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It was June 2nd around 4:30 pm when I pulled into my driveway and pushed the button on the garage door opener. I maneuvered the car crosswise on the pavement and lined it up with the door. I had backed into the currant bushes so far that the bikes that were hanging on the back of my car were sitting on the drooping branches that had been weighed down in last night’s rain.

When the grating of the garage door opener stopped, I pulled ahead, way ahead and gently bumped the gardening cart that sits at the far end. I got out and double checked that the bikes were safely ahead of the door so that they would not be in danger when it closed. Looked good to me. I hit the wall switch and ducked under the slowly descending wooden door. A quick trot followed to get me through the light rain and into the house.

What had I been thinking last August! What made me imagine that I could bike 75 kilometers? Why did my friend Lisa agree? Aren’t friends supposed to talk you out of death defying acts?

I ate supper and finished organizing my gear so that it would be a quick get up and out in the morning. I set the alarm for 3:00 am and hopped into bed with my book at 8:30 pm. The shower and the hair were done. It was as good as it would get but with a prediction of rain and more wind like we had been experiencing for the past few days, who would care? Besides what kind of hairstyle would I really have to have to withstand hours in a bicycle helmet?

As I dozed off I wondered whom I might hire to do a B&E on the garage to steal the bikes in the night. A smile of satisfaction crossed my face. It was such a good idea! We obviously would not be able to commit suicide in the morning if we didn’t have bikes. And as that thought danced through my head, I fell asleep.

At regular intervals for the next six and one half hours I checked my i-phone.  Sleeping in was not an option.

At 3 am sharp, I hesitated for one moment and then rolled out of bed turning off the alarm as my feet hit the floor. I was to be at Lisa’s for a 4:00 am start.

It was dark and only one car was out there with me as I followed the Dale Rd from my house to Port Hope where I was to pick up Lisa and head off to the Exhibition Grounds in Toronto for the start of this year’s Ride for Heart. June 3rd, 2012, the date of the Ride for Heart had arrived.

But I should back up for a moment. The idea of participating in this fundraiser  started last summer. Lisa and I had been out on our bikes a few times and somehow thought we had potential for better things when in a fit of inspiration we agreed to set ourselves the challenge of getting sponsors and riding the 75 km route from the Exhibition grounds in Toronto along the Gardiner Expressway and up and down and up and down the Don Valley Parkway. It would be good for us, or so we told ourselves. It would also be an opportunity to raise funds for a great cause. We would contribute. “We can do this”, we said as we sealed the deal with a hi-five.

So all last fall we continued to ride the hills of Northumberland. Being retired I had the advantage of taking rides during the week with my regular biking club. Lisa, being a civil servant had to “train” after work and on weekends as time allowed. We didn’t do too badly and had a couple of 40ish km runs. And then came winter.

We did talk a bit about indoor training. I even looked at indoor trainers, but the months wore on without much really happening. Lisa then showed her usual initiative and signed up at a local health club. I on the other hand ate ice cream and hoped that the book I read that said it was an ideal biking food as it was made up of mostly fat and sugar, was right. I also did a lot of armchair riding. I fought through snow in Siberia with Tim Cope, took on Europe with James Clarke, New Zealand with an overweight Pete Hepworth and followed the Lure of the Next Bend through Japan and South East Asia with Mathew Cull. Now with the exception of the Blazing Saddles adventure through Europe which tells the tale of six South African men well past their primes and who probably should have known better, the rest of the adventures were the tales of the tortured miles put in by young whipper-snappers primarily in their 20’s and quite capable of carrying their bikes when the road ran out. So I was getting psyched albeit from the comfort of a comfy armchair. It was my way of dealing with the psychology of the sport.

As luck would have it, we didn’t have much snow this winter so by mid–March we began to get serious about needing to train. Get serious or die. Those seemed to be the choices.

We tried to inspire ourselves with the discipline of a routine. I would, once or twice a week meet Lisa at her house and we would do a 20km route before it got dark. On weekends we would try to get in a longer run. It wasn’t a fast process but we could actually tell, in relatively short order, that this training stuff really had something to be said for it. We were actually getting faster and there was a noticeable difference in the huffing and puffing as we made our way up hills. The night we finished a ride by climbing Walton St. Hill–it’s the stuff legends are made of in our neck of the woods–I knew Lisa was either trying to kill me or she had more confidence than I felt. In the end it was all good. I made it up a hill that when I was twenty-three made me puff just walking!

As the days of May started to countdown I was beginning to get nervous. Was this just suicidal? I decided to take the usual Thursday morning ride with my club and try the long route. Sixty-three kilometers. It would be my best effort to date if I survived. (I can’t help but notice how this survival theme keeps coming up…hummm!)Now I should say that although I have been known to be stubborn and have a fair amount of determination, this was quite a ride. Twice I had to get off and push for fear I wouldn’t be able to get out of my clipless pedals if I had to bail on the steepest part of the hills. I was slugging back Gatorade and watching the numbers on my heart monitor rise. The guys in my group showed great patience and supported me well right up until the rain hit. Then they hi-tailed it towards Port Hope and were soon lost in the downpour.  I stopped long enough to put on my rain jacket, after all it was no longer doing any good around my waist. I continued east following the dips and long slow climbs that would take me into Port Hope and eventually through to Cobourg. I wiped rain from my glasses and swore I would invent some kind of cycling wind shield washers as a plugged along all the while contemplating the physics of surface tension as it applies to tires and pavement. I thought it was definitely harder cycling in the rain.  Well the good news would be that I had never ridden in the rain for fifteen miles before.  I need this experience, I told myself. I learned a lot. It wasn’t all nice. I will leave it at that.

The outcomes were that I didn’t get pneumonia, my cycling friends called to see if I had eventually arrived home and I had a new long ride record. In addition I knew I did not want to try to ride 75km of the Heart and Stroke event in the rain. Lesson learned.

Through late May, Lisa and I lengthened our rides and finished up with a 62k ride the weekend before the fundraiser. We took the week off to rest up and all that. You know. But now June 3 was here and as we drove down an almost empty Avenue Road towards Lake Ontario, I for one was wondering…..how hard can this be…HOW HARD CAN THIS BE!

We drove through the Prince’s Gates onto the CNE grounds and were abruptly redirected to the underground parking. My plan was unraveling already. I thought we would be out in what I hoped would turn into a sunshiny day. At 5:30 am it was overcast and cool but not raining.

The lot was filling up and bikes were getting unloaded. To take rain gear or not, that was the question. A friendly cyclist used my camera to take our picture. “Always good to have something on you to help the EMS folks identify the remains”, I thought.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My first nightmare was soon behind me as I was able to conquer the ramp leading out of the underground. I’m sure you can see how failing to do so would have been embarrassing! We fell in with the other riders who were milling about and headed like lemmings towards the Better Living Centre to find the thing we needed most….a washroom.

Given our success as fund raisers, both Lisa and I were wearing spiffy black and gold VIP cycling shirts although it was hard to tell what with a fleece and a rain jacket over top. Nonetheless we still seemed to be identifiable. It could have been the large VIP sticker on our bike helmets that that gave us away. At any rate, we gained entry along with the throng invited to a pre-ride breakfast. It must have been “take your bike to breakfast day” because few folks were prepared to leave their trusty steeds outdoors. They just lined the walls, leaned on tables, and took up positions in the Corporate Correl.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy 6:15 am, Lisa and I were heading towards our gate with a flurry of good wishes being yelled at us by this day’s first shift of volunteers.  Early on, we had decided that even if we were failures at fund raising it would be worth the investment to pledge a minimum of $1000 rather than have to start with the herds of bikers that we had seen in news clips and that appeared to be disasters waiting to happen. So off we went at a leisurely pace as part of a steady stream of well-paced cyclists.

In about two minutes Lisa was beginning to fade into the landscape in front of me. The next time I took my eyes from my heart rate monitor she was gone into the mist. This was not unexpected as it had happened in our training sessions too, but this time, we had preplanned to just keep trucking to the best of our ability and meet up at the end by the fountain just outside the Better Living Centre. Even suggesting that spot brought back a flood of memories from annual family trips to the CNE. In my mind’s eye I could see my brother and sister with candy-floss in hand. I think I could even smell hot dogs with onions. It must have been my way of mustering thoughts of all those who have gone from my life because of heart related problems. It brought my Dad, my grandmother, my friend Ken and my Mom who has also had a stroke, right there to that moment. They were on my team. I could do this.

The pace was good on the Gardiner. Dark clouds were off to the east and the sun was peeking through towards the north of the city. Traffic was light on the streets below and lights were on in many of the office buildings that line both sides of the elevated highway. The riders were spaced and seemed to be gawking around just like me. This was truly an amazing space when it wasn’t loaded with cars!

Within the first few kilometers, the first aid teams became visible and the first tires were being replaced. I prayed that this would not be the day I would have to learn how to change a tire. I had all the requirements, the tube, the levers and little canisters of compressed air, but short of getting out an instruction sheet I would be up the proverbial creek.

We sailed on. The crowd ebbed and flowed and I even passed a few people.

Clearly, I should have hydrated more or the excitement of the moment was making my heart beat faster, but whatever the reason, I was not exactly in the range my physician recommended. I learned on the fly to drink Gatorade from my water bottle. I hated to think that I should loose any momentum and stop to consume fluids.

The Don Valley is undulating but a fairly steady climb towards the turn around point at York Mills. At regular intervals, rest areas complete with rows of “Johnny on the spots”, repair stations and refreshments offered the opportunity to get psyched for the next hill.

Occasionally a family would be standing by the side of the road cheering the riders on. Volunteers did the same, complete with yellow pompoms.

Under the Bloor St. Viaduct and heading north, the hills get steeper. The thought rattles through my head as I gear down that I have to reserve at least one gear to get off the ramp onto the overpass at York Mills.

I am lightly puffing and guzzling more Gatorade. I continue to watch for Lisa but she is missing in action.

As I pull into the rest area at York Mills, the throngs at the refreshments tents discourage me. It looks like a pile of twisted metal with legs down there. I turn south and pull to the side to remove my rain coat/sauna and tie it around my waist. I am chilly now from the dampness but hope to warm up on the fly.

Despite the fact that there is a portion of 13,000 riders participating in this event right around me, it is quiet. Quiet enough that I can hear a clink that is quickly followed by the realization that I have just lost my sunglasses! Since the clouds are gathering, this is not so critical but it flashes through my head that I will look for them on the second loop. Yes, there is a second chance. I fly south. This is great and as we predicted in our planning sessions. I love downhill. My heart rate did too!

Those riding the 75 km route, go south to the Bloor/Bayview exit and then head north again. This area is cluttered as riders completing the 50k route and the 25k circle all move through this area and if one was “directionly” challenged it would be best to just follow the crowd. At the critical point, barkers yell out instructions and I head north again.

There are a lot more riders out now. I forgot to check the time but I think it would have been about 8:30 or so at this point. Riders sign up for specific group start times partly based on the distance they want to ride and partly determined by the amount they commit to fundraise. Families have joined the throng. Corporate groups wearing matching team shirts move by. Pelotons of cyclists that really look like they know what they are doing move by in the fast lane. Those guys on the lime green elliptical sliders are really cool and are going like the wind.

In my mirror, I pick up the ambulance moving along the inside lane and move out of the way as it heads for the fast lane, lights flashing and sirens blaring. There has been a pile up involving what looks like a corporate group or a cycling club. One maple-leaf-shirted victim is on the ground. His teammates and the EMS are at his side. A fire truck is headed south on the other side of the divide.

I continue north. It goes better than I anticipated. The long ride south had prepared me for a tough second climb but surprise, all that practice, about 800km worth on the hills of Northumberland, has paid off. I weave my way into the rest area at the top of the valley. It’s really busy now. I feel like I have found the zoo. Everyone seems to be munching bananas.

I slug back some more Gatorade. I do not feel hungry. I do not feel sleepy. I feel alive. I am participating. It is good.

Heading South I wave at my sunglasses that are laying in repose at the side of the rode. Unfortunately, by the time I spot them, there is a lady on my tail and I am not confident that I can organize a stop and pickup without causing a problem so I cycle on. Goodbye glasses!

I am feeling good now. I know, I think, that it is in the bag. Even as I am saying this, I hesitate. It’s the old thing about “it’s not over till it’s over.” I just put my head down and keep on pedaling.

I pass some folks and after several attempts catch up with a young man who is working hard. I tell him that his right shoelace is undone. He smiles, thanks me and says that he just wants to get to the next rest stop. He is so tired. The old fart…that’s me…cycles on.

Around the Bloor/Bayview exchange I go again. It’s trickier this time as the groups are bunching up. The late starters are meeting up with the second lappers and its more hectic. I watch the road and keep poised to disengage my shoes. It’s time for a stop and I ride off into the mob, disembark and walk to the side in order to drink yet more Gatorade. There is the atmosphere of a renaissance country fair. Maybe it is the pointed canvas canopies over the repair shop and the replacement part tent. It can’t be the bananas but there are a lot them here too!

After a bit of a false start, (these cycling shoes are slippery), I pull out into the traffic and use my head instead of listening to the somewhat confusing instructions of the volunteers and follow the route that I am fairly confident takes me south to the Gardiner.

There are lots of families with young children out now. There are Dads with kids on bikes in tow; little ones in carts; a triple tandem…dad, junior and mom; and a mom with three early teen girls, coaching as she goes. The family experience, the life experience, the memories! There is a growing feeling within me that these are lucky people.

For the most part, the rain has held off. Streaks of wet pavement speak to short-lived cloudbursts. Generally, it is a pretty perfect day. Not too hot and not too windy.

Like a wave, we climb to the Gardiner. It is awe inspiring to see the buildings of the city in this light and in this way. People are stopping to take pictures of the scene and themselves. A sense of accomplishment is beginning to build. There is strain on a few faces but most seem proud.

A dad places his tired child in a cart and tries to fasten a small trike onto its roof. Maybe next year!

At the end of the Gardiner, the 25 and 50k riders are herded back towards the Exhibition grounds. The 75ers head west along the South Kingsway and into a head wind. It seems to me to be Force 10, but it is probably pretty light. I just want us to come to the end of this segment and turn back towards the park and the finish line just four kilometers ahead.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI am really glad my friend Lisa and I decided to do this, I am really glad we practiced and I am really glad there isn’t another 10km to go!! I think all this as I pedal and pedal.

The congestion at the finish reflects the fact that 13,000 people sign up for this event and collectively raise five million dollars for Heart and Stroke Research. Everyone has to dismount and walk over the finish line and directly into lineups for food and drink.

It’s over. I did it!

Lisa is at the fountain having arrived about fifteen minutes before me. Its time for another hi-five!

I took me three hours and forty-five minutes to complete the ride. Thanks to friends and family $1600 was donated to Heart and Stroke.

I am very proud of myself.

(Note: This blog is part of a new book  called “Slices” that will soon be available at http://www.blurb.com.)