So, I’ve been busy. This was the month I finally caught up with several people whose bike stories already inspire. Interspersed with these well-known names are several people you may not know yet, but I urge you to read their stories also. I have begun to openly weep at interviews, because all these stories demonstrate a genuine desire to strengthen the cycling community. Their stories are forthright, kind, and full of warmth and charm. I applaud them all, and am honoured to have met each of them.
On a grey day in November, I was invited to the CSI Annex, where I met with Mike Brcic of Sacred Rides. Sacred Rides takes people out on mountain bikes, partly to teach them the skills required, but more to help them reconnect with nature. The name of the company reflects for Mike that biking is a sacred activity. It is how you connect with wilderness, with yourself, with the universe. It is about reconnecting with countries and cultures, and it is about doing things that tangibly improve the country you visit. Sacred Rides has been voted Number One Mountain Bike Tour Company by National Geographic Adventure magazine.
Further, Mike has started another project, Bikes Without Borders. “I try to imagine what the bike can be in a global context, to drive the betterment of the world.” Here in Canada, a bike is recreation or a commuter vehicle. We do not see outside that box. In Malawi, a bike is the difference between life and death. He shared meaningful stories of how a bike has changed lives in other countries. There was nothing grey about this meeting.
Immediately after accompanying the ghost bike for Jenna Morrison, I had breakfast with Dave Meslin, or Mez as everyone knows him. When I ask him about his bike, he says that while he loves it, well “we have a relationship, but it’s purely professional.”
And when I ask him what makes him tick, he directs me to his Ted Talk. It was renamed The Antidote to Apathy, which Mez says misses the point: in his mind, apathy doesn’t exist. Mez believes everyone wants to help but they are waiting for a defining moment—a beam from heaven or a friend’s intervention—where they know they are called to action. Mez doesn’t wait. When he sees a need, he quietly gathers a team and they step in. Mez has done this several times in recent memory. He has worked closely with both Tooker Gomberg and the ARC, bringing attention to how cyclists, drivers and pedestrians interact on Toronto streets. Mez and a team started the Toronto Cyclist’s Union and dandyhorse magazine. He and his high school friend Matthew Blackett started something called the Public Spacing Committee, from which the Spacing magazine was launched. There are lots of other stories, some of which I’ve captured. It was very inspiring. So much so that, just as at the ghost bike ride we used the human megaphone to be heard, so I now want to be one of Mez’s human megaphones, broadcasting the astute and timely messages as he sees them.
Later that afternoon, I was in a backyard shop listening to a good friend of mine describe his passion for building art from bicycle parts. His creations range from dinosaurs to gyroscopes to pedal-powered blenders. These are powerful reminders that a bike can be whatever you believe it to be.
This man is an ex-courier, and his take on the bike is extremely pragmatic, but his love for his wheels is tangible. I’m very glad to be born with artistic bones in my body, just as he is.
That night, I was inside Mountain Equipment Co-op as they were locking the doors. The bike mechanics and some of the sales staff had agreed to share a pizza with me, and to tell me some of their bike stories. The men and women who stayed after work are passionate about their co-op and passionate about bikes. MEC staff are very assured of their role in society and their place on the planet, and they are all genuinely eager to draw others into that confidence. You too can live sustainably.
The bike shop crew assure me that they don’t want to take business from the other shops and that they steer customers to more specialized stores frequently. They are into building relationships in the city. These young men and women are also pretty avid road cyclists. One has recently come back from a trip to Halifax. He cycled there from here. Two of them toured Prince Edward County last month, doing 60 – 80 KMs a day. Another toured Haliburton and Point Pelee. When I say avid, I mean avid. They don’t just sell bikes. They have personal experience cycling.
This Wednesday, I met with Alex Jansen, one of the people responsible for bringing us the book Kenk: A Graphic Portrait. The book was produced and conceived by Alex Jansen, assisted by filmmaker/designer Jason Gilmore, writer Richard Poplakit and illustrator Nick Marinkovich. Now, why would I want to interview Alex, you ask? Well, for one thing Kenk is still very much a part of our Toronto cycling landscape. The look of horror I see whenever I ask how people feel about their bikes being stolen is universal. I wanted to understand how and why Kenk has made such an impact on us. While I can’t pretend to understand it all, Alex was very helpful in explaining what he witnessed, and the impact Igor Kenk made on him. And I must also add here that I actually have a very nice Kenk story in the book. Don’t think it’s possible? If there is one lesson this project has taught me, it’s ‘Be careful not to make assumptions.’
Curious? (I bet you are!) Visit http://thumbshift.wordpress.com/2010/03/09/kenk-graphic-novel/
I had my Skype session this week with the extraordinary Michael Barry Jr., and a more approachable and down-to-earth individual I have not met. Michael and his family live in Girona, Spain so a face-to-face interview was not possible.
A quick google search reveals that Michael is a professional road racing cyclist with the UCI ProTour team Team Sky, although he has also raced with the US Postal Service/Discovery Channel team and the Saturn Cycling Team. In 2010, Michael Barry was a member of Team Sky’s Tour de France team.
In 2005 he wrote Inside the Postal Bus, describing his experiences riding with Lance Armstrong. He and his wife Dede Demet Barry (an American female cycle racer, six times U.S. champion) wrote a training book. His third book, Le Metier, provides insights into the life of a support rider. I bought this last book (giddy to note it had been autographed) when I interviewed his father. Michael is also a perceptive, intelligent and generous blogger.
Did we talk about the life of an elite athlete? Well, a little. Did we discuss the Tour de France? Not really. Cycling with names like Lance Armstrong and Steve Bauer? Only to describe how young a bike keeps you. No, we talked about the impact a bicycle has made on Michael’s life as a person, how “my best memories are with my family on a bike.” Michael tells me that, regardless of whether he has ridden 2 KM or 250 KM, at the end he feels elated and refreshed. He feels like a kid and he hopes that feeling never ends.
Don’t know the name Michael Barry? It’s okay, I didn’t either until I started this project, but it comes up over and over and… well, visit http://michaelbarry.ca. How is this a Toronto story? Michael was raised here. He rode the Sunnyside hills and the Bayview extension, pretending he was riding the Tour de France. And one day, he did. More than that though, whenever he comes back, to him it still feels like home.
That same afternoon, I enjoyed tea with Laurel Atkinson from Not Far From the Tree (NFFTT) a charity that combines two of my favourite things: trees and bicycles. NFFTT is not a typical charity model. Home owners contact NFFTT to indicate they have fruit that can be harvested, which is then shared by the community. The home owner is given a third of the harvest, the harvesters (called supreme gleaners) take home a third, and the final third is donated to some of the most marginalized in our city. How is this a bike story? All equipment and all fruit are transported across the city by cargo bikes. Laurel describes it as a spectacle whenever she is out with a load of fruit. People wave and smile. When neighbours see the supreme gleaners out, they stop and ask whether the fruit is alright to eat and then offer assistance. NFFTT creates communities organically, just by being visible.
That night, I was listening to an old friend describe how he has just gotten into road racing, hoping to push his 40 year old body closer to the shape it was in when he was an elite swimmer, as a youth. He is delighting in monitoring his statistics, and in how he can compare his stats with those of others on Strava, an online tracking program. When I tell him some of the names and ages of people I have interviewed, and describe their recent accomplishments to him, he is thrilled. “Being that I’m new to the sport, I like hearing that I have years to enjoy it.” I tell him there should be no excuses to getting out on a bike and doing whatever it is that you want to do.
My last interviewee this week was a 13 year-old man I met at the ghost bike ride. I could hardly believe his age when he told me and was pleased that he was willing to tell me his bike story. This young man came, not because he knew Jenna or even because he was moved by the tragedy of the situation. He came because his parents, both cyclists themselves, announced their intention to ride with the mass that morning. His father had said that “more people need to show up to get better biking in Toronto.” More people. He didn’t say, “more advocates” or “more adults” or “more people from this or that cycling aesthetic.” More people. And this young man came. This young man was one of approximately 2000 people who came to demonstrate that we in Toronto believe cycling should be safe and accessible. He came and I believe his coming made a difference.
Here is his really awesome bike, which he and his dad just built this fall. I am proud to have ridden alongside this bicycle and this cyclist.
I bet you wish you had my job. I love being me! (in case that needs to be stated.)