If you’re anything like me and haven’t used your bike as a means of transportation since you were in grade school, then hold onto your handle bars; the cycling culture has changed a bit since we were kids.
Two months ago I was driving my car up a gentle mid-town incline when the accelerator began to choke, sending clouds of blue smog billowing out the tailpipe. Within an hour, my car was up on the hoist at our dealership, receiving its dismal diagnosis: defective crank case, possible new piston rings and head gasket, blah, blah, car talk, car talk. What was clear to me was the fact that I was going to have to find an alternate means of transportation until the coverage on my warranty, painstakingly outlined in 6pt font, could actually be deciphered, and hopefully, bled dry.
Having enrolled in a few courses at the University of Toronto this spring, I had already traded in my purse for a knapsack, so the car debacle presented an opportunity for me to further play the part of the student by cycling to school. In fact, I could score a few points for the environment and my waistline, simply by getting myself from point A to point B. Granted, it had been years (decades?) since I’d ridden my bike through city traffic, but surely it would come back to me, like … well, like riding a bike!
So I took my trustee steed in to our local tandem shop and ordered a long-overdue tune up. I had hoped they’d be able to raise my seat at the same time, but I was told that it was permanently stuck in that position due to its being an aluminum post wedged into a steel frame, and the molecular structure of metals fusing together over time, and blah, blah, bike talk, bike talk. If the science eluded me, the circus clown feeling of riding with my knees splayed out to the side has certainly, since then, drilled the point home; not a good look for a grown woman, particularly in a skirt.
But I needed wheels fast, so until I could afford to replace the bike, I’d just have to deal with the height restriction. If my cycling stance was going to garner stares, so be it. It would have nothing on the ridiculously oversized, aerodynamic headgear that was about to upstage it.
When I was a kid, we rode up and down the neighbourhood streets all day long without bike helmets, and nobody seemed to care. The only armour I rode with was my mother’s protective warning, yelled from front door to my friends and me, as we’d hop on our bikes for the day: “Watch out for cars on the busy streets, dears!”
Nowadays it’s deemed veritable child abuse to send your kid up the sidewalk on a scooter without a skull casing. And yes, I’ll admit I cringe every time I force my own noggin into that hard plastic shell, even in spite of my support for cranial safety. But it is, after all, the politically correct thing to do in this new cycling millennium, so I’m onboard with it. It’s just that they look so … foreboding. I find I obsess over my head’s capacity to smash like a pumpkin onto hard pavement far more when I’m wearing my bike helmet than I do at other times.
Not that I think about it at other times.
(Perhaps they should add a chin-strap and face cage to the basic helmet model?)
In any event, ever since my car died, I’ve discovered a whole new appreciation for the rights of downtown cyclists. I no longer grimace at the appearance of bike lanes, but rather celebrate the civil liberties represented therein to people of pedal. However, as a reformed motorist and born-again cyclist, not to mention an occasional pedestrian, I’m still trying to figure out my rightful place on the road at any given time.
Case in point: last week’s crosswalk incident. As I was approaching an intersection, the traffic light turned yellow, so I slowed my speed to await the left hand turn I was about to make. But instead of stopping, I made an immediate left into the crosswalk, and pedalled leisurely through it, for the sake of forward motion (I just lost all you hardcore cyclists, didn’t I?)
As I approached the curb, a car making its right turn over the crosswalk, rushed the corner intentionally to cut me off. I jammed on my brakes, narrowly missing the driver’s side door then stared in disbelief as he rolled his tinted window down and spat “the crosswalk’s for pedestrians, (expletive)!” Wow. Well thanks so much for nearly killing me to make that point, Mr. Safety Patrol. Somehow I think my fellow cyclists could have made it with far less militancy.
Or perhaps not. I will say I’ve noticed a slight radicalism in the demeanor of some road racers; you know, the spandex crew who ride with whistles in their mouths, frantically blowing as they approach from behind, shouting “PASSING ON THE LEFT!!” as they whiz by in 78th gear.
Yeah, I heard you coming. Thanks.
I swear I’m not misty eyed for all things 20th century, but it does make me long for a time when this city wasn’t so fast-paced and politically correct.
Then the other day, as I was riding home through a series of residential streets, I passed a woman in a paisley sundress riding her bike with neither shoes on her feet nor a helmet on her head. Her soft brunette tresses danced in the breeze as she glided along, and I envied her freedom, her allegiance to the past.
I also thought she was nuts.
I love riding my bike. It makes me feel unabashedly happy, even with the constricting social norms of today’s biking culture. So to those open cranial radicals who choose to buck the system, even in the face of social reprise, I tip my helmet … or hand signal you.
Just watch out for cars on the busy streets, dears.