A lifelong cyclist, failed racer, accidental cycle tourist and general gear freak. Biked across Spain in 2008, weeks before the world economy went to hell. Huge fan of rail trails, greenways and bike paths in general.
Here’s the longer story.
I hail from Ottawa, Ontario, and, ironically enough, didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was six years old – and even then, I only learned because my younger brother got it right away, and I didn’t want to be left behind. An asthmatic kid, I was generally discouraged from participating in sports, especially anything where I had to run or exert myself. However, for some reason, cycling and swimming didn’t seem to present a problem, so I was allowed to participate in those sports. I was an 80s kid, too, which meant that my mom, a risk-averse person if ever there was one, definitely steered me towards swimming, because the odds of being accosted/kidnapped/raped/murdered by someone was a lot smaller if you were doing the 200 metre individual medley. I always loved bikes, though, once I got the hang of riding. I spent the summer of 1982 picking strawberries so that I could afford a red Raleigh ten-speed that I rode like a maniac (although I was only permitted to ride to school two years later; I flatted at the end of that summer, and the bike never got fixed. Pre-You Tube days, y’all.)
I didn’t bike much through university, when I did a degree in Theatre Studies, and when I lived in the UK, trying to make a go of it in the theatre world. I moved back to Canada in late 1992, moved to Toronto in January of 1993, and in the spring of 1994. the Toronto Transit Commission threatened a huge increase and a long-term strike I did the math, and realized that if I bought a new bike and rode it exclusively, the bike would pay for itself in a couple of months. Which it did. And it opened up a whole new world because it meant that I wasn’t just limited to parts of Toronto where the TTC went – I could stop, explore, see different things, and hopefully lose a bit of weight in the process. I don’t know about the weight, but I think I must have hit every coffee shop that existed between the Beaches and Roncesvalles.
The thought of travelling by bicycle never really occurred to me until the summer of 1997, when a buddy of mine, Sandra, rode from Toronto to Cornwall, Ontario, then headed south into the Adirondacks. At the time, I had a driver’s licence and a car, but I loved the idea of going minimalist, travelling lightly (as the Spanish poet Antonio Machado called it), and being able to go wherever the wheels could take you.
I didn’t act on the impulse until six years later, however, when I was living in Spain, but far too scared to ever drive in Spain (I also had never learned to drive a car with a standard transmission, and automatic cars were pretty scarce in Spain.) My friend Scott and his partner, Luis, were invited to visit someone who vacationed in Galicia, the coastal bit of north-western Spain that caps Portugal. Off the cuff one day, Scott said, “What if we stayed on for a week after the visit, and cycled around the Rias Bajas?” And we did. And it was crazy and not without its issues (we’d bought two of the cheapest models of bicycles on sale at El Corte Inglés, the Spanish department store, and I think I spent as much time fixing popped chains as I did riding.) But by the end, I was hooked. The next year, we cycled western Andalusia, riding from Ronda to Cádiz to a small cottage that we had booked. The following summer, I worked for a small cycle touring company and did the Camino de Santiago twice, as well as helping to lead cycle tours of Madrid (this, at a time when you’d rarely see a bike on the streets of Madrid.) I completed the entire Camino by myself in 2007, going from Pamplona to Santiago in about three weeks (note that you don’t have to do the entire Camino in one go – you’re allowed to do it in steps, which is what I did.
Motivated by the achievement of having done the Camino, I applied for the 2008 version of the Salomon Women Will competition, which was meant to develop and promote sport among women. (Confession time: You weren’t supposed to apply unless you had a valid driver’s licence, as Saab was one of the competition’s co-sponsors. But no one asked me for a licence and I didn’t put myself out to get one.) One thing I’d noticed is that active tourism destinations and initiatives were developed and promoted by many of the regional governments in Spain, but with the exception of the Camino de Santiago, hardly any trails or greenways crossed provincial lines, let alone across the country. I wanted to change that, and I designed a route that united a number of initiatives, to create a route that would take you from Irún, in the Basque Country, to Tarifa, the southernmost part of continental Europe. The five weeks that it took to complete the 1,864 km of that trip were among the toughest that I’d ever done – not helped by having to occasionally chaperone a latter-day, would-be T.E. Lawrence who spoke fuck-all Spanish and had even fewer social skills; and the rainiest Spanish spring in nearly fifty years. (Those panniers you see at right were not filled with many extras – they were filled with a fair amount of Salomon winter sports garments, which were barely enough to keep me warm and dry during the trip – that’s the weather’s fault, not Salomon’s, by any means). But I did it. And when the sponsor press team flaked out and left me to my own devices to publicize, chronicle and write about the trip, I did, in both Spanish and English.) But like they say, what doesn’t kill you makes
for funny stories to horrify your mom for years after you stronger, I know that it made me stronger and more resourceful and more determined. (It also made me not want to ride a bike for at least two months after, but that’s another story.)
What to do after? Well, I joined a cycling club. I got a trainer who spoke great English (he’d lived in Rochester, NY, as an exchange student). I got my ass kicked on more occasions that I care to think about. I trained like an idiot for the better part of seven months to do the Quebrantahuesos gran fondo, and came in 19th in my age category, out of a field of 150. I did the Pedro Delgado gran fondo two months later (easily the most physical discomfort I have ever been through in my life). In 2010, I competed as an elite athlete (not because I was any good, but because that’s the category any female cyclist over the age of 18 gets put into, in Spain, whether they’re members of the Olympic team or they’re just starting out. (Needless to say, retention rates sucked.) I was never the first to be tossed out of a race — I still take a modicum of pride in that — but I don’t think I lasted more than 40 km in any race I was in. After bruising my ribs in a flip on a club ride, I read the writing on the wall and put an end to racing. If I’d grown up in a community with better-developed sports programs and the possibility of training properly at a young age, I would have been great. But you play the hand you’re dealt with.
By 2011, the economy of Spain was really starting to hit the skids, and it became harder and harder to make a living, since wages were falling and the Spanish government was taking a bigger piece of the pies of self-employed people. I broke up with my boyfriend. My mother had a pulmonary embolism, which my father waited days to tell me about. (My brother didn’t find out about it until I told him years later.) I had a falling out with one of my best friends, which may or may not have provoked a distancing from other gals in my social group. And in 2012, I came back to Canada. The IMF was threatening to intervene in the Spanish economy. People — neighbors of mine — were getting evicted from their apartments. Around the corner from where I lived, elderly people would gather in front of the doors of the grocery store around closing time, waiting for the dumpsters to be brought out so that they could rifle through what had been disposed of, in order to eat. This was not the only grocery store in my neighborhood where this happened. And I lived in a fairly posh part of Madrid. It was time to bail and come back to Canada. Without a well-paying job, someone who loves you, friends to hold you up, real estate to shelter you, really, what the hell are you doing there? I had three weeks to pack my shit up and get out of dodge. I bailed. I bawled. I got on a flight, and arrived back on October 5th, 2012. I spent two months after that marvelling at how nice people were to one another, how nice the bike paths were. I felt like I’d returned to the land of the living.
Canada, it must be said, is not the cycling paradise that Spain is; but at the same time, riding a bike is NOT a big deal here. People ride; what of it? Even though I desperately missed being able to ride on Christmas Day, we still had good bike infrastructure, different levels of licences for women riders. We had it good, and we still do. Having elderly parents, however, really put the kibosh on riding and getting involved in cycling. I gave up on racing, became a commissaire, went to grad school, got involved with someone who vastly overstated how much he liked to ride. And now I’m here.
I don’t necessarily know that I have a philosophy of cycling. I do know that I enjoy the brainlessness of riding a bike, how easy it is to disconnect from problems and heartache and anger and just focus on the road in front of you, and remind yourself that this is nothing, that you’ve been through worse in your life and this is nothing. In a car-addicted city like Ottawa, where everyone drives everywhere and trying to travel and see things outside of the city core is a nightmare because of the limited reach of public transit, riding helps bring things closer and makes things easier to see and understand. That said, I’m not sure what to think about the cycling culture here. It seems like the isolation that people gain by being in their cars translates to a similar mindset when they ride on the roads. Unless you come across people you know, no one says hello, makes eye contact, seems friendly. It’s very odd. So there’s no social aspect to cycling for me. I did join a club once, but what’s the sense of paying $200 to belong to a club if you’re going to be as alone at the end of the season as you were when you started it? Travelling by bike, on the other hand, seems to have the opposite effect, since so few people do it. What are you doing here? Why are you biking? What have you seen so far? How far can you travel in a day? Aren’t you afraid?
Nope, I’ve never been afraid riding a bike. There have been a couple of white-knuckle moments thanks to steep descents and hairpin curves, but — sorry, Mom — I have never felt like I had to worry about rapists, muggers or kidnappers when I’ve travelled by bike. If anything, it’s made me realize that people are decent and generous, that beauty can be found in the most ordinary of places, and that the world is worth exploring in more depth. That, ultimately, is why I bike.