March 1, 2011

Around The Block

At first, my cycling world was the length of the gravel driveway. After I rode up and down it countless times and gained experience, my parents allowed me to move up to the sidewalk. While retired neighbors watched from their porches, I raced my friends along its stretch of concrete until we knew every crack, diversion and driveway. At the end of the summer day, the grey concrete was marked at either end with long, black skid marks. As the sun dipped behind the row of houses, parents hollered “dinner” and we had one last final sprint for the garage.

As I grew older, my limits were again extended. Our skills increased, we gained confidence, we raced around the block, stopped to check out anthills and garage sales. We were constantly discovering. We could escape into our own world where we had independence and freedom. On our bikes, there was a sense of liberty. Exploring the world broadened our horizons and developed our maturity.

The bike took me everywhere.

Our experiences weren’t unique but perhaps they were rare. Despite living in a large, diverse city, few of my classmates had seen much beyond our gentrified neighborhood. After class, I was riding through the suburbs and into the countryside.

The bike continues to take me to places I never imagined I would travel. And, even the local routes I ride evolve daily, never becoming mundane. Within the silence of a dormant forest in the winter to the electric buzz of a vibrant coastal town in the midsummer our senses are constantly engaged in a diversity of contrasting stimuli. The emotion I felt on a bike as a young boy hasn’t dissolved with maturity. It’s what keeps me riding.

The peripatetic life of a professional cyclist can be wearing as we spend hundreds of days away from home a year. But it is also a thrilling continuation of the adventure I began as a boy. The cyclist learns to adapt to changing environments, accept differences in cultures and speak foreign languages. We progressively see the world with greater understanding. Everything that was once foreign becomes familiar.

Riding took me across borders even when I was a young boy. My parents loaded up the van with my friends and our bikes and drove us to seemingly exotic places like Buffalo, Thetford Mines, Cleveland, Montreal to ride or race. Some of the teenagers loaded in the van had never gone beyond the outer limits of Toronto. We saw places few of our classmates of friends would ever see. The thrill of the journey, the race, the ride, the adventure, left us elated as we returned late on a Sunday night to Toronto.

On the bike, friendships grew stronger. The experiences contrasted those on the school grounds, parks or mall.  We learned how to navigate traffic, read maps, fix punctures, all the while relying on our limited resources and each other. The friendships developed as an adolescent are still some of the strongest in my life. As we grew we began traveling across the ocean to race in Europe in youth races, analogues of the pro races we had followed closely in the print media.

Although the physical strain of racing is wearing, its mental stimulation and emotion keeps us young. In 1996, I rode my first Olympics. I was 20 and still a boy. In the lead up to the Olympics, I raced and roomed with my childhood idol, Steve Bauer, who would end his career after the road race at the Atlanta games. Despite the age gap of 16 years we got along well. Through the races, we chatted like I did with my high school mates. Despite having the obligations of an adult the bike had allowed Steve to retain a boys’ enthusiasm. At the dinner table and on the start line, the spark of exuberance for the bike, which ignited his long career remained.

Training with teammates I still feel the same juvenile joy and thrill, and I know they do. In late January, under heavy fog a group of veteran professionals left Girona for a long ride. The 10 of us rode for nearly six hours, time which passed unnoticed. With experience we’ve developed a rhythm to the rides where the tempo is consistent and fluctuates only according to the terrain. Confident in our abilities and wise about our weaknesses, egos vanish. We may be rivals at races but we are also a group of friends. We socialize, we push each other when we need to work harder but the rhythm isn’t broken.

The ride is still about the adventure, the camaraderie and the sense of accomplishment. Whether it’s a trip to the end of the block, or across the Alps, the sensation is the same. Like the mothers calling their sons in for dinner as they ride around the block one last time, we now arrive home to our wives who’ve been patiently waiting.