I identify as a late-onset cyclist. While I pedalled around the neighbourhood growing up, it wasn’t until later—at twenty-three when I purchased a used department store bike for a cool fifty bucks—that I fell head over heels in love with the sport. I paid another $15 for fenders, and $20 for a lock. With tax, the entire purchase rang up at nearly $100. As a university student working ten hours a week at minimum wage, that felt like a lot of money, but I figured it was worth it because the bike was red, and even then, I knew that the colour red undoubtably signified speed. Plus, I was dying to do something to relieve the monotony of my two-hour commute in transit to campus.
So that spring I started to incorporate a short bike ride as part of my longer daily commute. I discovered right away that I preferred the wind in my hair to the stuffy bus and Skytrain. I also realized that I didn’t have the appropriate clothing for riding through the West Coast of Canada’s rainy season (you’re telling me I have to purchase more gear? No way.) and so I often showed up to class trailing pools of grime, grateful the fenders at least prevented a nasty streak up my bum. It wasn’t until the following Christmas, which happened to be a couple weeks after my first knee surgery, that I finally upgraded to rain gear—a gift from my mother who got tired of greeting a soggy student for dinner.
The rain gear, funnily enough, is what really solidified my commitment to the bike. (Well, that and the surgeon’s advice to stay away from contact sports, advice which I did indeed heed until I discovered roller derby and blew out my other knee.) If I could stay dry, I reasoned, I could literally travel anywhere. So, I had a chat with my younger sister, Alisha, who was also on the final semester of her undergrad, and we hatched a plan to bike down the Pacific Coast to the tip of the Baja Peninsula once we graduated.
Adventure on a budget
We both had some things to do first, like earn enough money to upgrade our bikes and equip them for touring, plus learn a thing or two about bicycle maintenance. But essentially, we made the decision, picked a start date, and set off on the adventure of a lifetime. You can read more about our journey in my book, South Away: The Pacific Coast on Two Wheels (NeWest Press, 2019).
My challenges in those early days revolved around lack of personal finances and uncovering useful information. As a student with limited income, having to buy all this new gear kind of sucked. Many of my big-ticket items—from my rain gear to touring bike—were generously gifted by my parents. I purchased things like water bottles second-hand from the thrift store (cringe-worthy, I know), and dined on noodles and no-name products for weeks on end so that I could afford a set of waterproof panniers. During our trip down the coast, Alisha and I set precisely zero dollars aside for accommodation: we just didn’t have cash to spare after feeding ourselves and taking care of the few mechanicals that sprang up.
But I’m not complaining. Living on the road for cheap made the whole experience more of an adventure—a challenge to figure things out for ourselves. And as much as we hated to admit it, we always had the safety net of our parents to fall back on. Over the years, I’ve gained slightly more financial security, which has enabled me to do things I would have never thought possible, like hole up in a motel if it’s pouring rain, upgrade to a power meter, and purchase a full-price meal at restaurant that isn’t a Subway.
My other challenge, as I mentioned, came to information. Commuting seemed straightforward: you buy a crappy bike so that you can lock it and leave it without worrying about theft. I did undergo a rather painful lesson in how train tracks operate that had me coming into class scraped up and bleeding, and sometimes I got lost (I didn’t have a cell phone back then) and the people I asked for directions never seemed to know the bike routes. But over the course of a few weeks, I got the swing of the commuting thing.
Touring, not so easily.
I took out books from the library and asked family members—like my father, who had pedalled down the coast in the 1980s—about their own touring experiences. I read Crazy Guy on a Bike blog posts to get a general idea of what my bike was supposed to look like, and options for arranging my bags. But still, I had lingering questions:
What would it feel like to be out on the road, far from anywhere, on my own?
How difficult was it to find spots to stealth camp?
Would my worries of creepy men and gun-toting Americans keep me up at night?
How would my recently repaired ACL do after days of prolonged exercise?
These were questions I had to answer by doing, it turned out. I’m an experiential learner anyways: while I’m sure I could have read somewhere that you’re supposed to lube your chain every day or so, I waited more than a week until it made enough racket to wake the dead before I clued in. Other things that remained a mystery to me included tire wear (I just figured tires lasted forever), tire boots (American dollar bills work fine in a pinch), and the fact that chamois are not supposed to be paired with underpants (believe it or not, it took me seven years to figure this out—thank you Marj, my Saskatoon ride buddy, for finally enlightening me to the joys of going commando, among other things).
While I wasn’t the quickest learner, I experimented to figure out what worked for me. I felt no pressure to pull long days, ride a certain type of bike, or dress a particular style. For the first seven years, I opted for sneakers and t-shirts over cycling shoes or Lycra jerseys. I just wish someone had told me about the underwear thing sooner.
From Touring to Ultra racing
I discovered randonneur cycling in 2016 after a move to the Canadian Prairies. The crunch of post-graduate studies and work paired with a quest to cover longer distances over shorter periods of time is what lead to my first road bike, and the desire to head out onto the pavement—not for the purpose of getting to school or work or long-distance travel—just for the fun of it.
After years on a clunky commuters and touring bikes loaded down with gear, I was flat-out amazed by how speedy my carbon road bike was in comparison. It took me a while, admittedly, to adopt the shoes and pedals—an entire year of clipping in at spin class before I was ready to clip in outdoors—and then the utility of pockets eventually converted me from t-shirts to cycling jerseys. I was so impressed with my newfound speed, I signed up for the 2017 Trans Am Bike Race, a 6,800-kilometre self-supported race from Astoria, Oregon, to Yorktown, Virginia.
Like that first tour with my sister down the Pacific Coast, the Trans Am was journey of firsts—first time using digital navigation, sleeping in a bivvy sack, and, most significantly, participating in a bike race—but by the time I reached the finish in Yorktown, I was hooked on ultra-endurance cycling. I returned home to the Prairies with the aim to train more seriously and see if I could improve as a competitor.
That’s basically what I’ve been doing ever since. While I still enjoy touring or getting out with friends just for the fun of it, a significant amount of my time is devoted to the process of training. I love plotting out challenging routes and discovering if I can make it back before midnight; in the winter, I look forward to tough sessions on the indoor trainer—an excuse to blast my favourite guilty pleasure tracks or binge on Netflix. When events were put on hold during the summer of 2020, I headed out on my own self-supported adventures, balancing my desire to ride hard with the opportunity to explore lonely mountain roads and isolated idyllic lakes where I pitched camp. Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve learned that I enjoy competing against myself and my perceived limits just as much as I enjoy competing against others, and that I like spending time alone just as much as I like spending time with friends.
Just ride your bike
There are so many ways to ride a bike. I’m grateful that I’ve had an opportunity to discover just a few of them. While my focus has shifted from utilitarian to travel to competitive cycling, I think the underlying reasons why I hop on the saddle are the essential the same: freedom, discovery, and joy.
To anyone out there asking themselves the question, “Is this the right sport for me?” I encourage you to get creative, and pursue aspects of cycling that bring you pleasure, whether that’s discovery, camaraderie (or conversely, solitude), route-building, competition, thrills, or simply sneaking some exercise into your daily commute. There is no right answer, only what’s right for you at this moment in time. People in your life will likely offer unsolicited advice and/or try to deter you, but remember, it really is up to you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, pick people’s brains, or do things outside the box. You might find, as I did in my friend Marj, a voice that resonates with you. You might also find that you make some friends, experience different places, and learn something about yourself that you can apply outside the realm of cycling.
All the best on your adventures.
I love that Meaghan’s cycling journey started with a bike simply as a more effective form of transport, then turned in an inexpensive form of freedom and exploration. Sometimes we find what gives us joy completely by accident but it has the power to change the direction of our lives.
In the case of Meaghan, her direction has also taken her to complete the Trans Am Bike Race, The North Cape 4000 and Paris-Brest-Paris. She’s also the 2019 World 24 hour Time Trial champion and holds the women’s course record. She’s taken to long distance gravel riding over the last couple of years, achieving some pretty impressive times in this too.
You can find out more about Meaghan and her adventures by following her website and socials, or buying her book.