Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Cyclathon

Note: this is a dual post; my apologies to followers of both blogs.

When I was a kid in the 70s, the summer camp I went to held a yearly “cyclathon” fundraiser. Kids rode their bicycles to the camp; the camp collected money (and mailing addresses) from the marks who sponsored the kids. It was a pennies-per-mile arrangement, and the distance to the camp was rounded down to 100 miles, completed over two consecutive days.

I managed this feat twice, when I was 12 and 13 years old. I rode a CCM five-speed, wore cheap sneakers, tube-socks and polyester gitch purchased at the local “Style-Rite” store, and threw on a pair of recent cut-offs. T-shirt was optional (for boys) and using sunscreen (or “suntan lotion,” as it was so quaintly referred to) was unheard of.

There was a great deal to endure besides the dreary reality of churning through a day’s worth of Canadian grasslands. The event drew an enormous crowd of participants, which put me on edge even back then. Participants were divvied up into groups of six or eight; you could request, and be reasonably assured of, the company of a friend, but after that it was the luck of the draw who you wound up with. My memories of both groups are marked by disagreeable loud-mouthed lunks who were maybe two years away from impregnating and marrying their first wives. And despite the fact that everyone had just pedaled close to 60 miles that first day, it seemed like I was the only one keen on getting a good night’s sleep.

In the days leading up to my second cyclathon I was bed-ridden with a wrenching case of diarrhea. Nevertheless, the dawn of departure found me gingerly perched on top of my bicycle, ready to go. Ten miles later, I was lying in a ditch, staring up at the blue sky and wondering why I wasn’t on my bike anymore. I sat in the camp director’s truck for a few minutes, sipping on a warm coke and answering the man’s questions (“How much money did you raise? How are you feeling now?”). He urged me on, so on I went. Lunch was hot dogs, chips and pop; supper was sloppy joe sandwiches.

And yet — and yet — despite all this my predominant emotional memory of these two rides is one of happiness. Despite being too sore to walk, never mind ride, the second day of cycling felt like a gift. The flat and wind-swept prairies were decisively left behind for the rugged and rolling terrain of the Canadian Shield, a welcome variety that couldn’t help but lift the spirits. Even better, our group leader was now worn down to indifference, and no longer made any effort to keep the group together. Now my buddy and I could pedal in peace, enjoying the scenery and discussing what mattered most — Star Trek — while the others pushed ahead to see who could arrive at the camp and plunge into the frigid waters first.

But more than that, those trips offered a very welcome and lasting change in perspective. An adolescent kid living in a small town surrounded by seemingly endless prairie will tend to think of himself as “stuck” if he doesn’t have access to a car with a full tank of gas. A 12-year-old kid who got on his bike and pedaled from that small town to his favorite summer camp 100 miles away thinks very differently about his circumstances — so long as he has access to a bicycle. There are at least four guys I know from my cyclathon days who went on to do fabulous multi-week bicycle tours of exotic locales, long before “outfitters” showed up to offer their decadently comfortable and nutritious versions of the cyclathon.

Last Saturday as the fam celebrated my birthday with pecan pie on the porch, the younger asked me where I’d bicycled that morning. “Zephyr,” I said.

“Whoah. That’s far.”

It was a 65 kilometre round trip. But far? Well . . . .

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