Cycling Think & Do Tank: How to Love, Not Fear, Your First Ride — A Lesson from a New Cyclist

This post by Benvenuto Triolo is part of Spacing‘s partnership with the Toronto Cycling Think and Do Tank at the University of Toronto. Find out more about the think tank, and the series, here.

As a new cyclist in Toronto, I was surprised at how quickly I was able to enjoy riding in the city. Over the past month, I’ve transitioned to this fast, efficient and inexpensive lifestyle. Like most people, I had a huge barrier to my first bike ride in the city: the perceived dangers associated with riding a bicycle in a world of massive, speeding cars, aggressive taxis, and poor cycling infrastructure. Cycling next to cars on busy streets is definitely a far cry from my childhood experience of riding a mountain bike on the sidewalks of Brampton’s suburbs. Frankly, taking that first step onto a bike in nearly a decade (and in Toronto nonetheless), was scary. The good news is my fear was easily conquered. I’d like to share with you what made my experience so unexpectedly pleasant.

If not for a friend, I would have settled for the slower option of walking or the more expensive (and often slower) option of taking transit for as long as I lived in Toronto. I would have been stymied by my initial apprehension, if I hadn’t had an experienced cyclist to mimic during my first downtown cycling excursion. An anxious ride through busy streets quickly turned into a casual jaunt down residential roads. When you can rely on a veteran cyclist to plan a relaxing, bike-friendly cycling route to reduce many of the risks associated with cycling, your view of the city changes and the experience is much more relaxing. Interestingly, I found that my confidence on a bike (unlike that of driving a car), dramatically increased after only a few minutes of riding. Following a practiced rider let me overcome my initial dread of cycling as well as learn the basics of city riding. There is no better way than to ride with a friend.

While both cyclists and those who don’t cycle are quick to point at poor cycling infrastructure (e.g. lack of separated bike lanes) as the largest cause of people not willing to jump on a bike, this may not to be the entire story. Emotional barriers such as culturally constructed fear create a perception of risk far greater than the actual (im)probability of injury. Specifically in Toronto, although cycling infrastructure is relatively poor and perception of risk is high, cycling is safe and getting safer. Certainly the risks associated with inactivity are far greater than the risks associated with cycling.

With regards to my own experience, I would say this is spot on. The initial fear of not knowing the proper road rules, getting caught on a streetcar track, hitting a pedestrian, or any other cycling risk suffered by a new cyclist, weighed as much on my decision not to ride as the concern about poor physical infrastructure..

Although I am a collegiate male (part of the demographic most likely to overcome fears and begin city cycling), I am by no means an intimidating specimen. This leads me to believe that other barriers to cycling, such as gender and age, are further manifestations of a deeply misconstrued reality of urban cycling risks. Fortunately, ‘social infrastructure’ can help ease these newcomer anxieties and is available to anyone who looks or has a friend who cycles. For many Canadian cities like Toronto, where physical cycling infrastructures are few and far between, these social infrastructures become essential in changing the attitude towards cycling and increasing its adoption. So grab your bike, find a friend, take a deep breath, and shatter that initial fear – you might find yourself loving, not fearing, your first ride.

7 comments

  1. Get out there and do it! Of course, I recommend that one follows the rules of the road, and, as a cyclist, also takes advantage of at the minimum, the following safety devices:
    Helmet
    Left-side mirror
    Reflectors
    Front & back lights

    I’m an older woman (have never had a full driver’s license) and I can do the streets. You can, too!

  2. Sorry I have to strongly disagree with you on this one. I am an avid cyclist and ride fast, averaging 25 km/h+ riding in the city. I ride 20km minimum each day for work, riding to do all my errands, going on 60 km+ road rides regularly, riding the don mountain bike trails when they aren’t flooded, and being a bicycle mechanic its safe to say I have alot of experience. Drivers here are intolerable of cyclist’s to say the least, the roads suck, the bike paths are inadequate and often dangerous, the rules/laws are ridiculous, and the list goes on and on. Don’t get me wrong I love riding and encourage everyone to do it but i will not lie and say its safe!!!!!! The only reason that cycling safety and awareness have increased in the past few years is due to a sheer numbers increase. There have been very few major moves by the city to help in any way.

  3. But that’s the point Matt, the infrastructure is terrible, but if everyone who wants to cycle came out and did it, it would be dramatically safer for all and appropriate infrastructure would be much more likely to come by. That sheer increase in numbers is likely to continue, and safety/awareness likely to increase with it.

    Social infrastructure is NOT a replacement for much needed physical infrastructure, but the impressive number of cyclists in Toronto is certainly not a result exclusively of the latter! As more people discover that moving around with a bicycle is viable, they will increase pressure on the government to provide adequate facilities.

    In the mean time, I wouldn’t change my two-wheeled commute for anything.

  4. One helpful hint — for those just getting into biking, Google Maps actually has a “Cycling” option to help navigate through the city using bike friendy(-er) streets. Also good for those who ride with confidence to explore new routes, though it doesn’t include any option for salmoning (going the wrong way up one way streets) even when it is the safer and more direct option.

  5. The dangers of cycling in an urban setting are blown way out of proportion. The risk of dying electrocuted by one’s toaster while making the morning’s breakfast is higher than that of dying in a cycling accident. Yet, you do not read about people abandoning toasts because of that. Furthemore, , the best way of improving safety on the road is to increase the number of cyclists riding. So, what are you all waiting for… Pick-up your helmet if makes you feel safer and get pedaling.

  6. I really enjoyed reading this article as someone who has recently started cycling again after 10 years (got into a bike accident). I’ve found this website to be really helpful as you have to the option to choose safe and direct routes: http://www.ridethecity.com/toronto

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