Bikes on Air: interview with Kevin Sylvester

This article appeared in the first issue of dandyhorse in the summer of 2008. Get this issue here. Since this article first appeared the Ontario government has passed a law banning handheld cell phone use and distracted driving.

By Tammy Thorne
Photo by Molly Crealock

It all started one winter morning in 1999 when Metro Morning host Andy Barrie asked Kevin Sylvester how his commute in that day was. “Snow is not a problem, ice is,” he had said matter-of-factly.

Kevin Sylvester isn’t romantic about the bicycle. It’s how he gets around. However, he does not shirk the call to advocacy and says he is okay with being called an “advocate.” He does, after all, mention cycling whenever he gets the chance on air. Sylvester works as an atypical freelance radio host on CBC’s Radio One for some of the most popular shows, such as Metro Morning.

“I’d do a sports report and tack on a ‘bike report,’ where I’d talk about construction or road closures and weather conditions from a cyclist’s perspective. People started calling in. There was a huge, positive response. That is because there are so many people who bike in this city. They couldn’t get enough. So, it became a bit of a shtick that I did, but it was also a value added service.”

Sylvester says he “may be less obnoxious” when ranting about bikes on air than when he started 9 years ago. “It made sense to talk about bikes since Metro Morning is trying to build into the texture of the city. I think it added credibility to the show. No one was giving road reports from the cyclist’s perspective, and we need to know how to get home safely too.”

Indeed, Sylvester’s every day person approach to cycling provides a refreshingly normalized take on cycling that just happens to reach a huge audience. But, he has much more to say about cycling than what you hear on the air. One of his biggest pet peeves: drivers who talk on the phone.

“I can almost guarantee that if I die on the road, it will be because of some jackass on a phone. I do not understand why it is not illegal in Canada," he says.

Even though he only lived in Vancouver for half a year, while on a work assignment, he is a huge fan of that city’s bikeways. He cites Adanac, Ontario and 10th streets as the gold standard for major bike thoroughfares that we should emulate in Toronto on streets like Richmond and Palmerston.

“If we had a bikeway on Wellington, for example, with no lanes it would cause a huge uproar. But look at 10th in Vancouver – cyclists have priority. They have no lanes, just a big wide road where motorists know not to speed. They then choose other routes.”

Similarly, he says, we would have to have the same tacit understanding in Toronto where streets like University or Spadina would be understood as fast, car-oriented streets while others like Palmerston and St. George would essentially be bikes only. “And, why isn’t St. George car free?” he asks rhetorically and launches into a rant about the ridiculousness of our city’s over-accommodation to car culture.

Sylvester also notes that small businesses, like cafes, tend to pop up all along these successful swaths of bikeways in Vancouver and other cities, since cyclists can stop off wherever and whenever they want, without difficulty (or worrying about parking.)

He realizes this is not a popular sentiment among many cycling advocates, but he says unapologetically, “Bike lanes are not the solution.”

Overall, he says everyone just has to slow down. “It’s about finding your own pace. The pace of the bicycle, the pace of the city... it’s a perfect fit,” he says.

“I have never enjoyed driving down a tree-lined side street before. I do enjoy it every day on my bicycle though.”

The CBC recently installed secure, underground parking with space for 150 bikes. Story and photos from the unveiling: New secure bike parking facilities at CBC celebrated

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Heels on Wheels: Magda Olszanowski

Photo by Molly Crealock
On location at Gladstone Hotel

Bicycle by OPUS

This Heels on Wheels originally appeared in dandyhorse magazine issue #2, Spring 2009. Order this issue here.

Name: Magdalena Olszanowski

Age: 20 something

Occupation: former Marketing coordinator at the Gladstone Hotel, freelance photographer, label co-owner of Synaptic Plastic, co-producer of Sensoria and Philomath, a monthly music and multimedia night.

What is YIMBY?

YIMBY is an acronym for Yes, In My Back Yard, meant as a contrast to the nimby phenomenon. The YIMBY Festival is where people interested in citizen based community development can exchange ideas. Christina Zeidler founded the festival in 2006 as a result of her work with neighbourhood groups, particularly Active 18, who were responding to unchecked development in the Queen West Triangle. She realized that many groups are unfairly labelled NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), when often they are the ones sharing information and making sure that people don’t get left behind in the city building process. I took on the role as coordinator of the festival in 2006 and producer in 2007.

What is your favourite room at the Gladstone?

The Canadiana Room because it’s aesthetically inviting and transforms the room into a totally different place, yet it’s still Canadian with the antler lamp and the woods behind you. I am not a camping person, so simulacra is as close to nature as I will get.

Do you have any tips for fashionable cyclists?

If you don’t want the toe of your shoe to get scuffed, throw on a pair of slippers to ride in and carry your other shoes in a basket. I have ridden with my D&G gold peep-toe heels before. Big mistake.

Any tricks you use to arrive safely and in style?

Always wearing my helmet of course! It’s great that nowadays there is a variety to choose from, so it can match your wardrobe. I am the most painful broken record when it comes to lecturing my peers about wearing a helmet. My brain means so much to me!

What is one thing you’d like to see the city do to improve cycling?

I’d love for the city to take cycling culture more seriously. Proper education about cycling, including promotion, should be mandatory in high schools. Growing up I was too afraid to ride around the city, as were many of my friends, because we didn’t know better. Oh and, of course, more bike lanes please!

Favourite bike-y quote or mantra?

When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.
– H.G. Wells

The Gladstone Hotel hosts the alternative design event Come Up To My Room from January 26-29, 2012. Currently in its 9th year, the event features the creations of artists and designers who share what's in their heads in 11 rooms and 14 public space installations. Also part of the event are design talks and tours.

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Bikeaholics not-so-anonymous: Saving the Jarvis lane

Jarvis Collegiate sits at the corner of Jarvis and Wellesley Streets, at the crux of two crucial bike lanes on Jarvis and Sherbourne. The obvious spatial significance made it a natural place for to congregate and organize. The Toronto Cyclists Union (TCU) was there on Monday to brainstorm ways to save the Jarvis lane, which the city voted to remove last summer without public consultation.

Being a cyclist that makes his home in Canada’s busiest metropolis isn’t easy. Aside from having to deal with exhaust fumes and inspired curse words from out-of-town motorists who invade my neighbourhood during what seems to be a never-ending rush hour, there is a lack of dedicated space in which I can safely commute. Enter Dave Meslin. A dedicated community organizer since the 1990s, his most recent contribution involves mobilizing the TCU to work toward the salvation of the much-needed Jarvis artery. He works the Jarvis Collegiate classroom with a seasoned vibe, mostly serving as a facilitator. His first order of business was to offer chocolate chip cookies to everyone.

This meeting isn’t just about Jarvis, but what it represents to city cyclists. Promised improvements by our often-inept city council have not only failed to materialize, but local politicians have actually managed to oversee a stunning recent increase in vehicular, pedestrian, and cycling traffic downtown without agreeing to prioritize a coherent plan to deal with any of it. Bicycle lane additions and David Miller’s sorely-needed Transit City TTC plan (Councillor Adam Vaughan and others have identified it as much more than that – “it is a social plan”) have been put on the back burner by Rob Ford, a mayor who could stand to take a bike lane to the local grocery store instead of driving. Understandably, his questionable strategies are facing opposition, as noted by this week’s budget victory.

Here is a quick wrap-up of the proceedings:

-          It was made public that there will be a Council chamber meeting on Feb 20th at City Hall (from 6:30pm-8pm) in order to discuss the Jarvis Cultural Corridor that was announced by councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s office.

-          There will be a group ride on the one-year anniversary of the Jarvis bike lanes vote (June 23rd, 2012). This date is subject to change.

-          One female attendee expressed being uncomfortable with using the Sherbourne Street bike lane due to safety issues (separated lane or not).

- and were made public.

-          Union posters have been deemed acceptable by Ryerson University.

-          There was a proposal to create a “JET” (Jarvis Emergency Taskforce) to “Occupy” Jarvis Street in the event of short-notice removal of bike lanes. Strategies were discussed.

A cost of $250,000 to remove the bike lane, plus whatever the cost of the environmental assessment would be, was confirmed as passed down from council documents. After consultation with a lawyer, the removal was deemed a “class C” due to significant environmental impact. This means that total costs for removal could be close to $500,000.

Check the dandyhorse blog on January 26 for the next post about the Toronto Cyclists Union. You can also get involved here. Memberships to the TCU start at $30, but are not necessary to attend meetings and participate.


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Doug Ford Doesn’t Like Books

Illustration by Clayton Hanmer (CTON)

The above illustration first appeared in dandyhorse magazine issue 7 (aka the Food issue). Get it here.

In the summer of 2011, then city councillor Doug Ford, a proponent of closing several Toronto library branches, responded to iconic Canadian writer Margaret Atwood's criticism of the proposed cuts:

"Good luck to Margaret Atwood," Ford said on July 26, 2011. "I don't even know her. She could walk by me, I wouldn't have a clue who she is. But she's not down here. She's not dealing with the problem."

In 2008, Atwood published Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, in which she examines why people--and governments--are spending more than they're earning.


On January 17, 2012, after massive public outrage, Toronto city council voted against many proposed service cuts, including those that would have closed or drastically reduced library hours. Torontoist has more great info posted today recapping events and votes.


UPDATE: In the spring of 2018, as Doug Ford is running to try and defeat premier Kathleen Wynne,  as the leader of the provincial Conservative party he said this week that he would let developers have at the Greenbelt, but has now retracted that idea.

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Two wheels / one frozen city: a dandy dispatch on Winnipeg winter cycling

Two wheels / One frozen city

Winter commuting in Winnipeg by bike

Story by James Patterson

Photos of James and his bike by Kristen Bromilow

The original decision to start winter biking was a simple, unassuming one; as I was on my way to the gym one morning, I began thinking about how it was situated off of a bus route, and just too far to get to by foot. I have unfettered access to a car, but I’m not a huge fan of driving short distances – and driving to the gym seems somehow wrong. I’m the type of cyclist who finds joy in my daily commute and overall, cycling makes up over 80 per cent of my vehicular transportation. The solution, obviously, was to bike to the gym even in the winter. But as my wheels were turning I thought: Why stop there? And so it was decided: I would commute by bike each and every day this winter.

All my life I had experienced Winnipeg winters, but I really had no idea what to expect from a Winnipeg winter biking other than the facts; I would be cold, I would be considered somewhat crazy, and people close to me would openly and repeatedly ponder my choice and safety as winter loomed. But, as the season changed, it was my excitement that loomed larger.

I would be experiencing around 30 days of minus-20 degree highs, not including that biting wind chill in one of Canada’s coldest cities – aka “Winterpeg.”

To most Canadians it is understood that Winnipeg’s winters are, to be kind, legendary; something written about in novels, poems and songs (like the great song Prairie Town by Neil Young and Randy Bachmann, which features the chorus line: “Portage and Main, 50 below”). Many earmark Winnipeg as a place of great bands and artists, sometimes the rationale for the creative surge is “what else is there to do during winter in Winnipeg.” It’s a place where, on the coldest days, spit can freeze before it hits the ground. So how could someone rationally decide to bike here?

To the surprise of many, people do bike during Winnipeg’s winter and most think nothing of it. Shortly after making my decision, I talked to a few friends who’d done it and they all loved it. It seemed to open up winter for them. It got them out of the house when the thought of warming up the car, waiting at the bus stop or walking in the frigid air kept them inside. This piqued my interest and made the challenge even more exciting.

The Build-up

In the months leading up to my first season of winter cycling I obsessively readied for it, I spent far too much of my downtime reading tips on what tools and gear I needed for winter cycling. I found many articles that encouraged giving winter cycling a try, but still there were many daunting descriptions of the cold that seemed to reinforce the idea that winter cyclists are tough road warriors pedalling into horizontal snowstorms in solitude. Not to mention the challenge of determining the perfect number of layers needed to both avoid hypothermia and overheating (such as waterproof footwear).

So, to get some sort of clarity about what was actually needed to winter cycle, I talked to people in the courier community and in bike shops, which resulted in more conflicting advice. Some swore that you must use a fixed-gear, others said “take off those derailleurs,” use a frame that you don’t care about—the salt will eat it anyways— others advocated slick tires as opposed to knobby, and fenders were a must. On and on the advice went. (Others—and I would later find out these would usually be people who have never winter cycled—advocated for studded tires that will make an incessant clicking noise on the bare road, which is what you’ll be riding on most the time.) Despite the varied perspectives, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my journey towards winter cycling was gaining a deeper understanding of how my bike actually worked and understanding how I ride in different conditions.

A friend had gifted me a Manitoba-made Sekine 10-speed, produced in the’70s or ’80s, which became my winter bike. What would the bike need to be winterized? I opted for a set of strong rims, a flip-flop hub, pursuit handlebars, and some slightly knobby cyclo-cross tires. With these tweaks the Sekine became my primary commuter and shortly thereafter, my favourite bike. I took some of the advice I had received into consideration—like different types of tire traction on snow and ice—but decided my best course was to be open-minded and versatile in my first season of winter cycling. I’ll probably try other gear, like adding studded tires, for when I ride to work on the frozen Assiniboine river. (Stay tuned for the inaugural winter web issue of dandyhorse this February, which will include James’ Bike Spotting winter cyclist Q&A profile.)

The first snow and the new rules

Around mid-November the first snow hit. Winnipeg’s streets had become nearly absent of cyclists weeks before, levelling out to only about 15 to 20 sightings a day, as opposed to the usual few hundred fair-weather two wheelers. I was actually surprised at the number of people still pedalling to work. The temperature was dipping to minus 15 at night and then we got about five centimetres of the white stuff. Riding home in rush hour traffic, after a fresh snowfall, for the first time, on one of Winnipeg’s main arterial roads, was a harrowing experience. Being seen by other traffic was paramount, as drivers were just getting accustomed to the winter roads, as was I. Traction wasn’t the problem, but the ragged, busy roads packed with snow, limited curb space and antsy drivers made for a good trial-by-fire experience. I took it slow and had to learn to assert myself, to ensure I had enough space on the road, riding out from the snow-packed curb. Having only been a seasonal cyclist until this year, rush hour traffic in the dark was an event that my research hadn’t quite prepared me for. It became clear to me instantly: Lights are the most important winter cycling must-have item for year-round commuters.

The author practised hitting rough patches of snow and ice on quiet side roads without traffic before riding during rush hour.

Within a day of the first snowfall all the main roads and bus routes were plowed clear of snow and it was back to cycling with somewhat normal traction again, at least on main routes. Bus routes and arterial roads were the way to go, especially if you have dedicated bus/bike lanes. I would keep slow on side streets but scoot along as fast as I wanted on these main streets. Surprisingly, traffic—even buses—treated me with much more respect than I had ever encountered before (if only that were true in the Summer months!?). Also, given that most city sidewalks become icy goat paths (due to sub-standard political priorities about snow removal), winter cyclists probably have an easier time than most pedestrians as Winnipeg.

In a short time it became a joy to do the 20-km-plus bike commute in winter, in Winnipeg.

One of the major adjustments so far has been finding the right clothing and wearing what is appropriate. Too little attire and you’re frozen, too much and you’re virtually in a duck down-encased sauna. If you’re over dressed, shorter trips will leave you sweating like Richard Simmons to the golden oldies and prompt many a furrowed brow from co-workers in the morning. On longer trips your sweat welcomes the cold in and can become dangerous over time.

Again, my research revealed that there is plenty of information out there for what’s needed; from four pairs of socks, neoprene facemasks, sweat-wicking long underwear (I really recommend this), arm warmers to hand pogies (essentially large handlebar mittens that stay on your bike, removing the need for oversized gloves). There’s a litany of choices and it's hard to know what is right for you—until you try it.

From one day to the next, especially in the early parts of winter, Winnipeg temperatures fluctuate between plus 4 and minus 35 degrees with the wind chill. Despite this being one of the mildest winters on record, I’ve already biked through most of these conditions this season. Anything below minus 20 and I’ll bring a pair of ski goggles and an added base layer, especially for my hands. Anything below minus 10 and I’ve got long underwear on along with my everyday staples of a tube scarf, windproof hoodie, cross-country ski gloves, toque and helmet. Inside my commuter bag is a small set of tools, hand pump and a spare tube. In the end I’ve never found myself too hot or too cold, only refreshed by the exercise I’ve got when I arrive at the office or return home.

Aside from the odd looks you get when you show up at a Winnipeg Jets game on your bike, or the increased frequency of cleaning and lubing your bike, so far I've found that there’s little tough about winter cycling.

Next up in our winter cycling series, in the lead up to our first winter web issue in February, we'll have a more tips for first time winter cyclists.

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