“Hey!” someone hollered at Scott Stephenson as he rode past. “That’s my bike!”
Turning, Scott found himself nose to nose with a large, intimidating gym rat. They began a classic tug-of-war over a bike that Scott had owned and been riding for over a year. While in this unexpected stance, two things occurred to Scott. Was this a stolen bike, and if so, why would such a tough character have ever owned such stylish equipment? It didn’t add up.
When the tugging action relaxed, Scott calmly suggested that if this was a stolen bike, they needed to call the police. He explained that he didn’t want to keep a stolen bike and would prefer to return it to its rightful owner. Giving the man his cell number, Scott suggested the gym rat call the police and have them contact him. Strangely, the man backed off as soon as the word ‘police’ came up.
Scott is introducing me to his cycling experience at Lit Cafe on College Street. Scott is clean-cut, very fit looking, polite and soft-spoken, not at all what I’d been expecting. His emails are enthusiastic and playful, more reminiscent of a teen than a man in his mid-thirties.
“I’m an ex-skateboarder,” he says, surprisingly.
This is the second time I’ve had to re-image my concept of skateboarders. Scott is from Halifax and only came to Toronto six years ago. He had never seriously considered cycling as a form of transportation at home because of the hills; instead, Scott owned a BMX bike and a skateboard. When he got here, he noticed that everyone around him was commuting on a bike.
One day on Toronto Island, he found himself on a rented beach cruiser, grinning enormously. Shortly after, he spotted a five-speed Schwinn cruiser glowing in the front window of a bike shop. It was orange, with whitewall tires. Scott looks sheepish at his choice. It isn’t feminine, but it is very bright.
“It just looked so cool,” Scott explains. He chose it precisely because it was bright, making it immediately recognizable and less attractive to thieves, and more visible in traffic.
The salesman herded Scott away from the orange beauty in the window, toward a plain black cruiser. Scott wondered why the fellow would try to talk him out of the orange bike. This memory came back to him as he was playing tug-of-war with the gym rat. Still, when Scott insisted that it was what he wanted, the salesman relented. Once outside, the bike became known as Fireball.
Two days later, a taxi clipped him, doing damage to the bike and to his hand.
“No bike is visible enough in traffic,” Scott says. He looks distant, and then laughs. “And there’s more to the gym rat story.”
Two months after the tug-of-war, Scott’s cell phone rang. It was the gym rat.
“I called the police,” he said. “They said to give me back my bike.”
Seeing through the flimsy logic, Scott refused and suggested the man get the police to meet them both at a specific location. Again, the man backed off.
More than a year passed and he was unlocking his bike when he heard, “There he is!”
On College Street, there’s a shop called Eddy’s. I’d had to walk past it on my way to Lit. Out front, a collection of men own the sidewalk. They eye you as you approach them and are not quick to move out of your way. The voice had emanated from this direction. Scott turned to see the gym rat with an assortment of similarly dressed men walking toward him. As they approached, Scott’s heart sank. And then, miraculously, the gym rat put out his hand.
“You know what?” he said. “Keep the bike.” The crowd dispersed and Scott and Fireball were left to themselves. Now, whenever Scott and the gym rat see each other on the street, the man jokes, “Hey! How’s my bike?”
“Wait,” I stop Scott. “I think I’ve been working under a serious misconception. I always believed skateboarders were rebels, vandalizing public space and living outside the law.” This has been such a good lesson for me. I point out the irony of the situation.
“Yes,” Scott laughs. “I was pretty stereotypical as a youth, but now I see the value of the law and my place in it.” In his experience, both Toronto drivers and cyclists can respond irrationally.
Not long ago, Scott was in the left-turn lane waiting for a red light to change. A TTC utility truck driver pulled up behind him and honked his horn. Scott turned round, made eye contact and turned back to face traffic. Unsatisfied, the driver got out of his truck and approached Scott.
“You’re in my way,” he bawled. When Scott calmly explained how this was the correct place for a bicycle in traffic, the driver shouted at him to get on the sidewalk. Scott stood his ground.
“If I were in a car, would I be in your way?” Scott reasoned.
Now I was thoroughly intrigued by the skateboarding world. How could I have so misjudged them?
“What are skateboarders really like?” I ask, looking sheepish myself now.
“To design a winning series of tricks, you use artistic thinking,” Scott explains. BMX and skateboards both appeal to creative minds and many boarders become visual artists. To develop interesting and challenging programs for a trick bike, you must see your urban landscape in an entirely different way. Your mind must always be sharp, to both reduce danger and to develop programs that appeal visually. Their anti-establishment reputation is deserved, but maybe it’s because, like cyclists, they need a space that isn’t readily available to them, to spread out and to do what comes naturally.
“Tell me more about how it feels for you to be on a bike,” I ask him, and Scott’s eyes drift away again.
“I love the adrenaline rush,” he says simply.
Many of us crave the speed of a bike, of cycling faster than car traffic, of just being a kid and feeling the wind. And yet as Scott and I shake hands, I realize I’m probably looking at the most rational kid I’ve ever met.