My first time (it’s not what you think)

As my date with a bike store draws closer (this coming Monday), it makes me wonder when my desire to take on a long distance endurance ride actually began.   After all, it’s not like you wake up one morning and say ” I think I’ll ride 150 km on a bike today!”.     Well, maybe some people actually do that, but not me.

My desire to take on this challenge has been slow in coming.    I began cycling seriously over twenty years ago but have been on hiatus for the past ten years due to family and work commitments.   But I recall an experience that I had long before my cycling days really took off.  And, I suspect, that this experience may have been influential in my love affair with the bike.

We have to go way back to 1986 – yes, nearly 30 years ago.   What was going on in 1986? Well, here are the top songs from that year


That was a very good year for music – I was 16 at the time and spent many hours making cassette tape mixes using my 45 lp’s.   Yes, they actually still had 45 lp’s back then – remember these?


In the summer of 1986, my family was living in the Okanagan – a little community called Kaleden, which as about 10 minutes south of Penticton.    Now, if you’ve ever been to the Okanagan, you will know that summers there are as close to perfect as you can get.  Endless sunshine, scorching temperatures, surrounded by lakes as warm as bathtubs.   It doesn’t get any better.

Living in Kaleden was,  as you can see from the view below which was similar to the view from our house, a very beautiful place.


It was also rather uneventful, especially for a 16 year old.   So, what do you do when it’s the middle of July, your parents are working, and you have no vehicle to go anywhere?   You decide to go for a bike ride.   Ah!  But not just any bike ride.   Something possesses your inner workings to look out the window of your house at the beautiful lake below and decide, “Today would be a good day to ride my bike around the lake!”

Now, let’s stop and consider this radical idea for just a moment.     Total distance from Kaleden, to Penticton, around Skaha Lake, to Okanagan Falls, and back to Kaleden is about 40 km.   Here is a map to help give you the lay of the land

Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 11.00.34 AM

Now, 40 km in the big scheme of things is not that far.  I could knock that off today in about an hour and a half.    And I’m sure that went through my head back in 1986 – “40 km?  No prob, dude!”    I think we said “dude” back then.   Anyways, the difference between completing this ride in 1986 and today is technology, as well as having a lot more common sense!

BTW, this route is a key section of the Axel Merckz Gran Fondo, one of the fondos I would love to complete – talk about coming full circle!

In 1986, I was riding the much coveted Baycrest 10 speed, the one with the foamy handlebars.   Forget about index shifting or toe clips.   This was your standard 35 pound, solid, reinforced steel, department store bike, with downtube shifters and the most uncomfortable saddle  known to man.    I did have a water bottle holder, though.

As for my cycling outfit?   I don’t think spandex had been invented yet – if it had been, I can assure you that no 16 year old male in his right mind would be caught dead wearing it.   That was Jane Fonda workout material.    Instead, I hit the road wearing a cotton t-shirt, Adidas shorts with the required three stripes down the side, a pair of chewed up Nike shoes – and that was about it.   Helmet?  What was that? Nobody wore helmets in 1986.     Gloves?   Didn’t exist.    Sunscreen?   Hopefully, but probably not.     Water bottle?  One, partially filled.    Food?   I wasn’t going to be that long.     Cell phone?   Have you seen what a cell phone looks like in 1986?    I’d have to pull a wagon to help carry it.  Identification?  Please!  I was a modern day teenager in complete control.  What could go wrong?   I was 16 – invincible, young, energetic.  This would be a cakewalk!    I’d only be gone about two hours, max!

You probably can sense where this is going.

Oh, one more thing – I’m sure that I didn’t tell anybody where I was going – maybe my younger brother but I’m sure he wasn’t listening.

So let’s set the scene, shall we?

It’s mid July, sunny skies, temps soaring to the mid 30’s by the late afternoon.    I’m pretty sure I left the house after lunch (at least I had the common sense to eat first).     By then the temperature had to be in the mid 20’s with no clouds in sight.    The first leg of the journey is riding along hwy 97 into Penticton – a very busy highway, I might add, without a helmet.     That took me probably about 30 min. to complete.   I remember riding into Penticton and rolling along the street past Skaha lake beach.    I also remember there being hundreds of people that day down by the  lake.       The other thing I distinctly remember was my water bottle was already half empty, with less than a 1/3 of the journey completed!

No fear!  Right?   Carpe Diem!!!!     Besides, I was too far  into this to turn back.    Plus I would have to ride uphill to get home –  so, I kept on going.   Now – one other thing I forgot to mention.    My route took me along the east side of Skaha lake – a twisty, old two lane road that I had never been on before.    In other words, I was about to tackle half of my route with no knowledge of what I was about to encounter.

At first, it was pretty easy going –   here’s a picture of what it looks like


I distinctly remember it being a beautiful place to ride a bike and how much I began to enjoy what I was doing.   There was hardly any traffic, not too much of  a head wind – but it was hot.   Eventually, the road starts to climb as you near Okanagan Falls at the south end of the lake.   By that time, the heat was taking its toll, I was almost out of water – I had been riding for close to two hours by then.   Plus, my lunch was wearing off.    Did I mention that I didn’t have any money?

When I got to OK Falls, I pulled over at a park – at least 2.5 hours into the ride.   At this point I began to question my sanity to undertake this quest.    Perhaps I should have put a little (ok, a lot) more thought into the type of ride I was about to tackle.    Leaping before looking has always been one of my biggest faults.    Ask my wife.    Even today, when I get, what I think, is a brilliant idea, I tend to dive right in without always thinking about what the consequences might be.   I am getting better – somewhat.

After having rested at OK Falls (thankfully, I managed to find a fountain to refill my water bottle), I realized the dilemma I had placed myself in.    I was still at least 15 -20 km from home, it was about 33 degrees, I had no food, nobody knew where I was, nor did I have any method of contacting anyone.   Not a lot of options.    So, I did the only thing I could do, and that was to push on.

If you’ve ever driven through OK Falls on your way to Penticton, you will be familiar with the MASSIVE HILL that one has to climb as you leave the town boundary.    I had forgotten about this.   Had I remembered, I’m sure I would have reconsidered the whole ride in the first place.   Ignorance is bliss?  Maybe.   This is the best picture I could find, and believe me, it doesn’t do it any justice at all.


So let’s recap.   A 16 year old boy ventures out onto a 35 km bike ride only to find himself without food, assistance or a hat in 30 degree temperatures, and still 15 km from home.  What to do?

Start pedalling.    I remember sitting in the park at OK Falls, feeling sorry for myself,  wishing there was someone I could call to come get me.  I also wished I had some food.   Alas, neither was to be.   So, not having any other choice, I sucked it up and started pedalling up the hill.   I made it not even half way to the top when I had to stop.    There was no way I had the energy reserves to pull myself up the hill.   Instead, I got off my bike and started walking.    After what seemed like forever,  I got to the top where it levelled off.  I hopped back on my bike and kept on going.

It must have taken me another hour, at least, to finally get to the turnoff into Kaleden.    I remember a sense of overwhelming relief when I saw it because I knew that the end was near.   Total ride time- probably 3-4 hours.   Fortunately, I didn’t get a flat tire – then I would have been really screwed.

When I think back now about that adventure (which it was), my first thoughts are “What the hell was I thinking?”    Clearly, I wasn’t.    However, I remember looking across the lake for weeks after, thinking – “I did that – I rode all the way around that lake and survived!”     Would I do things differently if I was to do it again?   Of course.  But part of the adventure was knowing that I was on my own and no one was coming to help me.    I had to reach inside myself to find that willpower to keep going.  That was probably the first time that I had been put into a situation like that knowing that it was up to me to get through this.

When I got home, I remember being absolutely exhausted.   I had to be dehydrated, if not feeling the effects of heat stroke.   When my parents came home from work later and they asked me what I had done during the day, I’m not quite sure they believed me when I told them of my journey.   Did this experience cause me to fall in love with long distance cycling?  Probably not as a direct consequence.  I’m sure I didn’t want to ride my bike anywhere for a long time after what I had just gone through.    But, subconsciously it must have had a lasting impact on my psyche.    Thirty years later, it feels like it was a dream and I sometimes wonder if I actually did complete the ride.   Deep inside, I know I did, because some of the images and memories are so ingrained in my  mind, there’s no way I could have not done it.

When I told my dad about my adventure, I remember him asking me “Why’d you do that?!”    At the time, I was bored, looking for something to do.   Perhaps, though, it was more than that.  Maybe it was a way for me to assert my independence as a sixteen year old.   Regardless of the reasons,  I remember feeling very proud of my accomplishment for a very long time.    As a matter of fact,  I still am.

And I can’t wait to do it again!


About gssfire

High school teacher, husband, father of three children currently residing in Golden B.C.
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