At 5:40 a.m. the group met, in the parking lot of the 24-hour grocery store. The city streets were void of the parked cars that line the curbs each day as their owners run into neighborhood shops to grab a loaf of bread or a coffee. Behind the darkened store front of a bakery, a light glimmered, and the aroma of baking bread wafted outside. Although the air was below freezing, my body still held the warmth of my bed. But I knew that 20 minutes into the ride the cold would begin to bite, before the increased pace restored the warmth in my hands and feet. Several months had passed since I last rode my bike outside, the longest break since my childhood. The Canadian winter, bitterly cold with ploughed snow piled high in the streets, incited no desire to look at the bike and I didn’t miss riding that much. Instead I ran, I played hockey, I skied; sports I hadn’t practiced or played since I was a schoolboy. As a boy I embraced every chance I had to ride. I couldn’t get enough of it. As a professional my life became singularly focused. Now that I was retired, I sought more balance, I didn’t have to ride, or be concerned with my fitness, as I had been since I was a teenager. No longer was it my job to upload training data, weigh myself daily or ride up and down a hill repeatedly at a specified wattage.
Outside the grocery store, an employee had left a case of water and a bunch of bananas for us, knowing the daily routine of the club. It was a simple welcoming gesture. A few riders chatted while we waited for others. Within minutes, their lights flickering like fireflies in the night, riders came from all directions. In a flash there were 40 or 50 of us who were ready to ride.
In the early morning, the city of 5 million people seemed our own. The streets that would be jammed with cars and irritable commuters in just a few hours were serenely empty, a contrast that made everything obscured by the daytime bustle more noticeable.
We started slowly, still waking from our sleep, pedaling, chatting, coasting in the wheels of the large group, our lights shining on each others’ backs and casting shadows on the black tarmac. A half an hour passed and we were at our destination, where we would repeat loops through a neighbourhood and up and down a hill. It was here I would again feel the burn in my lungs, legs and arms only a cyclist knows.
In the group, there was a jovial and almost juvenile atmosphere; we had snuck out early to steal the early hours of the day to do something that gave us a sense of liberty few in the dormant city knew.
On the neighbourhood circuits the group splintered, as we each found partners who could push a little bit harder. The small group of six, which included me, fractured and regrouped with the undulations on the circuit. Riders attacked and chased from behind. I had forgotten the feeling of being on the wheel, in the wind and back on the wheel: the relief, the surge and the relief. The fun ended as the sun came up and the streets began to clutter and congest with cars. Like the bell sounding the end of recess, a rider called out the time and we all regrouped for the short ride home. Once back with our families, we would dress our children for school, shovel down mouthfuls of food and race off to our responsibilities.
I arrived home just in time. Sleet began to fall from the sky, again. I stepped off my bike and could feel the effort in my legs, a weighty sensation I had missed.