4 hours and 17 minutes.
880 meters climbed.
2600 calories burned.
All done on less than 30 minutes of sleep in the past 24 hours in five degree celsius weather with steady rain and a frigid wind constantly assaulting me. Why would anyone do this? But let's back up for a moment.
It's called the Becel Ride For Heart. It's a charity ride with 25, 50 and 75 kilometer routes for all levels of cyclists. The Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Express get shut down and you get to ride on them. Pretty awesome. I couldn't go last year as I was out of the country and so I was very much looking forward to doing it this year with the #ALLFIXEDGEAR collective. Yes, on fixed gear bicycles. Why not?
And then, the day before, Toronto was covered by an ominous cloud and, just as looking down the street rewarded one with a picturesquely apocalyptic view, the sky opened up and rain assaulted the asphalt, no... everything. With fury. From that moment, it rained steadily until mid afternoon the next day. Despite the weather that night, working my normal ten hour bartending shift, the bar was packed and crazy and I got home exhausted wanting nothing more than to sleep until noon the next day. But I had the Ride For Heart, so I stole 30 minutes of sleep before eating, donning my cycling gear and heading out the door.
By the time I arrived at the Trinity Bellwoods gate, where the team was supposed to meet, I was soaked. Shoes and socks were completely drenched. Same with my tights. Gloves. Jacket. I wasn't alone. Exhausted as I was, I greeted everyone and then said, "I might have to bow out. I'm dying over here." It didn't help that two of our team didn't show up. Secretly, I envied them. Secretly, I was hoping that when I showed up, no one would be there and I could return home, warm myself and pass out. But there were seven of us. No such luck.
And so we, miserable and shivering, got on our bikes and rode to the starting line and beyond it, guided by fluorescent cops, herded by guardrails, all funnelling us down towards the course. And when the Gardiner opened up before me, I knew I'd made the right choice to keep going. Little did I know what the day would turn into.
As our wheels churned the kilometers and as the road wound ever upward, the team got separated. Who knows what happened. All I know is that I had to keep moving forward. Randall was way ahead, doing his thing. Mattae was beside me. Everybody else behind. Each of us struggling and going at whatever pace made us comfortable, despite the bastardized use of the word comfortable in that context. We heaved and pushed and spun our legs in as efficient circles as we could given the damnably, interminably uphill road. We breathed in through our noses and out our mouths, spitting out gritty water shot up from the tyre in front of us that landed on our lips.
Somewhere around kilometer 40, I lost most feeling in my feet as they squelched about in wet socks and were painfully cooled by the wind. Each pedal stroke shot muscle spasms up my leg as I pushed down on the pedals. My fingers swelled and my palms seized when I stood up on the pedals to meet a particularly challenging slope. All I knew was that I needed to keep pedalling as close to 90 revolutions per minute as possible to keep a good blood flow. That was the most difficult part, as my 50-16 gearing had me mashing at only 46rpm on some hills.
So I cheated, of sorts. I drafted off a few roadies to make my life easier. I stuck behind the Uxbridge Cycling Club for a good 25km. At one point they actively were trying to drop me, as a joke. I still hung on. More out of desperation than skill, really.
And then I reached a cutoff and asked a volunteer, "If I want to finish the 75, should I go right or left?" And all she yelled was: "75km, stay left!" So I did. And I felt immensely better. I was excited, jovial. A giant smile on my face. A surge of energy through my legs. I was on my way to finishing. I would get home soon. I was really enjoying myself, chatting with random cyclists as I passed them, saying hello, shouting words of encouragement. There were others suffering as well, dressed much more poorly than I: wearing sneakers and t-shirts and jeans. At least I had high performance cycling clothing on me. And I was so impressed by people who were overweight that had gotten up and were doing this too. No matter that they were much slower than me. No, they were inspiring: pushing up extra weight, on regular, cheap heavy bikes. I wanted to give them high fives if my hands weren't numb.
I remember vividly that it was at kilometer 64 that Mattae caught up with me again and told me that we made a mistake. We were doing an extra 25 km loop. I wailed a pathetic, "Nooooo! Why!" and hung my head dejectedly. All the easy-going, happy energy I had gotten left me like air desperately escapes a balloon. In that moment, I resigned myself to what was happening. That was when I once more rediscovered why I love riding bikes and, more specifically, fixed gear bikes. We were doing it and that was that. And we were going to pedal every millimeter of the way to the finish line. That was the moment when my body gave up fighting and ran only on the willpower I fed it. That was when a person's real mettle comes out. Whether they can persevere through adversity or crumble before it.
I became a slave. To the road. To the music pounding in my ears, keeping me going like a drummer driving a slave oared galleon. To the pulsating, hypnotic rotation of my tyres against the cold asphalt. To the wet ridged feel of the leather bartape covering my handlebars. To the combined forces of gravity and friction that tried to slow every move. I was no longer myself. I was an other. I was a fictional character, written as a foil to me, someone I would aspire to be. I was Eddy Merckx, gasping for breath but pushing ever onward, sweat pouring down his nose and evaporating as it hit the burning asphalt of a French July. I was Odysseus fighting.
As we approached the turnoff point again, Randall, now beside me, half-jokingly asked: "Should we do a fourth loop?" Neither of us resolved anything then. At least I didn't. I took stock of my body, my muscles, my aches, my weaknesses, my desire and the strong temptation to give up, my reserves of willpower. Another loop meant another 50km to the finish line, instead of just 25km. Could I push myself?
When we reached the turnoff, we shared a look that simply said, "Fuck it. Let's!" We were masters of our own pain. Our own struggles. We would not be mastered by them.
It was somewhere during that fourth loop that the sky cleared for maybe a minute and the sun sort of shone. Randall had pushed on ahead and I was alone on the road for the moment. It was a minute I saw through exhausted eyes. Rachmaninoff happened to be swelling into a beautiful passage on my iPhone. I happened to be going downhill, pedalling hard. I had recently eaten my last banana and could feel some energy returning to me. I thought to myself: "All of this.... this minute is worth it all." It must have been a spiritual experience of sorts. I knew what I was feeling was personal and deep and different than what the guy in the orange jacket that I was fast closing in on was experiencing. In was a perfect moment.
At some point I finished. I was a wreck. I pedalled home, somehow - a ride that normally takes 17 minutes took almost 30. When I removed my shoes and socks, my toes were blue. I ate. Slept. Dealt with sore knees for the next two days. It wasn't the longest ride I've done. But a new gear ratio combined with the hills, the weather, the exhaustion, the dehydration.... it all coalesced into one of the most challenging, tough rides I've done whose greatest gift, besides a feeling of accomplishment, or other minute successes, was a perfect moment in time. For me.