They say there’s a point at which every Tour De Rock rider gets “it.”
I and a few other riders got our first hint of “it” in Port Hardy, on our first day on the road.
We were about to leave for Port McNeill when Janelle Canning, one of our tour support team, who also served as event MC and photographer, gathered us into a tight circle, arms around our shoulders. Then she told us to look up and visualize whatever or whomever was meaningful to us.
This was one those times I was reminded why I don’t join clubs and if this wasn’t uncomfortable enough, she then played Sarah McLachlan’s I Will Remember You — the whole song, which is unmercifully long under the best circumstances.
It was about the time we started swaying to the music and smirking as a way to get through this when I saw the hairdresser and her husband in the background, framed between the riders. He cradled her as she leaned on him, weeping.
She’s a breast cancer survivor.
I’d watched her earlier as young members of a Junior Canadian Ranger regiment had their heads shaved to raise money against cancer. During breaks when no one was in her chair she’d step out of sight of the crowd and cry, wipe her eyes, then come back for the next shave.
Watching the couple from within the circle of riders reminded me of times in the past few years I’d seen friends and relatives fighting cancer break down, grateful for another Christmas or birthday, another day with their children or a dinner out with friends. Crying with joy for being alive and from the fear of losing the fight.
Our awkward feeling little circle and the song provided this moment for this couple and Janelle Canning, who rode with the 2009 team, got “it.”
I was extremely fortunate to get on this year’s tour. It was only because of my job that I had a chance to get on at all. Police officers might apply for several years before getting on the team.
It started for me as a personal challenge to see if I could surmount the physical demands of the training and tour itself.
What the trainers — all former riders — can’t prepare you for is the emotional impact you’re hit with at each stop in every town and the realization of how much the tour means to cancer survivors, their families and those who lost loved ones to the disease.
They come to you and share their stories in simple statements — “I’ve survived cancer twice — colon and breast cancer.”
In Lake Cowichan a woman turned to me, “I lost my daughter 17 years ago. She was 14,” and the tears welled up in her eyes.
A woman in her 40s in Oak Bay walked up to me outside a grocery store with tears in her eyes and said, “I’m so grateful to all of you. I lost my auntie.”
Sharing their pain is their way of giving you strength and maybe that’s why as a team we felt so strong over the hills and through the long hours in the saddle.
Then there were the construction workers, road crews, hydro linemen, truckers and commuters everywhere, blowing their horns, cheering us on, snapping photos with cellphones and digital cameras. Some stopping our support team to hand them cash.
People rushed out of their homes to wave as we passed by. Crowds of children screamed and cheered at every school we visited. Whole towns took us in, sheltered and fed us.
As we rode down the Island, we were treated like heroes — a surreal feeling for a group of ordinary people riding bicycles, but the tour is like a travelling event that takes on a life of its own beyond any individual rider or the group.
“We’re like a circus,” one rider said to me on the road from Campbell River. Perhaps that’s what a group of perplexed tourists from Delaware thought when they were awakened by our morning warmup with music and sirens blaring in the motel parking lot in Port McNeill.
How would I describe the tour? Practically speaking, it’s an 1,100-kilometre high-output and, at times, physically gruelling bike ride that collects money to fight cancer and send children with cancer to Camp Goodtimes.
But anyone fortunate enough to ride with the tour knows it’s impossible to fully describe what it really is or means other than to say it’s the most rewarding two weeks they will likely ever experience.
One thing for certain, there’s nothing quite like the Tour de Rock anywhere else. It’s life, energy and response from the public comes from and, I believe, is unique to Vancouver Island.
And the tour changes everyone who takes part in it.