Climbing the Ivory Tower (Cycling to SFU)

I am a commuter cyclist.

Most week days, I bike about 330 vertical meters to the top of Burnaby Mountain, where I work at the "Ivory Tower". Each evening I descend again. This is a large enough part of my life to warrant this web page. Here are some questions that I answer below.
  1. How often do you ride?
  2. Do you cheat?
  3. What bicycle do you use?
  4. Which route do you take?
  5. Why did you start?
  6. Is it safe?
  7. How much does it cost?
  8. Does it hurt?
  9. What defines a "commuter cyclist"?
  10. Have you had unpleasant incidences?
  11. Advocacy?
  12. Does motor vehicle traffic affect you emotionally?
  13. Are you strange?

How often do you ride? Every working day except when icy, or if I am deathly ill, or I have something very large to carry. In the past eight years (2001-9), this works out to about three or four thousand bike rides. This compares to about 20 car trips and perhaps 500 bus rides (100 bus rides are without a bike, during snow storms; 400 rides are with my bike, up the hill),

Do you cheat? Yes. Lifting 15kg of loaded bike up a 100-story building is a bit too much for my 48 yr old bones to do 5 days a week. So about once a week, I ride only half way up the mountain and catch a city bus to the top. There is no extra charge for using the lovely bike racks which are affixed to almost every diesel-powered bus in Greater Vancouver. Thank you, Translink BC, for making commuter cycling possible for me.

What bicycle do you use? I have always been a road-bike kind of guy. Midlife crisis struck when my trusty 20 yr old 18-speed was swiped off my front lawn. Nothing could replace my trusty steed . . . except, perhaps, a dreamcycle. Justification: $(1 dreamcycle) = $(6 months of car ownership).

I classify myself as an aggressive commuter. My dreamcycle had to have the speed and efficiency of that old 18-speed, but with moutain bike ruggedness and reliability. I need to pack stuff around this hilly city, which has dark rainy winters and missing curb cuts. I wanted a sleek, tough frame, touring tires, lots of gears, fenders, racks and a strong rear wheel.

After a 2-month search, I discovered the Cyclo-cross bicycle. The Cyclo-cross, or "CX", is a kind of "cycle-pentathalon" race over varied terrain: roads, trails, mud and fences -- not so different from aggressive urban riding. (Aside: The City of Vancouver is actually very cycle friendly, but this is not the case for all 22 municipalities of Vancouver's Regional District.) Quality CX bikes mix mountain-bike components with a tough touring frame on drop handlebars. Their wide forks accomodate fenders and fat tires for off-road use.

I chose a Surly Cross-Check. Its chrome-moly steel frame was built up for me by the legendary "Ed" at Mighty Riders. The resulting bike is certainly not UCI compliant (for some unfathomable reason, disc brakes are not allowed at UCI sanctioned races) but it has fulfilled my dream. I love and protect my Surly. I ought to give her a name.

Which route do you take? I primarily stick to roads in my 12km route from West Burnaby. Here are a A small map map and a An elevation graph graph of the 330-meter elevation change for my three favorite routes across North Burnaby, BC. This craziness is all because of Gordon Shrum's 1963 recommendation to build Simon Fraser University atop Burnaby mountain. (Actually, I moved (Nov 2005) to a new house 4km North, near the upper left corner of the map. The route and topography are now somewhat different, but no less bumpy! I need to update these maps. )

If you wish to cycle from East from SFU, then Dr. Haunerland, in Biology, maintains a very nice page with helpful details on his daily ride from Port Moody. He goes Mountain Bike style, using Burnaby Mountain's extensive trail system.

Why did you start? Although I had done it sporadically before, it was that awful 3-month transit strike of the summer of 2001 that got me doing it every day. Thank you again, Coast Mountain Bus Co ;-).

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Is it safe? Cycling is exactly as safe as the cyclist's knowledge and application of that knowledge. The knowledge can be gained by experience, self-study or, best, by taking a course such as CANBIKE. At the least, one should study the Bike Sense manual. Application requires mental dicipline and a sense of responsibility, which is best learned from your mother. Over several years I have suffered three falls, each my own fault, and none involving cars.

  1. (1998) I leaned over too far with my pedals in the wrong position, resulting in a scraped shin.
  2. (2000) I turned too sharp on wet tile, resuling in a sore thumb.
  3. (2005) I crashed into (and fatally crippled) a coyote! I am not kidding. The dang doggie leaped in front of me while I was doin' 60km/hr down the mountain on this November night. This resulted in a sore shoulder and some bike damage. Thank goodness for leather cycling gloves...
Lessons I learned: (1.) the outside pedal goes down, (2.) slow turns on wet tile. (3.) coyotes don't have reflectors...

How much does it cost? As with any endeavour, there are start-up costs and annual maintenance costs. However, the annual savings of giving up a car or driving it less quickly result in substantial net savings. Farther savings would be realized if we could insure our remaining car by the kilometer!
Start-up Costs
Minimal equipment:
bike, helmet, lock, front/rear LED lights
$100 - $2000
Winter equipment:
raincoat/pants, shoe covers, neoprene gloves, headband, halogen lamp, fenders
$150 - $400
Luis' recommended extras (I'm an equipment geek):
mirror, bell, airhorn, rack, panniers, bottle rack, toe clips, padded shorts, cycle map, tube repair kit
$100 - $300
TOTAL (for winter riding) $250 - $2700

Annual Savings Annual Costs
Fuel/maintenance etc saved.
(Our little car sits unused most days)
No second car (for my family of 5) $5000
No gym membership $500
No parking pass $350

TOTAL cost per year
TOTAL cost per km $1.84
Summer holiday trip? Rent a van! $400
Bicycle insurance $180
Transit tickets (3 trips/wk) $300
VACC membership :-) $20
TOTAL cost per year $1200
TOTAL cost per km $0.30

Net annual savings: $6,150.
Net savings per km: $1.54 (Using 200 days @ 20km/day).

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Does it hurt? At first I was sometimes a bit sore and tired, and I needed breaks on the way up. Within 3 months, my body had completely adjusted. Now I experience absolutely no mental or physical effort - only pleasure! I am, however, more in touch with body than in the old days.

Physical ramifications of the hearty commute include improved cardio-vascular efficiency and endurance, and a noticeable increase in leg and lower back strength. However, it is not enough to leave things at that. Two items must be addressed.

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What defines a "commuter cyclist"? For me, it is much more than "cycles to work". It is, in fact, an expression of some of the tenets that I hold to be fundamental to honest, healthy living. Here is the part of my list that applies.

  1. Do not steal from our children.
  2. Tend the garden into which we have thrust them.
  3. Be good to your body.
  4. Minimize stress.
  5. Make positive social gestures.
  6. Be responsible to those who depend on you.
There are obvious ways in which cycling satisfies these tenets: saving fuel, road space, money, construction materials, pollution, noise. Less obvious are the savings in time (no gym membership required), stress (no traffic jams) and, hopefully, medical bills (healthier body and mind).

There is a rarely-mentioned social aspect to cycling: the nod to the passing cyclist, the "hello" to the crossing pedestrian, the "thank you" to the bus driver that carried you up the hill. This dimension of life has been forgotten by many auto-commuting suburban dwellers. I find that people are universally grateful for a smile, a chat, a flirt, or just a reminder that there are humans among the hoards of bland shiny boxes on wheels which do nothing other than try to press in front of them. Riding in a metal box disassociates one from the real world, and skews one's view of it. Riding in the fresh air reaffirms that I am part of the city. The sweet smell of blossoms as I pass a flower display is the gift of that the gardener's labours. If possible, I will repay the gardener with a statement of admiration, or a friendly "hello". The automobile thanks the gardener by leaving its noise, wind, soot and rubber particles. The driver does not notice the garden. The cyclist owns the city.

The last item on my list is perhaps the most defining. Responsibility to my family and friends means that they will not have to visit me in hospital, or wonder where the next cheque will come from. Commuter cyclists make safety their main concern. A cyclist is exactly as safe as zie is knowledgeable, prepared and careful.

  1. No headphones
  2. Proper use of lights, flashers, bell, mirror and air-horn
  3. Assertive signaling
  4. Defensive maneuvering
  5. Predictable movement and positioning
  6. Religious shoulder checking
  7. Proper attire
  8. Adherence to and knowledge of the law
  9. Awareness of "road rage"
  10. Pedestrians come first
  11. Continual concentration
Part of my job is getting there and back safely.

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Have you had unpleasant incidents? Yes. One incident every few months seems to be the norm for frequent riders. In future, I may post a chronicle of my experiences here. In three years (2002-2005), I have had about three relatively upsetting ones. Here are typical scenarios, and some things that I do to reduce them. Use personal judgment if you plan to implement any of my "remedies". (Update: Since moving North of Hastings, rage incidents have dropped considerably. Nasty angry drivers seem to congregate near highway exits and warehouse retailers such as those on my old route. Compared to that zoo, Hastings Street traffic is very calm and predictable.)

Advocacy? Yes.

Does motor vehicle traffic affect you emotionally? Yes.

Are you strange? Perhaps, but I personally know at eight other faculty at SFU who cycle up this hill each day (Home Departments: Biology, Engineering Science, Humanities, History, Mathematics, Psychology, Statistics, Student Services). This might say something about Academics in general. One fellow, Dr. Norbert Haunerland, also maintains a cycling web page, which details his commute from East of SFU. There are scores of students who ride up regularly, especially March through October. Interestingly, proportionally more graduate students commute by bicycle to SFU, when compared to undergraduates.

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