The not-so-glamorous reality of the commuter lifestyle

Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.

Last month, I bought a bike on Kijiji in pursuit of becoming an “authentic Torontonian,” a notion of mine inspired by the inhabitants of my new neighbourhood on Queen West who seem to sport tattoos, own at least one dog and bike to work. The bike — a more realistic acquisition then a dog — came about as an impulse purchase one evening, as I sat watching cyclists pass by my Queen Street window. I browsed through a number of bicycles online before deciding on the absolute cheapest option: a $40 blue mountain bike.

I debated all the next morning whether or not I was making the right decision, or if would be more cost effective to buy an annual membership to Bike Share Toronto, a rental system that allows users to take and drop off bikes from hundreds of docks across the city, all for the yearly price of $99. The only extra cost is if your commute exceeds 30 minutes, in which case they start tacking on an extra four dollars for every half-hour you surpass. Since my commute comes in at just under the 30-minute mark, a Bike Share membership makes a lot of sense: no repair costs, no need to buy a lock, no risk of the bike being stolen.

But man, they sure look touristy.

I couldn’t be a true Torontonian if I made my way around town on of those green-and-black bulks of metal. I had to have my own bike.

So at the last minute, I messaged its owner on Kijiji and set out to meet my bike in the Annex. The lady who gave me my new bike was nice enough, even though she lied about how great the breaks were (I didn’t realize until later that the front ones were, in fact, nearly non-existent). But other than that, she seemed whole-heartedly concerned for my well-being.

When I test rode it in front of her apartment, she asked if I had ridden a bike before because I was wobbling a little. In all honesty, I told her, I hadn’t ridden a bike since early high school, and had never biked in a busy city, but that wasn’t going to keep me from biking home. I paid her in cash and started down the street, sans helmet and anxious that every car door I passed would suddenly swing open and catapult me into the road ahead. I tried to look calm and collected to passersby, breathing heavily through my nose. Meanwhile, I was gripping the handles tightly, too self-conscious to attempt the turn signals that veteran cyclists indicate with their arms. In the end, I made it home alive and parked it in my bedroom, lacking a better option. Of course I didn’t mind the lack of space. Tiny apartments with bikes in them are just another staple of a true city dweller.

Yet my romantic cyclist bubble was threatening to pop. A mountain bike like mine is much heavier than a road bike, and is not nearly as aerodynamic. Mine specifically has just one gear which, without another to compare it to, I can only imagine is the worst gear. I get passed on the commuter trail a lot by bikes that I’m convinced shouldn’t be passing me by; a few days ago, I was just barely passed by a smug-looking guy in a full suit and tie whose hands, apparently opposed to handlebars, were resting flat against his sides. Given my inherently competitive personality, I sped up to overtake him. I leaned forward and pumped my legs as fast as I could until suit guy was at least a two blocks in my dust and I was gasping for air. This wouldn’t have been an issue really if it weren’t that the only places I bike to are work and school. I arrived to work so sweaty that day that I had to hightail it to the bathroom and stick my face under the hand dryer before anybody saw me. I crouched under it for at least ten minutes at various angles, then spent the rest of my shift worrying that I smelled. I imagine that if my managers knew this, they might suggest that I take public transit to work.

At school, the same issue isn’t as easily solved. I’m not especially inclined to enact the same strategy in a public bathroom, which means my T-shirts often double as towels, countering any attempts to look good at school. I know, I’m gross. The “authentic Torontonian” of my imagination is also fashionable, but my commute limits the options of urban street style. After the first few times I rode the bike, I quickly discovered that low-cut shirts don’t fit the dress code because I’m constantly leaning forward over the handlebars. Tight pants are restricting, and jackets longer than my waist get caught in the gears. Heels are a no-go unless you’re willing to re-lodge your foot onto the pedal between the arch and the heel at every stop. I mistakenly wore my new faux-snakeskin heeled boots once, and now they bear a permanent scar on each sole.

As for the commuter lifestyle, I haven’t given up on it yet. I’ve simply come to terms with it’s not-so-glamorous realities. I’m still determined to be one of the people who I see outside of my Queen West window: an urban inhabitant toting lots of tattoos, owning at least one dog and biking to work. In order to assert this identity, I have to make a few sacrifices in appearance: I’ve given up good hair days for a helmet, subbed cool boots for dull sneakers and accepted that a gleam of sweat is a part of my everyday makeup look. But hey, at least I’m one step closer to becoming an “authentic Torontonian” — all without letting every smug-looking guy in a suit pass me on the bike path.