Toronto’s cycling community lost a good friend, enthusiastic promoter and gentle leader with the unexpected death of Curbside Cycle founder and owner Don Watterson. Don died of a heart attack August 16.
Don was born on August 10, 1946, in Toronto’s Cabbagetown, just as the post-WWII car-buying and road-building frenzy started. He rode a bike to school until he was 16. And, as he told me during an interview last October, learned as a child, albeit in a “haphazard fashion,” to fix bikes.
In 1991 – the summer Mount Pinatubo erupted, as Don liked to recount – he opened “Curbside Bike Repair,” under a tent of dubious legal status, beside what was then the Brunswick House.
The tent on Bloor lasted only a few years. “I got chased by the city for a couple of summers,” he told Bike Talk in a 2012 interview (video below). He rented a vacant former candy store before settling into Curbside Cycle’s current location on Bloor, a stone’s throw from the site of the original tent.
Don’s store filled an important gap among retailers for a once-neglected consumer – the everyday cyclist.
The idea that cyclists should have bicycles suited to everyday trips for work, school or shopping may seem self-evident today but it wasn’t long ago that cyclists’ choices were largely limited to racing, mountain or recreational bikes.
In addition to functional bikes, Don also focused on useful accessories, though not always as successfully.
Eric Kamphof, who along with Aaron Enchin (Don’s step-son), manages the store, recalls Don’s exuberant embrace over the years of a variety of products – some of which his staff considered quirky, even nerdy. The side-flag designed to keep passing cars at a respectable distance was one such item.
Don had a similar enthusiasm for Dutch bikes, but with this product even he was surprised by its popularity. A decade ago, with inspiration from staff, Don started Fourth Floor Distribution to import Dutch and other bikes, including cargo bikes.
Don’s ‘all-in’ approach on many matters was part of his charm.
His bike shop eventually became a success, while Don turned increasingly to cycling advocacy, somewhat accidentally, like many others frustrated by Toronto’s slow pace in building a safe cycling network.
In 2007, Don became one of the founders of Bells on Bloor. The group’s original objective was to organize a fun, parade-like ride to give the public a glimpse of how beautiful our city (starting with Bloor) could be with more cyclists on its roads. One of Don’s contributions was to get posters into shop windows, a big feat in those days when few merchants were willing to be associated with bike lanes.
The first ride drew 500 cyclists and grew to 2,000 cyclists by the third year. Today, the Bloor bike lane pilot project moves up to 6,000 cyclists each day between Shaw and Avenue.
When I last chatted with Don, just days before his death, it was, naturally, on the Bloor bike lane (near Christie Pits), not far from the home he shared with his wife, Frances Enchin. (Don also has a son Garth, and a step-daughter Margot.)
He may well have been on his way to yoga class or a swim at the Bloor JCC, where he was a regular patron and of which he was an energetic booster.
Don’s good nature didn’t hide his disappointment at the city’s often lacklustre effort to make roads safe for cyclists. He could equip cyclists with the right bikes, but not with the right roads. And yet, Don never stopped believing in Toronto’s potential to become a great city not only of cyclists, but for cyclists.
Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer and founder of Bells on Bloor.
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