How a book dedication saved this bicycle advocate’s life

Riding a bicycle is life-affirming, but I never thought writing a history book about cycling could have the sort of impact I’m about to relate.

Montreal in Quebec, Canada, was a hot-bed of cycle advocacy in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the key reasons that city now has hundreds of miles of cycleways, including a two-mile curb-protected cycleway smack-bang in the Central Business District.

Montreal became bicycle-friendly because of people power. Bicycle-advocacy group Le Monde à Bicyclette was founded in April 1975, and many of the campaign tactics it employed – such as die-ins – are still used by advocacy groups around the world.

The anti-automobile activism group was cofounded by Claire Morissette and Robert “Bicycle Bob” Silverman. The curb-protected cycleway in the Central Business District was built in 2007, replaced a car lane, and was named for Morissette, who had died from cancer earlier in the same year.

To research Bike Boom I visited Montreal, and hung out with some of the 1970s members of Le Monde à Bicyclette. This is my pic of Robert on the Piste Claire-Morissette (I ferried him around in a Christiana cargo trike):

Bike Boom is dedicated to him:

For Robert “Bicycle Bob” Silverman and all of the other 1970s cycle advocates who tended cycling’s flame when planners and politicians were trying to snuff it out.

Last week I sent Robert a proof of the designed pages. His reply took me by surprise:

“Thank you for dedicating the book to me. Reading it actually saved my life. I’m going blind with macular degeneration which started a few years ago, which was combined in early October with a stroke. Life has been very hard; so bad that I cannot ride a bicycle any more, cook, or do other very simple tasks. I was prepared to take my own life, but changed my idea after reading your dedication.

“This is true, not an exaggeration. In Quebec, dying with dignity is legal … But since receiving your dedication [my mind has] changed.

“When I became a bicycle advocate [in the 1970s], for the first time I had a reason to live. I would ride a bike, and that in itself was revolutionary … I have dedicated my life to making the world a better place via a simple solution: the bike!”

I was very touched by Robert’s candour, and asked his permission to tell this particularly sensitive tale.

Wonderfully, Robert is now working with local advocates to produce an in-depth history of Le Monde à Bicyclette and will also be dictating a number of hard-hitting bicycle blog-postings. Bike power!

4 comments

  1. I’m a life-long Montrealer, and Bicycle Bob is not only a local legend, but much of the reason we currently enjoy a wonderful network of urban cycling lanes and paths. His decades of tireless advocacy will never be forgotten.

    Hearing Carlton mention this story on a recent episode of The Spokesmen Cycling Podcast warmed my heart, even if it was terribly sad to hear that he is no longer able to ride.

    Thanks Bob!

  2. This brings tears to one’s eyes. Beautiful story.
    Long may he live!
    The story just makes one more determined to make our town cycle safe/friendly!

    Dawid Botha
    Stellenbosch Fietsry (Cycling) NPC
    South Africa

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