It was high school. I made a call to my mom at 12:30 on a Friday night. Despite the late hour, she picked up — my parents always pick up and I love them for it. Her voice came back heavy with sleep. She said: yeah? And she would’ve been concerned if she wasn’t still half asleep. My dad was out of town. This call would have been Dad duty if he was home. I felt bad; I asked if she could come get me in the south end. I’d been riding my bike with some friends, we’d been just cruising around, and then were in an alley behind a strip mall when I popped my tire. I was practicing skidding, I accidentally dragged my rear wheel through some broken glass. Mom was on her way.
One day in third year of university, I was biking home from campus at two in the morning after a long studying session. I was sober — a relevant detail as this story unfolds. I had my headphones in, music blaring: something nighttime, something transcendent, you know? And it felt just right. I was biking on the street that lead to my house at the time. It’s a long, straight road called Hands Drive, just south of campus. Residential. I was riding with my arms stretched out to the sides, palms turned up, chin slightly raised. I was smiling, feeling the night and the solitude. It felt so good that I closed my eyes. In the middle of the road, peddling with no hands and my eyes closed. Blissful. For a second. I slammed into the curb, got launched off my bike. Brushing away the dirt, I laughed at myself. Then I went home to bed.
For me, riding my bike at night holds an atmosphere nearly unlike any other. Driving at night comes close; lying on the dock at my cottage with someone beside me, staring at the stars together is also close; or stepping away from a busy party can be right. Maybe I watch too many coming of age movies or maybe I just love them too much. It’s all about isolation in a busy place. While the city sleeps, I roll through it.
I’ve always ridden a bike to get around. My hometown of Barrie was perfect for it. The flat track around the bay is an expressway for cycling, and the hills in general are manageable. In elementary school, there was a BMX phase. It was best to have a cool BMX bike. I couldn’t do any tricks on mine and I never tried to. I got my BMX from a garage sale for $20. It was red and heavy. I got some new parts — lots of gifts for a time were for the bike. I loved that bike. One gear, one brake, low seat, slow as anything… I sold it for $80 a few years later. Next was the fixie phase. Fixed gear bikes with one gear, one or no brakes, a high seat — a tall bike and fast. I got what would become my fixie at no other place than a garage sale, for free. Pink, sturdy, heavy, but not as heavy as the first. The brand was Italian and the bike had small Italian flag decals. It was Miele brand (translates to honey). I am not one for naming inanimate objects or plants anymore, but at the time I called the bike Valentine. She was my daily transport before I got my driver’s license and for plenty of time afterwards. For a spell in grade nine, I was biking across town to play games with a friend. Valentine was so fast — such a noticeable improvement from my BMX — that I could really hustle. A man pulling out of his driveway stopped me right before I got to my friend’s house. I thought I was in trouble. He said: “Is that a Miele?” “Uh, yeah,” I mumbled to him. He said he rode a pink Miele just like mine for years as a courier in Toronto. He said that it never failed him and that there were websites dedicated to the bike. I didn’t need to hear any more; Valentine was my favourite from then on. A true beauty. I still have her and love her.
Night cruising didn’t really start until high school. At first, riding at night was practical; my friends and I were trying to get to someone’s house or some party — it wasn’t its own thing. I’ve written about using a bike to get to and from parties in this unfortunate story. Later, when there was nothing going on, when we wanted to make our own fun, biking provided a way to drink and get a change of scenery. We would load up our backpacks with beers and cycle through our favourite spots in town. Last summer, it was a great way to see each other while obeying the pandemic restrictions. We biked to one beach, sat there and drank and laughed, then went onto the next. Over time, riding became as much of an attraction as the drinking.
For five years of university, I didn’t use the bus. Three and a half of those years, I was a swimmer — that meant 5:30 AM practices, and my engineering program sometimes meant 8:00 PM seminars. I got around everywhere on a bike. Rain or shine, snow or ice. For swim practice in the winter, I would put on my clothes in layers, topped with a puffy winter jacket and on my lower half, waterproof splash pants. Then boot and thick gloves. My bike was a single speed because the salt and sand on the roads were hell on bike components. That meant hills were hard work. I’d be sweating in my house from the gear, then freezing cold outside, then sweating again by the time I got to the pool from my ride. Anytime I biked to school in the rain, I would have to strip out of my biking gear outside the classroom. I’m sure I was recognizable on campus solely by my ridiculous outfit. After swim practice or class, I would frequently try to get home for a nap, even if it meant multiple trips to campus in the same day. Using my bike left me free from the bus schedule, and it was a door-to-door service that I could never give it up.
Where I am now — Vancouver — it’s different. This is a city city: it’s expansive, hilly, crowded, occupied. And where I would say that I get around on a bike, and sure, even say I’ve been on them my whole life, I would say my friends here ride bikes. Meaning they track distance and elevation change, they wear helmets and have lights that compete with cars. They go hard. Nothing wrong with it — the opposite actually — but when I joined their ranks last summer and advocated for a night ride, they didn’t understand at first. I had to push for it. How are we supposed to ride difficult terrain at high speeds in the dark? What’s the appeal? I could sense their thinking. “It’s a cruise,” I told them. “Grab a drink or two. We’re doing this to feel the nighttime — surrounded by two million, we’re riding to be alone.” I was here for six weeks, and after much campaigning, we went out at night once. Immediately they understood: it’s about the atmosphere. Despite the progress that’s been made, I feel they still need my mentorship; Vancouver has much to offer in the form of lookouts and bike paths, and my friends have much to offer in the form of bike skills and familiarity with the city, but it’s not about any of that. I’m still chasing the same feeling I felt in my hometown. When I find it, I’ll share it with my Vancouver friends.
Ode to the Night Cruise
It’s midnight when I leave the party through the back door. My bike is stashed in the bushes. I zip up my jacket to the neck before walking out to the street and meeting my friends. Under the lights of this residential neighbourhood, we’re given an offering: go left or go right. We straddle our seats and choose to get lost. The yellow centre line becomes our GPS — we go where it tells us. Each intersection’s a coin toss until we arrive at a corner we recognize, then we race — we eat up asphalt as a group, we dominate the road but there’re not any cars to compete with us. When we get to the dead end, brakes are pulled hard: we skid to a stop. The bay washes silently at our feet, soaking up the city’s brightness. We chat. We laugh. And when our sweat has been replaced by a chill, we part ways. I take the long way home. I ride further from the city and darkness becomes my path. Handlebars become optional. Wind streaks though my hair on a downhill and music plays in my ears but I’m certain the night can hear it too. I ride and I ride and I dream on behalf of everyone.
I say: take me on fast bikes to the place that makes me put my arms out to the side, where the night sky pulls on my smile, where I welcome falling because my eyes must be closed. Take me out with people that want to skid in summertime alleys — that want to start at midnight and end when the swimmers are getting up. Take me on garage sale steeds, when drinks become secondary and the appeal is a feeling. And take me where the city sleeps so I can roll through it.
Keep the rubber side down,
B.F. Greeno, aka