Peter Walker meets Bicycle Bob and the activists whose 1970s ‘die-ins’ and theatrical stunts kickstarted the Canadian city’s unlikely bike culture.
When it comes to cycling Montreal has a few undeniable drawbacks. For a start it’s hilly – the streets rising gradually from the riverside to Mont Royal – a tree-lined peak which reaches eye level with the tops of the city centre skyscrapers. And then there’s the winter – with several months of snow and constant below-zero temperatures – leaving the roads rutted and cracked.
But on a still-tepid morning in early summer the cyclists are nonetheless massing in the city’s Jeanne-Mance Park. Lots of them – about 30,000 in fact. Some are dressed in Lycra with lightweight road bikes – but the majority are wearing everyday clothes – many with children – either riding their own tiny machines or on one-wheeled add-ons to a parent’s bike – even toddlers strapped into trailers.
It is the start of the Tour de L’Île – an annual mass ride with routes of anything from 18 to 60 miles through streets closed to vehicle traffic for the day. It is both a celebration of Montreal’s unlikely bike culture and a yearly reminder to its politicians and officials of how numerous and varied is the local two-wheeled population.
More than that, the tour and its associated week of bike-connected events is a tribute to the motley theatrical collection of activists who 40 years ago set the city on its way to the self-claimed title of North America’s most bike-friendly major metropolis.