Biking for Life: A Profile

“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”

– Lance Armstrong

Long-distance cycling is not for the faint of heart. It takes training, endurance and drive.

Every July, more than 400 cyclists prove they have what it takes when they participate in the Friends for Life Bike Rally – a 660km trek from Toronto to Montreal in support of the Toronto People with Aids Foundation (PWA). Last year, Todd Tyrtle was one of them.

Tyrtle, a 39 year old cyclist and cycling advocate from Toronto, completed the trip for the first time on his foldable Dahon Cadenza bike. Tyrtle hadn’t undertaken a ride like this before — he had the desire and sense of adventure for a long distance bike trip but nowhere to focus his energy. Once he discovered the rally existed, he was sold.

“I realized that to do a long ride and not help someone would almost be selfish.  Here I was with the interest in a long ride, the bike to do it, and if not the physical condition to do it right then, the ability to get into that condition.”

Though he refers to himself as a “year round cyclist”, Tyrtle began serious training for the rally in December 2009. He attended spin classes three to four days a week, and after the weather warmed up, biked the 40km round trip to work every day. Beginning in April, he participated in weekend training rides organized and run by rally volunteers.

That’s not all the bike rally volunteers offered in advance of the ride.  Seminars on fundraising, proper riding gear, physical strength preparation, nutrition counselling and bike repair were offered to participants to ensure they were able to complete the journey.

The fundraising seminar is particularly important because each rider must raise at least $2,200 in order to participate – a task Tyrtle originally considered off-putting despite raising $2600 by race day: “this was the most daunting thing for me and what kept me from doing it for several years. As it turned out, while it took a fair bit of effort to raise the minimum $2,200, it was not as difficult as I thought it would be.”

Though the fundraising goal is much higher for this event than other charity cycling events such as the Ride for Heart, so too is the physical effort, time commitment and dedication required by participants.

The money goes to the Toronto People with Aids Foundation, the largest direct service provider in Canada for people living with HIV/AIDS.  The organization provides meal delivery service for people who cannot shop and prepare their own food, financial assistance for medical and supplemental therapies, counselling that offers crucial information about accessing treatment, and food bank services that address the special dietary requirements of HIV positive Canadians.

But a five-day bike trip across provincial lines would make even the most benevolent person nervous.

When I asked Tyrtle if he would recommend the rally to a less experienced cyclist, he responded with a confident “Absolutely, and without hesitation.”

Unlike cycling in Toronto, the route to Montreal is mostly on rural roads where drivers allow cyclists more space.  In high-traffic areas, the group was funnelled into a dedicated lane to ensure their safety, and once they arrived in Montreal they were given a police escort.

After 12 years of running the event, the bike rally volunteers and organizers have figured things out.  “Road safety” vans escort riders along the route, and volunteers in a variety of lively costumes are always present to ensure cyclists stayed the course.

If safety isn’t enough, other perks include three meals a day plus snacks along the route, skilled mechanics to care for bikes, and massage therapists and chiropractors available at camp to comfort sore muscles and spines.

Tyrtle described the ride as an “overwhelmingly positive” experience because of the organization, the people, and in one case, the fans: “At one point, on the last day of the ride, a group of us stopped in to a McDonald’s for a snack.  When we went in, a woman came up to me and said she’d seen all of us riding earlier in the day and wondered what we were doing. . . A few minutes later, though, she came back and tracked me down to give a donation.”

If you’re thinking of giving it a shot but not sure you’re up for the distance, you’ve got plenty of time to train. Says Tyrtle: “I think the most important is that if you’re considering it, just do it. You might not be in shape to do it today but you would be shocked at how quickly you can. We were not a ride filled with road warriors but of regular people from age 18-71 of varying degrees of fitness.”

Motivated by his experience, Tyrtle immediately signed up for the 2011 rally and has pledged to ride as far as Halifax on his own if he meets his fundraising goal of $6000. I asked him if he was simply a glutton for punishment and he told me this:

When I arrived in Montreal part of me was, of course, thrilled to have made it.  But there was a large part of me that felt as if I’d only just started.  I’d only just figured out the routine for setting up and taking down camp, to riding every day. . . [I have] the ability and desire to go further and if I can use that to help [People with Aids] more this year than last, I’m going to do it.

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