In honour of an outstanding human being, a dear friend, and our very talented book design team, I give you the bike stories of James Wilson of Overdrive Design.
Wouldn’t you know, it is by far the hottest day of the summer, with a humidex of 48C. I’m heading west to Overdrive Design, near the DuPont and Dundas West intersection. I climb into the car irritated because the intense heat has made it impossible for me to enjoy the challenge of cycling to new parts of town, on small backwater streets.
The office is an open-concept loft, where people work quietly at their desks. The atmosphere is charged with positive energy. James Wilson, the owner, works at the desk nearest the door. His work station is walled in by counters, against which are parked four spectacular bikes. These are the staff transportation equipment. The ratio is not exactly one-to-one, but it is actually James who didn’t ride today. We begin our introductions by accusing the stifling weather, both of us relieved that the other was equally culpable, equally victimized.
James’ story is a hair-raising, spine-tingling, gut-wrenching adventure. He’s a hard-core cyclist. Here’s a teaser: James designed the Rocky Mountain logo, the triple peaks in the red circle. OMG!
James lives in Oakville. He leaves the house at 5 a.m. so that his commute is timed for mostly green lights. His preferred route is Lakeshore Boulevard, so he drops in at Kerr Street and Cornwall Road, and drops out at the Humber River Bridge. The trip is forty kilometres, door to door. That’s one way, in case you’re wondering. Yeah, OMG. James assures me this is a lifestyle choice, that he prefers to do the eighty kilometres round trip ten months of the year. James wants to see a shift in thinking about bikes, to how they accommodate our health, the environment, our commute, to how they bring an element of fun to our lives.
In the mid-’80s, he worked at City Hall, writing safe cycling handbooks.
“I‘ve seen the complete and utter disregard that cyclists demonstrate for the rules of the road,” he says grimacing, knowing that the odds are stacked against you.
“On my rides in, I try to avoid death,” he declares. Like me, James makes eye contact with drivers, cyclists and pedestrians and he uses hand signals. Unlike me, he never plugs into an iPod. He is one of those advocates who leads by example.
“All the bikes leaning against your counter are cardable beauties,” I say genuinely. He grins. All of them are his, with the exception of a cool Gary Fischer commuter bike. This last belongs to Sylvia Nan Cheng, the cyclist who invited me here today.
“I lend bikes to all my staff so they can ride half-decent machines.” He runs the office with as much environmental observance as possible. The air conditioning goes off at the end of the day. Overhead lights are off, but each person has a desk lamp. There are recycling containers in plain view. Leaning against the wall is a hand-built rack, with pulleys. James typically uses it to hang bikes from his office ceiling, out of the way. The ceilings in this office are too low to install the rack, which explains all the bikes along the counter.
“Well still, there’s something charming about walking into an office where bike souls greet you, before people do,” I assure him.
The cycling mentality feeds into the office environmentalism. He doesn’t want to be despotic about it, but he hopes it rubs off. One of his new employees actually quit smoking to fit in. James lives his life in the firm belief that the fifty-five-year-old employer should be in better shape than his employees if he expects them to maintain high standards.
James’s bikes are equally astounding. For touring, James uses an ’84 Pinarello Montello SLX. The leather is hand-stitched. He owns a Fondriest, the spectacular red and white Italian carbon fibre bike reclining a mere five feet away, on loan.
Today, James had planned to ride his 1987 LandShark Pro steel frame tandem. Yes, he had intended to ride his tandem, unaccompanied, forty kilometres, into the office. And then home again. The frame is hand-built and fillet-brazed. He assures me that the bike is very light and it handles extremely well, so you hardly notice the second half behind you.
He muses on the days courting his wife, when he’d ride the tandem on the Bayview Extension to her office at Yonge and Eglinton to pick her up. I’ve done the Extension on my mountain bike. There are no polite adjectives available to adequately describe the Extension. The effort of riding a tandem up that hill to pick up a girlfriend sounds incredibly romantic.
James cycles a lot. By the law of averages, James (like most cyclists) expects to have accidents. He has been hit six times by cars, all on left-hand turns where the driver illegally cut James off. He typically “Supermans over the hood,” sometimes with the bike and sometimes not. James has been doored once, and yes, it hurt. I have heard this story several times now and I’m beginning to see a pattern. There appears to be a direct relation between the size of the vehicle being driven and the visibility of smaller transportation options sharing the road. Drivers don’t mean to cut off or hit cyclists: they just don’t see them.
James tells me he has crashed in lots of races, and then he stops talking for a moment. When I look up he declares, “You might as well hold a gun to your head if you’re not going to wear a helmet.”
His worst accidents are things he has done to himself.
Awhile back, James and his brother were training down by the zoo, in Scarborough. The pavement was wet. They was travelling downhill at about twenty-five kilometres/hour (so, not fast) when they hit a bridge deck. Bridge decks are notoriously unreliable surfaces. Unfortunately, there were no signs posted to alert oncoming traffic of the deck’s presence, so the cyclists didn’t slow their rate of descent. The bridge deck was covered with a microfilm of water, which responds to a tire the same way sheer ice responds. James slid out. His front wheel ripped off, the stem snapped and the forks catapulted him straight into the deck. He laid on the road, stunned.
His brother was temporarily paralyzed, but when he could move, he noticed James was spurting blood. James’s face needed a hundred stitches, and two rounds of reconstructive surgery. Yes, he’s still ruggedly handsome. (Don’t tell his wife I said so. I want her to continue to ride that tandem with him.)
James got back on his bike two weeks later. Signs were posted at the bridge deck as a direct result of James’s accident and the lawsuit, that he won.
In 2004, James was training north of Oakville. He was coming out of a fast decline (about forty-five kilometres/hour), standing in the saddle.
“Suddenly, I was in the middle of a catastrophic equipment failure.” The crank arm snapped off the bottom bracket and he slammed into the top tube.
In the accident, James chipped his pelvis, broke a rib, and gashed his head. At his computer, he finds an image of his core, taken after the accident. The bruising sustained was gruesome. He feels fortunate to not have severed anything. O-M-G, that would hurt.
Three weeks later, the bruising was healed enough that he could ride again.
In 2009, he was enjoying the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour, an annual ride between Ottawa and Kingston hosted by the Ottawa Bicycle Club. In Perth, the Ladies Rotary feed the cyclists, and knowing this James sprinted to the tents, distracted by the feast ahead. He cracked a nothing joke with a friend and suddenly sailed into a five foot ditch. His fall was stopped by the wall of dirt on the opposite bank. The result was four broken ribs and a body unwilling to pedal another foot. He was out of the saddle for a couple of weeks. The takeaway to this particular story is that you should always buy Campanolo wheels.
“They’re bombproof,” James assures me (and apparently, so is he). After the accident, his wheels didn’t even need to be trued. When he realized this, he bought Campanolo wheels for the tandem.
James is an intelligent, kind and compassionate man. His work speaks for itself. On a bike, James does not ride foolishly, nor does he make irrational decisions.
“I stay alert so I don’t do something stupid on the road,” he says. “Every time I ride into work, I consider my mortality and manage the ride to reduce the risks.”
Despite everything that has happened to him, James still believes cycling is a smart and viable way to travel. And having met him, I can honestly say that if James has OMG stories, it’s because his life is lived in an equally OMG manner where the things that should matter, do.
And uh, well maybe tomorrow I’ll just leave the iPod in my pocket.