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11 Things I learned cycling in Toronto

Toronto is a very different city by bike. Cycling in Toronto can bring you closer to our Great Lake Ontario, our rivers, forested ravines and other hidden natural wonders. It reveals hidden artworks. It’s also the easiest, cheapest way I know to discover new neighbourhoods.

I’ve lived in this city for 30 years, but only saw a fraction of what makes it great until I started cycling in Toronto more seriously a few summers ago. Since then, I’ve visited more Toronto parks, beaches, cemeteries, trails, and – confession time – ice cream shops, than I’d even heard of before. I’ve also learned a few things along the way…

Things I learned cycling in Toronto

Bike helmet resting on beach sand in Toronto
Going to the Beaches is no longer an ordeal!

15km is not far

From the Beaches to where I live in Parkdale is only 15km. By public transport, getting there can take up to two hours, through cross-town traffic and the inevitable construction detours. So before I started biking, I considered any 15km journey “too far.” Then I learned I can be there in under an hour, with waterfront views most of the way. Whether it’s going to Balmy Beach for a swim, or just to see a friend who lives on the East Side, cycling in Toronto has taught me that “the other side of town” is no longer an excuse not to visit things you enjoy.

Toronto is not flat

If you live, work and play downtown, Toronto seems pretty flat. The old joke amongst many of my Queen West friends is that we get nosebleeds if we step north of Bloor Street, and it’s true for most of my life here I rarely had reason to. Even then, going north was usually by subway – which doesn’t exactly give you a great sense of topography. But once I exhausted riding back and forth along the lakeshore, there was nowhere else to go but north. Which is how I truly realized that our city does actually have hills. The gyms may be closed, but Pottery Road is always open.

Women stops while cycling in Toronto to pose with Gargoyle sculpture on the Don River Valley bike trail
I break for gargoyles

Some of the best street art isn’t on the street

The first time biking the Lower Don River Valley with my friend Carolyn, we were stopped in our tracks by several stone gargoyles laying in the grass alongside the trail. I felt like someone had placed these beautifully stoic gothic monsters there just for me! Duane Linklater made these cast replicas of gargoyles on Toronto buildings as part of the Don River Valley Park Art Program. It was my first experience with the outdoor gallery that is our bike trails.

Indigenous artwork mural on the Humber River trail in Toronto
Murals on the Humber River Valley trail

Over on the Humber River side there’s the groovy abandoned 1950s Oculus Pavilion, which looks like a Star Trek set dropped into a meadow, and a long mural of colourful Indigenous art. Pretty much every trail I’ve cycled has fantastic murals on the undersides of bridges and other hidden infrastructure. In a city that’s so frustratingly designed for drivers, it’s a delight to find surprise art that you can’t see from a car.

Where the washrooms are

Toronto has an international bad reputation for its lack of public washrooms. When the pandemic started and the usual malls and cafés closed up their facilities, finding a place to go outside your home became a real problem. I was thankful for all those times I needed to pee while cycling – because I knew which parks and other city facilities had decent washrooms. I can usually count on Nathan Phillips Square, Coronation Park, Trillium Park and Woodbine Beach but here’s a good website that keeps track of the open washrooms, handy for cyclists or anyone.

Bikes and cyclists at Leslie Spit in Toronto
A group ride out to Leslie Spit with GyalDem Cycling Collective, where all bikes are welcome

You don’t need spandex to join a bike gang

Real talk: cycling groups are intimidating. Everyone is fully kitted out, proudly sporting their past race jerseys and specialty socks. I know that clothing specifically designed for cycling is comfortable and efficient for long and/or fast rides. It’s also expensive and hard to find in average/large body sizes. So it can be a barrier to entry for beginner or casual cyclists wanting to ride in groups.

Thankfully, Toronto has a growing number of informal clubs who get together for fun – no spandex required. Check out groups like Toronto Cruisers (who ride at night with lights and music – it’s basically a travelling circus), ManDem Cycling Club (an inclusive group for riders of all levels that also does community charity work), and their sister crew the GyalDem Cycling Collective (who post helpful videos of various bike routes). I’ve had fun with all three and embrace their philosophy that riding bikes is better with friends.

Woman's high heel boot on a bicycle pedal.
If you are inclined to mansplain how this is not a good idea…it totally is!

You can totally bike in high heels

People sometimes stop me when I’m cycling in Toronto in heels to ask me if that hurts, or is dangerous. But if you think about it, it’s the front/ ball of your foot that belongs on the pedal and does the work. I don’t wear heels for long leisure rides, but if I’m commuting or going out at night I don’t let wanting to dress up stop me from taking my bicycle!

Butterfly on flowers at Toronto botanical gardens.
Photo by Jennifer MacDonell via Flickr

Toronto’s best botanical gardens are your reward for biking uphill

OK I realize I might be starting to sound like a downtown / West end snob, but before cycling in Toronto I had never even heard of Edwards Garden and the Toronto Botanical Gardens, never mind seen them. Tens of thousands of flowers, shrubs and trees, beautifully landscaped over four acres in North York.  A perfect escape into nature in the city, conveniently located right on the Don River Valley path.

Same with The Humber Arboretum on the west side, part of 250 acres of nature connected to the West Humber River trail in North Etobicoke. These free conservation areas are gems of the city that are not very well promoted as tourist attractions and just waiting for you to discover by bike.

Bike cars on the Go Train to Niagara Falls
Special bike cars on the Go Train from Toronto to Niagara Falls

Those bike racks on buses are easy to use

I’ve written before about taking my bike to Niagara Falls on the Go Train. Go Transit dedicates cars for carrying bikes on this popular train route on summer weekends, and it’s an inexpensive, fun way to get out of the city. But to go further within the city when you’re cycling in Toronto and the GTA, the bike racks on the fronts of Go buses and TTC buses are also easy to use. I admit I’ve taken the bus up hills when I’m not feeling it and ridden back down. So no judgement if you do, too!

If only Via Rail was so accommodating. You can technically take your bike on a Via train trip. But not every train, or every departure, has a baggage car. You have to call to confirm and even then it is subject to change. And they charge you $25 each way for the privilege. ($50 for an e-bike.) Oh, it’s also currently suspended – during the height of interest in cycling. C’mon Via. Do better.

Multi-Use Trails aren’t fun for anyone anymore

Martin Goodman Trail was my first cycling in Toronto love. Part of the massive Waterfront Trail project, it takes you from one end of the city to another along Lake Ontario and provides safer riding away from cars.

Toronto has many of these kinds of trails, designed as “multi-use” – meaning cyclists share the pavement with pedestrians, rollerbladers, skateboarders, and the like. This was somewhat manageable before the pandemic. But since lockdowns there’s nowhere else to go and everyone is encouraged to socialize and exercise outside, so the Martin Goodman Trail has become a total shitshow. Slow wandering couples, excitable unpredictable children, off leash dogs, meandering new cyclists, speeding road cyclists… all in each other’s way. In the downtown core near Harbourfront, it’s especially dangerous. The pandemic has proven that expecting everyone not driving a car to share the same space just doesn’t work. Which brings me to….

Cycling in Toronto on Sherbourne bike lane
Progress. Dedicated bike lanes on Sherbourne. Photo courtesy Ontario Growth Secretariat, Ministry of Municipal Affairs

Cyclists need more safe spaces

Toronto isn’t exactly world famous as a cycling destination. Probably because our city hasn’t invested in safe cycling routes, so many citizens don’t feel comfortable switching to a bike for their main transportation. Things are getting better. We’ve only just started installing “Cycle Tracks” – bike lanes that are actually separately from car traffic by physical barriers. See a map of Toronto cycling network here.

This summer, for the second year, the city is opening up a few major roadways on weekends for something called ActiveTO. I do wish they would stop calling it “road closures” – it’s only closed for cars, but is still very much in use. The program is a huge success that proves if you give citizens safer spaces for cycling in Toronto, they will get on bikes. Imagine some 24/7 car-free arteries across the city one day? A dream! In the meantime, sign this petition to keep ActiveTo going.

Tout est possible

Have you spotted the words “tout est possible” (translation: anything is possible) spray painted on Toronto streets? They can be found throughout the city, but the first one I saw was on the Lower Don River trail, and I usually spot at least one on every ride. One Torontonian decided to cycle all the known locations. I don’t need to do that. Every time I get out cycling in Toronto, whether for a short ride or a long one, I have that feeling. That on a bike the city is full of possibilities. So to use another French phrase, on y va!

What have you learned on your adventures cycling in Toronto? Let me know in the comments.

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