The Chain Gang

By Christel Martin

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Jan (John) Van Beek, Dave Beer, Jim Kirby and Debby Keith have been working on The Chain Gang. Far from wearing leg irons and black-and-white stripes or doing hard time, the members of this Chain Gang dress in brightly coloured spandex (stripes optional) and pedal. And they're hoping more people will join them!

Debby, Jim, John and Dave are members of the Greater Nanaimo Cycling Coalition, a group of cyclists ranging in age from children to octogenarians. As members of The Chain Gang, they ride every Sunday, weather permitting, usually around the Nanaimo area. They never travel faster than the slowest cyclist, and no one is left behind.

"We're very social, not a bunch of racing cyclists," says Dave.

John agrees: "Midway through our ride, we stop at a pub."

Longer trips are usually scheduled in advance. The Chain Gang has taken B.C. Ferry to Horseshoe Bay, ridden along Vancouver's quieter streets, lanes, trails and dikes to Tsawwassen and then ferried back to Duke Point.

The Chain Gang also carpools to favourite spots like Skutz Falls, then cycles the Trans-Canada Trail to the Kinsol Trestle near Shawnigan Lake and back to Skutz Falls. A 54 km round trip on an old, tree-lined railway grade, there is no traffic apart from pedestrians, so if they pack a lunch, even inexperienced cyclists can spend a pleasant day.

While The Chain Gang is the social arm of the GNCC, the organization has a more serious side. Founded in 1987, the GNCC consisted of "a bunch of bicycle enthusiasts who saw a need for becoming organized and developing an advocacy group [in Nanaimo],” says John, one of the founding members. The Vancouver Area (VACC) and Greater Victoria (GVCC) already had cycling coalitions and "we felt it was time to have one here, too." As members of the British Columbia Cycling Coalition, they meet with communities, regional districts, bus and railway companies and the Ministry of Transport advocating for cyclists.

The GNCC advises the City of Nanaimo about cycling safety issues. For example, some of Nanaimo's streets were notoriously narrow in areas, such as the Quarterway Bridge on Bowen Road. Because of GNCC advocacy, Bowen Road and the bridge were widened.

"Now there are Share the Road symbols all along there," says Debby.

The City consults GNCC about road maintenance and cycling standards. Worn and potholed shoulders don't affect cars, but they can be fatal to cyclists.

When the Nanaimo Parkway was being planned, the City wanted a multi-use trail for pedestrians and cyclists alongside it. GNCC supported that initiative, then helped push for the E&N Trail, a paved path adjacent to the railway tracks on the former CPR (now Island Corridor Foundation) right of way. Now that the ICF owns the rail lines, GNCC and communities throughout Vancouver Island are working for continuous trails, just like Nanaimo's.

John wants Canadian trains to accept bicycles the same way their European counterparts do: by putting them in a separate baggage car. Cyclists could board the train in Victoria, ride to Parksville, take the Alberni Pacific "Steam" Railway to Port Alberni, visit the National Historic Site at McLean's Steam Sawmill, cycle to Tofino and back, then catch the train or ride along adjacent trails toward their next adventure.

John also wishes Canadian bus companies would take the same attitude toward bicycles as European ones do. Then cyclists could load their bikes on a bus without first having to dismantle and box it - providing their own box - and ship it as freight. Island Coach Lines/Greyhound won't guarantee that cargo will travel on the same bus as the passenger, or even to the same depot (Vancouver freight and passenger terminals are several blocks apart).

Thanks to GNCC advocacy, city buses have bicycle carriers.

Another part of GNCC's mandate is cyclist education, much welcomed by Nanaimo's Manager of Parks Richard Harding. He says many cyclists act like pedestrians: they ride on sidewalks, ride against the flow of traffic, and cross lanes without consideration for motor vehicles' much longer stopping distance and drivers' inability to see small moving objects - all this while wearing dark clothing and no helmets! RCMP Traffic Sgt. Mike Legassicke agrees. He says that although many cyclists have drivers' licences, they forget driving rules when they mount their bicycles. Some people don't know bicycles fall under the Motor Vehicles Act and are subject to the same rules of the road. Unfortunately, there's minimal enforcement and when cyclists do get a ticket, it's usually after they've caused an accident. Since cyclists are the most vulnerable, they're most likely to get injured, too.

Both Legassicke and Harding agree that the GNCC does a fine job educating cyclists. Together with Nanaimo Parks, Recreation and Culture, GNCC cycling instructor and physiotherapist Taryn Langford teaches Can Bike, a course in how to ride in traffic and survive, how the rules of the road pertain to bikes, simple maintenance and fitting the bike to the rider’s body. Debby credits Can Bike with giving her the confidence to find her passion.

Debby's siblings have myotonia, a muscular disease that prevents them from participating in athletic activities so, like them, she'd rarely ridden a bike. "It wasn't until I was an adult I realized I'm not physically handicapped, I'm only psychologically handicapped by being raised as though I was." Shortly after her 40th birthday, Debby took Can Bike One. Until then, whenever something "felt scary to me, I would panic and fall over."

John says: "You should see this girl bike now."

In 2005, "this girl," a retired social worker and Jim, a retired forestry firefighter, cycled the coast of Australia. Debby and Jim have cycled to Nelson and the Columbia Ice Fields, explored Nova Scotia, and cycle-toured the islands of Hawaii and Cuba. As this issue goes to press, they're exploring Mexico. In 2006, John, Jim and Debby cycle-toured Ireland, France and Spain, taking the pilgrims' Santiago de Compostela trail. Later this year, they're touring the Netherlands, John's homeland.

Debby proves anyone, not just an ex-marathoner like her partner Jim, can learn to cycle safely and well.

If you long to feel sun on your face and wind in your hair, grab that dusty old bike in the garage and come to one of the GNCC's safe cycling classes. You may find your passion, too.

For more information about the Greater Nanaimo Cycling Coalition, or safe cycling, visit:

Cycling Traffic Skills Course for Adults (Nanaimo) -- April 29

Learn how to ride more safely and comfortably in traffic; taught by an experienced CAN-BIKE 2 cycling instructor. No-cost workshop (9 am to noon), on-bike/on-road training ($35, 12:30 to 5:00 pm).

  Do you know a child aged 10 to 14 who would benefit from cycling training? An all-day course is being held on Monday, April 30. Cost is $30 per student.

Space is limited. Details/registration online at or by calling 250-721-2800

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