1982 was the year the cycling world opened its door to me or it was the year that I found it. I was in grade nine and had slowly been getting into cycling after competitive swimming came to an end and I was intrigued by bike racing. Growing up in St. Albert I got to see the annual Velo City road race fly past our door on Sir Winston Churchill Boulevard. The sound of the spinning cassettes was mesmerizing as the peleton would cruise past our condominium in Grandin Place. I had a bmx bike which was quickly replaced with a nishiki road bike.
In 1982 my brother Keith and I starting riding together and we would ride longer distances from St. Albert to Edmonton to go see the Edmonton Drillers (soccer club) play (that was a good ride for a 13 year old at the time) and later that year in the Summer we did a bike Tour from Jasper to Blue River. Every day I rode I felt free and would explore roads around St. Albert which were mostly rural at the time. You needed to be quick in those days as local acreages were not fenced and dogs would chase you. The silca frame pumps came in handy to fend off local mutts and they were just the right length for whacking canines on the nose. Big Lake road was a particularly favourite route to ride.
Eventually I found my way to High Country Sports on 124 st in Edmonton. This was the original store that was in an old house and staffed with an eclectic group of mechanics and local frame builder Brad Proctor. At the time I think I was an annoyance for the owner Robert “Bob” Townsend as I would just hang out in the store mesmerized at the displays, the smell of grease and kerosine, the frames and the constant stream of local riders and racers frequenting the store. Bob was a character. Generous, super tall, thin, bearded like a folk singer and he had an infectious smile. To Bob’s credit High Country was the folky western version of the LBS (local bike store) on the north side of the river and was the rival to Velocity Sports that was run by the Zombar family in the Capilano area. Both stores supported grassroots cycling and were extremely important in supporting local clubs and racing. In Calgary the same would be said for Vitus sports and I.C.C. which were the main racing stores in YYC.
Each store was aligned with a club. High Country supported the Edmonton Road and Track Club and Velocity supported its namesake club. These were rival stores that really fueled the local scene. The world of cycling was different then as the LBS that was stocked with race bikes was a community hub and hang out. Cycling was a minority sport influenced mostly by working class European immigrants from the 60’s and 70’s. That Euro mystique created an aura around the sport which for me that was quite magical. Today we see a very different influence.
Eventually, and after many annoying visits and overstaying my welcome well past an expiry date, Bob realized that he wasn’t getting rid of me. Looking back this was like being the student patiently waiting for the potential mentor to welcome him into the fold after proving himself worthy of the attention. Not even the comments from the High Country wheelbuilder (crazy looking guy with a long beard and a name long lost to me) mentioning how annoying I was would make me leave. I was infatuated with the bike shop. One day Bob presented me a potential deal and offered to sell (super cheap) a bike frame that had no decalling and was of eastern european origins, along with a mix of parts and some tubular wheels. The price was next to nothing and my father agreed to pay for it. In some ways Bob was pretty smart because I learned quickly that by bringing family members to the store that High Country would get new customers and I would get good deals. Next, Bob asked me if I would like to race and then put me in touch with my first cycling coach and sadly one of my last until recently.
Robert Gilchrist was my first coach, he was very good and led by example.
Robert is pictured on the far right.
Robert was a strong rider, racer and no slouch. These were formative years and his coaching went beyond program setting. Robert’s Cycling 101 made you ride hard stuff on your road bike. Mountain bikes didn’t exist at the time and we would ride our road bikes down stuff that you probably wouldn’t do today. Robert’s idea of skill training was to ride your bike on rail road tracks, down staircases (the ones beside the High Level Bridge) in the Edmonton River Valley, on railroad rails (to see how long you could hold a straight line) and gravel roads. We would practice crashing in the Kinsmen soccer park (we would fall off the bike) and there was lots of bumping. All this came in handy and for the most part I managed to make it through most races without crashing. The greatest skill I learned which came in handy a few years later was bunny hopping. Robert taught us to bunny hop over riders and I remember executing this on a descent in the Gatineau park when a dozen riders crashed on the descent and I managed to get my bike up and over Peter Turbanerisch (sic)! Robert also taught us to love (hate) riding in foul weather which really nurtured the romance of the sport. Robert was quick to share old copies of Velo news with images of European pros caked in mud riding the Spring Classics. We rode a lot in the winter and in the rain and we rode really long long rides. I also remember Robert’s nutritional suggestion for ride snacks which was toast with jam and goat cheese or cream cheese.
On of the the best parts of Robert’s coaching was having us (juniors at the time) riding with seniors which accelerated our growth and skills. Along with Robert there was John Bryan, Brian Kenny, Brian Jolly, Paul Kozak, Peter Toth and many others who were also surrogate coaches, mentors and eventual competitors and who were all hard men on the road. Over the following years and as I grew I began to challenge my senior riders in local club races and quickly excelled mostly due to their help and willingness to ride with me and put up with me. As I got better my attitude, unfortunately, did not necessarily improve on the same track and my ego would quickly get the better of me on more than one occasion. I had results but I also burned some bridges which in a small world as it was then was not the best path.
Thirty years forward I am now entering my sixth season of racing after a long hiatus from the old days and I have gone back to working with a coach as well as coaching and volunteering as much as possible. My time racing a bike now exceeds my youth racing and I continually reflect on the efforts that were given to me as a young rider and at that time there was no cost to it. I sometimes took those efforts for granted then and I would say that I am trying to pay it back or “pay it forward.” I think deep down in all of us it is the natural progression as we mature to give back which is very rewarding.
Cycling was grassroots back in the day. Local shops were more involved and helped you as much as possible, clubs relied on the spirit of volunteerism and not so much on money to fuel the system. Attendance at races and club races along with club rosters was significant at that time. Cycling was mostly driven by the community. Not that I am saying it isn’t today but we are at a crossroads with parents more willing to pay for programming rather than being involved in the programs and professional events groups taking over more of the calendar.
I am thankful to have found form in the sport again and to be able to return some of what what was given.