With the temperature rising and the flowers budding, it's time to get outside and enjoy the weather, and there are few better ways to experience spring than on a bike. While powering a bike is a solitary activity, cycling doesn't need to be a lonely endeavour. In the western GTA, there are cycling club s for all levels, from the wobbly beginner to the speed-freak racer.
Gears bike shop in Port Credit has a learn-to-ride group open to both men and women on Saturday mornings and a women's-only group called Gear Girls.
Ira Kargel, co-owner of Gears bike shop, says it's important for newcomers to have a place where they can learn how to ride in groups.
“We specifically formed a women's-only group because we found that so many times a woman would come to our Saturday morning ride, which is definitely sold as a pretty intense ride, but couldn't keep up and just bailed on it,” she says. “We felt we were losing people and didn't want to. We want to be inclusive and have different levels of clubs and different types of rides.”
Kargel's number one tip for newbies is to find the right bike, which can be had for as little $400, she says.
“There is going to be a bike for you,” she says. “I'd recommend anybody going to buy a bike go into a bike store, to avoid a mass merchant “¦ and that's because a bike should fit you properly. There's a bike for everybody and all good bike shops will have professionals that will give you advice, and you really need to go to a professional to buy the right thing.”
Finding a good bike store in the area will become easier this spring when Gears opens a second location. The company, which started in a glorified shed in 1988 and now has a handsome store in Port Credit, is expanding with a second store in a huge space on Trafalgar Road in Oakville (scheduled to open at the end of March).
At Racer Sportif on Robinson Street in Oakville, there are also groups catering to those who are new to the sport. There's a slow ride on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as more advanced groups. The fastest-growing group, according to operator Frank Mizerski, is female riders. When the store first opened in 2007, five women signed up to ride. Mizerski now has a list of 160.
The groups for newcomers to the sport are important, he says, because there's etiquette and skills to pick up, and a lot of information to absorb.
“Groups are good places to learn how to gear properly, how to make proper signals, how to use the road,” says Mizerski. “A lot of things can be learned by riding with other people, because there's always someone who's had more hours on the bike than you have.”
While the stores are eager to include people who are just learning the sport, there are organizations dedicated to riders who have a bit more experience. The Mississauga Bicycle Racing Club is one of those.
They have two groups. One has an average speed of roughly 28 kilometres per hour and rides a maximum of 100 kilometres in a single ride. That's the slow group. The more difficult group has been known to ride as far as 130 kilometres at a time at about 31 kilometres per hour.
For those who think they can keep pace but have never ridden in groups before, the club does have a two-day learn-to-race course in the spring that teaches skills such as hill climbing, emergency braking, drinking water while riding, and how to ride in a two-line echelon.
Kevin Dagenais, who has been a member since 2004, relies on the MBRC to help him grow as a rider.
“The first big advantage is it makes an individual sport much more social,” he says. “If you're going to be on the road for four hours, it's nice to have someone to talk to. If you're riding by yourself, it's really easy to turn your bike around, but when you're with a group, for me, it's certainly a motivator. I'll seldom leave the group to go home.” There are other advantages to being a member of an official club, too, he says. It gives some oversight, and offers a set of rules understood and followed by all members to make the experience for everyone more enjoyable and safe. At the Oakville Cycling Club, there are three different levels, including one for people who appreciate a more relaxed pace. The next step up is the mid-pace group, for people who get out on their bikes about three times per week, and the fastest level is the brisk-pace group, which is comprised of hardcore riders.
The average age of riders at the OCC is 43, and there are 156 registered members. On weeknight rides, six to eight people generally show up. On the weekends, the groups grow to about 12 to 15, says Robert Narejko, president of the OCC.
Narejko, 51, started riding in 2000 in an effort to rebuild the muscles in his legs after he was hit by a car. He took to the roads in Burlington by himself in the beginning, on an old bike he'd had since university, and he was immediately taken by the feeling it gave him.
“It's at a human pace,” he says. “You feel the heat off the road, the sun on your face, or the rain, you smell the strawberries in the field. You're part of the world, instead of being in a car, scooting along in an air-conditioned space. It kind of connects you with the world.”
Eventually, once he realized he was hooked, Narejko bought himself a better bike and started meeting up with other people who regularly rode. That made riding even better.
“The big thing is the camaraderie,” he says. “You can easily ride your bike and chit chat with people. We usually ride two abreast and chat. The second thing would be the safety factor and the third thing would be a fun factor, who can get to the top of the hill first, who can get to the city limits sign first.”
Whether riding alone or joining a group, all the experts suggest getting a bike that fits properly and learning the rules of the road. Setting realistic goals was another tip. And the most important, perhaps, was to simply have fun.
“You're seeing life at a different pace, and you're getting so many physical benefits and a mental release,” says Mizerski. “Just get on your two wheels, with your two feet and a heartbeat, and you can go anywhere.”