We spent Friday night pedalling through the streets during Toronto’s first Bike Rave, thinking about the city’s cultural enlightenment on wheels.
It’s 8:20 p.m. on a Friday at Christie Pits Park. I’m riding through the grass on my prized blue cruiser, circling in on a growing congregation of cyclists that have turned a patch of grass into a big kid-equivalent to Santa’s Workshop. Everyone is focused on tonight’s mission. There are glow sticks and flashing lights affixed to every piece of bicycle real estate, from spokes and frame tubes. Speakers are mounted on pannier racks. It looks like Project Runway crashed into MTV’s Pimp My Ride.
We’ve all gathered here for the first official—or only—Toronto Bike Rave, hosted with the support of Bike Pirates, a not-for-profit, autonomous organization with their own mission “to empower cyclists and make bicycles more accessible.” It’s part repair shop, part advocacy group.
The story of the bike rave goes something like this: a call was put out on Facebook for like-minded cyclists to pretty-up their rides with glowing things, mount portable speakers to said rides, download a playlist, sync it to a mobile listening device and show up at Christie Pits by dusk. After a big countdown, we press play and ride, listening to the same tunes, amplified throughout the crowd. The route will make three stops: Trinity Bellwoods, Coronation Park, and High Park, where you can rest and hang and smoke and dance and eat before mounting and continuing to rave. It’s all ages, and it’s rated PG—there is no room for debauchery tonight, just good times.
Two Bike Pirates volunteers, Mallory Parks and Justin Soares, head up the Toronto Bike Rave, inspired by a West Coast edition. “I used to live in Vancouver and when I moved back a lot of my friends on Facebook were posting about bike rave. It looked amazing and I wanted to start it over here,” Parks told me during our Trinity Bellwoods stop. “We technically stole the idea from them, but I’ve been speaking with the organizer [Eric Staal] and he’s amazing and he’s helped us out a lot, so we’re really appreciative of that.”
Parks brought the idea to a Bike Pirates meeting in June and it was put to a vote. “I talked about it with a lot of people who thought it was a cool idea,” she says, so she just “went for it.” Then the planning began: choosing a route that didn’t block major streets but went through the city’s park paradises, and getting a playlist together—which, according to Soares, was “the hardest part”—with the help of event DJ and devoted cyclist Mike Davis, who meticulously drafted and revised the song list, which included everything from house to electro and beyond.
As the countdown begins, I estimate we number in the hundreds. Three, two, one… and we’re off, riding down Bloor West towards Shaw, where we’ll head south. Immediately, it’s magic: bells are chiming, cameras are recording and picture-taking, and riders are screaming and laughing. And the neon-lit bikes aren’t mere last-minute fabrications, they’re legitimate works of art—pre-mediated realness. You can hear people talking about them with pride. Some took hours, others took days. There are disco balls, backpacks with glowing tentacles bulging out of them, and a girl in a white tube top and tutu tricked out with Christmas lights—she’s like a Deadmau5 angel. There’s a guy clad in a full camo leotard, face covered and everything. I’m jealous of another dude’s glow goggles.
The weird mix of personalities is almost a reflection of just how “underground” Toronto’s bike culture can feel sometimes. But though the city’s war on cyclists is scorching, the climate around us is a stark contrast to cities like Montreal or Vancouver, where the Bike Rave has taken on a stronger message of biking politics and culture. Toronto citizens seem supportive. Biking down Shaw, past College, Dundas, and the Trinity dog bowl, there are cheers and curious faces. The music brings people to their windows, or out on the porches, or stops them dead in their tracks, scrambling to reach for their iPhones. “You leave me breathless,” says one guy. “Wear your helmets,” yells a girl drinking a beer in the grass in the park. For many bystanders, you get the feeling that if only they’d known, they’d be riding along with us.
And the cops? They’re down to party. They show up at Christie Pits, ask organizers for the route map and a quick brief, and accompany the group with bearable distance and minimal menacing.
Events like the Bike Rave show just how driven Toronto’s cycling community is to take their show on the road. I remember fondly when the Deadly Nightshades, Toronto’s all-girl bike crew, did fashion tours around Queen West. I also think of Art Spin, another Bike Pirates-supported cultural course on wheels started by artists Layne Hinton and Rui Pimenta in the summer of 2009. Originally dubbed Gallery Spin, the event began as a tour of local galleries. Today, it also includes multi-disciplinary performances (dance, theatre, music or performance art) and visits to artists’ studios, as a way to provide a more intimate, behind-the-scenes look at the spaces where artists work. Each tour concludes with an after-party, but Pimenta says the collective cycling vibe is the event’s major appeal. “Riding in a large group is one of the things which people who come out on an Art Spin tour enjoy most,” he writes via e-mail. “You turn a lot of heads as you ride through the city streets. It takes on a performative quality of its own, which immediately makes our audiences feel more invested in the experience.”
On Aug. 30, Art Spin will close out its season with a “really special” edition. (They don’t like to reveal program schedules ahead of time, thus preserving the surprise.) “People can expect some exciting dance and musical performances, outdoor installations, a visit to Division Gallery and an awesome after-party in a surprise industrial space that has not been open to the public for many years.”
As for how Pimenta feels about the city’s bike culture? “Toronto is a city with a really vibrant cycling culture. Unfortunately, the city’s infrastructure to accommodate cyclists in a respectful and safe manner is terribly lacking,” he says. “Experiences like Art Spin and the gathering of large groups of people on bikes is a way of making cyclists feel empowered, something which they have to feel if they are ever to demand for improved conditions to help them feel safe when riding in the city.”
I bet he’d say the same thing about the Bike Rave.
Art Spin happens on Thursday, August 30. Meet at Dufferin Grove Park at 6:30 p.m.; tour begins at 7 p.m. Bike Rave will return next year, maybe in the spring.