Annual ride a familiar story, but every year there's a twist

Jack Knox, Times Colonist Published: Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Cops For Cancer grunted up one side of the Malahat yesterday and flew down the other, just like they do every autumn, and just like they don't.

This is the thing about the Tour de Rock: It's the same story every year, except when it isn't, which it never is.

That's because no one gets to ride twice. Every team is brand new, the same play with a completely different cast. Don't know how you convey that, though. Don't know how you take one of the most intense, meaningful, heartwrenching and positive experiences of the riders' lives and make it sound different from the rest, even though it is, every time.

They set out from Port Alice under a rainbow on Sept. 21, 20 riders working their way 1,000 kilometres down Island: Head shaves on the Port Hardy waterfront, past a couple of black bears near Port McNeill, a night on the rec centre floor in Sayward.

Some moments came out of the blue. CHEK News anchor Scott Fee, one of two media riders, didn't expect to find himself auctioning off a basket of sex toys in the Port Alice Legion. (Laugh? There wasn't a dry seat in the house.) The cops volunteering in the team support vehicles didn't expect to help nab a drunk driver en route to Tofino. Oak Bay's Larry Worock was almost impaled by a flying piece of metal spat out by a passing transport truck near Nanaimo.

That last bit highlights the inherent risk. Mounties Mike Chomekwich, Dan Cathro and Scott Rothermel all tasted asphalt this past week, as did Victoria cop Tom Barry. Tom, also known as Two Hun -- a reference to the fact that, at 200 years of age, he is the oldest rider -- actually broke his helmet in a crash in heavy rain near Union Bay. Won't stay down, though, is still on his bike. I hear Rocky Balboa wants his autograph.

The schools have been fun. The riders couldn't hear themselves think as Campbell River's École Phoenix gym pulsed with energy, a packed house on hand for a cyclists-vs.-teachers volleyball game. But you could hear a pin drop in Courtenay Elementary when little Colin Gardiner, perched on Comox Valley Mountie Pierre Vezina's shoulders, gave an eight-year-old's account of cancer treatment at B.C. Children's Hospital. Likewise, the Zone's Dylan Willows hushed another elementary school with the story of his own encounter with the disease.

This is why they're riding. The money raised through the tour goes to the Canadian Cancer Society, which funds pediatric cancer research and a summer camp for kids with a history of cancer. It's not a hard sell. Cancer is so pervasive, so cruel, that it takes on human characteristics in the mind, becomes a living, evil entity.

Indeed, on the very first day of the tour, one rider learned that a cancer-stricken relative, just five years old, had taken a bad turn. That night, another member of the group learned that someone who is dear to him was seriously ill with cancer. And quiet, sweet Lucie Tremblay -- there's a description not normally associated with the military police -- found herself thinking of her mother, who died in July, having developed diabetes after treatment for breast cancer. "It just all came back. That first day was very, very emotional."

Ask Lucie about special moments during the tour, and she talks of the riders who reached out to hold the hands of women who trembled as their heads were shaved. Ask someone else and you get another memory, maybe the roadside signs left on the steepest climbs, messages left by local tour supporters to inspire the riders. The simplest sign bore just one word: Hope -- a mantra to be repeated over and over with each revolution of the pedals. It's why they ride, why it's important to keep telling the same, different story, year after year.

© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008