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Two wheels and the city's yours

Flat Toronto is a cyclist's dream Forget bike paths and go for gridlock

Toronto Star, July 26, 2004
By Murray Whyte

Outside Breadspreads Bar, a ragged food-and-beer stop, a jumbled mechanical mess of equal parts grease, rubber, spokes, duct tape and stickers bearing unprintable slogans is clustered against a patio fence.

It is a tangle of well-worn bicycles, ground down by miles of city riding as tools of the trade for the city's community of bike couriers. This bar, tucked into a mostly abandoned block of Temperance St., is their home.

They ride all day, all year long - summer or winter, in humidity that threatens to clot their lungs with a thickening smog, or in the subzero nightmare of salt-infused, porridgey slush that eats at gear wheels and chains.

They don't do it for the money. With the going pay near a meagre $400 or so a week, there has to be something else. Ask anyone at Breadspreads: It's the rush. Pacing a multi-axle truck from Yonge and Eglinton all the way down to Front St., clinging to the cargo door? There's nothing like it. Every one of them has that look in his eye: Keep the bike paths, man. I'll stick to the gridlock.

For those of us less interested in high-potential self-maiming activities, though, even a little taste of the bike courier's urban exploits provides a unique surge of adrenalin. I first discovered it about six years ago.

I was new to the city, and at a loss as to how to navigate it. Even central Toronto is not walkable, not in the way that Montreal or New York, from where I had recently arrived, was. The east end was separated from the west by a solid half-day's hike, which made ranging any farther than my own neighbourhood on foot a daunting proposition.

I despised transit, especially in summer. Shuttling along underground was too passive. Even streetcars and buses seemed to usurp my autonomy, forcing me into their regimented agendas.

But Toronto is blessed - in one respect, at least - with a distinct lack of topographical texture. It's flat, for miles and miles, with only the slightest of inclines rising north from the shore of the lake to contend with. It's the urban cyclist's dream come true. From the swarms of cyclists weaving in and out of traffic, that much was clear. I decided that it was part of the culture, one I could easily embrace.

My first stop was Igor's, a tangled mess of bikes and bike carcasses wedged into a storefront on Queen St. W., near Strachan Ave. Igor's specialty was second-hand bikes. Not pretty but functional, Igor's rough stock has always yielded something serviceable in the under-$100 range. For the urban cyclist, anything more is a waste; potholes and streetcar tracks feast on the expensive, lightweight rims and frames of high-end road bikes, and serious offroad rigs are overkill for the city's flat tarmacs and manicured parks.

And consider: At the rate at which Toronto bicycles are stolen, refitted and resold, I've come to think of mine as more rental than purchase. Sifting through Igor's stock has become a personal rite of spring, as my bike from the previous summer has invariably been stolen sometime in the fall. I'm on bike No. 6 now, six years in. Total cost: $480.

I know - or have heard, at least - that the city is woven through with well-maintained bike paths that wend along the water's edge, through lushly treed parkland and into the deep ravines that divide the city.

But that's not for me. A rough set of wheels - something with a history, a complex set of broken relationships, and a mysterious path from there to here - is the perfect vehicle by which to explore the endless complexities and textures of the city.

Setting out along the cracked pavement of Queen St., navigating the fissures carved into the concrete by streetcar tracks - which, by the way, are precisely the right width to bite into a bike tire travelling alongside, as any urban biker knows - the traffic stops and starts, smog rising. Weaving in and out, through the snarl of bumpers and tires, horns blaring, there's a settling calmness as you transcend the rules of the road. Technically, you're a vehicle, subject to them, but in practice, you're free: Such rules are for clunky cars and the fools that feel a need to use them. It's the satisfaction of self-righteousness, and it feels sinfully good.

Dodging transport trucks and wheeling though the intersection of Queen and Spadina - against the light, of course - you veer north through Chinatown, a fluid obstacle course of double- and triple-parked cars, teetering stacks of produce crates, and people, people, and more people, you swerve across Baldwin St. and into the heart of Kensington Market.

Hopping off, you're now a pedestrian in one quick, easy movement, blending happily into the market's predominant mode of transport.

Equally accessible is the city's apparently distant east side. It's amazing to me, as a west-ender, how quickly the vast divide between east and west vanishes once you throw your leg over the crossbar and start pedalling. Even the Beach - a distant town, in my mental conception of it - suddenly becomes local. Which, of course, it is. But the usual means of cross-town access render the excursion daunting. Traffic, a dearth of parking, parking tickets, traffic on the way back - it's so much easier to just stay home.

On a bike, those barriers crumble, and the city's disparate neighbourhoods are suddenly linked. Quick, quiet and human-scale, a bike allows you to range west, to Parkdale and Roncesvalles, north to the Junction, back east through the Annex and Yorkville and along to the Danforth, down to Little India and then the Beach, west through Leslieville and the financial district, through Chinatown and Little Portugal, all in a single day's ride. The city becomes one, seamless, as you glide quietly into each pocket, off your bike, and blend in. Hop back on and glide away, free.

In a vast city where we are more subject to its rhythms - of traffic, of time, of regulations and transit schedules - than it is to ours, that freedom is rare, and to be savoured.


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