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Michael Barry: A Miserable Ride

“This is the stupidest f*cking event I’ve ever been in. Mike, you are f*cking mad. I’ll never ride it again,” Keith said. His bike was coated in a thick layer of ice. The freezing rain was now turning to steady snow. There were still several kilometers to go on the dirt track when he rode by cursing. The track or “trench,” as it became known after a few years, was an old rail line that ran up from Toronto to the southern shore of Lake Simcoe. In the summer, it is used by ATVs and motorbikes, while in the winter, it’s a snowmobile route. In between, the cyclists came once a year.

Photos: Walter Lai

The end of the track met the lake, where an icy northerly blew off of the water. Along the shoreline, the route took us east on a smoothly tarmacked road to The Irish House, a wooden inn that was painted white. It was well beyond its finest years, when the Toronto upper class would spend their weekends and summers on the lake. Now, it was little more than a pub, with dusty hurling sticks, mirrored ads for liquor, and neon beer signs hanging on the walls. Arcade games binged and chirped in the corner, while local farmers, motor bikers, and truckers sat at the bar or threw darts.

My bike stopped moving on the dirt track. It was frozen. The spokes were covered with an inch of thick ice, the brake calipers were jammed, the cables were stuck in place—nothing moved freely. The track was the last section of rough road on a 75-kilometer course made up of dozens of gravel roads. When he noticed I was no longer on his wheel, my father turned around and rode backwards on the course to find me. I was a spot in the distance, dismayed, cold, and carrying my bike on my shoulder like a cyclocross rider. It was too cold to cry. There were still at least 15 kilometers until the finish. Given the falling snow, it would have been a long walk.

To free up the brake bridge so that the wheel could spin, we chipped away at my bike with sticks found in the ditch. There was no use in trying to unblock the freewheel and derailleur, as they were frozen solid. I now had one cog, one gear. It was then that Keith, who was an old friend of my Dad’s, rode by and scolded him for organizing something so extreme, so stupid. A few others passed us, too cold to say anything. Some may have chuckled. Others probably moaned.

The crosswind off the lake bit hard. Small islands of ice floated near the shore. It had been a long, cold winter. I was thirteen years old, and had spent most of it on the local rink playing shinny. This was one of my first real rides of the new season.

With frozen hands, and feet feeling like blocks of ice, I pushed to the finish. The pain of cold is piercing. It wasn’t the first time I had frozen hands and feet. I had already learned to block out the sting, turning every negative thought that might make me consider quitting into thoughts of reaching the finish. At that same moment, over in France, the peloton was tearing over the final cobbled secteurs of Paris-Roubaix. Steve Bauer had a good chance, but Fignon was my pick for the win, as he had just won Milan-San Remo. I thought of them.

Most cyclists have experienced rides that were so tough and miserable we wanted to climb off—or even quit cycling for good. But, for whatever reason, quitting wasn’t an option. We pushed on, because we knew the slight feeling of guilt that we’d carry through the rest of the day if we quit. We pressed on, because we’d miss the ache in our legs that a good hard ride gives. We didn’t quit, because we knew we would miss out on an unique experience. We rode on, because with a finish line set in our heads, it is hard to turn around or get in a car. Experience has taught us that pushing through the misery is what can make a good ride great.

When we arrived, the Irish House was already crowded with cyclists, wives, and girlfriends. The windows of the place had gone foggy from contrasting warmth, which enveloped me like a good hug. Some riders had stripped out of their wet clothing and were sipping pints of beer in their bib shorts and undershirts. Some were hunched over bowls of hot chili, while others sat back in their chairs, looking satisfied with a drink in their fist and an empty bowl on the table. Others lay on tables that the local masseuse had lined up. The therapists rubbed pasty white legs as the riders told stories. Everybody had a tale to share.

Keith came up to my Dad. His cheeks were still flush from the ride. “Bloody great event, Mike. Thanks. I hope you organize it again next year.”

A miserable ride can sometimes be so awful that it becomes great.