Would you bike your way across Canada? (Photo: Thinkstock)
With the winter wind whipping across the coasts and plains of North America, this seems like an odd time to plan a cross-country bike trip, but that’s just what Neil Neate did one cold and rainy winter day in British Colombia. He had received an invitation for a wedding the next fall on the east coast of Canada, and thought, “Well, why don’t I just bike the whole way.”
From July through September 2014, the 55 year-old cyclist, after only a couple of days of training, pedaled over 4,000 miles (6,461 kilometers to our Canadian friends) from the island of Victoria off Canada’s west coast to St. John’s, Newfoundland, off Canada’s east coast (yes, he took a couple ferries). He averaged almost 90 miles a day of riding for 46 days.
Neil Neate at the beginning of his cross-Canada biking journey in Victoria, British Columbia. (Courtesy: Neil Neate)
“I thought it would be a nice way to see my wonderful country,” he recalls blithely a couple years later.
What he learned on his journey taught him plenty about himself and his country, gave him an education on the merits of “slow travel” with insights coming in some surprising places — from Tim Horton’s restaurants to remote graveyards.
This was Neate’s west-to-east journey.
Like many North Americans in winter, Neil had also been suffering some family-induced cabin fever, with some “issues to sort out,” and a long solo ride seemed like a fine way to do some thinking. But as it happened, he found plenty of company on the road, from farmers giving directions (and an education in farming techniques), to fellow travelers and a host of hospitable proprietors of small-town roadside cafes.
Between the silence of his rides and the personable chatter at his stops, his pedal-powered mental cleansing process worked. As he told Yahoo: “As I free-wheeled down the Bow Valley Parkway into Calgary, I was riding out into fresh territory, the Prairies, with a clear mind and a happy, contented disposition. Words can’t express it adequately, how relieved I felt, riding free as a bird with a strong wind at my back.”
Hay there! (Courtesy: Neil Neate)
And then the flat tires hit. On his “ancient” steel-framed Diamondback bike (“nothing that anyone would want to steal”) he started to suffer a series of “blowouts of biblical proportions” due to the presence of stray car tire wire scraps coating the roads almost like a nearly invisible metallic summer snow. With the help of his own patch kit and tools, and a bike shop’s aid, he was able to cruise through the rest of his trip without a major mishap.
Another ongoing challenge on his journey was finding a flat, quiet place to pitch his tent. Aside from a few stops at friends’ houses, and one weekend when his wife flew in to join him in a hotel, he spent over a month of ad-hoc camping in sites including a field behind a Tim Horton’s, public parks, the inside of an unused circus tent(!), and even a series of graveyards (“they were always very peaceful”). The only time he ever had a hassle is when police came to a park at 2 a.m. to shoo away some skateboarders, and they thought his tent might be the result of young miscreants.
One of many camping sites for Neate. (Courtesy: Neil Neate)
Slow Travel Insights
So what does one think about on the road cruising along at 15-20 mph for 4,000 miles? Rocks, for one thing. Something a high-speed traveler will miss, overflying regions by plane, motoring through by car or train, is a visceral appreciation for geography. When you feel every bump of the road and grind up hill after hill, you become part of the terrain. Neil spent days studying roadside rock striations showing evidence of eons of continental formations. He stopped to appreciate shale fields, salt flats, and the small rock piles left by other travelers.
When Neil’s gaze left the road and looked upward, he spied migrating flocks of birds on their own long-distance commute, fellow travelers feeling the same effects of wind and weather that he was experiencing.
Buying home-made pie was from a tiny cabin was among the trip highlights. (Courtesy: Neil Neate)
But it was the people that served as the greatest topic of study on his long trip. Neil’s journey through the heart of Canada on small roads and byways enabled him to get insights into the fading lifestyles of Canadian culture. He raced a horse and buggy in Mennonite country, bought home-made pies from a Hutterite woman in a tiny cabin, and talked to loggers and farmers bemoaning the loss of their old livelihoods.
Even the ubiquitous fast-food chain of Tim Horton’s provided insights. While stopping in dozens of them for coffee and a doughnut (and some free Wi-Fi), Neil spoke with “just regular folk” across the country curious about his heavily packed bike outside, and finding out about their work, their lives, and their dreams of doing similar long-distance trips. “If there was one thing I could have done over about my trip, it would be riding 2.5 times as slow, if only to spend more time talking with the fine folk I met at Tim Horton’s.”
After 46 days on the road, what does a guy do to celebrate reaching Kilometer Zero after a 4,000-mile trek? Like Forrest Gump, Neil just turned around and started back the other way, biking another week and 470 miles back to Halifax. He had a wedding to attend, after all.
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