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Craig Rass was not a success by any conventional measure: He made less than $20,000 a year, slept on friends' sofas and played in a band called Boozass. And yet on the streets of downtown Toronto, where he plied his trade as a bicycle courier, he was a ragged king, respected for his fearlessness in traffic, his dedication to the job and for riding skills so finely tuned that he could balance motionless at a red light, feet on the pedals, as he casually peeled an orange.

Until his death in 1993 of a heroin overdose (a demise that associates characterized as a tragedy in the Hendrix-Morrison tradition of artistic excess), Mr. Rass played a key role in Toronto's militant cycling community. He lived on the edge and refused to compromise. He rode 12 months a year, rain or snow, and believed that cars were for sellouts.

"I'm a bike guy," he said not long before his death. "If Jesus Christ was still around, he would be, too."

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Mr. Rass's politics were shaped by experience: He had been hit by so many cars he had lost count, and had taken to wearing a pair of jeans with the posterior ripped out, so that he could deliver an unspoken message to following traffic by simply rising from his seat.

Though he's gone, his militancy lives on. And this week, Canada's largest city was reminded again of the tension between two wheels and four by an incident involving a bike messenger.

This is Leah Hollinsworth, 26. "It's not normal times," she said this week, trying to sum up a situation that has resulted in both hosannas and death threats.

On Jan. 26, Ms. Hollinsworth watched a car driver throw garbage onto the street in Toronto's Kensington Market. She picked up the garbage, opened the driver's door, and dropped the litter back in his car. The driver got out, and a battle ensued, all of it captured by a photographer who posted the pictures on the Web.

Since then, there have been more than 300,000 Internet postings about the encounter. Ms. Hollinsworth has been decried by some as a holier-than-thou -- "cyclists are far too self righteous in this city," one visitor wrote -- and applauded by others as a champion for the forces of environmental rectitude: "Why not give trash back to the litterers?" a supporter wrote. "The world isn't their trash can."

It's safe to say that when Baron Karl von Drais of Germany began tinkering with his two-wheeled contraptions in the early 1800s, he had no idea his invention would morph into the machine that carried Lance Armstrong to seven Tour de France victories. Nor could he have imagined the modern-day politics of cycling in North America, spiritual home of the automobile and birthplace of militant cycling.

"It's a built-in conflict," said Darren Stehr, a Toronto-based activist who has spent years campaigning for cyclists' rights. "You're on a bicycle, and they're in a steel box."

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He blames the drivers. "They're in a deteriorating situation. There are more cars out there every day. The traffic is worse than ever. They're not getting anywhere. They get angry at us, but we're doing them a big favour. We take up less of the road. We're creating space for them."

No one can say exactly when militant cycling culture began, but many point to 1992, when San Francisco riders started an event called Critical Mass: Cyclists rode through downtown streets in a pack that stretched from curb to curb, forcing traffic to give way. The event was quickly adopted in other cities including Toronto, where it is still held each month, with attendance that varies from a few dozen in the winter, to hundreds in the summer.

"It's about showing that we have an equal right to the road," said Derek Chadbourne, a former courier who operates the Bike Joint, a bicycle shop. "We're not stopping traffic. We are the traffic."

In San Francisco, Critical Mass soon became a flashpoint for tensions between riders and drivers, not to mention city authorities. Hostilities peaked in 1997 when 250 riders were arrested during a Critical Mass event that attracted more than 3,000 participants and paralyzed downtown traffic.

The police chief, Fred Lau, promised to seize bikes as "instrumentalities of crime." Riders responded to this show of force as if they were students at Tiananmen Square. One confronted an oncoming truck and screamed defiance at the mayor, Willie Brown: "This one's for you, Willie!"

The world view of militant cyclists is largely shaped by the pure physical risk they face. In 2004, the last year for which Statistics Canada has figures, 56 bicyclists died on Canada's roads.In 2005, four Toronto cyclists were killed. One of them was Ryan Carriere, 31, who was riding home to help prepare for Halloween with his wife and two daughters.

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There are also high numbers of non-fatal incidents. A coroner's study found that in a single year (1997-98) there were 2,572 car-bike collisions reported to police in Toronto.

Rob Jones, a long-time cyclist and editor of Canadian Cyclist magazine, said the rise of militant cycling culture is largely a North American phenomenon. Although untold millions of North American adults own bicycles, only a tiny fraction could be considered serious cyclists.

There are about 10,000 licensed bicycle racers in Canada, for example, and about 90,000 more who commute on bicycles, go on bike tours, or use bicycles for regular exercise.

On a recent visit to the Netherlands, Mr. Jones was struck by how deeply bicycle riding is ingrained in the culture.

"In Europe, people don't automatically assume that you're poor, an environmental zealot, or a member of the Communist Party if you ride a bicycle," he said. "In North America, unfortunately, people tend to pigeonhole cyclists."

Mr. Jones sees militant cyclists as a tiny subset of the cycling community. "They are a very distinct element, but they're actually a small part. Cycling is only one component of the lifestyle, but it's the one that defines them to non-cyclists. If I lumped them in with anyone, it would be extreme environmentalists."

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Ms. Hollinsworth, the young woman at the centre of the current debate, said she regrets some elements of what she did in Kensington Market. "I think almost anyone would have reacted with anger to what I did," she said. Still, she asserts that she was acting on principle.

"I can't stop the war in Iraq. I can't stop the nuclear program. But I can stop litter."

Ms. Hollinsworth lives in a community dedicated to the principles of environmentalism and conservation. She doesn't own a car. Some of her acquaintances refuse to ride in cars at all. One refused to wear a jacket because it had a car-company logo on it. Last year, some of her friends rode to Wasaga Beach on Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto, carrying supplies for a week-long stay. (The 140-kilometre ride took an entire day.)

Ms. Hollinsworth acknowledges the militant cycling community is sometimes guilty of blanket judgments -- the most extreme exponents tend to see cars as a statement of greed and carelessness.

"Some see the car first," she said. "They judge you based on that. To me, it's more subtle. I don't think cars are evil, but I think it's easy to misuse them. There's a legitimate purpose. But why does anyone need a Cadillac Escalade?"

"I'm not as extreme as some. But I do knock on car windows and remind them that there's an anti-idling law. It bugs me because it's so unnecessary, and because it's so bad for the world we live in."

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Ms. Hollinsworth wishes that her actions hadn't served to polarize the division between cyclists and car drivers: "I know how I came across. But it comes from a good place. I'm not trying to be a self-righteous pain in the ass. But I have principles, and I think you're supposed to act on your principles. You have to try and work on what's right around you. I can't send leftover food to starving kids in Africa. But maybe I can stop some cars from idling."

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