photo courtesy of Susan Stokhof
Meet Susan Stokhof, whom you’ll often find riding on an upright bike with farmers market finds in her bike basket for a picnic in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia — where she is not only that city’s first bicycle mayor but was the first in all of Canada.
Who can blame Susan for the happy outings, dressed in regular clothes suitable for other city stops? The City of Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, boasts the most northernly Mediterranean climate of any city in the world, with the additional bonus of gentle topography for easy riding. What’s more, Susan’s past experience makes fashionable everyday riding a normal part of her life.
Susan’s journey to bicycle mayor started more than twenty years ago in a hostel in Italy while backpacking across Europe. She met a Dutch man who was cycle-touring; they fell in love and got married; and she spent years visiting her in-laws in the Netherlands and experiencing that country’s renaissance as a bike-centric paradise. The freedom! The dignity! The fun!
When Mikael Colville-Andersen (a globally-renowned Danish-Canadian consultant who started the firm Copenhagenize to help cities transform) launched the Cycle Chic movement in the early 2000’s to mainstream the fashion-friendliness possible with everyday bike riding, Susan jumped on board.
She even launched a lifestyle brand named Le Vélo Victoria with her husband in 2012 where they serve as curators of elegant solutions for everyday cycling challenges. That wine-bottle-holder that hooks on your bike’s crossbar and lets you take the bar crosstown? You know, the bidon au vin? Yep, they sell that, plus a whole line of classic European handbags and panniers for bikes. They have spent years positioning cycling like this in a city where people typically think of it only for sport, while weaving their advocacy work throughout the brand.
Susan eventually applied for and was accepted at an immersive summer program at the University of Amsterdam named Planning the Cycling City. Amsterdam itself served as the playbook, and each student was issued a bike. Susan told me via our Slack interview this week that this experience was transformative.
“I would leave my in-law’s home, get dropped off by my husband at the train, which I then took to the city; pick up my bike where I had left it locked; and ride 30 minutes to the university,” she explained.
“Previously when riding bikes in Amsterdam, I had always ridden with my husband and followed along behind him. Now, riding alone, I had to navigate those lefts by myself, and I was nervous,” she said. “But after three days, something really quite magical happened.”
Susan paused briefly before continuing.
“A heaviness lifted,” she explained. “I realized, in that moment, that the city understood me, and I let myself be immersed by it. And right then, I felt like I truly mattered.”
When her class spent an afternoon at the headquarters of BYCS, Susan realized she had the potential and interest to apply to become a bicycle mayor as part of the social enterprise’s global consortium.
“When I came back from my time at the University of Amsterdam, I realized my heart was racing uncontrollably when I rode my bike on the routes I had typically ridden before I left. We think that’s normal, but it’s not. And I realized that was no longer acceptable to me, that I didn’t need to feel that way. It’s not about confidence or experience, both of which I have. It’s about feeling valued as a human,” Susan shared.
Susan now chooses routes that may be slower but more comfortable.As Bicycle Mayor of Victoria, she actively advocates for more traffic-calming and protection. Plus, she expanded Le Vélo Victoria to include her bicycle mayor media clips and other outreach. The website currently features Mikael Colville-Andersen with Susan in the cover photo (you may enjoy this interview he did with her). Susan estimates she has encouraged thousands of (mostly) women to get back on bikes or ride for the first time.
Her two years technically over as Bicycle Mayor, Susan is not done yet and has continued to serve. She still wants to fulfill her goal of encouraging more children to ride as she believes that riding a bike to school is one of the most fundamental freedoms a child can and should experience.
Her advice to anyone who may be interested in riding a bike but just hasn’t been able to feel comfortable?
“If cycling for sport doesn’t work for you, don’t give up. Find another way to do it that fits you.”
Sounds like it may be a good time for a picnic.
Note: Susan is the final of four total Canadian bicycle mayors that I’ve now showcased here during what is Canada’s National Bike Month. Here are the other three. Big thanks to all of you!
Jillian Banfield, Bicycle Mayor of Halifax, Nova Scotia
Arcy Canumay, Bicycle Mayor of Waterloo, Ontario
Shelley Carr, Bicycle Mayor of London, Ontario
As Metro Atlanta Bicycle Mayor, a League Cycling Instructor, a PeopleForBikes Ambassador, and the author of Traveling at the Speed of Bike (book and blog), I shine a light on people making it more welcoming to ride bikes and access public space close to home and around the world. Meet some below! If you’d like to put stories to work for your company, municipality, or organization, see here.
Meet Greg Masterson (Metro Atlanta Cycling Club)
Meet Marjon Manitius (Brookhaven Bike Alliance)
Meet Byron Rushing (Atlanta Regional Commission)
Meet Creighton Bryan (Tuskegee Airmen Global Academy)
Meet Betsy Eggers and Jack Honderd (Peachtree Creek Trail and Brookhaven Bike Aliance)
Jon’s Leap of Faith (Street Minister and Bike Saver Extraordinaire)
A Second(er) or Two about Why You’re Needed (City of Dunwoody)
Meet Matt (Painter of New Cycle Track by Mercedes Benz Stadium)
Meet Dr. Walter May (Reinhardt University)
Meet Alex Gee (World Bicycle Relief)
Meet Shawn Deangelo Walton (Everybody Eats ATL and WeCycle)
Meet Charlton Bivins (Clayton County Cycling Club)
Meet Emmett McNair (tour guide extraordinaire)
Meet Mike Fluekiger (Primary Mechanic at Global Spokes)
Thank You, Courtney (NYC’s Peoples’ Bike Mayor)
Meet Carden Wycoff (Wheelchair Warrior at 6 MPH)
Meet 31 Women Making the USA More Welcoming for Riding Bikes (the “You Go Girl!’ Series)