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Christie Blatchford

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The cyclist killed in an altercation with former Ontario attorney-general Michael Bryant had been drinking and was involved in a confrontation with police earlier in the evening.

Darcy Allan Sheppard was investigated but released without charges Monday night after a former girlfriend called Toronto police, The Globe and Mail has confirmed. The incident, described as minor, took place in downtown Toronto, not far from where Mr. Sheppard and Mr. Bryant collided at 9:45 p.m. in an explosion of violence that left one man dead, the other with his public service career in tatters.

Details of the earlier encounter add to the developing story of how an event that apparently began as a shouted confrontation between cyclist and motorist - an ordinary enough clash in an increasingly congested city - ended with the bike courier holding on for dear life to Mr. Bryant's black convertible Saab as he drove the wrong way down Bloor Street near the posh Yorkville district - seemingly trying, deliberately according to some eyewitnesses, to loosen the man's grip and succeeding with tragic results when the man fell bleeding to the ground after being slammed into a mailbox.

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He was rushed to hospital but died about an hour later.

With Mr. Bryant now facing charges of criminal negligence causing death and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death, Mr. Sheppard's drinking also raises the possibility that the former Liberal MPP could successfully claim he felt so threatened that he acted out of self-defence.

Earlier eyewitness accounts describe an angry clash between Mr. Bryant and Mr. Sheppard - a toot of the horn and a shout to get moving from Mr. Bryant; a refusal and perhaps an answering shout from Mr. Sheppard; Mr. Bryant edging his convertible closer, and by one account, actually hitting Mr. Sheppard's bike, whereupon Mr. Sheppard allegedly left his bike and marched over and reached into the offending open car.

While the story is shocking and sobering, it is not unfamiliar to those who crowd, and match wits and daring on Toronto's increasingly busy streets.

And while the new details suggest that Mr. Bryant may well have a solid legal defence, it is trickier to see how he will be able to muster a moral one.

I can't imagine there's a driver in downtown Toronto who didn't get the shakes after hearing about the incident which took one life and which will also mark the end of Mr. Bryant's, however it unfolds, as he knew it.

The look on his face as he sat in the back of a police cruiser shortly after the incident suggests he realized it too. He looked, as a friend said, "exactly as all of us would look" - pale, sweaty and frightened.

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And we all know that look, even if we haven't worn it: The reaction was a bit of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I mixed with sheer terror.

For as the cyclist will always physically lose in any contest with a car, so the driver of a car always will yield the high ground to the cyclist. In any modern version of the Biblical parable of David and Goliath, including this one, Goliath doesn't get to say, "Well, he used his slingshot first" or "David started it."

As city planners ensure that roads get narrower for cars (half-assed bike lanes, which give a measure of comfort but no protection, dedicated streetcar lines, one-way roads, various traffic 'calming' methods, which may calm traffic but hardly drivers), getting around the city takes longer and longer, and cyclists and motorists, and sometimes cyclists and pedestrians, are increasingly at odds over the same shrinking space.

Even if it turns out that the man attempted to choke Mr. Bryant, as some witness accounts suggest, and that Mr. Bryant called 911 - and this is the most benign scenario the former politician can hope for - it isn't good enough.

The mismatch between car and bicycle is sufficiently enormous that the cyclist is inherently always right.

I was reminded of this imbalance recently when I participated on a charity ride, and found myself teetering on a bike for the first time in two decades, and on the side of a busy highway on Vancouver Island no less, a sort of 401 with trees.

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For anyone who remembers biking through childish eyes, it is a very different bit of business on busy roads, with trucks, vans, SUVs (and on the Island, lumbering lumber trucks) just inches away. The tires get very small, the slight protection offered by the best helmet very feeble, in a hurry.

Former Ontario cabinet minister Michael Bryant is being questioned in connection with a fatal accident Monday night in downtown Toronto

I fell, almost into traffic, three times due to my unfamiliarity with clip-on shoes, and scraped raw elbows and knees on my left side, but even so, the most alarming, and lasting, injury was to my hands - I was so afraid, and braking so hard, my fingers barely worked for days after.

It reminded me of why I quit biking to work years and years ago - and then, I was good at it. But when I fell into the path of an oncoming streetcar, I realized I no longer had the nerve.

Rage too is familiar to many of us who drive in the city. I once got into a ridiculous up-yours shouting match with another motorist, behaved like an idiot by out-manoeuvring him up a one-way road - and then slowing down deliberately to make him crazy.

It worked: At the next light, he got out of his car and put a boot through my door. I was so shaken, and simultaneously mortified by my own conduct, that I reported him neither to police nor insurance company, and just paid for the damage myself - and that was in a clash with a peer, a fellow motorist driving a vehicle as big and powerful as my own. We were for the most part in our moving bubbles, seat-belted and air-bagged and roll-barred unto safety.

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But a cyclist is never in a bubble like that.

Thus, it is the motorist who has the greater responsibility - not just because he is the only party licensed by society to drive, by which I mean granted the privilege of driving - but because on some level, all of us understand the rules, one of which is that behind the wheel, we are driving a potential weapon. The burden of sucking up the insult, the raised finger, even the punch, and acting like a grown up is always and forever with us.

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