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Winter played a cruel game with Eastern Canada, locking us in a prolonged deep freeze. Even if you could have gone outside, it was so miserably cold you didn’t want to. Of course, you couldn’t actually do much outside your own home: for the longest time, everything was locked down.
So we sat and waited and watched Netflix and chilled, hoping case counts continued to drop, and on some bright, sunny morning in the foreseeable future, we’d be free to shake off the cobwebs, leave our homes and squint in the bright sunshine to which we’ve become unaccustomed.
Each of us looked forward to something to keep us going through the isolation: seeing friends, eating in a restaurant, watching a movie somewhere that wasn’t our lap …. Everyone had at least one thing that gave them hope, which they locked away deep in their hearts during the months of cold, darkness and confinement. That hope kept us sane when the walls start closing in, when things felt overwhelming and our family was pissing us off again through no fault of their own but for two years of proximity.
My hope has quietly been gathering dust in the garage since November.
My first bike got stolen within months of moving to Toronto. I learned the hard way that the Big Smoke is North America’s bike-theft capital. Foolishly, I locked it by its wheel to the front of the house, confident no one would dare steal a bike right in front of my bedroom, inches from where I slept. The next day I woke to find a fully intact bike wheel locked to the house and nothing else.
I bought another bike and rode it faithfully for almost 20 years before getting a replacement, which promptly got stolen, forcing me back to Old Faithful. The faint of heart might have abandoned biking completely at that point, but not me, because of what biking means to me: freedom.
Every spring I take Old Faithful down from the rack, clean it, lube it and pump up the tires, knowing I’m free for another seven or eight months. As time goes by, the old gal’s started showing her age, and now there are more replacement parts on her than original ones. But even if I wanted to replace her completely, I couldn’t: the pandemic has swept bike shops clean and no one is expecting inventory till 2023. I keep swapping out parts as they decay, desperately trying to keep her on life support until I can find a replacement because more than ever I need the freedom she affords.
Nothing else gives me such independence. On my bike, I’m limitless and unshackled by gas tanks or batteries: as long as I’m alive and eating, I’ve got fuel and can pedal to the ends of the Earth if I want. Rocks, ravines, construction … almost no obstacle is impassable. Jammed roads mean nothing: there is a tangible thrill to whizzing past cars stalled in traffic, knowing that with a few feet of clearance, I can leave them in the dust. Cars don’t fit over your shoulder in a pinch and no one ever fixed one with a repair kit the size of a sandwich. The idea that you’re riding a machine without limits that can literally take you around the world is exhilarating. That kind of freedom – even if it’s only an idea, a potential and you never ride any further than down the block – is needed more than ever after two years of limitations and lockdown.
The first year of the pandemic felt like a contest to see how long we could hold our collective breath. Even as isolation started grinding us down, society gritted its teeth in the knowledge that we just had to tough it out for a year to get to the other side. Then Delta hit. Then Omicron. A year turned into two, and that’s when the walls really started closing in. That’s when we really needed hope.
So I count the days until I can unshackle my wheels and transform. On my bike, I achieve another state of mind completely. As ridiculous as it sounds, in the old days when I would power up a hill, in my mind I became the leader in the Tour de France and that inner-city bump became the Alps. I would push myself to reach the top each time, no matter how steep it was or how tired I felt because I wanted to pretend. I wanted to feel that little thrill of making it to the summit, knowing that doing so told me once again that I could go anywhere and that nothing could hold me back. I was free.
That sense of freedom has never gone away, it’s more important than ever and it’s a sense only biking can give. Your mind is laser-focused on the road, scanning for open car doors, potholes, small children and other hazards, but that focus allows a subconscious layer to peel away, and every worry follows it: you can be hypervigilant and Zen at the same time. It’s a strange, transcendent phenomenon but it’s the simple magic of a good bike: it frees you in body and mind. Nothing else comes close.
Every few years I add a new ache or pain to my list of infirmities. It started with arthritis in the knees. Then I got diagnosed with a bad back. My elbow started hurting last year, and I know the list will grow as I age. At some point, I won’t be able to tackle those hills the way I used to, and then I won’t be able to tackle them at all. So I ride like hell, occasionally wiping out but always getting up and back on the seat because biking’s a time-limited proposition and worth every tumble.
I am glued to the long-range forecast, waiting for that first warm day when I’ll escape the four pandemic walls pressing in, strap on a ridiculous-looking helmet and a water bottle with the paint flaking off, and for one brief, beautiful moment, be free again.
Mark Farmer lives in Toronto.
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