In the neighbourhood, snow remained on the lawns in spots where the sun had yet to hit, or where it had been piled high after the last storm. Buds were on the trees and sprigs of plants popped out of the soil. After a long and dark winter, spring was arriving which meant that I could finally get out on my bike. Inspired by the European pros who were already deep into the Classics, I was anxious to ride and to start the racing season. Gianni Bugno had just won Milan–San Remo, Steve Bauer was a favorite for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. It was 1990, I was fourteen and the first races of the year in Ontario were only weeks away.
On Friday night over chicken fingers and fries at a Greek-Canadian restaurant near the bike shop my friend Luke, who was then 16, and I decided we would ride the route of my father’s event, Toronto’s Paris-Roubaix, on Sunday to get fit for the season. It would be a reconnaissance of the course, to see the toughest sections and how they had weathered the winter. As I dipped a finger in the plum sauce, I guessed it would be around 160 km round trip, which seemed ideal. Between bites of his souvlaki, my father, smiled, told us he would map it out. He added that he thought it was around that distance although it might be a bit further. He was always keen to see us out on our bikes, a couple of teens on an adventure, and even happier if it involved dirt tracks, gravel and mud. The tougher the ride the better.
Unlike the pro teams that reconnoitrer every decisive meter and plan meticulously for a day of reconnaissance training, there wasn’t much preparation involved for us. We would ride the tough race route north to Lake Simcoe where it finished in Jackson’s Point and then return home on the smoother gravel roads. On the shores of the lake we hoped to find somewhere to eat lunch. Otherwise, our planning was limited to packing a couple of tubes, pumps, a banana, peanut butter sandwiches and a route penned on paper. For some reason, we didn’t think a map was necessary. The roads were on a grid, we were riding north then south, so it seemed straightforward. This was before energy bars, gels, drinks and the GPS. Water was in our bottles and we rode our road bikes, which had narrow treadless 21 mm tires. Luke had tubulars I had clinchers.
Luke called his friend Nestor, who had never ridden over 100 km, to join us. He was keen. Nestor rode a bike Luke had cobbled together. I recall, it was built around an old road frame repainted in a motorcycle shop and fitted with used parts found in the shop and basement bins.
As my house was central, it was our starting point. Luke had a 10 km ride to get there. Nestor was coming from the west end of the city and had at least 20. Nestor’s parents weren’t cyclists and I’m not sure they even knew he was going riding for most of the day, or even leaving the city limits. We were venturing beyond the subdivisions and into farm country, then cottage country and then into countryside that was somewhat foreign to a trio of city boys.
Before setting off, Luke and Nestor chugged down cups of tea and ate a few biscuits while I finished my porridge. The sky was grey, the air was cold and we knew the day would be long. That all seemed to add to the enthusiasm as we anticipated the adventure. Bundled up with bellies full, we waved goodbye to my parents as we pedaled down the cobbled drive.
The ride northeast and out of the city was uneventful. In a time before Sunday shopping, the roads were quiet and Luke and I were able to ride side by side with Nestor tucked in our slipstream. I can’t remember what we discussed but it was likely related to bikes, the unfolding pro season or music. As subdivisions bled into farm fields the roads narrowed from four lanes to two, from smooth asphalt to chip-seal and then gravel. The air was noticeably fresher, and crisper, as the temperature dropped. Untethered farm dogs chased us, barking warnings with their fangs out. Finding the starting spot of the route we would race in a few weeks, our pace seemed to increase. On the gravel, we rode in single file tucked in each other’s slipstream, down the smoother car tracks.
As we neared Jackson’s Point the route had us turn on to a snowmobile and ATV track that had been a rail line. The track and ties were gone but in sections large chunks of lava rock remained. The motorized vehicles had created undulations every few meters–waves of rock–on the once smooth track. It was battle on a skinny tired bike. The wheels sunk in to the lava rock and we fought to control the bikes. We forded half frozen rivers, trying not to get our feet wet. The long straight track seemed eternally long with no end on the horizon. If the Arenberg forest was the depths of hell in Paris Roubaix, this track was our inferno.
Luke and I stuck together ploughing through, leaving Nestor to struggle at his own tempo. A German shepherd chased us but gave up when we sprinted with fear. As the track intersected with a road, we stopped to eat, drink, figure out how far we had to go, and wait for Nestor. Minutes passed; he didn’t come, and we couldn’t see his silhouette in the distance. Reluctantly we turned around to retrace our route, imagining he had a puncture or mechanical problem. As his silhouette appeared to us, he seemed to be motionless, with an animal beside him. As we got closer, we realized it was the dog. Nestor had stopped when the dog started chasing him, and they were at a standoff. It he moved the dog would growl. So, Nestor stood still, unsure what to do, until he realized the food in his pocket would satiate and distract the dog long enough for him to sprint away.
We made it to Jackson’s Point well past noon and found a diner that catered to truckers and motorbikers. Biker gangs were prolific in the area. The ride had taken longer than we expected so we felt lucky to find a place that was open and serving. Covered in dirt and mud, we entered and found a spot in the corner at a booth, away from the bar with patrons who gave us odd glances. Feeling the effort of the ride up, the slog through the track and our lack of fitness, we devoured banquet burgers, Cokes and fries as we contemplated the route home.
Burping along with the first few pedal strokes, we set off south. With a few missed turns on the way up we already had done 100 km so were looking at least 200 by the time we returned home. Our calculations had been well off. As keen as we were, the ride home was starting to become daunting. The light was getting low in the already mostly grey sky. The conversation that had been jovial and incessant on the way up was now limited.
Fueled by the food we sped along for an hour, riding a paceline, tucking on the gravel descents and continuing to sprint for the town signs, as was our routine. At some point, the route we were on didn’t feel right. We arrived at an intersection without a clue where to go. It was now getting dark. Luke saw a tree farm where he was convinced, he had cut their Christmas tree. With hope that he knew the route, we set off, now racing the sunset. Ten kilometers later we passed another tree farm. “No, this is where we cut it.” Unease started to set it. We saw another farm. “Maybe this was the one.”
In farm country, where nothing as familiar, and there were few landmarks, we were lost. With no idea where to go, we pressed on, hoping we were still heading south. Finally, we reached a gas station, and I called home on the payphone. My father gave me a rough idea of the route we needed to take. Pooling together the rest of our money, we bought a packet of cookies, split them between us, filled our pockets and set off.
Arriving in the suburbs, on familiar roads I felt victorious. In the darkness with our dim lights shining a spot on the tarmac, we pushed on in silence, occasionally grabbing broken bits of cookie from our pockets to help maintain our speed and lucidity. They tasted a bit like the washing soap powder residue from the my depths of the pocket but that didn’t matter.
We were in this together. We encouraged each other to keep on. Calling someone to pick us up, didn’t seem like an option. It wasn’t even considered.
Hearing the garage door open, my mother greeted us at the house threshold. With a broad grin on his face, my father wanted to hear all about the ride. The tea had just been made. It was 7pm. Dinner was on the table, getting cold. After a quick cup of tea and more biscuits, Luke set off for home. Nestor had another hour or so before he would be home. And, he had a puncture as he crossed the city. When he arrived he must have done close to 260 km. I had done over 200.
Luke and I carried on riding and racing together, going on other adventures, working on bikes in the shop, and brazing the odd frame.
Nestor never rode again and I never saw him. I often wonder if it was because of the ride and how hard it was. Or, if his parents had been worried sick and wouldn’t allow him out on a bike anymore. Or, if other aspects of the teenager’s life felt better to him than a day cycling. He was a good guy and I missed him.
Now, decades later, whenever I’m back on those roads, I think of that day, the tree farm, the cookies, the dog and the confidence completing the ride gave me to get out, take some risks and discover the world outside of my neighbourhood.