It’s Saturday and it’s grey and dismal outside. I wait all day for the weather to warm or the sky to clear but by 5:30 PM it’s still 12 degrees and threatening rain. Autumn weather is truly upon us. I won’t be having any rides in the 30 degree sun for another 8-9 months.
At the beginning of the pandemic I started making a point of going outside to do some exercise. Some days it might be a 200 kilometre ride, other days it might be a 2 km jaunt to the grocery store and back. Whatever it is, I go outside, raise my heart rate a bit and every single time without fail, whatever my current mood, I feel noticeably better. If I’m happy, I come home ecstatic. If I’m miserable, I come home recharged and optimistic for the next day.
Despite the cold, damp weather I put on my cycling shorts – and a windbreaker, and get in the elevator with one other person. Lately during the pandemic the rule has been to have two people per elevator so I’m good to go. I make it down 8 floors and stop and a third person insists on boarding. So rather than get in to an argument about the rules, I just get off and join another woman waiting for the next elevator. It turns out the next elevator is full. The one after that is full. The one after that is full. But it’s OK, we enjoy chatting. Jennie, as she introduces herself, has lived in this building for forty years and watched it change a bunch. Back in the 1960s, she and her husband owned an Italian restaurant on the Danforth, one of the main streets in our part of town. She started it when pizza was still a novelty for people and the locals called it pie-za. In those days, she tells me, Italians were often refused entry to certain clubs. Times have certainly changed.
Finally we take an elevator up in order to be in it when it goes back down. And so, 25 minutes after I walked out my door, I finally find myself outside the building.
I used to think that people who did things like this – exercised when they didn’t feel like it or pushed themselves when they would rather go to sleep or curl up indoors with a book and cat in their lap had some special nature. This special nature made them want to “do the right thing” instead of wanting to chase their lazy impulses. Now I see that at least some of them are like me: they start to do what they intend to do even when it seems like the worst idea. I tell myself that I made a commitment to do this and though I have a long ride planned, I only need to do thirty minutes if I hate it. It’s a trick I’ve taught myself over the years. I know that the hard part is getting outside and starting, not continuing. I resolve to watch for the moment when I am no longer thinking how little I want to be on this ride.
I clip in to my pedals and head east, enjoying the speedier nature of the new bike. The additional speed comes at a cost, though. The air is cold and damp on my legs and the windbreaker is cold against my bare arms. But I can do thirty minutes.
In fifteen minutes I find myself on the first dedicated bike trail of the trip, running underneath high tension power lines. It feels like a superhighway and is completely free of cars. I do have to watch for other cyclists, pedestrians and strollers but it is worth it for the peace of mind of not having to deal with cars.
I cross a street, come around a corner and there on the side of the path is a man. He has a couple of backpacks. He’s laying out some cloth on a couple of shipping pallets and has hung a bit more cloth around it to make what is obviously his home for the night. I decide I’m being a bit whiny about my own situation.
Ten minutes later the path crosses another busy street and I realize that I’ve reached that point. I’m glad to be out. I’ve generated enough heat that my legs no longer feel cold and my windbreaker is warm enough that I’ve pulled the zipper down a bit.
The path drops me off on a busy street but five minutes later I’ve connected with another path and am going down in to the ravine next to a creek. There are a few people out walking near residential areas and parking lots, but when I get farther in to the woods, there is nobody.
The path turns a corner and crosses the creek. When I get to the other side I stop short. There’s a huge animal only about 10 feet away from me. It’s a deer and I’m surprised at how tall she is. I’m close enough to look in to her eyes and watch the steam escape from her nostrils as she breathes. One, two, three fast breaths and I think I might be able to get a photo. I reach for my phone and the spell is broken. There’s a click-click-click of her hooves on the pavement and in two leaps she is gone in to the bushes.
I come up in to another residential neighbourhood. It’s really looking like fall.
I’m only on the road a few kilometres before I’m diverted in to a park I’ve never been to. This one is completely empty. In the back of the parking lot my route takes me on to a narrow single-track path.
I reach the edge of a ravine and the path turns steeply downward. I try to cycle down it but it is too steep. Not too steep for my bike, too steep for my confidence. I’m hitting the brakes so often I’m skidding and small roots stop me with a jerk. Cyclists more confident on single-track would barrel on down and have no trouble. Confidence is a powerful thing. Until I get more of it I decide to walk my bike down the hill. The path finally flattens and I’m back next to the Highland Creek. I take a break and walk closer to it.
I return to the path that is now flat but quite narrow. Barely more than a footpath. Trees come right up next to the path so I need to keep a straight line. Once again my confidence comes in to play. When I go slowly, it’s harder to maintain a completely straight line. When I hit a root, my the front wheel stops and I slide forward, almost falling off. As the path continues, it falls away on one side, washed out, creating a five foot drop right next to the path. “Go straight, go straight!” my mind tells me but by going slowly I weave a little more. And by looking at the drop, thinking I will be able to stay aware of where it is, my eyes draw me to it. Soon my front wheel drops out from under me. My back wheel follows. My left leg manages to plant itself preventing a complete fall but my right foot is still clipped to its pedal. I push hard with my left leg to bring the bike back up to my level, unclip, dust myself off and then move on. It’s a fantastic lesson in attacking a challenge with confidence and without hesitation. We think holding back and hesitating will save us but in the end it harms us. What social situations does this happen in? What work situations? Where else in our lives are we holding back, intending to save ourselves and doing just the opposite.
Soon I am back on a paved path again and even just a normal cycling pace feels like flying after crawling along the single-track. Back and forth I go across the creek, every view looking better than the last.
Occasionally I see a dirt path leading off in to the forest. I have a route programmed in my GPS but eventually I decide that should just be a guideline, not a rulebook and so when the next one comes, I go down it:
This one goes quite a ways. I’ve been off-road long enough that my sense of direction is a bit miscalibrated. I don’t know exactly where I am or where this path could be going. It doesn’t matter, though. I’m confident I can figure out where I’m going and how to get where I need to. And then the path ends. In a swamp.
I turn back around, making my way back to my original path. Soon it is so dark I need my headlight to find my way on the path. After about twenty minutes, I notice a different smell in the air, damp and algal. Five minutes later I’m at it’s source: Lake Ontario. It’s fully dark now and I can see the lights of the next city over, Pickering, twinkling in the distance. It starts to rain and my first thought is “Oh great.” I’m as far from home as I will get on this ride and now it’s raining. But then I check myself. Am I bothered by the rain or the idea of the rain? In the end, I am warm enough, dry under my jacket, the air is fresh. A breeze is making the water lap against the shore like waves at the ocean and there are Canada geese honking somewhere in the dark. Is it really an “Oh great.” moment deserving of an eyeroll and self pity or is it just another part of the wonderful ride. I conclude it’s the latter. You can see for yourself in the series of videos I took along the way:
As I ride along the shore there are a few people out walking. Next to the shore I see other bike lights clustered and soon I smell the campfire these cyclists are gathering around. I turn back toward home.
Eventually I reach Kingston Road. In the daytime it can be a little stressful with 6-8 lanes of 60 km/hr traffic. Now it’s something else entirely. It’s as busy as usual but on a Saturday night there are more than the usual number of high performance cars and motorcycles of all types roaring down the road at high speeds. I pull to the side and eat an energy bar. As I do, a Mustang drives by accelerating flat out trying to keep up with the Mercedes AMG coupe in the next lane over. They are doing at least double the speed limit. In this part of town the urban design is challenging for cycling. There are lots of residential streets but they are designed to discourage people driving through to avoid traffic on the main roads. So they don’t connect to each other. To get home this stretch is completely unavoidable. I take a tip from the Mustang driver, clip back in to my pedals and take off. Soon I’m cruising at between 35-45 km/hour. Every time I think “I’m tired, I should slow back down to 20-25,” I remind myself that it’s Saturday night. People are driving like idiots and people are drinking. The less time I’m on the roads, the better. This is more motivating than any personal trainer. I’m even flying up the hills. The stressful six kilometre stretch goes by in a little over ten minutes. Then comes my reward: the Danforth Bike Lanes. I may have to slow way down to share the space with slower cyclists and to cycle around restaurant patios bumping out in to the street, but it’s all worth it. I’m completely separated from traffic.
Just after 8PM I am back home. On a day when I struggled to get out the door I have cycled over 50 kilometres, visited swamps, startled deer, smelled the lake and street raced with mustangs. Had I stayed indoors I would’ve missed all of this.