Calgary through the eyes of new bike riders
The pandemic-induced bike boom has some adults learning to ride for the first time
In an empty school parking lot in southwest Calgary, Candi DeVetten practises riding her new bike.
She teeters at first, reaching out a foot to stop from falling. DeVetten finds her balance and tries again. Soon, she is off, riding smoothly and sporting a big grin.
"It feels so freeing," says DeVetten, 32, who learned how to ride a bike for the first time in mid-May.
With the global coronavirus pandemic causing people to stay closer to home, many are turning to the humble bicycle — for leisure, exercise and to replace public transit trips. Bike shops say business has exploded.
Some people are back biking after decades away, and other adults, like DeVetten, are learning to ride for the first time. These new cyclists are finally feeling the joy and freedom a bike ride brings.
"A whole world has opened up to me," says Marcelina Johanson, who started biking during the pandemic for the first time in 30 years. "I'm absolutely experiencing Calgary in a new way."
While Johanson learned to bike as a child, she last rode at age nine. That changed during the pandemic, when her downtown job in oil and gas moved to working from home.
"Because I don't have a commute anymore, I have that extra hour in the evenings to go out with the kids," Johanson says.
She bought a bike and now rides with her husband and daughters, ages nine and 11, who are eager to give their mom pointers. The family recently biked to a playground, a trip they would have previously made in a vehicle.
A mental boost
"It's such a mental boost. We typically go for family rides after work in the evening, but sometimes I've also gone by myself in between meetings," Johanson says.
For DeVetten, the impetus to learn to bike began last year, after she was diagnosed with functional neurological disorder and experienced a flare up so severe she lost her ability to walk unassisted.
"I thought if I can relearn how to walk, I'm sure I could learn how to ride a bike," she says.
DeVetten had tried biking when she was five, and remembers her parents decked out her bicycle with everything a '90s kid could dream of — streamers on the handlebars, colourful spoke beads on the wheels, a big basket — to coax her on it.
"But I was so anxious about bike riding that when I fell off the first time, I never got back on," she says.
Shifrah Gadamsetti is another Calgarian who did not learn to bike as a child. She has memories of attempting around age five, but it coincided with watching a documentary about a mountain biker. When the young Gadamsetti heard about injuries the biker had sustained, she didn't get back on her bike.
As well, she says, her family lived in a dense area of India, where it wasn't easy to find space to safely learn.
Her family later immigrated to Canada, and she tried biking again at age 14.
"It was going well until I crashed into a parked car and a blaring alarm went off," she says.
Gadamsetti gave up, replacing biking with walking for years. But she has long felt like she's not experiencing as much of Calgary as she could be, especially because there's a cycle track directly in front of her home. Plus, she says, "It's just kind of humiliating to be an adult and not know."
Gadamsetti now plans to learn this summer. She's currently looking for a used bike — no easy feat right now.
Cause of embarrassment
For DeVetten, skipping this childhood rite of passage caused embarrassment over the years.
"My peers made fun of me all the time for never learning how to ride a bike," she says. "And I would say to them, 'Well, I know how to Rollerblade, that's as good.' Which it's not. Now that I'm a bike rider, I can say that."
DeVetten remembers camping trips where everyone showed up with bikes to get around, meaning she was always last to arrive, on foot, and vacations where she had to skip bicycle sightseeing tours.
Mike Potter can relate. While on a vacation in Myanmar to celebrate a friend's 50th birthday, as everyone else enjoyed a bicycle tour, Potter was pulled in a carriage by a donkey.
Potter, 51, doesn't remember a particular reason why he never learned to bike as a child. He tried in his teens and was able to ride in a short, straight line, but never picked it up again.
The professor of electrical engineering says that, over the years, many friends have pushed him to learn.
"They're frustrated, because they think I'm really missing out on something," he says.
Last fall, Potter decided to "put some skin in the game" and buy a new bike during an end-of-season sale, with the intention of learning this spring.
One evening in early June, Potter and a friend headed out with bikes, armed with tips from a YouTube video Potter had watched about learning to ride as an adult.
A quick learner
In about an hour, Potter went from kicking himself along with a lowered bike seat so he could get a feel for balancing, to chatting with his friend while riding and changing gears.
"I didn't think it would come so quickly," he says.
"I was just so happy for him," says Rich Mawson, Potter's friend who helped.
With his newfound skill, Potter plans to explore Calgary's pathway system, and likes that he'll now have the option to ride over to friends' places instead of driving.
Kim Fisher, a transportation safety education specialist at the City of Calgary, has noticed the pandemic-induced bike boom.
"We're seeing people traveling on bicycles in larger volumes than what we've seen in previous years and months," she says. "It's really exciting to see more people using our pathway system and our on-street bikeway system, some for the first time."
Additionally, the pandemic and its physical distancing requirements led the city to close some lanes to vehicles and open them for people. These "adaptive roadways," as the city describes them, were installed at 18 locations, totalling a length of over 13 kilometres.
Those spaces, as well as neighbourhood streets that have fewer people driving on them to work or school, have created more comfortable environments for people on bikes, including novices.
"You've got this push from the pandemic, the lockdown, the self-isolation, the loss of other recreation opportunities, but you've got this draw, in that the transportation networks are more welcoming to bikes today than they have been for decades. And that's a fascinating opportunity," says Gary Millard, president of the non-profit society Bike Calgary.
As more people get out now and experience their communities by bike, Millard thinks there could be a permanent shift in how people move through Calgary.
"My guess … is that some people will stop cycling when this opportunity ceases and when the roads get a little bit busier, but some people will have realized that it brings about a whole lot of other benefits and they'll stick with it," Millard says.
Free time and empty streets
Suzanne Van Herk says the combination of having more free time, and the empty streets in her Okotoks neighbourhood, led her to learn how to ride a bike last month, at age 35.
Van Herk tried biking as a child but never graduated from training wheels. Then she saw her sister get in a serious bike accident, which led her to stop learning.
Near the start of the pandemic, Van Herk's two young daughters, ages five and seven, mastered biking. For Van Herk, who had always told herself she would learn with her kids, it was time to buy a bike and get to work.
"It felt pretty monumental," she says of her first bike ride, which happened after about a week of 10-minute practice sessions. "It's definitely given me courage to do and try other things."
Melissa Malejko is a certified cycling instructor and the owner of Safer Cycling Calgary, which has offered a variety of bicycling courses for kids and adults since 2012, including a three-hour course for first-time adult bikers.
While she has yet to see a bump in business from adults learning to ride during the pandemic, over the years she has successfully taught 155 adults to bicycle. That includes an 84-year-old man who asked her, 'Why didn't I do this sooner?', sisters who grew up in Iran, where they were banned from biking, and, this year, a 17-year-old who felt bored and stuck at home and wanted a new way to get out.
"It's been so much fun and it's changed lives," Malejko says.
'I can do anything now'
Back in the empty school parking lot in southwest Calgary, DeVetten is practising riding her new bike.
In mid-May, as the pandemic wore on and the weather warmed, DeVetten borrowed her step-daughter's bike and helmet and went out with her husband, who had Googled "How to teach an adult to ride a bike."
DeVetten started on a small slope, using the momentum to practise steering and braking without worrying about pedalling. Once she became comfortable with that, she started using the pedals, and soon she was biking.
"It feels like I can do anything now," she says.
DeVetten now has her own bike and helmet, and practises in a parking lot near her home every other day. Ultimately, she wants to work toward being able to go mountain biking with her husband.
"I'm also very motivated by the children in my area that I see that are way younger than me, whipping around on these BMX bikes," she says. "That's going to be me someday."