Cycling the Island: Victoria versus Tofino

Every time the skinny tires of my white Apollo hit the rough patches of Tofino’s bike path, I’d grit my teeth, muscles clenching in anticipation of a mouthful of dirt. I never did fall, but each time I’d shiver with the memory of childhood summers on Gabriola Island and a particularly scarring bike crash involving a gravel hill. Because of this, I’d pedal painfully slow until I was able to embrace the paved path once again. City bikes weren’t made for any kind of off-roading—no matter how tame the trails may be.

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Ah, Victoria: home of a hipster bike scene rivalling that of Vancouver and Portland. On any given day you can stroll past Habit Coffee at Yates and Blanchard and there will be a whole rainbow parked outside. Fixies, tuned-up vintage rides, brand-spanking-new bikes made to look like the vintage ones, bikes with baskets, bells and bows . . . you name it. There is a constant rotation on Craigslist for buying and selling road bikes to weave about the city. We love our bikes. And why shouldn’t we? They get you where you need to go for cheap; you get exercise, and a nonexistent carbon footprint to boot. Not to mention the second someone gets on a nice-looking bike they instantly look sexier (or is that just me?).

The etiquette to biking in Victoria is fairly simple: you are a vehicle, so act like one. Locals comfortably cruise alongside cars or confidently take a spot in the middle of the lane. Drivers that show their discontent will be met with a middle finger because screw them you have just as much right if not more to be here.

Victoria still has a ways to go when it comes to bike lanes. While they can be seen on main streets, often, for no apparent reason, they will disappear as quickly as they appeared and leave you dodging opening car doors and elderly drivers.

Pedalling on the sidewalk isn’t really an option. First off, it just doesn’t look good—people will assume you don’t know what you’re doing. This isn’t the mainland; our roads aren’t that scary. Passing vehicles can be daunting at first, but after one ride to Beacon Hill Park you’ll feel like a pro. Second, pedestrians here like to yell at sidewalk bikers in some weird form of pseudo road-rage. Third, you will at some point find yourself in a game of chicken with a parent and a baby stroller, and you can’t exactly make them go around you.

Luckily, for new and seasoned bikers alike, Victoria’s working on some pretty great bike-centric initiatives. Thanks to council member Jeremy Loveday we can expect to see our choppy bike network expanded, with more bike lanes and options for lock-up. Loveday has emphasized the importance of safety, and as someone who’s dodged a few opening car doors, it couldn’t come faster. But these things take time, and the project will hopefully be completed by 2018.

Meanwhile, the organization BikeMaps is taking matters into its own handlebars. Started by one of our own—UVic geography professor Trisalyn Nelson—the areas in our city with the highest theft and accidents are quickly getting mapped out for anyone to see online at bikemaps.org.

In other words, there’s never been a better time to cycle in Victoria.

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317.5 km away in Tofino things could not be more different. The switch to their bike culture had me feeling as off-kilter as that first ride without training wheels. While the most common bike in Victoria is a road bike built for city cycling, the two main bikes in Tuff City are beach cruisers and mountain bikes.

I remember the first time I gazed lustfully at a group of locals as they rode their cruisers right onto the beach and up to the shoreline. My Apollo was awkward at the slightest hint of sand and I had to force it towards the ocean like a child scared of the water. The wheels refused to turn and I pulled the unwilling hunk of metal alongside me. The movement was jerky and the jagged pedals bit the backs of my calf. I tried to think of the jabs as though a pet cat accidentally scratched me during play, but resentment won over. For the first time since I bought my bike I was unhappy with it. I looked up from my bleeding leg to see the pastel cruisers already on the other side of the beach, glinting in the sunlight.

The second Tofitian bike type is also practical—few things in the town aren’t. At any given moment there is someone on their way to the surf; for frothing wave addicts, not owning a car isn’t about to stop a surfer from getting to the beach. Solution? One hand on the handlebar, the other gripping the surfboard. This can be a wobbly dance on a skinny little bike, but a mountain bike’s thick wheels offer stability on the slim bike path.

The town of Tofino found a solution to riding beside summer hazards of reckless trucks from Calgary and oversized RVs: the MUP. Also known as the multi-user path, the bike path, or my personal favourite, the psychopath. It became fully functional a few years ago, but has been many years in the making and is considered to still be a work in progress. The only real etiquette on the MUP is to keep to the right, pass on the left. In many ways this two-way paved path is a saviour; stretching 6 km from town past Cox Bay, it keeps you safely off the road, only needing to worry about tourists who haven’t figured out they might be an obtrusion when walking five abreast.

This, however, is merely daylight. As soon as it gets dark out, the Tofino Bike Path becomes an entirely different beast. For one, there are no street lights. None whatsoever. Even with my bike light, I was forced to go half the speed, squinting in order to scope out the areas that have been turned into an obstacle course by way of rogue tree roots.

There is also a ditch on either side in which many a drunk cycler has met their match. Just before I moved out there, one of the guys in my dorm building was biking home from the bar, wobbled just a little too far to the side, and in a moment found himself among the weeds staring up at the Big Dipper. The fall was so bad, he ruptured his spleen, and for weeks he winced every time he ate, the slightest internal movement sending pain throughout his body.

It’s almost impossible to see someone coming from the other direction at night, and collisions are frequent. Once, after a friend ran head-on into another biker’s front wheel he jokingly asked, “So, should we exchange information?”

The town’s hospital sees about as many bike path-related injuries as it does for those inflicted by surfing. Because of this, they recently implemented a free bike light program. At various places along the path—the Sugar Shack downtown, Beaches Grocery, and the Cox Bay Tourist Information Centre—you can pick one up or drop off, like a bike light library.

Perhaps many of the bike path injuries could be avoided if Tofitians chose to wear helmets, but not a single one does. I packed mine while in Victoria, assuming I’d wear it every day but, admittedly, it went untouched. There’s no real excuse: I was just trying to fit in with the bike culture. And I have to say, feeling the wind flow through my hair was pretty amazing after wearing my clunky helmet for months on end. It’s simply not a worry in Tofino. While cops hand out helmet tickets like candy in Victoria, I whizzed past the police station every day, sometimes waving at them as my naked head begged for a collision.

While I was lucky enough to avoid eating the pavement or tumbling into the ditch, I did, however get a concussion surfing one evening. The next day I rode my bike to the hospital sans helmet (I blame the lack of foresight on the head injury).

One Victorian habit I wasn’t able to shake was the intense paranoia of having my bike stolen. Leave it unattended and unlocked for two minutes on Douglas Street and you can say goodbye to that new Peugeot. No one locks their bike in Tofino. I still find the thought disturbing. Part of me wonders if it’s because people take less pride in their bikes—they’re not status symbols, they’re a means to get around. Plus, if you stole a bike, chances are the owner would see you riding it the next time they went out to grab groceries.

Here’s a game for you to play next time you’re on Mackenzie beach: if you want to determine the locals from the tourists, just look for the pile of bikes. Scanning for which bonfire belonged to my friends would have taken much longer without this trick. Another tip: if your bike lock requires a key, do not repeatedly toss it onto the sand as it will plug up the keyhole. This may have happened to me.

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When I moved to Tofino I was concerned with adjusting to a new job and trying not to suck at surfing. It never occurred to me that the biggest learning curve would have to do with my bike. Take, for example, my morning commute. Summer barely exists in the Tofino rainforest, and rides to work had gone from a five-minute downhill cruise to a foggy trudge from one end of the path to the other. Often, I sang Father John Misty at the top of my lungs to ward off cougars. Like dragging my bike across the sand, I wasn’t used to this new challenge—after all, biking was supposed to make my life easier. But, that’s what I learned in Tofino: if you don’t have a car, you bike.

My time in the surf town changed the way I view my bike. Before, I worried about how my grip tape looked, and often neglected cycling in favour of a dry bus ride because I could. My biggest problem was running over broken beer bottles on my way to class Monday morning, likely the result from an underwhelming party at Cluster. I never knew what it was like to have no other option to get home other than my trusted two wheels.

In Victoria, bikes are treated like prized possessions, status symbols, babies or pets. In Tofino, a bicycle is a tool, a means to an end, a lifeline, and sometimes a dangerous toy. I admit, one of the first things I did when I bought mine was give it a name (Ghost), and while the name has stuck, the only special treatment it will get from now on is a necessary tune-up.

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Let me illustrate how my perspective shifted. It was a month into the summer, and a friend was celebrating their birthday at Cox Bay, the opposite end of the path from my home. There was plenty of wood for the fire and beers to go around. The sun had long since gone down, the glow of the flames our only source of light save for the starlight and puddles of phosphorescence. When it was finally time to go home, most people wandered back to their staff accommodation, just steps away from the beach. No one was driving, and the one taxi driver was busy. I knew it would be a long, dark ride home. My bitterness, however, quickly melted into gratitude. Yes, things could definitely be worse, I thought. I sped through the darkness, cedar-scented air breezing on by.

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