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The leisurely Tour de l’Île has been criticized for not aligning itself with a charity. (ROBERT SKINNER)
The leisurely Tour de l’Île has been criticized for not aligning itself with a charity. (ROBERT SKINNER)

Andre Picard's Second Opinion

A battle of wheels Add to ...

On June 7, more than 30,000 cyclists will take to the streets for the annual Tour de l'Île, a leisurely 50-kilometre jaunt around the Island of Montreal.

The event, organized by the non-profit group Vélo Québec, is designed to promote cycling as a healthy family activity and an alternate form of transportation. But, above all, it's supposed to be fun and liberating, the one day of the year when bikes can roll through the city streets unencumbered by cars.

Not surprisingly, the Tour de l'Île has had to deal with a backlash from motorists. While the event closes only a fraction of Montreal's streets, and it does so on a quiet Sunday in June, it does lead to some delays for drivers.

As a result, some municipalities (the Island of Montreal is home to an incomprehensible mix of boroughs, towns, cities and political fiefdoms) and surrounding suburban communities have banned the Tour de l'Île.

It is not coincidental that the most vocal opponents of the activity are commuter havens, where cars rule the roost. But organizers and supporters of the Tour de l'Île have seen through these self-serving complaints and soldiered on, adjusting the course route in deference to the anti-cycling lobby.

But now the Tour de l'Île is dealing with a new line of attack: Complaints that the event is not associated with charitable fundraising.

Murray Levine, founder of the Philanthropic Athletes Foundation, has led a dogged campaign against the Tour de l'Île, arguing, among other things, that the event should not get tax dollars and taxpayer-supported services (namely police and street cleaners).

He argues that this investment - about $600,000 a year - is unfathomable. Mr. Levine wants the Tour banned, unless it aligns itself officially with a charity and promotes fundraising.

This line of attack conveniently ignores the fact that taxpayers - even the cyclists - pay billions of dollars each year to maintain the road network and that the only thing car drivers donate daily is air pollution. Just as curious is that Mr. Levine has targeted the Tour de l'Île and not made a big stink about other state-supported, traffic-disrupting events like the Montreal Marathon, the Jazz Festival, the Santa Claus parade, the St-Jean Baptiste parade and so on that do not actively raise money for charity either.

Regardless of his ulterior motive - Mr. Levine is, after all, a professional fundraiser - the gadfly raises an intriguing philosophical question.

Is the promotion of physical activity - in this case cycling - a worthy cause in itself?

Of course it is.

Further, should the promotion of physical activity and alternative forms of transport get state support?

Again, in a society where obesity and lifestyle-related chronic illnesses are epidemic and where our reliance on fossil fuels is destructive, it is indeed a good investment.

Charities play an important role in Canadian society and they have found many creative ways of raising funds. The marriage of healthy activities like biking and raising money for cancer research (the Ride to Conquer Cancer) or running marathons and raising awareness of childhood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma (Team in Training) is often inspirational.

Charity - the giving of one's money or time - is, by definition, voluntary. It should not be mandatory.

Many people participating in the Tour de l'Île will use the event as an occasion to raise money for charity and that's wonderful, and they are in no way prevented from doing so. But people should be able to lace up their shoes and saddle up on bikes without setting out to cure cancer or save the world.

To suggest that the Tour should not have access to Montreal streets and to city services if they do not actively promote charitable giving is preposterous.

What Mr. Levine is suggesting, while no doubt well-intentioned, reflects a much larger problem: The commodification of daily life.

Not every activity of daily living needs to have a commercial purpose. Every breath we take need not be associated with the generation of economic activity, either commercial or non-profit.

We don't need ads plastered on every sidewalk and subway platform. We can have city parks that are not festooned with the ads of their corporate sponsors. We can have buildings in our public institutions that do not sell off their naming rights in the name of charity. We can run marathons for the sheer masochistic pleasure without having to pester our friends for sponsorship. We can walk our dogs without it being a protest march against dog fighter Michael Vick. And we can bike around the Island of Montreal for a day without it having to be a guilt trip.

In our high-octane society, there is, in fact, a refreshing purity to the Tour de l'Île.

Cars run riot in the city 3641/2 days a year. Charitable fundraising takes place every single day of the year, and at a furious pace.

But on June 7, on the streets of Montreal, there will be a welcome respite: Cycling for the sake of cycling; breathing for the sake of breathing. Families hanging out together without, as a prerequisite, the systemic badgering of friends and relatives for sponsorship.

The Tour de l'Île is the type of investment we should make in ourselves and our cities far more often and far more purposefully.

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