Geared Up

On the road to two-wheeled transcendence. One man’s love affair with his bicycle
Ride along Queen, head west across Parliament. Too crowded. Hang a left, south on Ontario, one block. Then west on Richmond. One-way with synchronized traffic lights. Perfect. Dinner with Deanna at six. Ten minutes to go. Lots of time. Hug the curb. Guy behind me. Parked car. Get around it. Hey, he brushed me! Don’t panic. Grip down on the handlebars. Steady, steady. Running me into the curb. Brake... not too hard. Don’t throw yourself off. Brace for the shock. Watch your crotch. Watch the Toronto Star box... uh, where am I? How long have I been lying here? My hands. Can’t close them, they’re throbbing. Look up...

“I saw the whole thing,” says the skateboard guy. “He ran you over.”

My head. Can’t think. Good thing Jim and Warren goaded me into wearing a helmet: “Bill, for Chrissake, you’ve got a three-year-old kid!” they said. Bucket’s cracked like an eggshell. Could’ve been my skull. Three-quarters of the riders who die in accidents don’t wear helmets.

“The guy sideswiped you. Do you need help? ”

“I-can, get-up, on-my, own.”

In fact, I’ve been knocked a few rungs down the evolutionary scale, and, for the moment at least, I can’t do anything.

“I’ve got a cell. Want me to call the cops?”

I’m shaking. “Guess so.”

I look around, wild eyed. An off-duty Toronto Transit Commission bus driver cordons off the accident site. “I’ll radio it in. Where’s the driver?”

“Took off,” says the skateboarder.

A motorcycle cop rolls up.

“You all right?”

“Don’t know. It was a white van.”


the utilitarian

My friend Jeff used to wonder why I keep riding, why I couldn’t outgrow biking as I settled into marriage, a career, house, family, and five kinds of insurance. The bike is for recreation. You want to go to a grocery store, take the car, he’d say.

But not everyone is wedded to the car. Some use it to drive out to the countryside in order to ride. Others are gearheads who fall in love with every latest bike innovation; or eco-freaks who detest cars; or those shredders of mountain terrain, the off-road recreationers; or samurai couriers; or sleek, Lycra-sheathed road racers; or hybrid aficionados; or advocates knocking on city hall doors, protesting the bike’s lowly status in the transportation hierarchy; or those polyamorous swingers of sport, the triathletes. Or simply speed demons: on a bike, you feel the acceleration, not like in cars these days, which are smooth and quiet, and where the difference between 50 and 80 or, on the highway, between 100 and 140, is observed on the dashboard rather than felt in the gut. I’ve often wondered where I fit in.

I ride to work, the dvd shop, the fruit and vegetable stand, the theatre, the mall, a gig, the bar, the bank machine. It seems the practical, economical thing to do. I’m not against cars. I own one — a beat-up 1991 Buick Regal my dad sold me at a price only a parent would set — but I prefer not to use it. I didn’t bother learning to drive until I was twenty-three.

I started riding to school in grade two. While my high school classmates parked their rides in the lot, I locked my ten-speed to a post. After grade thirteen, I mailed my Chiorda to Banff. I rode it through an undergraduate degree in Calgary, weather permitting. Then, during my second year of graduate school at Waterloo, a woman driving a compact delivered a right hook. That’s when a car zooms ahead of you, then slows down and hangs a right, unaware of your velocity. I bounced off her passenger door, and typed my master’s thesis with a broken right hand. Now I pedal from my home near High Park to work at Ryerson University downtown. Except in snowstorms, it takes about twenty-five minutes.

Without the bike, maybe I’d be less ponderous, wouldn’t have two degrees in philosophy, would’ve made good on my childhood fantasies of owning a hot car like Steve McQueen’s green Mustang in Bullitt, I think. But I didn’t, and I’m happy with the level of freedom (and speed) my bike affords me. The novelist Henry Miller considered his bike his best friend. “I could rely on it,” he wrote, “which is more than I could say about my buddies.” Maybe I’m like him; maybe that’s just pretentious, if not ponderous.

It turns out I’m not part of any visible biking subculture. Rather, I’m part of a culture hidden in broad daylight: a utilitarian rider, according to a recent academic taxonomy of Canadian cycling types. Unfortunately, even with new bike lanes coming on stream, Canadian cities aren’t built for riders, utilitarian or otherwise. We manage by slipping through the cracks in the urban bustle, finding the seam, whether through a traffic jam or in a designated lane. Still, the act of riding encases us in a protective fantasy. With one push of the pedal, the rider is bombing around the neighbourhood — ignoring the dull parade of adult duties, full of youthful optimism, insulated from the stultifying conformity of public transportation, the headaches of car ownership, the myriad rules awaiting any adult who steps outside the front door. On a bike, each directional choice is active, not passive, and something forbidden nearly always lies beneath. Each decision creates the possibility of finding the next secret route, riding the wrong way, negotiating a sidewalk, or slithering between cars jammed in like sardines, waiting for the go signal. And there is danger. If Icarus’s tragic flaw was flying too close to the sun, the rider’s is brushing too close to a car.

For all the chances riding creates to break society’s countless rules — and infuriate drivers — there is a sense of beauty and formalism to it. Even at high speed, riding is ruminative, allowing for brain activity not possible when hoofing around a track, flailing sweat from a running machine, or in the confines of a four-wheeled exoskeleton. Bikes don’t fit into society’s grand scheme of civility. They are everywhere and nowhere, attach themselves to fences and posts, don’t pay taxes or obey the rules of the road. To ride is to transcend quotidian reality, but also to manage the fear of getting hit. On this, the rider’s life depends.


the thirteenth rider

November 14, 1992, a sunny, brisk Saturday morning, around 10 a.m., and thirteen members of the London Centennial Wheelers cycling club pass through Delaware, Ontario. They hang a right out of town and remain on Highway 2, falling once again into a tight double-file formation. The route is a club favourite. They’ll most likely head to Mount Brydges, cutting north across Regional Road 81, and stop at the Korner Kafe family restaurant. They may wolf down eggs and coffee before passing through Komoka. Eventually, the seventy-four-kilometre run will wind through Springbank Park in southwest London, where the club hosts its prestigious Springbank Road Races each May. The event has been won by Steve Bauer and Jocelyn Lovell, among other cycling luminaries.

The club congregates at Victoria Park in London every Saturday morning, usually at 8 a.m. (an hour later in the fall). Sometimes they ride in two groups. One of the riders, renowned artist Greg Curnoe, nicknames them “the Hammerheads” and “the Loquacious.” Hammerheads are competitive, maintaining a touring speed of thirty-five kilometres an hour — not quite road-racing speed, but a tough pace nonetheless. The Loquacious group cruises at just under thirty kilometres an hour and indulges in lively debate, something the contrarian and opinionated Curnoe loves.

This time around, there is only one peloton, or platoon of riders. Even though the temperature struggles to attain the freezing mark, a few wear little more than their official club jerseys. Curnoe’s chosen colour scheme — bright yellow with green, orange, and grey stripes — was inspired by his love of reggae. The back riders take advantage of the slipstream the peloton creates. Curnoe, who rode lead until Delaware, drops to the rear and takes a break.

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14 comment(s)

John LaidlawMay 13, 2008 09:47 EST

A wonderful article - and staring out with as good a description of why us "utility cyclists" ride as any I've ever seen or come up with.
Yes - cycling has its dangers. though I've not had the run of ill luck Bill reynolds has, I've chewed my own fair share of asphalt over fifty years and more.
I've had at least one wipe-out that was directly attributable ot my torquing through a corner, trying to make the advance green. The intersection of Cook and Finlayson Streets, in Victoria, slopes from NE to SW, and I was coming from the Norht, turning East. A poor situation, with a lot of reverse camber. As I flew around the corner, my rear wheel must have hit a bit of sand on the road - to the best of my knowledge, there was no pedal strike - and I went down, sliding on my yellow jacket. I realised that I was now in the middle of the road, with cars going past north and south, on either side of me. I must ahve been out for a couple of seconds. When I tried to move, my legs, for a moment, went on strike - most disconcerting. I got up, shaken but unbloodied, and then realised I'd put paid to my rear wheel - already on a fourth or fifth incarnation. I carried it to the first corner I could reach - the NE one, where I was approached by a lady, who fearfully asked if I were OK. She'd been behind me, in her mini-van, and feared she'd clipped me as I went down. I assured her I was shaken, but otherwise OK, and she offerd me a lift home, which I accepted. When I finally took my helmet off (I wore them, then, because I'd been doing so, to get my daughter to do it all the time, and felt naked without one.) I found an alarming crak in the foam at teh front, and then discovered the back had been crushed. I'm now a believer.
I ride, almost all the time, in traffic, and have always been aware of what's behind me. I've taken to using lights, even in bright daylight, as every little bit of visibility helps.
What I have discovered is that, with the usual lamentable exceptions, traffic (drivers) have become much more accepting of cyclists in general. Now - if only the cyclists were themselves, as accepting of drivers on the roads, as willing to make sure the drivers have the best chance of seeing them, and avoiding them, as they could wish.

Pat TMay 15, 2008 09:51 EST

My thoughts here: http://freedomisacupcake.blogspot.com/2008/05/2-wheels-good-4-wheels-bad.html

AnonymousMay 16, 2008 14:04 EST

Never bother to call a cop when you get hit as a cyclist. They don't care and they don't do a thing.
Last time I got cut off twice by the same driver in a goddamn minivan, the second time sending me head over habdlebars as I braked hard to avoid being a hood ornament, I called the pigs and after 7 and a half hours the wench rolled up and told me there was no traffic violation since I didn't hit the van. Just me falling off my bike she says.
She didn't want to check the video cameras of the stores in the area or do any "police work".
Got sideswiped in front of a cop, tell her what happened and she writes the licence plate down, hands me the paper and says call the police! My mistake for thinking she was the police. A hat, badge and gun will do that.
Stupid cops. Don't even get me started about the lazy thugs as they drive or even ride by cars parked in the bike lane or driving cyclists off the road and do nothing. Can't expect a cop to do his/her job. I have learned that from nth number of encounters involving more than just cycling (i.e. being threatend with a gun, assualted, etc.)
U-lock justice friends, that is all we really have.
Hope you are okay, my encouter with the van left me limping for a week.
One night I would love to put one of those metal bike poles for locking up your ride in the middle of Dundas and lock a bike to it. See how the drivers like their lane being taken by someone with no consideration who needs to park.

Andrew SullivanJune 05, 2008 06:05 EST

Not long after I finished reading Bill Reynolds's article about bicycling, a group of Toronto bike activists blocked the Gardiner Expressway. Their reason was, apparently, that they wanted bike lanes on Bloor St.

I thought the activists had something in common with Mr Reynolds. Just as Mr Reynolds was willing to inconvenience and endanger pedestrians by riding on the sidewalk with two casts on his arms (because, well, he wanted to), the activists were willing to inconvenience and endanger drivers on the Gardiner because they wanted something to happen at the other end of town.

This is what dealing with bicyclists in Toronto is like. Totally respectable-looking people — the sort that Toronto the Good used to be made of — will happily run you down on the sidewalk, dinging their little bells and expecting you to get out of the way. The police on bicycles blithely glide past the no bicycling sign in Riverdale Park. Brownian motion is more predictable than the behaviour of many cyclists in traffic. The stop sign on the TTC streetcar door is, apparently, just for cars, which is why I did not see the bicycle hit the guy with the cane as he stepped away from the streetcar.

I know, I know, you personally ride carefully and according to the rules. The problem is that, once a significant number of bicyclists are unpredictable, they all are. As a pedestrian, I have to assume every cyclist is a jerk, because if I bet otherwise I run too great a risk of getting creamed.

I used to ride everywhere. Of recent years, I have mostly stayed off my bike, because I'm ashamed to be associated with the yahoos that are zooming around on two wheels, acting as though the world owes them something. I've been doored. I've taken right hooks. I know the dangers, and I know how to ride in the city. But I'm embarrassed to do so.

The reason many people treat bicyclists as though they are annoying children is because that's how many of them act. They wanna ride on the sidewaaaalk. They wanna have a bike laaane. They want the space they are legally accorded on the road, but they don't want any of the restrictions that come with it. I suspect what they really want is that childhood feeling of freedom that came from being able to go fast, and damn anyone who will get in their way.

We all want everything to go our way. And it's certainly true that many motorists are lousy drivers, careless of anything that is in their way and that isn't an automobile (and, in fact, of many things that are). But if bicycles want to be treated with any kind of respect on the road — or by the rest of the urban polity — they have to act with some respect for the rest of us too. If instead they act like children with a new toy, they shouldn't be surprised at the treatment they get.

AnonymousJune 11, 2008 11:20 EST

Andrew,
To clarify, from what I understand, the ride on the Gardiner on May 30th had no direct link to advocating for bike lanes on Bloor. This error has since been corrected by several media sources. Although a couple of bikes had flags on them referencing the need for these lanes, there were different flags as well. Folks have been asking for bike lanes on Bloor St for years - perhaps the media picked up on the Bloor St. issue because it was most familiar and because no specific reason was given by any of the participants.

The group ride ended up down near the on ramp and made an unplanned 'strength in numbers' decision to go for it. They approached the relatively slow late rush hour traffic with extreme caution, and as cars slowed further and openings in adjacent lanes became available, the group filled the full roadway. From first hand accounts, those drivers directly behind the cyclists were smiling, waving, giving thumbs up and even had a few passengers taking photos of the unusual sight - any cars further back would have simply been in slightly slower than usual traffic. I don't understand how you think this group 'endangered' drivers on the Gardiner.

Jeff GlenJune 13, 2008 20:01 EST

A beautiful story. I took my car off the road over seven years ago and have rode every day since - I even biked across China to Mt. Everest basecamp, Nepal, India, Thailand and Cambodia. From all of this experience I have learned one thing, bicycles and cars can not share the road (especially in Vancouver). We need dedicated bike lanes period. I think adding these bike lanes will also get more people cycling which truly is a great way to get around. There is definitely a personal satisfaction to being your own form of transportation. For Andrew: for the cyclists who cut off cars, ride on sidewalks and generally take risks - they are no different than car drivers who do the same. Jerks are jerks! However most of us are cautious and aware of pedestrians, it is just that a 3000 lb car kind of puts you on the defensive. Please be patient and remember we are doing a hell of a lot for air quality!

ZarbeSSeptember 01, 2008 17:57 EST

Thank you Bill... and Walrus.

Pat TSeptember 03, 2008 18:09 EST

@John Spragge:

Sir, you hit the nail on the head. Here here!

Cyclists are singled out, because they are 'the other' on the roads. they are the exception, the minority. Every infraction of theirs is magnified, while the wholesale enormity of automobile-based destruction, death, and lawlessness is ignored because it is altogether mundane... Like beating one's wife used to be.

The untenability of the 'pro-motorist, anti-cyclist' is so obvious it's become the proverbial elephant in the room, and for motorists to confess to their complicity in planet-wide degradation perhaps involves a bit too much cognitive dissonance.

AnonymousJune 22, 2009 15:10 EST

Biggest bike problem in Toronto? Bicycles on sidewalks. Which amount to threatening assault as they come at the sidewalk pedestrian. Criminal, antisocial, a bit sick. Very very big problem. Check it out in the sidestreets and main streets in and near downtown Toronto. For example, the block between College-Bathurst and Spadina-Dundas. Check it out at all hours. It's a war. With one side committing criminal acts.

home improvement & designJanuary 12, 2010 21:59 EST

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DACJanuary 14, 2010 05:55 EST

Great article that absolutely drives me to get back on two wheels.

I started riding as my childhood asthma started to go away - though I'm told asthma never really goes away - and every ride feels like a rebellion against illness.

Since getting back on a bike after earning my driver's license, I've raced a couple citizen races, worked in a shop, became a gear head briefly, an advocate for both off and on road riding, watched my stable of bikes grow, worked on the Tour D'Afrique and a second tour across Europe, crewed for a stage race in South Africa, ridden year round, and enjoyed the looks from those who think I am crazy for being thirty years old and still getting a kick out of riding.

As one of my favourite waterbottles says (from a shop in Germany) Happy Trails, Happy Rides.

borsaAugust 16, 2010 07:45 EST

We all want everything to go our way. And it's certainly true that many motorists are lousy drivers, careless of anything that is in their way and that isn't an automobile (and, in fact, of many things that are). But if bicycles want to be treated with any kind of respect on the road — or by the rest of the urban polity — they have to act with some respect for the rest of us too. If instead they act like children with a new toy, they shouldn't be surprised at the treatment they get.

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