It’s not the first thing anyone would’ve wanted at twenty-one. Still, developing multiple sclerosis (MS) was the first step on a long and meandering road that led me to an enduring love of bicycling. It’s something that has unquestionably changed my life.
Coming Up Against a Challenge
When I first developed MS, I was working. The idea of MS couldn’t have been further from my mind. At the time, I’d needed to write something and was suddenly incapable of lifting or even holding the pen. My hand refused to respond to any intention. Shock and dismay, followed by an uneasy and bewildering mixture of anger and frustration defined those moments. Now what.
Off I went on a hard journey along a rough and rocky road. When I look back, I realise it’s something I shared with too many who’ve been forced to face a future of uncertainty. I wasn’t alone. I must also admit there are many whose challenges far exceed my own. Anyway, in due time, I eventually discovered it was MS that was the source of my troubles. But I learned something else, too.
Confronting a Challenge
After a couple of years, I had regained the use of my hand and arm. So, things were looking up. I’m not sure where it was, but somewhere I’d encountered an advertisment for a Multiple Sclerosis Bike-a-thon. Interesting. A short time later, my mind was made up. I’d enter the bike-a-thon.
Bike-a-thon in Ontario.
Dutifully I trained with the help of my family. When the day arrived, simply put, I did it. On the first 75 km leg, I had to get a lift part way through. But I biked the full 75 km on the second day. It was an accomplishment. I think when any of us are faced with some challenge that appears insurmountable, we must find some way to push back. The bike-a-thon was my small way to do so.
In the years following, I entered two more bike-a-thons. Meanwhile, my life took me on a path into the world of academia. I followed from school to school, pursuing post-graduate studies, one of which landed me in St. John’s, NL at Memorial University.
Throughout, wherever I went, my bike accompanied me. By that time, we were inseparable. In fact, that is what I learned. I would develop an apparently unextinguishable love of bicycling. My bike offered a safe harbour for much of my energy, dedication and rapt attention. I was lucky.
MS affects everyone in different ways. When it had first struck, it had only left me partially disabled and then, as I mentioned, it’d seemed to have gone quiet. Yet, while at Memorial University, MS decided it was time for a reprisal.
And this time, it wasn’t going away either. Later, I moved to Saskatoon in the central part of Saskatchewan to pursue the final portion of my schooling. It was a little flatter than St. John’s. Thus, it wasn’t so difficult—just a few falls here and there.
Adjusting & Accepting
Fast forward to now. I’d moved back to Newfoundland and eventually found my way to Placentia. By the time I’d moved to Placentia, I think I’d reached a point where I felt I’d best just put an end to bicycling. Obviously, I couldn’t hope to ride the way I did previously, hopping on my bike and riding for 30 or so kilometres. It was impossible.
So, for just over a decade, I satisfied myself with walking up and down the hills around Castle Hill National Historic Site of Canada. All the while, I was declining. My legs were getting weaker. I suffered from all the usual disabilities that accompany MS, things like balance problems. It often left me looking often like I’d just enjoyed a bottle of whiskey. Or there was “foot drop” which just made it difficult to lift my feet. The result meant I’d sometimes trip on uneven terrain. And generally, I’d find it difficult to stand for long periods of time.
Despite what would seem to be a poor prognosis, overall, I was in fairly good condition. In comparison, however grim my condition may seem, I am far more fortunate than too many others. Many of the challenges I faced, with a little ingenuity, determination and patience, I could work around. I was slower than most, but it was possible.
Panorama of Placentia in which we can see Placentia’s
surrounding hills (Source: Tom O’Keefe).
It’s within reason to understand, then, how after a little over a decade, I began ruminating. The Placentia flats where I live are just that, flat. Although, it’s surrounded by hills. Ironically, for the history-minded, this was the reason it was initially used by the Basque all those centuries ago, with others gradually settling afterwards.
Taking the Next Step
When I think about it, I’d needed time to allow myself to look at biking, not as I did. Rather, in a new way, taking into account my limitations. Once I’d made this mental shift, I was seeking a challenge. For me, I was going to attack the issue conservatively. I’d buy an exercise bike and build up to actually transitioning to a real bike. But a friend of mine suggested, why not just go for it. You’ve got nothing else to lose. So I did.
Here’s a woman from the 1890s on a step-through bike.
I now ride what some refer to as a “low step” or a “step through” bike. For me, it’s what many of us grew up knowing as a woman’s bike. The design has made it a little easier for me to mount the bike. Otherwise, it’s much the same. Of course, I can’t go as far as I was once able to do. I’m certainly conscious of my limitations and I behave accordingly. Most of the time.
For the first year, I happily rode around Placentia. It was just a thrill to be back on my bike. Although, with all earnestness, I would look with stars in my eyes at the hills leading out of town. One day.
A Step Further
The first bike I’d bought was essentially what’d be referred to as a “comfort” bike. It had seven speeds and so, I couldn’t really dream of ascending any hill. Still, I was haunted by the sight of those hills every day I rode by them. They beckoned me. Surely, if I had a bike with more speeds, it’d be possible.
And so, after a little hemming and hawing, my new 21 speed bike arrived. After my first ride, I knew it was a match made in heaven. Every morning, at around 6 o’clock, I’d suit up and go for about a 40 minute ride, up the hill I dreamed of climbing.
Like many, though, as soon as one reaches a plateau, others lure us from above. I can’t help wanting to stretch further, straining to go a bit higher and a little longer. While I may have more limitations than your average cyclist, invariably, I’ll try to do as much as I can.
Passion for the Pedals
It’s the love of biking that keeps us going. Many people around the world would nod their heads in silent and solemn agreement. We are all steadfast in our membership to that group of people who share a love of bicycling.
If you check online, there’s one thing that comes up, time and time again—freedom. To me, I love being able to go someplace, knowing I did so solely by virtue of me and my bike. Am I overstating it by saying there’s something almost holy about the bond between a people and their bikes. I remember reading online how someone felt when their bike was stolen. I could only lower my head, acknowledging a similar feeling when the same thing was done to my bike. It’s like a part of me was stolen.
Our relationship with our bikes is certainly a deep one. But there are other reasons people may feel inclined to renew their relationship with their bikes. Some may just wish to get a little more exercise. Others may simply want to be in a world free of cars. It doesn’t mean necessarily getting rid of our cars if there’s too much of a need for one in our lives. Still, there’s room for improvement. Step on the pedal rather than the gas.
I’ll be forever grateful that biking has reignited in my heart. I acknowledge the existence of MS in my life as something over which I have little control. But I can control how I deal with it. So, for as long as I can, I’ll always seek to cherish and kindle my love for my dearest beloved bike.