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As dawn breaks in a city of one-and-a-half million people, I stop my bike to appreciate the stillness. Five hundred metres up and down the park’s pathway, I don’t see a soul. I breathe the frigid air and shake feeling into my fingers. I take 60 seconds to smile at the fact that I alone am witnessing this view of the river’s mist backlit by the stunning fuchsia-bubblegum-turquoise sky. I hop back on, grab the handlebars, and pedal forth through the gravelled snow and ice. Welcome to the morning winter commute in Calgary, Canada’s oil and gas capital.
As the sunrise mutates to blue sky, I use this time to reflect and prepare for my day.
“How should I respond to that passive-aggressive e-mail from a parent?”
“How can I get 35 16-year-olds engaged in the importance of Canada’s constitutional amendment formula?”
“What the heck is the notwithstanding clause in French again? Clause … nonobstant, right.… remember that so you don’t look like an idiot this afternoon.”
It’s gratifying when solutions to your stressful problems present themselves after being mulled over while riding calmly behind handlebars instead of gripping a steering wheel and still trying to wake up.
Ten years ago, during the aforementioned face-numbing weather, I could trek my eight kilometres to work without seeing more than two other cyclists. In the event that I would cross paths with one, we seemed to share a mutual understanding: Whether it was through a smile, a quick “hello” or a simple glance, we acknowledged that we are privy to the hidden perks that our mode of transportation has to offer.
It may not always be comfortable or convenient, but it gives us a sense of belonging to an exclusive club. Whether it’s to reduce emissions while breathing clean air, to relish the opportunity to exercise, or for those priceless, calm sunrises, each of us knew exactly why we were out there. Most days, I know we wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I started bike commuting in 2001 when I was 19. I had landed a sweet three-month job in a downtown office as their summer student. As a girl who was raised not to fear riding on city roads as long as I obeyed the rules, I thought: How hard could it be? I quickly realized I was in the minority. Most cyclists stuck to the river pathway system, seldom venturing more than a few blocks onto the “recommended bike routes” heading in and out of the core, as they often had too little shoulder and were packed with vehicles.
Gender is a tricky subject, but it appeared that almost all commuters who braved this hair-raising scenario were male. That first summer, I barely saw a single other woman my age on my route! My short stint in Toronto soon after was only marginally better in terms of designated lanes and gender imbalance – except right near the University of Toronto campus.
Fast forward a decade and a move back to Calgary. Never one to give up (or pay for parking), I kept at it whenever possible, even when it meant towing my toddler son in a trailer. I’m sure we turned some heads when we arrived bright and early to pick up the school bus I drove and start our route.
Some years later, I remember biking to the University of Calgary and having a classmate ask me, “You’re not one of those crazy people who rides year-round, are you?” I hadn’t considered taking my bike out in the snow and ice and, at the time, shared his perspective about the sanity of those who did. Up to this point, cycling for me was a warm-weather activity.
That was soon to change. Post-university, I began biking those eight km to and from the school I taught at. As it became more routine and cost-effective, I wondered why I wasn’t doing it on the milder winter days. After all, I lived a mere 100 metres from the bike path. Thus began my gradual discovery of the world of studded tires, handlebar pogies and wet lube. In the ten years since, it seems the technology and gear market for winter riding has taken off.
These days, not only do I sport heated gloves (courtesy of my extremely helpful and bike-savvy spouse), but the city has also made laudable improvements to its non-motorized infrastructure. During my 10 years in that teaching job, my commute’s roughly 21 blocks of unprotected road were pared down to six – these being quiet and residential. Though Calgary still has a long way to go before resembling the likes of Copenhagen or even Vancouver, such improvements are city-wide and ongoing. Consequently, that rush-hour gender gap is closing, at least in the warmer months. Today, it’s not uncommon to see a mum pedalling her kids to daycare or school in the morning because they can stick to the separated pathways and lanes.
But, when it comes to the lonely, frigid winter commute, though I definitely see more cyclists than I did ten years ago, I still ask myself, “Where my sisters at?” Why is it that far more dads and husbands are free to don their woollen undies and benefit from the fitness and quiet reflection of cycling, while mums are still saddled with hauling the kids to the bus or school? Is it that winter riding is still associated with rugged masculinity? I’ve heard many women lament how scary it can be for a cyclist out there during rush hour. Or is it because the mechanics who work in bike shops are still almost exclusively men? Perhaps the gals are discouraged from taking up the challenge of repairs and care a winter commute demands. Is it, god-forbid, because we are more high-maintenance than men? Could it be (gasp!) the helmet hair?
Then again, maybe it’s just a lack of role models.
This year, I have taken a new job with fewer hours. But the commute is twice as far and adds exhausting, and sometimes icy, hills. I am lucky if I bike to work once a week; most days, I drive my truck. The contrast is startling. I often yearn for the days when I would arrive to work refreshed, mindful, and ready to go. And just like that, instead of feeling like a role model and a member of that exclusive club, I am just another obedient citizen-motorist in Oil City.
How do we encourage more people, especially women and girls, to feel comfortable getting around by bike? How do we change bike commuting for busy, working mothers into something feasible and normal? Is it even possible in our winter climate?
I don’t know the answer to those questions. But, after witnessing the slow transformation of my gas-guzzling city and the explosion in affordable equipment, what I do know is this: if you build it, they will bike – especially women.
Amy Lofting lives in Calgary.