Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Life in the curb lane

A grandmother spends a summer as a bike courier -- and lives to tell the tale

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The traffic on St. Mary's Road didn't seem as busy one morning as I neared Fermor Avenue to head back to the Exchange District. I can pedal at a fairly fast clip when my legs feel like it. I was making good time; I could feel the strength in my quadriceps, and I smiled. I was becoming quite proud of the shape my legs were in and how many miles they could take me on my bike.

As I cruised along, I became aware of the roar of a loud engine coming up behind me. That sound seems to spark a "spidey-sense" in cyclists; it usually means a large vehicle is approaching, and you automatically double check to make sure you're hugging the curb.

Turning my head slightly to the left, I could see out of the corner of my eye a large dump truck gaining on me at a good clip, but he moved to the left lane. Suddenly, a second dump truck was speeding up to pass him in the curb lane; he was at my side in a split second: engine roaring in my ears, wheels up to my shoulder spinning in a blur, passing me by a whisper. I screamed out loud. And then swore. Out loud.

It's my third week as a bike courier. I'm 51 years old. And I'm a grandmother.

If I could have caught up with that truck driver, who was probably my son's age or younger, he would have had some finger wagging like never before. What if it were his grandmother, I'd say. How would you feel if someone did that to her? I'd ask him. She could be horribly hurt or even dead, all because someone was in a hurry, I'd nag, shaking my finger in his face. I'm sure he would no more than roll his eyes and drive away shaking his head at the crazy old lady.

I worked for Natural Cycle Courier for four months this summer. They deliver anywhere in the city, 12 months a year. They use no cars; larger items are towed behind the bike on a trailer. And they're all very young. I swear I have 10 years on their mothers. But they took me on, and I had a summer like no other.

My new job as a bike courier opened my eyes to life in the curb lane. I've heard that cyclists are a nuisance. I've heard sneers at their "saving the environment" and their young, granola-thinking attitudes. I've heard comments that they ride bikes because they just can't afford cars. I know otherwise.

We're young; we're old. We're rich; we're poor. We're fit; we're fat. We do indeed "save the environment" to some degree every time we don't use a car, but we do own cars. A few of us weave in and out of traffic; most of us follow the rules of the road, and don't like to be lumped into the same group as the weavers. We are horrified when another cyclist -- stranger or not -- is injured or killed on the streets. And we don't like the "you're just asking for it" responses that we hear.

The cyclist you see every day throughout the city is a student saving money to get through university. She's a girl who wants to play her part in doing something "green." He's a janitor making a few extra dollars working as a courier. It's a business woman taking a hiatus for a summer to take her mind off things. It's a grandmother wanting to get into better shape. And none of us want to lose our lives for a dump truck in a hurry.

In my four months of pedalling, I've been hit by two cars and wiped out three times. I've cut my knee, scraped my legs and bruised my hips. I've been yelled at: "Get on the sidewalk!" "Get off the sidewalk!" "You're in my lane," and "Get your fat ass off the road."

I've discovered a real camaraderie between bike couriers and bike commuters alike. "Girl power!" yelled one cyclist with her long thick red hair flowing out from under her helmet. "Good for you!" calls out one man with a salt-and-pepper beard as he pedals along with his own deliveries. We talk about our bikes, we brag of miles travelled, and we share stories of those close calls.

I grew to love the painted bike lanes on the downtown one-way streets. There's something about that solid white line embracing that large white bicycle decal that seems to keep vehicles at a safe distance from our handle bars. Diamond lanes create somewhat of a safe haven for us, even though we share the lane with the biggest vehicles out there -- the city buses. Transit drivers may get frustrated with our speed, but most are amazingly patient.

Unpainted streets create a different feel for a cyclist; at times we get crowded out for being "in the car's lane." While some drivers give us no space at all and even speed up to pass, others give us such a wide berth that it causes a danger to cars in the neighbouring lanes. Just take your foot off the gas for a few seconds, squeeze to your left, and you'll be on your way, and so will we.

I shake my head at the poorly thought out bike lanes over the Main Street Bridge. If I take the bike lanes within the cement barrier, they force me onto the sidewalk with no safe way to get back onto the road. If I stay on the road, drivers yell at me to get on the other side of the barrier. And the positioning of the southbound bike lane? Thousands of cars headed into St. Vital are forced down to one lane due to a barricaded bike lane that I can't get on to or off of when I'm cycling. This makes no sense for cyclists or for motorized vehicles. I've seen it from both sides of the barrier.

You quickly learn of roadways in our city that are not bike friendly, or even worse: downright dangerous. St. Anne's Road in South St. Vital has manhole covers in cement four inches higher than the road's surface. At a minimum, that's a horribly bruised crotch. At its worst, it's a deadly wipe-out waiting to happen.

In St. James, the streets are roughest right along the curb. Add that to the very narrow lanes in the congested area and the impatience of the drivers, and it becomes one of the most difficult areas for deliveries. Lagimodiere is simply off limits for cyclists. There's nowhere to go; no paved shoulders and no sidewalks as a safe alternative, legal or not. Travelling in gravel does not work. Just ask my front tire.

In my desperation to meet a delivery deadline, I tried to travel along the side of Highway 59 when my tire sunk into the dirt and threw me down hard. My helmet-covered head hit the dirt just a few feet from the white lined edge of the road. My leg slammed into the gravel, the bike chain ripped my skin and the handlebars stabbed into my side.

I got up, brushed the dirt off my bleeding leg and straightened out my handlebars, while tears welled up in my eyes. I remember thinking "bike couriers don't cry!" So I walked along the gravel with my beat up bike and hurting body; blinking away tears until I reached the next paved intersection. Then I climbed back on my bike, and cycled away. Making my delivery on time.

 

Bev Watson is a 51-year-old grandmother who has recently hung up her helmet and parked her bike for the winter. She is now driving her car to her much safer office job.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 18, 2012 A8

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