Bike Rally: The Most Profound Experience on a Bicycle

Day 0, the day before the start of the rally, was “Packing Day”. That morning, I had to go to the parking lot behind Monsignor Fraser Collegiate downtown to drop off my luggage, and to pick up my rider's package (maps etc). I was given two Rubbermaid bins to store my tent, air mattress, sleeping bag, my clothes, shoes, toiletries, spare bike parts, my big jar of Advil, and everything else that I had to bring along. There, my Rubbermaid Rustler, Michel, loaded my stuff into the trunk. Every morning during the ride, Michel and 20 other rustlers would load everyone's bins into the trucks, and unload them at the next camp site for the end of the day. The side of the box had my name and rider number. I was rider 333. When I first got the number, my friend Ronno from church joked that I'm the baby devil. By the end of Day 1, all the volunteers who check in the riders at lunch and at the end of the day, were also calling me "Half Devil".

That night, I slept terribly. Partly it was because my mother-in-law was staying with us, and with the spare air mattress packed away in the truck, I had to sleep on the couch. But more importantly, I was just nervous and excited all at once.  I dreamed that important stuff were left behind or forgotten, and that I wore the wrong jersey to the rally.

The Rally officially started the following day. Lilian drove me to Queen's Park very early that morning, ahead of most riders and volunteers. When I got there, I had a chance to chat with a few other riders whom I have met during the training rides. As the start time got near, there was all the pomp, all the formalities that was to be expected. There was a speech from MPP Glen Murray, and a prayer from a United Church minister, and then all the riders did our stretching exercises. (We would have this stretching exercises every morning during the ride, and it was very important for us...) And then, we were off, down Yonge Street with police escort. All 3 months of training is coming down to this. The road condition coming out of Toronto wasn't great, and Kingston Rd was bumpy at best. At worst, it was full of dangerous potholes and cracks in the pavement. Riding with traffic was a bit stressful, but with such a big group of riders and volunteers along the way, it was quite manageable. The road conditions did improve a bit as we left the city, aside from a few construction zones that we had to pass through. For the most part, I rode mostly by myself.

After lunch, I noticed that my bike was no longer shifting properly: I didn't have access to the smaller cogs or the larger ones in my rear cassette.  That meant that I wasn't able to climb hills against the wind (well, I could, just not as fast as I would have liked), and I couldn't go fast enough on the flats.  My whole rhythm was disrupted, but I made it to the finish line. I did tumble out of my bike as I checked in with the crew: my bike was on gravel, and I spun out before I could clip out safely. I would find out in the evening that my derailleur hanger was bent, possibly from the person knocking down my bike during lunch. The mechanics helped me bent it back in shape, and I would have to pay attention to the entire thing for the rest of the ride, and not get my bike knocked down again.

After dinner, I finally met some of my teammates in my team, Team Head. (I'm not kidding. Other teams used even more colourful language for their team names, like Big Cogs, or the Rally Ho's.) It did not take long before I picked up another nickname: "The Church Guy". Not that I spent a lot of time on Church St., which is Toronto's Gay Village area, but literally I am the guy who goes to church. All the time. I thought it was funny that my other nickname was "Half Devil". After being swamped by mosquitoes in the evening, I decided to turn in early. The sky was clear, and the weather was great. And with all the excitement, and everyone chatting away loudly, I didn't sleep until quite late. This would become a problem the next day.

Day 2 of the Rally started badly. I was woken up by a thunderstorm at 1:50am, not long after I have fallen asleep. Over the next 3 hours, 4 other thunderstorms would pass through the Port Hope area. Thankfully, my tent was brand new, and there were no leaks. Not everyone was as lucky, especially those who saw the clear sky in the evening and didn't put on the rain fly. By 5am, after another storm had passed the area, I got up, changed into my riding clothes, and packed everything into my Rubbermaid bins in a hurry: I knew there were more storms on their way, and I didn't want to be packing when they do arrive. The Breakfast Television crew had already arrived, but I wondered how they could broadcast when they can't raise their antenna in the storm. The breakfast tent was cold, and windy, and miserable. What's worse is that, while we waited, the organizers told us that the rider who collapsed the previous day actually had a heart attack, and they told us that he was being "monitored". Many of us with smart phones were aware that the forecast wasn't favourable, but there would be a break, afterwards the lightning and thunder would end.  Or so we hoped.

Indeed, a break in the weather finally allowed the riders to head off. By then we were about an hour behind schedule. We stayed dry for the initial 35km. I started riding with Kyra G. at first, and after awhile, our group of two became a group of 6, then 9. We also picked up speed as our pace line formed, and we arrived at our first rest stop in relatively good shape. We set out again, after a long break, in which in consumed an incredible amount of food. It seemed that I was burning off a lot of energy to keep myself warm.  After the break, I blew a tire while trying navigating a pothole. (The lead rider yelled "hole!", and while every one looked, I rode right into it.)  With the CO2 cartridge from Kyra, we got going within 5 minutes, and a good thing it was! Because right after that, the rain started again. No thunder this time, but the rain was heavy. We had to battle the rain on my glasses, the dirty water from the rider in front of me, the rain dripping into my eyes, and the sweat that it was mixed with.  All this, and the headwind. The next 50km was the most difficult ride I have ever had in my life. But I was able to stay with the group. The rain finally stopped for the last time just as my group pulled into the lunch break. At the break, I consumed another large quantity of food, mostly the very tasty pasta salad.  From there on, we followed Victor S, the co-captain in my team, and definitely one of the strongest cyclist in the Rally, into our camp site in Adolphustown, just outside of Kingston.  In fact, our group turned out to be one of the first to arrive. And being in the group was probably the reason that I even made it, as a lot of riders were picked up by the bus. One of them blew 3 tires that day. I took a shower, and with the help of the camp site owner, charged up my phone, and watched as the sky finally cleared.

The evening ended with a hearty Greek dinner. To be honest, I was so hungry that it would not have mattered what I ate. After we finished dinner, we were told that one of our riders has passed away from an apparent heart attack. We would find out later (on the second last night) that he was HIV-positive, and that his partner was also on the ride too. I went to bed thinking about if there are more profound meaning to this rally.

Day 3 was the shortest day, with only a 50km ride into Kingston. It was cloudy at first, but the sky cleared up as we sprinted towards Kingston. I tagged along with Kyra G. and some of her teammates again, and we made it to Kingston in 1 hour and 45 minutes, including stopping at the rest stop. For the first time in my life, I was keeping pace at faster than 30km/h, and it felt...easy. Of course, the tail wind from the west was helping. At Queen's University, we were treated to a huge lunch at their dining hall. It should be noted that at the end of the Rally, while I slimmed down a little bit, I didn't lose a pound of weight, and the massive amount of food that I have consumed is generally thought to be the culprit. For example, my lunch at Queen's consisted of a burger, fries, large bowl of coleslaw, a large bowl of cream of chicken and corn, deli meats, cheese, a large slice of pizza, several cups of pop, several cups of chocolate milk and several cups of ice-cream. After lunch, I dropped of my dirty laundry at a nearby laundromat, and promptly went to sleep. The lack of sleep—especially after Day 1—was finally catching up, and I wasn't going to let the soft bed in the air-conditioned room go to waste. I ended the day with another huge meal with my teammates at a German restaurant. I was the only person who didn't drink a beer. After dinner, there was a fundraiser drag show by the female impersonator Miss Conception, whose name is actually Kevin. Kevin was also a rider on the Rally. I'm not particular (i.e. not at all) interested in drag shows, so I only stayed for a short time. But it has to be said that Kevin, I mean Miss Conception, is in a class of his/her own.

This day was also called "Red Dress Day", and everyone was encourage to wear a red dress. I didn't have my own red dress, and so I just wore my red jersey. Others, on the other hand, had much more outrageous costumes.

I found out later that there was another accident: one of the riders was clipped by a truck, and the police was treating it as a hit-and-run case. The rider would not finish the rally, but when we left Montreal, a few other riders who had been in contact with her told us that she was okay.

 

Day 4 was another beautiful day, and while this would be the second day in a row where my riding speed was decidedly faster than in any previous rides, it was also one of the most uneventful (thank God).  One of Kyra's teammates, Rodney M., invited me to join them for the ride again, along with Johhny, Marc, George H, Bill W and Liz V. From Kingston, we rode through the beautiful Ganonoque and through the Thousand Islands. Kyra and another rider, Todd T., joined us after the break in Gananoque. According to Todd, he had never rode as fast as he did that morning. He would keep pace for the entire day. After riding for 3 days, hopping on and off my bike is becoming routine, and I thought it was a good thing, and by now, I have got used to how to warm myself up at the beginning of the ride in the morning, and how to stretch after finishing the day too. Surprisingly, my large jar of Advil remained largely untouched. After arriving at camp, and having a nice warm shower, I had a chance to chat with a couple of my teammates, Robert M, Azunsion and Brent.

Day 5 was a special day. While everyday during the Rally had been incredible, Day 5 was especially dear to my heart. On this day, in the morning, I was tasked—along with co-caption Victor of my team—to be the sweeper. A sweeper is a strong rider who rides behind everyone, in order to help the slower riders make it to their destinations. Last year (August 2010), during my 160km trek in the Ride for United Way, I fell behind all the other stronger riders, and had to be helped to the finish line (along with three other riders) by a group of sweepers. This year, after all the training that I have done, I was the stronger rider, and so I offered to stay behind. Thankfully, every rider made it to the lunch break, and another team took over from me and Victor. For all the effort of having to be the sweeper, I had the pleasure of wearing a pink broom over my helmet. The extra weight didn't bother me, except when I had to turn my head left to shoulder check.

Lunch was a funny thing. Being a sweeper means that we were the last to arrive at the lunch break. And there was a tonne of left over food. Good food. So mine was a meatball sandwich smothered in cheese. I had seconds, but this time I dispensed with the bread, and had only the meatballs and cheese. And a huge salad. I rode pretty much by myself for the entire afternoon portion of the ride. After all the success riding in a group, I felt confident enough that I can keep at the same pace by myself. I almost did. In fact, for awhile, I rode at an incredibly pace that I have never kept before. I managed to pass quite a few group of riders en route to Lancaster, but I began to fade a little bit about 15km from the end, when all of a sudden, I was met with a humid headwind again. I slowed right down, but I knew that everyone else had to as well. Before pulling into the camp site, I stopped with every rider at the Dairy Queen. Apparently it's quite a tradition. There was a candle-light event in the evening, for people to talk about their experiences on the ride. Many spoke and it was a moving experience.

On the morning of Day 6, I used the last bit of battery power on my iPhone to post a Facebook message "Today, I'm riding fast and strong for the people with HIV/AIDS." The weather report for that day was not favourable, and even though the sun was out in the morning during our stretching exercises, I knew that it wasn't going last. I worried that it would be a repeat of Day 2, but nevertheless we set out on schedule. We all stopped at the Ontario-Quebec border to take pictures, and then we were off again. Bill W. had a crash on Day 5, and rode slowly with another group of riders, I tagged along with Liz, George and Marc.


 

15km outside of Montreal, all the riders gathered at the last rest stop. We took team photos; we chatted. From there we would ride into the city on one straight line. We pulled into downtown Montreal city under police escort, to a small but enthusiastic crowed that has gathered. Finished at last!

A few members of Team Head joined our captions Fred and Victor at St. Hubert for dinner, where I practically snorted an entire rack of ribs and coleslaw in minutes. It felt good. Afterwards, we went to the celebration party. We were supposed to dance the night away, but instead, Fred, Robert and I just sat on the couch. “It only takes 3 hours to go from being an athlete to a couch potato.” I noted, to which Fred replied, “I was never an athlete!”

I spent the next morning with Robert and Azunsion roaming around Montreal, with a brunch at Schwartz's, and a stroll around Vieux Montreal, before taking the train on VIA Rail with the other riders back to Toronto.