Gillian Cooper: EnviroCentre Volunteer and Dedicated Cyclist

How long have you been riding a bike?

My father bought my first bike when I was about 8 years old. He wanted to encourage me to go places on my own so that he wouldn’t have to drive me! I don’t think there were many children-sized bike frames then so it was too big for me — but putting blocks on the pedals made it just rideable.  I rode it for years, including delivering the Toronto Telegram newspaper when I was about 12. The huge pile of papers rode in the basket on the front and made balancing the bike tricky.  The papers and I had a pretty spectacular crash once when the bike slipped on someone’s cinder driveway. I bet you haven’t seen a cinder driveway! It was made from ash from a coal furnace and had a texture like grit. There are still cinders in my knee as a biking souvenir.

My Dad’s investment paid off: I have ridden my bike for errands, commuting to school and various jobs, and have had fun ever since. I commuted from Alta Vista to downtown for more than 30 years. I’m 65 now and I’m not planning to stop riding my bike any time soon.

What do you enjoy most about cycling?

I like getting somewhere under my own steam!  I like exploring back lanes and finding shortcuts, or low or no-traffic routes.  I like sailing by stalled traffic on my bike! When my kids were young, my bike commute was an oasis of peace between work & home. My commute was also fun as I could check out the progress of people’s garden installations, and home renovations as I passed by each day.

What have you learned about cycling that you wish you knew when you started?

Because I started going places on my own quite young, riding very defensively is automatic. I make eye contact with drivers and keep well away from parked cars.   I’m happy to say that the rise of bicycle commuting and awareness over my lifetime has meant that the majority of drivers are used to sharing the road, and I feel that scary moments are much more rare than they used to be.

What are the biggest changes you have seen in the last 10 years when it comes to cycling in Ottawa?

The gradual increase in recognition of cycling as a useful and reasonable means of getting around has been excellent. Making helmets mandatory was essential. Most of the cycling infrastructure that has been added, both in the city and privately, has been great. The building where I worked added a big bike parking enclosure in the garage, then they had to expand it. My employer added showers so commuting cyclists could rinse off after they arrived.

What is your favorite cycling memory?

I went on a bike-barge holiday in France about 3 years ago. We had fabulous meals on the barge, a guide to take us through rural back routes to villages & historical sites, and a congenial group of new friends to spend time with. The sun shone & it was truly relaxing.

What was/is your biggest challenge?  And how did you overcome it?

One summer about 4 years ago, the city seemed to focus its whole construction budget on my commuting route. One construction site per year along a given route is normal, but that year, there were about four major digs I had to avoid. In the end, I was able to explore entirely different parts of the city, which was fun, even if it doubled the distance I had to travel.

Do you have a favorite path or route to bike in Ottawa?

I have two favourite routes. One is along the Rideau River from Riverside Hospital to Montreal Road. I’ve had lovely outings with friends or family ending up at The Scone Witch for lunch.

The other is the path along the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill to the Britannia Sailing Club. It has spectacular scenery, and it’s my favourite because my son and I rode it on a tandem bike on a superb fall day one year. The bike rental & outing was my birthday present from him: one of my all-time best presents! We had so much fun learning how to ride together, whooping and hollering when we wobbled round corners. A tandem is a great place for a conversation too: much better than on 2 bikes.

What inspires you?

Creative people who persist and succeed in making wonderful things happen in ways that either have not been tried before, were considered impossible, or were thought to be not worth trying. Planting trees and making changes to “green” our world and build community are always inspiring.

Special examples in the Covid world would be the musicians who lead on-line choirs, the senior ladies who took their ballet classes in a pavilion in Vincent Massey Park, and the Israeli dancers who met in a west end soccer field till after the snow arrived in late November this year!

Have a fun story to share?

I found the house that we have lived in for over 35 years while out on my bike. When I first arrived in Ottawa, I was working at the University of Ottawa, and I took many different routes back to our apartment, to explore the town. We had been looking for a house without much luck when I took a turn down a street I’d never seen before, just as the real estate agent was taking down the Open House signs. She let me rush through what became a very lucky purchase for us.