Published On Tue Aug 31 2010
You probably don’t recognize me on my new bike. Cappuccino beige. Elegant aluminum fenders. Stitched leather handgrips. Black basket. Kickstand. A bell that I ring ring ring, which is bike language for both “isn’t life grand when you are riding a bike?” and “please don’t open your door and whack me.”
You can see my face now — I’m not all hunched over my bull horn handlebars, ready to gore an absent-minded pedestrian or smug car door mirror. I’m not grumbling over a recent close call with a driver. I’m smiling, gazing at the babes in strollers and the fluttering trees. And oh, I’m not trying to pass you. I’ve slowed down quite a bit.
That’s me stopped at a red light. That’s right. I no longer consider them yield signs. My new bike has turned me into a law-abiding cyclist. Most of the time.
This wasn’t a planned conversion. I didn’t start seeing the red lights after being smashed by a truck, thank God. It was a subtle, Trojan-horse style invasion, arriving in the form of a Christmas present.
For 17 years, I’d been riding a creaky, rusted mountain bike I’d inherited from my sister. Every spring, Mr. Bike Mechanic told me it was worth less than the $60 tune-up. But I was loyal. That bike had sped me across the city hundreds of times, from Etobicoke to Scarborough. When I moved to Vancouver, it came with me. When I returned from India, it welcomed me home.
But there was more to it than friendship. It was a warrior bike. On it I was a warrior.
Judging from the cycling tickets handed out by cops last week, I would have paid big time if I’d stuck with that bike. No bell. Riding on the sidewalk. Disobeying red lights and stop signs. Failing to signal. Not yielding to pedestrians. Sometimes riding at night without lights.
I rode like a fearless 17-year-old, which means I felt like a fearless 17-year-old. Married with two kids, a job and a mortgage, I savoured that sliver of rebellion. The bike fit the renegade impulse.
The loose laws abetted it. Officially, bicycles are vehicles under the Highway Traffic Act. Except we all know they are not. Cyclists are supposed to leave the real lane for cars, squeezing down an imaginary gully, unless there is no space for the gully. . .
And while I sat through hours of classes covering all the glorious rules of driving to get my licence, you can’t find the rules for cyclists in Toronto.
“I’m working on them right now for the service,” Traffic Services Cst. Hugh Smith told me over the phone. “We do send out a pamphlet, but it’s not online.”
Until recently, that grey area benefited us all. Drivers didn’t have to give up space. Cyclists responded by making up their own rules. A police officer pulled up behind me on his bike this spring. “That was the third red light I saw you fly through,” he said. “If I see you do it again, I will give you a ticket.”
If bank robbers had such a long leash.
My sore back finally sent me to the bike shop earlier this summer, my Christmas IOU in hand. One spin on the Opus and I was hooked. Within a week of riding it, I noticed I was no longer drag racing other cyclists to prove my warrior mettle. Back straight and unburdened by an overstuffed knapsack (long live the basket!), I didn’t feel like rushing. The ride was lovely.
A week or so later, I woke up from a daydream, one foot planted on the asphalt before a red light. And there weren’t any cars crossing before me!
Perhaps Marshall McLuhan was right, and the medium is the message. Ride a Mary Poppins bicycle and you will start singing “A spoonful of sugar. . . ”
Maybe I’m just getting older. But I tell you, when you obey the laws and pedal behind a basket brimming with produce, drivers are nice to you. I haven’t had a single yelling match through tinted glass these past two months — surely a record.
And I still get there on time.
There are two spots on my daily commute where it’s very difficult to obey the law, though. One is where the separated bike path I travel alongside the Lakeshore ends abruptly at Parliament. No warning. The law would have me merge onto the Lakeshore before the bike path ends and — since I want to turn left and join the bike path on Queen’s Quay — cut across two lanes of rush hour traffic into the left-hand turn lane. Suicidal.
Otherwise, I am to dismount and walk my bike across the street. Let me ask you: Have you ever portaged your Subaru?
The Highway Traffic Act is not written for bikes. The city’s roads were not made with them in mind. And the cycling equivalent — the bikeway network — remains a tattered quilt, leaving drivers irritated and cyclists unsafe.
Earlier this month, city hall decided to shelve a proposal to stitch up the network in the downtown core for yet “more study.” (The city’s bike plan is nearing 10 years old and still less than half done, despite a pro-cycling mayor.) Infuriating. Until things improve, even Mary Poppins will have to break the law from time to time.
Slowly, of course. And cheerfully. Ring, ring.