After moving to Canmore in 2005, Jacob Johnson bought a mountain bike; the first bike he'd been on in almost 15 years. Its inaugural ride was up and down the steep Reclaimer trail.
“(At that time) I was in awe that people and bikes could get down such a trail,” Johnson said.
It wasn't the easiest introduction to mountain biking, but it was love at first white-knuckled fright. Despite the lack of signage, he was soon discovering the network of trails tucked in the forest.
“We already had almost 80 kilometres of multi-use paths around town,” he said. “But it was kind of our little secret.”
Cyclists within town also had trouble finding efficient routes to their destinations and some felt unsafe riding on the roads. There was an opportunity for improvement.
Now 12 years later, Canmore is considered a bike friendly town.
This shift was sparked by the Integrated Transportation Plan (ITP) along with the combined efforts of many passionate community members who also love their two-wheelers. Advocates believed more biking infrastructure would benefit the town's economy, environmental sustainability and sense of community.
Johnson led the ITP in 2013 and 2014 as the specialist engineering technologist for the Town of Canmore. He said sustainable modes of travel became a big part of that project.
For many years, municipal planning documents had identified walking and cycling, as well as transit and decreased reliance on private automobiles, as planning priorities.
“Now (we were) putting rubber to the road, walking the walk.”
In 2013, with support from the community and council, the rollout began.
In the beginning, the challenge was simply what to tackle first.
“It's a chicken and egg thing. Do you build infrastructure that gets people excited about biking or do you have people excited about biking that gives you the momentum to build infrastructure?” Johnson said.
Bike parking, shelters and maintenance stands were put in that summer, partly with funds from the photo radar reserve. Johnson said these structures weren't just for commuters to use, they were also symbols of a town that was making biking a priority.
“When you go to a bike friendly town, you know you're in a bike friendly town.”
The Legacy Trail was completed between Canmore and Banff in 2013 and by the next year, the user count had doubled. By 2016, 50 kilometres of lane markings increased awareness of bikes in the streets, there were rebuilds at the Nordic Centre and Benchlands skills parks, and many more improvements.
Johnson saw the cycling culture grow and credits Mandy Johnson, no relation, with having a role in that increase.
Mandy Johnson is a Canmore Community Cruisers (CCC) board member. She first moved to Canmore four years ago, in part, because of the system of bike trails available.
She and the CCC were able to create the Bicycle Friendly Business Program to encourage businesses to offer bike parking and give incentives to patrons who bike to their business.
“If you're going at slower speeds, you notice stores.” said Mandy Johnson. “The more you can slow people down, the more money falls out of their pockets.”
In 2016, over 50 businesses were recognized through the program.
Sara Renner, Olympic medalist and co-owner of Paintbox Lodge, was an early champion of the initiatives.
“First of all, I'm notorious for losing my car keys,” laughed Renner as she explained her lifelong love of biking.
When she opened Paintbox Lodge, she always planned to have complimentary townie bikes available for guests. But with these initiatives, she was able to provide a bike shop credit for staff to tune their bikes as well as give a one-day paid vacation to managers who ride to work.
“Canmore is a much safer place to bike with things like the green crosswalks and also the bike lanes on Seventh Avemue. As a biker, I feel like I belong more in this community,” said Renner.
Like many, Renner would like to see segregated bike lanes in the future for an even safer commute.
From a recreation perspective, the key is not to rest on our handlebars, but keep improving the cycling network around town.
As biking styles evolve, so do the needs of riders and trails. That can be difficult in a landscape with sections of private land, habitat patches and wildlife corridors.
Luckily, there are many who are picking up tools to help build and maintain trails.
In 2016, Canmore Trails Alliance logged 617 volunteer hours in trail maintenance. Canmore Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA) also spent hundreds of hours on the trails and behind the scenes working with land managers, conducting a survey with 266 responses and listening to the needs of mountain bikers in the area.
“We even have a couple of members who are very passionate about fat biking and they will go out in winter and pack down trails so bikers don't have to do it,” said CAMBA's vice-president, Chad Holowatuk.
From volunteers to town engineers to the business sector and the community, Canmore built itself into a bike friendly town, one spoke at a time.
It's a chicken and egg thing. Do you build infrastructure that gets people excited about biking or do you have people excited about biking that gives you the momentum to build infrastructure?