CYCLING SUBCULTURES IN HAMILTON

With the World Cycling Championship in town, View takes a look at grassroots cycling initiatives in Hamilton.

After the last race has been won and lost, the big wheels of the local bike-world keep on turning. Once the spectator stands are taken down, why not hop on your bike and become an active participant in the city’s living cycling civilization. 
Recycle Cycles has been straightening spokes and packing bearings in the basement of Erskine Presbyterian Church (19 Pearl N.) since 1998. With volunteer labour mainstays Dean Carriere and Neil Croft at the right end of a spoke wrench, they’ve kept thousands of bikes out of the landfill and under Hamiltonian’s bums. This is the place to go to get help doing-it-yourself, a community-based, non-profit, all-volunteer bike repair workshop. It’s also the place to go to get a cheap working bike or to pick up some handy bike repair skills. Croft is the shop’s cycling philosopher and Carriere the heart and soul (and in the running for the happiest-man-alive award. Must be something in the chain grease?) 
Started with help from the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) McMaster, Recycle Cycles is the hands-down best place to go with your bike when your chain gets jammed on a Saturday morning. (Saturdays 9am to 12pm. Call 905.577.7753 to arrange donations, et cetera.) 
Critical Mass arrived in Hamilton in May 1998 with a 70 cyclist ride from Westdale to downtown. The monthly ride gets an average of 30 cyclists out on the last Friday of the month at 5:30pm at Hess and George Streets. The goal of the ride varies from rider to rider, but it generally ends up being a celebration of cycling in the city as cyclists make their way through downtown streets en masse. Typically the Hamilton season runs March to October. This year’s March ride was under the banner Pedal For Peace in opposition to the bombing of Iraq and more generally against excessive fossil fuel consumption for transportation. The ride brought out Hamilton’s police service to keep a wary eye on the antics of the peace-pedal-pushers. 
Critical Mass was originally a San Francisco thing in 1992, but has since spread to cities around the world. The film We Are Traffic: A Film About Critical Mass, which documents the rise of the phenomenon, has been shown by Transportation for Liveable Communities (see below). 
Critical Mass: How You See It is a five-minute video about the Hamilton mass rides that was selected to be part of the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s annual Photophobia outdoor short video film festival in August 2003. Scenes from the streets and a hand-held bike-cam and a charming cameo by Hamilton Police (see above). 
The Art Gallery of Hamilton Community Gallery was the scene of the first non-juried Bike Art Show in Hamilton “The Art of Cycling” organized by the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) in 1999 and featured the work of local artists like Richard Dominick, Gord Pullar, Susan George, and Sandee Ewasiuk, as well as Canadian luminaries like the late Greg Curnoe. The show opened on a Friday to coincide with the March critical mass bike ride which ended at the gallery for the start of the show. Toronto’s singing cyclist choir Song Cycles were featured at the opening. Kudos to the AGH for getting behind the idea of Car Free Day this year, showing two consecutive Sundays of bike-themed films before and after September 22. 
Painting a car with slogans, DJs spinning discs at curb-side, a critical mass ride, raging grannies, sod in the middle of the street, a street party, face-painting, dancing, live music, free bike repairs, wary cops and no cars – put it all together and you have Car Free Day in Hamilton. With a budget of $100, the September 22 Car Free Day celebrations don’t rival the celebrations in other cities where the municipalities support the event, but those who have been to Car Free Day get a lot of car-free action for your dollar. This year’s event got washed out by the weather, but watch for impromptu versions, a.k.a parking meter parties (see below). 
Parking Meter Parties are semi-spontaneous events where people plunk a quarter into a parking meter and have a party, sans automobile. The rent for the space is cheap and previous parking meter parties have included sod, lawn chairs, bubbles, chess games, banners, chalk drawing, free bike-route maps, food, bike tune-ups, and esteemed cross Canada cycling visitors like The Climate Change Caravan, and Cycles for Sustainability. The idea is not to wait for one to be called, but to get some friends and do it yourself: others will join in if you get it started. All you need is a quarter and some nerve. 
Twenty-five year-old Cindy Simpson is Hamilton’s latest, and only female, bike messenger. She’s out slogging it nine-to-five for Light Speed and Clean Air Couriers. On the job since Tuesday, September 30 she’s feeling it in her legs. “Rough, tiring and sore,” is how she sums up the effect of week number one. She hadn’t been on a bike for five-years before making a career out of pedaling through traffic with office documents strapped to her back. Like her Clean Air comrades Brian and Jason, she relishes the freedom of being outside, wearing whatever she wants, getting a wicked workout, meeting lots of people and finding the fastest routes. Jason, 29, plans on doing the job (“playing in traffic” he calls it) until he’s 50, at least. Hauling files in his orange Ortlieb bag, he can get most places in the city faster than any car. When he isn’t radioing them for pick-ups, company owner John Bennett pretty much leaves them alone and is super happy with their work. 
Freewheel Cycle in Dundas (9 King W.) is just one fine example of a number of independent bike stores that go way beyond the mere task of selling you a bike. Like many stores, Freewheel takes people out for Mountain Bike excursions (Wednesdays at 6pm, Sundays at 8am), provides workshops on riding and/or fixing your motorless vehicle (including women-only classes), as well as “spinning” classes during the week and weekends (various times) for those who like to get trim going nowhere fast. All staff are active in the various forms of cycling (and you thought there was only one) i.e. Mountain, Road, BMX. Staffer Dan Maggiacomo is the “Road” guy and he’s “super-stoked” about the week of races in town. 
Transportation for Liveable Communities (TLC) is the city’s only sustainable transportation advocacy group and they take their message to the streets as often as they can. They’ve been dogging the city for improvements to the cycling infrastructure and when nothing happens, they go out and agitate some more. TLC is currently working on trying to preserve McMaster campus’ pedestrian zone, threatened by a planned new entrance which brings a four-lane road into the centre of campus. TLC has helped prevent service cuts to the city’s bus service, fought against fare increases, held memorials for cyclists run down on city streets, hosted parking meter parties, Car-Free Day events and Critical Mass rides as well as movie nights, and a guest speakers series at the public library. TLC is currently looking to start a half-hour sustainable transportation show on a local campus FM station. 
The City Cycling Committee is a city-appointed committee up against the apathy of local councilors who see cycling as fringe or purely recreational, they have made some headway recently with the help of Transportation for Liveable Communities and may finally be getting front-mounted bike racks on half the city’s buses. No one on the committee is adept at holding their breath, but they are determined to see it happen. The committee puts out a city-wide cycling route map, as well as a brochure describing various rides and points of interest. 
Mac Cycle Co-op is the wide-eyed new kid on the McMaster University block, a student funded bike repair shop similar to Recycle Cycles. Sean Park is the irrepressible spark that keeps things tight at the shop in the basement of Wentworth House. Amid a jumble of bikes rescued from the garbage (supported by the city’s new ambitious waste-diversion programme), the student volunteers learn how to build a bike, and get the satisfaction of seeing someone ride off on it. Open Monday to Friday 2 to 7pm, anyone can join for a modest fee (Mac students $5, non-students $10). Park says Mac bike culture is growing, noting more bikes on campus than previous years. “We’re busy every day, it’s been nuts, but that’s what we want!” 
The Alternative Commuting & Transportation (ACT) office is a recent addition to the most densely populated bike hub in town: McMaster campus. ACT is there to enhance support for alternatives to the sprawling problem of single-occupancy car-use; things like walking, blading, cycling, car-pooling, and transit. According to ACT coordinator Jen Dawson, the hardest but most gratifying part of the job is changing the culture at McMaster from outdated car-centric thinking to the possibilities of healthy alternative modes of transportation. 
Hamilton City Hall, home to one solitary bike rack hidden out back, is a place where cycling takes a back seat to the world of roads filled with cars. Roads made up 46 per cent of the city’s 2001 capital budget, with approximately $29.3 million going towards expressways, and another $33.5 million going towards other road projects. The capital budget for cycling? $300,000. And this year, with two major cycling events in the city, the $300,000 was dropped from the budget. Their own reports show that 20 per cent of households lack cars, and 40 per cent of residents say they cycle regularly or occasionally (Hamilton-Wentworth Community Cycling Survey, 1997), but the city spends $209 on car-centric capital improvements for every dollar spent on cycling. Since 2001, cycling advocates in TLC (see above) have been requesting, badgering, begging, and demanding that the city implement their own Shifting Gears cycling plan prior to the arrival of the world to the cycling championships. At last count, there were 85 city-installed bike racks in the entire city, with business areas around McMaster University, home to thousands of cyclists, almost entirely bereft of bike racks. Cycling activists are hoping for some new blood at City Hall come the November 10 municipal election. Either that, or some signs of life from the current lot (councillors Braden, Horwath, and McCarthy excepted, Horwath getting top marks for trying!)
[VIEW Magazine]
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