Commuter Cyclists Gain Respectability as More Trade Cars For Bikes

Mr. de Sousa, who just turned 50, is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. His bike is a sleek, high-end Mongoose, offering 21 gears at the push of a thumb. The Taiwanese-made, U.S. import starts at about $500. And this one is green, the official color of the nineties.

Mr. Kraiker, a 35-year-old IBM systems analyst in Toronto, bought his unusual three-wheeler last year for its stability and the comfortable child seat at the back. It cost less than $200, but he has added $700 worth of extras. Motorists wait at intersections just to see him go by.

But you won’t see either of these men out with tour groups on the weekend. Instead, both are veterans of a fringe group of city cyclists, long considered cute but a little weird.

Commuter Cyclists

Now, however, their numbers are growing and their new name sparkles with respectability: commuter cyclists. The bike is their main form of transportation. They say it is fast, cheap, clean and fun.

“Sometimes people kid me about it, but I suspect there is some respect for what I do,” said Rudy Limeback, a 40-year-old information systems manager with New York Life Insurance Co. in Toronto.

  • Once, a vice-president mockingly said “Oh, nice pant clips,” as Mr. Limeback was unlocking his bike outside the office. But that was when the bike rack had one or two bikes locked to it. Today, it is overflowing.
  • The idea is catching on slowly but it is growing,” said Mr. Limeback, a self-confessed “right-wing type person.”
  • “Subway breakdowns are very annoying and I can’t be bothered with the car,” said Rosaleen Crooks, a 45-year-old physiotherapist at Wellesley Hospital. Her bike is appropriately called a Norco Commuter.

With car and parking costs soaring, traffic worsening, transit unpredictable and the green movement becoming socially correct, more city people are dusting off their old bicycles – or buying new ones – to make the trip to the office. Most live about a 40-minute ride away from their place of work.

Barbara Wentworth of the Toronto City Cycling Committee said about 40,000 people regularly use their bikes to get to work or school and to go shopping. The number for Metro Toronto is about 70,000.

Bike-to-Work

Ms Wentworth is working overtime these days to prepare for Bike-to-Work week from June 10-15, an attempt by her committee to get more cyclists on the road. So far, more than 170 groups – including companies, hospitals, schools, clubs and fitness centres – plan to participate or promote the ride to employees.

“Cycling is the fastest-growing mode of transportation,” Ms Wentworth said.

Utilitarian riders can be seen in corporate attire – plus nylon briefcase and the de rigueur helmet – or wearing a range of cycling clothes, from old shorts and T-shirts to stylish neon Lycra.

Commuters use every kind of bike, from aging, police-auction clunkers to state-of-the-art titanium models that cost $6,000. On downtown streets, a scarcity of bike racks has parking meters and utility poles doing double duty.

Recreational cycling and racing, meanwhile, have never been more popular – bike sales are at record levels – but their rate of growth has begun to slow, said John Andrews of the Ontario Cycling Association. Membership in the association has stood still for the past five years at about 3,400.

To foster and then feed demand, there is cut-throat competition among manufacturers in Canada, the United States, Europe, Japan, Taiwan and elsewhere to come up with new designs and high-tech innovations. New bikes and accessories roll out constantly, each one more expensive than the last, much of it confusing and a lot of it cosmetic.

“It used to be just CCM and Raleigh,” said Gary Duke, owner of Duke’s Cycle Ltd. in Toronto. “Now it’s a fashion industry.”

The Price

  • Customers used to want a bike for about $150, but now they know that $400 is a good starting price, said Randall Duke, Gary’s brother.
  • “It’s not unusual to sell a (customized) $8,000 bike to an average person because they use it 300 days a year,” he said. “These are not zealots: they are average, middle-class people.”
  • The big thing this year, which is designed in part to appeal to the weekend-biker-turned-commuter, is the “hybrid” or “cross-over” bicycle, which ranges in price from $400 to $800.

It combines the lightness and speed of a traditional skinny-wheeled, drop-handled racing (or road) bike, with the fat tires and straight handlebars of the heavier mountain bikes, currently the most popular kind. Most mountain bikes almost never see anything but pavement.

“Commuters like the hybrids,” said Randall Duke. The fat tires handle potholes and subway tracks well, and they are lighter to carry than the mountain bikes.

Also very popular is a new kind of push-button gear shifter, mounted on the straight handlebar right at thumb level, making gear changing much simpler. Gear fear has kept many would-be cyclists out of the market, manufacturers believe.

Other innovations include titanium and carbon-fibre frames, three-spoke wheels, hydraulic brakes (just a light squeeze will stop a bike, the builder says), click pedals that the rider can get out of with a twist, and even bicycle computers that measure speed and distance.

Kryptonite U-locks, which used to deter most thieves, are also in demand. But now nothing seems to keep thieves from hauling off all or part of a bike.

Theft is one of the big concerns of city cyclists and would-be cyclists, who say they want more companies, stores and restaurants to offer bike storage areas.

And they are frustrated, they say, by drivers who act as if they don’t exist and by careless fellow cyclists who dart through traffic and flaunt the law by riding on sidewalks. The city is now looking at whether separate bike lanes are the answer.