Jazzed on Street Cycling

Bill King.jpg

Submitted by Bill King
Photo: Bill King

I’m out the door Thursday mornings around 8:10 and on the bike heading towards the campus of the University of Toronto and CUIT 89.5 FM for my early 9 AM radio show. I’ve been urban cycling going on forty-six years and have basically owned a narrow strip of the road going most directions. Not now.

Crossing Dupont Street from Christie to St. George is still frightening no matter what regulations have been put in place – three feet between vehicle and bike; no play room there. It’s a death defying run for an opening – a test of will and nerves. Most drives I just plod my way through side-streets and weave about neighborhoods until eventual lock-up.

The biggest change in all of the years I’ve cruised Toronto is the number of cyclists who now make this a daily ritual. Cycling is suddenly the ‘go to’ escape from gridlock and subway malfunctions. I’m spinning down St. George and there’s a constant flow of garish helmets and bells ringing unlike nothing I’ve ever witnessed. We have arrived!

Humans are resistant to innovation, even more so change and most things that interrupt the scripted text for their daily lives. We are curious up to a point and beyond that, pull down the blinds.

Think back to the Rob Ford mayoral era and the “war on cars.” I never understood the distraction other than cyclists were just in his way and Ford’s declaration of war on two-wheelers, a revenge tactic. I’m thinking there must have been a conflict or two with bikers obstructing his view of the Steak Queen or he saw an unexpected triathlon in the rear view mirror.
Toronto has promised lanes, laid out millions for studies and as of 2015 is finally getting its act together.

I can blast a list of virtues or cycling rewards and topping that list is still health and convenience. Stretching and pumping a few miles a day sure makes walking a breeze. There’s fluidity between each step.

Neighborhoods become more than drive by visuals; they are painted arcades. The eye see differently. Tree limbs hang closer; streets are more defined down to the pavement where cracks and holes meet the tires. The scent outside is unique to that day. Spring, summer, fall and winter are well-defined with each offering a different view of the planet; from exposed branches, to snow-covered ferns, to full-blown greening, well before streets dampen then stained in decomposing yellows, greens and oranges as another season passes.

I’ve had the best conversations from curbside. The connection between pedestrian and cyclist is one of recognition, catch-up chat, easy talk, then on your way. There’s big humanity in those exchanges.

Musicians figured this out decades ago. Multi-instrumentalist/Order of Canada recipient Don Thompson biked across Canada on a ten speed. Don would also bike nightly to his steady gig at George’s Spaghetti House back in the ‘80s.

I’ve seen arranger/horn man John MacLeod pull up at the Rex Jazz Bar wearing a helmet and back-pack; lock-up - unload his horn case and cross over to the bandstand. From time to time saxophonist John Johnson catch each other in motion running the backstreets of Toronto and have a crisp conversation. Nothing lasts beyond four or five minutes, yet they are invigorating.

I remember in 1976 getting the studio call of my life – a session with celebrated guitarist Lee Ritenour, bassist Abraham Laborial, and James Gadson of the Watts 103rd St. Rhythm Band on drums. I’m living in Hollywood at the time a block north of Capitol Records. Transit being what it was and me without a car I decide to cycle my way across the city to Studio City where the session was booked. I pull out a map and chart a direction. City maps always make neighborhoods look as if they are closely connected and within walking distance. I didn’t take this at face value and allocated two hours, believing I could accomplish in less than one.

I’m on my trusted white Peugeot ten-speed compliments of an advance royalty check on my Capitol Records side, Goodbye Superdad, 1972.

I steam across Franklin Avenue and to my left and up the hill I see an old Ford Thunderbird careening down the hillside and a big head of hair bobbing in the front glass. I stop before the intersection and witness the car fly through - speed down the hill – woman screaming. The car slows as it attempts an upgrade in the road and slowly comes to a full stop. I rush over to help and notice the woman roll out and stumble to the curb. It seems she was a “rise and shine” drinker unaware her deteriorating brakes had failed her. At that moment I reflected on the cautionary move I made to never assume people stop even when streets are marked so.

Two hours later I arrive at the recording studio just as Ritenour is opening this giant cartage bin crammed with custom outfitted guitars. Ritenour notices me locking up and covered head to foot in sweat and asks, “Did you bike here?” I say yes. “Where from?” “Hollywood!” He pauses then looks at me, “Are you serious, do you know how far that was from here?” “No, – it looked like maybe three miles on the map.” “Wow,” he says.

I thought about the question and revisited the map and discover it was only 5.5 miles but an exhausting uphill incline the whole way. Ritenour kept reminding the session players I’d cycled to the gig through rough terrain. I didn’t find that epic until I saw how they got there; in Porches and Cadillacs.

In 1976 a rare few biked beyond park trails and school yards, then the introduction of the Mountain Bike courtesy of Northern California. Biking was here to stay!

As fall then winter approaches and the summer cluster of cyclist thins and the first taste of stinging cold reddens the ears and fingers a good portion of fun seekers will pack the two-wheeler back in storage and endure daily transit break-downs and stalled traffic and I will share the road with hundreds more who weren’t there a season back. We will be covered head to toe in Gortex, the face hidden beneath head gear resembling niqabs and drive into a brittle unforgiving north wind and savor every moment – well most moments. There will be more than a few worthy of curse-swearing yet I will hear new music inside my head as the wind whistles past my ears and the ice below cracks in rhythm with each revolution. I can feel it in the air!