Nine degrees on Saturday. Seven degrees on Sunday. Rain. 29 km/hr headwind. I was suspicious.
It took less than an hour of intense (but fair) cross-examination of the organizers of the Red Deer MS Ride to get them to admit that the inclement weather (their worst August weather in years) was planned and deliberate. Once they heard that some upstart lawyer from Toronto was coming out to ride in “their” ride, they re-set their weather plans to give him a chilly welcome. (Let’s see how tough these Toronto boys really are, said one.) Well played, Red Deer, well played.
OK, OK. Didn’t I tell you that the first part of this article would be fiction? Sorry, it must have slipped my mind.
Normally each July I ride in the Grand Bend to London MS Bike event, and my friends and colleagues show their generosity by exceptional support for an important cause. This year, a self-inflicted problem with my knee forced me to miss that ride. (Or as my kids would say, you’re getting old, Dad, which I totally and loudly deny.)
So, I searched around for a similar ride later in the summer, by which time I would have recovered. The best choice appeared to be Red Deer, 150 km over two days in what I thought were the flat prairies of Central Alberta. I’ve been to Calgary and Edmonton many times, and lots of other places in Alberta, but Red Deer had previously escaped my notice. Sounds like a plan.
Some people thought I was a little nutty. (This is not the first time I’ve heard that.) Why go all the way to Alberta, and bring your bike, to do a ride you could easily do in Southern Ontario?
Of course, the obvious answer is, “Why not?”
I planned it for a weeklong trip, including some time with friends in Calgary. The hassle and cost of packing, shipping, re-assembling, and tuning up a bike, both ways, wasn’t really fun. For a $500 bike, it was a bit of a waste. For not much more money I could have bought a new one here. However, all in all spending a week in Alberta in August is not exactly penal servitude.
The hour and a half drive from Calgary to Red Deer should have been my first clue of the joys of Central Alberta weather. With the other traffic, I’m trucking along at 120 on an overcast but clear day. Suddenly, without warning, there are sheets of water coming down, as if I had inadvertently driven under a waterfall. (Wouldn’t that be cool.) Visibility was right down to a few feet, and through the water I could see that all of the other traffic was pulling off the road. Sensible, I guess. I did too. Ten minutes later, the rain stopped and everyone continued as if nothing had happened.
Later I was told that “rain dumps” like this are a regular feature of Red Deer weather.
Check-in that day was normal enough, although the person who did it, the Regional Director of the MS Society for Central Alberta, didn’t both to mention that was her role. She was just the first of many Red Deer-ites (what, you think it should be Red Deerians?) who I saw putting being friendly and welcoming ahead of everything else.
I drove the biking route the next day, to see what kind of ride it would be. I always thought that the Canadian prairies were lands that had been leveled off by the glaciers, and so were flat, flat, flat. I was originally looking forward to a pleasant summer ride over flat terrain under a prairie sun.
I still remember the MS Bike ride through the Halton Hills, that nasty stretch of up and down, up and down, between Acton and Waterloo. The route here was similar, except that each of the ups and downs is longer. No wonder there are only 125 riders in the Red Deer ride each year. It’s a tough ride.
Despite that, the next morning, Saturday, I got up eager to ride. Temperature outside? Nine degrees.
Don’t forget, this is August. Keep that in mind. (Or, as one of the other riders said to me, months with no “r” in the name are the months you can wear shorts. Right.)
As I stood there, layered up but freezing, one of the organizers asked me if I would be in a photo. Through the generosity of my friends and colleagues, I was the top fundraiser for this ride, and one of their traditions is that he or she takes a photo with the motorcycle escort riders. That photo now exists, with me surrounded by sixteen large, burly, leather-clad members of a local motorcycle gang. (Their Harleys waited off camera.) Now, I suspect this biker gang does not control the local drug underworld. For one thing, their average age might be on the mature and enlightened side of fifty. For another, they spend so much time doing charitable and volunteer work that they have an annual calendar with their pictures from those events. (Apparently my photo with them will be in next year’s calendar.)
Unfairly, each of the biker guys was completely covered in black leather. I think it would have been appropriate for them to wear cycling gear, to show solidarity with the riders. But no…
The friendliness of the motorcycle riders was just a sample of the friendly attitude of everyone involved in the event. My normal ride, the Grand Bend to London tour, has 1,500 riders and several hundred volunteers and others. Lots of them are very nice people, but it can be big and a bit impersonal. Lots of people stick to themselves, or their own small groups. Human nature, in a big crowd.
In Red Deer, there are 125 riders and about 50 volunteers and staff. Most people know each other, and a new person from out of town sticks out like a sore thumb (a large thumb, in this case). I was, frankly, a little apprehensive that, not knowing anyone, it would be a weekend of isolation.
Instead, it appeared that everyone saw it as their responsibility and pleasure to welcome the new guy. From the moment I lined up at the start, people were introducing themselves and talking about their town and the cause we were supporting. On the road, people made a point of spending a minute or two riding with me, just to let me know I was welcome in their community. It was to be a theme of the weekend.
The first day was not a bad ride, all things considered, a planned 71 km. Yes, the hills were annoying, and the temperature (nine degrees at the start, fourteen at the finish) suboptimal. The two hours of light rain in the middle of the ride wasn’t any great hell, either.
On the other hand, I was feeling strong, especially knowing from my previous day’s reconnoiter that the last four kilometers were one long downhill to the finish. All good.
Then, at km. 64, I heard an explosion behind me, and my bike started to pretend it was inebriated. “No”, I shouted to myself. “I’ve been looking forward to the downhill ride into the finish all day.”
The explosion was the result of a dispute between my rear tire and a six inch screw. The screw won, going into the face of the tire, and then out the sidewall. As the bike mechanic said later, it couldn’t be repaired on the road. In fact, he had to take it home that night to put on a new tire, and fix the wheel, which had gone out of true. (Thank you, Savy Cycle. You did a great job.)
And for the first time (except one time due to illness), I didn’t finish a route. More on that later.
The friendliness of Red Deer continued after the day of riding. One of the teams, the Invincycles, invited me to be an honorary member so I could sit in their team tent, drinking beer and hearing stories about their town, and past rides. I also heard stories about their rivalry with another team, Hot MS (affectionately called “Hot Mess”), and sure enough a couple of the Hot MS cyclists (both of them in fact hot) came over from their tent to invade the Invincycles tent and make me welcome.
Later, at dinner, several groups invited me to join them, and I met another dozen people. I didn’t have the heart to tell them of my famous inability to remember names, but I do remember their stories.
I heard about the team (Hot MS, in fact) that raised over $50,000 last year with pink toilets (an event they called “Game of Thrones”). They reclaimed twenty toilets from the town dump, cleaned them up and painted them pink. They delivered these toilets on April Fool’s Day to local businesses, but for a donation would remove them and take them to a new location of the business’ choice (their lawyer, for example).
I talked at length with an Edmonton professional, recently retired, who had acquired a large RV, in which he and his wife were living much of the year. The new lifestyle, partly in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, partly in the countryside outside Edmonton, and partly in their Edmonton apartment, sounded like it was giving them a lot of joy.
(He also told me about The Desert Bar, a unique bar and restaurant, off-grid in the Arizona desert. Now I have to go back to Arizona.)
I had a great conversation with an Edmonton couple who lead a team (Sentinel Storage), riding and volunteering in this and other MS Rides. They came to Canada from China (Hong Kong, I think) in 1970, and now in retirement are spending much of their time giving back to the local communities that they love so much.
That’s just a few of the highlights. I must have met two or three dozen people, maybe more, over the course of the weekend. Maybe it’s just Alberta, although I suspect I would find the same thing all over Canada. People enjoy hosting guests in their communities, and when you have a chance to engage with them, their stories are often interesting and even thought-provoking.
After dinner, and at the suggestion of one of my new friends, I went to a pub to hear a local singer, Randi Boulton. I could only stay for one set, because I was riding the next day, but I think you may be hearing about this singer at some point.
For the ride the next day, I was hoping for a little more sun, to take advantage of my newly-refurbished bike.
No such luck. The temperature at the start was 7 degrees. Many people, including me, were wearing gloves. There were still a few hardy souls in shorts, but most were bundled up likes babies in the winter. People were joking about whether we would get snow during the ride. (Don’t they know how dangerous it is to tempt fate?)
Day two was planned for 79 km, west to the Dickson Dam, then around a loop and back to the start. The first 10 km was up and down, but mostly with a tailwind. The next 40 km was just as hilly, but into a stiff, 29 km/hr NW wind. Sorry, did I say “stiff”? I meant “cold and stiff”. Very cold. Some of the motorcycle outriders wore balaclavas or similar face coverings. (Remember the words of the song? “O-o-o-o-oklahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plain..” Like that, except colder.)
I guess about 80-90 riders started day 2. I don’t know how many finished. By the time my energy was completely gone, and I hated the headwind with a singular passion, I was the last rider, with at least two support vehicles constantly keeping an eye on me. Presumably to prevent me from throwing myself off the Dickson Dam to put myself out of my misery.
Day 2 was more than I could handle, and at 41 km I packed it in. It had taken me three and a half hours to get that far, less than 12 km/hr, much slower than my normal riding speed. And, I wasn’t getting any faster.
Ah, but that is not the end of the riding story. I was supposed to do 150 km in two days, which to my mind (as a golfer) is par. On Saturday and Sunday I only managed 105 km. But, yesterday I rode another 46 km in Calgary (great bike paths, by the way). Thus, I did my 150 km, but in three days instead of two. A bogey instead of a par, but bogeys aren’t that bad, right?
The real story of my weekend in Red Deer is not about the riding, or about the weather. At checkpoint #1 on the second day a reporter from the local newspaper interviewed me (as an out-of-towner and top fundraiser). She asked me how I was enjoying my trip to Red Deer, perhaps with a wink about the weather. I told her that the weather was inhospitable, but the people were very hospitable, and that more than made up for it.
I should probably make a general point here, about the value of travel, and meeting new people, and how interesting people are generally. All true, but perhaps a little trite, and others have already said it better.
If you had asked me a year ago, where would I like to travel in Canada, Red Deer would not have been on my list. Yet I would go back there in a second, because a weekend is not enough. I’m an urban liberal lawyer, with long hair and a beard, a species in pretty short supply in Central Alberta. But, I was made to feel at home there.
In the words of the poet Maya Angelou, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” So we are.
– Jay Shepherd, August 30, 2016.