As I was cursing my ponderous bike lock the other day (it sticks in the cold weather) I realized that I’ve spent 56 years biking in and through this city.
In my twenties, I loved to leave a party at one or two a.m. on a humid summer night, get on my bike and float down through the laneways and sleeping streets of Toronto, feeling weightless, alone and free. Night riding can be so sweet.
Navigating the city on two wheels was still a mildly eccentric habit in the late 1960s, when I started riding—something only students and poets did. My “ladies” bike had three gears and if I forgot to lock it up, well, it was usually still there when I came back. In my thirties, a boyfriend persuaded me to do some long-distance touring—a pedal across the moonscape of Newfoundland, followed by a five-month ride from Mexico down to Peru (the Atacama desert did us in).
Back in Toronto, pushing forty, I continued to commute by bike, and only got a driver’s license when I had my son; transporting giant boxes of diapers suddenly made car ownership less odious.
Meanwhile, the number of cyclists in Toronto was growing. I was soon part of a horde of cyclists in all-weather gear, gliding past lines of drivers in gridlock and trying to convince my non-cycling friends that riding a bicycle in Toronto is actually more pleasant, safe, and efficient than driving, even in the winter. “Uh-huh,” they would respond, while pressing a car key to unlock their Subaru a block away.
Then, in my sixties, I had an accident. On College St., I swerved to avoid some broken glass and a bag slung over my handlebars (bad choice) swung into my spokes. I flew over the handlebars and landed on my jaw and elbow. A stranger, the kind manager of Fran’s restaurant, stayed with me until the ambulance arrived. But things only got serious after surgery on my elbow, when I developed two pulmonary embolisms. That was when being an urban cyclist technically became a life-threatening activity.
The city looked very different after that. For a month, I was back on foot, discovering the perils of being a pedestrian in a city where more and more drivers gun their way through red lights. With a metal plate the size of a wallet installed in my right forearm, I also felt more vulnerable—and older.
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From my new perspective, another phantom Toronto emerged. I knew which subway stations had elevators instead of stairs and I always took advantage of the priority seats on the streetcar (alas, no one seemed surprised by this). I no longer rode the Don Valley bike path because it meant hauling my bike up and down the stairs. Instead of riding to the Leslie Street Spit, I would drive to Ashbridge’s Bay Park and walk around that little peninsula of urban wildness. I craved space. I needed the long view over Lake Ontario, on a regular basis. I would visit the greenhouses of the Allan Gardens and sit in the Arid House, where the cacti grow old very, very slowly. I almost began to look forward to getting an MRI if it would mean passing through the peaceful, airy atrium of Women’s College Hospital.
Now I am 77. I insert my leg through the V of my bike frame rather slowly and deliberately. I have sciatica in my left hip, arthritis in my back, and lately my right foot doesn’t like to bear my weight. Plantar fasciitis? Fifty years of pedaling? I’m not sure.
But despite this, I am still more comfortable riding my bike than walking to the corner or driving in the rapids of rush hour traffic. Even on days when I am creaky in the saddle, at 77, it is still a better feeling to thread through the city on a bike than it is to seethe and brake through Toronto in a car. The fact is, whenever I bike somewhere, I arrive happy. Whenever I drive, I feel claustrophobic and a bit stupid. The older I grow, the more true this becomes.
And the kamikaze element appeals to me as an available form of adventure now that navigating Toronto streets has become a blood sport. The rage out there! I tremble at every intersection, waiting for the SUV panting at my back to carve a right turn under my nose. I do not venture beyond the bike lanes. I curse the orange cones that force me to ride cheek by jowl with cars and their pissed-off drivers. Road surfaces on some residential streets near my home are like mountain passes in Afghanistan, with yawning sinkholes and bits of shattered side mirrors. The “safe space” of the bike lanes has also been compromised by the e-bikes and motorized scooters that whiz by without warning
So I don’t just cycle defensively, I ride in a twitchy near-paranoid state with a facial expression that probably scares the crossing guards.
Yes, I know, the adorable outfit that I ordered online for my granddaughter is in one of those delivery trucks currently clogging the roads. I now contribute to gridlock because I’m not mobile enough to go shopping on foot. I do try to make eye contact with the UPS drivers, sending “This is not your fault” vibes. But if they shave it too close with their impatient right turn, I’ll still slap their door and yell at them, like a 77-year-old female cyclist version of Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, when he limps across the street and a New York taxi tries to crowd him.
“Hey! I’m bikin’ here!”