Where it All Began: the Friends For Life Bike Rally

The morning of Sunday, July 27, neighbours living near Allan Gardens in downtown Toronto might have wondered what exactly was happening in the stately old park. A group of 300 people posed for pictures in front of the arboretum, occasionally erupting into cheers, while bikes of every kind rested against trees and shrubs. A man wearing a black tutu atop his cycling shorts chatted casually with friends while other cyclists appeared to have somehow added faux-hawks, tiaras and even... plastic broom bristles to their helmets. Not your typical cycling crew. But to me, they're family.

The 2014 Friends for Life Bike Rally
Photo credit: Derek Manis

This is the Friends For Life Bike Rally, one of Canada's oldest long-distance charity cycling rides. What started as a small group of about a dozen riders 16 years ago has grown to over 300 riders and crew, all raising money for the Toronto People With AIDS Foundation. Almost entirely volunteer run, it's also the second-largest fundraiser for an HIV/AIDS organization in Canada.

Ten years ago, I set out on the Bike Rally, making the six day, 600 km journey from Toronto to Montreal. Little did I realize at the time, that experience would inspire a decade-long passion for endurance sports.

I try to seize the opportunities life gives me. In March 2004, it was my friend Darrel who gave me a present: a water bottle and registration for the Bike Rally. I gasped. This little gift meant that I would need to: (a) raise $2,000 for charity; (b) find a bike; and (c) ride it to Montreal.

I had heard of the rally for a couple of years and, in fact, was friends with some of the people that founded it. That meant I had a support system in place for what would be a daunting, yet incredibly rewarding, challenge.
Me upon arrival in Montreal, 2004. Yes, I rode a mountain bike. 
And yes, that's Spiderman attached to the handlebars.

Without a doubt, the Bike Rally is a life-changing experience. Completing it is both a momentous personal achievement and an act of selflessness. The six intense days on the ride itself are tiring yes, but filled with camaraderie, spirit, pageantry and reflection. In a sense, it's like summer camp, on wheels, for adults.

My home away from home. Bike Rally 2010.

The rally pushed me well beyond my comfort zone and, in the process, showed me what any of us can accomplish when we put our minds to it. As described in an earlier post, it changed the way I approach my goals. And it opened to me a world of endurance sport to explore.

At the Quebec border. Bike Rally 2010.

In 2007, I decided to dabble in running, joining my first organized running race, which is now known as the Toronto Yonge Street 10k. Despite having survived the Bike Rally, I felt nervous about this new challenge, but quickly got swept up in the enthusiasm of the other athletes. I was hooked.

That summer, after completing the 2007 edition of the Bike Rally, something prompted me to combine cycling and running and so I registered for the MultiSport Canada Toronto Island Duathlon. I recall how welcoming the organization was to a newbie like me and also how a conversation with a fellow competitor turned into a friendship that remains to this day.

"If you're smiling, you must not be working hard enough!" joked a race official.
"I'm just happy I'm actually going to complete this!" I responded. 

Again, I was hooked. Admittedly, I limped for almost a month after the event (welcome to my life, shin splints!), but when I healed, I went to the Runners Shop to get a fresh pair of shoes.

In time, I began running more and more. When I literally bumped into a friend at the end of a race, he convinced me to join the 10-miler clinic he was teaching at the Running Room. Ryan and his co-instructor Andrea taught me about structuring one's training to gradually increase volume and reduce the likelihood of injury. Our gang also had a lot of fun in the process. To this day, I remember the spot at College & Bellevue where I realized I had hit 13k, which at the time, was longer than I had ever run before.

The 10-miler running clinic in August 2010. Photo credit: Lynne Trieu

In 2012, I joined the club at the Runners Shop for the "sizzling summer clinic." Coach Elaine mapped out a program with personalized pacing and I joined the gang in their orange singlets for several months of pretty intense training, including intervals, track work and lots of hills.

That brings me to 2014, a decade after my first Bike Rally. What a time it has been. New friendships. Personal discovery. New PBs. Laughter. Frustration. Early mornings. Beautiful weather. Polar Vortex. Post-run brunches.

Polar Vortex 2014

I've started sharing my training experiences, the ups and downs, in the hopes of engaging and inspiring others to get active. I created this blog as part of my role as an Ignition Fitness Ambassador and earlier this year, I volunteered as a Toronto Yonge Street 10k Digital Champion.

Along this journey, I've joined the warm and welcoming family of Toronto's fitness aficionados. It's a group you'll find in-person along the streets of our city and online on Twitter (#runTO) and Facebook.

Looking back to 2004, I see now that the spirit of family and community is what makes the Bike Rally so powerful, and it's what inspired me to push toward my goals and, in turn, do my part to help build and grow that community.

Candlelight vigil. Bike Rally 2007.

Keep track of the Bike Rally 2014 by following @F4LBikerally on Twitter.