Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Taking shelter from an infinite ceiling in a perfect storm.

Ride through Vancouver, and you will see that the city is home to far too many homeless people sleeping rough in neighbourhoods all over the place.

Less apparent, yet equally important to the equation is all of the Homes-Less-People, the multitude of condos and detached houses alike, entirely empty of inhabitants, sitting vacant year after year after year.

The path to this door has been unused for so long that it is almost completely lost to moss.
Whole neighbourhoods are turning into ghost towns, so that fewer and fewer privately owned places are actually occupied. According to the 2001 census, almost a quarter of the residences in Coal Harbour sit empty, causing house prices to skyrocket as fewer and fewer homes remain available to Vancouver residents looking for a place to live. And it's not all condominiums, either.

It's happening all over the lower mainland, but the nicer the neighbourhood, the more it attracts the foreign investor. Vancouver's great beauty, its very liveability is working against our best interests. It's turning our nicest areas into empty, vacant villages.

Take a ride through Shaughnessy with your eyes peeled for the signs of abandonment, and you will be surprised at how many homes are unoccupied. Look for moss on driveways, and rott eating away at a back lane garage. We took just such a ride, and came upon a big old house listed for sale. We stopped by just as the agent was locking the gate. She asked if we would like to view the property, and of course we jumped at the chance.

This 8,000 square foot house is listed at $13.5 million dollars, down from the original $15 million. The agent is a lovely woman named Wendy Tian, of Sutton West Coast Realty. Her number is (604)375-6030,  just in case you've an extra twenty million or so kicking around and a fierce yearning for a to-do project. This is one of those very residences which has been empty for years. The man who bought it was originally planning to turn it into a fifteen thousand square foot home, complete with an inside/outside pool. It will stand in place of the old pool which sits there now, in view of the neighbouring Canuck Place Children's hospice, which is simply the best neighbour a person could hope for, at least if karma has anything to do with it.

The owner's contractors had already begun taking the house apart, so it is without its fixtures and fittings.

He had a full set of blueprints drawn up, and all of the permits are in place, but after work had begun, the owner decided that he would rather build his mansion on the hill in West Vancouver, where he can enjoy a beautiful view.  He bought another property, and began work on it there. And so this house sits empty, uninhabited and unliveable. 

I asked Wendy whether she'd had any offers to date, because I had heard that bidding wars were becoming quite common here in Vancouver. She said that when it was first listed at $15 million, a woman offered $13 million, and the owner declined. Then just a week or so ago, "A kid from China offered the list price for the property, as long as nobody told his parents about it." And Wendy told me that she replied to him that "No, sorry. We won't do that sort of thing." Apparently the boy wanted to store his car collection here, but he didn't want his dad to know what he was up to. !!!! That's some kinda garage. We won't even mention the money laundering that happens in Vancouver Real Estate Transactions. Nope. Not a word.

You will find a fair few massive, unbelievably expensive homes scattered throughout the lower mainland, and increasingly they belong to foreign nationals who don't even spend a fraction of their time here. And despite the price of property here in southwestern BC, which impacts the price of everything, from food to clothes and beyond, wages have not even begun to catch up. That means that what would have been a comfortable, middle class salary ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago is now too small to make ends meet. What used to be middle class is today the working poor, folks struggling to afford their lives. People who used to hold a reasonable expectation that they would buy a home, and pay off the mortgage in twenty odd years must now dream an impossible dream. I met a couple the other day, both of whom hold masters degrees in their chosen fields. They have a baby, and would love another, but they can't afford two children. They also can't afford to buy a place, not even a two bedroom condo, and although they are both working full time, they are struggling to make ends meet. They are the very definition of middle class, and yet (depending on your definition of impoverished), they are also the working poor.

But Vancouver real estate wasn't always so far out of reach. Let me introduce you to the Vancouver Special.

These wonders of architectural mediocrity were createded to maximize square footage to a standard city lot, and were designed with the primary living space on the top floor, and secondary bedrooms on the ground floor. This made it a simple thing to build an inlaw suite, which, when rented out made it easier to pay off a mortgage, or to bring granny over from the old country to help care for the little ones. Between the mid sixties and the mid eighties thousands of these places were built to provide an affordable housing solution to immigrant and working class families. You'll still find them today, scattered all over town, though of course you will find way more of them east of Main than on the west side.

Given the obscene price of real estate and painfully low average wages, you would think that the Government would step in and create a buffer for the populace by building some affordable housing. After all, any self respecting G8 government would by nature be aghast at the possibility of being at the center of a crisis of homelessness, but our leaders don't care, just so long as their patrons are raking in the dosh. They hung us out to dry. Our federal and provincial governments both ended any and all support for affordable housing, preferring instead to build bigger prisons.

Now let me introduce you to the Vancouver Especially:

Vancouver Especially
This is a scale model of the original Vancouver Special, created especially for the 2015 Bienale by artist Ken Lum, as a commentary on the soaring cost of living here in the Lower Mainland. Mr Lum (creator of the East Van Cross) received $45,000 in grants to build this exhibit, which is what it would have cost to purchase one of these boxy residences in the mid 1970's. Originally, he had planned to build a replica the exact size of what $45,000 will get you in today's housing market, but that would be much too small for this project. Instead, he etched a $45,000 space into the front of the display.

Talk about living in a shoe box! Actually, with the rise of micro condos, shoebox housing is the only option left for plenty of people.

For a while, a fair few creative individuals were staying financially afloat by mooring their live-aboard boats in False Creek indefinitely, but with the coming of the Olympics, the tides turned, and the city put an end to that.

Vancouver has a rich history of sqautting, and an equally strong record of evicting those willing to take a housing crisis into their own hands. The Bank of Canada surprised everyone early this year when they dropped interest rates even further, despite what analysts have been saying for years about an overheated property bubble. If they drop it any further, they'll have to pay us to borrow money for a mortgage. And frankly, what with the price of housing, we're going to need all the help we can get. The obscene price of real estate in Vancouver isn't going to change any time soon, however. Not even if the bubble bursts. There is just such a limited supply, and an ever increasing demand.

Some people are doing what they can. Atira, the Vancouver Women's Resource Society, created Canada's first recycled shipping container housing development on Alexander St, just down the block from the city's very well patronised homeless shelters.

There are other examples of sustainable housing in the city, too. Cob houses are an interesting alternative to the bricks and mortar more commonly found around town.

And apparently yurts are making a comeback, too, providing a fresh perspective on the ancient issue of finding shelter from the elements. That's a whole new take on a tent city.

But the problem here isn't about the price of building a structure, it's about the cost of the land itself, and the ever widening chasm between the average person's earnings and the cost of living in the city where the jobs are.

Something is rotten in the country of Canada, Horatio. It's not right. The banks are all making record profits whilst the middle class simply disappears. Fewer and fewer Vancouverites can afford the roofs over their heads, even as a teenaged boy is prepared to drop fifteen million dollars on a Shaughnessy estate to house his secret car collection. Something has got to give. It's inevitable. Who knows? Maybe change will happen organically, and withougt resistance. Men like Warren Buffet give me hope. And then there's John Caudwell. He is one of the wealthiest men in the UK, a truly self made man, who is giving half of his fortune to charity. He retired from his mobile phone empire to pursue a new direction and now he strives daily to become the greatest philanthropist the country has ever seen. His Instagram account has all of the usual photos of the life and times of a young and influential billionaire and his beautiful wife and kids, but one photo stands out:

The CBC recently aired a BBC interview with Mr Caudwell, which ended with his line "All I need is my health and my bike." Hear hear. I couldn't agree more.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Falling for Spring Series.

The Spring Series is almost over now, though it seems just yesterday it had only first begun. I joined the multitude of Fast Freds racing in Langley and Aldergrove throughout the month of March as often as possible, though if every race didn't require the devotion of a whole day's time, I would have raced two days per weekend instead of one. But between the travel to and from, the registration, and the race itself, you can count on being away from home for the better part of a day. Big, big big kudos to the race organisers and volunteers, who put enormous time and energy into making these days possible.

Spring Series is made up of what might best be described as super sized criteriums. "What is a criterium?" you might ask. Global Cycling Network sums it up nicely:

GCN says that a criterium is typically a couple of kilometers long and can be held in the middle of a city. Spring series is a closed circuit course, too, though most of them are seven to nine kilometers long. I love the Gastown Grand Prix for all of the reasons they describe, the speed, the technicality, and the excitement of seeing the riders pass you by over and over again. Wouldn't it be sweet to compete in BC Superweek?

This is a video of a 20 year old Lance Armstrong, who was racing for Subaru Montgomery at the time. He won the 1991 Grand Prix, but it was a surprise win. He wasn't even a contender mentioned amongst the favourites before the race began, and the color commentators certainly didn't focus on his performance throughout the race, except for when he was pulling up front. How quickly that would change.  And the little bit at about forty four minutes explaining why cyclists shave their legs is good for a chuckle, too. "It looks and feels good!" Heh heh. And that's what matters, right?

Tell you what really feels good: winning a race, that's what. In the first race of the Series, I was the thrid placed woman, though it was a little hilly a course for my liking. I led out the peloton, and ended up pulling hard for a few kilometers until we got to a steep section, where I was promptly dropped. I rode on my lonesome for a bit, until a couple of my team-mates came from behind (dunno exactly how that happened) and we worked together for the next several laps. 

Teamwork is everything, y'know. We eventually caught up with a couple of other riders and became a chase group to be reconed with. I finished third amongst the women on that day, though I regretted not soft pedalling for the first few km, until someone else took a pull, and thus saving my legs for that hill. The second race I signed up for was more to my liking, as it had gentler hills to contend with. I made almost the same rookie mistake that time round. I was trying to be a good team-mate, and again spent too much time pulling on the front. The person I was working with is a guy who is faster than I, and while he was able to pull for half of the race and still have the legs left to sprint, I regretted putting so much energy into the wind at the end of the race, when a few people passed me in the final 100 meters, including a woman on my team who raced a lot smarter than I did, and sprinted for the first place finish. (That's her in the photo up there... good girl.) So I finished second in my second race.

I missed the next weekend, but raced the Thunderbird course on the Saturday following that. It was definitely a wet start to the day.

I had an allergic reaction to something that sprayed up at me from the road at some point during our warm up. My legs were red, and the skin swollen and itchy where it was wet from the road. I expect I rode through a patch of something spilled on the road, because despite being sprayed all over by the end of the race, the reaction didn't spread. But it became quite disconcerting, as my lungs felt very tight, and I was wheezing and fighting for a lung full of air when I was riding at my upper end. (When I got home and took a shower, I was surprised to find hives all over my torso.) Anyway, the wheezing meant I had to back off, and so again I was dropped from the lead group. I did still finish first among the girls, though, and was shocked and amazed at how good it felt to carry that lovely orange jersey home! I do sort of understand why people like Lance up there have been inspired to do whatever it takes, especially keeping in mind the magnitude of the prizes and prestige associated with the pro races. But that's a whole nother topic of conversation, isn't it?

Still. As I have only just begun racing, I need two wins or five top five finishes in one season in order to move up from a Cat 4 rider to a Cat 3, which is where I would have to be in  order to register for the most interesting races. Not that I am anywhere near at the place in my training where I could actually do well in those super cool events, but one step at a time is the only way to achieve anything worthwhile, right? I headed into the next race with a little tiny bit of hope and  a fair whack of determination. It was a course just made for me, without any hills worth mentioning, but it just wasn't meant to be. It was the most frustrating racing experience I have ever known, with an absolute lack of cooperation. Most of us girls were working well together, and one or two of the guys, too, but the rest of the guys were just off the wall. They would come up from behind, but then instead of taking a pull they would try to nose into the paceline at the second or third positon. We would try again and again to set up a rotating paceline, but again and again, it would be a guy's turn and he would take off way out front and just sit out there, leaving the person in the front of the paceline hanging out to dry. Bizarre. Still. We were getting through it when the guy in front of me (one of my teammates who was actually playing fair) had a mechanical issue with his shifter. He slowed a little and swerved suddenly and that was it for me.

Next thing I knew I was covered in a blanket and saying hello to the paramedics. They were surprised that I really wasn't interested in taking a ride in the white van with the flashing lights, and they were careful to warn me that the sudden swelling in my backside might well be an indication of a fracture, but I figured that if it was really bad, I could always go to a hospital closer to home. And my teammate, who felt pretty bad about the crash, offered to take me to the hospital of my choice, but at that point I just wanted to go home. I have had enough radiation for one year, and as much of a pain in the ass as this is, at least I am moving.

another one bites the dust
I was fully conscious as my head whiplashed into the pavement, and I heard my helmet crack even as it absorbed the impact which protected my already well addled brain. But it wasn't my brain which suffered this time round, nor my shoulder, which is swollen, bruised and bleeding. They say that your gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body, and I am here to testify that when you bruise it, you certainly know it. This is a good week for a standing desk.

Early moments... before the bruise's true colours came shining through.
A few people have asked why I continue to race, and certainly the question did cross my mind. It's true, that pretty much everything happens at speed, making mistakes costly. But I saw something today that gave me a little hope. 

See that? Lucas Paolini won the Gent Wevelgem after TWO crashes. He's a little bruised up, but he's still racing. He's even winning. It's addictive, this sport, because it isn't all about strength, nor speed. There's racecraft involved, and something to be learned with every mistake. Ha! You'd think I'd know it all by now! Never mind, it was just a big-ass bruise, and another good story for facebook.

PS - Actually, Cosmos does an excellent job of explaining how the race was won right here. Er, and just to be graphically accurate, here's the bruise a couple of days on:

And on:

The colour is spreading down my thigh! My doctor figured he should give me antibiotics, just in case all of those dead blood cells turn septic, but I prefer to stay away from them unless it is absolutely necessary. Here's hoping they behave. You can't quite tell in this photo, because Vancouver is uncharacteristically sunny, but the colour is very dark and intense, even down the side of my leg.

The bruise is abating, the swelling remains. Apparently, that is going to take a while yet... :-/

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Warming up to race season... snow time for cold!

Hello from the Lower Mainland, where spring is well past sprung. The hallmarks of the season are all around, and ever so easily found.

Deep Cove
What about you? Are you watching the snow melt into blackened, polluted, dog poo infested piles of sludge somewhere east of the Rockies? Sorry bout yer luck. Here in Lotus Land, every mutt master carries a little blue bag to pick up after their defecating dogs. Not because of concern for their fellow citizens, but because the fine for ignoring the bylaw is rather hefty. But thawing doggy doo aside, it could be worse. You could be in Nova Scotia, where people are just digging out from under a decade's worth of snow which landed on them this week. No sign of springtime in sight.

Photo of Halifax's second blizzard in three days courtesy of the CBC
On the west coast, we've been practicing spring for you, and celerating the growing seasons for weeks now, whilst the rest of the continent catches up. Yup. You've gotta love this town. It's not just the sunshine and longer days, either. Spring is here in the green grass, the budding trees, the buzzing bees, and the blooming flowers - NOT the frozen and inert bulbs buried under the ginormous mounds of snow blanketing the opposite seaboard.

Heh heh. Yep. The cherry trees are out in all their glory, and it's actually warm under that growing-stronger-by-the-day sunshine.

But the most obvious sign that spring has arrived is the sheer volume of Freds you'll find spinning their way along the city streets everywhere you go.

And no-where is Fred more apparent and abundant than at the Spring Series racing events. Holy carp there are a lot of us!

First start of the season.
Last autumn, when I was looking for a club to join, I chose Escape Velocity for a number of reasons. Not only does the club host the Spring Series races, and the Tuesday Night World Championship criteriums in the summer, a service no other organisation in the Lower Mainland even comes close to matching, but - and in my mind this is significant - it is the club responsible for youth development in the sport in our part of the world. Escape Velocity is the home of DEVO, Vancouver's only jr racing team, and thus the future of our sport. EV has a great track record of seeing members off to bigger and better things. And of course I chose this club because Sluggo, the poet of the peloton.

The Spring Series are held in Aldergrove and Langley, so although the races are well within commuting distance of Vancouver, the roads are quieter than in the city itself, and the spectators furrier.

Got yer Goat!

Nothing boosts the spirits like having a good cheerleading squad on hand - what could be better at helping a girl moooooove it along?

The Human Salt Lick.
Actually, I can think of ONE thing. Two, in fact. Fast wheels make the world go round, and this past weekend, a dear, sweet kind, lovely and generous friend has given me use of the rear wheel to match the front which I used for the Team Time Trial on the first of January. Pretty, deep dish crabon things mooooooove you along, for sure!

My legs might not be a whole lot faster just yet, but that bike sure is... :) What a difference from last year!  Never mind the new paddle shifters post crash, the new drive train after all of the winter riding wear and tear, and the new brakes to protect whichever wheels I am using. The cranks are carbon, the seat post is titanium, the pedals are Ti Mag, and the wheels are carbon. It's like a body which regenerates every cell over a seven year period. My bike is almost completely revitalized, except for that everlasting, sweet Ti frame. Now all I need is a few weeks of concerted power intervals to tune the top end of those massive base miles built over that short and sweet Vancouver winter, and look out, world! 

And maybe the whole world will actually need to be on guard, too. See the sunshine coming through that doorway up there? That's an old-timey false-front of a western town movie set down on the shore by the northern end of the Ironworkers Memorial bridge. It has nothing whatsoever to do with road racing in Vancouver, but it IS symbolic of my hopes and aspirations for the upcoming year. You'll never guess what that involves!

  Wild Blue Media TV is planning to do a show featuring racing across the world in its various forms across divergent cultures, and I really hope they choose me to be a racing contestant in it. If I do end up participating, we will go to a different location every month for 13 months, and we will participate in the race that's most popular there. So... we will go to the Yak Track to race the great furry beasts in Mongolia, we'll race dogsleds on the Arctic Circle, and mopeds (?!) in Africa.  Keep your fingers crossed for me, mkay?

Prolo makes you stronger too.
After all, these legs could totally rock a yak race, power intervals or no... :D

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Home is where the heart is.

Know what I love about riding bikes? I love that you can just stop anywhere... ok, almost anywhere, and soak it all in. Here we are, soaking in the beautiful American landmark, Mt Baker, as seen from the Arthur Laing bridge. (Never mind the exhaust we were soaking in at the same time... :-| )

In a car, you can't stop on the bridge deck to check out the planes, trains and automobiles (and distant mountains!) the way you can on two wheels.

On a bike you can stop to take photos of other bridges from mid span, and you can take pictures of bridges from beaches, too.
The Lion's gate from Dundarave in West Vancouver.
They frown on people driving their cars onto the seawall to take photos. See how those trees are already starting to come to life? Some of the many varieties of ornamental cherries are already in bloom, having had the requisite 10 C (that's 50 American) and sunshine for a while now.

Lifted from BikeSnobNYC
Poor snobberdooders was out riding in the snow last weekend, though kudos to him for not letting the weather shut him down. But whilst he was navigating the cold white carpet, we were enjoying a carpet of colourful crocuses crocuci flowers.

The sunshine and early springtime is lovely for us cyclists, but it sucks to be a skier this year. Our mountains and their ski hills are barren of snow. 

Each of Vancouver's three local ski hills is closed for business at the very time of year when they are supposed to be in full swing. It's a far cry from your typical February in Vancouver, that's for sure.

It's an even worse season than we had for the 2010 Winter Olympics, when they were trucking snow in from the interior and dropping it on the slopes with helicopters. You've gotta love it. Ha! Yeah, forget Canada. From now on, they're going to have to hold the Winter Olympics in places like Texas, North Carolina, Alabama and Arkensas. Y'know, places where they get actual snow.

I love living on the Pacific for its pacifying effect on the weather systems. Works for me...

Know what else works for me? A city that loves bikes. You've gotta love a place that goes out of its way to get you to tweet #lovebikeyvr! After my last post, somebody had this to say:

It would be wonderful to get rid of the car and bike/walk everywhere. BUUTT... not all of us live in such an urban environment. My home town has been devoured by sprawl to the point that you HAVE to have a car or else ride as much as 3 times the distance just to arive at your destination. Public transport is an afterthought. Cycling here is something reserved for the DUI cases, extreme low income cases, and the eccentric fred types. Maybe thats why our hit and run count is so high. The last time i chased down a car that nearly flattened me, i confronted the driver and was told "yeah well, you never go back for cats and dogs". (Yes i replied that thats the reason i only #@!%'ed his mother once.) You can see the mentality thats created by this environment. Please, be thankful for your city and its virtues. It could be much MUCH worse.

The city of many virtues.

And you KNOW I couldn't leave it alone. I had just read about Surrey, known as "car city," what with its expanding bike lane infrastructure, and their plan to convince more people to ride their bikes. I took a deep breath, put my hand on my hip, got in touch with my inner know-it-all, and replied in earnest, and at length...

You'll find a better photo of this rack here.
Sixty years ago most of your suburban American neighbours felt righteous in actively discriminating against their African-american neighbours, too. Just because they all agree, doesn't mean they're right. 

Of course I am grateful for living in this particular urban center, but it's a chicken and egg sort of thing, isn't it? After all, we wouldn't have a bike friendly city without people who insisted on riding before we had bike lanes. In other words, I am exactly the kind of person who has made this city the bike friendly place that it is. But I have lived and ridden year round in a lot of other places. A. Lot. I started riding full time in Edmonton, Alberta, a city on the same latitude as Moscow, whose primary income is derived from the oil patch - worse, the tarsands. That was decades ago, and even though they have bike lanes now, it is still a place where car is king. I have lived in the suburbs, too, I was in White Rock, BC, before I came here to Vancouver, and before that, I lived in Surrey in the UK. And yes, of course I have encountered people like that asshole who wouldn't stop if he hit someone's beloved pet. I have also lived and cycled almost everywhere I went on island and in rural locations alike, places like Saltspring Island, and North Beach on Haida Gwaii. It isn't always simple, but it is do-able. 

And the thing is, nothing is going to change until normal people like you show the way. My friends in Vancouver's suburb of White Rock were astounded that I should choose to cycle when I could drive, but over time, they noticed the benefits of my lifestyle, and now a few of them ride, too.

In the wise words of the Lorax, "Nothing's going to get better - it's not! - until someone like you cares a whole awful lot."

But the moment someone like you cares a whole awful lot, things do get better, guaranteed, and on the spot. It starts inside, but the goodness grows. Your choices will affect the people around you. Sooner or later, people will see that not only is it possible to make healthy choices, but that it acutally feels good.

Till you find yourself living in a town that loves people who love bikes, because cyclists are accepted as normal, healthy, and sane. (Heh heh. Not that I am often accused of that!) We are still a little way from unconditional acceptance here in Vancouver, what with all of the drivers who hate us, but we're a far cry from the mean streets and fast traffic we cyclists suffered ten years ago, too. It's a work in progress, but at least it's working. 

So here's to progress. Be the change that makes all the difference in your little corner of the world. You'll feel good about yourself as you do it, and you'll be happy with the results (specially the bottom line!) when all is said and done. Change is coming, slowly but surely. Take heart.