During a four month contract at the MS Society, I had the incredible opportunity to interview eight incredible participants in the RONA MS Bike Tour. These are their stories.
The fifty-five kilometer ride can be difficult for some people. Everyone faces the challenge in their own way. Some train extensively for the weeks and months leading up to the ride. Others remember to keep hydrated and pack an array of protein shakes and energy drinks. While others accept that finishing isn’t the goal, but trying is success in itself. Alain faces the challenge a little differently. He faces it on rollerblades.
I meet Alain by Humber College’s skate track where he practices with an in-line skating club twice a week in the summer and three times a week in the winter. He stands by his truck, his French flag bellowing in the wind atop his antennae, wearing his MS Jersey. Born in Paris, France, Alain moved to Canada at a young age to become a juice canner. Here he met his wife, had his twins, and made a career at Molson Coors in quality assurance.
I pry about his job at the beer company and ask, “Do you drink beer?”
“Of course!” he answers in his cheerful thick accent.
“Do you drink Molson Coors?”
With the same passion, he responds, “Of course. Even competitors’ beer. You have to bench mark your competition to know how good you are!”
One likes Alain very soon after one meets him.
It was in Canada that Alain learned to skate. With the abundance of open rinks in Quebec, it was something he just had to try. Before long, it was one of his biggest passions. He took skating lessons “for hockey skating, not figure skating” and began to master all the tricks. The fact that one can cover longer distances and when one is tired can let go and still be moving doesn’t hurt either.
Alain started to blade for the MS Society in 2004 when the RONA MS Bike Tour was still the MS Bike and Inline Skating Tour. As an avid skater, he jumped on the opportunity to ride a longer distance with well-stocked check points. The tour in Niagara presented just that and he enjoyed it. Before long, he also had personal reasons to continue to skate to end MS.
“I had a chat with our friend’s daughter who is affected by MS,” Alain explains. “She was telling me a little bit more about some of the challenges. So I’m not ready to stop. Not when I know some people are struggling like that.”
When the tour started to focus on bikers, Alain was adamant that he continue to skate. I asked him if he could ride a bike and he casually replied, “Yeah. I have a bike at home. I like rollerblading. I’d rather rollerblade than bike. Why not?”
I press on and suggest it may be easier to rollerblade and he is equally adamant that it is not: “You can’t shift gears on skates. Especially the run in Toronto along the Humber river. It’s up and down. And some stretches of the asphalt are pretty rough. It’s like sand paper. You don’t feel that when you’re on a bike. You’ve got an air cushion. But when you’re on hard wheels, you feel every imperfection in the surface.”
However the added difficulty is no problem for Alain and the novelty of seeing him on his skate delights many of the bike participants.
“Not last year, but the year before… I had one girl come to me,” Alain recalls, “and she asked, ‘Was it you who rollerbladed that?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Oh God! Why?’ We spoke for about five minutes or so. Then she left. And she came back ten minutes later with somebody else and said, ‘That’s the guy!’” Alain was delighted.
At the start line, people see him and are always watching and wondering what he’s doing in a bike tour. But Alain is just standing, waiting for the go ahead. He points out that he likes to start closer to the back.
“It’s more about the joy of the ride?” I ask.
Defensively, he responds, “Well, I’m passing many bikers.”
As we wrap up the interview, I asked him if he’ll ever stop riding. Without hesitation, he responded, “I’ll do it as long as I can skate.” But then he paused and thought about it. Finally, he explained, “One year, I was really exhausted. I know that in about an hour… for me it’ll be over. But for people with MS, they have no finishing line.”