I used to ride my bicycle to work all the time. Then, thirteen or fourteen years ago, a car knocked me off my bike while I was riding on Bay Street. The car did not stop. I was sufficiently stunned that it took the urging of pedestrians on the sidewalk to get me to stand up and move off the road. That was the last time I rode a bicycle in Toronto.
The expansion of the bicycle network during the pandemic is an incentive to climb back onto a bicycle and make cycling part of my life again. Last week, my son took my old bicycle to “Dave… Fix my Bike” on Christie Street to have it serviced. This week, I picked it up. Dave warned me that I should be wearing a yellow vest all the time, and that cycling in the city is not easy. I just came back from my first excursion and learned that he is right.
I went out very early on Sunday morning, when I thought there would be little traffic. I planned to cycle east along the bicycle path on Harbord Street, then down the new enclosed bicycle track around Queen’s Park, then back along the old bicycle path on College Street, and up Palmerston Avenue to our back laneway. A short jaunt which I figured would be manageable as my first bicycle venture in years. It was manageable, but not without some trauma.
I knew almost immediately when I rode my bicycle up our laneway that the seat was too low. But I had insisted upon that, and was glad of it for the moment. I needed to make sure that I could put my feet on the ground and prevent a fall if I should lose balance.
Once I reached Harbord, I learned that bicycle paths are not without their hazards. The old paths are not protected from traffic and veering out of the bicycle lane is a constant fear. The road surfaces are cluttered with debris, gravel, and even glass, and it’s necessary to beware of potholes. The worst are the streetcar tracks which are a notorious trap for bicycle tires, so much so that even I remember that it is necessary to cross the tracks at a ninety degree angle.
Watching the road is not sufficient. One must also watch for the cars, on the road and also parked or parking. Madly ringing my bell, I was petrified of being doored by any one of the many cars I actually found stopped beside the cycle path. And then there were the other cyclists. Most knew that I was a very slow-moving hazard blocking the path, and passed to avoid me. The occasional one came up behind and we exchanged comments.
Generally, the venture went well, except that my bicycle basket fell off and I had to brake to avoid hitting it. I pulled the bicycle onto the sidewalk, re-attached it and proceeded on my way. But then it fell off again. This time I decided to carry it, held by my left hand over the handle for the front brake, hopefully in a position which did not block my knee as I pedalled. The basket was a pain but I managed to get home without feeling obliged to jettison it. Next time, no basket.
Next time, I will also use the derailleurs and the speed controls to manage the bicycle. This time, I put my right hand on the handle and the rear brake and did the entire trip without changing the controls. At Queen’s Park, the track goes up and then down a little hill. Frozen as I was, without the confidence to let go, I could not take advantage of the bicycle to enjoy the change of pace.
Coming up Palmerston, I was on a small local street which I had to share with passing cars. It’s less reassuring than when riding on a designated bicycle lane or track. At the corner of Ulster Street, I had to make a left turn. I was frightened to make the appropriate hand-signal and asked two women pedestrians if I could make the turn. They assured me that I could. When I explained that I hadn’t been on a bicycle for years, they suggested that I get rid of the basket and raise my seat. Right on.
As I rode down Harbord, it occurred to me that if I were to fall, I would hurt myself and it might take months to get over it. I wondered if I should be doing this. But then I told myself that cycling was on my bucket list and I couldn’t give up. If I did, that likely would be the end of it for me. So I went on. I’m sure that it will get easier. When I ride the ravine tracks and the Leslie Street Spit, I will be happy that I did so.