Geared Up: On the road to two-wheeled transcendence. One man’s love affair with his bicycle
September 19, 2012
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 Starbox… 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.”
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 inBullitt, 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…