I’ve been encouraged to meet with Frank de Jong, a Green party politician who rides everywhere. I know he’s going to have fantastic stories because Wayne Scott and I have just picked up many of Frank’s lawn signs using our bikes, making even those around him interesting and innovative.
As I approach Alternative Grounds on Roncesvalles, there’s an awareness in the air that you hope to feel in other cafes but don’t always. I notice a blue Trek 7000 hauling a long, front trailer: the trailer advertises fair trade coffee delivery to the downtown core. Inside the cafe, there are gentle reminders about following sustainable practices everywhere. It’s reassuring to me knowing that people care about the good earth.
Frank looks up from his seat and beckons to me to sit down. He’s a couple of years older than me but his face is boyish and the warmth he exudes is infectious. With no prompting at all, Frank launches into the conversation. “The Toronto bike culture needs inspiration,” he says, beaming. He likes the dandyhorse magazine because its philosophy is cool rather than technical.
Like all cyclists who have history, Frank starts at the beginning. He’s from the Netherlands—“the bike-friendliest country in the world”—and started his career at Western, earning a music degree. For the first three years, he rode his bike everywhere. By the fourth year, he was feeling self-conscious because no one else was riding, so he put the bike away. When he moved to Ottawa for Teacher’s College, he found himself in another bike culture and pulled out his equipment again. Frank confides that society imposes the overarching mindset on its citizens. “Your culture has to reflect you back,” he tells me, analyzing the situation. People don’t stop riding because they don’t like it, but because it doesn’t feel cool.
“So, peer pressure,” I suggest, “is a strong motivator, even in adults.” Frank nods agreement.
If there’s anything I’m gathering from this conversation, it’s that Frank is determined to set an example. He wants others to see that cycling is neat. Groovy, as he puts it. Apparently, he feels groovy will get people out on a bike. I decide to start tracking what groovy means to Frank as I write.
Frank is a hard-core rider. He rides all year long, and he always rides to school. For years, he was the only teacher who rode into work, but now there are a few who ride through three seasons.
“I’m still the only all-year rider,” Frank says.
At the school, he boasts a parking spot, for which the school pays $100 a month. He shakes his head, disgusted. For one thing, he tells me, 40 percent of our city land is dedicated to cars. Worse, that money is being wasted because he never uses the spot. He wishes the board would consider giving non-drivers a Metropass instead, or perhaps charging drivers to park.
“I agree!” I say. “Given how many cars come into the downtown each day, those in authority should be making that a less comfortable proposition, rather than easing the burden. There are so many reasons to have fewer cars in downtown Toronto.”
“I wouldn’t drive regardless,” Frank says. “The quality of life is so much higher on a bike.” He describes hearing frogs while he rides along Sorauren in the mornings, and how much he enjoys greeting neighbours. He laughs. “The canoe, cross-country skis and the bicycle are the three perfect technologies!”
Maybe it’s the Canuck in us. Whenever I travel for an extended period, something inside me hankers for these modes of transportation. Back on Canadian soil, I can’t wait to get into a canoe or kayak, or out exploring the streets on my bike and the snowy fields on my skis.
Frank has noticed a change in mentality in the city recently. He thinks people are pulling out their bikes earlier and putting them away later in the seasons than they used. I tell him I’ve noticed this too. We laugh about having the bragging rights of ploughing through a foot of snow and how riding at any time of the year builds exercise into your day.
Being a politician, Frank is full of statistics. He tells me that fully 50 percent of destinations in Canada are under five kilometres in distance, and that if our mindset were to change even just a little, we could easily increase the number of cyclists on the roads. At his school for instance, none of the parents will allow their children to cycle to school. “It’s a travesty,” he despairs. “And the benefits would be mind-boggling:” things like lung capacity, coordination, cardio, speed, balance, judgement skills… joy. Yes, joy. I feel joy each time I clip in. That’s a pretty big one for “groovy”.
On the campaign trail, Frank rode his bike extensively, preferring to act out all those “cheesy” slogans.
“Like … ” I encourage him.
“Like ‘Walk the Walk’ and ‘Be the Change’,” Frank says, and then he brushes it off. The Green party may need this credibility to succeed, but I think Frank rides everywhere for personal reasons, not political ones. Frank was the Ontario Green party leader for fifteen years and rode all over Ontario to make a statement. He describes himself as serious and tough and ideological, but I hear kindness in his voice. Before the election in 1997, he did an eighteen hundred kilometre tour through Windsor, Owen Sound, Ottawa, Sault St. Marie, Niagara Falls, Kitchener/Waterloo and Toronto. It was all accomplished on a bicycle. After almost a year of interviews with dedicated and determined cyclists, I’m no longer surprised at such feats, only humbled.
“Did you know that my political riding is the only one in Canada that collects its lawn signs by bike?” he says.
“I didn’t,” I say, startled. Then I realize how some might argue Frank’s big advantage. Davenport is the smallest riding in Canada—at twelve square kilometres. Still, how hard would it be to accomplish this, even doing partial collections, in other ridings?
“Riding up the St. Clair hill with the signs is a challenge,” Frank demurs, laughing. “And I’ll ride everywhere,” he admits. I wonder as he says this how much more this ‘everywhere’ might entail. Because he has the summers off, he has time to do some serious touring. Frank rides a Trek 520, which he calls a classic. “No one else makes a real touring bike,” he grins, and “hardly anyone does inter-city touring. People think you’re nuts.”
I know this: most people don’t tour just for fun. There are Toronto – Montreal and Niagara Falls – Toronto charity rides. He also reminds me of the Kingston – Ottawa ride, which route he describes as “flat as piss on a platter.” When I tell him of Ellen and Jan’s summer expeditions, he nods and tells me he’s circumnavigated both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, describing it as “pretty romantic” and “a very spiritual experience.” Having been described recently as “a good hippy” myself, I’d catalog this kind of thinking under groovy, sure.
“I’m a bit of an addict,” Frank continues. He tries to combine tours with a conference, often travelling to the New England states or maybe St. Paul, Minnesota. He’s travelled from Winnipeg to Calgary, and once took six days to ride from Winnipeg to Saskatoon. Four years ago, he did a thirteen-day solo trip to Kansas City. He calls himself “parsimonious”, camping in fields and leaving in first light. Frank’s eyes go a little misty at this recollection, and he begins to share a seriously groovy bike story.
“I had to cross the famously storied Mississippi River,” Frank starts.
The road he was travelling offered no bridge to cross the river, but downstream he noted a freeway flyover, meaning it was intended solely for rail passage and a walkway for official workers, and was therefore off-limits to cars and bicycles.
“Like all cyclists,” Frank admits sheepishly, “I hate detours and stop signs,” (thus, the Idaho Stop!) “and because we’re content in our subculture, we don’t require the approbation of society.” He decided to take the flyover, illegal or no.
The flyover was a kilometre across and the area was deserted. As he walked the bike onto the flyover, he could hear the water “singing beneath”. Halfway across, he heard an alarming KA-CHUNK! beneath him, and the lift bridge element of the flyover began to ascend. Frank and his Trek were suspended a hundred feet into the air and left there for an eternity. While he was wondering how this would end, he spied a man in a small booth some distance off, but there was no indication that he’d been spotted (nor that he hadn’t). Ten minutes into the situation, Frank noticed a barge being pushed by a tug down the river. The barge finally floated past the bridge, after which Frank waited another eternity for the KA-CHUNK! in descent. Once down, Frank walked his bike the rest of the way across, at which the man in the booth hiked across and vehemently reamed him out.
Cycling into the next town, Frank realized he was in Hannibal, Missouri, the fabled home of Mark Twain.
“And that,” Frank tells me in conclusion, “was my Huck Finn moment: I just did something dangerous, illegal, but free!”
“What about the future?” I ask him, now that he’s retired from politics and will retire from teaching in three years. Frank and his brother plan to ride across Canada. He tells me he’s already ridden across half the continent and plans to take two or three months to complete the other half. What they really want to do is take six days to ride the Dempster Highway from Inuvik to Dawson City, all on gravel roads. He tells me he uses 35 CC tires (which are fatter) and drops the pressure down to forty pounds so you get a slower, softer ride. Is this groovy behaviour, I wonder? It certainly is Canadian.
Frank’s thoughts return to the Toronto scene. “If a small number of people ride bikes on a single route,” he says with some passion, “there’s this shocking statistic about how much money is saved in infrastructure costs. We only have 5 percent of the population on bikes at the moment, but the more [people] you put on bikes, the more room you have.” He denounces cars as making no economic sense and feels that so many streets downtown should be declared car-free. “If people were on bikes,” Frank declares, “business would increase!”
When he rides out to Kleinberg, Frank sees pelotons cycling, where nine out of ten riders are men. In the Netherlands, the numbers are overwhelmingly women.
“Why is that,” I say, wondering. “Do women worry if they don’t have infrastructure?” Having temporarily moved back to Kingston this month, I’ve found lots of infrastructure painted across all the major roads there, and yet no one uses it. Infrastructure is helpful to get the timid out, but Frank may be right about the cultural mindset compelling us to use certain transportation options.
We head outside to where our bikes are parked. “No one will ever steal my anthrax-infested helmet or my pannier,” he laughs. The big bike is all banged up, indicating a much-loved ride. I spot his two-sided pedals: one side allows a clipless ride, while the other is the standard bike pedal for everyday shoes. I want it!
Frank was raised on a dairy farm and rode single-speed beater bikes that were always the wrong size. “There were no kids’ bikes,” he says, “and they were all built in the French racing style with drop bars.” His Trek has drop handlebars, which puts him lower and under the wind. The bike has bar-end shifters, something I don’t see often. The Trek standard offers aerobars, which Frank claims to add two to three kilometres per hour to his ride. The bar positions you a couple of inches lower and there’s no wrist pain because your wrists aren’t bearing weight.
Frank knows many of the people I’ve interviewed, because he’s well connected here. “I once rode Bruce Hanson’s E-bike home from Guelph,” he says. “Those things require leg muscles if you want to go uphill.” Because you sit lower on the bike, you can’t apply your weight to the climb.
“Hills were the only place I could outride Bruce,” I say, finally understanding my limited advantage. Still, E-Bikes are pretty nice to ride if you have back problems.
As we prepare to cycle off, Frank has a confession for me. “My politics have become less radical over the years,” he shares, “because I’ve been offered publicity, which lends my opinions some credibility. I now prefer my new-found legitimate voice, rather than my illegal one.”
“The minority opinion,” I argue, “or, at least those made to feel they’re in the minority, wouldn’t need to act and speak radically if they were given a voice.”
In the current political climate, a cycling voice is exactly what we need. Now, that would be groovy.