On Friday, Laurie Featherstone, of Featherstone Two-Wheeled Green Delivery, asked me to help her make several deliveries of 2013 Toronto bike maps, to bicycle shops in the west end of town. For the number of boxes required, the assistance of a second bike—hauling a second trailer of boxes—meant she’d only have to do one trip. I agreed, because it meant a little income for me, and a chance to try riding with a trailer. What I didn’t take into account was the chance to watch Laurie in action, the best outcome of the three, by far.

Laurie met me at my house to hook up a modest little trailer of hers to my bike. The hitch was a really simple design: it bolts directly into the rear axle and rotates as you change directions or go round corners. I was relieved at the timing: Miss Jackson got a complete rear wheel overhaul just this week, so I wasn’t worried that she couldn’t handle the load. We checked the axle a couple of times during the trip across: solid.

My bike was easy to cycle with no weight on her back axle. We put my backpack into the trailer on the way from my house to City Hall, where we collected the boxes. The backpack, with a bike lock in it, weighed down the trailer and kept it from bouncing around. The trailer made a little more noise going over bumps in the road, but was generally quiet and happy to come along.

We loaded the trailers underground. Our day would require twenty-six boxes (one hundred maps to a box), which meant eight in my trailer and a whopping eighteen in hers. Because the ramp out of the loading area is steep, Laurie took three loads up the ramp, with eight+ boxes each load. We figured each box weighed about ten pounds, so her load up the ramp was about eighty pounds, tough on the axle and an endurance feat for the cyclist. Being an ex-national rower, Laurie has what it takes. I don’t (but she didn’t ever suggest this.) Here I am between Laurie’s monstrous load and my little half-pint load.

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I now see the value of granny gears. The entire trip today was done in gears I hardly ever use, but for which I was thanking the bike gods over and over.

As I took off to Bay Street for my maiden voyage, I was aware of the now-toiling trailer behind me. “ka-CHEE! ka-CHEE!” it whined as I took off slowly, and then, “ka-chee-chee-chee-chee-chee” as I moved slightly faster.

The trip up Bay street was a lesson in experience. It’s all slightly uphill, and every time we came to a red light, I met a challenge. First, I like to place my foot on the curb, and then push off from there. With a loaded trailer behind you, you can’t do that without a trailer wheel becoming entangled slightly with the curb at push-off. Next, you have to be uber-cautious where you stop: if a trailer wheel falls into even a slight crack or indentation in the pavement, it’s a superhuman effort getting momentum to restart. Twice, I had to use my entire body to force the most meagre momentum before climbing back onto the pedals.

The ride across Bloor Street was also challenging. The pavement is incredibly uneven and potholed. You travel around as many sewer holes and cracks as you can, listening fearfully to the creaking and groaning of the now fully loaded trailer, unwillingly following behind.
“ka-chee-chee thunk! smack! ka-chee-chee-chee!” it complained.

Loads change your cycling momentum, too. As you speed up, you can feel a drag. When you stop, you can feel a lunge as the load continues its forward momentum. My friend Josh told me last night that truckers worry about liquid loads, since there’s no way to stop forward momentum, like there is on solid loads. My boxes didn’t slide forward when I slowed down because they were bungied in place, but I could feel considerable momentum pushing me forward as I approached intersections, or when cars pulled in front of us and slowed our progress. Laurie tells me her bike needs to be rebuilt twice, sometimes three times a year, because of the load-bearing.

At one particularly busy intersection, Laurie was waiting for a red light when a taxi pulled up alongside her and signalled a right-hand turn. She immediately looked inside the cab and engaged the driver.

“Hey,” she asked, “are you turning? Do you mind if we get through the intersection first, so we don’t get in your way?”

“Sure,” he answered her, smiling broadly. When the light changed, she thanked him for waiting and he nodded. As I rode past, he nodded to me and smiled again; I thanked him warmly for his consideration of our load.

Bikes are slow-moving vehicles, but I was impressed with the traffic and how (mostly) obliging it was to us. Pedestrians interacted with Laurie frequently, asking her what she was hauling, commenting on the likely weight of it, their body language all wide-eyed admiration for her grit, her cheerful attitude, and for what she contributes to her community. I felt honoured to ride my bike, hauling my little trailer of meagre load by comparison, behind Laurie.

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At Ossington, Laurie wanted to stop briefly to do an errand. I waited with the two bikes and trailers in a parking spot on Bloor Street. As I let go of my handgrips for the first time all trip, I realized the bike and I had become one.

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Do people like Laurie have to replace their handgrips—as well as rebuilding their bikes—frequently?

Five minutes into my wait, a tiny older woman drove her car close in behind the trailers and signalled for me to move. I smiled and waved, and signalled that we’d be but a moment. She got out.

“You move?” she asked, a little brusquely, yet with a smile.

“No,” I explained. “We’re parked and visiting the bank.”

“Ah, the bank!” she smiled. “You move?” she asked again. She understood English, but she didn’t understand the legitimacy of a bicycle using a parking spot, even if it was hauling a long, heavy load. Laurie arrived at that moment, so there were smiles and hand shakes, and everyone got back into or onto their vehicle.

Our first bike shop stop was Sweet Pete’s, which was expecting four boxes of bike route maps. Two strapping young men appeared from nowhere as we disembarked and carried their boxes inside.

We then delivered two boxes to Broadway Cycle. Our next stop, Bike Pirates, wasn’t open.
On the arduous hill climb at Lansdowne, we rode two abreast, to encourage. There was no traffic overtaking us and it was late morning, so our slow ascent wouldn’t affect others. Suddenly, a driver came from around a corner. Rather than change lanes, he honked hard at us as he passed us on the hill. Some people don’t get that cyclists have the right to claim the lane when the going gets a little tough.

At the top, we stopped at CultureLink, where they were expecting sixteen boxes. Laurie went inside to get a dolly. As we loaded the boxes, she asked if I could go ahead and deliver the last two boxes to a shop in High Park, just past Parkside Drive.

“Sure!” I said, happy to be working independent of the boss, with her blessing. Then, she asked if I’d mind dropping off the two Bike Pirates boxes to Sweet Pete’s, for collection tomorrow. She was pretty sure they wouldn’t mind the temporary storage favour.

I climbed the Bloor Street hill by High Park and found the shop easily. When I got inside the shop with their first box, they cringed.

“We only wanted one box,” one of the staff said.

“Uh, we were told to bring two boxes,” I explained.

“Well, we only want the one,” he said again. And then he stopped. “Wait, are you delivering on a bike?”

“Yes,” I said, making eye contact intentionally.

When he hesitated, I said, “Nevermind. I’ll manage.” Apparently, it’s not just drivers who don’t get the bike delivery thing.

Back at the bike, I looked down at the three remaining boxes in the trailer. What to do? At Sweet Pete’s, I explained that two of the boxes were for Bike Pirates, and would they mind … they finished the sentence before I even got the request out.

“Not at all,” they said, genuinely.

Then, I explained that I had this third box, that an unnamed shop didn’t want it. The two strapping young men commented, “Who doesn’t want more bike maps right now?” and came to the trailer with me to collect their unexpected booty, a fifth box of maps. Just as I don’t trust those who don’t pet dogs, or who dig up healthy trees, I’ve taken a slight mistrust to any bike shop that prefers not to take bike maps, especially when they’d ordered them.

Our city is blessed to have people like Laurie Featherstone delivering products by bicycle. Bike delivery doesn’t contribute to air pollution or noise pollution. Bikes and trailers take less space on the road than a car. Bike delivery riders interact cheerfully with other commuters, regardless of their mode of transportation. On the other hand, it’s much harder work than I realized. Bicycle delivery is much more time-consuming than if you used a car or truck, and because not everyone on the road gets bicycles and their place on the delivery landscape, there are inherent bodily risks. And yet, I was surprised to hear how little Laurie was being paid for this service. I was totally okay and extremely grateful for my pay this morning, and she’s not complaining at all. However, it was an incredibly modest sum compared to what I earned as a technical writer. I was reminded again what a bike messenger experiences as I worked today.

When a cyclist delivers its products to your business, tip the rider. He or she is providing an extraordinary service, not just to your business, but to your community and to your city as well.

To get a copy of the Toronto bike map, go to almost any bicycle shop, civic centre or library. You can also visit http://www.toronto.ca/cycling/map/index.htm#tcm to see an online version.

My warmest thanks to Laurie Featherstone for the great photos commemorating our day, for giving me income, and for sharing her terrific life with a rookie rider.

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