Exploring Toronto's Subterranean Bicycle Lanes




Exploring Toronto’s Subterranean Bicycle Lanes

Bikes can lurk beneath too.

When last we caught up with urban explorer HI-LITE, he was perched on the jib of a tower crane, hundreds of feet above downtown Toronto. This past weekend, HI-LITE, along with a handful of other urban explorers, cycled to the suburbs to participate in a subterranean bike ride known as the Toronto Drain-Bike. On a weekend in which thousands cycled to conquer cancer, and hundreds biked in the nude, eight other cyclists made a 12 kilometre bike trek entirely underground.

Explorers participating in the Toronto Drain-Bike met beside a spillway in northeast Toronto. The gear they required was actually quite rudimentary: it consisted mainly of a sturdy bike, preferably one with a rear fender; a handlebar mounted LED light; flashlights; and rain boots or hip waders. A willingness to get dirty didn’t hurt, either.
Pulling back a section of steel grating clogged with jetsam from previous downpours, riders quickly slipped undetected into the enormous storm trunk sewer. To appreciate the scale of this underground channel: its dimensions are comparable to the tunnels along the Yonge-University-Spadina subway line.

Lest you worry about the ick factor, the explorers weren’t pedaling through a stream of filthy wastewater. The storm sewer they were in, encasing one of Toronto’s many buried creeks, was constructed in the late 1960s to capture rainwater and snowmelt.

Even for a few of the experienced urban explorers at the outing, this was their first time exploring a drain, let alone riding through one. HI-LITE provided some basic instructions: by sticking to the main route, it’s impossible to get lost. If you do, call out—in the tunnel, echoes reverberate for kilometres. Exiting through a manhole is done only as a last resort.

With this advice, the ride began. LED lights switched on, long shadows instantly covered the tunnel’s damp walls. Underground, flashlights are essential: without them, visibility is close to zero. One hundred metres into the mouth of the sewer, the daylight glow from the grated entrance vanishes entirely. Except for sporadic halos of light penetrating the manhole covers above, as well as light from the dozen ceiling grilles designed to provide flood plain drainage, the sewer is in complete blackness.

The depth of the water was quite minimal, about eight to 10 centimetres. The base of the conduit is, for much of its length, built on a slight angle; though this design provides riders with (some) dry passage, at all times the base remains slippery. At certain points, the sewer becomes tubular. Here, riders must proceed in single file.The impromptu bike lanes will take cyclists on a circuitous route underneath Highway 401. Six kilometres into the sewer, the walls narrow, limiting further passage.

Time to turn around.

The spillway serves as both an entry and exit point. Approximately four hours after going subterraneous, riders reemerge into daylight, wet, dirty, and squinty eyed.

With only a minor wipeout and one waterlogged camera, HI-LITE deemed the two-wheeling, belowground adventure a success. He is already looking forward to next year’s event.

Photos by HI-LITE

Editors’ note: exploring sewers is both illegal and potentially dangerous; this article does not constitute endorsement.