An Ode to the High Level Bridge

26 01 2011

Of the 17 bike accessible spans across the North Saskatchewan River, one is known to cyclists in Edmonton simply as “The Bridge.” Forty six meters (155 feet) above the river with a deck 777m (almost half a mile) long (not including approaches), the High Level Bridge is the only one that crosses the top of the river valley, sparing its users the long trudge up and down the only significant hills in E-Ville, hills that also split the city in half.

Traffic rolls through the bridge, disappearing into a blur of long exposure.

I love the bridge because living near it opens up the entire city to me and my bike, but it looms ominous like the bridge at Sleepy Hollow. No matter which way you go, the south approach is a descent with a series of turns at the bottom, weaving around girders with no room for error, and no matter the season, traction is always an issue, with the turns either getting iced up, or sandy or gravelly. Two people (one cyclist and one rollerblader) have been killed in the last decade in accidents on the south approaches, and countless more have been injured (including a friend who was thrown off her bike and slid halfway down the icy hill on her backside, yesterday). I ride the bridge twice a day on average, and have had too many close calls to count (though with freezing rain today, I can expect more). It’s the coldest and often most dangerous part of my ride.

Bare concrete, I've missed you so!

Darker still is the other place in our collective conscious The Bridge resides in. Talking about it is taboo, but the issue is too familiar to those who walk or cycle the bridge every day. I’ve never been able to find statistics of how many people have jumped off the bridge, but I know people who have, and most everyone from around here knows someone… And every now and then a new memorial pops up, or missing posters go up and down, or a high profile missing persons case suddenly goes into the collective memory hole… This is the subject of the locally produced short film “The High Level Bridge,” which is currently screening at the Sundance Film Festival. To me, (unfortunately), it wasn’t the filmakers’ stories that were extraordinary, it was extraordinary that they broke the taboo by talking about it.

Here it is (for a limited time only):

If my life were a cartoon, the bridge would be a character, a friend, but a dark practical joker that I knew too well to completely let my guard down around. (and like a troubled friend, sometimes you have to call their mom, er 311 if things start getting really dangerous). What can I say, the bridge is an important part of my life, and like the film points out, it has made an impression on our collective psyche. But you don’t get that level of intimacy by driving through it. There are no headless horsemen here, still it’s only after safely crossing the bridge that I can get comfortably on my way.

Bumpy, Bumpy Roads

19 01 2011

Snow, and cold, and more snow, and more cold, have been the story of my life for the past couple of weeks. E-ville’s seen the biggest January snow storm in 20 years, followed by more snow almost every day and temperatures in the -20’s (before windchill). This is a winter city, though, and we don’t take snow days. I’ve ridden every day, though about half my trips included bringing my bike onto the train.

The first day of the big dump, I took a fall on a major thoroughfare while riding Porta-Bike (first fall of the winter, and first fall on that bike). Falling in traffic is always terrifying, and my first instinct is to get my ass up and out of the road, before checking if me & my bike are OK. As I was climbing over the 3 foot high windrow, dragging Porta-Bike behind me, some dudes in a car drove past and pointed and “ha-ha”ed me (Muntzed twice in one month – what is wrong with people?!?). I ended up with a few small bruises, but the bike seemed to take the worst of the fall, with one of the cotter pins loosening up.

I limped it to EBC, as I knew there was another problem festering that I needed to deal with. The bike once had a built in generator and there are holes in the frame where the wires used to run in and out, including one directly above the bottom bracket. When I initially cobbled the bike together, I never expected to be riding it as much as I have, never mind as a winter bike, and didn’t bother to plug it. The bottom bracket had already started to feel gritty, so I knew I’d better overhaul it and plug the hole before replacing the cotter pin.

Hole in frame successfully plugged with a screw and a piece of tube.

Random fun fact – no two nuts on Porta-Bike are the same size, and there is a mix of metric and imperial to keep it interesting. Oh, the joys of frankenbikes.

This is what the parts of the bottom bracket and cranks look like when they're not on the bike. I don't usually use those plastic bottom bracket condom things, but I dug one out in case the plug didn't hold.

With new grease and bearings (and a new cotter pin that took way too long to find) I was back on the street with Polar Porta Bike, the brown sugar slayer. A local street style blogger even stopped me for a picture on a cold afternoon (this is what bike style at -20 looks like, note the frost in my hair and scarf).

As the snow continued to pile up faster than the plows could remove it, cars and feet packed it down, turning every surface hard and bumpy, with textures ranging from washboard to mogul. When I first contemplated winterizing the folding bike, Ravingbikefiend warned me that the biggest reason he didn’t ride any of his 20″ wheels in winter was because of how the bumps jarred his back. After a few days, the thrill of quasi-bmx riding was replaced by my lower back screaming for mercy (the fall didn’t help, either), and I realized I needed to get on a full sized bike again.

Snow ridin' on the Glow-Bee

The Glow-Bee has needed some additional tweaking for its first winter. I discovered the cushy air sprung saddle I love so much turns rock solid when it gets cold, so I’ve temporarily replaced it with a less comfortable but much springier (and squeakier) old-school sprung saddle. I’ve also added a second studded tire on the back, making this the first winter I’ve ridden with two studded tires. It’s still not as stable as Polar Porta-Bike, but it’s faster and has gears, so it’ll do.

All this snow's been good for the snowshoe hares. They can walk on top of the snow and it lets them eat higher branches that they couldn't reach before.

The weather forecast is finally looking up, and near freezing temperatures will feel balmy compared to what it has been. Now, I’m looking forward to enjoying it (and marveling at all the mountains of snow higher than my head), instead of just bearing the ride.

It’s My Blog-aversery!

12 01 2011

Apologies in advance for a self indulgent post.

I’ve been blogging for a year! How time flies!

It's ice lantern making weather (meaning it's freakin' cold but I'm sick of complaining about the cold so I'm going to concentrate on how quick it is to make ice lanterns when it's this cold, instead).

Huge thanks to everyone who’s read, commented or linked to Breaking Chains and Taking Lanes! I feel humbled that so many of you folks like to read my little cycling ditties. Stay tuned for many more bicycle adventures to come, which may or may not include bike-boganning, riding Porta Bike on the roof of a certain E-town landmark, and both riding and skating in a pink tutu.

Porta Bike alight! The ice lanterns slid around in the basket A LOT.

One thing that I’ve enjoyed is seeing the search engine terms that people stumble onto my blog with. Here are the top five most popular:

1 – “breaking chains taking lanes” – Aww, shucks (blushes). You’re really want to read me!

2 – “cygnet bicycle” / “arvon cygnet” – The Cygnet is an amazing bicycle by local master bicycle builder Arvon Stacey that I had the privilege of test riding last summer. More information on Arvon Cycles can be found here and here and here. Recently, Miss Sarah of Girls & Bicycles got to borrow one.

Trying out the Arvon Cygnet on a day that was 55 degrees celsius (that's 100F for those in the states) warmer than it is as I write this.

3 – “green caterpillars” – After making one short post on some unwanted hitchhikers, I’ve discovered that there seems to be such a dearth of information on mysterious green caterpillars that people from all over the world are looking to a bike blog for more information. O-K. This is all I know. But if you’re looking for this information in January, I’m going to assume that your climate is so much different than mine that it won’t be helpful. Unless I’ve unwittingly stumbled upon a green caterpillar conspiracy to take over the planet – that would explain why people everywhere are looking for information on identifying them.

4 – snow storm / winter cycling – Ahhh, now let me tell you about winter cycling

Bike vs blizzard. You may have won this round, blizzard, but I will win the war with my mighty snow shovel, studded tires and angular momentum!

5 – dumpster booty – Aaaarrgh! I hope ye mateys be fellow dumpster pirates, and not just dirty wankers who forgot to turn off safe search.

Some of my other favorite searches from the last year:

“can I bike on shrooms” – Um, yes, you CAN bike on ‘shrooms, but a more pertinent question would be “should I bike on ‘shrooms?”

“folding bikes assholes” – I sure hope I don’t become one of those.

“wd40 poplar sap” – NO! Don’t do it! WD-40 is evil! It won’t remove sap – it’ll just make it more permanent!!

“woody woodpecker bells” – YES!

“how bad is edmonton for cycling” – It’s better than Calgary.

“marjorie stewart baxter hoodie” – Was that you, Chris?

Anyway, thanks for reading, everyone, it’s been a blast! Stay warm and ride on!

The Most Difficult Thing About Winter Cycling

3 01 2011

It’s not the cold. It’s not the snow or the slush or the salt or the muck. It’s not the ice, even when you get right down to it (FTR, falling on ice > road rash). It’s not buying the perfect bike, or the right set of tires, or the right technical clothing. It’s not finding a light with batteries that aren’t affected by the cold or making your presence known to drivers who aren’t expecting you. And it’s certainly not the windchill.

The most difficult thing for me about winter cycling is the moments before I cross the threshold and leave the house.  The anticipation of the cold and the snow and the ever changing conditions is always worse than whatever the conditions of this frozen city actually are.

At the top of this parkade there is a giant pile of snow and a pretty cool view of snow and fog enveloping downtown.

Every morning brings a twinge of dread when I look out the window or check the forecast. Every morning, doubt worms its way into my head and tries to convince me that I can’t make it cross town under my own power on a two wheeled machine. Even though I know that I always feel better after a ride than before one. Even though I know that I’ll be warmer riding than waiting for a train or sitting on a bus. Even though I have never regretted a ride, but have certainly regretted not riding. A little momentum can take you to your goal, but the most difficult part is creating momentum when you start out with none. Everything gets easier after that.

This cool view doesn't have much to do with my post, except it wouldn't have happened had I not been riding like everyday was an adventure.

When people (outside of the bike scene) initially find out I ride all winter, I am pretty used to them thinking I’m crazy. I’ll often protest, “No, actually it’s pretty fun! And you’re moving so you stay warm. I don’t mind at all! It’s a great way to go, fast, cheap & good exercise. And my studded tires grip ice better than my boots…”

But as I peer out the window at my frozen bikes on a cold winter morning, I wonder, for a moment, if I really am crazy, and if this lifestyle actually is a bad choice. I’ve never counted, but I believe it takes me about 2 – 5 cranks of the chain (depending on how cold it is) to completely alleviate this doubt, at least until the next cold winter morning.

Empty streets, mysterious atmosphere, lights up 'til Orthodox Xmas, overall a fine night for parkade topping.

Maybe I am crazy, but it’s because I doubt doing something that’s always sure to put a smile on my face.