Victoria boasts bike-friendly roads and trails

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Remember the old nursery rhyme “London Bridge Is Falling Down”? Across the Strait of Georgia, in Victoria, citizens have been singing a variation of that tune for some time now, except in this particular case it’s the harbour-spanning Johnson Street Bridge that’s in a decrepit condition. After years of debate, a major change of spans is finally underway, with construction of a replacement slated for completion in March 2016.

More commonly referred to as the “blue bridge”, the 88-year old structure connects downtown Victoria with the adjacent neighbourhood of Victoria West. And now its days are numbered.

According to John Luton, the change can’t come a moment too soon. Earlier this month, Luton, the executive director of the Capital Bike and Walk program and past president of the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition, led the Georgia Straight on an extended ride across the aging structure as well as along the extensive network of cycle paths that branch out from Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

First up: an eyeful of the rot that permeates the bridge’s iron superstructure, hardly a reassuring sight. “Estimates are that between 500 and 600 cyclists per hour cross this not-so-bike-friendly bridge during the morning and evening commute,” he said. “The adjoining rail bridge removed earlier this year was in even worse shape.” (Remnants of the old structure currently lie heaped in a salvage yard on the west side of the Upper Harbour and await repurposing, as does the bridge’s former Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway station, whose heritage roof and various components will rise, phoenixlike, at future Greater Victoria Harbour Authority developments at Ogden Point or Fisherman’s Wharf.)

Tread gingerly across the bascule span, which is surmounted at one end by a massive concrete counterweight that allows the bridge to be raised when tall vessels require access to or from the Upper Harbour. “There’s still a vocal minority that would prefer to repair the old bridge,” Luton explained, “but with the shape it’s been allowed to sink into over the years, plus its debatable seismic integrity, that’s out of the question now.” (Given that the bridge was designed by Joseph Strauss, who later blueprinted San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, denizens have long viewed the structure as a source of local pride.)

Victorians are an impressively bike-friendly lot and boast the highest number of commuter cyclists in the country. Luton estimated that 10 percent of residents in the city’s core area own two-wheelers. A host of visiting riders, many of whom source bikes at Cycle BC Rentals and Tours, the largest such store in Canada, bolster that number. On the autumn day when Luton guided the Straight around, cyclists of all stripes rolled past. Many recognized the former City of Victoria councillor on sight, including Matthew Payne, artistic producer of Theatre SKAM. His company mounts an annual Bike Ride production each June along a four-kilometre stretch of the Galloping Goose Regional Trail, with its audience attending on decorated bikes. The Selkirk Trestle bridge, on which the encounter took place, is itself a legacy from decades ago, when a network of commuter trains once served the Capital Regional District. More recently, the 60-kilometre-long Galloping Goose “rails-to-trails” conversion project created a multi-use recreation corridor easily accessible to Vancouver area cyclists via B.C. Ferries’ Swartz Bay terminal.

The Selkirk Trestle—reminiscent of the old Kitsilano Trestle bridge that crossed False Creek near Granville Island until its shortsighted removal in 1982—delineates Victoria’s Upper Harbour from the Gorge Waterway that threads further inland. Tranquility reigned as kayakers glided below the busy walking-cycling bridge while the nearby Water Keepers pole, carved by Coast Salish artist Charles Elliott, gazed across at two magnificent sloops moored on the historic downtown’s eastern shore.

“I like to refer to this area as the industrial theatre of the shipyard,” Luton said. “Something’s always happening here.” Indeed, the recent residential redevelopment of former light-industrial land on the Victoria West side has drawn a host of newcomers. In turn, the presence of these urbanites has attracted businesses such as Fol Epi Bakery and Caffe Fantastico on nearby Harbour Road. As bike-friendly as urban roads come, Harbour leads north from the Johnson Street Bridge past Point Hope Maritime’s shipyard, where naval vessels brought ashore via a marine-railway turntable sit shrink-wrapped in dry dock. (The remarkable property is about to become even more so with planned expansion underway.)

By bike or on foot, a loop of Victoria’s Upper Harbour along the Galloping Goose Trail can be accomplished in an easy one- to two-hour ramble. New installations to watch for are a collection of colourful bike racks erected in honour of hometown hero Ryder Hesjedal, winner of the prestigious 2012 Giro d’Italia road race. They stand as just one more reminder that in many ways, Victoria is the coolest little capital in the world.

Access: For information on the Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition, visit their website. To view Capital Bike and Walk projects, visit the Capital Bike and Walk website. A good source of information on bike routes around Victoria, including maps, is the Tourism Victoria Visitor Centre, 812 Wharf Street, on Victoria’s Inner Harbour; for details, call 1-250-953-2033 or visit Tourism Victoria website. To view updates on the Johnson Street Bridge, visit their website. For information on bike rentals in Victoria, visit the Cycle BC website. Extended cycle routes around Greater Victoria are detailed in Bike Victoria (John Crouch, Chickadee Press, Bike Walk Victoria website.) For a schedule of Theatre SKAM productions, visit their website. Scenes of Victoria’s Upper Harbour are posted at the Point Hope Maritime website.

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