S[no]w Commute, November 2003
by Jeremy Whitehorn
I thought I should hold off writing a piece about my daily commute on a lugged steel Schwinn fixie. That way, I would have an interesting story to tell about battling snow, sleet and rain to make it home safe and sound to the loving arms and paws of my wife and dog. Sorry to disappoint. I do make it home daily, but as yet I have battled neither snow, nor sleet. In fact, nothing but mild rain has faced me so far this winter in Toronto, Canada.
At this time of year the great white north gets pitch black by 5pm. With no light, you have to be a creative commuter to keep your rides interesting and refreshing. A five o'clock ride is a night ride. What strange creatures will come out of hiding? The monthly critical mass ride in Toronto is a great wandering place for these creatures, and therefore a great way to crack through the bleakness of early winter.
This month's bleakness was cracked completely by the sight of two naked couriers on their way to the ride. Judging by their nice new helmets, they must have been concerned about safety, but not with warmth or vanity. I've never tried to ride naked like these gentlemen, but imagine that only bad things can come as a result. At the ride there were vampire nurses, butterflies and skeletons blinking lights from their eyes, and there were more couriers, whom I have to thank because they made it nearly impossible to tell who was in costume and who was/is a prophet of the daily grind.
But when the sun goes down in November, the best way to put a trailworthy fixie to the test (save for riding naked or costumed in the Critical Mass) is to ride to the Leslie Street Land Spit in Toronto's east end.
Leslie Street is an old landfill site that extends an existing land spit into Lake Ontario so what you get is a flat, open, thin piece of land, with lots of little paths cutting away from the only road. In the dark all you can hear is the waves hitting the beach, waves that came from perhaps the St. Lawrence, perhaps the other great lakes. You can see your way along with moonlight on your left and the glow from the business district which hovers on the other side of the small harbour, past the industrial zones and distilleries, like a scene in a satirical snow globe, on the right. The feeling of air on your face and power in your legs makes you forget that you are riding on top of Toronto's old garbage.
The road ends a few kilometers in and you must make your way past the tundra of butchered trees along a service road to the base of a hill where the old lighthouse sits like a retired janitor in his lawn chair, waiting for a beer. Climbing this hill and standing there next to the old fellow makes riding a bike in the dead of winter worthwhile. You can see the glow of the city's financial district, the Scarborough Bluffs, where land was sliced away like a piece of pumpkin pie, clean and organic. And of course the horizon: black and cloudy and sometimes barely visible but you can sense it there, the monster in your closet that made you hide under your covers. If all of this is not reason enough to ride your bike then perhaps this will convince you as it has convinced me: you can hear wind and boats slurring through water and seagulls and more wind. What a sound and what a feeling you have, before swinging a leg over the top tube and spinning frantically down the hill from the lighthouse back to the land of traffic lights you call home.
After a while you are back in the city, and you are able to find the good in just about anything: a streetcar driver's frozen breath as he fixes the track, a place where someone has spray painted 'I love you' on the side of a house, a rusty trash can in an alley off the main road, condensation on the neon lit windows on Chinese restaurants and coin laundromats, the greenish hue of the dozing mosque, the smell from the churning Kit-Kat factory. All these hidden treasures become your daily pleasures. And you get some exercise. What a feeling.
At this time of year, riding a fixie on local trails in the dark is like driving a car with a blindfold on. Best avoided. Save it for those times when stress release is a must, a Friday after a long week. A Canadian chocolate bar (or 'sweetie' for those on the other side of the pond) with chocolatey outer parts and oh-so-crispy innards.