Reflections on riding a tiny bike

The road leading out of town is a steep uphill, a curve, very little shoulder, cars whipping by faster than you expect for a sleepy Gulf island. I’m on my ridiculous little folding bike, with the tiny wheels. It’s a mind game, many many tiny rotations, an unimaginably small gear, making it up and over the hill.

Two years ago, I was in Vancouver for a week, mostly for work and partly just to commune with the west coast. I was born and have lived most of my life in Ontario, but I have a “sliding doors” west coast life, a version of me that is only available here. I’ve spent many weeks on the Gulf Islands, lived in the lower mainland for a while. That September two years ago, I hopped on a floatplane to come to Salt Spring for the day, and on impulse, rented a bike, spent a couple of hours riding around the island.

The thing I remember most from that day is… it’s hilly. I’m sure there is some sort of geographic term for this particular kind of hilly, but coming from a pretty flat land, I experience it as a constant series of mini-shocks, like unexpected popcorn. It’s all climb or descent. Nothing that feels like a flat route.

The digital portrayal of what the hills in an average ride feel like

On that day two years ago, I ground to a halt on the hills at least twice, then ended up walking the bike up when I couldn’t get a full rotation again to start in such a steep spot. Sure, it was a unfamiliar bike, and I wasn’t clipped in, but since I’d spent a good chunk of that summer riding, it was a little embarrassing. (To me. No one else was paying the slightest bit of attention, of course).

When I decided to spend three weeks this Covid summer on Salt Spring, I knew I needed a bike, and my folding Tern was by far the easiest to ship. (In case anyone is counting, I have 5 bikes. They all have a purpose). I took off one wheel, took out the seat post, let the air out of the tires and put it in the cardboard box it came in. There is a special-made rolly bag for it I hadn’t been able to get in Toronto, but I’d located one in Vancouver. Once I picked it up, I jettisoned the box and, for the ferry, I just had to fold the bike and put it in the bag. Jackets, helmet and the like fit in, and my yoga mat even tucks nicely under the straps.

The Tern has been indispensable for this trip, giving me access to beaches and hiking trails and views of the sea. But riding it is not… carefree. I think part of me envisioned a freewheeling sensation, like a photo I have of me, bare-headed, riding a sweet beachy bike around Grand Turks a few years ago, wearing a bathing suit top and eating a piece of liquorice. Or a similar era pic of me on a vintage bike, barefoot and bareheaded, on Toronto Island. Also… flat.

On this trip, the Tern and I? Every ride is an adventure. The roads are narrow, cars go fast, and there’s no springy easy flat. It’s either grinding sloowwly up or whipping down, usually on a blind curve.

I will admit? I found it daunting at first to know that every ride was going to require effort. That I would always have a point of puffing and breaking a sweat. I found myself googlemapping routes and looking at the elevation changes and talking myself out of going places. Did I really want to go to the beach That Badly? I mentally wished, many times, that I had brought one of my more powerful bikes, that I could clip myself in.

I also noticed that I wasn’t truly enjoying pretty much any ride. I developed a sort of whiny mental dialogue. It’s so slow. F– this is hard work. That hill is sooooooo long. Ugh, is any beach actually worth it?

I can argue myself out of that inner tedium reasonably well — but I will admit that my first few days, I didn’t venture as far as I wanted to. My first trip out to go for a hike had flattened me a little — the looooong uphill to the trailhead, the anxiety about riding the somewhat unsteady little bike down again. I was in a glorious place and inside my head was all whinge whinge whinge.

And of course? I made it up the hill to that first hike — and down — just fine. Had the glorious hike I wrote about here. Took the same route out, further, to a small beach the next day. Again, no drama. But still, the inner voice of avoidance, of whinge.

Last Sunday, after googling the route to the Good Beach, I spent way too much time looking at the elevation changes. I finally spoke sternly to myself, got on the bike. I grimly toiled up the long hot hill out of town, steered into the pretty, quieter winding road and was still in my head, still complaining at… the air, I guess. At life.

Suddenly, going up a longish but not too steep hill, resentfully clicking in once more to the smallest gear, grumbling at how slowly I was going — I suddenly clued in. It was like the whiney voices had been suddenly squashed by a burst of the obvious. You are actually doing these hills just fine. You are fine. The day is beautiful. Look at those old growth trees. You don’t need to go any faster.

And it was true. I don’t need to go any faster. I’m on an island, on holiday, with completely unstructured time. I literally have no need to go any faster, at any moment, on any day. The beach will be there. The restaurant will be there. The mountain will be there. I will be there. And honestly? I’m not actually moving that slowly. I’m just moving the pace that is.

I realized, in that moment, how much I’ve internalized a habit of speed. I don’t formally race, but I move through the world to get to the next thing as quickly as I can. I religiously check my running pace, mentally weigh my hourly riding pace against some random internal judgement. A judgement that does. not. matter.

This little bike is actually beautifully efficient — in a low gear, it does the work for me. It’s quite graceful, actually. It’s just not… fast. And I’m used to being able to power at things, through sheer will and muscle get to something as quickly as I want to.

Well, the Tern has a different kind of intelligence. It’s going to get me there. When it is ready. In that moment on the road to the beach, I eased up on myself, let go of fretting about the hills. I’ve now easily paced up that hill that defeated me two years ago, many times. I’ve ridden to the great beach where I had the spontaneous magical paddleboard experience, to the little beach where a family encouraged me to try the rope swing and shrieked with laughter when I kept going, to the quiet huge expanse of low tide pebble beach after the rain.

I’ve ridden to dinner, for groceries, and for two magnificent hikes up mountains. And I’ve ridden to and from the ferry where I crossed for the day to meet up with my cousin, hike the galloping goose trail with her beautiful dog, and eat a feast with her partner, the salmon he’d caught and smoked, the crab he’d caught just for me that day, the preserves they’d made and tomatoes they’d grown.

At the end of the ferry dock yesterday, after my visit to Vancouver Island, I rested my Tern for a minute against the faery door and magic tree, taking off my covid mask and putting on my bike helmet. I pedaled slowly home, savouring every small revolution. Connected with every hill. Listened. It was the right bike, after all.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is spending her last week on the west coast.

4 thoughts on “Reflections on riding a tiny bike

  1. Beautiful. Also, as someone who hasn’t ridden a bike since about age 10, I am in awe of your cycling adventures (and happy to live them vicariously 😉

    1. The hills on salt spring are very… steep and constant lol. There is not as much easy zipping as I’d imagined :-). But I’m loving this little bike nonetheless

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