When my cycling buddy died, I committed to taking the cross-Canada trip we had planned together. Then I got cancer too.
FROM THE MARCH APRIL 2012 MAGAZINE
Fulfilling a dream takes commitment and planning—and the ability to follow the path life shows you. Last summer I fulfilled a dream, spending 74 days bicycling 8,500 km from Victoria B.C. to St John’s, Nfld. The road I took was a twisting one indeed. It included two cancer stories, one death, and a healthy dose of inspiration and of self-discovery.
The process started about 14 years ago, just before my fiftieth birthday. I started serious biking with a small group, riding a couple of hundred kilometres each weekend. Carl became a very close friend. We often talked about doing a long trip such as this. Unfortunately, he passed away from cancer and his wife gave me his bike to ride.
In 2003, a year after his death, I was diagnosed with cancer too. As I lay in the hospital bed, waiting for the doctor’s prognosis, I made my commitment to complete our ride, with his bike, as soon as I could.
I had to wait until I retired last year to have the time to make my dream happen. First, I had to decide upon the method: Join a tour company or complete the ride self-supported. I chose to join a bare-bones tour company that laid out the route and transported the tent, sleeping and cooking gear.
The group included 37 other riders, from seven countries, who ranged in age from 19 to 69. Teams of six riders worked together, in rotation, to prepare meals for everyone. That made for a wonderful range of experiences with which to understand our country.
Now I needed to be big-time fit to ride across Canada. I started my program by riding 3,000 km in Florida in the spring, over very flat terrain. Then I spent two weeks in Whistler, BC pumping up steep hills.
When we gathered for the start, I was surprised to meet riders who had not been able to train at all. I was glad I was as prepared as I was when we tackled the first mountains in BC. However, everyone was able to complete them too, with just a few more stops, and a lot more pain and puffing!
A vegetarian, I was concerned about my diet supplying the necessary calories and protein. By bending my dietary rules a little, and eating lots of peanut butter sandwiches, I was able to keep my engine running all the way. My plate was always heaping full, and then back for seconds. I lost only 3 kg.
The trip was west to east, so the BC Coastal Mountains were right there in front of me. The Coquahala Pass was a hard grind, cresting at 1,244 m. Then it was on to the Rogers Pass and Kicking Horse Pass. Each one got a little easier as our endurance improved.
Did you know that Canada is a windy country? On the flatter terrain, the wind really taxed me when it was blowing in the wrong direction. Hurricane Irene threw 40 to 50 kph winds as I completed the Cabot Trail in the Highlands of Cape Breton. Did you know that Ontario is a really large province? It took 25 days to cross, one third of the total travel time.
What does one do or think about, sitting on a bike for seven to eight hours a day?
I reflected upon my family, particularly my wife who was not accompanying me. I reflected upon my life and the decisions I had made that had led me to be where I was.
Depending upon the traffic, I might be able to talk with a riding partner. I listened to the birds and was always watching for wildlife. I enjoyed our country in vivid colour and slow motion. Willie Nelson’s song On the Road Again was often playing in my head.
One was a driver in Northern Ontario who wanted to really scare me. While passing cars coming in the opposite direction, he made a very obvious move over the white line, and headed directly at me. I swerved into the ditch just as he passed by. It took several minutes for my heart to stop racing!
The other low was from heat stress on a very hot day coming into Kenora. I was leaning over my bike, unable to move, when a gentleman came out of his house and asked me if I was in trouble, which I was. He invited me in for a cool down and homemade green- bean soup. What a great Samaritan!
The reward was seeing Canada in a completely different way. I could stop almost anywhere for a photo or a sit by a stream. I had many opportunities to meet and talk with Canadians. The question was always: “What are you doing—and why?” That always opened a good dialogue. I also got to exchange stories with people who were seeing Canada by other means, such as self- supported cycling, walking or canoeing. They all had unique stories to tell.
Is this trip for everyone? I found the physical challenges were less than I had thought. On the other hand, the mental challenges were greater: facing another day of riding in the rain when I would rather be in a warm, dry home, for example.
It is mainly a question of commitment: Knowing you want to do this!
Would I do it again? I had an absolutely fantastic summer. I experienced Canada as few are able to—appreciating the vastness and richness of our country. Yet being away from my wife for such a long time is not something I want to repeat. I guess it is on to shorter trips, maybe with my wife along!