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COLUMN SIX: Hardest thing in my life

Has anyone seen Harold? JOHN SWART PHOTO

Wait, is Harold in the ditch again?

BY JOHN SWART
VOICE Correspondent

Do you remember the iconic EDS commercial about herding cats? The one where the grizzled cowboy, salty sweat and dirt on his leather chaps, weathered lines scouring his sunburnt face, and a vocabulary dripping of John Wayne, says, “Don’t let anyone tell you this is easy. Anyone can herd cattle. Herding cats is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

He’s obviously never led a seniors bike tour. Cats are smarter than senior cyclists, follow direction better, can go longer between nature breaks, and in some cases, ride better.

I love bicycle touring (which you might already know), and enjoy sharing the discovery of new places, roads and experiences with friends. For the last decade, I’ve led bike tours for the Freewheelers, a Niagara-based bicycle club of which I’m a member. We’re starting to age out, with daily distances getting shorter and speeds slowing, and occasionally our neurons experience some difficulty on their journey to our frontal cortex.

Take Harold, for instance. You couldn’t ask for a nicer guy— always smiling, easy to talk to, heals quickly. It’s just that once or twice a day, Harold rides into the ditch. He always pops up, dusts himself off, and rides away smiling, but it’s rather disconcerting the first couple times when you’re riding along beside him and he fades right, then goes ass-over-chain guard into the ditch for no apparent reason.

There’s two types of senior bicycle tourers—the consistently unprepared, and the always over-prepared. For every Phil that forgets to bring his helmet, both riding shoes, or his front wheel, there’s a Mary that travels to rides like a pro team. She’s got a spare bike or two for parts, complete extra cycling wardrobe, including a spare helmet and shoes in a couple of cleat varieties, 120 assorted spokes, compass and GPS, flares, and extra batteries in case anyone’s hearing aid goes dead.

Lunch stops can be tricky for a guide to arrange, too. Timing is important, as senior cyclists have to eat within eight minutes of the same time each day. Miss mealtime by 20 minutes, and there’s more chirping in the peloton than a flock of blue jays with migraines. Miss it by an hour, and you’ll face a class-action lawsuit.

Then there’s the menu. Half of senior cyclists see riding as part of a healthy lifestyle statement, a sort of in-your-face to the cruise ship set. They drive you nuts because they’re all fruit, multigrain toast dry or with a “smidgen” of Becel, poached eggs, pulp-free orange juice and decaf with skim milk (what’s the point?). The other half ride solely so they can eat fried eggs and home fries, maple syrup and whipped cream crepes with bacon-wrapped sausage in caloric quantities double what the day’s ride could possibly burn off. If you can’t find an iHop next to a Cora’s, you’re doomed as a guide.

Smartphones and digital cameras are the bane of senior cycle tour leaders. I’ve never had a senior on a bike tour tell me they needed a break or rest because they were tired, but they sure stop to take a lot of photos just after long climbs, rides into headwinds, or every 20 minutes if no one else has called for a photo-op break. Plus, there are group photos before the ride, after the ride, and during the ride for any reason. Group photo at a scenic overlook, group photo for a flat tire, group photo when Harold climbs out of a ditch.

Actually, it’s not the photos, it’s passing the damn cameras around so every camera has every photo, and every rider is in every picture. Can’t wait until the first one shows up with a helmet cam.

Yet there’s a distinct joie de vivre on a senior’s tour or ride that’s wonderful, despite the idiosyncrasies. By the time you’re 60-plus, you might enjoy a new bike, but your value as a person is no longer defined by carbon fibre frames or the latest technical marvel. Growing older with your bike as a package is okay, and if you and your partner want to switch to a tandem so the rear stoker can have their afternoon nap during the ride, who cares. And fashion is fun, not a statement. If you simply must change a ponytail to a French Braid, even though it’s under your helmet, everyone will wait for you.

Leading a seniors’ tour is like the cowboy says, “It ain’t an easy job, but when you bring a herd of them into town and haven’t lost a one of them, there isn’t a feeling like it in the world.”

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