Betty Poon of Toronto is now into her third year commuting to work on a bicycle with a milk-crate basket on the back. And yet, the sheer joy of riding has already led her to bike to Niagara Falls from Toronto in one day, and she plans to pedal even further this year to Owen Sound at the summer’s end.
Let’s uncover the back story behind such madness.
A lab researcher specializing in kidney and pancreatic cancer, Poon is the least imposing kind of rider. She doesn’t worm needlessly through traffic. With her white helmet and stylish eyeglasses, she rides an unassuming silver and teal Norco hybrid. The blue milk crate on the bike’s rear rack carries her colourful backpack. She’s the quintessential young professional, bike commuting to and from work.
She used to be only an occasional weekend rider, “and then,” she said, “I realized that, wait, I can do this on my commute as well.” It’s the obvious universal law that cycling and commuting equals better fitness.
And she’s been bike commuting most days ever since from her eastside Toronto condo to the city centre, taking a route through leafy idles, past the mansions of Rosedale and the tranquil streets of Leaside. She stops riding only during the most impenetrable winter months. There’s a little hill midway to keep the ride interesting.
The commute takes 35 or 40 minutes and is a time saver, taking her pretty much the most direct route home. “I can get some activity in every single day. It doesn’t just have to be a weekend ride,” said Poon, 30.
But a transformation has since happened. Instead of saving time, cycling began occupying more of it.
Inevitably, longer, alternate routes beckoned on warm summer evenings. She started riding after work with a friend who is a little more seasoned in the saddle. “It was my first time really consistently cycling every day,” Poon said.
She and her friend would hit the trails along Toronto’s Don River, a natural other world within Toronto, and along the lake shore. It’s no different in cities across Canada. In Montreal, the path up Mont Royal calls out to cyclists after work, so does the route in Vancouver along Spanish Banks and around the University Endowment Lands. Every city has its idyllic routes.
Still riding her hybrid bike with its upright riding position, Poon found herself nevertheless ratcheting up her mileage, even tracking it on social app Strava, a favourite of hard-core, carbon-fibre-riding keeners.
“We just want to keep on going further and further, just finding nice places to go. It’s a reward, too. It’s a nice accomplishment going to someplace nice at the end of the summer,” she said.
The one-day Niagara Falls trip took more than seven hours of cycling, at around a leisurely 20 kilometres an hour and with lots of stops along the way. She returned to Toronto the same day late in the evening by commuter GO train. For the Owen Sound trip, she’s thinking of graduating to a lighter road bike, or at least equipping her current hybrid with toe clips to strap her feet more efficiently to the pedals.
Yet for all the talk in offices about bike commuting and co-workers showing off, the percentage of those actually commuting by bike is still low. Although the numbers are probably inching up, a 2011 Statistics Canada survey found just 1.2 per cent of commuters went by bicycle in Toronto, and the latest City of Toronto stats found that 65 per cent were male riders and 35 per cent female. Yet, in Toronto, speaking from experience, bike commuting doesn’t have a noticeable gender imbalance.
In other cities, the overall percentage of bike commuters was 1.7 per cent in Montreal and 2.2 per cent in Ottawa, according to Statistics Canada. Victoria was highest at 5.9, not surprising given the city’s compact size and good weather, although weather can’t be the only factor since Saskatoon and Winnipeg were a relatively strong 2 per cent each. Vancouver was 1.8.
Cycling advocates note that one of the main obstacles stopping people, especially women, from bike commuting isn’t bicycle storage at work or access to changing rooms and showers. The latter is often a fairly low priority. A main concern is road safety.
Poon can attest. One November day, she had one inevitable, nasty encounter, along a busy commercial road near the end of the ride. A car got too close, brushing her handlebars. She was startled, but okay. Her hand grip left the merest rubber smudge on the side of the car. Yet it was the only major incident she noted. Riding with her one June evening, it was clear that the biggest dangers weren’t cars, but other cyclists, both male and female.
“Aggressive cyclist are probably the scariest for me,” Poon said with a laugh.
But this, too, is changing.
The sense of obligation to fit into any one cycling subgenre (equipment fetishizing road racers, hipster fixed-gear acolytes, etc.), which can intimidate some, feels old now. This is particularly true with any gender divide. Hybrids and bikes with mixte frames (bikes which have two narrow, down-sloping top tubes) used to be seen as women’s bikes, emphasizing gender distinctions on the road. Not any more. Mixte frames are simply cool and very French.
And if in doubt, see photographer Sam Polcer’s showcase of stylish commuters (and some racers) at preferredmode.com , proof that the hippest bikes are the ones that suit you, regardless of fashion or gender. One anti-theft modification for commuting, however, which can make a bike a bit less sporty and convenient, is to remove the quick-release skewers on the wheels and seat post tube, and replace them with regular bolts and nuts, as Poon has done.
The other change is the obvious growth of new paths.
It’s a simple equation: The greater the number of cycle paths, the greater the number of cyclists. “It’s mathématique,” said Suzanne Lareau, chief executive officer of the advocacy group Vélo Québec.
Even in Montreal, a city with such a distemperate winter, more and more cyclists are riding year-round. The habit gets ingrained. Lareau noted that women make up 45 per cent of Québec’s 3.2 million adult cyclists, according to the study L’état du vélo au Québec, last done in 2015.
But the major concern is still commuting downtown. Although Montreal’s downtown, like in Toronto, Vancouver and other cities, has some lanes separated from traffic, often these lanes suddenly end. This is the flat-earth theory of bike planning, as if cyclists somehow just finish at certain intersections and fall off the face of the urban grid.
“We need more access to reach downtown, north, south, east and west. There’s a lack, and we’ve asked for it for years and years. We are very upset about that, because there are a lot of cyclists going downtown,” Lareau said.
But then there’s Poon making do with limited paths, enjoying the fitness and freedom of the bike – helmet, milk-crate basket and continual smile riding through the wind.