Toronto the Good

Toronto gets a bad rap. And perhaps, after so many years of being considered (especially by those who live there) the only city in Canada, it is well-deserved. Canadians travelling abroad were bombarded by questions about The Big Smoke, even if they had the unspeakable misfortune of living three thousand kilometres away in Medicine Hat. All of the country’s news, sports and culture appeared to emanate from Toronto – the rest of the country merely gazing longingly at its divine glow from afar. Needless to say, this grew tiresome – and now, to hate Toronto has become fashionable, if not de rigueur in most Canadian places that do not happen to be Toronto. Unless you live there, do not, under any circumstances, talk about the Maple Leafs.

And yet, I cannot help but love it. I love the bigness, the diversity, and the self-absorbed, angst-ridden complexity that comes with being one of a handful of cities that are brash enough to declare themselves “world-class”. And while it is certainly no Oulu, compared to Winnipeg this time of year, there are bikes everywhere.Perhaps this is indicative of some sort of change. Back in the early 1990’s when I called Toronto home, I don’t remember seeing bikes. The city felt dauntingly aggressive and undeniably superficial. People mostly kept to themselves and everything was about getting or being more than, bigger than and better than everybody else. It feels homier now, a little less smug, and somehow more approachable. Mind you, it might not be the city that has changed.

Last weekend I had the good fortune to go back to Toronto to art direct a super cool photo shoot with crazy talented photographer Matt Barnes for a dream client. Of course this meant I had to miss a workout or two on the goddamn rollers, but we all need to make sacrifices sometimes for our job.

Two of Matt’s trusty assistants give 110% for the lighting test.It takes a village.The man himself, the unsinkable Matt Barnes.

Headquarters for my short visit was The Drake Hotel. I chose The Drake because it satisfied three very basic criteria:
1) it is close to Matt’s photo studio.
2) it is ridiculously cool. The Drake is a refurbished dive hotel built in 1890 that has become a hipster haven for food, music and culture, not to mention lots and lots of beards. Unlike many boutique hotels, The Drake doesn’t take itself too seriously – while it has obviously invested heavily in design, it still manages to keep things personal in its own unique and quirky way.

I found this hairy-chested man (complete with kinky nipple rings) waiting in my bed when I arrived. Yes, sir. They really know how to make a girl feel welcome.I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there was just something about the place I liked.

3) It is close to an awesome bike shop
The last time I was in Toronto I visited la Bicicletta, which was certainly awesome, but took me about seventeen hours to get to via Toronto’s public transportation system. In comparison, The Drake is a mere stone’s throw from Blacksmith Cycle, a bike shop who’s name had been mentioned to me by enough people that it could not be ignored. I had to go.

Walking into a strange place for the first time can be a little intimidating. Sometimes you just need a little something to break the ice – to establish some common ground. After exchanging brief and awkward pleasantries with the gentleman behind the counter, I found that little something – a certain Italian bike maker named Dario Pegorrettti. I love me some Pegoretti.

Soon I had an espresso in hand and the the mutual bike love was a-flowing.My barista was none other than shop owner Mike Yakubowicz, who runs Blacksmith along with his lovely wife Jamie. Of course it didn’t take long before we found a mutual connection – in this case my friend Dave, a recent Winnipeg arrival and card-carrying member of the Brotherhood of the Beard. I should have known, since everybody knows all you guys with beards are related somehow.

Jamie emerged from the back of the shop, the phone cradled under her chin and their dog Obi (wan kenobi?) hot on her heels. Jamie wears a number of hats at the shop – including wrench – something she sheepishly admits when I ask. I am sincerely impressed and tell her so. This leads to a conversation about women in cycling – how things are changing. Slowly. She tells me about a dream to start a women’s club ride and I tell her of the success of the Dirt Skirt series that is just starting here in Winnipeg, and how at the first mountain bike race last summer they got almost 50 racers. Women racers. A number like that is unheard of in regular co-ed races. In spite of myself, I find this a bit troubling – women need to learn to race with men, it is the reality for those of us who race in small centres. Unless you want to a) race pro, or b) only do one or two races a year, you need to venture outside the cozy bosom of women-only events. Having said that, if these rides and races get even ONE woman to catch the racing bug and gain the confidence to ride alongside the men in the sanctioned races, well that is something.

Mike and Jamie keep apologizing for the state of the shop – they are in the midst of a move – so the lighting is dark and there is shit all over the place. But it is awesome bike shit, so that’s cool. I tell them not to worry – I never trust a bike shop that is too pristine. Blacksmith is perfectly perfect.

Thanks to the talents of a shop employee, the chalkboard walls are decorated with portraits of cycling royalty.

As well as this list of all-too familiar excuses to skip your ride…

And the only appropriate response :

WWJVD = What Would Jens Voigt Do?  (A: He would HTFU)

Ambiance aside, they also have some very cool products, with an impressive list of brands that consists of the who’s who of great bicycles. Sadly, a new bike is not on my shopping list today, but I do manage to pick up a few odds-and-sods, including some fancy non-toxic and biodegradable chain cleaner by local Toronto company Orontas, makers of sustainable and environmentally responsible cycling products. I haven’t tried it yet, but the packaging is so beautifully designed that I have to fight the urge to spray it liberally on my hair and face. Like most of you, I rarely leave a bike shop empty-handed. More importantly, I leave the shop with a big-ass smile on my face, having made yet another meaningful connection in this big beautiful world of bicycles.

Adieu, Toronto, until we meet again. Don’t go changing.