I spent a week cycling in St John’s, Newfoundland recently. I was raised there. I learned to ride, and learned to love cycling, there. But this is definitely not an entrenched, massive, cycling community. As one person said to me, “If you see a man in jeans riding a bicycle, then he likely lost his driver’s license in a DUI conviction”.
One morning, I drove about the city doing errands and counted the cyclists, no matter what they were doing, no matter what they were riding, whom I saw on the outing. Five.
When out on the 40km loop that runs out to the coastline and then back into the city from the far side, I counted four cyclists. They were all serious, bedecked in lycra to some degree. But clearly on their bikes intentionally, not as a court-forced condition.
The bike paths everywhere were poorly indicated and maintained. Gravel covered most paths, forcing the bikes into the lane a little too often. Potholes are a constant. That is the same for cars, but it does mean cyclists have to make occasional, and sometimes hurried, detours into the lane in order to avoid a deep gouge in the road.
And then there are the cars. A massive pickup truck, a monster in any European city – just a regular truck in Newfoundland – scraped past me so closely the side mirrors brushed my shoulder. There is often no give, no relent, to their direction. Or the cars pass you as if you are a massive bus, pulling into the far lane and leaving you a sense that you are to be given the physical distance of a car in the lane. Both are signs that bikes are not understood.
As I said, I learned to ride in Newfoundland. I have thousands of kilometers on my legs that I earned on the up and down roads of the Avalon peninsula. I learned how to ride the white line that adorns the very edge of most roads. I learned to love hills, any hill, any distance. And I learned a sixth sense of cars and drivers, when the car was pressing towards me, when some driver was having a laugh and creeping their car far too close to my wheel so they could hav a laugh by frightening the cyclist.
I have offered more than a few one-fingered salutes to people who have simply been irresponsible in their driving. Some readers might find that unacceptable. Too rude. For me, I always hope it will bring the driver to stop, angry or not. It will give me the opportunity to try and speak with them, explain just how close they were to me, how frightening it was. It might seem absurd, but I can see the one-fingered salute as a way to start a conversation.
I left Newfoundland a couple of decades ago and have ridden my bike in a pack of countries. I have ridden the east cost of Africa, been on the streets of many European cities, been on London, UK, streeets for the dreaded daily commute to work, have done daily commutes for twenty years. And in every country, I chat with cyclists who tell me how bad cycling is there. How they were cut off, how the drivers do not see them. How the infrastructure is not there.
It is not that I want to diminish their complaints. Getting hit by a car in a city that loves cycling is just as painful as getting hit where they do not care about two wheels. Yet I see such an immense difference between riding a bike in Newfoundland verus just about anywhewre else in the world. Certainly anywhere else I have ridden (30+ countries). There is a gap between understanding that is hard to bridge.
Equally disappointing for me was how quickly I drifted back into old habits of riding to be as little a target as possible for cars. I rode the white line that demarcates the very edge of the paved roads outside the city. The idea of taking one meter and having options simply was not part of my thinking. I constantly, constantly, constantly, tossed a glance over my shoulder for the cars approaching form behind. I had massive distrust of any car at an intersection. And I saw, constantly, that even in the city, a car would creep past me and then move to the right until they were driving directly on the (poorly maintained and seen) bike lanes.
St. John’s has got a huge distance to cover before it becomes a safe place for a basic cycling community. Driver awareness and maintained cycling paths would help from the outset. But when there are a handful of bikes on the roads, when the physical presence of cyclists is so small….
And yet, cycling is happening there. I know there are more committed cyclists than ever before. A few decades ago, I would know just about every person who rode a bike even semi seriously. There were that few. Now, they can assemble enough cyclists to create a near peloton for some club rides – and in club rids there is presence and safety. … Not so much the solo rides.
It has reminded me of something I have always known. Cycling just about everywhere else in the world is further ahead. There is more infrastructure, more awareness, more respect. Elsewhere cycling is seen as an essential and wanted part of the transport community. In St John’s, from the view of too many drivers, it is for the fanatics and the convicted.