By Patricia Lightfoot
A group of us rode the 100 km from Perth to Kingston and back the other weekend through rural Ontario. During the preceding week, we had checked the weather forecast repeatedly, if not obsessively. As the ride approached, showers featured prominently in the forecast but then gave way to a prediction of sunshine and temperatures in the mid-twenties. We prepped the bikes. We made lists, or at least I did, of what should be packed and transported by van to Kingston, including footwear to be worn there, as it’s hard to clip-clop around town in bike shoes. A few years ago, one of our party had been obliged to purchase a vivid-purple emergency pair of flip flops at a dollar store in Westport to the vast amusement of all.
Once we had deposited our overnight bags beside the cycling club’s white van and attached our bib numbers to our shirts, we took the ritual pre-ride group photo. Some were anxious to leave before everyone was ready, and there were minor disputes about what our meeting time was and what our departure time was. Once we set off, with some still grumbling, the group was initially twitchy, but then settled down into a sustainable and predictable rhythm.
We ride as a pack or peloton, two by two where this is legal, unless we’re impeding traffic, in which case we move into single file. Riding about a wheel length behind the rider in front allows us to draft, meaning that we are sheltered from the wind and, thus, have a lot less work to do. When riding side by side, we rotate the group every so often, whereby the rider at the front on the left or outer side moves over to ride in front of the rider who had been on their inside, and is now in the second row, and everyone adjusts accordingly in a series of fluid movements, assuming they have been paying attention. This means nobody gets too tired at the front and there’s someone new to talk to every rotation. After 30 minutes or so, you get back to a conversation started earlier about summer plans, the progress of a PhD thesis or how good it will be to head into the beer garden once we reach Queen’s. People talk about the hypothermia year or the sunstroke years of this annual event. My contribution is last year’s brutal headwind. Three of us were riding in a paceline into the wind. Only seconds into my turn to lead, both my companions rode past me. “I thought I was leading,” I said. “You’re doing 15 km an hour! We’ll never get home at this rate,” was the response. Whatever the weather brings this year, our healthy-sized pack will mitigate that potential issue.
Unlike the professional riders, whose exploits some of us follow through the three Grand Tours (the Tour de France is not the only game in town and is generally not the most interesting), smaller stage races and the spring one-day classics in Belgium, we are not accompanied by team cars, a phalanx of motorbikes or circling helicopters. I think that we are fortunate in that we ride for the pleasure of spinning our wheels and moving through the countryside with a group of friendly companions. The countryside is gentle, featuring rolling hills, farms and lakes and is sometimes dull when observed from a car, but not so on a bike. We see the details in the landscape, the young calves with their mothers, hear birdsong and the whooshing of our tyres, enjoy the scent of lilacs and the sight of the fresh green of the trees and fields after our long monochrome winter. We are experiencing the world on a human scale.
And that is one reason why we do this, to slow down and see the world in close-up. There’s also the pleasure and the good fortune in being healthy enough to cycle that far from home and all our day-to-day responsibilities. I find that the act of cycling, just turning those pedals, makes me happy. Exploring new places on my bike with friends, whether in town or in the country, makes me feel like a child again, when our gang roamed around what we thought was a big world.
There’s also the sense of freedom, which is beautifully illustrated in a scene in the movie The way, way back. Our hero, Duncan, is a teenage boy who has to spend the summer at the beach with his mother and his mother’s mean-spirited new boyfriend, along with the boyfriend’s circle of friends. This is not a group in which Duncan is welcomed or accepted, but one day in the garage he finds a bicycle trimmed with ribbons at the handlebars and coloured pieces of plastic in the spokes. He gets on this incongruous bike and rides away. As he does so, the viewer sees that has made a triumphant and joyful escape.
The always critical and entertaining Bike Snob has argued quite reasonably that in North America we should be sensible about cycling and view it as another means of everyday transport, and not purely as a recreational activity with expensive accoutrements and an attitude of smugness. He has identified a certain type of cyclist as a “Fred,” who is “any over-enthusiastic bike dork, regardless of gender or preferred riding style.” The Fred’s British cousin is the “MAMIL” or “middle-aged man in lycra.” I had cycled since childhood for fun and then for commuting purposes, errands and cycling home from the pub in a state of merriness, but I found, as is often the case when you start doing a particular activity a lot, that it is really more comfortable to have the right equipment, be it a pair of good bike shorts (And you know that nothing is worn underneath your shorts to prevent chafing. You have been warned!), bike gloves to protect the palms of your hands from blisters and a proper bike shirt with pockets for essential possessions and snacks. The shorts may involve crossing a line, but shoes that clip in, though bizarrely to “clipless pedals,” definitely send one into true “Fred” territory. It also means that your feet don’t slip around on the pedals, meaning that a pedal never slaps you on the ankle, both of which make descending, that is, cycling downhill, more comfortable and, indeed, fabulous. I felt like I’d joined the pros on my first clipped-in ride and, yes, I fell over three times that first summer, twice through forgetting to unclip and once because I unclipped one shoe and leaned the opposite way to dismount.
Our group of friendly cyclists with some Fredly characteristics made it to Queen’s and the beer garden. We were further rewarded with showers, university food (sad, but true) and some time spent in a downtown pub. After a quiet night in a university residence, we rose and cycled back to Perth. The weather was again hot and dry. We were plagued by a crosswind for a short stretch. Someone had a mechanical, but we still made it to our destination, proving that some may be able to ride without all those gears. All to say, the Gods of Cycling smiled on us.