Three Months in Van­cou­ver

In the sum­mer of 2009, I flew from Heathrow to Van­cou­ver, BC, to start a three-month sec­ond­ment in a clien­t’s of­fice. The plane skimmed over the south­ern reaches of Ice­land a few hours into the flight, pass­ing over the crin­kled grey-green re­lief map of the bar­ren coast­line, with ice­bergs dot­ting the sea off the still-frozen in­lets and snow cap­ping the spines of the land which framed them. The ice sheet was just vis­i­ble as a hori­zon of white­ness off to the north.

Wow, I thought.

A few hours later we flew over the Cana­dian Rock­ies and I was agog once again. The peaks scrolled by un­der us, reach­ing a quar­ter or even a third of the way up to the 10-kilo­me­tre al­ti­tude of the plane, with dol­lops of creamy cloud set­tled in val­leys and bowls two thou­sand me­tres up. The scale was in­cred­i­ble. I could­n’t imag­ine that the Hi­malayas would be any more hyp­notic. Wow again, I thought.

Van­cou­ver is a Big City: that’s how it seemed to me af­ter a few days get­ting to know the place. It has dis­tinct dis­tricts, where the ar­chi­tec­ture, the land­scape and even the peo­ple form an in­di­vis­i­ble, iden­ti­fi­able whole. There’s the down­town east­side, dou­bling as a low-rent Chi­na­town, where junkies and pros­ti­tutes wan­der the streets just blocks from the tow­ers of the CBD; Yale­town, where glam­ourous ur­ban­ites flit from style bar to style bar in lux­ury SUVs; Com­mer­cial Drive, where the rem­nants of ’70s hip­pie cul­ture min­gle with the ironic stylings of the Van­cou­ver hip­ster brigade; the West End’s gay vil­lage and high-rise con­dos, and so on. There’s a grid­ded street lay­out, 4-way stop signs, right turns on red, hot­dog ven­dors, and all those other things which have been sub­con­sciously im­planted in your head by sum­mer block­busters and Taran­tino pulp.

Dodge Charger by the sidewalk
A ’73 Charger round the corner from my apartment. Grand Theft Auto given life.

But LA this is not. There’s sprawl, sure, but it’s con­tained by wa­ter on three sides. There’s a high-rise down­town, but half of its mod­est penin­sula is given over to leafy Stan­ley Park and the half that re­mains is closer in size to Chelsea than Man­hat­tan. More than any­thing, Van­cou­ver re­minded me of Grand Theft Au­to’s Lib­erty City, as if it had been con­structed to dis­til the essence of a big North Amer­i­can city down to a size that would fit neatly in a games con­sole’s mem­ory – or a hu­man’s. On past vis­its I’d dis­missed the city ex­actly be­cause of this: it was a twee pas­tiche of real North Amer­i­can cities, I had con­vinced my­self, pop­u­lar as a des­ti­na­tion for film and TV pro­duc­tions pre­cisely be­cause it could be made to look like just about any of the “real” ones. On this trip, though, it seemed to me that maybe Van­cou­ver was all of those other cities, lumped to­gether in a pe­cu­liarly har­mo­nious and Cana­dian way.

Downtown office blocks
Downtown office blocks.

Dri­ving north along Oak to­wards down­town, there comes a point when the road si­mul­ta­ne­ously straight­ens out and falls away to­wards False Creek, and when it does so, it opens up an as­ton­ish­ing view of the CBD’s tower blocks framed by the trees along the road­side and capped by the North Shore Moun­tains. Then, cy­cling round Stan­ley Park, the city dis­ap­pears be­hind the trees and the view across Bur­rard In­let re­veals the moun­tains up close, with the yel­low mounds of sul­phur of North Van­cou­ver’s port nestling be­neath them. Above you is the sus­pended green strand of the Li­ons Gate Bridge, seem­ing too spindly to sup­port the three lanes of traf­fic that pour in and out of the city at the start and end of each day.

The days were warm and bright and the sun­sets were tinged with gold.

It was stun­ning.

Sunset on Kitsilano beach
Sunset on Kitsilano beach.

Once set­tled in the apart­ment I hit Craiglist to find a bike on which I could at­tack the 26-kilo­me­tre round trip to the of­fice, across False Creek and out through the ’burbs to­wards Rich­mond. A few phone calls landed me a 1982 Peu­geot road bike so ob­scure that even the aptly-named retropeu­ made no men­tion of it. The seller ar­rived in a lit­tle Sub­aru hatch­back fes­tooned with racks bear­ing bikes in var­i­ous states of re­pair. “I’m try­ing to make a busi­ness of it,” he ex­plained as he pulled the Peu­geot out from a fur­ther tan­gle in­side. Af­ter a brief test ride, I bar­gained him down from $300 to $250, handed over the money and brought my prize up to the apart­ment to in­spect. It seemed to be in per­fect nick; ac­cord­ing to the seller, its pre­vi­ous owner had been an old man who’d bought it new and left it in his garage for the in­ter­ven­ing quar­ter cen­tury. I had in my hands a pris­tine piece of cy­cling his­tory.

Peugeot bicycle head badge

This his­tory, un­for­tu­nately, like that of the French mo­tor in­dus­try, is one of Gal­lic ec­cen­tric­ity in the face of baf­fle­ment from the rest of the world. Cit­roën’s cars, for ex­am­ple, have at var­i­ous times sported such idio­syn­crasies as wider seats in front and nar­rower seats in the back (why, for men and women re­spec­tively, of course), bouncy hy­drop­neu­matic sus­pen­sion, and swiv­el­ling head­lamps that turn to fol­low the front wheels. My Peu­geot bike, on the other hand, looked nor­mal but pos­i­tively ex­ploded with non­con­for­mity as soon as I took a span­ner to it. The wheels were a weird size. The han­dle­bars were a weird di­am­e­ter. The rear hub was a weird width. Every threaded part was threaded just frac­tion­ally dif­fer­ently from any and all ac­cepted stan­dards.1

But no mat­ter: the bike went when I ped­alled and it stopped, even­tu­ally, when I braked. Of course, this be­ing the late noughties I was bound by law to re­place its 2×5 dri­ve­train with a sin­gle chain­ring and cog, a process com­pli­cated at every turn by the bike’s in­nate French­ness, but a week or two later it was fin­ished and I was mo­bile at last. Van­cou­ver’s sur­pris­ingly bike-friendly streets were that bit more ac­ces­si­ble.

Peugeot bicycle converted to single speed
Hipster approved.

What bet­ter way to test a new bike, I thought, than some light civil dis­obe­di­ence? Sin­gle-speeded and mes­sen­ger-bagged, on the last Fri­day in June I cy­cled to­wards Li­ons Gate Bridge.

“Where would I find Crit­i­cal Mass?” I asked the 3,000-strong group of cy­clists I found on the way there.

I joined the group as it me­an­dered through Stan­ley Park and to­wards the bridge. All cy­cling life was here: com­muters; mes­sen­gers (and fak­engers, like my­self); road­ies; moun­tain bik­ers; and even a pair of bi­cy­cle cops along for the ride. There was, to my sur­prise, a large num­ber of peo­ple who looked as if they’d never rid­den a bike be­fore in their lives. They wob­bled, they wove, they crashed. I could­n’t help but won­der if a quasi-an­ar­chis­tic mob bent on re­tak­ing the streets was the best en­vi­ron­ment for a new cy­clist, but more power to them for tak­ing part all the same.

Critical Mass on the approach to Lions Gate Bridge
On the way to Lions Gate Bridge.

We cy­cled slowly but de­lib­er­ately to the crest of the bridge, oc­cu­py­ing first the per­ma­nent north­bound lane, then the two-way cen­tral lane (sign­posted for south­bound traf­fic), and fi­nally the per­ma­nent south­bound lane, even­tu­ally bring­ing the traf­fic to a halt. The few cars left on the bridge were trapped like in­sects in am­ber. (I furtively ogled a cou­ple of sweet rides – a ’70s Ranchero and a con­vert­ible Mus­tang – im­mo­bilised with all the rest.) There were a few raised voices and some half-hearted honk­ing of horns, but the ma­jor­ity of dri­vers were con­tent to turn off their en­gines, wind down their win­dows and turn up the ra­dio.

Critical Mass on Lions Gate Bridge
Not so much “We are traffic” as “We are a traffic jam”.

Af­ter forty-five min­utes or so the gen­eral con­sen­sus seemed to be that it was time to get mov­ing. We cy­cled south­ward off the bridge and back through Stan­ley Park, then along the wa­ter­front of Eng­lish Bay and over Bur­rard Bridge onto the main­land. As we went, some of the more ex­pe­ri­enced rid­ers peeled off to “cork” side roads un­til the main group had passed and I, drunk with anti­estab­lish­men­tar­i­an­ism, did the same to some poor woman wait­ing to get out of her dri­ve­way.

“Thanks for wait­ing! We’ll just be a minute.”

Reader, it felt like hours. It takes a long time for three thou­sand cy­clists to pass you by.

We swung along Broad­way and turned back up Main, then cruised through the star­tling glum­ness of the down­town east­side be­fore ar­riv­ing back in the cen­tre of town three hours and twenty-one kilo­me­tres af­ter we had set off. I felt like I had fi­nally ar­rived.

My next big ride, on the same sunny Au­gust day as Van­cou­ver’s pride pa­rade, turned into my longest yet. I threaded my way through the city as the crowd bar­ri­ers were go­ing up to meet some of the mem­bers of the Van­cou­ver Bi­cy­cle Club on the far side of down­town. We headed through Stan­ley Park and up onto the Li­ons Gate Bridge, try­ing to make the most of the cool morn­ing air.

On the down­town side, the bridge juts out from a lofty cliff and the as­cent from there to the crest of the span is short and fairly in­nocu­ous. On the far side, though, you’re con­fronted with a steep, kilo­me­tre-long de­scent which dis­gorges you onto the shoul­der of a busy free­way. We shot down it at lu­di­crous speed, the river two hun­dred feet be­low on the one side and 60 km/​h traf­fic on the other, wheels thud­ding over the ex­pan­sion joints and hold­ing on for dear life. Hav­ing screwed the Peu­geot to­gether my­self, I had ab­solutely no con­fi­dence that it was go­ing to hold to­gether. How would it fail, I won­dered? Would the bars come off in my hands? Would a brake ca­ble snap? It was an in­ter­est­ing time: tyres hum­ming, wind roar­ing in my ears, out­raged pedes­tri­ans backed into the bar­ri­ers and every clench­able part of my anatomy at max­i­mum clench.

Looking north on Lions Gate Bridge
Looking north on Lions Gate Bridge.

We whipped down onto the free­way shoul­der in­tact, re­grouped, and dou­bled back un­der the bridge onto the rolling coastal road to Horse­shoe Bay.2 The sun grad­u­ally warmed things up, and I was sweat­ing freely by the time we ca­reered down an equally ter­ri­fy­ing hill into Horse­shoe Bay it­self. The 40-minute ferry ride to Lang­dale over on BC’s Sun­shine Coast let us de­com­press a bit, and we set off again at a more sen­si­ble pace once we ar­rived.

On the ferry to Langdale
On the ferry to Langdale.

The Sun­shine Coast is nice lit­tle place, a strip of leafy coast­line north­west of Van­cou­ver that con­forms to my “all pic­turesque scenery must look like the Scot­tish High­lands” test of aes­thet­ics. It’s part of main­land BC but the in­ter­ven­ing ter­rain is too rugged for roads and so it’s ac­ces­si­ble only by boat or float­plane. Ac­cord­ing to the guys on the ride, the in­hab­i­tants were mostly re­tirees, farm­ers, hol­i­day­mak­ers and a few de­mented Van­cou­ver com­muters. We stopped briefly in the town of Gib­sons to re­fill our wa­ter bot­tles – it has a pub­lic well dis­pens­ing the one-time best drink­ing wa­ter in the world – and also so that I could have a brief, cathar­tic rant about the town’s ap­palling lack of an apos­tro­phe.

The Sunshine Coast
A typical view from the Sunshine Coast. It was, without exception, glorious.

We stopped for lunch at a place called The Gum­boot Café. The nearby town, Roberts Creek (Christ! Are apos­tro­phes so dif­fi­cult?), was once a staunch hip­pie hang­out, and the smell of good old BC weed lin­gered in the air of the pa­tio. We sank a cou­ple of beers and headed home as the sun reached its peak, shaded at times by over­hang­ing trees but oth­er­wise sweat­ing like bas­tards at each hill. I crawled into the apart­men­t’s park­ing garage hav­ing done about 80 kilo­me­tres over the day, knack­ered from the ex­er­tion and sore from the bike. Thirty-year-old sad­dles don’t play.

Cy­cling’s an odd sport/​hobby/​pas­time. Al­though every­one rides to­gether, it’s dif­fi­cult to chat much be­cause of the need to stay in sin­gle file and the hills in­evitably mean that the train gets bro­ken up as the faster and slower rid­ers spread out; then, every­one stops for a break and the pent-up chat just tum­bles out. It man­ages to be com­pet­i­tive and co­op­er­a­tive, per­sonal and so­cial all at the same time. I kind of like it that way.

I’d met a guy called John at lunch in the of­fice a few times. We’d chat­ted a bit about the Tour de France as it had been go­ing on through Au­gust, and he’d men­tioned that nearby Burn­aby sported a fully en­closed velo­drome. “I’ve been mean­ing to or­gan­ise some be­gin­ners’ track lessons there, but we’ve al­ways been one per­son short. Would you be in­ter­ested?”

A thou­sand times yes, John.

I turned up at the track af­ter work on Fri­day, parked the car and pushed through the re­volv­ing doors.3 The wooden track takes up the cen­tre of the dome, leav­ing enough space at one side for chang­ing rooms, of­fices and the like, but the cor­ri­dor nar­rows down to barely a shoul­der-width as it curves at the end. I fol­lowed voices along the curve un­der the eaves of the track, pass­ing racks and racks of track bikes locked up un­der the banked cor­ner, to find my col­leagues Pete, Mon­ica and John be­ing fit­ted for their rental bikes. We were, it is fair to say, shit­ting our­selves.

Claire, our in­struc­tor for the evening, picked out a bike for each of us – shiny red fixed-gear Treks – and we wheeled them out through an un­der­pass and into the cen­tre of the track.

This was go­ing to be scary.

The track is 200m long (too short for the Olympics, ap­par­ently) and is banked at 47° at each end. It’s the steep­est track in North Amer­ica, and if you don’t cy­cle at some­thing like 30km/​h around the cor­ners then you fall off. It’s as sim­ple as that. There were a few rid­ers up there al­ready, hurtling round and round to an as­ton­ish­ing ca­coph­ony of noises: tyres hummed over the lac­quered wood and the track creaked and groaned as the rid­ers flew over it.

Claire ex­plained the mark­ings on the track to us: the côte d’azur, or ‘on-ramp’ at the bot­tom; just above it, the me­tre-wide sprint­er’s lane bor­dered by a pair of red and black lines, and the blue stay­er’s line about halfway fur­ther up. It seemed im­pos­si­bly dis­tant. “That’s where you wait dur­ing the Madi­son,” she told us. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you up there — and a bit higher — be­fore the end of the night.”

We had a few laps of the côte d’azur to get used to our brake­less, fixed-gear bikes. The ra­tio­nale here is that if track bikes did have brakes, all it would take is one twitchy rider in the pack to brake sud­denly and there would be a mas­sive pile-up. The con­se­quence is that slow­ing down is much, much harder; you have to let your legs con­tinue to move with the ped­als but ap­ply a bit of pres­sure as they come up from bot­tom dead cen­tre. It’s pos­si­ble to just lock up your legs, but do it with enough de­ter­mi­na­tion and the still-ro­tat­ing ped­als will cat­a­pult you up and over the han­dle­bars. I came close a cou­ple of times.

Af­ter that we were en­cour­aged up onto the bank­ing along the straights, then back to the safety of the côte d’azur for the cor­ners and even­tu­ally, once we had enough speed, up onto the banked track for the whole lap. The sen­sa­tion is ex­hil­a­rat­ing, and mor­ti­fy­ing. With ten or twelve be­gin­ners on the track, our speeds were all over the place: some rid­ers were can­ing round as if to the velo­drome born; oth­ers were creep­ing around with tyres squeak­ing in protest at the lack of speed in the cor­ners. Claire had ex­plained some track rac­ing eti­quette — call out “Stick!” as you ap­proach some­one to over­take, or let them know whether you’re pass­ing them on the in­side or out­side, for ex­am­ple — and round­ing a cor­ner was ter­ri­fy­ing mix­ture of wall-of-death speed and dodgem ma­noeu­ver­ing. “Stick!” I’d yell. “Je­sus – STICK!” as some lag­gard am­bled round in front of me, barely fast enough to keep from slid­ing off the track. All the while, more gung-ho rid­ers shot by above us both with an airy whoosh and oc­ca­sion­ally a whoop of glee.

We went on to ex­per­i­ment with pace lines, where a team of four cy­clists cir­cle the track in sin­gle file, the front rider each lap peel­ing off to the back of the pack. We yo-yo’d for­ward and back like a hor­i­zon­tal slinky: no brakes might pre­vent sud­den stops but it does­n’t make it any eas­ier to keep a con­stant speed. Af­ter that, Claire led the en­tire gag­gle up to the top of the track for a fly­ing 200 me­tres, where you hur­tle down to the sprint­er’s lane by the in­field for a fly­ing lap. These were ex­er­cis­ing enough, but fi­nally we moved onto Madi­son drills.

The Madi­son is a slightly bizarre race be­tween teams of two rid­ers: one rider rests above the blue stay­er’s line, cy­cling slowly to con­serve their en­ergy, while the other races around the sprint­er’s lane at the bot­tom. When the pair swap over, the rac­ing rider trans­fers some of his mo­men­tum to his team­mate by link­ing hands and sling­ing him for­ward. We weren’t go­ing to try this (most of us were still as­ton­ished by every lap we man­aged to com­plete with­out in­jury or mishap), but we were go­ing to get part of the way there. First, Claire told us, “You’re go­ing to be rid­ing with your hands in the drops. No us­ing the flat bits on top. Take one hand off the bars on the straights, then put it back on for the cor­ners. When you’re happy with that, try rid­ing an en­tire lap with just one hand. Then do the same with the other.”

Okay, okay, we nod­ded.

“And then, you’re go­ing to pair up. One rider is go­ing to stay on the black line” — as in, the 2-inch-wide strip of black tape at the top of the me­tre-wide sprint­er’s lane — “and the other has the whole of the sprint­er’s lane to move around in. The sec­ond rider will stay slightly be­hind the first, and rest their right hand on the first rid­er’s back. For one whole lap.”

I know this does­n’t sound dif­fi­cult. Read­ing it now, it sounds like a piece of cake. But on that track, where the il­lu­sion of a smooth sur­face at a dis­tance was re­placed by a rip­pling, creak­ing, tram­lin­ing mass of wooden boards, and where the 47° bank­ing had you al­most more hor­i­zon­tal than ver­ti­cal in the turns, it seemed like an im­pos­si­bil­ity. The rid­ers in each pair would have to speed up and slow down re­spec­tively in the cor­ners to make up for the dif­fer­ent radii of their turns; the out­side rider had to quite lit­er­ally toe the line with as lit­tle de­vi­a­tion as pos­si­ble, and the in­side rider had the aw­ful task of mak­ing it round the track one-handed at 20 miles per hour just to avoid falling over by de­fault.

Pete and I paired up and gin­gerly headed off. A few laps in I could com­plete a cir­cuit one-handed, star­ing fixedly at the boards in front of me and ped­alling like it was the only thing keep­ing me from smash­ing painfully into the blue paint of the côte d’azur, be­cause that’s ex­actly what it was. A few laps af­ter that I held to the black line as Pete stead­ied him­self in the sprint­er’s lane with his hand on my back, and a few laps af­ter that we swapped over and man­aged a sec­ond paired lap, this time with me wob­bling along be­low and slightly be­hind him, man­ag­ing to keep my hand planted on his back for one com­plete lap. We had all the co­or­di­na­tion, grace and as­sur­ance of new­born calves on an ice rink, but we did it. We came down to the in­field sweat­ing with nerves, and, if I re­mem­ber rightly, ac­tu­ally high-fived each other with­out even a hint of irony. Claire con­grat­u­lated us, and we were happy.

Three months af­ter I had ar­rived, it was time to pack up and go home. I had one last night out with some of the guys from the of­fice at an Ital­ian restau­rant called Cam­pag­nolo be­cause, well, why not? Yes, it was close to the down­town east­side. And yes, the near­est place I could lock up my bike was the chicken wire around a va­cant lot half a block away. And yes, this was a neigh­bour­hood where the po­lice re­ceived al­most half as many more calls as the Van­cou­ver av­er­age. But in the end, it was worth it. The food was plen­ti­ful and ex­cel­lent, and the Peu­geot was still there when we stum­bled out onto the side­walk. Sated, drunk and happy I said my good­byes, wheeled the bike over to the sea­wall path, and cy­cled care­fully home.

A pier on Vancouver Harbour
Evening at Vancouver Harbour.
  1. Since you asked: the bike was a Peugeot Sprint UO-12 with 27″ rather than 700c wheels, 25mm handlebars versus the more common 25.4 (a metric inch!), and an exceedingly odd rear hub width – 126mm, I thought at first, although my vernier caliper now claims 124, which is just bonkers. Who has ever used a 124mm hub?
  2. I have a memory that we, a pack of mostly lycra-clad cyclists, were heckled as “gay” by a gaggle of teenage skateboarders just outside Horseshoe Bay – on the same day as the pride parade, no less. Why not head into the city for your daily outburst of casual homophobia, I wondered? Far richer pickings there. At the time I flicked the V-sign; had it happened today I’d have stopped and yelled at them with foam-flecked lips. I have grown as a person.
  3. The pair of fire doors next to the main entrance had a big sign on them: “DO NOT OPEN BOTH DOORS AT ONCE!”. I asked Claire the instructor about this and she told me that the ’drome has an air-supported roof — it’s essentially a huge balloon which is kept rigid only by fans maintaining positive air pressure inside it. Unfortunately, air-supported domes have certain problems, like collapsing when it snows.