Video: Meet the masked man who cycles backwards through Toronto
VIDEO: After losing his laptop during a break-in, artist Leslie Stoley jumped on his handlebars and rode backwards out of frustration. Now, the unconventional style is the only way he rides. (Video by Chris So / The Toronto Star)
Liam Casey, Staff Reporter
Everything was backwards on the morning of Aug. 9, 2009. Leslie Slowley’s laptop had been stolen the night before — and much of the artist’s work was on it.
He thought a trip to the shop where he creates his art would cure the blues. But Slowley’s papier-mâché creations, from bowls to masks to unidentifiable pieces, didn’t help at first.
Slowley, now 40, needed supplies to keep going, which meant a trip to the local dollar store on his bicycle. So he hopped on his bike and sat on the handlebars facing backwards, like he used to do as a kid, when life was simpler and bike tricks were cool.
He found out they still were. He rode to the store facing the wrong way, with his head swiveling from side to side, straining his obliques to twist and peer ahead. Some bystanders smiled and others waved as he rolled by.
“I loved it. It helped me through a rough time,” Slowley said. “And I made a commitment to ride backwards from that day on.”
In the three years since, he has never cycled the proper way — which isn’t illegal, according to Toronto police Const. Hugh Smith, so long as Slowley’s not reckless.
Now, he is arguably the happiest person in Toronto. People burst into wide grins as he cycles past. Slowley says hi to them all.
He demonstrated his skill on the clogged streets near Dundas St. and University Ave. on Wednesday afternoon. He hopped on his blue mountain bike, fashioned with a decal that reads “backwards rider,” and sat on a seat he built onto his handlebars — facing backwards of course — and took off gracefully. He showed off by stretching his legs before he disappeared around the bend.
Slowley nearly bailed on McCaul St. Wednesday when he swerved to avoid a car pulling out from a parking spot and got caught in the streetcar tracks. But he recovered and gave the thumbs up. At one corner, Slowley blew past a surprised pedestrian, who shouted “You’re the f-----g best man, the best!”
Even crashing doesn’t faze the backwards rider.
“Then it feels great, like acupuncture,” he said.
He has also become a talking point for locals. “Have you seen the backwards rider?” they ask in downtown bars, coffee shops and online, where blurry pictures, reminiscent of the Loch Ness Monster, surfaced on Twitter. He has become an urban myth. Most who hear the story are incredulous, except those who’ve seen him ride.
Slowley, a Jamaican Canadian, can be intimidating with his short dreadlocks, characteristic face paint and a paper mask that usually sits on the back of his head. He cut the mask’s mouth into a smile so as not to scare people as much. He says he doesn’t have any mental health issues.
“The mask was a bit creepy,” said Meghan Sbrocchi, 25, who was eating lunch at a Baldwin St. restaurant with a friend when Slowley rode by.
“But you intrigue me,” her friend Alex Trimble said to Slowley, who was quietly sitting nearby. “Your smile is great. You just can’t make masks happy.”
“OK,” Slowley said. “But I want to sell some.”
His backwards riding has evolved into roving performance art. He added the face paint last November, which gives him the look of a warrior from a lost era. He calls it a “friendly, eco warrior design” for the healthy environmental message that he’s now promoting.
And his backwards lifestyle isn’t limited to bicycles. When on a train or streetcar, he’ll face the back. His dream is to fly backwards.
“It gives you a different perspective,” Slowley said, “Both in reality and metaphorically.”