I occasionally rent a bicycle when I’m travelling abroad, but until now I had been too scared to ride a bike in my hometown of Toronto! The city has more bike lanes than ever before. It’s just that I don’t trust cars and my own ability to deal with traffic.

Enter Wendy Huismans and her company Pedal Toronto, which offers guided cycling tours and safe routes through “Toronto’s backyards” for both visitors and residents. Since I’m always looking for new things to discover in my own city, Wendy’s bike tours seemed perfect.

I picked the “Midtown, Brickworks, and Distillery tour” and then waited patiently for a warm sunny day. Finally, on the morning of June 6, I met Wendy at the Gears bicycle shop in the Canary District, just east of the Distillery.

Meet your cycling guide: Wendy Huismans

Friendly, fit, and in her 50s, Wendy looked like the sort of “can-do” woman you’d want to lead you on a bicycle tour through a large city. Knowing my height, she had already set aside an Urban Hybrid 18-speed bicycle for me. (The best part of Wendy’s partnership with Gears is that the bikes are new each season and well maintained.) After adjusting the seat, she let me try out the bike by riding a few laps around the weird sculptures that front the shop.

Meeting Wendy in the Garden of Future Follies (guided cycling tour)

Meeting Wendy in the Garden of Future Follies

I had seen this art installation numerous times before, but never quite understood what I was looking at. Wendy told me that it’s called Garden of Future Follies. A creation of Hadley+Maxwell, it was assembled by putting together bronze cast fragments from various sculptures and architectural elements in the city. After living in Toronto for over 30 years, it’s always a good sign when a tour guide can teach me things!

What can you expect on a guided cycling tour with Pedal Toronto?

After Wendy gave me a bit more information about the new Canary District neighbourhood, we took off and headed to the Underpass Park, an urban space under an overpass. Colourful murals cover the concrete structures, and a small market takes up the space on Thursday afternoons. Yes, I had been here too, but Wendy had more to say about it, including directing my eyes upward to a mirror ceiling I had never noticed before. Only 10 minutes into this tour, I was already learning a lot.

Wendy has been running Pedal Toronto since last year only, as a successor to a previous business that saw her organizing multi-day bike tours for women in both Eastern Canada and the Netherlands. Born in Toronto but of Dutch heritage, she confides that she always loved cycling and started going on rides with her family at a young age.

We rode north on the River Street bicycle path, past the new Regent Park development and into one of the prettiest neighbourhoods in Toronto: Cabbagetown. Named after the cabbages that Irish settlers used to plant in their front yards, it’s now recognized as the largest continuous area of preserved Victorian housing in North America.

Typical Cabbagetown architecture

Typical Cabbagetown architecture

Two of the best things about Toronto, at least for amateur cyclists, are the flatness of the land and the number of public parks. The sun was shining and the lightest breeze was blowing as we cycled past Riverdale Farm. This working farm used to be the city zoo before the Toronto Zoo opened its doors back in 1974. Next we rode through Wellesley Park, which I had never even heard of, to reach Wellesley Avenue.

Cycling through downtown Toronto – oh my!

Wendy explained that we would be crossing downtown from East to West to reach the Ontario Parliament building. I had always been apprehensive of riding downtown, but I felt perfectly safe with Wendy. Besides, Wellesley Avenue features a bike lane, even though it’s shared with cars for a short section near Yonge Street. I literally followed Wendy’s tire trail, copying her hand signals. As we went, she gave me a few tips for riding a bike in the city.

Wendy in front of the Ontario Parliament Building (guided cycling tour)

Wendy in front of the Ontario Parliament building

After crossing Yonge Street, the traffic thinned out again and soon we were circling the huge pink sandstone Ontario Parliament building. Perched on a light rise, we could see all the way down University Avenue with its elegant median dotted with fountains and statues. Wendy regaled me with more factoids before we pedalled west towards the University of Toronto campus.

It was Convocation time, and gowned graduates filled the lawns, chatting with their families and friends. U of T is a beautiful campus, with plenty of green foliage growing between the historical buildings.

Trading my Tilley hat for a bicycle helmet! (guided cycling tour)

Trading my Tilley hat for a bicycle helmet (U of T campus) – Photo by Wendy Huismans

Our ride continued past a couple of museums to Yorkville (a 60s hippie area turned posh and fashionable), through Ramsden Park (another discovery for me) and to the old-money neighbourhood of Rosedale. Here, the streets lined with palatial homes and emerald green lawns dozed peacefully under the midday sun.

Ramsden Park, Toronto

Ramsden Park, one of the many green spaces on this tour

From here we descended a zigzag path down the side of a steep hill towards the Brick Works, our long awaited refreshment stop. Wait! Didn’t I just say that Toronto is flat? Well, one of the city’s best-kept secrets is the network of ravines that hide between its streets, criss-crossed by foot and bicycle paths. There isn’t much signage though, so I would probably have gotten lost if I wasn’t following Wendy.

Taking a break from the bike at the Brick Works

Established in 2010 on the site of a disused brick factory, the Evergreen Brick Works is a public space showcasing green design and public art. It hosts conferences and events, markets, and outdoor learning. As a social enterprise, the money raised from these activities is re-invested into their projects to build the low-carbon cities of the future.

Break time at Cafe Belong, Evergreen Brick Works

Break time at Cafe Belong, Evergreen Brick Works

Sitting on Café Belong’s pleasant terrace, Wendy and I chatted over our snack and drink. She told me that her clients come from all over the world but tend to be middle age rather than very young. “I’m not sure why that is…” she mused. I was happy to hear that some of her riders are also solo travellers!

We had already travelled 11 kilometres with five more to go to get back to our starting point at Gears. The standard tour for clients would normally end at The Distillery District, one of Toronto’s top sights. Our last few kilometres were on the Lower Don Trail, a dedicated bicycle path through a narrow park that lines the Don River. There were sculptures here too, and Wendy told me about them as we made a few stops along the way.

Cycling along the Lower Don Trail, Toronto (guided cycling tour)

Cycling along the Lower Don Trail

Back at the bicycle shop, I peeled my achy butt and tired legs off the bike. “You did very well,” Wendy complimented me. “I couldn’t really tell that you don’t ride every day.” Yeah… right. Thanks Wendy!

If you want to go:

You can book a tour directly from Pedal Toronto’s website. Currently two group tours and one private tour are operating. Throughout July and August a few new experiences will be available, combining a cycling tour and an event, such as the Sunday Artisan Market at the Brick Works.

The group tours cost CAD $85 (+13% HST) and include bicycle rental, helmet, water, as well as a snack & drink at a rest stop café. They’re available every day and last around three hours. On a bike tour, you’re not idling in traffic, and you can cover a lot of ground within a few hours.

You need to be in reasonable shape (and of course know how to ride a bike) to go on Wendy’s tours, but you don’t have to be a “cyclist”. I sure am not!

The Distillery District, Toronto

The Distillery District is included in both of Wendy’s group bike tours

After this outing, I heartily recommend a guided cycling tour with Wendy to every active travel nut who wants to see a lot of Toronto within a short time. On top of that, you’ll get some fresh air and exercise in the company of an interesting and friendly local guide!

(Note: I was a guest of Pedal Toronto on this tour. As usual, all opinions are my own.)

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