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VN Archives: Winter survival skills with Michael Barry

When I was a kid, I'd ride my fixie on snow and ice to get to hockey practice. Those skills came in later when I was riding the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix.

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At the Back was a column in every VeloNews magazine for decades. It was a place where riders and staff writers would share personal stories in their own voice. This year, we are going to be running an At the Back column every week for members to enjoy. In this piece from April 24, 2006, Michael Barry describes how growing up riding in Canada helped him in his pro career.

When I was eight, I began riding through Toronto, back and forth to school, to and from my friends’ houses, and through the city’s extensive parks. Until I mastered riding the lap around our neighborhood, my parents confined me to our block because they were afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle the dangers of busy streets.

Once released, I was finally able to race around town. I learned to balance my bike, test my speed on the hills, jump curbs and negotiate traffic without even knowing these were skills I’d need 20 years later when I was tumbling over the cobblestones at Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders.

Also read: At the Back – All in on indoor racing

Throughout high school, commuting became my training. I was racing by then, and I was old enough to need some intensive workouts to be competitive. So each trip to school became a race — a race against the clock, against a bicycle courier, against the traffic. I sprinted out of traffic-light stops as soon as the lights turned green, trying to beat the cars that had stopped alongside me on red.

When winter blew in, and I knew that I’d rarely be training on my road or cyclocross bike, I’d keep fit by playing hockey. But even when the streets were heavy with snow or slick with ice, I was on my fixed-wheel bike riding to the rink, hockey stick strapped to the top tube, skates, gloves, and puck stuffed in my backpack.

One morning, the ice on my bedroom windows was so thick I knew it’d be a frigid ride to school. The sun was not yet up and I was scheduled to take an exam at the University of Toronto at 7:30 a.m.

It was a 20-minute ride to the city-center gym where I was due to take the exam. I figured I could leave home five minutes before 7 and be there with enough time to thaw out before sitting down for the test.

I was wrong. That morning was minus 20 degrees Celsius (4 degrees below zero Fahrenheit), and it took more than 10 minutes to warm my hands before they would function well enough to control a pen. I sat at the table, an exam paper in front of me, watching the clock tick by as I blew on my hands to get their feeling back.

These days, I spend my cycling seasons in the warmth of Gerona, Spain. My Discovery Channel teammate George Hincapie lives there, too, and when we head out on training rides from the congested city center, I can see his skills in the traffic. George grew up riding in New York City and is comfortable on his bike in a mess of honking, fuming cars.

At races, we spend our time weaving through the peloton and race caravan on the tight, sinuous European roads. We use our street-smart riding skills to make a living. I believe that, like a kid at a sandlot swinging at softball pitches or like a would-be hockey player on a frozen pond taking slapshots into an empty net, it’s best to learn a sport away from the arena.

Even the occasional crash can’t change the way I feel about riding. This month’s Tour of Flanders was a tough race. I crashed heavily and broke three vertebrae. Still, the doctor says I’ll be on my bike in three weeks, and I’m looking forward to getting back into action with my teammates. We all crash; it’s part of the game. But as soon as I am off my bike, all I can think about is getting back on.

April 2006 cover of VeloNews
This piece was originally published in VeloNews on April 24, 2006.

Alone or with a group of friends I used to ride for hours, never thinking about the time I was logging on my bike or how much my mom was worrying at home because it was dark, dinner was cold, and I had a backpack full of homework to do. I didn’t ride for competition, but for fun. It was just a game among friends that filled my childhood.

On my bike, I learned about different cultures as I pedaled through the diverse neighborhoods of multicultural Toronto. I discovered alleys, jumps, parks, restaurants, and cafés few other kids in my class knew existed in the city of five million people.

Now, after having raced through the Alps and trained in the Pyrénées, one of my favorite rides remains the same. It’s to pedal through Toronto in the early morning and see the city come alive — the shopkeepers sweeping their front steps, people pulling out of their driveways on their way to work, others funneling into the subway stations on their morning commute.

The other ride I enjoy is the one home after a late night in the heart of the city. The streets that were so full by day become quiet and wide-open, an avenue for me to pedal home silently and alone in the falling snow or to race the clock and beat my previous record. To me, beyond the classic races and interminable training, the bike still remains what it was to me in childhood: an inspiring source of simple, healthy fun.