A charming story, from someone who had many more lessons to share on the beauty of a bicycle than I could ever have.
Ashe Soper lived for several months quite happily on a beach in B.C. Notice I used the word “on.” At the moment I hear this news—in a tone that suggests we have all intentionally done something similar—we are sitting at a table in Jimmmy’s Coffee, on Portland Street. Jimmy’s is an indie shop, where the atmosphere is inviting and the place has a family feel. I half expect my aunt and uncle to appear and order a pastry.
I should go back a bit. Ashe and I met because I placed a card on a bike one Sunday morning in early April. I had no idea whether I was interviewing a man or a woman, young or old. I only knew that this cyclist was enthusiastic by the tone in the email response. So here I sit across from a twenty-three-year-old powerhouse of passion and vision, wrapped in a pint-sized body. Ashe dresses androgynously, elbows out to handle circumstance, but with arms wide to greet humanity. As we chat, staff bring Ashe “the usual”, and customers share pleasantries as a normal part of entering and leaving the shop. This dynamic character is as much a fixture at Jimmy’s Coffee as the exposed brick, despite only having been employed here since November.
Our conversation is peppered with tangents on all the cool things that are happening in life right now. Ashe is extremely proud of a life being lived well. For example, there`s the purchase of a decent camera: Ashe has always wanted to be a photographer, and with the lifestyle improvement of a steady income, the equipment is now affordable.
When I ask about the bike, Ashe circles back to the card.
“Getting your card was good,” Ashe enthuses. “It encouraged me that I’m on the right track in life.” Ashe is busy setting life direction right now. Moving to Ontario from Newfoundland with family in 1998, Ashe thought the culture in the city—especially around Kensington Market—was enthralling. However, Ashe settled on Lansdowne Avenue. Originally, everyone in the circle of friends had bikes. Bikes make Parkdale, the Annex and Dupont all accessible. Borrowing a friend’s dad’s bike, Ashe lugged the heavy old thing with “big shocks” up and down the stairs to avoid theft.
A customer walks past at that moment and pats the shaved head affectionately. “Hey! How’s it going?” they ask. Ashe laughs, confiding in me, “I really like the direction my life is taking!”
“So you got sick of carrying the bike upstairs.” I prompt. “Right!” is the sparkly response. A neighbour was working in a perogie van, setting up in odd towns. Ashe would go along sometimes. “She makes the BEST perogies EVER!” Ashe tells me, as if this explains why you might like to go on such a madcap adventure. One day, they set up in a flea market in Curtis, Ontario. The weather was rainy and miserable. Just then, a big red truck pulled up beside them and started unloading a bike.
Wait. Back up again. One day months previous to the Curtis trip, Ashe was sitting on the couch with a friend; they were describing their ideal bikes. The make and model didn’t matter, but the size did.
“I’m okay with this,” Ashe confides, “but bikes are not.” The ideal bike had to fit short legs.
Back in Curtis. This bike came out of the red truck, and Ashe knew instantaneously that this was the bike. Now, in return for helping with the perogie stand, all Ashe received was well, perogies. This bike-craving person was flat broke. Regardless, the vendor was approached and asked how much.
“Sixty-five dollars,” he announced. “And it comes with extra tires.” Ashe’s heart started to race. Expecting to find something wrong with it, Ashe checked the frame for problems. The wheels were the only really awful part, but even they were still rideable. The vendor said the bike had not been ridden since the ’70s. When asked if it might go for a test ride, the vendor casually pumped up the tires and adjusted the seat. Riding off, Ashe realized this bike fit. Grinning at me Ashe tells me how there have been lots of other people’s bikes over the years, but this one? This was the bike.
“What kind of bike is it?” I ask. Ashe’s face clouds over with embarrassment.
“It’s a Bianchi,” Ashe states uncertainly. “Icy blue.” I say lots of people have that brand and love it, but actually, Ashe isn’t sure about correct pronunciation. I assure my friend that the pronunciation is bang on. Ashe goes back to beaming.
Ashe wanted to learn basic bike mechanics. “When it’s your own bike, you want to learn to fix it yourself.” In due time, Ashe bought Kevlar tires, which some claim are bulletproof, a little like Ashe.
One day, Ashe was at Cherry Beach, on the Toronto waterfront, with friends. After sleeping on the beach that hot summer night, Ashe decided to ride home to Innisfil, which is just south of Barrie. Ashe confides that this was the dream of a novice. Figuring the worst part would be getting through Toronto and its suburbs to Newmarket, the pair took a bus through this part. Disembarking, Ashe realized that drivers in Newmarket are not used to sharing the road with cyclists. “Yonge Street there is really ridiculous.” At Bradford, they made it up the big hill, but that was when the “really big hill” came in to view. Ashe’s dad got a phone call, to which he immediately responded, “I’m in the car.”
Now, Ashe is preparing to ride the Bianchi from Toronto to Innisfil, only this time to succeed. Ashe is doing four things to prepare, all of them remarkable—get new tires, train, eat good and quit smoking (for real this time).
I hope Health Canada reads this story: take up cycling as a way to quit smoking! One of the things Ashe does for training is hillwork. “It really kicks my ass!” And then Ashe beams again while describing the daily improvements noted in this training. I’ve watched people in gyms who weren’t half this determined. It’s very motivating.
Ashe goes back to being philosophical. “If you put out the energy, it comes back to you.” And then Ashe blurts out, “Can’t is such a fake word.” A person can do anything they want. Ashe describes everyday experiences as being directed by questions like “Is this helping me grow? Is it lifting me up?” I am moved when Ashe describes the joy in finding spiritual moments in the mundane.
We head out to the Bianchi, so I can get a picture of it.
“It really is a beautiful bike,” I say honestly. And as we shake hands, Ashe looks me straight in the eye.
“The real part of life is figuring out how to be with yourself. If you like yourself, then other people will like you, too.”
It’s also the case that if others admire a bike, they will almost always be drawn to the bike’s owner.