On riding bikes

It is very early morning, and because mornings have recently been robbed of an hour of daylight, I am biking in darkness. Up ahead is a tunnel, a nexus of sorts. On one side exists a quiet tree-lined residential street and on the other the raucous unpredictability of Calgary’s urban centre. I enter the tunnel leaving behind a tranquil neighborhood and emerge into the bright lights of downtown Calgary.

These lights follow me on my left as I rise sharply with the bike path and onto the east side of the 14th Street Bridge. After crossing the bridge, I turn left onto a path that drops steeply and then follows the natural bend of the Bow River. All the trees lining the banks have lost their leaves, but the river itself hasn’t started to freeze. I make a right turn and ride over the uneven pavement of 11th St. until I am brought to my first full stop of the day. I wait with a foot on the curb, under a red light at Ninth Ave. The rush of movement through the cold weather has rallied my senses and I take a couple deep breaths while surveying an awkwardly choreographed procession of headlights. With the green light I’m off and I stand up on my pedals as I churn up the incline. At the top of the rise I absorb the impact of the rail tracks with my legs and look left at the appealing anachronism of a railroad cutting through a modern urban landscape. Four blocks later I am locking my bike to a no parking sign and taking a few short steps to a place that I endeavour to be every Thursday morning.

This was once a nondescript, kitschy breakfast diner that I passed without notice. It has become a meaningful part of my week because some friends and I routinely meet here for breakfast. It seems an obvious statement to make, that certain places are meaningful, or that one place can be more significant to us than another. Whether it is a bedroom, a powder run at Fernie or a gym locker, we live our lives in places, but often take for granted that they have a varying amount of importance to us.

Thinking about places and this attachment to them is at the centre of the study of human geography. In his book, Place: A Short Introduction, Tim Cresswell outlines the history of ideas surrounding the notion of place. For some theorists, the meaning behind place is entirely socially constructed.

“If we say that New York’s Lower East Side is a social construct we are saying that the way we experience that place, the meanings we ascribe to it, come out of a social milieu dominated by Western cultural values and the forces of capitalism,” writes Cresswell.

However, there is also a more philosophical vein within the discipline, one that traces its roots back to the European philosophies of existentialism and phenomenology– the philosophical tradition that examines human consciousness from a first-person point of view. It is curious to explore the nature of subjectivity and by using this approach in human geography theorists argue that attaching meaning to place is fundamental to consciousness. The human experience cannot accommodate abstract space, so we inevitably interpret the world into human terms.

“Place was seen as a universal and transhistorical part of the human condition,” writes Cresswell. “To be human is to be ‘in place.’ ”

This way of understanding place stresses the importance of our subjective experience in attaching meaning to our environment.

As my friends leave for work, I head out to the street and back onto my bike. And because I am living the dream– or nightmare, depending on what part of the semester it is– of a university student, I have some time on my hands before the day really begins. I decide to take the long way home. I head north down 11th St. and turn east onto 12th Ave. Slipping into the momentum of early-morning commuter traffic, I stand up off my saddle, grip my handlebars and work the purple steel of my Peugeot road bike into a rhythm. This gentle but discernible slope allows me to keep pace with traffic as it stops and starts on its way into downtown.

If being human involves a constant creation of meaning in relation to our environment, then a cyclist careening through an urban landscape is connecting to places while in motion. Justin Spinney, a cultural geographer, studies cyclists and how meaning is created through motion in his article “A place of sense: a kinaesthetic ethnography of cyclists on Mont Ventoux.” Ventoux is in the south of France and is a stage in the Tour de France. It is one of the most infamous climbs in the sport of cycling. When beginning his project, Spinney pondered his own connection to the mountain and noticed that it involved a variety of pre-existing perceptions. He could approach it as a cyclist, a cultural geographer or even as a tourist.

“Perhaps I should profess my awe of and respect for Mont Ventoux as one of the sacred test sites of the tour and as the mountain that took the life of British racing cyclist Tom Simpson,” says Spinney, recognizing that Ventoux has a myriad of existing socially constructed meanings.

What Spinney discovered is that it is ultimately his subjective experience of the ascent that determines his sense of place on Ventoux. To explain how this occurs, Spinney introduces the concept of the kinaesthetic, which he defines as an “embodied feeling and experience of movement– as a way of understanding how people relate to their environments and make sense of them.” The ascent experience involved intense pain and physical exertion. He argues that this visceral involvement with the landscape superseded all of his preconceived connections to Ventoux.

Biking in the city definitely does not have to involve anguish. It can be relaxing and even contemplative. What is important about Spinney’s observations is the heightened experience of the senses when moving through space on a bike and how this creates an intimate connection with the surroundings. Riding entails vulnerability. A person is exposed to weather, topography and interactions with other people that is just not possible when driving a car. It is an involved experience that leaves an indelible impression on the cyclist.

Morna Brown, a nurse at the Foothills Hospital, bikes to work on a regular basis.

“You start to appreciate little things, like how now in the morning every house that I pass has its lights on,” she says. “I am starting to notice people’s routines and feel like, in a certain sense, that I am getting to know them.”

Driving, on the other hand, is about invulnerability to the environment. In a car every sense– except for vision, which is itself truncated– is cut off from the environment. The body’s sense of motion, within a vehicle, is muted by its insulating design. Meaning is still being created while driving, but focus has shifted from the landscape and to the interior of the car itself. Driving within a city also demands a driver’s full attention, which is absorbed by traffic laws and the movements of other vehicles. There is rarely a chance to even passively appreciate the scenery and, furthermore, the ways to get to a destination are strictly regimented.

On a bike, a multiplicity of routes emerge and being more involved with places travelled through means the ride becomes much more than a means to cover distance. A more tangible comprehension of the city as a whole emerges, as the abstract space between destination points takes on a personal meaning and significance.

John Beriault, a University of Calgary student, bike mechanic and active member of the cycling community, has been biking as a hobby since childhood.

“Thinking critically about the lines between physical work and fun, the empty space of ‘between destinations,’ and a recreational activity has led to a decision to choose cycling over driving– one inhabits a very different mindset on a bike [than] in a car,” says Beriault.

As the Hop In Brew Pub flies past me on my right, I shoulder check and then cross to the north side of the street. I take a left turn onto First St. and keep to the curb as I shoot through a green light on 10th Ave. I drop down below the railroad tracks and as I emerge from the underpass I am struck by a peculiar perceptual sensation. As I rise with the incline of the road, the historic buildings at the approaching intersection seem to rise with me. The Grain Exchange Building across the street and to my left, while the Palliser Hotel is on my right as I wait for the light to change at the corner of Ninth Ave. and First St. This intersection is on a hill and it’s difficult to get moving again. With some deft movements I navigate the haphazard morning traffic and make my way along First St. I take a left turn and start heading home, going west on Sixth Ave. The road is an artery pumping cars out of the city’s centre and I am swept up in the current. This time the slight slope is against me, but the wave of traffic carries me along with an adrenaline rush that disguises any extra effort my legs are making. At 11th St. I make a right turn and am back on the bike path. By now a flood of sunlight is cutting across my back and the path is packed with a frenetic morning pilgrimage.

There has been an influx of bikes in the city over the last couple of years. We don’t have the bicycle deluge of Montreal or Halifax, but more and more different types of people and bikes are finding their way onto Calgary’s roads and paths. Accorging to Pat Gordon, project manager for “Plan It Calgary”– an ambitious long-term transportation and urban design plan for the city– both biking and walking are “moving up in the consciousness” of city planners and being given priority within this new conceptualization of the city. Another initiative, the Bike Policy and Design Report, is a detailed plan about how to build the necessary infrastructure to nurture cycling in Calgary’s inner city. It is available on the City of Calgary website and recognizes not only the health and environmental benefits of cycling, but also how the activity contributes to more vibrant communities. More bikes on the road enables a richer relationship to place and stimulates the development of stronger communities.

“Pedestrians and cyclists are given the highest priority because of the vitality they add to the public realm and because of their low environmental impact,” says the report.

Community organizations, as well, are taking an active role in creating a more inclusive space for bikes in the city.

“[Critical Mass is] a monthly event which aims to raise awareness that cycling is a valid and viable alternative to automotive transportation and through group rides encourages drivers to rethink their preconceptions as to who asserts power over the space of the road,” says Beriault.

Here at the university there has also been steps towards making campus more bike-friendly, including the U of C Campus Bike Initiative. It includes a community co-operative bike shop, the Bike Root, which is located in Murray Fraser Hall’s loading docks. Bike Root is well-equipped with tools and friendly expertise, regardless of your experience or the current condition of your bike. The library aspect of the initiative will be launching this winter and will loan out bikes by the hour, day or month. Both Bike Root and the library will be open to the community at large.

I find a gap in the rush of bikes and turn onto a path leading up and onto the 14th Street bridge. Depending on the day, I can end up crossing this bridge several times over. I let the imperceptible slope carry my bike across the river and take in the view of downtown. From this perspective the city seems compact, knowable. Downtown is bounded on the south side by railroad tracks and to the north by the Bow River. I have grown up and spent my entire life in this place, but I was largely oblivious to Calgary’s unique character until I began biking last spring and experienced its architecture, parks, nooks, crannies, paths and people from the vantage point of a second-hand, purple, ten speed. I approach the end of the bridge and veer off onto a path that falls dramatically with a banking left turn. I arc my bike down, around and through the tunnel. Out the other side and I’m once again immersed in a quiet neighbourhood, but I can feel the reassuring presence of downtown at my back.

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