22 January 2011

Bike Bike in Calgary

Bike Bike Sean
If you're itching for a Cycle Chic fix and you find yourself in Calgary, Canada, this is your pusher. Sean Carter owns Bike Bike, a bike shop for Citizen Cyclists. In a city like Calgary, Sean is an ambassador for a virtually unknown land. This is Calgary - Cowtown, SUV-central, drive-600-metres-in-a-one-tonne-pickup-for-a-litre-of-milk Calgary. A shop like Bike Bike in Calgary is like a cricket equipment shop in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Bike Bike Selection
But he knows what he's doing, our Sean. He opened last year, intent on bring upright bicycles, bicycle culture and Cycle Chic to the city. I popped by a couple of times to say hello when I was in town in December and we had some good chats. Imagine being the only shop that sells "bicycles for the rest of us" in a city of a million people.

Sean explained that half of his work involves 'education'. People come into the shop, expecting the usual sub-cultural wares like carbon fibre wonderbikes, lycra and all manner of 'gear'. They don't really know what to make of it when they see wicker baskets, Batavus bicycles (with chainguards, skirtguards and back racks) and child seats on display.

Indeed, while we were sitting having a cider near closing time, a man came in and had a look around. He had heard of this place from a friend, he said. Thought he would check it out, he said.

Doing a loop round the locale he looked as stunned as a fundamentalist who had stumbled into a sex shop. I watched him. He took one intial glance at the bicycles and then ignored, concentrating on the shelves instead. The bikes just didn't compute. He was gone in under a minute.

Sean is used to this. He gets it all the time, he told me.

Upright bicycles dropped off the map in cities like Calgary back in the 1960's and 1970's when car culture reached its tipping point. By re-introducing the kind of bicycles that are normal in mainstream bicycle cultures, he knows that education is part of the deal. Re-training people to understand that riding a bicycle isn't restricted to long, sporty weekend rides. That popping down to the shops or the café - or riding to work - isn't an extreme sport.

He gets all the questions you might expect. "Aren't those bikes heavy?" "Why do I need a basket?" But Sean is cheerful, talkative and passionate. He knows his shit. He believes in what he is doing. He replies fluently and eloquently. Converting people's misconceptions about the bicycle after 40 years of marketing the bike in these parts as sport or recreation but not much else.

He didn't go half way when designing his shop either. You know, half of the inventory being 'weekend warrior' toys and then half - at the back of the shop - upright bicycles. He went the whole nine yards. Upright bikes. Cargo bikes. Lovely bells, too. Respect, we say.
Bike Bike Bike
Calgary is light-years behind many other North American cities in implementing bicycle infrastructure. The global boom in urban cycling, however, has reached this city in the foothills of the Rockies. There is a market for Sean's products. There are ears that listen to his impassioned pitches.

Business is good, I'm told. Betting the farm on a bike shop selling European bicycles and accessories in Cowtown (the city makes Houston look like Milano, belive me) is paying off. Sean knows how to market it, which makes me - who babbles about selling 'bicycle culture' positively - thrilled to bits.

On my first visit to the shop I met a Dane living in the city. He was in to pick up a briefcase that could be attached to his back rack. He cycled to work. "Not as easy as in Copenhagen", he said.

Calgary is, however, getting into the loop. Their traffic planners know what needs to be done. I know the bicycle planners in the city and had a meeting with one of them on my visit. It may take time, but even cities like Calgary know that providing for bicycle culture is a must. It's on the table at meetings. It's in the consciousness. One thing I found interesting is that the car lanes are so incredibly wide in the city. Impossibly wide. Creating on street cycle tracks would be a piece of cake and would, in many cases, leave the number of car lanes intact. Just narrow them. Narrower car lanes only serve to improve traffic safety.

Until infrastructure is built, at least the bridgehead is established in Calgary. Sean Carter is leading the charge. Bicycle culture for Citizen Cyclists is in capable hands in Cowtown.

Bike Bike's website

Bike Bike Cartoon
And you ever have to pee at Bike Bike, this is what you'll see in the bathroom. Which kind of sums it all up.