Origins of a Commuting Cyclist

This is the second in a series of posts leading up to Bike to Work Day – Monday, May 30, 2011

It was 2008, and I was deathly afraid of cycling in the city. Five years had passed since my last bike was stolen at university, and cruising T.O. on two wheels seemed like a bafflingly dangerous ordeal, filled with streetcar tracks, driver’s side doors and potholes.

Despite this, I was beginning to tire of my reliance on the TTC to get me to work, a commute of only four subway stops. With ridership rising on the Rocket, picking up a train south of Bloor during rush hour was an increasingly daunting task.

My interest in cycling started to pique when I discovered that several coworkers had abandoned their Metropasses in favour of full-time bike commuting from points afar – all the while taking advantage of the bike closet and shower facility at our office in the St. Lawrence Market area.

Aaron Hay and his commuter bike

In light of these combined factors, I thought to myself: the only way I would ever know if I could cycle in the city every day was to force myself to do it for two weeks straight.

I didn’t want to spend much cash to get the apparatus necessary to perform this highly scientific experiment, so I turned to Craigslist in the search for a steed. In no time, I turned up a gem: a 1982 Eaton’s recreational commuter in pristine condition. With a suspended comfort seat, six speeds, glassy chrome fenders, an original bell, and lacking a single fleck of rust, this happy cruiser fit the bill perfectly. For the princely sum of $125, I was the proud owner of a decidedly hipster-ish ride.

For those first few days on the road, I treaded carefully and gingerly, veering far away from the gush of wind created by every passing car. I relearned my signals, wore my helmet and gleaned the safest route to my office. In less than a week, however, I had gained a sense of confidence I never thought possible; by week two, I had fallen in love with my city all over again. No longer confined by underground tunnels, plodding streetcar routes and short-turns, I found myself zipping across the city daily, visiting friends, neighbourhoods and shops I previously loathed to trek to.

I quickly discovered something that many cyclists sadly seem to miss: Respect the rules, check all angles every few seconds, make substantial eye contact, and by golly, drivers will generally respect you, too! By using the stop line at traffic lights, signalling my intentions, and making substantial efforts to pass on the left, I found that drivers gave plenty of leeway and rarely encroached on my safe space. Cycling in the city can be safe – it’s just the omnipresent group of cyclists that raise themselves above the rules of the road that make it look dangerous. Unfortunately, my bubble of two-wheeled goodwill didn’t extend to taxis, a kind of vehicle that still makes me nervous to this day.

On the other (counterintuitive) hand, TTC drivers were instant best friends. These professionals appreciate diligent eye contact and signalling more than anyone else. It stunned me to learn that I could establish a block-by-block relationship with a transit driver, and even use the streetcar or bus as a shield against the traffic in my lane.

Despite my instantaneous love affair with cycling and the city, my buoyant confidence has been shaken once or twice. I’ve never had a vehicular collision, but my surprising run-ins with slippery, rain-drenched streetcar tracks have led to disaster. My worst encounter knocked me over my handlebars, ripped my clothes apart and left me limping for weeks. These tracks, a constant presence in the downtown cyclist’s everyday commute, have commanded my rapt attention ever since.

And how about that Eaton’s commuter special? Well, I think this bike is one of the principal reasons why the illustrious department store chain went bust. This cheerful piece of junk couldn’t stop with even a mere hint of moisture in the air – my feet were more useful than the binders themselves. Although the ride was pleasant enough, the chain constantly jammed up in the uber-cheap Shimano gear set. I think the oversized, pants-saving chrome fenders were the best thing about this laughable ride.

Eventually, I found myself riding far faster than what the design of the Eaton was ever intended to allow, and I wore the whole chassis out within a single year. I am now the proud owner of a gloriously durable, hunkered-down KHS touring commuter that takes the beating of tracks and potholes and gets me everywhere, fast. (Coincidentally, today also marks the first day I’ve used the ingenuity of the BIXI public bike system to commute to work.)

I’m now a seriously dedicated urban cyclist, leg straps, helmet lights and all. Thinking back to 2008, when I first experimented with cycling in Toronto, I can’t help but laugh at my own naiveté.

Aaron Hay, Program Advisor, Smart Commute

About Smart Commute
Commuter benefits program for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

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