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.”
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.
About 300 metres beyond the Highway 402 overpass, the two-lane road cuts across a farm country panorama. Ahead is an elongated incline that requires extra exertion. The landscape to the south gives way to pasture, but the grasslands are submerged in a metre of water and look like a small lake. The riders have never seen such massive flooding here before. The dilapidated, weather-beaten grey barn up ahead appears to be floating on a bright reflection.
As the Wheelers approach the barn, Roger Williams exits onto Highway 2 from Barrie and heads west in his pickup truck. He accelerates to a cruising speed of around eighty kilometres an hour and comes upon the Magritte-style vision of the floating barn. He can’t take his eyes off it.
Thud! Something hits the truck. Smacks the windshield. Shatters the reinforced glass.
The windshield holds together but turns opaque, and Williams can’t see.
Thud! Another smack on the windshield.
What the hell?
Williams is terrified.
He slams on the brakes, but he keeps hitting things.
Thud! Lorne Falkenstein lies on the hood.
Thud! John Thompson, a bruiser of a man, pushes Falkenstein through the windshield.
Williams receives Falkenstein and shattering glass.
Thompson slips off the hood, rolls onto the ground, and sees scattered bodies and bikes everywhere. It looks “like a war zone.” He hears Williams say, “Oh my God, what have I done? ”
The decisive moment—no more than several seconds—is over. The peloton, as seamless and fluid as a school of fish, and seemingly impervious to outside forces, lies wriggling on the asphalt, destroyed. Mike Lesko had been leading the pack. When he looked over his shoulder, he says, “all of a sudden, they just seemed to bunch up and fly everywhere.” Curnoe, Dale Nichol, Jorn Pedersen, and Bill Harper were the first four human dominoes. Falkenstein did cpr on Curnoe. Green and yellow bile came out of the felled cyclist’s mouth. It was gruesome, but the cpr worked. Curnoe was breathing. Then Falkenstein went off to help other riders. The ambulance arrived and whisked Curnoe fifteen kilometres to the regional hospital. In all, six men and one woman required medical attention, but Curnoe, fifty-five years old and in great shape, was the only rider killed. Falkenstein’s sense of guilt was profound. What if he hadn’t left Greg’s side, he kept asking himself.
(Months later, the doctor who treated Curnoe ran into Harper. The medical opinion was that the injuries were so massive no one could have survived them. Harper asked the doctor to emphasize this point to Falkenstein.)
Vote Nihilist—Destroy Your Ballot
Harper, the fourth rider, remembered seeing the floating barn, and then waking up in the hospital two days later with a concussion and double vision. His ear had dangled by a thread of flesh but had been sewn back on. Gradually, he realized he’d be in a wheelchair the next day, Tuesday, attending his buddy Greg’s funeral. He pictured his first ride with Curnoe two decades earlier, an eighty-kilometre tour to St. Marys and back. Curnoe was riding a civilian bike, not a racer, but he completed the entire loop.
Curnoe’s death was bitterly ironic. Biking had been central to his artwork for twenty years. He was first exposed to Dadaism, cubism, and Surrealism in 1954, when he enrolled in a special arts program at London’s H. B. Beal Technical and Commercial High School. Three years later, drawn by the gravitational force of the larger city centre, he moved to Toronto to study at the Ontario College of Art. He didn’t have much time for his professors, but one of them, Graham Coughtry, was knowledgeable about the art movements that so piqued his curiosity. Then, in 1958, he met Michel Sanouillet, owner of a French bookstore in the Gerrard Street Village and the author of a book on Marcel Duchamp. The young artist couldn’t believe it—stuck in a city where no one seemed to share his love of Duchamp or, for that matter, the German expressionists, he’d found a Dada scholar in a modest shop in Little Bohemia!
Back in officialdom, oca returned Curnoe’s lack of respect by failing him in his final year. His response? Tear up the big city script, vow never to return, and head back to London, where he hooked up with Michael Snow, the filmmaker Jack Chambers, and the poet James Reaney, and where regionalism quickly became a defining feature of his work. In 1961, Curnoe’s first solo exhibition was mounted, and his magazine, Region, published its inaugural issue. His first gallery (also called Region) opened in 1962, and the next year he formed the Nihilist Party of London, Ontario, its first political campaign launching with a poster of then premier John Robarts, his eyes covered with the slogan Vote nihilist—destroy your ballot. In 1965, he formed the influential noise collective the Nihilist Spasm Band (which continues to this day), and the National Gallery of Canada bought its first Curnoes. From there, it was straight up: Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council grants; infamy for his anti–Vietnam War commentary, in a large mural at Dorval Airport in Montreal in 1968; representing Canada at the xxxvii Venice Biennale in 1976; and his large show, Retrospective, touring the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the National Gallery, and the London Regional Art and Historical Museum in 1981. Curnoe’s mixture of regionalism—what critic Sarah Milroy described as “the notion of making art out of a passionate loyalty to one’s immediate surroundings and community and not in slavish imitation of international styles”—and Dadaist tendencies would remain potent throughout his career.
Ignited by that first road trip with Harper, Curnoe’s art intersected with riding in 1971; after that, vocation and avocation became impossible to separate. Writer, poet, and Curnoe friend Christopher Dewdney says, “It was as if Greg had been made for cycling. His art, which had always been part of his life, became even more inextricably bound up with his physicality in an intense symbiosis. Bicycles represented the stripped-down relationship between form and function that so appealed to him.”
I begin to get a sense of Curnoe’s long shadow when Harper shows me around London on a gorgeous summer afternoon. Our first stop is Harris Park, where a red maple tree was planted in Curnoe’s memory in 1993. Sadly, we can’t find it. (Hours earlier, Curnoe’s widow, Sheila, had mentioned to Harper that the tree might not have survived.) Undeterred, we hustle up the hill. A University of Western Ontario philosophy of science professor, Harper is sixty-five (fourteen years my senior), but he maintains a three- or four-step jump on me. He tells me, “Greg and I were mystified when people said they rode to look fit. He used to say, ‘I don’t ride to look good. I ride to wear people out!’ ”
We reach Museum London. Three Curnoes are on display, including a radiant, life-sized Plexiglas painting of one of his cherished Mariposa bicycles. Then we head over to the Greg Curnoe Connection, a tunnel that links a bike path from Wharncliffe Road to Greenway Park. Completed in May 1995 and dedicated to Gregory Richard Curnoe: Artist, Writer, Musician, Athlete, November 19, 1936–November 14, 1992, the tunnel allows cyclists safe passage beneath the train tracks.
Finally, we drive out to the crash site. Just before Delaware, Harper catches a lump in his throat. A couple of kilometres past the village, out here on the gravel shoulder and trying to locate the precise impact zone, he regains his composure. It’s me who’s spooked. Vehicles whisk by. I feel the blowback of a half-ton pickup truck and see the lack of room on the road. There is no plaque to commemorate the tragedy. We stand there for a while looking out, and then silently drive back to London.
What caused Roger Williams to plow his truck into a formation of disciplined, experienced riders on a bright, sunny autumn morning, I wonder. I broach the subject with Sheila, suggesting that Williams’ brief, appalling inattentiveness is the kind of blunder that can haunt a man for the rest of his life. She’s obviously heard this kind of empathetic consolation before. “He can sit around, drink a few beers, and have people feel sorry for him. I mean, that’s what he’s going to do. I have no sympathy for him at all. You’re a young guy, twenty-six years old, driving a truck. Pay attention to the road.”
Curnoe loved everything about bikes—the wheels, gears, derailleurs, the riding, speed, testosterone, and camaraderie. I cross-wire this passion with his steadfast anti–US imperialism, and suggest that biking must have been an enviro-political act for him. “O-h n-o-o! ” Sheila says. “Greg never talked about the environmental aspect of bicycles at all. I don’t think he ever thought about it. Greg loved cars. He wanted to get a Maserati. When I married him, my mom and dad loaned him their car. He gripped the steering wheel like a maniac, leaning forward with the thrill of it all. He got so many speeding tickets, I said, ‘Greg, we can’t afford this!’ ”
Curnoe transferred his love of speed to a love of bikes. He forever searched for the perfect flat roadway to better his time trial scores, sought out the best equipment, and never, ever, threw anything out. Spent inner tubes, broken derailleurs, a worn-out sprocket could all be raw material for his art. Seven years ago, Sheila’s office replaced the bike workshop on the main floor, but most of Greg’s bikes and all of the various parts and paraphernalia still sit in the basement of the 107-year-old converted lithograph factory. They remain as if time stopped on November 14, 1992.
Two weeks after the accident, Williams was charged with one count of dangerous driving causing death, and five counts of dangerous driving causing bodily harm. The prosecutor measured the distance between the 402 underpass and the point of impact on Highway 2. He was convinced he could show that Williams had taken his eyes off the road for as long as thirty seconds, which justified elevating the charge from careless to dangerous driving. A conviction on the lesser charge carried a maximum penalty of six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, and a two-year driving suspension. Dangerous driving carried a maximum prison term of fourteen years.
When the trial finally opened in January of 1994, however, evidence demonstrated that Williams was sober and in control of a mechanically sound vehicle, and that he bore no malice. He said he’d been distracted by the glare from the sun and the flooding. The prosecutor pointed out in his final address that the highway at that point was straight and flat, visibility was first rate, and the thirteen riders looked “like a 45-foot multicoloured snake wearing every colour of the rainbow moving down the road.” Williams’ lawyer said there was no doubt that his client was responsible, but not criminally responsible, which is what the charges claimed. The trial took four days, and after five hours of deliberation the jury acquitted Williams of all six charges. Sheila Curnoe (along with riders Dale Nichol and Jorn Pedersen) pursued Williams in a civil trial suit, and won. The money was nice, but it merely papered over the hole in the family’s life. “There’s this empty space,” Sheila said a year later.
Switching to Glide
The bicycle, according to scholar Donald Zaldin, revolutionized nineteenth-century culture. Its progenitor was the two-wheeled velocipede, invented in 1817 by Germany’s Baron Karl von Drais. The velocipede looked like a bike, but it had no crankshaft or drive train. The rider was propelled along by foot power alone. Then, sometime in the mid-1860s, a French metalworker figured out how to add a crankshaft. Two decades later, in 1885, England’s John Kemp Starley attached gears to the rear wheel instead of the front. Three years later, John Boyd Dunlop, a Scottish veterinarian, improved pneumatic tires and introduced the smooth ride. Suddenly, anyone, rich or poor, young or old, could travel beyond his or her immediate surroundings at no extra cost and with little wear on the body. The past century has seen numerous design upgrades and innovations—the three-speed Raleigh, the ten-speed derailleur, the mountain bike, the hybrid—but the concept remains the same.
And that concept’s irreducible nut is the body defying gravity. Riding is governed by physics, specifically by torque-induced precession. Gravity causes a stationary bike to fall over, but applying torque—using the legs and feet to push down on two pedals attached to a crank—changes the equation. The drive train transfers the rider’s energy directly into movement. The wheels turn and stay upright, and torque allows 182 pounds of human tissue to move on two flimsy pieces of rubber filled with air.
The thinner the bicycle’s frame, the less wind resistance, and aerodynamics only increases efficiency; leaning over the handlebars, especially going downhill, reduces drag and boosts speed. Spoked wheels are almost as strong as solid ones, at a fraction of the weight. Using a derailleur, a transmission system invented by the French in the late nineteenth century, the rider easily switches the chain to a smaller sprocket and—voila!—more torque, more distance in less time. As the rider increases cadence—the number of revolutions per minute—he injects pure power, especially in higher gear ratios. The work is hard but satisfying.
Insects and Beasts
Lawrence of Arabia, masochist that he was, reportedly searched for the steepest hills to climb, and once he reached the summit he’d walk the bike down. He was hardly alone in this apparent self-sacrifice. Asked why he put himself through gruelling punishment in preparation for races, seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong said, “I didn’t do it for pleasure. I did it for pain.” The Dutch novelist Tim Krabbé, known for his psychological thriller The Vanishing but also a one-time racer, elaborated on this embrace of physical misery. In his novel/memoir The Rider, he wrote: “Velvet pillows, safari parks, sunglasses: people have become woolly mice. They still have bodies that can walk for five days and four nights through a desert of snow, without food, but they accept praise for having taken a one-hour bicycle ride.” An acquaintance of mine, Shauna Gillies-Smith, told me that when she was in labour she almost gave birth before leaving for the hospital. So inured to heightened pain from competitive riding, she hardly noticed her contractions.
Because of torque-induced precession, most riders don’t have to go to these extremes. Generally, we lay back and enjoy the glide. Bikes are up to five times more efficient than walking. “Cycling is probably the most sustainable of all transport modes,” say Rutgers researchers John Pucher and Ralph Buehler in their 2005 study of Canadian cycling patterns, “producing virtually no pollution of any kind and requiring no non-renewable energy resources at all.” All very well, and there are more riders on Canadian roads than ever, but our numbers are puny compared to Europe’s. In Copenhagen, city officials estimate that a solid and very respectable one-third of commuters use the bike. In Canada—with Victoria in the lead at about 5 percent and Toronto lagging way behind at 1 percent—for every two-wheeled insect buzzing around on pedal power, there are sixty-one sleek, fast-moving, fuel-injected four-wheeled animals on the road.
There is some momentum in urban Canada for mass engagement with the freedom of cycling, but it has to be tempered by the law of the urban jungle. The four-wheeled beasts are stronger than the two-wheeled insects, and sometimes insects hit the windshield. In 1984, there were 126 cycling fatalities in Canada. Since then, despite the lack of mandatory laws for adults in all jurisdictions, increased helmet use appears to have reduced the number of head injuries, and government awareness campaigns have convinced many drivers to watch out for cyclists. By 2002, the number of deaths dwindled to sixty-three, and cycling injuries fell from 11,391 to 7,596. These encouraging results are borne out anecdotally by a neighbour. He tells me that in his twenty years of bike commuting, he’s noticed a change in drivers. Intersections are still treacherous—riders never know when drivers will speed ahead and hang a right on them—but most drivers now understand that cyclists are part of the road.
Still, when you consider that vehicles cause nearly 90 percent of fatal cycling accidents, riders must maintain a healthy respect for the beasts. Gillies-Smith, a Canadian landscape architect now working and raising a family in Boston, and until recently a competitive cyclist (she twice won the Canadian Cyclocross Championship and was ranked in the top ten on the much larger American circuit) says, “In a car, there’s a real disassociation with the world. There is this belief—although almost every driver hits a cyclist by accident—that bicycles don’t belong on the road.” When drivers are protected inside a hull, invincibility is an illusion easily achieved. “When I ride in the city,” Gillies-Smith says, “I’m extraordinarily cautious. I don’t take risks. I really, really back off.”
Drivers on the Storm
Drivers can be the victims of bad luck or bad driving as well, but for riders it’s the lack of armour that counts. And once in a while, a story comes along to throw an icy shroud around every rider’s heart.
On Canada Day 2000, Frank Groves set out on his usual early-morning ride. He headed southeast on Elliott Street in sleepy Brampton, a suburban enclave thirty kilometres northwest of Toronto. The recently retired Northern Telecom employee was an avid cyclist who liked to get going around 5 a.m. At sixty-five, he kept himself in good shape, either biking or swimming every day.
Elliott Street was without traffic, except for one car, a stolen Dodge Shadow. It was moving fast and, unbeknownst to the silently gliding Groves, bearing down on him. Just before Craig Street, the drunken driver spotted the bike, and aimed his vehicle for its skinny rear wheel. He plowed into Groves, propelling the rider’s body over the Shadow’s hood. Groves smacked the windshield, then fell away from the speeding vehicle. He was killed instantly. Police told reporters the bike remained trapped under the chassis and scraped the road for 700 metres. The car was found on Frederick Street, less than a kilometre from the hit and run. Stymied by construction equipment blocking his path, the driver had abandoned it.
The police appealed to the public for clues about the death, but nothing was revealed. Then, about ten months later, they caught up with twenty-two-year-old Jeffrey Campbell in a Niagara Falls motel room, planning a home invasion. At the trial, the court heard that the young man had smirked as he knocked Groves into the windshield, and laughed while watching television news reports of the homicide the following day. Campbell has displayed no remorse and has since been declared a dangerous offender, after achieving Bernardo/Olson-like numbers on clinical tests. His behaviour affirms every rider’s instinct that in the urban jungle the car is king, and a heavy, four-wheeled object can—and sometimes will—eradicate a light, two-wheeled one.
The Right Hook
Mayhem involving vehicles and riders is typically more banal, the carnage mostly attributable to repetitive patterns that could easily be stopped. On October 31, 2005, Ryan Carriere, a thirty-one-year-old postal worker and budding cartoonist, was heading home early in the afternoon after finishing his route. He was planning a barbecue dinner before taking his two daughters out trick-or-treating. He never made it. At the intersection of Gladstone Avenue and Queen Street West in Toronto, Carriere caught the right hook. He was sucked underneath a truck’s wheels and crushed to death. Apparently, that stretch of Queen around Dufferin Street—with a train overpass immediately east of the lights—is known to city officials. Apparently, it has been slated for improvement. Apparently, a discussion has been going on for a decade about making side guards mandatory for trucks.
I call Darren Stehr, spokesperson for Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists. He refers me to a document called “A Report of Cycling Fatalities in Toronto 1986–1998” by regional coroner W. J. Lucas. Under the heading “Large Vehicles and Bikes,” recommendation 15 asks Transport Canada to “investigate the feasibility of requiring ‘side guards’ for large trucks, trailers and buses operated in urban areas to prevent pedestrians and cyclists being run over by the rear wheels in collisions with these large vehicles…” Lucas’s report was issued a decade ago, and riders like Carriere still aren’t bouncing away from the right hook; they’re being dragged under. In Europe, side guards on trucks are standard.
Cycle Paths and Psychopaths
Along one-way cobblestone canal paths, on dedicated bicycle highways, and sharing the roadway with cars, there are tens of thousands of cyclists in Amsterdam. They get their very own traffic lights—with bicycle icons lighting up red or green—in the central core. Dutch city bikes tend to be clunky: hard to lift, uncomfortable to ride over long distances, and forcing riders to sit too far back. (No one in North America would dream of riding such a bike.) But they’re solid, the tires are large, and they don’t break down—in short, they’re perfect for city riding. Couples lazily ride to dinner, formally dressed in suit and gown, he pedalling (usually) and she sitting on the baggage rack. Moms and dads transport kids the same way. No one wears a helmet. Down at Central Station, the confluence of lanes makes the Arc de Triomphe traffic circle in Paris look like the idyll of Manhattan’s Central Park. Amsterdam is inner-city kinetic energy at its finest.
H-i-i-i-i-s-s-s-s-s…a middle-aged woman admonishes a walker for dallying on her bike highway. She’s one of the ones who have taken up cycling later in life, the government’s social engineering having successfully pushed bikes as a way for people, women in particular—Surinamese émigrés and Dutch citizens alike—to become more independent and mobile. She’s learned the rules of the Amsterdam system to the letter, and her message is, don’t get in my way.
Bikes rule Amsterdam. If a car hits you, it’s the driver’s fault. Period. Down these crowded streets, walkers fight through designated traffic lanes—one for bikes, and one each for taxis, regular cars, and the tram. But nothing is perfect. When I tell Paul, our bed and breakfast host, about the supercilious, hissing woman and numerous speed-automaton men—like our slick cab driver from the airport—he says, “Yes, here in Amsterdam we have our cycle paths, and we have our psychopaths.” The system, no matter how ingeniously regulated, is bursting at the seams. Car congestion has given way to a different anxiety: moving through public space that is on the verge of becoming a bike dystopia. I wonder if bikes here have become the new cars; if they are two-wheeled insects, they’re sizable ones, like dragonflies. So what does that make walkers—mosquitoes? Maybe there is something in wheeled motion itself that induces aggressive behaviour.
Down at Central Station, buzzing car and bike traffic rattles Justine, my ten-year-old daughter. She scrapes her hand on my wife’s left brake handle—her second minor bike accident in two days. It’s intense out here for a young girl. The congestion can offer the worst of both worlds: scooter drivers and cyclists whiz by on bicycle highways, with little regard for pedestrians; meanwhile, car traffic is no less dense. Pedestrians are wary, too, and reserve their ire for tourists on bikes who don’t know where they’re going. Teenagers snicker and quack “MacBike! MacBike!” as we parade by on a canal street. We’re fat targets for derision. The MacBike rental company, which has three locations in central Amsterdam, bolts onto its bikes a round metal plate that says “MacBike” in large lettering—mainly to alert pedestrians that you’re an idiot tourist. Around here, “MacBike” is a scarlet letter.
We flee this hornet’s nest of traffic and find refuge in Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s large, leafy inner-city sanctuary. In the days before the classifications yuppie and boomer were coined, hippies used to camp out here and protest the value systems of their parents. We lock up and meander about the park. It’s blissful, but even here the tension winds up. Laura wanders onto the quiet roadway. Suddenly, a middle-aged woman, seated primly, her back straight on her practical machine, heads straight for her. Twenty metres. Should Laura get out of the way? Eighteen metres. What if she moves and the rider veers the same way? Fifteen metres. Better stay put and let the rider go around. Ten metres. This is not happening. Eight metres. It is the rider’s road. Six metres. Rider is determined. Five metres. Rider better break. Four metres. Rider sputters, hisses—three metres—clucks like Mother Goose. Two metres. Guttural noises. One metre. Rider comes to full stop. A look of certain doom is etched on my wife’s face. The rider says, imperiously, “Thank you!” as Laura moves. The rider resumes top cruising speed. Laura heads for the edge of the pond to calm down.
Paul, our B&B owner, says some riders “try to find the absolute shortest way between two points and go as fast as they can. The only thing they respect is the tram, because it is heavy and takes time to stop.” In 1987, the American satirist P. J. O’Rourke theorized that his nation was “afflicted with a plague of bicycles.” Right theory, wrong country, perhaps? Then again, after two weeks any new rider will graduate from naiad to dragonfly and thrive in this cycling ecosystem. Amsterdam’s good councillors organize their chaos with fine attention to detail. They have little space, and less choice. They don’t have the luxury of the Danes in Copenhagen—where bike tracks are gloriously wide and neatly separated from vehicle roadways by shallow brick barriers or marked off with blue paint—but they have succeeded in making their town a bike town.
We head back to North America, to Canada and Toronto, with its enfeebled version of safety for cyclists.
I’m reading participant diaries from web archives of the 2003 inaugural Tour d’Afrique, a four-month-long, 11,900-kilometre course from Cairo to Cape Town. It was completed by thirty-two of thirty-three riders, over half of whom came from Canada. I notice a newspaper clipping on the long table in the middle of my workspace. The Toronto Star article is dated April 21, 2006. “Two cyclists die in separate accidents,” reads the headline. Both riders were on the receiving end of the right hook, inadvertently delivered by large trucks. One was a sixteen-year-old kid, “a jolly little girl,” a neighbour told the reporter. My eyes water; I get up and reel around the room. I taught Justine how to ride, and now can’t avoid the thought: it’s only a matter of time.
“How’s your head? ”
Start assessing the damage. Got seven minutes to meet Deanna at Peter Pan. Left knee’s bruised and bleeding. Hey, what’s that, a pain vector out of my left shoulder. Blood trickling down my leg. Face scraped. Ouch. The cop is halfway through writing up his report.
“Where is the driver of the vehicle? ”
“I don’t know. He’s probably gone.”
The skateboarder offers his cell again, in case I want to phone Peter Pan. I don’t know the number. He helps me lock the bike to a metal signpost. It looks better than I feel—salvageable.
The Good Samaritan bus driver shoves off. He protected the site, and me, until the cop arrived. Suddenly, the officer notices an older man across the street, half a block west. He’s coming toward us. Now he’s leaning the other way, thinking, I suspect, “Hey, did I hit something? Better go back and check. Uh-oh, you know what, maybe I’ll just get back in my van…”
“Just a minute,” the officer says, striding toward the man. “Sir, are you the driver of the vehicle involved in the collision? ”
A conversation ensues. The white van is parked one block west. The driver is in his late fifties, with grey, matted hair and jagged yellow teeth. He doesn’t have his driver’s licence with him, or his vehicle registration or car insurance. He’s written up. Four violations, with failure to negotiate a left turn the most critical. Later, when I appear in court to testify against him, he doesn’t show. Failure to appear means the charges will stand and he’ll be fined several hundred dollars. I sue his insurance company, settling two years later for an amount my lawyer tells me is too low.
That fateful evening, though, I scrape myself off the curb, get into a cab, and make my Peter Pan dinner date. May 27, 2002, is immediately filed in my memory bank as the day I almost bought the farm. I order risotto—no need to cut anything, right?—and drink a martini. Deanne looks at me looking at the waiter. “Bill, you have to go to the hospital,” she says. A command.
At St. Michael’s, X-rays show a nasty spiral fracture of the ulna. The emergency doctor places a cast on my broken right arm. Six weeks later, it’s still there and I’m in my GP’s office. No break was discovered in my left hand, but an acute pain persists. The doctor feels my left hand for a minute, digging around, pinpointing the ache. She orders me across the street and calls radiology, requesting a specific shot. At last, magnified X-rays show the shattered, kidney-shaped scaphoid. This peanut-sized marvel just above the thumb and ahead of the wrist has a notorious ability to break and evade detection. The stealth fracture only shows itself through time and further damage. The doctor phones from her office. “William, you have to get a cast on that left hand. Now.”
I walk out of St. Mike’s after five hours with a fresh plaster cast on my left arm and hand, to complement the scuffed fibreglass model on my right. They want the old cast to stay on for eight weeks instead of six, just to be sure. This means two weeks of double casting. I tell the emergency doctor I’m going to the cottage. “Okay,” he says, “I know your type.” Moulding a beautiful plaster cast around not only my left arm, not only my left hand, but also my left thumb, he tells me to position my left hand as if I’m holding a bottle of beer. “That’s the only thing you’re going to be doing next week,” he says. Great, a humorist, I think.
Now comes the big dilemma: do I leave the hospital in a cab or on a bike? I’d ridden down to the doctor’s office with my damaged left hand and right cast. Truth is, I’ve been back on the bike for a couple of weeks already. The first time, I experienced involuntary tremors in both hands and couldn’t grip the handlebars. The thought—“Maybe I can’t ride again”—shot like a flaming arrow through my mind. My heart pumped madly with the negative energy of failure, but the shakes eventually subsided.
After staring into the brilliant azure of the early-evening sky, I straddle and push off. Sidewalks only. Slow. Victoria and Shuter to Logan and Dundas…what, three klicks? I worry that I could become the target of a Toronto Star slice-of-life photo takeout: “Man with two casts rides bike—what an idiot!” But I carry on. Two blocks short of home, I dismount gingerly—don’t want the neighbours to see me riding with two casts.
I start to see myself in a different light and search for evidence of compulsive behaviour. In his novel The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien writes: “The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycles as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.” Is that it?
But Flann, it’s not just the rocky roadsteads—you forgot the rocky road falls. Not long after the casts came off, I wiped out. I went flying over the handlebars at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning, surging down empty Gerrard Street to my university office. The road was empty except for a student driver, who managed to swing widely left to make a hard right turn, and nearly took me out. To avoid impact, I slammed on the brakes and landed exactly as I had nine weeks before—right hand outstretched, then left. This time, there was no damage. Miraculous.
The following winter, I received my first-ever door prize. I’d just delivered a guest lecture for a friend at night school, and luckily was too tired to ride fast. Still, the driver’s-side door nearly cleaved me in two and cracked a rib. I didn’t pursue legal action—I had no front light. Then, this summer, as my daughter and I charged up a steep bike and pedestrian path, Justine in the lead, she faltered. I hit the brakes, flew over the handlebars, and crashed my left shoulder onto asphalt to avoid landing on top of her. Maybe that white van had sideswiped my ability to avoid crashing; maybe I’m a menace; maybe I shouldn’t be on the road at all, I thought.
Or maybe these skirmishes along the road to man-machine transcendence were anticipated by proto-Dadaist playwright Alfred Jarry, if not by Greg Curnoe. The self-styled pataphysician—a “doctor” of the science of imaginary solutions—fantasized in writing about the power inherent in bike transportation, appending it to his theories of “the supermale.” My friend Siobhan once advised, “Ride more slowly, and your chances of getting hit are reduced significantly.” I took her advice, not the pataphysician’s, but maybe too much so. I went indoors.
On a July afternoon thick with humidity, Scott Robinson barks out commands to a dozen men and women sweating it out on exercise bicycles at the Yorkville Club in Toronto. Scotty, as he is known, is fifty years’ worth of wiry, goateed, Hawaiian-shirt-clad guyness. I’d never taken a spinning class before, but was glad we were each free to establish our own cadences. Soon enough, however, Scotty ordered us to give the tension knobs on our machines a couple of twists, reducing our collective consciousness to fighting through the pain in our legs.
Scotty looks as if he’d rather kick back with a margarita, but by the end of our session he’ll have us believing we’ve climbed all 1,567 metres of Mont Aigoual in the Cévennes and finished the day’s leg on the Tour de France. Later, he tells me he doesn’t think much of fancy-pants racers and their protective pelotons. “I find road riders a little bit girly. They want everything perfect. They want their massages at the end of the day, their nice food, and they want to be able to sleep in a good bed,” he says. Mainly, though, he objects to looking at “ass and rear wheel” for 100 kilometres. Riding involves taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells around you.
We’re sweating profusely, but for the man who finished fourth in the 2003 Cairo–to–Cape Town Tour d’Afrique, it’s “all a matter of putting in the saddle time.” I can almost see the red blips as Scotty’s cycling radar finds my lack of technique. He bellows over ear-splitting music: “You’re not sitting right! You look awkward! You look like you’re in pain!” If Full Metal Jacket had featured a hippie sergeant, his name would’ve been Scotty. “Your arms are stretched out too far! Your seat is too high!” He readjusts my bike on the fly. Suddenly, I’m more balanced and emphasizing the crank and pedals.
Scotty’s not finished his gonzo act: “Use your power! Your arms shouldn’t be doing anything! They’re only for balance!” I’ve been riding for forty-two years and always used my arms. (Later, my wife Laura gently suggests that this is why my left shoulder has been such a wreck for years.) Scotty insists that the middle third of the human body is where the power resides, and, sure enough, I’m feeling a power surge through my midsection. I consciously pump—left-right, left-right—searching for binary precision. I came here to interview Scotty about being a competitive rider, and instead, four years to the week after getting hit, I’m relearning how to ride a bike.
Inside is inside, however, and I need to move, need the freedom of wind in my face, of feeling speed and a certain recklessness. Scotty is an amusing modern archetype, but I’m done with his indoor biking emporium, if not his instructional advice.
Two mornings later, I ride to school. It’s around 9:30, just after rush hour. Not much traffic along Dundas West, so I test Scotty’s theory. Using thighs and midsection—and an assist from a strong westerly—I hunker down and pump the crank of my commuter Miele. All of a sudden, I start moving fast. I hit most of the greens and pop a couple of ambers. I jump streetcar tracks. I anticipate car doors. I fly. One wrong move, and I’m another novice trapeze artist falling, sans net. Acts of everyday transcendence are risky, but the speed is intoxicating, and like the hissing middle-aged woman in Amsterdam, I know the rules of the road.
Suddenly, behind me, two guys half my age blast by me on heavy-duty mountain bikes. As they fly past, one of them looks over and hollers the rider’s rebel yell: “Hammmmerrrrrrr!!!” He flashes an ear-to-ear grin before they veer off to invade the north side of Trinity Bellwoods Park. We share the instant endorphin buzz, but their point is made: cycling is all about pure movement, propelled by something I’m still trying to get a grip on.
Bill Reynolds co-founded the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies.