Having lunch at the Tik Talk Cafe on Harbord Street with my friend Chris Chopik, I realize quickly that he’s not his usual sunny self. His dimples are missing, and his eyes are not sparkling playfully as they usually do. Chris is forty, although you wouldn’t guess it. His perspective always includes a fun element, but not today.
There’s existentialist angst bubbling around inside me,” he explains. We need to talk about bikes, and now: I’ve got to get my friend out of this mood. Unfortunately, bikes might be a bittersweet choice for him just now.
Chris explains that he recently had a bicycle stolen. “When I saw the empty space, I was so sure the karmic universe wouldn’t take my bike.” So sure in fact that he asked his wife to drive past the St. Clair West subway station to see if he’d left it there. He hadn’t. Now, he has anger-release fantasies about unlocking that bike. This is not the Chris I know.
When I moved into my neighbourhood, someone commented, “That’s the green corner!”The people there want to make a difference and aren’t concerned about getting odd reputations. Chris Chopik lived a stone’s throw from my back yard. We’d share advice on rain barrels, or we’d discuss herbs. We were fanatical about LEAF and bikes.
“Do you have other bikes?” I ask, hoping to distract him from his loss.
The other bike Chris rides is a Strida. Stridas are folding bikes that stand modestly and unobtrusively in a corner, but at a moment’s notice become a sturdy and reliable mode of transportation. The Strida is bright green, a colour I always ethically associate with him; its smooth, simple lines are symbolic of his lifestyle.
While teaching a realtor’s course in Muskoka (on climate change and building design, he explains), one of the participants approached him to introduce her husband, the Canadian distributor for Strida bikes; Chris had been salivating over Stridas in magazines but unable to order one. With this unexpected introduction, Chris immediately ordered a Strida. When it arrived, he carried it to the train station in a bag and headed to Montreal for a business trip. There, his “green building pals” hopped on BIXIs while he pulled his Strida out of its bag, locked the pieces into position and joined them.
The Strida’s unusual design draws a lot of attention. Pre-teen boys see him on it and shout out, “Dude! Sick bike!” At conferences, people ask him, “How does that work?”
One of his friends has an amusing description of seeing Chris out on the Strida, in traffic. “You see this guy on a cell phone, and he looks like he’s walking fast, beside traffic. Then, he comes out from behind the parked cars and his legs are pumping up and down and his pant legs are rolled up, and you realize he’s on a bike.”
The Stride uses a belt drive, so there’s no grease. Everything folds up so you can even carry this very practice bike onto the subway through the turnstiles.
When Chris first got it, he rode about a hundred and twenty kilometres a week. “I was riding the hell out of it,” he says—a little like the lack of respect a kid shows his BMX bike.“Basically, I was trying to break it during the warranty period.”
Something is still niggling at Chris. His smile has faded again.
“Tell me about your career,” I ask. Chris has been a real estate agent for nine years. He’s told me he rides a bike to work, though it doesn’t seem possible. But yes, sometimes he has ridden to house showings. In fact, one client insisted.
“There was snow up to the hubs but it was totally fun,” he grins. Besides, you gain valuable insight from the perspective of a bicycle. “On a bike, you can … sense the neighbourhood.” Chris still has his realtor’s license, but he no longer practices. He now works for Evolution Green, consulting on sustainability and energy conservation issues.
“I want to be a transformative force in the industry, sharing my knowledge about rebuilding, and trying to demonstrate what’s possible.” Then the reason for his angst hits me when he says, “Doing what I like is perceived as not possible.” He looks away. “We aren’t making enough of a difference fast enough.”
And while people like us continue to try, others continue to doubt. “We live in an age of heretics. The only way to look at the current capitalist system is ‘The world is flat.’” Chris believes it’s highly probable that the human species will be extinct soon. He’s miserable at this thought.
“Well, why keep trying, then?” I ask.
“I keep trying because the other choice is to stop existing,” Chris explains. He suggests that I consider a rather interesting philosophical viewpoint. “There are great people through history, and you are either a great person or not. If not, then it doesn’t matter what role you take on.” He looks across at me and says, “I can’t believe my life is so meaningless and I’m so powerless that my life is reduced to repetitive motions and hedonism.”
I share with him some of the stories I’ve heard this year, and how cyclists are making a difference just by being on the road. His grin reappears again, momentarily.
“Why do we ride?” I encourage gently. “If the roads are as dangerous as some people think it is, and the infrastructure so insufficient, if we are as despised as all that, why do we continue?”
“Riding a bike is like owning a motorcycle,” Chris says. “It’s about putting on a warrior suit and taking calculated risks. I take these risks because it’s a dopamine source, like falling in love! And then there’s the youthfulness factor. We glow.”
“There must be more to it than that,” I argue.
Chris tries to explain it through his son. “My three-year-old thinks his bike is the most significant [badge] of independence for the next fifteen years.” Maybe we ride because the alternative is to risk losing our independence. To most cyclists, it feels dangerous to allow others to time our arrivals and departures, to speak on our behalf, to give up control of the mundane decisions. We ride because we want to be ourselves.
Chris’s wife is waiting. “Ciao bella,” he whispers to me, the promise of future philosophical discussions offered in his laughing eyes.
After he leaves, I look out the front window. The owner of my bike shop, Rob Bateman, has just walked past. Albert de Ciccio is setting up his Bike Geek Boutique Xmas Event at the Chill ‘n Go. There are many, many people cycling past on Harbord.
Chris is not striving to be great. He’s okay with drawing attention to the environmental cause by wearing bright green ties and cycling around town on an unconventional bike. And, of course, by working for Evolution Green. Chris wants to be more than meaningless, to leave a positive impact. To do good, to live honourably and gently, and with wisdom. He rides a bike with intent.
Why do we ride? I think I know why I ride. I ride because I want to be outside, to engage in community, to feel that life is good. But I don’t know for sure.
Why is the sky blue? Maybe it’s enough to know that it is, and to protect that knowledge and the blueness of it as if our lives depended on it. Maybe we ride because the alternative is too awful to consider. Or maybe, as in the words of singer Coco Love Alcorn, we ride because “it’s the sweetest way to get to B I’ve found.”