A new Torontonian’s first bike

Bike lanes give peace of mind to first-time Toronto cyclists...like me.

A new Torontonian's first bike

Story and photos by Jenna Campbell

I am a huge wannabe Torontonian. I moved two years ago from the other side of the country — a small rodeo town called Strathmore, in Alberta -- to attend Ryerson’s School of Journalism. I am entering my third year, but I am sure I still emanate a western prairie-ness that makes me stand out. This was my first summer in Toronto and I wanted to learn how to ride a bike downtown. I wanted to explore my new city and I thought being a cyclist would bring me a step closer towards becoming a true Torontonian.

So, I needed a bike.

I was thinking about a Canadian Tire bike because I knew they have fairly inexpensive models. I figured, I didn’t need anything fancy.

I was going to walk to the store, buy a bike and walk it home. (Dundas Square was not where I wanted to attempt my first bike ride in Toronto. Plus, I figured some assembly might be required to make it fully ride-able.)

But, I wanted to shop around first and make sure I was getting the best deal.


Charlie's Bike Joint at Queen and Sherbourne.

I headed to Charlie’s Bike Joint near Queen and Sherbourne streets. I didn’t know much about the shop except that they build and sell bikes from donated parts.

When I arrived I spoke with Charlie’s program director, Katherine McIlveen-Brown. We sat in the back room, past the front desk and rows of bikes and scattered parts. She has smiling brown eyes and her hair was gathered in a girlish side ponytail.

I started our conversation by telling McIlveen-Brown about my previous plan.

“Oh no you can’t go to Canadian Tire,” she laughed. “It’ll fall a part.”

She recommended I buy a secondhand bike and soup it up with quality parts.

“It looks less attractive for theft too if you have sort of an older, crappy [-looking] but actually secretly good [quality] bike.”

Kathleen at Charlie's had helpful advice for the first-time rider.

She had my attention. I asked she start from the beginning. What does the average urban cyclist need in a basic commuter bike?

“You don’t need that many gears in Toronto since it’s flat for the most part unless you’re going north,” she said. “I prefer to keep bikes that are lighter weight. Single speed is great, fun as well, but also make sure there is room, a place on your bike, to put panniers and a fender.”
I thought 'Oh no, she's already speaking in bike jargon.' I had McIlveen-Brown spell pannier for me. (I originally wrote “P-A-N-Y-A-Y.” She said, helpfully; 'It’s a French word.')

Panniers are usually positioned on the back end of a bike and are used to carry personal belongings. She said they are a good alternative to wearing a heavy backpack that can sometimes throw off a new cyclist’s balance (not mention the wear-and-tear on your shoulders and neck).

I learned a fender is the strip of metal that wraps around the (back) wheel. McIlveen-Brown said they are essential because otherwise “you’ll get a strip down your back.”

“When you’re on a bike in the rain — it just shoots — it spins off the wheel and shoots all over your butt so it looks like you peed your pants or something worse.”


Ensure your seat is covered with a plastic bag to maximize security. Try to lock through your frame and wheel.

McIlveen-Brown gave me many tips including: put bike lights on a lock or a helmet to avoid forgetting them, lock the back wheel instead of the front because it’s more expensive, cover pricey seats with plastic bags to ward off theft, and plan a route in advance to avoid hitting highly-congested streets by accident.

Charlie’s Bike Joint didn’t have any bikes to fit my five-foot-ten frame so I continued my search for two-wheeled transcendence. With the Canadian Tire option eliminated from my mind and having visited a shop that sells used bikes, I decided to visit a shop that sells brand new bikes. Cycle Solutions was in the neighbourhood, near Parliament and Carlton Streets, but I didn’t find anything that fit my super-low $200 budget. The shop has a lot of really nice bicycles priced roughly from $400 to over a $1000.

After a week of further searching (now, starting with phone calls to different used bike shops asking about the frame sizes they had in stock) I was still not finding "the" bike. So, I tried calling Charlie’s one more time. The man on the phone said yes, they had a bike my size and, yes, it's decently price at $150.

"It's really shiny too," he said.

I immediately got excited and exclaimed: I'll be right over!

Outside, in front of the shop, there she stood: a beautiful, baby blue, gazelle of a bike. She was gleaming underneath specks of light rain and had a price tag of $150 dangling from the handlebars.

The blue gazelle awaits me. 

I oohed and aahed and right away knew it was the one.

I didn’t want to be an impulsive shopper so I made one last trip to a used bike shop called Bike Sauce just to be sure. But I didn’t find anything that topped the blue gazelle.

That evening when I walked home, rain was coming down in sheets and my feet were soaked from walking in puddles, but I was in the best of moods — I had my umbrella and I had found the bike.

I called and let Charlie's know that I'd pick the blue gazelle up the next day.

Up next in this series: A new Torontonian's first bike ride.

Jenna Campbell is dandyhorse's new web editor and will be chronicling her experiences as she becomes a commuter cyclist in Toronto. She'll ride bike lanes and compare different bike facilities from a "first timer's" perspective.

Related on the dandyBLOG:

A new Torontonian's first bike ride

Build a bike, build your confidence

Bike to the Future…of Toronto Centre-Rosedale

dandySHOPS: BikeSauce

Bike Spotting on Sherbourne at Adelaide: Do you know about the pilot project for bike lanes on Adelaide-Richmond?

Bike Spotting: Wellesley and Sherbourne

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