Staff from Mountain Equipment Co-op are more enthusiastic than the perkiest of camp counsellors when describing what they’ve got planned for BikeFest, a full day of free tune-ups, workshops, and group rides this Saturday in the Distillery District. Thanks to partnerships with Bicycle Commons, Bike Sauce, the Toronto Cyclists Union, and several local retailers, BikeFest’s diverse programming includes a “pastry ride,” a bike scavenger hunt, and a bicycle valet service.
Describing organizers’ goals of bringing the various factions of the city’s cycling community together, event co-ordinator Diana Kuzmina is a delightful keener, listing off reasons why even the most inexperienced rider has something to gain from a visit to the one-day festival.
“We’re offering free courses for non-bikers, like ‘safe city riding,’ designed to take away the scary part of riding bikes,” she said last week, during a borrow-a-bike-from-MEC-and-ride-to-the-Mill-Street-Brewery media event. “We’re expecting to see about 300 to 400 bikes for free tune-ups.”
Organizers of Toronto’s second annual BikeFest, which is part of a national MEC initiative, say that despite ever-simmering tensions between cyclists and riders—and within the cycling community itself—they’re doing everything they can to keep the event “non-political.” They insist their Saturday love-in isn’t just for hipsters, an accusation that came up repeatedly at the media launch, and say they’ve done what they can to include community repair co-ops (such as Bike Sauce) and their bike-selling competition.
It’s clearly a move aimed at reducing tension that exploded when MEC began selling bicycles in 2009.
“We started BikeFest at a controversial time,” noted Kuzmina. “When MEC came out with our bike line, small shops thought we’d undercut them. Now they see that wasn’t the case.”
At the time, some independent bike shops decried what they said was unfair competition. Pete Lilly, of Sweet Pete’s bike shop, says the issue remains that MEC enjoys the tax breaks of a co-op but gained that designation because it filled a niche for climbing gear, not bikes.
“When MEC began, there wasn’t anyone supplying the needs of climbers in B.C.,” Lilly told us. “Since that time, they’ve expanded into paddling, cycling equipment, and now into complete bikes—doing so basically unchallenged in regards to their initial status grant.”
Lilly has been an outspoken critic of MEC’s expansion into a big-box store, saying its co-op status allows it to pay only 0.01 per cent corporate tax. The co-op, according to its website, says a large chunk of its profits go into environmental causes, treating its employees well, and keeping prices low for members.
“MEC’s phenomenal growth—the expansion of its retail stores, the development of new MEC-branded bike lines, the funding of BikeFest—has been fuelled by its ability to use untaxed earnings,” said Lilly. “It’s not something that your average bike shop has an option to do […] MEC’s BikeFest is really funded by the Canadian taxpayer.”
While Sweet Pete’s won’t be participating in this year’s BikeFest, shops including Urbane Cyclist and Cycle Couture have signed on as vendors for the event. Cycle Couture owner Jeff Scullion—whose College Street store sells high-end city-riding bikes from Europe and elsewhere—says there’s room for all sorts in the cycling community.
“There are a lot of shops in Toronto with specific focuses,” he told Torontoist . “Our focus is exclusively to offer unique bikes (for) city riding […] MEC is a big box retailer as we view it. I think that they are doing a good thing for the biking community.”
Scullion says he’s looking forward to meeting the cyclists who swarm the Distillery this weekend, saying anything that builds the profile of cycling in this city is well worth the effort.
“If we can expose more people to bicycling as a real alternative then we will have more people on bikes,” he said. “We feel that this is very important.”