Riding to save young lives

26 09 2011

For all the frustrations and insecurity of being a journalist in a post-literate world, we persevere because we love telling stories, we believe in what we’re doing. We love chasing a good story, sharing a great image. And every once in a while we get to merge our craft with our passion.

On Wednesday, I had the opportunity to spend my work day riding my bike with the Cops for Cancer Tour de Coast. It’s an annual nine-day ride by members of local police forces, border services and paramedics to raise money for paedeatric cancer research. I did a couple of training rides with them a few years ago, but this time I rode the first official day of their tour, an 80 km swath through the middle of Metro Vancouver. Add on the 23 km ride to get to the ride’s starting point, and it was also a good little training ride.

Here is the story I filed for the paper:

INSIDE THE TOUR DE COAST PELOTON – Bryson Davies’ first ride on a road bike lasted all of 17 seconds. By Thursday the Burnaby RCMP constable will have pedalled more than 900 kilometres in nine days in the Cops for Cancer Tour de Coast.

Davies is one of two officers from the Burnaby RCMP, and two from the New Westminster police department, riding in the peloton of 29 members of police departments from around Metro Vancouver, as well as Canadian Border Services and a contingent of paramedics, to raise money for paediatric cancer research.

The Tour de Coast, which kicked off last Wednesday at Scott Creek Middle School in Coquitlam, made stops at Burnaby North and South secondary schools as well as the Metrotown branch of Coast Capital Savings on its opening day, before heading to the Sunshine Coast, Powell River, Pemberton and Whistler. The tour returned to Greater Vancouver for its final leg, including stops at Burnaby RCMP on Monday and Honour House and the New Westminster police headquarters on Tuesday. It wraps up Thursday in Richmond and Vancouver.

The tour is sent off with a rousing reception for a field full of school kids.

Combined with similar tours in the north, Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley, the Cops for Cancer raised more than $2.4 million last year, making them the Canadian Cancer Society’s largest contributor to paediatric cancer research.

Getting ready for this year’s tour also helped Davies lose almost 30 pounds. But first he had to learn how to use the ski-binding like pedals that attach his feet to  his lithe aluminum Trek road bike.

Though he’s a member of the RCMP’s bike squad that uses mountain bikes to patrol Burnaby’s streets, back alleys and parks, he’d never been on a road bike before signing on to the Tour de Coast. Ten feet into his first training ride, he had trouble twisting his foot out of the pedal and tipped over right in front of his house.

“I was bleeding before my first minute on the bike,” says Davies. “I was worried about how much of a fool I was making of myself.”

Lara DeWitt of the New Westminster police department was equally inexperienced when her good friend and fellow officer Adam Spindor approached her about joining him on the tour.

Spindor has family members who survived cancer and he’d heard good things about the tour experience from fellow officers who participated in previous rides, but he knew his prospective teammate would be a tough sell. So he waited until DeWitt was in the middle of an overnight shift, when her resistance would be depleted.

“Before you say no, hear me out,” he prefaced his pitch.

A few weeks later they embarked on their first training ride together, a 25 kilometer loop out to Queensborough.

“I thought that was the be all and end all,” says DeWitt, who was also flummoxed by the pedals on her borrowed bike and survived a close encounter with a truck on her maiden ride. “I was sore in places I’d never been sore before.”

Cruising along. Participants have to be able to maintain a pace of 25-30 kmh.

Scheduling training rides around work shifts, family responsibilities and fundraising is a juggling act for most participants. To join the tour, each rider must raise at least $6,000.

“That’s where all the stress was,” says Davies, who held a family garage sale and a pub night to reach the goal. “Riding was the stress reliever.”

His teammate, Sergeant Stephan Brossard, says he wasn’t shy about using his rank on junior officers to extract donations. He also hosted a barbecue at the Burnaby RCMP headquarters, a 50/50 draw and a spinning marathon on a stationary bike at Lougheed Town Centre.

“Every weekend you’re doing something for fundraising,” says Brossard.

The hard work of training and fundraising behind them, the mood on the tour’s first day was buoyant. After setting off through a corridor of noise created by the entire student body of Scott Creek Middle School clapping together inflatable thunder sticks, the peloton took a circuitous route around Coquitlam’s Town Centre area, through Port Moody, then along the Barnet Highway to the day’s third stop at Burnaby North.

The group is escorted, and protected, by a flying squad of motorcycle officers led by Don Duncan of the Vancouver Police Department who keep traffic away from the peloton and block intersections to allow it to pass through unimpeded. With relatively few climbs on the day’s 80 km route, it’s easy to maintain the 25-30 km/h pace expected of the riders.

Lanes and intersections are cleared for us by a flying squad of motorcycle escorts.

As the lycra-clad cyclists swooped past the glowering giant steel viking that guards the entrance to Burnaby North and into the school’s driveway, they were greeting by the excited cheers of hundreds of students lining the curb and filling the plaza. Over the years, North has become a traditional stop for the tour, an honour and responsibility the students take seriously, said the student council president, Everest Shi.

The peloton shouts a thank you chant after a visit to one of three schools on the day's itinerary.

“We really enjoy doing this every year,” said Shi. “The students get really hyped.”

So much so, there was no shortage of volunteers allowing themselves to get wrapped up in duct tape to which students and staff would stick spare change as they walked the halls. Combined with a barbecue and an upcoming dodgeball tournament, the school hoped to contribute $1,000.

“You guys are amazing!” shouted “Amazing” Bob Lee, a paramedic with the BC Ambulance Service who gained his nickname with his ebullient enthusiasm

Forging connections with schools is especially important says Sue Woods, the manager of revenue development for the Canadian Cancer Society. The fund raising events organized by students help instill in them a sense of community and a visit from the peloton is a chance to promote a message of healthy activity, healthy eating choices and being smart in the sun.

“It’s about creating opportunity for kids to be involved,” says Woods.

It's not often you get the chance to ride into and out of a school gymnasium.

But more importantly it’s about helping kids overcome cancer, says Davies, a challenge that overshadows anything the riders face over the course of their nine-day tour. “It’s hard, but it’s well worth it.”

To learn more about the Tour, and to support a rider, go to http://www.copsforcancerbc.ca

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