balance bikes, bicycles, Bicyclesport, cats, commuting, Dufflet Pastries, Ernest Hemingway, Mariposa bikes, Mike Barry, Ride for Heart, tandem bicycles. Tour de Dufflet, Thorncliffe Park, Toronto, touring
Hemingway once stated,
It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.
Marty Kohn—the man I’ve come to interview on the tenuous credibility that he is married to Dufflet Rosenberg (of Dufflet Pastries, famous for its entirely natural and lovingly hand-crafted pastries and desserts)—quotes my favourite author’s view on cycling. Marty is eagerly leaning toward me from across his kitchen table. He first heard this comment as a child and it has shaped how he sees things. “I never got over it,” he tells me. “I still want to get to know a place from a bicycle seat.”
At an early age, Marty learned independence on a bike. He explored the entire city on the simple instruction, ‘Be home for dinner.’ He later toured Europe for five months on a bike. “It really changed me,” Marty explains. “There is this wonderful intimacy of touching every inch of this trip. You understand the scale.”
Today, Marty is the Kohn in Kohn Shnier Architects, where his mandate is to encourage others to ride. Everyone does the Ride for Heart together, and they “see stressed clients doing it, grinning like a kid.” If someone rides into work on a junker, Marty takes the bike home. The drop bars are replaced with flat bars, wheel size is reduced, and cantilever brakes are added. These small changes turn the ride from a chore to a pleasure, which affects the rider deeply.
“When I see a bike, I see a person on it,” Marty explains. “People fetishize all kinds of things and I’m not immune to that, but there’s no such thing as a bad bicycle. You can make pretty much any bike a nice thing to ride.”
“How do you know to do all this?” I ask with some surprise, wondering how I continue to unearth fabulous stories. He explains that he worked for a time at Bicyclesport.
“Mike Barry is at the centre of sensibility,” Marty declares energetically. “There’s something noble, and wonderful and well-mannered about him … I owe him a lot because cycling is connected with the best things in my life.”
Marty’s architectural firm is currently designing a kindergarten-only facility in Thorncliffe Park, the first of its kind. Enrollment is anticipated to reach eight hundred.
“There’s so much pedestrian space in Thorncliffe Park but circumstances discourage riding,” he tells me. “If more people rode bicycles, the world would be a better place.”
Marty dreams of gathering a herd of bicycles for the school—thirty balance bikes (which allow children to learn without pedals and training wheels) and thirty regular bikes. I’m in awe at this man who prefers to discuss children cycling over the facility he is designing.
He takes me on a tour of his basement. Marty and Dufflet own a lot of quality bicycles. Not a few of these bikes feature the decal Dufflet Pastries. There are several Moultons. Against one wall leans their Mariposa tandem. Marty and Dufflet have done twenty overseas trips on this tandem, most of them in western Europe.
When you travel by bike, people generally see your vulnerability and your commitment, and this translates into an interest and an appreciation, a connectedness. You can also create stories on a bike.
Marty and Dufflet sometimes ride through smaller European towns where they like to interact with people in passing. They once met a woman carrying her young son, who had polio. Dufflet gave her seat to the boy, who laughed as he and Marty rode.
One day, Marty and Dufflet were riding on a steep descent through a forested locale when, in the clearing, they came upon a wedding party. The groom and the best man were heads down under the hood of the car, and the bride stood arms akimbo beside them. As the tandem came into view, the party stopped and pointed at the enchanting sight of a couple on a bicycle.
Playfully, Marty gestured to the couple, “Do you want to borrow our bike?” Everyone laughed, and a photo session with the tandem ensued. He says when you go touring on a bike, it is good to just let the day unfold.
Charmingly, Marty describes women on a bike as very beautiful in their self-sufficiency; he admires their willingness to accept challenges and the sense of independence they exude. Marty used to ride to Dufflet’s business for a quick visit, and sometimes would accidentally spot her on the street, cycling.
“I would see her on her bike and I would fall in love with her all over again.” he says dreamily.
Marty is enamoured with his wife’s Tour de Dufflet events, where cyclists travel between Dufflet locations and enjoy something sweet at each. It provides opportunities for taking children on a fun outing, and to see unexplored parts of the city. Besides, this is a guilty pleasure that you can cycle off. And as an architect, Marty fantasizes about people using bicycles to engage with the city.
“Why restrict the Ride for Heart to the Don Valley?” he wonders. If organizers created a loop that included the 401 and the 427, if businesses hosted parts of the ride, if the event involved more of the city, the impact would be enormous. “There would be no highway exhaust for one morning.” Suddenly, Marty is nearly leaping off his seat with these imaginings. “Think of the blackout! There were lots of wonderful things that happened as a result.” He thinks a twenty-four hour period of deprivation brings out good things in people, and then points to the event a Day Without Cars in Palermo, Italy. He envisions an off-road circuit, riding along the Humber, across the hydro right-of-way and down the Don, exploring the ravines.
Like me, Marty is outraged that we have overcomplicated cycling in Toronto. “Why can’t my grandmother ride here?” he says heatedly. “It’s much riskier than it needs to be.”
The door is unlocked at this moment, and Dufflet appears in the kitchen. As if on cue, two cats leap onto some furniture, to stand near her elbow. Dufflet leans into Smokey, who sniffs her face. She scratches the cat’s ear. Laszlo, a black and white cat, waits his turn.
Marty explains to Dufflet what we are doing, asking if she has any stories she would like to share. She protests gently that he has likely already told all her stories. The cats have her attention entirely.
He smiles at me. “The evolutionary advantage that cats have is that they can trade food and shelter for frugal displays of affection.” I am entirely in agreement, and decide to leave the four of them in peace. Rising, I begin to collect my things.
We continue to discuss the city’s mindset as I head toward the door. Given Toronto’s incredible cycling history that includes such names as Mike Barry, Martin Heath and Jet Fuel, Marty thinks it should be a better place to ride. He tells me that in Holland, cyclists and pedestrians coexist because they know how to behave. He says there’s a very clear code of manners there: you pass on the left, and when doing so you click your brake lever to alert them of your presence. If someone has passed you, you remain behind them.
“We can be a boorish society,” I agree.
At the door, Dufflet offers me homemade date squares. These are kind and gracious people.
Half an hour later, I’m driving north of the city, tired and distracted. The highway is dimly lit and there are no protective barriers for wildlife. Suddenly, a deer stumbles onto the highway between me and the truck ahead. My headlights flash across his flank as I veer to miss him, allowing him to scramble to safety.
Pulling over to recover myself, I realize this is one of those paradigm moments. There is no evolutionary advantage to be gained as a commuter in Toronto: regardless of our chosen mode of transport, we are all sentient beings trying our best to get along sensibly in life. Whether you cycle or walk or drive, we must all slow down and watch out for each other, because you never know what creature you might be trading kindnesses with, around the next bend.