Words and pictures by Jun Nogami
Toronto Centre Cyclists organized a Toronto History Ride which was a group bike ride up and down the Don Valley, followed by a series of lectures about the history of bikes in Toronto. We gathered at Corktown Commons under a beautiful sunny sky.
The route back and forth to Taylor Creek Park was along some of the trails that would have been ridden by two important historical figures of Toronto’s cycling past: Nora Young and Mike Barry Sr. Arthur and Peter lead us off.
Regrouping at Pottery Road.
Peter leading a group on the return trip.
Almost back to Corktown Commons, with amended trail marking.
Now heading towards the Esplanade, eventually to C’est What for the talks.
Cycling advocate Adrian Currie is our MC.
The first speaker was Lorne Shields, who showed us a few choice images from his collection of over 4000 photos that pre date 1900.
He led off with a daguerrotype from 1850, perhaps one of the earliest images of a true bicycle. As the pictures stepped us through time, he talked about both the societal context of some of the images such as a formal portrait of a four year old champion cyclist. A rich variety of different human powered vehicles was shown, ranging from monocycles to quadricycles, before things settled onto the familiar diamond frame of the safety bicycle.
He also highlighted some of the technological innovations that later found their way into automobiles, such as the differential, and pneumatic tires. Just to show that there is nothing new under the sun, he also showed a pre 1890 safety bicycle towing a child trailer. My favourite image was a Eadweard Muybridge photo of a few bike club members in San Francisco.
The next speaker was Julia Morgan, who told us about her former neighbour Nora Young, an incredible cyclist and athlete whose story has been largely forgotten.
Nora was born in England, moved to Canada in 1919, and then to Toronto in 1927. The thirties was an era that could be regarded as a golden age for women’s athletics. She took up cycling, and soon found that she could win races, even competing against the men in long distance races. In one case, she would have beaten even more men in the Broadview 50 mile race if she hadn’t paused at the 25 mile turnaround point to have a cup of tea! Here is an image of Nora from early in her racing career.
After serving in the second world war, she returned to Toronto and found that there were far fewer opportunities for female athletes. She got a job and settled down. However, in her sixties she found a second career participating in athletics for seniors. She won many medals competing in events such as the Senior Olympics, not just in cycling, but in a variety of track and field events as well.
Julia was fortunate to interview Nora at the age of 95. These interviews as well as historical records will form the basis of an animated film that Ms. Morgan is producing, called Undeniably Young. There is much more information about Nora Young and this film project in this previous Dandyhorse article.
Next, Erin Marcham, a member of Randonneurs Ontario, talked to us about randonneuring, and its history in Toronto.
Randonneuring is an amateur long distance cycling discipline where cyclists cover distances between 200 and 1200 kilometres within a set period of time. The oldest randonneuring event is Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) which runs ever four years. It was first held in 1891. The goal is to compete the 1200 km distance in under 90 hours. Qualifying for the event requires a person to complete a series of shorter rides of 200 km, 300 km, 400 km, and 600 km within a set number of months.
Mike Barry Sr (previously profiled in Dandyhorse) founded the Toronto Randonneurs, and this club sent their first riders to PBP in 1983. Mike’s company, Mariposa Bicycles, produces beautiful steel framed bikes, with many of them having the integrated racks, lighting and fenders ideal for randonneuring. Mike passed away last year, but the company lives on under the leadership of his son. There will be a book launch of the volume that he co-wrote with photographer Water Lai on Tuesday June 11 at Amsterdam Brewery.
Erin also showed us her bicycle, and told us that it was not necessary to have an extremely fancy ride to participate in randonneuring. It was built up from an MEC bike, but converted to 650B tires, with added dynamo lighting and an appropriate handlebar bag to carry all the necessary snacks, etc for those long rides.
She quoted an 80 year old member of Randonneurs Ontario who said that long distance cycling was 80 % mental, and the remaining 20% was also mental. One surmises that it would help to have legs of iron and a comfortable saddle as well.
The next speaker was Albert Koehl, who talked about the history of bike lanes in Toronto, but going much further back than he usually does, back in fact to the 1800’s.
Before 1990, cycling was common among the moneyed elite, and there was also significant interest in cycling as a sport, with the results of races routinely making the newspapers. Cycling societies such as the Canadian Wheelmen (the forerunner of the CAA) had enough influence to press for improved roads, with the first asphalt roads in Toronto being Bay and then Jarvis. Longer routes that led out of town were packed cinder tracks, with Kingston Rd being described as one of the premiere cycling routes in North America.
Unfortunately, around 1900 the elite started to lose interest in cycling and so in the ensuing decades, even as the number of cyclists increased, their influence steadily declined, and this only accelerated with the advent of the automobile. This leads us to the auto dominated landscape that with which are saddled in the current day. Albert is working on a book on the history of cycling in Toronto.
Our final speaker was journalist and former competitive cyclist Laura Robinson.
She has written several books about cycling, and more generally, the history of female athletes. She started racing in 1973 and told us stories about the push to get equal prize money for both women and men. At that time it was common for female bike racers to earn prizes such as sewing machines, in lieu of cash. Around the same time, there was a bike race around Queen’s Park, part of the Canada Cup series sponsored by Canadian Tire. While the men had the opportunity to race around Queen’s Park Crescent, the women’s race was relegated to a parking lot. After much lobbying on behalf of the female racers, in 1990 City Council agreed there must be a women’s race as well as a five-year plan for equal prize money. Once women won the right to race, Canadian Tire stayed for one more year when there was a very exciting women’s race, and then they pulled out as sponsors and the race was killed.
She also talked about some of the challenges faced by female athletes, specifically sexual harassment. In one case described in her book Black Tights, a cycling coach escaped prosecution and then moved to the US where he continued to prey on female athletes. Finally, she mentioned some of her work in developing cycling talent at First Nations schools, as well as her work with the Fast and Female program.
Overall, it was a very interesting program presenting varying aspects of the history of cycling in Toronto, from the 1800’s to the present day. Thanks to all the speakers, and to Toronto Center Cyclists for organizing the event.