Two months, two bikes & five provinces

Students bike 4,600 km to research thesis, battle breast cancer

Environmental studies student Mike McHugh hit a railroad track and flipped over his handlebars on the first day of a two-month cross-Canada bike tour.

His friend and fellow Queen’s student Jessica Kemp crashed into McHugh’s wreckage and injured her knee.

“Day one was the single worst day … everything else we were able to take on,” McHugh said, adding that the pair also popped two tires that day and the packs attached to McHugh’s bike repeatedly flew off into oncoming traffic, risking their recently purchased equipment.

This wasn’t just recreation though, the trip was McHugh’s method of gathering research for his master’s thesis.

The pair biked from Vancouver to Hamilton starting June 6 and arrived Aug. 4. McHugh, 23, said he’s currently compiling the information he catalogued on the trip to create a recommendation for cities looking to create a cyclist-friendly roadway system.

Kemp, an education student, rode 4,600 km for a different reason. She was raising a dollar-per-km for breast cancer research in memory of her sister who lost her life to the disease at age 26.

As of last week, she had raised $5,245 – over $800 more than she had originally planned.

“There’s so much strength in memories,” Kemp said. “I always think about her struggles. I thought if she could go through that then I could [bike cross-country].”

McHugh said the two set a goal of covering 100 km a day carrying 90 lbs each of equipment and supplies.

“We found that was attainable,” he said. “We low-balled it so we wouldn’t be disappointed.”

They also had the same heavy-duty locks used by Toronto Couriers to ensure their $1,200 bicycles wouldn’t be stolen along the way.

They traveled an average of eight to 10 hours daily, stopping in four major Canadian cities so McHugh could conduct research on different realities for cyclists nationwide.

McHugh spent about a week biking around Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto, speaking with local cycle enthusiasts and cynics, as well as politicians.

He said the main issue is that each city lacked a complete network of bike lanes.

“Having bike lanes that end happens in almost every city,” he said. “Those are problems that cause injuries.

“If a person can’t get from point A to point B without feeling that they’re safe [in a bike lane], then they’re not going to get on their bike.”

McHugh said Vancouver’s cycle network was the best he’d encountered. It included a completely separated lane for cyclists and pedestrians on the city’s Burrard Bridge.

When McHugh and Kemp left Vancouver en route to Calgary they encountered a particularly tough stretch.

“[Roger’s Pass] is excruciatingly painful,” he said. “You can’t do it in a day. It’s just up. The incline is crazy.”

On the stretch of Rocky Mountain roadway, the pair of Queen’s students passed a man hauling empty beer cans on a small, two-speeder.

“You’re all suited up in gear and complaining and then you see this person with beer cans saving them to cash in at the depot,” McHugh said. “You think ‘oh God, I can’t complain, he’s got flip flops on.’”

McHugh and Kemp met the man again when they stopped at the only rest stop in over 100 km.

The two shared a room and a meal with the man, who they learned was homeless.

“The stove wouldn’t work because the change in pressure,” he said. “So we ended up eating dry macaroni and cheese that night.”

Once they reached Calgary, McHugh said he investigated the poorest cycling climate on his trip.

“I can understand why you don’t see a lot of citizens in Calgary biking,” he said. “There’s so many aggressive drivers ... I refused to get on my bike afterwards.”

McHugh said he took issue with the treatment he received as a cyclist on Calgary’s light rail transit line.

“They don’t really encourage bikes on there,” he said. “When I was on there twice with my bike I was approached and told ‘get in that corner,’

“In any other city like Ottawa, Vancouver, Toronto and even Hamilton it was not problem.”

McHugh said regardless of where he and Kemp went, people found their attire inviting.

“When you’re wearing the gear and carrying bikes, it’s like a giant sign that says ‘talk to me’,” he said, adding that it sometimes worked in their favour.

One night in Suffield, Alberta the pair had

planned to buy their dinner at the town’s only convenience store but by the time they arrived, it was closed.

“We thought we were going to bed without food,” McHugh said. “These people probably saw our defeated faces.”

A local couple brought McHugh and Kemp back their home and fed them fried chicken and beer. The students met the couple’s pet cat who, apparently, had 26 digits on four paws.

“People like that, you meet and you know you’ll never see again,” he said. “But it’s the once in a life time meetings that just last.

“It makes you feel good about society, or at least Canada in general.”

The trip cost McHugh around $6,000 including his bike and airfare. He said the environmental studies program covered a majority of his costs.

“The way it works is our school funds us based on fellowships, teaching assistant jobs, grants and bursaries.”

The second-year master’s student said his unusual research method was fully supported by his department, especially his supervisor, Graham Whitelaw.

“The people [at environmental studies] have been so open- minded,” he said. “[Whitelaw] has been really encouraging of me to think outside the box.”

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