If, as the Brahmins believe, it’s our karmic destiny to cycle back and forth between the earth and the heavenly realm of our ancestors, then Miss Jackson and I had to return to Duke’s Cycle, where our love affair began.

When we reached Queen and Bathurst, two fire engines overtook us. The bike and I were temporarily transported to the horrific fire that razed an entire block, including Duke’s, in February, 2008. This day though, no smoke billowed above us. Duke’s was safe. In fact, it looked entirely different and I had to beg directions to find it.

Gary Duke arrived shortly after I did. When I asked him his age, he told me at once that he’s 56.
“I feel better than I have in a long time.” He sat back, pleased to be counted a cyclist, although he described himself as a “fair-weather rider.” When he picks up cycling each spring, he prefers to ride alone the first two or three rides to “huff and puff” quietly.

“Let me hurt in private and then it’ll be okay,” he added, poking fun at himself.

Duke’s was one of the very first bike shops in Canada. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Gary would ride in from Etobicoke on a Raleigh ten-speed.

“There were so few cycling at that time that we would all wave to each other,” he explained. “It was a small community.”

“What do you ride?” I had asked him, intrigued.

Gary only rides bikes from the shop floor. “It’s like having candies every day!” he exclaimed. This philosophy allows him to understand the products better. “This is what made my riding experience better,” he can say, when he’s discussing a particular bicycle with a customer.
Up until the ’60s, Duke’s was actually a hardware store. They sold things like guns, appliances, and sporting goods. Technically, it wasn’t considered a full-fledged bike shop until 2003, when they stopped selling skates, an intrinsic part of their heritage.

“The bicycle industry grew out of the hardware industry,” explained Gary, “where they’d replace the plug on a toaster and wouldn’t charge for labour.”

“If that’s true, it helps explain why mechanics are still not required to be certified, and why many are paid poorly,” I had commented.

Gary thought it was a social issue. “Canadian Tire is the largest bike retailer in Canada. The number of CCMs on the street is staggering.” He’s right, of course. Canadians still have this mentality that a bike shouldn’t cost a lot, that it shouldn’t need to be serviced, and that safety can be assumed, even when the guy who built the bike originally was paid poorly and therefore wasn’t properly certified.

Further, most people opt to get a car the minute they can afford one. He hears it all the time: “A bike is not my lifestyle: it’s a stop gap.”

These cheap bikes occasionally arrive at Duke’s begging for maintenance.

“They come in for a flat, but their brakes don’t work,” he despaired. When this happens (and it does regularly) Gary points out the inconsistency. Cyclists typically tell Gary that they don’t need brakes, that they can time the lights. “I’m not going to have that on my conscience!” he confessed to me, his face going a bit ashen. “Here,” he usually responds. “Have some brake pads. And when you get some money, come and see me.”

When they get beaters in, there are so many things wrong that it’s a domino effect. You have to fix other things to actually get at the repair requested. Sometimes, beaters take longer to repair than bikes that are properly maintained. The owner often argues, “It’s just a bike! Why does it cost so much?” Gary shook his head.

“We can’t always be a charity,” he sighed. Most people don’t maintain their bikes because they refuse to spend money on them. “Why are we still in the mindset that this is for the lower class?”
I remember asking Gary what he thought our bike culture was like, since he’d been in it so long. He told me that, years ago, Shimano had sent an engineer from Japan to the shop. The engineer wanted to observe our culture. At the end of the engineer’s stay, Gary, curious, asked what he’d noticed. The engineer commented dryly that all our bikes were old clunkers. Gary scratched his head.

“What, you don’t have theft in Japan?” The engineer shook his head, no.

Another topic of great interest to both of us was the current politics at City Hall. Having seen it develop for so many years, Gary felt that the real power lies with the community.

“It’s a free society,” he declared. “Every once in awhile, rebellion is good.” The Jarvis Street controversy demands accountability. We must prove that ridership has increased, so we don’t have these ridiculous back-and-forth decisions. “And BIXI shouldn’t be losing money, because it works!”

That we are jaded about our officials is obvious, but we can’t allow that to stop progress. “As cyclists, we have a responsibility to be accountable,” Gary said. “We should be proud of our community, enough to step in and get things changed. No matter [what] the situation, we must always be insistent, in a calm, unified voice.”

As is often the case with these bike shop owners, Gary wanted to know what I ride. I told him that when I entered Duke’s ten years ago, I only knew that I wanted a Rocky Mountain.

“If we’ve done our job correctly, you can’t wait to get out on it. You fall in love with cycling,” he said, and that’s Duke’s philosophy. Miss J and I have been crazy about each other ever since.