McGill’s cycling superstar

Prof. Rowan Barrett holds cycling records from Montreal to Mount Fuji
Source: Charles Ouimet

If Rowan Barrett wasn’t a professor in the Department of Biology and Canada Research Chair of Biodiversity Science, he could be a professional cyclist.

That’s not hyperbole; Barrett often outpaces the pros on Strava, a mobile app and website that’s popular with both amateur and professional athletes. (It’s similar to Facebook, but for people who like sports and exercise.)

“I think cycling’s the best sport in the world,” says Barrett. “It’s so fun, and it brings me a lot of happiness.”

King of the mountains

Barrett got into biking the way most people do, exploring his neighbourhood on a BMX as a kid. Today he cycles everywhere – including when he travels to research conferences – which is why he’s been able to compete for Strava records around the world. He holds time records for Mount Fuji, has climbed mountains included in the Tour de France, and once rode from Montreal to Toronto in a single day.

“Mount Fuji was kind of a fun one,” he says. “It’s such an iconic mountain.”

As a result, Barrett’s become something of a local legend. In 2021 he did an interview with a Montreal YouTuber discussing his Strava records; the video has nearly 200K views, and since then Barrett gets recognized on his bike “pretty regularly.”

Bikes and biology

Despite his cycling success, he has no plans to quit his day job. That includes serving as principal investigator of the Barrett Lab, where he explores the ecology and evolution of a wide range of species, including deer mice, stickleback fish, and anolis lizards.

Barrett loves being a scientist, and claims that his hobby has positively impacted his academic research.

“There’s a lot of attention on the physical benefits of exercise, but I think the mental side is huge,” he says. “Cycling forces you to unplug and I think that can be very valuable. I do a lot of brainstorming and often have some of my best ideas when I’m on my bike.”

For people who haven’t been on two wheels in a while, his advice is to “just go at your own speed. Don’t stress, and don’t overthink it. You don’t need a bunch of expensive gear to start cycling – anyone can do it.”

Rowan Barrett’s Top 5 reasons to get on a bike

– It’s a great way to explore the city (“I feel like I know every inch of the island of Montreal.”)

– You don’t have to be in shape (“That’s why bikes have gears.”)

– Montreal’s cycling infrastructure is continually improving

– It can save you time and money

– It’s a reliable form of transportation (“You don’t get stuck in traffic or waiting for a delayed train.”)

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