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Just say thanks

The beginning of Nate Douglas' amazing ride in Cuba. JOHN SWART PHOTO

Those moments that remind you why you’re there

BY JOHN SWART
VOICE Correspondent

There are times when you see the people you’re with in an unanticipated light, experience the wonder of a special moment deeper than you imagined possible, or marvel at the environment surrounding you, and you’re compelled to say thanks.

You may glance skyward when you say it, look across at the rider next to you, or just smile inwardly, but the emotional impact is undeniable. Cycling has gifted many of these moments to me.

Zak Douglas, of Dundas, joined 14 of us in early March a few years back on an arduous 12-day, 1602 km, end-to-end bicycle ride across Cuba. Douglas hoped to cycle 700 to 800 kms of the route, travelling in the support bus when exhausted. He’d purchased his first road bike four months earlier, after having heart surgery and arterial stents installed.

As the tour progressed, Douglas felt he might be strong enough to ride a metric century—100 kms. He achieved this goal, paced by his heart rate monitor all the way, lest he overtax himself and risk serious consequences.

After a rest day on the bus, an invigorated Douglas decided to challenge himself by cycling a real century— 100 miles or 161 kms, the next day. As I rode beside him early in the attempt, I asked what his heart rate monitor was indicating. He replied that he’d left it on the bus. No way did he want to know what his heart was going through.

Douglas bought the beers after completing 168 kms that day, and I sat by myself for a short while, overcome by a misty-eyed thank you moment. I’d participated in a man’s re-affirmation of his physical life, and shared as he threw aside the electronic restraints controlling his activities.

On another ride, I was climbing as quickly as is possible with 15 kilograms of luggage on my touring bike, muttering to myself, “Get up there before the clouds disappear, get up there before the clouds blow away.”

The location was Northern Patagonia in Chile, near Cochrane on the Carretera Austral. The washboarded road I was cycling was barely visible in the distance beyond the clouds. Luck held, and for the first time in my life, I rode a bicycle above the clouds. The panorama of the mighty Rio Baker below, the largest river in Chile, its glacial blue waters raging through basalt gorges, was overwhelming. Snowcapped mountain peaks surrounded the semi-arid desert valley floor. Pristine, pollution-free skies afforded visibility for tens of kilometers in every direction, and there was not another person, vehicle or dwelling to be seen. I looked down at my dusty bicycle, and said thanks.

Years ago, in the Ganaraska Forest west of Peterbourogh, my wife, daughter, son and his friend, and myself assembled at the starting line of Dirty Paul’s Mountain Bike Enduro. This race on sandy singletrack offered various competitive distances, which made it suitable for the entire family. The boys would do 35 kilometres, my wife and I 50, and our 10-year-old daughter would ride 20 kms if she could.

For the final few kilometres, all riders shared the same route into the finish line. Early in the event I clipped a large rock, and smashed my chain and gear changing device beyond repair. My race was over, so I pushed my bike along various short cuts to the final stretch into the finish line, watching over my shoulder should any of my family ride by. The boys did with gusto, full of energy as teenagers are, as did my wife.

With less than a kilometre to go, I saw my young daughter approaching from behind. Her pedal strokes were still rhythmic, and her hands were gripped tightly to the handlebars. When she drew near, her eyes were so focused on the trail ahead, I thought she might ride by without seeing me. As she passed, her pinky finger released from the bars and waved to me. That was it, one finger, no grin, no smile, duty done.

I marveled that she’d completed the race, and at the effort she’d summoned to do so. As a parent, I knew this determination and strength would serve her well throughout her life, and I said thanks.

Exotic locales and extraordinary efforts aren’t needed to trigger the emotion. The call circulated via email, and on the first Saturday of January a dozen of us met in the parking lot at Harold Black Park under sunny skies. The temperature was minus 2C, and the destination was Dunnville — a ridiculous 85 kms for our first ride of 2019 in bone-chilling temperatures.

The group formed up into pairs, and the conversation amongst riding friends who hadn’t spoken for weeks came easily. Fingers and toes eventually warmed up with the exercise of pedaling, noses dripped and froze, but not a single complaint was voiced. We rolled past frozen fields of corn and soy, some harvested, some not.

Ice was forming on the pebbly beaches of Lake Erie as we cycled through Lowbanks, and I studied the friends around me. Some 50, 60, even 70 years old, defining active and full lives through the joy and challenges of cycling, and said thanks.

Grab a bike. Your thank you moments won’t be far behind.

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