BikeBrampton is honoured to present the Cycling Chronicles, a short story by Steve Stoller.
It was always the second question. For years it was always the second question.
The first question, when someone found out I was a cycling enthusiast, always revolved around my bike, and inevitably, how much it cost. I would tell them the list price of the bike, not what I actually paid for it. Once the incredulity was expressed over the price of the bike, the second question would come. Do you race?
This question always brings back memories of my first race, in 1976.
It was a proud and heady time in Canada. For the first time, the Olympic summer games would be held in this nation, in Montreal. It seemed we were all excited; many of us going to the post office to purchase the limited edition, Canadian mint sterling silver Olympic coin sets.
Someone at the Region of Peel was excited about it too and thought it would be a great idea of mirroring several Olympic sporting events for local youth. To make it more authentic, gold, silver, and bronze medals were commissioned, with the stylized “P” logo in the centre and “Peel Region Summer Games” around the outside.
Even though I tended to keep up on things like that, I was unaware of the Peel Region Summer Games aspect, when I talked my bike-riding friend Chris into coming with me to a local criterium bicycle race. A criterium is a bicycle race consisting of several laps around a closed street circuit. The event was organized by the local cycling club where a number of races were being held on a short course around Bramalea Civic Centre. It was a Sunday, in the days of the Lord’s Day Act, which meant with a few exceptions, all stores were closed. This meant closing the streets for a race wasn’t really an imposition on anyone.
While Chris and I were watching the first race, a club member approached us and asked if we would be interested in racing. I could not believe my ears, as this seemed too good to be true. We both eagerly said yes. Since we were 14 and 15 years old, it was explained that we would have to get permission forms signed by our parents. Forgetting the race that we were watching, we tore off on our bikes to find our respective parents. Luckily, because nothing much was open on Sunday, they were both home and the forms were signed with no questions. We made it back to the Bramalea Civic Centre in enough time to submit our permission forms and have our names registered for the race.
As the group gathered up before the start of the race, I eyed the competition. Most of them were like Chris and me, riding some variation of a department store ten speed, wearing a T-shirt and cut off jean shorts. Standing out in the group was a kid with an Atala, a genuine Italian racing bike. He was outfitted with real cycling gear, consisting of cycling shorts and a jersey. I surmised by the number of racers and officials talking to this young man that he was a member of the club and most likely the offspring of someone in the club.
At the time, I was riding a Sears Freespirit ten speed. In my effort to make it look more like a racing bike, I had removed all reflectors and anything I deemed extraneous. I had actually considered drilling holes in some of the components in order to lighten the bike, but thought better of it, since I did not feel I had the tools to drill accurately enough. Chris had his trusty Supercycle Medalist.
We lined up for instructions on the start/finish line on Team Canada Drive. The instructions were very simple. Two laps of the course and first one over the finish line wins. We would be racing for the Region of Peel Summer Games medals!
To appreciate gravity of the situation, you must realize, they were going to let loose a bunch of charged up young teens in a sprint race, wearing no helmets. The only concession to safety was actual hay bales lining the outside of the curves. For the younger readers, I must explain that the hard-shell bicycle helmet only came out in 1975, so we did not even know they existed. Bicycle racers, if they wore a helmet at all, wore a lightweight helmet known as a “leather hairnet”. Most organizers required the “leather hairnet” helmet in criterium races only, because of the higher likelihood of crashes. No one in our race wore one.
The starters pistol went off and the pack of us started on an undisciplined, mad scramble down the straight to the first corner. I eased up a touch, unsure what was going to happen when the pack tried to negotiate the first corner at Peel Centre Drive. My fears were justified when I saw the rider in front of me carry too much speed into the wrong line on the curve. He flared out wide and hit the hay bales on the outside of the curve. He did not crash but ended up at the back of the pack. Once we got on the back straight, on Central Park Drive, I started making my move, passing one rider at a time. At the end of the first lap, I was close enough to hear a big cheer as the Atala rider crossed the start/finish line with a two-bike length lead.
I passed another two riders on the back straight and, going into the final curve off Knightsbridge Road, ended up in second place, behind the Atala rider. He went wider out of the curve, while I cornered harder at the apex, coming out of the curve right beside him. There was around 120 metres left to the finish line by the flag poles in front of the Bramalea Civic Centre, and we both stood on the pedals for a finishing sprint. We must have been in the same gear, since we were matching pedal stroke for pedal stroke and going the same speed. With fifty metres to go my legs and lungs were on fire with pain, but I wasn’t going to let this opportunity go, as we were still side by side.
With twenty metres to go, we were still side by side. The pain was excruciating, and I was unsure I could finish the job. It was at this moment, I turned my head to look at him, to judge his speed, and our eyes met briefly. That was when I saw it. That was the moment he gave up. I saw his upper body release tension and I noticed an almost imperceptible decrease in his cadence. This encouraged me to forge on, crossing the line a half a bike length ahead of him. I was exhausted and just let my bike coast all the way down the rest of the straight, before I turned around to head back to the finish line.
When I arrived at the finish line, I saw a crowd of adults surrounding the Atala rider, patting him on the back and congratulating him. As he got off the bike, I saw his legs buckle and he almost went down but was held up by some of the onlookers. It was when I dismounted, I understood the herculean effort we both had put in. My legs felt like they were made from rubber and I had to use my bike as cane, to keep from sinking to the asphalt. After a few minutes the feeling in my legs came back and I found Chris. We both agreed that the race was a crazy adrenaline rush and we both had a great time.
Unlike the real Olympic games, there was no podium ceremony. The organizer sought me out, handing me my medal and shaking my hand. That was it. Chris and I rode back to my house, still excited about competing in our first cycling race. As we stood around on my driveway, swapping stories of what we had seen during the race, Chris, who had finished outside of the medals, asked me if I thought I could have won the race? Shocked, I told Chris I had won the race, that’s why I was wearing the gold medal. He said “gold, I thought it was a bronze medal and you came in third”. We both had quite a chuckle over that.
On Wednesday of the following week, I eagerly looked forward to reading the Brampton Guardian, hoping there would be some coverage of the bicycle races. Sure enough, the results were listed with me being recorded as the winner of the race, right under a captioned picture of the Atala rider leading the race.
Eleven or twelve years later, I was watching a bicycle racing movie called “American Flyers”. There is a scene in this movie where the character played by Kevin Costner is watching bicycle race footage, and explaining to his younger brother that a bicycle race is lost, not when your body starts giving out, but the moment you stop believing you can win. It occurred to me, that I had already learned that lesson in my mid teens at a free-for-all bicycle criterium.
Stay tuned for more volumes of The Cycling Chronicles from Steve Stoller!