In 2013, newly hired by HUB as the organization's first dedicated head of marketing and communications, I quickly realized there was an unexpected level of complexity and nuance to the role.
In order to backfill the gaps in my knowledge, I took Erin's advice and met with a few people from the movement's earlier days who could fill me in.
Chris was one of those people. He's a writer, video journalist and producer, and not far off in age and life stage to my own. He had also coincidentally worked with my wife for a few years in multimedia production for Metro Vancouver, and I had once worked with one of his former girlfriends. Our daughters are almost the same ages.
So a few connections, and definitely a comfortable first click. And yet, I remember thinking at the time, 'There's something he's not telling me.' Nothing nefarious, just some signals and references that made me think, 'Wait'll we connect again — I'll get the real scoop.'
We did connect again a few times over the years, but only briefly, and thus it wasn't until this project that I got some scoop.
And as was the case with a few others active in the 1990s, I was left feeling like I missed out on some good times.
First though, a brief foray into Chris' youth in Royston, a small town just a few clicks outside of Courtenay-Comox, on the east side of Vancouver Island.
I would have got my first bicycle in grade one. We rode bicycles all the time.
Because it was in Royston, of course there's no buses, and it was semi-rural, so you could ride your bike everywhere. And so as kids that's what we did.
I would have been ten or eleven, I got a paper route, a bicycle paper route. I rode my bicycle all the time.
I don't recall that I rode bikes much from grade eight or nine until out of high school. I got to be sixteen, and I got my license. Man, you had a Camaro, you were a player. You were getting the prettiest girl. You didn't have a car, you weren't going on dates. It just wasn't happening, because of where I lived.
Where could you go? Nobody walks in LA, and nobody walks in Courtenay.
A budding producer and journalist, Chris put in his time after high school — local television production in Courtenay, Parksville and Powell River — before finally moving to Vancouver. And that's where urban lifestyle started to catch up with him.
I had a couple of jobs and I was going to school. So I just had no time, and I was eating, and probably eating poorly. And to her credit, my ex-wife was a great cook, and she made lots of good food.
I was just putting on the pounds. And one day you see a picture of yourself, like oh. Oh, who's that guy.
I went to Simon's Bike Shop, bought a Giant. I start[ed] riding to work. And I started mountain biking.
It was suggested to me that in the 1990s, California invented the mountain bike, but British Columbia invented mountain biking. Chris was part of these scene in its formative stages.
This was when there was two trails on Mount Fromme. In that time Rod Kirkham had built a few trails — there was Seventh Secret and Pipeline.
Cam McRae, who now owns NSMB.com, took me up there and he showed me some of the trails. They're more challenging now, but even back then — no disc brakes, no shocks, no nothing, and these highly technical trails. They were great, and I was just like right away, I'm hooked. I started to drop the weight.
Chris tells me stories of getting on his bike at 8th and Burrard, riding across the Lions Gate bridge to the North Shore, riding to the top of SeventhSecret on Mount Fromme, and aside from sneaking a ride on the Seabus, coming all the way home on his bike. ("I'd be gassed. I'd be done. I was quite fit then, boy.")
At that point, the stage was set for worlds to collide. Because unbeknownst to Chris, others just like him — but lacking his particular combination of skills — were already organized, and looking to take their to the next level through a potent combination of grassroots performance art, and some kind of gonzo philosopher bike activism.
Somebody had said something or seen something somewhere about 'get involved'. And I was like, yeah I want to get involved.
Definitely my impetus was, these roads suck. It's hard to ride out there. This would have been '97-'96 — if you saw somebody out bike commuting, you probably knew them because it felt like there was ten of us out there.
Or they were the person you that you passed every day and you gave them the Harley Davidson wave, because you're like, "oh yeah, here we are out here together".
Chris met Carmen, Gavin, Tamim and others featured in this blog, and began to help with B.E.S.T. and the Spoke'n Word newsletter. The forum to write about ideas and issues through the lens of cycling obviously stuck to Chris. But something else caught his attention, and pulled him into flexing his creative muscles even further.
If anyone has truly shaped my thinking around cycling and the sociocultural aspects of it, it's Lee Henderson, who everybody calls the Fossilosopher.
Lee came up with the idea of a musical based on the Rocky Horror Picture Show. And so instead of Brad and Janet ending up at Doctor Frankenfurter's castle, their SUV breaks down in deepest, darkest East Van.
They get kidnapped by these people called the bike-sexuals. We sing, we dance, there's dinosaurs. Someone said, let's apply to the Fringe to do it. And they accepted it.
The first night, a few people showed up. And then the second night that we performed, we did it down at the little outdoor area, a natural amphitheatre — and we had cheesy homemade lighting, super cut-rate — a few more people showed up.
By the third night we were literally having to hold the show while more and more people came piling in. We filled that park with people.
Chris continued to ply his trade for the cause, including making a video for the Dinosaurs Against Fossil Fuels and their campaign to elect a dinosaur, T.Raax, mayor of Vancouver. He helped with efforts to bring the global cycling conference Velo-City to Vancouver (which it did, in 2012), and with campaigns to improve the Burrard Street Bridge (a reality in 2017).
In the meantime, he continued to work in local television production, had a daughter, and moved to east Vancouver. And he stuck to his guns.
My daughter Madeleine got to be about two or three, and I would ride from my house with the bike trailer, up to Langara where she went to daycare. I would tow her up there and I would pick her up, and then I would come back downtown to CityTV to go to work.
It was a conscious choice on my part to be as car-free as possible. I had bought into that paradigm and I think a part of me was stubborn, and people said you can't do it. I was like yeah, I actually can do it. I can ride, get some exercise, and it's zero cents a litre.
As opposed to have a car that would sit and not get used. It would get used for like an hour a day. And I would have to pay for it, and pay to park it, and pay and pay and pay. Or I can ride my bike.
When someone makes a case as logically as Chris does, it's hard to pin down his politics. It's funny, because so many people try to sequester cycling into a political camp, in order to keep it there, and control the narrative. But that narrative is no longer a just a story we tell ourselves about how we'd like this city to be.
Vancouver's really gone up to another level. You see it in the media now — and I've been in the media and it embarrasses me when I see the click bait headlines. It's not appropriate and it's irresponsible.
I've used my real name on online forums, and I continue to do that. I believe it's important — I stand up for what I believe in and I'm not afraid to put my name on it.
People go, "Oh you ride your bike. Oh I could never do it." People say "Chris Keam, the bike guy." I know people see me that way. I don't see myself that way, it's a portion of my life. And you're like, ok whatever.
But they treat your decision to do it as a judgement on their decision. And you're like, you know what? I really have no interest in your life and your decisions. Those are your decisions to make, and if that aligns with your values, it's not for me to say. I'm taking my path that aligns with my values.
And if that makes you feel guilty, or feel resentment, maybe you should ponder that a little bit instead of coming back to me and going like, you're a jerk for doing that — for wanting a bike lane, for wanting to be safe, because now I'm stuck in my car.
No, you're stuck in your car because of the car in front of you.
I'm not the first guy to laud those who walk the talk, but I lean a little more to the creative side of life, and so I like the talkers too. Especially those who express themselves as fluidly in person as they do on paper. Chris has both skills in spades, and he's a charming, friendly, funny guy to boot.
And he's been working all these years — doing the kinds of subversive, creative, political stuff that made the status quo slightly uncomfortable for our political leaders and planners and engineers — in part so his daughter can have even just a small slide of the life he had in Royston, B.C., population 1,200 and change, all those years ago.
A few years back, we rode down the seawall and then we got on Burrard Bridge bike lane, and Madeleine went, "Oh this feels so much safer".
And I was like, this is why we're doing it. So kids can be like I was when I was ten years old, and hop on their bike and zoom down to the store. Or whatever.
And I don't get why people don't get it. Are you happy being 'Mom's Taxi'? Or would you sooner your 12-year-old can ride ten, fifteen blocks over to soccer practice?
We lost that. There's no kids playing hockey in the street. Because people are driving like maniacs, on their phones. Why don't we want for our kids what we had? Oh progress.
That's not progress. When kids can't play outside, that's regress, not progress.