Norman Lee has brought his friend Bernard Yeung to the Beaches Grill on a snowy, overcast Saturday morning. He feels Bernard has some good bike stories for me. Bernard’s stories are inspiring, but more interesting to me is that he’s the first interviewee to bring up a very important issue: safety.
Bernard’s in his early forties and has been cycling all his life, much of that here in Toronto. When he was in school in the ’80s, he regularly rode with a twelve-person cycling team, doing seventy-five-kilometre circuits between Yonge/Steeles to Highway 7 and across to the Metro Zoo. In those days, Highway 7 was virtually untravelled, so the team often used it as part of the practice. Bernard tells me how those smooth rides often averaged a speed of thirty kilometres per hour.
“What kind of bike did you ride?” I asked, curious.
“I was riding a Raleigh with a Double-Butted Reynolds 555RSL steel frame,” he tells me, “and because we were competing, I reduced the weight from twenty-five to twenty pounds.” The jersey below is one of his trophies.
Dreaming of being an industrial designer, Bernard moved to Ottawa to study at Carleton. He rode a bike there too, despite the temperatures dipping to minus forty degrees Celsius. To this day, Bernard maintains a place in Ottawa: two bikes live there permanently. Toronto being his principle address, three bikes reside here.
Bernard trains in all weathers, even hail. When I look up concerned, he tells me a simple yet touching story of how he became safety conscious.
“In high school, I was riding along a city street with a team of cyclists, when a truck clipped one of our riders from behind, killing him,” Bernard tells us, soberly. “It devastated the team.” Bernard sits forward in his seat over his eggs. “In all weathers,” he states, “at all hours you have to be aware of the traffic around you, and you must be visible to everyone. This is what I call survival riding.”
We get into a political discussion. Because he’s travelled extensively, Bernard has lots of cycling experiences against which to compare cycling in Toronto.
“Oregon,” he says, “is very bike friendly, as is Europe. Toronto is evolving nicely. David Miller understood us and put a lot of thought into the infrastructure and the cycling philosophy at City Hall. Unfortunately, the roads are still pretty bad. As a cyclist with a competitive mindset, I have to focus on the street at all times, because there are cars, potholes and pedestrians everywhere. You have to ride defensively to stay alive.”
Norman and I agree. Depending on the street, you do have to be on the alert all the time. Torontonians aren’t automatically expecting cyclists on the road.
As he’s aged, Bernard has become more alert to his own safety.
“My paradigm’s shifted because I now worry about dependents and lifelong friends, and how they’d be affected if I were in an accident.” Others have a vested interest in Bernard’s life. “Luckily, Miller started a momentum to safer infrastructure which,” Bernard comments, “if it continues should bring down the numbers of cyclists visiting emergency rooms.” Bernard lives in the Beach area and sees a lot of doorings along Queen Street because parking is such a problem. People spend a lot of time searching for a spot; when they finally get one, they’re already in a hurry to park.
One of Bernard’s bikes is a recumbent! On recumbent bikes, the cyclist reclines as he or she cycles. Rather than leaning into or over the handlebars, the handlebars sort of reach back to the cyclist, making it a much more comfortable ride. Further, the cyclist sits further back on the bike, rather than over the pedals, giving the rider a sense of less stability. This perception is nonsense if you’ve ever ridden a recumbent, but it persists. For Bernard, recumbent riding is restricted to certain areas of town because the bike is slightly wider than a regular bike and lower to the ground, and for that reason he considers it not as safe.
“When I find myself compromised on the road, I can’t just hop the curb or turn a corner quickly.” he concludes.
We agree that drivers should be educated on the needs of every commuter, no matter what their choice of vehicle. If multiple vehicle types are sharing the road, the Highway Traffic Safety Act and the Driver’s Handbook—the second of which is required reading when taking a driver’s test—should reflect this. Yet these guides hardly recognize bikes as part of the mix. Further, existing drivers are not required to update their knowledge, despite the fact that so many variables exist and can easily change. I took my driver’s test back in the ’70s and wasn’t asked a single question about bikes. I’d been driving oblivious, despite being an avid cyclist, until my son started taking driving lessons ten years ago. He got me thinking about the cyclists in the bike lane because the good people at Young Drivers of Canada had drilled it into him.
We then get into an interesting discussion on public space regarding the cycling community’s needs.
“I lived in Willowdale for a few years,” I tell Bernard and Norman, “and you can’t get across the 401 safely. Hogg’s Hollow is a big challenge, because vehicular traffic is gearing up to get onto the 401, or conversely, not ready to give up the speed of the 401.”
The guys agree with me that travelling across the 401 anywhere in Toronto is tricky, and they wonder what the best solution is. “Cycling north of the downtown core is like heading into No Man’s Land,” Bernard says, shaking his head.
“I know it’s wrong, but I always use the sidewalk when I’m riding north in Hogg’s Hollow,” I tell them. “And one afternoon, I watched two bike police do exactly the same thing. That made me feel vindicated.”
“I wonder why we can’t be more flexible for couriers downtown,” Bernard comments. “They might be travelling two hundred metres to their next delivery, and yet they have to cycle on the road!”
“I know!” I agree. “So many couriers do deliveries in the core, it would shut down if they couldn’t do their jobs. You’d think we’d want to make it easier for them.”
Just before we finish our breakfast, Bernard and I get into a discussion on the weather.
“Everyone should just adapt to the Canadian climate,” Bernard says, laughing. “We just need to learn to be more confident outside, just like people are in other countries.”
I wonder at our diversity, and how it hasn’t rubbed off on us more.
“I think,” Bernard argues with some hesitation, “that it’s because we hit a wall trying to get everyone to agree on something, precisely because there are so many cultures. Each culture comes with its own practices.”
And of course, we’re not all as brave, nor do we have so many life experiences as what Bernard has collected.