Perhaps the best way to describe Robert is triple-threat — mechanic, advocate and educator.
The fact that he seems to have boundless intellectual energy is a whole other thing.
Bottom line, he needed no prompting for things to talk about in our discussion. Because he's done it all.
Like many of our profiles, it begins back east:
I was born and grew up in Massachusetts — we lived in Marshfield, forty-ish miles south of Boston, a little town that never got much bigger because it's on an isthmus, sort of a tidal river.
At the end of the street where we lived there was, weirdly, a bike rack full of broken up bikes that had been used and left by previous families or junked by people. I got a wrecked up old bike, took the rattling fenders off and pumped up the tires and I started going. My first bike. And brand new pavement, gorgeous.
I knew I was mechanically minded from the time I was ten. I had taken apart a coaster brake, and I managed to put it back together in working order. I think there was a screw or two left over, but it still worked.
I'm struck by how many people I've spoken to reference Montreal. As a birthplace, home, home away from home — ultimately, it's as much a source of influence for Vancouver's cycling movement as Victoria, Portland, Toronto or anyplace in Europe.
Robert's family moved to Montreal when he was eleven, and that's where it all clicked in.
Not long after, I got my first brand new bike — my dad offered to buy the bicycle if I paid the tax from my allowances. Which was fifty dollars, and seven dollars tax if I remember correctly.
I had that bike for years and years; all my teenage years growing up in Montreal, I kept riding. For freedom, excitement, fun, just for the heck of it, for helping deliver papers, whatever reason it was.
It made getting around more adventurous.
Robert sprinkles in some history, some mechanics, even some cultural anthropology as we chat; he's a natural teacher and raconteur, something of a polymath.
Best of all, he actually manages to take the, "well when I was a kid" trope and weave it seamlessly into a then-vs-now comparison that even my kids wouldn't roll their eyes at. Because it's pretty spot-on.
When we were kids, we used to walk a mile to school, a mile back for lunch, a mile back to school again, and a mile back home. Four miles to walk every day to school in the inner city, in every weather, all the time. Most of the walk was unsupervised. It wasn't a big deal.
And a bike just expanded that. A friend would say, "hey let's ride over to here." It was wonderful."
Behind it all the mechanic in Robert was always there, fiddling away. It's part of fed his passion, and what also led to his first job, and eventually his second role in the cycling world.
I was riding that same three-speed, and by this time it had been painted, banged around, fiddled with. Handlebars switched, different seats and so on and so on.
I ended up being connected to Peel Cycle Centre, a shop downtown. It's not there anymore, and the funny thing was the bike shop wasn't even on Peel, it was on St. Catherine.
I got a job at the Dollard store. I'd been bugging them for ages. Can I help out? Can I do anything? Typical 17-year-old, 18-year old goofy like.
Then I went and I fell down and I hit my knee, and I had to walk around with a cane for a couple of weeks to take the pressure off of it. So I showed up at the bike shop again one day, and they were like, where the hell have you been? So-and-so is quitting — do you want a job? Ah, yeah, okay. So I started working with a cane my first day in a bike shop. January 15, 1974.
As part of all that, somebody told Robert that he should get a good bike and race a little. And so he did - only for about a year or two, but he's obviously a quick study.
I learned a lot about riding, how to ride fast, about the technique of riding.
And he took all that with him as job opportunities in the tourism and housing sectors drew him west, first to Calgary, then Jasper, "working in a bike shop in the summertimes, ski tech in the winter."
Then, finally, Vancouver. If you were into cycling of any kind in the 1970's and '80s, you likely knew about Carlton Cycles at Kingsway and 41st. For several decades, they were the premiere shop in town; the Green brothers who owned the store, had their own catalogue and even their own brand — the Talbot. By this point, Robert had learned to be a frame-builder, and built Talbots and custom frames for Carlton.
Looking at it backwards, I've been a bike mechanic for over forty years, learning mechanical stuff and doing all kinds of things in the bike world, which I've always considered as part of the influence or what I've wanted to do as a cyclist.
Then, eventually, came all the extra-curricular activities, as he put it.
Now I'm being connected with people where I was really interested. I had raced, and I rode cross-country here and did a few things, but I was more interested in the bigger, bigger, bigger picture.
Serving as a participant, and then a mechanic, for races hosted by the Bicycle Association of BC led Robert to participate as a volunteer on their Recreation and Transportation Committee. Over time, this led to progressively more time in the boardroom and, ultimately, the role of president of the organization (eventually renamed Cycling BC), as well as participation on the City of Vancouver's Bicycle Advisory Committee (including the chair role).
"It was because I got good at running meetings. And I liked doing it, that was great. Definitely took a lot of extra work, like meeting with the city clerk, making sure stuff was ready for the meetings. Being on top of stuff.
Somehow people thought that we had the whole floor of a building with secretaries typing away all day, that we had massive manpower and the wherewithal to do all this stuff. The reality was there was an executive director, two people who worked in the office, one guy who came in part-time to take care of racing memberships, and one other part-time person. It was relatively small.
The work Robert and others did, under Danelle’s leadership, will sound very familiar to those who work in advocacy today. While The Bicycle People and BEST came on the scene in the ‘90s, and eventually CyclingBC shed the advocacy part of their mandate, in the mid-to-late ‘80s they were just about the only game in town, pushing for change from the outside.
At least twice a year, a full letter to BC Transit — you need to allow bicycles on the trains. This is ridiculous. You have to have lockers, and racks on the buses, and so on.
Danelle is super committed, super focused, super strong person. I have to admire her for a lot of the work that she's done. She never stood down on anything — it didn't matter if there were ten suits in the room, she'd come right in and say what needed to be said. She helped me quite a bit with stuff.
It just developed and developed, and more and more people got involved and there were various events.
Then, as we started getting a little bit more pull here and there, we started doing the CAN-BIKE stuff. That's where, if you will, I dug in.
Through the federally recognized CAN-BIKE cycling education courses, Robert gained not only an instructor's certificate, but trainer's training; if you've ever taken CAN-BIKE certification from someone in British Columbia in the last two decades and it's not Robert, chances are that person was trained by Robert.
In the late eighties early nineties, I taught the first [police] bike squad in BC. And subsequently taught at the Justice Institute, trained RCMP ambulance guys there, and then was the courier examiner for the city of Vancouver for six years. I probably tested a thousand bicycle couriers.
Some of the stories Robert tells are too good not to include here — like, did I mention he was also an expert witness in jury trials related to cycling cases? — but then again this site is supposed to be the teaser for the Van Bikes book, not the book itself.
And anyways, the original reason why Robert's name first came across my radar in the first place, virtually the first moment I started researching this project, was the possibly aprocraphal story of the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition, (VACC, now HUB Cycling) having formed in his kitchen in 1998. Who is this guy Robert, and how come Ive never met him? Why did he not formally work in VACC after being part of its formation?
We signed the papers in my basement suite. And the BCCC at the same time. We were recognizing that we were putting the provincial and the Vancouver area stuff together.
I was actually planning to depart the whole business. I wasn't looking to do some other things. And it was just getting to be a time thing. A little burnout. You've heard that from some of these other people. Just like all the time, you're always rushing off to a meeting.
I get it. Time to move onto other things. Like carpentry, art, joining a book club (seriously - he's in one with Peter S and Colin), or even just getting back to one of his original loves - mechanics.
Today, he works for GRIN Technologies, which makes a lot of the parts - like controllers and battery chargers - for electric bikes. And while you might not think many so-called "die-hard" cyclists, let alone former racers, would be into e-bikes, Robert makes a compelling case for why they may one day become a force in the transportation world.
They're for when you gotta get there, or you gotta get there without sweating. Or if you want to do a really long tour and you really want to make sure you finish it. And you are older, it's quite useful. Also, it's something like cargo, or carrying your kids around, it really makes the difference between being useful and a chore.
A cell phone uses I think 8 grams of cobalt to make the lithium ion batteries that are in there. Apple now wants to buy directly from the mines, and they're willing to suck up like a quarter of the world's cobalt production it appears.
Cars use about a thousand times [the cobalt of a cell phone]. Even in the Tesla there are hundreds of those little batteries all put into packs, and put into bigger packs and made into the battery. The battery on an electric bike doesn't need to be a Tesla-sized battery. It's a box. A shoebox-sized battery will take you from here to Abbotsford and back again, on an electric bike, on one charge, quite nicely, if you don't mind riding a bike. I guess that's part of doing this.
There are many parts to Robert's story that explain why he does this, and why he's been doing it for forty years, from in the shop to course to the boardroom to the classroom. But maybe this sums it up best.
I can have my worst day in a bike shop and I still fixed a bunch of people's bikes and something happened for them. That's good. That all.