From paving roads to breaking racial and gender barriers, bikes have played a role in bringing people from all backgrounds together, as equals. Today, Shifting Gears, a special show about the bicycle, airs CBC Radio One.

HereCBC's Jennifer Chen introduces the special with her own story.


My first sort of grown-up bike was a red 10-speed from Canadian Tire. I remember it was way too big for me, but I loved the feeling of racing around our court and then beyond.

It was instrumental in helping me make a getaway when I got mad at my parents and needed to be far away, and it got me out of a jam more than once when I was racing to school on a deadline and couldn't wait for the bus.

Most of us have memories about our first bike and those feelings of freedom and independence when we were young — of our worlds expanding.

Now, when I ride, even when my mind is crammed with thoughts, I will suddenly find myself marvelling at the joy and exhilaration I feel when the breeze tickles my cheek and the pedalling suddenly becomes effortless.

Like many people, I left cycling for a while when I got a driver's licence and a car.

But, when I was in my twenties, my father became involved in the bike business and I was slowly drawn in again.

It doesn't hurt that Vancouver is a pretty cycling-friendly city. As controversial as some of the recent changes might be, the new bike lanes make it easier for me to cycle around than to traverse the city by any other means.

Back on the bike, and the road to sobriety

Vancouver Park Board Commissioner Constance Barnes supports the continued development of a bike network around Vancouver.

She said she rode her single-speed, blue CCM bike as a kid, but that she too traded in her two wheels after she learned to drive.

More recently, she returned to cycling after she was convicted of driving under the influence and lost her licence.

Constance Barnes

Constance Barnes says her bike is her "best bud." (Jennifer Chen/CBC)

When she got out of rehab she decided to change her lifestyle and get a bike because she saw it as her only option, other than public transit.

She says her bike was key to dealing with her addiction. 

Five years later, she remains sober and she says she can't live without her bike: "She's my best bud."

Changing communities

The separated bike lanes in Vancouver and in other places around the world aren't necessarily intended for the use of seasoned cyclists like Constance. They're more for those of us who are thinking of cycling but feel intimidated by the traffic, says Gil Penalosa.

Penalosa played a large role in getting more bikes on the roads of Bogotá, in Colombia. As the former Commissioner of Parks, Sports and Recreation for the city, he helped create more than 300 kilometres of bike lanes, and brought in Cyclovia.

Every Sunday, major streets are closed off to vehicles, and cyclists, pedestrians, skaters and dancers get to rule the road.

The signs and maps and painted lines are good, says Penalosa, but they're not going to get people on bikes if they're not already regular cyclists. What's important is for communities to establish a connected bike network through the city and to make sure there are separated lanes for cyclists.

This August, he's bringing the first Cyclovia to Toronto, and he is working to get other Canadian cities to follow suit.

Bringing people together

When we talk about how bikes have changed cities we look at places like Portland, Oregon.

In the space of about 20 years, the municipality has transformed its streets and now boasts one of the highest bike commuter populations in the U.S., which stood at around six per cent in 2012.

Penalosa says the benefits are huge — bikes don't just help the environment, they'll make us healthier, both mentally and physically.

On bikes, we'll stop and smell the coffee as we pass the café, we'll take the time to greet and talk to our neighbours.

In Bogotá, he says, the shift to bikes has created a space where people from different cultures and levels of the social strata can meet on equal footing.

“It has created a sense of pride in the city, a sense of belonging,” he says.

Though some might argue it is not change for the better, cycling advocates like Gil Penalosa make a compelling case for how the bike can bring many benefits to communities, and why the bicycle should be given more room on the road, no matter where you live.

And it doesn't mean you have to give up your car, it just means that you might consider the bicycle for some of your trips.

'That ultimate freedom allowed me to be me'

For some people the bike is not just a way of getting around, or a recreational pastime, it’s a way of life.

Tara Llanes

Tara Llanes on her hand cycle in North Vancouver. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

Cycling has left a big imprint on Tara Llanes. She was an elite BMX mountain bike racer until a horrible accident in 2007 during a competition left her paralyzed. She now uses a wheelchair to get around.

There was a lot of anger, she says, but years later, after a lot of perseverance and soul-searching, she is getting back in the saddle with help from her wife, Elladee Brown. They met on the mountain bike racing circuit.

“I felt like just that ultimate freedom... allowed me to be me again,” she says of her new hand cycle.

Pushing past boundaries

From helping women get into pants in the 1890s, to challenging racial barriers, to creating communities both virtual and real, the bicycle's path through history has brought change to many people’s lives.

Maybe not everyone is convinced, but like it or not, bikes are becoming more prevalent on our streets and we can either simply learn to live with them, or we can choose to happily adapt and even thrive.

How has cycling changed my world?

It compels me to slow down from the supersonic speed of life, it’s made me healthier and less stressed, pushed my boundaries, provided the catalyst for so many precious memories, and it has opened my eyes on the roads I've travelled in Beijing, England, New York, Palm Springs, and around B.C.

I bet it’s done the same for many others who are longtime cyclists, and even for some who are just getting on their bikes and starting to pedal.

Shifting Gears: How a bike can change your life airs on Monday, August 4 at 5 p.m. on CBC Radio One. It is hosted and produced by Margaret Gallagher and co-produced by Jennifer Chen in Vancouver.


What's your back-to-the-bike story?

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