Josh Freed: Bicycle Bob pedaled his ideas of a better Montreal


His most quixotic crusade began in 1988 when he demanded the near-impossible: a two-way bike expressway straight through downtown.

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When I first met Robert (Bicycle Bob) Silverman back in the 1970s, I thought he was crazy.

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I’d been sent by the old Montreal Star to cover Bob and 50 fellow “bikesheviks” — revolutionaries who laid down amid Ste-Catherine St. rush-hour traffic for something called a “die-in.”

They plastered themselves with fake ketchup blood to protest the “auto-cracy” and tied up traffic for 90 minutes as furious motorists honked.

Back then, cars ruled the road and biking was considered not transport, but rather an extreme sport with almost 70 Quebec cyclists killed annually. Yet here was this zealot demanding something bizarre called bike paths — in a city where “icycle” paths seemed more appropriate.

Bob’s die-ins soon attracted widespread media coverage and spread around the world — and I became fascinated by him. I covered him when he painted illegal bike paths in the dead of night to wake up city bureaucrats who thought such paths were for psychopaths. (Bob was jailed for two days.)

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I watched him and fellow “vélorutionaries” carry ladders, ironing boards and a huge cardboard hippo onto the métro, because bikes were prohibited despite being smaller.

I’ll never forget Bob standing by the St. Lawrence River, dressed as Moses, waving his staff and shouting: “Part water, part, so that my people on bicycles may cross!”

He wanted cyclists to have a safe path across the river, and because of his relentless campaign, they got one over the Nuns’ Island ice bridge several years later.

In person, Bob was a genuine eccentric with a cackling laugh you could hear a block away and a glint in his eye that was part zany and part visionary. But he was irresistibly full of life.

He’d often pass my house as I sat on my third-floor balcony and holler up the month’s global bicycle news to me, like an ancient herald.

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“Great news Josh! Did you know Milan is banning cars from downtown? Hawaii just installed push-button streetlights for pedestrians and cyclistsand Copenhagen is offering 5,000 city bikes to use for free!

“The bike is advancing all the time! We are unstoppable!”

Bob had a poetic gift for words. He thought “cyclo-therapy” was the only cure for “auto-eroticism” and the “car-nage” it caused.

There’d be “no more pollution, with the bike revolution,” he rhapsodized. Cyclists of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

He was an eco-warrior long before ecology became a well-known word.

But bikes weren’t his first cause. Before Bicycle Bob, he’d been Volleyball Bob, who occupied a neglected public lot on Parc Ave. south of Duluth Ave. and set up illegal volleyball courts.

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Whenever the city tore them down, Bob’s guerrillas set them up again. Eventually, the city recognized the lot as its official volleyball area. Today, thousands of people from countless ethnic backgrounds play on this field of dreams.

Likewise, some bike paths Bob painted illegally eventually became officially recognized ones. Today, Montreal has more than 850 kilometers of bike paths and a world-pioneering Bixi network that has us consistently rated the No. 1 biking city in North America.

New York and Toronto only recently started playing catch-up. Our metro has now long allowed bikes on board one car. More importantly, more than a million Montrealers own bikes, which fill our streets for much of the year.

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Bob’s most quixotic crusade began in 1988 when he demanded the near-impossible: a two-way bike expressway straight through downtown, on de Maisonneuve Blvd.

This seemed outrageous at the time, but over the years, it gradually entered our city’s urban consciousness and some municipal parties began calling for it.

Finally, in 2007, Mayor Gérald Tremblay proudly announced a bike path would be built on de Maisonneuve — an idea born 19 years earlier, entirely in the fabulous imagination of Bicycle Bob.

Bob didn’t want the path named after him, but rather Claire Morissette, a co-partner of Le Monde à Bicyclette who had died.

But something must honor Bob, and many Francophones and Anglophones are jointly trying to make this happen. They’re also planning a festive cycling vigil to celebrate him on March 12.

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The city twice refused to award Bob the Order of Montreal, but that only belittled the award, not Bob. I cannot think of anyone who has literally changed the landscape of our city more than Bicycle Bob.

This northern, wintry city was the least likely imaginable to become the top biking town on the continent, and that happened almost entirely because of Bob.

We should name a major bike path after him. Many say the new bike expressway on St-Denis St. I also like the path on Rachel St., though if it were up to me, we’d rename the whole street after Bob (instead of after Rachel, the daughter of a long -forgotten 19th-century notary).

I’d give it the most Montreal name of all and call it Rue St-Silverman-de-la-Bicyclette.

Bob was our Johnny Appleseed of biking, literally pedaling his ideas of a better world. In retrospect, he wasn’t crazy at all.

We were crazy for not seeing the future he saw.

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