By Evan Siddall, Ottawa, September 2020
Cycling: It doesn’t get any easier, you just go….slower.
That’s not Greg LeMond’s famous quote — about going faster, but it might be even more true. I fought it for a long time. I used to be a pretty strong cyclist and I lamented my slowing down. I took for granted the innocence of just getting on a bike and hammering a PR out every few weeks, getting stronger and stronger. The loss ate away at me, like an ageing older man trapped in his past glory.
And like any kind of suffering, I was valuing the wrong things about myself.
In early 2015, just two months after my diagnosis with Parkinson’s, over crèpes in Toronto with Michael and Dede and Jody and Laura Wilson, we sketched out plans for a fundraising event. The European self-guided brevet was missing from the cycling calendar in Ontario and the hilly gravel roads of Southern Georgian Bay seemed ideal. We figured we could raise $100,000 for Parkinson’s. Five terrific years, several hundred riders and over $2 million later, I see the Growling Beaver as much more than that.
If I think about how I used to ride, it’s hard. My deteriorating motor skills are now undeniable, if still mercifully subtle. Every time I get on the bike, I know it’s just a matter of time until my left leg gives up. Dystonia, a symptom common to people with early-onset Parkinson’s, is an involuntary flexion of muscles (without cramping). It feels weird and uncomfortable, like restless leg syndrome — and is treated with the same drug.
That’s all manageable, the big problem is that I’ve lost 50%+ of the power in my left leg. My smooth, even pedal stroke is long gone; now, I have to concentrate on my left leg to make sure I’m pedalling in circles. After a while, the imbalance spreads into a back ache and tightness in my IT-band. Long rides now require pre-planning, like races used to: lots of sleep, good nourishment and a careful medication regime.
The gift of Parkinson’s is the daily reminder that today is precious, since tomorrow will be ever so slightly worse. So if I think about cycling differently, I can feel strong instead of weak. I feel lucky: grateful still to be riding. Every year, I know I face the challenge of a gruelling Growling Beaver day — a day that I wouldn’t miss, a day that never fails to leave me grateful and smiling. And it’s kept me active and riding. It is keeping me healthy — even as my mobility leaks ever so slowly away. As Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”
Freed from the gritty intensity of training, it is no longer important to log 8,000-9,000 kms per year. Instead, I now notice the rush of wind in my face, the morning’s glow of a ride at sunrise, the cooling sweat on my arms, the tightening in my legs as a welcome, familiar burn sets in. It reminds me I’m fully alive and I have many more rides to do. I now ride more slowly, and I see more — a vision of riding that Michael first opened my eyes to (and which I am reminded of every time I see the Mariposa butterfly).
The Growling Beaver has reminded me of the beauty of cycling, the timeless simplicity of the machine, of self-propulsion, and the childish innocence of a bike ride. The Growling Beaver has reconnected me to the feeling of freedom when as a boy I rode away from my father’s steadying hand and the bike stayed upright under my own power, a rite of passage.
The Growling Beaver has come full circle for me: it’s now therapeutic for me, not only philanthropic. Our event has kept me riding and connected to a group of dear friends. The ride has a certain magic, almost like it has its own heartbeat. We marvel each year at the energy of the event, the goodness in humanity that seems to find its way to greet us again on those gravel roads and at the brewery where we all gather.
It started so simply, with a few friends who wanted to share a love of cycling and do some good. And that ethos is why we have kept it going, even if it’s virtual this year.
Love cycling, be good to others, and … “Live well today.”
The 2020 Growling Beaver will take place in a different format due to COVID-19 restrictions. Participants can either ride the traditional Growling Beaver Brevet routes (route maps and GPS downloads are available at this link) or design their own adventure of 200, 100, 60 or 40 km. Our hope is to keep the community together and engaged around the critical cause of helping people with Parkinson’s. Register now for the 2020 Growling Beaver Brevet and receive a free Rapha long sleeve technical t-shirt.
To learn more about the Growling Beaver Brevet, please watch these three beautiful videos, created by Chris Monette, which capture the origin and essence of the event.