It’s 9 a.m. on an October weekday. I have just elbowed my way through an astounding volume of cyclist commuter traffic. At the southern edge of Bickford Park—where Grace and Harbord intersect—I park beside a banged-up old bike. On a cursory glance, the bike looks moth-eaten, one of those bikes you automatically assume to be neglected by a non-rider.
Warren McPherson has asked me to meet him at the linuxcaffe, which has a techie feel. I find him seated in the window, watching cyclists pass by.
“Do you know anything about this place?” I ask him. “I’ve never been here.”
“It’s all about open-source software,” he says. They offer free wi-fi and provide a Linux box to anyone who needs a computer. In the evenings there are Python program meetings. Of course he would know this. Warren’s bearded, spectacled, slightly distracted face out him as a programmer. One thing he does not share with my average interviewee is a slim build. He is not overweight, but not pencil thin either. In a landscape of cyclists, he looks moth-eaten, one of those bodies you assume to be neglected by a non-cyclist.
I had figured the banged-up bike to be Warren’s. “My bike looks like crap,” had been his words the night before. If you look more closely, you realize the bike is well-loved, that the rider is a fully formed cyclist.
“I’m beginning to recognize cyclists by their bikes,” I suggest, my eyes twinkling. Warren finds the idea of bikes having a recognizable character amusing.
Certain people are intrinsically part of the cycling landscape. At events, you find landscape people on the fringes, either there in person or metaphorically, in conversation. Warren is one such person. I carded him at Icycle, and again at the Critical Mass ride that celebrated Jack Layton. He is involved with the Trailblazers and he follows Cyclops events. Whenever I see him, we get into a “Do you happen to know… ?” conversation that meanders around names and places. Warren often attends events to capture photographs of the landscape. He has generously shared several with me.
During an interview I am usually oblivious to goings-on around us, but Warren is such a dedicated people-watcher, my eye is repeatedly drawn to whatever is distracting him. He points to an older woman waiting at the Grace Street stoplight. She has many years on me and yet there’s no question that this is her transportation mode of choice. When the light changes, she slowly but gracefully pedals up the slight incline.
“The bike is probably keeping her fitter than her friends who don’t ride,” Warren shares quietly, and I realize he’s giving me access to his soul.
There are a lot of cyclists heading east, yet most of them are not students. We spot Tino cycling merrily past and we all wave in unison. Moments later, Derek passes on his way to the Bike Joint.
Warren shares that one of his favourite activities at the moment is Trailblazers. This summer, he joined a group that packed tandems onto a trailer and headed to Niagara.
“I rode with a partner who needed exercise,” he confides tactfully. There is genuine pleasure in his face as he describes the experience.
“How did you like Icycle?” I ask. He laughs heartily.
“At the ice races I didn’t beat anyone. I had rubber tires on my bike and everyone else was riding with spikes. It wasn’t about winning. It was about getting experience.”
As unusual as it may sound, Warren went to improve his technique in winter conditions.
“When you cycle on an ice rink, you’re doing something incredibly stupid,” he grins. He saw it as an excellent way to improve his confidence in winter conditions. This is the out-of-the-box thinking I have come to expect in the software field.
“I have an older friend who rides all four seasons in Edmonton,” he tells me. “This destroys the notion that we can’t ride in winter here in Toronto.”
Warren has been riding all winter for awhile now.
“If I take the winter off, my first spring ride is exhausting,” he shares. “I do this to avoid falling onto someone’s lawn in heart attack mode.” He confides that one of his first spring rides ended with him laying on a park bench for twenty minutes trying to catch his breath.
For the first time, I am about to attempt to ride through the winter months, at the encouragement of many cyclists. Being on Miss Jackson gives me many things, not the least being excellent cardio. At fifty-four, of course I want to ward off “heart attack mode.” But it’s so much more than that. The bike feeds me inspiration and optimism. On the bike, I’m alive.
Riding in winter here is not that difficult. The snow melts and you can travel easily once the roads are clean and dry, which they often are. At that stage, all you have to worry about is black ice. Black ice was what drove Warren to practice at the ice races.
“It’s a mechanism of self-defense,” he declares whimsically.
Looking outside we notice people rolling through the red light.
“There are really only a few types of people who do this: the fourteen-year-olds—who think they’re immortal—and the visibly tired,” Warren suggests. I look across, startled. Like most programmers, Warren is astute and gentle. He has just given an apt description of so many Torontonians whose stressful, sleep-deprived lives show clearly in their demeanour and on their faces.
“They coast through to save themselves a moment of discomfort,” he says. “You can’t take away their need to ride carefully.”
A woman turns the corner with pieces of tin foil carefully folded and strategically placed on her spokes. The sun flashes out a pattern of great beauty and we are reminded of the exuberance that Clay and Paper has introduced to our streets.
We collect our things and head out to our bikes. I was right. Our bikes are locked to the same pole.
His is a Trek Jazz, now twenty years old. Warren points to the back wheel, which is a touring wheel that cost him $160. A single spoke broke on the original wheel when it was fifteen years old. The mechanic suggested he just replace the spoke but on closer inspection, they realized that several spokes were about to give out. Warren laughs.
“That wheel is worth more than anything else on the bike,” he declares.
He’s also had to replace the gearing recently, due to an accident. As he approached two dog-walkers one day, the one owner called his dog, which obediently ran to its master, in front of the oncoming bike. The gear changers were bashed up in the collision.
“Dogs are always more predictable than people,” Warren says, smiling as he considers this, and then he looks down at the Trek. “I’ve spent more money in parts and labour [on this bike] than I’d ever get out of it.”
Secretly, I beg to differ. Warren gets so much out of this bike that cannot be tallied in purely financial terms.
As I ride toward home, I consciously decide to pay more attention to other cyclists. Warren has observed that many of us have built-in mechanisms of self-defense, mechanisms that fortify, nurture, encourage. Things that you only notice on closer inspection.