Prior to this ride, my knowledge and experience in the world of biking was embarrassingly sparse for someone that decided to cycle across Canada. Before this trip, I’d also never changed a flat. I hadn’t thought to care for the bikes I’d owned previously. Ride infrequently till they faltered, then toss them away. All of them unnamed. Fortunately, from Victoria through Winnipeg, Sonja had yet to require a single fix, basic or otherwise. I’d only cleaned her thoroughly and greased her chain twice; once after the mountains and again in Winnipeg, upon nearing the end of my ride through the Great Plains. Beyond those two occurrences, every tool and spare part stayed tucked inside my left pannier, hidden away. Like a pitcher throwing a no-hitter, I avoided every temptation to admit to myself or others that Sonja had rolled perfectly so far.
My notable lack of experience was more noticeable while atop Sonja. Yes, I could pedal while remaining upright. And, yes, I could lift one hand from the handlebar. But never both. That was the extent of my skill as a cyclist.
From time to time along those endless stretches of flat Prairie roads, I’d try to ride with no hands. Never lasted for more than a blip. Never quite balanced without a hand on Sonja. Inevitably, I’d lower one hand nearly as soon as I’d lifted both. Too much fear tipped the scales, I suppose. And, so, one hand off the handlebars remained the limit of my balance atop Sonja. Any further claims would be proven false with a single request for evidence.
My worst blunder as a touring cyclist held roots in Victoria, while buying everything I thought I needed for the cross-country trek. I didn’t properly understand which products would add value to my biking experiences. In many cases, I wasn’t willing to spend the money to find out. I refused to buy a waterproof jacket. My only proper jacket was paper-thin and wind-resistant, whatever that means. Moreover, I owned no water-resistant clothes. Only a pile of wool and cotton and polyester. I didn’t carry sunscreen or a cooking stove. I was cheap and stubborn on many fronts. Frugal to a fault. An essential root of who I am, I’ve long known.
My inexperience was repeatedly exposed through the mountains and Prairies. I wore only an old pair of running shoes. I still didn’t fully understand that cycling shoes and pedal clips were far superior. I never knew any better. Only the refrains of numerous strangers from Victoria to Winnipeg gradually tilted my stubborn ways, backed convincingly by a chorus of punishing climbs through the Rockies and draining headwinds along the Prairies.
The echoes to change my ways reached a crescendo on the Trans-Canada, somewhere in between Portage and Winnipeg, while battling the strongest headwinds I’d endure on the trip. On the brink of insanity, after a lifetime of cheap tendencies, I resolved to submit to the temptation. I’m still uncertain of why I held out so long; elsewhere within, I remain unsure of why I finally gave in.
Nevertheless, in Winnipeg, I sprung for pedal clips and a pair of brand-new cycling shoes. I opted for the pedal clips that accommodated both styles of riding: clips-only on one side and running shoe-friendly on the other, in case I changed my mind further down the line. This seemed a reasonable compromise. A prudent choice made well north of two-thousand kilometres too late.
Later that afternoon, after cleaning Sonja, I removed my old pedals and attached the shiny new ones. I strapped on my new kicks and sat atop Sonja. Standing safely with my left foot on the ground, I tested the act of attaching my right shoe to the pedal clips, then removing it. Feel for the notable snap. A moment later, I twisted left to detach. I didn’t like it. Too much work. Felt unnatural. Why don’t I take this all back and just keep pushing on with my running shoes?
I was reticent to feel through this unfamiliar act in motion. But, I had to try. Without prompting, too many voices had urged the traveling stranger in their world to use these shoes and pedals. Besides, I was beginning to realize my stubbornness masked a resilient fear further beneath. Feed the familiar, Fear the rest. Those old habits resonate strong, no doubt.
With my cycling shoes clipping the ground almost like cowboy spurs, I walked to a quiet side street, and I stood over Sonja. No traffic in front or behind. Slowly, I rode on the runner-friendly side of my new pedals. I aimed to reach a slow-but-steady speed before flipping the pedals to the clip-in side, to ensure I could struggle with the clips without falling over. Success. I stopped pedaling and looked to my feet with undivided attention. First, I fumbled for the right clip. Snap. Then, I felt for the left. Snap. For the first time, my feet were bound to Sonja.
I began to pedal again, focusing only on my right foot. I pushed down, then up and around.
Immediately, I noticed the difference. With the cycling shoes, I felt like I was a part of the machine, rotating my legs with the pedals, with a greater sense of power in every movement. No more reliance solely on pushing down on the pedal with every stroke. Riding with clips was far superior.
I circled back at the stop sign and returned to my starting place, furiously twisting each foot to detach from the clips as I coasted. After a brief moment of anxiety, another dose of success.
I slowed to a stop, shaking my head with a smile and audible sigh. A strange combination of pride and shame surged within. I’d traversed the mountains in an old pair of running shoes, feeling my body transform into a cycling machine. I’d conquered the Rockies the hard way. Earned every climb. Then again, I’d lost my sanity battling the headwinds under sunny skies only a day earlier. Always pushing down, never up and around. After just one test ride with my new shoes and clips, the choice was easy:
Time for a change.
I rode out of Winnipeg by following the city’s main arteries and the most obvious signs. I wore my running shoes until I’d escaped the city, keeping my cycling shoes tucked inside one of my panniers. I was terrified of failing to de-clip at a stoplight. Fearful of public embarrassment, ever-again.
I felt a slight headwind. Nature’s encouragement to test my new purchases, in earnest. Nervous excitement simmered. A feeling that harkened back to my first ride atop Sonja in Victoria. This felt like another beginning. A new chapter, at the very least.
Upon my return to the Trans-Canada on the outskirts of the city, I rested Sonja on the shoulder and strapped on my brand-new cycling shoes. I tied my running shoes to the bungee cords that secured my tent to the rear rack. Easy access for a possible change of mind.
The traffic was steady and loud in both directions. I looked to my surroundings. Predominantly clear skies for the tenth consecutive day. I offered a slight nod to my continued fortune and pushed off.
I pedaled furiously, unclipped, until I reached a sufficient pace to feel willing to fumble for those clips. First, my right foot. Clip. Then, my left. Clip. Success.
Riding with clips felt like learning to ride all over again.
While perusing the cycling shoes at the MEC in Winnipeg, I’d been informed that many cyclists, no matter their age or experience, fall over during their initial trials to achieve familiarity in riding as an attachment to their bike. You might struggle to detach your shoes from the pedals when you slow to a stop, or you may simply forget to do so. In either case, you’re a fawn struggling as you fall over, your feet still attached to the pedals. Just rollin’ and tumblin’ helplessly to the ground.
For the first twenty kilometres east of Winnipeg, all was roses. I rode whimsically along the side of the Trans-Canada, reveling in the added power as I busted through a mid-level headwind.
The urban expanse of Winnipeg was gone and the open plains once again stretched to the horizon in every direction. I felt I’d earned a brief break. I rolled slightly to the right, bumping over the edge of the paved shoulder to the gravel. Following a surprising lack of struggle, I’d de-clipped and stopped. As the traffic passed steady in both directions, I sat on the gravel and savoured a granola bar snack, facing the endless brown fields.
Minutes passed, and I prepared to return to the road. I chose to begin rolling along the gravel, which offered a wider area to maneuver than the paved shoulder. My self-confidence in riding with clips remained notably low.
I gained a modicum of speed along the gravel, then began an attempt to clip my shoes into the pedals. My right shoe attached with ease. I shifted focus to my left. More than before, this shoe proved troubling. For a few panicked seconds, I focused entirely on my left foot, furiously searching for that sweet spot in which the shoe and pedal suddenly clip. It wasn’t happening. I lifted my foot and pressed down repeatedly. Nothing.
With my whole being still devoted to the task of clipping, I stopped pedaling. My initial momentum had stalled, and I was slowing to a crawl. Again and again, I lifted and pressed down, fumbling around with my left foot. Still, no clip. Still, unaware of all else beyond my left foot. Sonja stopped completely. As I fell, slowly, to the right, my mind finally began to process the failure that was already happening. To stay upright, instinctively, I raced to put my right foot down to the ground.
My right foot was still attached to the pedal. I was a helpless fawn.
Here we go.
With a sudden yelp, my arms flailing aimlessly, I crashed to the gravelly ground, rolling down the right edge of the shoulder. My right foot detached as I hit the gravel, and I tumbled further down and into the ditch.
Nearly as soon as I hit the ground, I jumped up and brushed myself off. Pretend nothing happened. I sought to avoid any public notice of my embarrassing falter. I scanned around for witnesses.
A pick-up truck was already pulling over, the concerned driver opening his door before the vehicle had fully stopped. As I flicked off the gravel stuck in my palms and forearms, the driver yelled over the Trans-Canada traffic:
Hey man, are you OK?
I nodded and waved sheepishly, avoiding direct contact with his eyes.
The driver expressed his relief. He’d seen the entire ordeal as he approached from behind. With the way I’d stopped pedaling, flailed my arms, and collapsed slowly to the ground, he thought I’d succumbed to something life-threatening.
Thank God, I thought you were having a stroke or something.
I laughed in response to his concerns and thanked him for his commendable action. Once more, to definitively close our encounter, I offered a farewell and assured the man I was fine, aside from a heaping pile of humility brewing inside. I couldn’t bear to tell him I’d already biked across nearly halfway across the country. Four provinces into this journey, I was still learning how to ride.