It's spring, and I'm trading my Metropass for a set of bike wheels. Why? Because it's faster, you get to build your Van Damme ass muscles and it's enviro-friendly.
I'm on a limited budget, so I check out five different stores to see exactly what $300 can get me in a commuting bike.
I'm a small-fry - 5 feet, 100 pounds - so finding a bike that fits properly is hard. Most bike shops' approach to the vertically challenged is to try to sell you a kids' bike.
I knew how to convince my parents to get me a new bike when I was seven, but aside from that I know zero about bicycles, so I'm also really curious to see how a know-nothing gets treated.
Urbane Cyclist (180 John, 416-979-9773) Rating: NNNNN
Salesperson Chris immediately puts me at ease by asking what I'm looking for and in what price range. He shows me a city bike with big but thin tires, which he explains are best for urban cycling because you use less energy to make them go.
But even the smallest-frame city bike is too big for me. You need to have at least 1 or 2 inches of space between the bar and your crotch with your feet flat on the ground. If you lift up your handlebars and your package instantly hits metal, the bike is too big. If your tippy-toes touch the ground when you're in the seat you're OK, and the handlebars should be at a comfortable height for you.
I get on a mountain bike and, as I kick off, I feel Chris observing me. I'm nervous - I haven't been on a bike in years. As I struggle to pedal and steer, I end up crashing into a rack of parked bikes. Cue Larry David tuba music.
But Chris knows his stuff and helpfully explains terms: 21 speeds, front suspension, alloy wheels, aluminum frame (lighter) versus steel (more flexibility).
He warns me against getting a kids' mountain bike. These tend to be heavier and have smaller tires, making them less safe.
After an hour at Urbane and several near-miss traffic incidents, I walk away more knowledgeable about bikes. If I'd had $300 to spend right then, I would've dropped it on the cherry-red Fuji Boulevard 17-inch mountain bike I fell in love with.
But the shopping must go on.
Canadian Tire (839 Yonge, 416-925-9595, and others) Rating: NN
Canadian Tire's bike department shares space on the second floor with barbecues and gardening equipment.
The first bike Kevin presents me with is a 20-inch men's, which is way too big. But how do I know for sure?
"Try sitting on the bike and see if you can reach the pedals," Kevin instructs, without offering any help to keep me steady. The bar keeps hitting me in my junk, and I can barely extend my leg to the floor, like a ballerina, to straddle the seat.
"Yeah," he says finally, "maybe it is a bit too big."
Since they don't have any women's bikes to show me (18 inches is the smallest - still huge for me), the next bike is a Raleigh Avenger 21-speed youth bike for $250. This one fits a bit better, so I try a test run down the narrow aisle. There's no air in the tires, so I nearly fall off while trying desperately to avoid vaulting over the railing or crashing into other potential bike buyers.
Kevin says this model has a removable seat, which can be a good or bad thing - easy to adjust but also easy to steal.
"So what do you think?" he asks, appearing not to be that interested.
"Uh, it's nice. I'm going to keep looking, though."
Manic and depressing
Cyclemania (863 Bloor West, 416-533-0800, and other) Rating: N
Just when I think I've been to the worst, I hit Cyclemania, where - I kid you not - Chris Elliott on crack tries to sell me a bike.
First, Jeff ignores me for five minutes while he helps another customer over the blare of The Price Is Right on the TV. When he finally gets to me, he shows me a few bikes - all men's, all too big - and says that some hybrids might be coming in next week. When I ask the difference between mountain bikes and hybrids (a fancy word for city bikes), he says that thinner tires have a "je ne sais quoi" on potholes, and mountain bike tires can go "ca-chunk, ca-chunk." What?
He blabs on about irrelevant things in a scatterbrained way and fails to give me the goods on the subject at hand. He doesn't inquire about what I'm looking for, or ask me to get on the bike to see how it feels. My rudimentary knowledge of bikes feels like a real disadvantage.
The place is probably fine if you know what you want. The garage-like entranceway is uninviting.
McBride Cycle (2923 Dundas West, 416-763-5651) Rating: NNNN
McBride Cycle - 95 years in the business - gives me a glimmer of hope. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable. Morley, the person looking after me, actually recommends a used bike because it's most likely to have everything I need in my price range and it won't appeal to thieves.
There isn't an adult bike in the store that fits me, but he says that if I come back in a few days he'll have a few more models in that might work.
I look at those vintage cruising bikes, but you have to be at least 5-foot-10 to ride them, and they're a hot item for thieves.
He adds that while city bikes are great for speed, they do get stuck in streetcar tracks. Mountain-bike tires have enough traction to stop instantly if a car tries to cut you off or if you don't see that baby carriage crossing the street in time.
I'd buy a bike here if what I need were available.
Duke's Cycle (625 Queen West, 416-504-6138) Rating: NNN
Duke's is the most upscale of the five shops I visit. It carries only one model in my price range, but it's sold out in my size.
Instead, Jill shows me what's available if I shell out $50 more. I can get a pink Hawaii one-speed cruising bike for an extra $30; for $20 more I can get either a mountain bike good for off-road action, which I don't really need, or the Trek, a 21-speed mountain bike that makes for easy zipping around the city.
Jill takes the time to explain the various parts, lets me sit on the bike to see if it fits comfortably and suggests I take it around the block.
It's a good entry-level bike, but if I stick to my price range there's nothing for me in the limited selection at Duke's.