’ garden patch.

Scene From the Bike Lane

It’s a gorgeous sunny day, and I’m pedalling up the Hornby bike lane. I’m on my way to get blood work done, but I’m feeling quite happy because the sky is a fantastic shade of blue, my knees don’t hurt, and the streets are teeming with people for me to gawk at. I’ve stopped at the light at Georgia/Hornby intersection, and a rangy white guy who looks to have seen better days makes eye contact as he crosses the street. A mile-wide smile spreads across his face as he draws nearer.

“Happy Black History Month!” he calls out loudly, pausing on the median to have a chat with me. Some pedestrians smirk at his exuberant greeting, some give us the side-eye, but mostly we’re ignored. I smile and thank him, but I tell him he’s a day early.

“Well, shit”, he chuckles, “I missed Martin Luther King Day completely, so I’m just happy I remembered at all!” We share a laugh and I raise my fist for a fist bump, which he heartily returns. The bike signal turns green, and I ride away, happier for this small moment of shared humanity.

On Lockdown

2013-10-31 19.07.09

After an all too real dream about my bike being stolen, I thought I’d share a photo of how I lock my bike when I’m out and about. That’s right — two locks; one through the frame and bike rack, and the other through the rear wheel and frame.

Rainy Night Rolling Reverie

  • Short, natural hair is the way to go for black women who bike, especially if you get caught in an unexpected rainshower;
  • Soma’s B-Line tires are ideal urban tires for rain slicked streets. The water just sluices right off them; which made me glad I had…
  • SKS Longboard fenders. The extra length can make hopping off curbs dicey, but they’re great at keeping water from splashing up on your feet or onto the underside of your frame.
  • Getting caught in a light but soaking shower is a game of mind over matter. If you smile — especially at the bumper to bumper line of cars at a standstill over on your right — you’ll find that you can almost forget about the rain for awhile. Just blink now and again and make sure you wear waterproof mascara.

Try One On For Size

a Rivendell Betty Foy bicycle in a field
Rivendell Betty Foy in Pemberton, BC

If you’re anything like me, you try a lot of things on for size as you go through life.

Maybe you’ve gained, lost, (and in my case, regained) weight. As our bodies fluctuate, we sometimes lose sight of what size we wear at any given point in our lives. Vanity sizing only complicates matters, so if you’re buying anything but the basics, chances are you have to try on clothes before you buy them.

If you’ve moved from one town, one state, or one country to another, you may play with different identities, or try on a new outlook on life. When a person’s physical geography changes, I find that their mental geography often follows suit.

I’ve tried on a lot of different bicycles over the years. I’ve owned a Norco hybrid, a Trek comfort bike, a Batavus Fryslan Dutch city bike, a Rocky Mountain road bike, and, most recently, a Norco City Glide bicycle. While each of these bikes held a special place in my heart, I was always in search for the perfect bike. I wanted a bike that could take me anywhere and everywhere I wanted to go, and I didn’t want to have to worry about tire size, or bike weight, my own fitness (or lack thereof).

Why am I writing about this? Maybe it’s to justify my bicycle obsession, but that’s not the only reason. I want new cyclists to understand that trying a lot of different bikes and riding styles on for size is completely normal, and is part of the process of becoming a more confident rider. As your skills mature, it’s highly likely that your needs might change. Go with that. Don’t try to make do because you’re afraid of seeming flaky or indecisive. You might have to buy — and sell — a lot of bikes until you find the one(s) that work best for your type of riding. There are as many different kinds of bikes as there are riders, and you won’t truly know which style fits your life until you try one or more on for size.

(I haven’t yet decided whether I’m going to do a full review of the Betty Foy. All I know is that she rides like no other bike I’ve ever owned, and I fell deeply in love with this bike at first ride.)

Bike Shop Betty

my Rivendell Betty Foy frame at Dream Cycle in Vancouver

So, this is happening. I still can’t quite believe it’s happening, and heaven knows I can’t really afford it, but it’s happening.

Details on the build to come. You’ll know it’s complete when you hear the high pitched squeals coming from Vancouver.

Fat People Ride Bikes, Too

There’s an update to this post at the end.

No, it’s true! However, Flying Pigeon LA apparently thinks that fat people are fat because they drive everywhere and are against bike lanes:

Look, I know it may be hard for you to understand Flying Pigeon, and it seems like an easy assumption to make what with the OMG TEH OBESITEE! panic that is so widespread in North American discourse, but there are a whole host of reasons why people are fat, and not all of them have to do with inactivity.

The reason people in Denmark and The Netherlands are thinner than usual has to do, in large part, with genetics. Their diets also factor in because people in Europe tend to eat less processed food than we do here in good ol’ North America.

Another factor is how their cities were planned to support pedestrians, density, and yes, cycling. However, in many European countries, cycling infrastructure didn’t become widespread until the 70s, and that was a direct result of oil embargoes, the energy crisis, and citizen outrage over the number of traffic deaths.

But even though these countries have far greater bike share than we have here in North America, a majority of residents in Denmark and The Netherlands still choose cars as their primary mode of transportation, as evidenced in this chart that was used in a BBC News Magazine story about the reasons behind cycling popularity:

chart displaying the bicycle, automobile, and transit sharing percentages in major European cities

More people in those countries drive more places, yet you’d be hard pressed to find very many fat folk there. Boy, that’s a real head scratcher, innit?

You’re in LA, and you know far better how sprawling and car-centric the culture is, so it isn’t really necessary for me to say any more about that. Because you’re in the US, you know more than most how easy it is to find processed convenience foods, and how the culture supports working until you drop, leaving little time or energy to prepare meals made from whole, real foods.

Oh, you know all of this already? You just think it’s funnier to fat shame bike lane opponents because of their waistlines, even though we know fat shaming doesn’t work?

Oh. OK then. I really have only one thing to say to you.

Fuck you, you fat shaming fuck. Profane, knee jerk emotional response removed.

Update: after a lengthy exchange with Flying Pigeon over Twitter about fat shaming and why it was wrong, I was finally able to get my main point across:

I feel better after speaking up about this. The goal is to get everyone, regardless of fitness level, age or ability on bikes, and the way we do that is by advocating for better bike infrastructure, not by snarking on people’s bodies.

Previously: Nobody Asked You