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Michael Barry on the Donut Ride

36 years of one of the country's top weekend rides

In the church parking lot at the corner of Bayview and Broadway, a dozen cyclists huddle together chatting, stretching their quads, sipping on water bottles or resting their elbows on their brake hoods like professionals waiting for the start of a Tour stage. A kilometre away at a local cafe, dozens more cyclists gather and wait, munching on bagels and sipping coffees. They glance at their watches every few minutes knowing the group will leave at exactly 9 a.m. for the start of the Toronto Donut Ride.

This scenario has been the routine start of the ride for 36 years. Along the route, small groups of cyclists wait in parking lots or at intersections to join the growing peloton. Like a magnet attracting every bit of metal it comes close to, the group grows and becomes a mass of 100 or more riders barrelling north on Keele Street.

I was taught how to ride a bike properly on the Donut Ride, the biggest weekend ride in the country. The older riders showed me where to position myself in the group, how to hold my handlebars, maintain a steady tempo, follow a wheel, protect myself from the wind, rotate in an echelon and all of the other intricacies of cycling in a pack. They taught newcomers the etiquette of riding and those who didn’t follow after several sessions were kicked out.

Fortunately, my parents were members of several clubs over the years, so I grew up riding with many others. As a kid, when I wasn’t riding in the park with my parents, I rode with local clubs’ rides during the week and on the weekend. The rides were not only workouts, but also social outings. The veterans became my mentors; the elite riders, my heroes. There was a similar atmosphere on the Donut Ride.

There was always a jovial ambiance. We set off together, riding at a slow pace, chatting like men bellied up to a bar, escaping the daily routine for a few hours. As the kilometres ticked away the traffic lights became fewer, the pace picked up and we were out of the city, riding a paceline and sprinting for town signs-there was a feeling of freedom.

In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, group rides left from different neighbourhoods in central Toronto. There weren’t many sponsors, but there were a lot of volunteers and the cycling community was small and tightly knit. The passion for cycling came from the immigrant populations. Transplanted to the big city, riders formed clubs with a similar structure and culture that emulated those in their native countries.

In 1976, Roger Keiley and Barry Hastings were members of the Scarborough Cycling Club, run out of Siegi Koch’s bike shop. They started the Donut Ride as a Saturday-morning social gathering. Keiley, originally from Wales, who quickly immersed himself in Toronto’s cycling community, later became the leader of the ride. Initially, they met close to Keiley’s home at a donut shop near Donlands and O’Connor, but the heavy cigarette smoke drove them to meet at another shop a few kilometres away.

“With British military precision, the Saturday training would leave Just Donuts on Laird and Eglinton at nine in the morning,” says club member Brian Frank. “We would go up Bayview and turn west on Parkview and ride past bike-shop owner and club member Siegi’s house. Everyone would yell and holler for him to come and ride. The start at Laird and Eglinton was likely chosen because it was close to where Roger lived. Most of us lived north or east. Somehow the start place worked and everyone would ride down for a coffee and danish before the start. Back then, there were a dozen or so regulars. The route took us up Keele Street to a donut shop in King City and then across to Country Style at Woodbine and Highway 7; thus, the name the Donut Ride. It was the only ride that you could gain five pounds on.”

In 1990, the Korean family who owned Just Donuts took an interest in the ride. According to Keiley, the owner asked one Saturday if the cyclist could ride 100 miles. Keiley said yes. The owner then asked if he could ride 100 miles every day for 10 days. Keiley answered yes again. Finally, the owner asked if Keiley wanted to race in the Tour of Korea as the owner’s community had an invitation. After some fundraising by the Korean community, Keiley and three other Scarborough Cycling Club members were off to the competition.

The ride grew bigger every year and by the early 90s it had ballooned. I joined the ride in 1991, less than a year after a woman out with the group was hit by a truck. Although not responsible for the incident, the club members were sued by the woman’s insurance company. The ride became an informal gathering that was no longer affiliated with the Scarborough Cycling Club. Despite the tragedy, the ride continued. Even on bitterly cold winter days, and as long as the roads were dry, I knew someone would be out. When I wasn’t racing, the ride was part of my weekly training routine.

At the time, the loop was 125 km with fast and slow sections. Until riders reached the outer limits of the city, we rode two abreast at a pace that was slow enough to chat comfortably. Speeds gradually picked up, echelons formed and the group splintered. The final surge was a hard-fought sprint for the King City town sign.

The faster riders recovered at a slow speed so that the dropped riders could catch back up. Together, we rode east to Gramma’s Bakery in Oak Ridges for a coffee and pastry.

Along the route Keiley and other members would holler, “Ride the bike!” to walkers, joggers and motorists. That simple phrase captured the essence of the ride would become its slogan.

The group now meets on Saturdays, Sundays and statutory holidays. The Saturday ride is usually short and easy, and the Sunday route takes the group farther north on Jane Street, sometimes into the Holland Marsh and then east to Mount Albert. During the racing season, the Saturday ride is a good way to warm up for races that are usually held on Sundays in Ontario. In the off-season, or when there isn’t a race, the Sunday ride is a fast training session.

The city has grown and the route has changed to avoid increasing traffic and new stop lights. Rural dirt roads that ran through lush farm fields are now paved and four lanes wide. Chirping birds have been replaced by honking cars. Tractors pulling hay have been pushed out by dump trucks filled with rubble. Just Donuts is now a Great Canadian Bagel. The ride has continued, adapting to the environment and growing in numbers despite the obstacles, or perhaps, because of them. On open roads, we are perhaps safer in numbers. Although cyclists may cause each other to tumble when in a peloton, they are also slightly more shielded from the cars in a group.

The Donut Ride has played a key role in the development of many young cyclists. At 14, I was desperate to find a good group of stronger cyclists to learn from and who could push me to the next level. The ride was ideal because the starting point was a kilometre from my childhood home in Leaside and several of the top amateurs in the city were usually out with the group. For a young junior, riding alongside the best in the province, chatting with them, and then sprinting against them was an honour.

Several of those riders became friends, notably Darko Ficko, who not only won consistently at the provincial level but also at the national level. After I finished my day at school, we rode north of the city through the Holland Marsh together, returning at dusk. In the winter, he showed me how to life weights in the local gym. As I grew older, we became training partners and then teammates on the provincial team. Riders such as Ficko and Keiley coached young riders such as me informally. Many of those riders still go out with the Donut Ride. Sadly, some no longer. Gary Shaw, who welcomed me on my first Donut Rides and then became a good friend, Died suddenly this past August. Shaw was a keen ‘cross rider. When I was a teenager, on autumn weekdays evening, he led four or five of us around parks on our ‘cross bikes. It was not only training, but good fun. I know many others who shared equally wonderful moments with Shaw while out riding. He will be dearly missed by the community. The week following his death, a memorial ride was held by the Donut Riders.

Although the faces and the ambiance on the ride have changed over the years, the essence has stayed the same. At 9 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday, you can meet the Donut Ride, briefly escape from the city, get a good workout in, meet new people and experience something unique in Canadian cycling. For four hours, you’ll feel like a kid again and part of a supportive and dynamic cycling community.