Story by Tatjana Trebic. Photos by Virginia Keogh and David Keogh. Graphic design by Marie-Ève Assunçao-Denis.
The Evergreen Brick Works was packed full for the fourth installment of BIKE MINDS, Bikes+Identity. Six stories were shared about how bikes have lent opportunities for people to find their place in a confusing world, develop fulfilling careers, advocate and create safe spaces for others, and embark on lifelong intellectual pursuits.
Michelle, from an urban planning background, had become frustrated with the negativity in Toronto’s bike discourse and hoped to create a space for positivity and community-building around bikes. Matt, from the engineering world, had returned from a month in Amsterdam where he found that there is no such thing as a “cyclist” in a city where nearly everyone uses a bike to get around. Both saw the opportunity and power in bringing people together to share what bikes have meant to their lives and identities.
First to take the stage was Alex Legum, a long-time bike mechanic, repair instructor, mountain bike guide, and city cycling instructor for a number of local organizations. They led the audience in a deeply personal exchange around our evolving identities and the role of bike culture in both supporting and limiting our journeys toward self-love, confidence, and in creating safe spaces for others.
While working in bike shops had given Alex a helpful dose of self-confidence, that environment was not typically set up to teach what it means to take up space and the responsibility that comes with taking and curating space. Initiating the formation of a women’s mountain bike ride and eventually leading it, they struggled with the question of whether they themselves belonged in the group they had created.
Often asked how to deal with the presence of sexism, racism, homophobia, sexual harassment and other forms of harmful behaviour in bike communities, Alex implores us to stop ourselves before we ask an already marginalized individual for a free consult and to take on the responsibility ourselves for learning how to make people of varying identities truly welcome in our biking communities.
Next up was Chandel Bodner, a long-time commuting and sport cyclist. She shared the creative way in which she combined her training in fashion design and merchandising with her love of the larger bicycle community in order to create a successful business and an identity for herself.
Growing up surrounded by the west coast wilderness, Chandel began her relationship with two wheels through mountain biking. As a university student on a budget, she evolved into a commuter cyclist for convenience and cost-effectiveness. It was only when she was introduced to the sport of bike polo, however, that she discovered the community aspect of cycling. Travelling around the world from one welcoming bike polo community to another, she saw the sport develop from the ground up – a skill and understanding she used in growing her own business from scratch.
Driven by a desire to create lifestyle products that make a difference in the lives of cyclists, Chandel started RYB Denim. Tapping into the needs of her various biking communities, she strives to design clothing that looks great, lasts and acts like regular clothes for regular bike-riding people.
Next, a planner and researcher of active transportation, Marie-Ève Assunçao-Denis turned some common assumptions about cycling best practices on their heads. While appreciating the extensive bike infrastructure and amenities of cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen, she also witnessed through her travels the pitfalls of transplanting cycling best practices from model cycling cities to other urban contexts without a solid understanding of local dynamics.
From Nairobi to Guayaquil to Lima, Marie-Ève showed examples of situations where the answer to “Build it and they will come?” is, “Not necessarily.” As she reminds us, urban bike solutions work best when paired effectively with the needs and municipal identities of the places they seek to make better.
The fourth speaker, award-winning practice leader and creator of his own career management firm, Mark Franklin took us through a four-chapter story on the successful and somewhat happenstance merger of his two passions: cycling and counselling. Mark’s story showed us how bicycling can help shape people’s personal and working identities and help answer questions such as, “What should I do with my life? What should I do when I grow up?”
Growing up biking on a green CCM bike in suburban Toronto, his world was opened up through cycling. Years later, while visiting Uganda, he discovered the world of cycle-touring – a form of travel that allowed him to explore new places to much greater depth. After finishing a graduate degree in counselling psychology, Mark set off to find a way to do career counselling “from the seat of a bicycle” and eventually developed Career Cycles, a service that assists individuals in weaving their skills and interests into a career that they love. Mark encourages us to grasp onto those “Aha!” moments and seek out others’ secret career stories to make our best ideas happen.
Executive director of Charlie’s FreeWheels, Alix Aylen described her journey through life as facilitated by the bicycle. Forgiving her first hand-me-down bike’s imperfections, Alix rediscovered cycling at the age of sixteen while seeking for ways to increase her independence. She spent years using her 21-speed bike as a one-speed vehicle to adulthood, with little interest in its repair, maintenance or complexities.
Facing a lack of community and a personally challenging time in her mid-twenties, Alix embarked on a journey to find her own voice and to find out who she was. With boxed bicycle in tow, Alix set out across the continent seeking solitude and a San Francisco fantasy life only to find something far more valuable and lasting over the course of her many bicycle rides: her own voice and a level of confidence she had been missing. Although she has biked up and down the continent, Alix still doesn’t see herself as an athlete or as a vocal bike advocate. In fact she now fights these unhelpful categorizations with the renewed energy and positivity that cycling has given to her life.
The headliner for the evening, Albert Koehl, took his listeners on a journey through time as he traced the last 50 years of Toronto’s cycling history. Albert described the bicycle and its place – both in the city’s recent history and in his own early years – as having been framed by the automobile. Seen for years as a toy, rather than taken seriously as a vehicle, the bicycle has inspired deep struggles, from competing historical claims to its early invention to modern campaigns for lanes on Bloor Street.
Fighting poor cycling conditions since his grade school days at the sandbox, Albert has seen repeated and ambitious targets set for Toronto’s bike infrastructure as an environmental lawyer, road safety advocate, professor, author and activist. With predictions of the impending “year of the bike” ringing in his ears since the 70s, Albert has watched simultaneous bike advocacy movements work in opposite directions. Still, he remains optimistic that the long tradition of Toronto’s bike advocacy is in safe hands.
His recent achievements include the founding of the event Bells on Bloor, which eventually led to the implementation of the first phase of the Bloor Street bike lanes. Albert encourages us to settle for no less than this: bike infrastructure where it is most needed and useful to cyclists.
Bikes+Identity was the finale in a four-part sold-out series of events for BIKE MINDS, but as Matt and Michelle hinted at the end of the event, there will be more in the coming months, so stay tuned!