On December 1, I’m once again at City Hall in my cycling gear. This time there are no surprised looks from staff: I’m here to see Glenn De Baeremaeker, a confirmed cyclist. Behind Glenn’s desk is a framed newspaper clipping. It features a photo of Glenn on his bike, but more importantly, a map of his commute. The story is fittingly entitled “The Road Less Travelled”. I haven’t met many people who travel in from Glenn’s riding, which is in Scarborough Centre.
The day is overcast but not overly cold. Glenn shakes my hand warmly and apologizes for not having ridden in today; he’s looking at a long work day, one of only a handful of days that require Glenn to drive his car into work.
Unless the temperature dips below -20 C—the point at which gears freeze and you’re left with a single-speed—Glenn commutes the twenty kilometres from the McCowan/Eglinton district.
“Slow and steady,” he grins at me. Glenn is my age: fifty-five.
In 2003, Glenn was elected to represent ward thirty-eight. The first week he was elected, it took him forty minutes to drive a kilometre from the level P2 in City Hall’s parking garage. “This is insane!” he thought, and pulled out the bike when he got home. Now, he leaves the house at 7:00 a.m. The route includes Swanwick, Dundas and Shuter, plus an intricate network of sidestreets. He prefers these streets because they’re lined with hundred-year-old oak trees.
“How long does your commute take?” I ask, wondering if I’d even attempt it.
“In the summer, it takes me fifty-five minutes to ride into work and exactly sixty-eight minutes to ride home,” Glenn tells me, with an emphasis on the word “exactly”. We grin at each other. “In winter,” he continues, “the times are seventy-five and ninety minutes, respectively. The city’s on a west-to-east/south-to-north incline, so I mostly coast on the ride in. On the way home, I do a decompress past the Beach area, and then I start my hillwork. The last big hill—a killer!—is at Birchmount, where I sometimes have to stand on the pedals to get home.”
“What about stop times?” I ask. He must hit a lot of lights along the way.
“None of us likes to stop,” he responds playfully. Glenn likes to toy with the traffic lights, pacing his approach to a light rather than stopping. “How far can I go without putting my foot down?” he muses. Once in town, there are always other cyclists playing the same game. “We’re like a herd of… gazelles! We glide to the red light and then take off as a pack!”
Glenn describes himself as a Type A personality; he wants to get to work quickly, and yet there’s a park at Dundas and Greenwood where he takes about forty-five seconds to slow down and watch the dogs, the Tai Chi, the people kicking a soccer ball around.
“You can see the sun glinting,” he says, “hear leaves rustle, see the beauty of the frost… it’s just a dog park but it’s so amazing! You can move slowly enough through neighbourhoods that you absorb the community.”
Years ago when he was commuting on the Martin Goodman Trail, a woman joined him and asked, “What path do I take to get downtown?” They had a companionable ride across the Beach. When they reached the river, she turned to Glenn. “Today is my first day of cycling in a year and a half.” Her husband had died and her life had fallen apart. She took a year off to grieve. “Today, I’m starting over,” she shared. Glenn suggested they take an off-road path through the neighbourhood, where they parted at the Hummingbird Centre. She turned to him and exclaimed, “I love this! I’m going to do it every day now!”
“It was such a random meeting,” Glenn tells me, “where you can touch people, you can see the colour of their eyes.”
He also now makes it a policy to stop at lemonade stands. He likes seeing the kids’ faces when they get a sale. His favourite line to them is, “If I give you a loonie, can I have two glasses?” Their eyes widen at the entrepreneurial potential. “My commute, which used to be a burden and frustrating, is now a pure joy.”
When Glenn visits his doctor, he’s always told his blood pressure is perfect. Glenn describes himself as average, but the nurses can tell he exercises by his test results. To anyone who has the option of cycling to work, he recommends his election platform: “Spread love and good karma.”
“The year I got elected, the city installed one kilometre of bike lanes,” he says. In those days, people thought bike lanes were for hippies. “The seven years under David Miller were glorious! There should be a Kiss a Cyclist Day!” Glenn enthuses, because of the positive impact cycling has on this city. He shares a recently released statistic, that there were thirty thousand taxpayers a day riding bikes in downtown Toronto. “We’re hitting that critical mass!” Glenn tells me excitedly.
Even in Scarborough, he’s seeing cyclists east of Victoria Park now, where before he was alone. I’ve only met one person who rides in from there, but her story is extraordinary.
Lucy Perri has been tracking how far she rides each day since 1994. Last year, she reached a big goal: the fifty thousand kilometre mark. “Did I know what that is?” she’d asked me. Fifty thousand kilometres is the size of the circumference of the earth. Lucy, a fifty-nine-year-old from Scarborough, has circumnavigated the planet.
Glenn has an unusual idea for improving the city.
“Toronto would be better if we had thirty thousand people as happy as me!” he says, laughing. Glenn describes Toronto as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, one where we should strive to find that connection to each other.
“There are some grumpy, prickly people,” Glenn admits, “but that glass of lemonade can change you.”
“We haven’t talked about your bicycle,” I remind him gently. Glennn looks embarrassed.
“It’s a Norco. Black. That’s all I know,” he responds, looking at his desk.
I love this. Glenn, who spends a couple of hours a day on his bike, who loves the benefits of it and the challenge of getting from there to here in good time, who enjoys interacting with the community as he travels, has no idea what he uses to accomplish all this. He just knows that it works. And that’s good enough for both of us.