COLLINGWOOD — After decades of promoting itself as a top destination for winter activities, South Georgian Bay’s rolling hills, escarpment views and network of bike paths have turned the area into a summer hot spot for cyclists.
But surging cycling tourism — along with an influx of wealthy retirees bringing their money and bicycles to the area — has stirred resentment, and even surprise police action, including at least one case where cyclists say Ontario Provincial Police used aerial surveillance to ticket a group of riders.
The Bike Wars have come to Ontario’s playground.
“Bikes! Love ’em’ or hate ’em, we all have to put up with them,” Robert Burcher, a self-described cycling pioneer, wrote in an article published in , a community newsletter mailed throughout the Blue Mountains.
“But I too am getting outraged at the insolence and arrogance of some of the riders.” He noted that the area’s hilly terrain — a magnet for cyclists — is also a safety hazard for cars “forced into the oncoming traffic on blind hilltops as they try to manoeuvre around the slower bikes.”
Some speculate rancour toward cyclists has led to the defacing of several “Share the Road” signs in the area. A posting on a Facebook cycling site suggested the culprit is “an overweight, middle age, white male smoker” in a pickup truck.
Some members of the Collingwood Cycling Club (CCC) believe that rather than trying to ease tensions, the OPP’s local detachment is picking sides by targeting cyclists for not following the letter of the law, while giving drivers a pass for similar infractions.
“They’re certainly harassing us for whatever reason, and I don’t think it is safety. I think it’s more they may be reflecting a segment of the community’s opinion,” Pete Bailey, 74, said after a recent early morning ride.
The Star asked the OPP if the Collingwood detachment is targeting cyclists, particularly CCC members, for enhanced enforcement. “The OPP regularly uses education, awareness and enforcement campaigns to ensure the safety of all road users in OPP jurisdictions, including cyclists,” Const. Martin Hachey wrote in email.
“It is the shared responsibility of all road users to stay safe and operate within the bounds of the (Highway Traffic Act.) Those who don’t can be charged with moving violations under the HTA.”
Bailey, a retired IBM manager, and his wife, Clare O’Brien, 68, a radiologist who worked in hospitals in Collingwood and Toronto, were on a return 80-kilometre cycling club ride to Creemore last month when an OPP Const. John Gee signalled for their group to stop.
Gee told the seven cyclists, wearing the CCC’s high-visibility yellow jerseys, that aerial surveillance had observed them failing to stop at two rural stop signs, the cyclists said, adding that the constable asked for their identification so he could issue tickets.
Among the riders was a retired Toronto police officer, who said he refused to provide his name and challenged the OPP officer to show him the relevant section under the Highway Traffic Act that required him to produce identification.
The next thing he knew, he was being handcuffed.
The retired officer agreed to be interviewed on the condition the Star not identify him because he was “humiliated” and doesn’t want his family to know what happened.
“He had not seen us committing an offence. If you go to Google, it’s (the stop sign) at least 23 minutes away where this alleged offence took place,” he said in between sips of coffee at a Tim Hortons outlet. “I don’t know if cyclists went through there but it wasn’t me … I stopped.”
He said the handcuffing caught him by surprise.
“If you’re transporting a prisoner, sure, but you don’t, as I see it, handcuff a 70-year-old in Lycra … with cleats on,” he said.
“Something is amiss here. Taxpayer money? Was there no missing kids that weekend they could have used the plane for?”
O’Brien recorded the encounter on her phone and shared the video with the Star. It shows Gee handcuffing the retired officer, as the other cyclists look on. The ex-cop says he was released a short time later after providing his name to Gee. On Friday, while sitting in a black SUV outside the OPP’s Blue Mountains detachment, Gee declined to comment to the Star.
The OPP would also not confirm if air surveillance was used on June 10, 2018. “Information regarding the OPP’s use of aviation equipment is operational in nature,” Hachey wrote in email.
As for the CCC members stopped June 10, “it appears that the cyclists were not charged at the scene and given the length of time since the stop took place, it is unlikely that they will be,” Hachey wrote in an email to the Star last week.
Cindy Boyd, 55, another cyclist in the stopped group, said it felt as if the officer wanted to send a message that “this is our turf, this is a message to all you cyclists … beware.” The retired broadcast professional is a native of this turf after recently moving back from Markham to be close to her parents, who she calls “hard-working farmers.”
Decades after riding the roads as a teenager, Boyd has been shocked by the aggression demonstrated by some drivers toward cyclists, such as the trucker whose rig narrowly passed her on a steep descent last week — “his mirror was this far from my shoulder” — before she watched him cut in front of another rider and hit the ditch, apparently “to spray dust him.”
What’s causing all this conflict? Boyd has a theory.
“Collingwood is a blue-collar town, underneath all of it. I grew up here, I know. I’m from Redneckville,” Boyd said this past week after powering her new bike up a hill to the Ravenna Country Market, a popular destination for cyclists and butter tart fans.
“It is the (cycling) culture that this area is not ready for,” she said. “They want to sell their modest little wartime houses, they want to see the money come to the area, but they don’t want to embrace what else it brings.” In addition, leisure-seekers gobbling up real estate is pricing locals out of the market, fuelling resentment.
Len Goodman, a 62-year-old scientist with the federal government who rides with the CCC, senses some locals see cyclists as “entitled” interlopers who represent a different socio-economic class.
“They’re the rich cottagers who come up here and play in our backyard, and we’re working, driving our trucks as contractors, and you guys are playing on your fancy carbon bikes and your fancy Lycra clothing, and getting in the frigging way,” Goodman said.
He’s been heckled, sworn at and told to get off the road and finds it “mystifying” that drivers — and he’s one of them — get so irate over being forced to slow down for what is a “temporary” inconvenience.
What hasn’t helped is that the negative attitudes have been reinforced by the OPP, said Bailey and O’Brien, who say they plan to file a complaint to the Office of the Independent Police Review Director about the OPP stop.
Enforcing the “letter of the law” does not make much sense in a lot of situations for cyclists, clipped into their pedals, riding on quiet rural roads surrounded by open farmland, O’Brien said.
“Obviously, cyclists should always stop at red lights, and cyclists do have to realize they have to stop at stop signs if there is anybody else there,” she said.
“But if you have a clear vision that there is nobody at a four-way stop, you’re the only person, it really doesn’t make too much sense to have to completely stop and get both feet on the ground.”
She wonders how often drivers are ticketed for failing to come to a complete stop — or ensuring there is at least one metre between their vehicle and cyclists. The latter became an offence in Ontario in September 2015.
Steve Varga and Noelle Wansbrough are CCC board members who prefer to focus on the safety record of the club, which has more than 450 members.
“We’re a simple cycling club. I’m guessing 80 per cent of us are retired or semi-retired. Most of us are in a 60s and 70s, and we just want to have an active retirement and enjoy life and what fitness we have,” Varga said with a laugh. “We don’t have an agenda other than safe cycling.”
Varga has been riding for more than 30 years and drafted the club’s riding etiquette and safety guidelines. The club has a “ride leaders” program, and other clubs throughout the province have adopted the CCC’s defensive cycling campaign.
The OPP has even ticketed cyclists for riding side-by-side, Varga said. That’s not illegal under the Highway Traffic Act and, in fact, is an accepted around the world as a safe biking practice, he added.
Varga also insists CCC members ride in single file on busy roads and, when they double up on less travelled routes, move “tight to the right” when vehicles approach from behind.
Wansbrough said the club wants to work with the OPP to come up with a shared interpretation of the Highway Traffic Act, because there are some “very grey areas” that are interpreted differently by different jurisdictions.
Rick Bagg, a retired Crown attorney and CCC member, said several people have told him they have been ticketed for riding side-by-side.
“Police are charging people just riding two abreast when there’s no traffic, no hills, no curves,” Bagg said. Anecdotally, these tickets are being withdrawn when they get to court, which is a waste of everyone’s time and resources, he added.
“What we really need to do is to try to force one of these (tickets) to go to trial, whether we’re convicted or acquitted, then appeal and get a precedent — either tell us we can’t ride that way, or we can say to the police the courts say it’s proper.”