In honour of the opening of the Tour de France, I share my own close-up experience, an interview with Michael Barry, Jr., who graciously agreed to speak with me from his home in Girona, Spain. I was then and today remain honoured to have spoken with this remarkable athlete, this kind man. Oh, Canada! How I love you. You, and your cyclists.
It’s 9:59 a.m. and as I sign into Skype, my hands are shaking. I am about to speak with Michael Barry, Jr.—one of Toronto’s best-known sons—now living in Girona, Spain.
Michael is a professional road racing cyclist with the UCI ProTour team Team Sky, although he has also raced with the US Postal Service/Discovery Channel team and the Saturn Cycling Team. He also rode for T-Mobile for a year and enjoyed three years with HTC-Columbia. In 2010, Michael Barry was a member of Team Sky’s Tour de France team. The photograph on his blog exudes good-humoured camaraderie.
In 2005 he wrote Inside the Postal Bus, describing his experiences riding with Lance Armstrong. He co-authored a training book with his wife, Dede Demet Barry. Dede Demet Barry is an American cycle racer, a six time U.S. National champion, winner of two World Cup races and a silver medalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics. His third book, Le Metier, provides insights into the life of a support rider.
Michael is considered a support rider—a domestique, they call it—assisting team leaders to win races. I am reminded of Howard Chang’s group and their mission. Support riders. Mez’s team.
Michael has chosen to remain visually anonymous during the interview, so I can only hear his clear and candid voice. Luckily, I did a Google search beforehand, so I already have an answer to my first question, that Michael is thirty-five. None of my interviewees knows why I ask this, yet they all declare their age at once, as if it is the most natural question in the world. We are unashamed. Sadly, I can’t peer into Michael’s handsome face to get a sense of just how much younger he seems than his actual age. I must approach the question from another angle with him.
“Do you have any insight into this phenomenon, that every cyclist looks and acts younger than they are?” I ask.
He has. During the Atlanta Olympic Games, Michael roomed with Steve Bauer, who was “thirty-six or thirty-eight at the time,” and it impressed Michael that a veteran should come across as being youthful.
“On a bike, you feel like a kid … No matter how many kilometres you’ve ridden, there’s an element of taking you back to your first time on a bike … and it keeps you alive.”
And even though his wife has retired, they’ve realized that a bike is key in their lives and have both determined to continue riding for the ongoing benefits.
“A bike makes everything more at peace, more grounded … it’s easier to write, you’re more attentive … it’s all better when you’re on a bike.”
Even when injured, Michael rides. In Toronto once, he was recovering from a bad accident; riding from Yonge and Eglinton (where his parents live) to the U of T, and to his father’s shop, Michael was outdoors and interacting with the community and the city.
“It means something,” he says simply.
My heart is thumping loudly. Even Michael Barry, an elite athlete, is moved to state, emphatically and unprompted, all the advantages I have come to believe riding a bike offers.
“You must have ridden some pretty sweet bicycles,” I say. “Do you consider any of them special?”
The bikes Michael rides are the pinnacle of cycling equipment. None of us can aspire to bicycles like these, but when asked, Michael says he is most attached to the city bike his dad built him. It’s unique. In fact, all of the bikes his father’s built him over the years are important to him. He has a relationship of some kind with each one.
Whenever the father built a new bike for the young son, Michael would keep it in his room at night. He wanted it to be beside him when he awoke. Even the elite athlete feels something for certain bikes.
“This goes back to your first question,” he reminds me, “the liberty of riding as a child and the ability to learn new things.” Every time you get on a bike, you’re reminded of this. “Experiences on a bike are maturing and memorable. It’s unique from anything else. That’s what a bike gives you.”
Michael takes this idea further. “I ride every day and it’s an extension of my body,” he shares. “Through all that, you develop a unique relationship. When a bike is stolen, it is a great loss of liberty, and [a loss of] an extension of your body.”
“Tell me about your childhood,” I urge him.
He grew up in a cycling-intense environment and began racing very young. Michael doesn’t talk about that. Instead, he emphasizes that he’s always been “good friends” with his parents. His mother Clare commuted on a bike years before many others did, and she found it relieved her stress after a day at work. When Michael came along, she rode him around town in a bucket seat. The family discovered the world together on bikes. And “the nicest, most profound moments” with his wife were when they were cycling. “Our love grew while riding.” Last weekend, he and his wife took their two boys on a fifteen kilometre ride of discovery around the countryside.
“My best memories are with my family, on a bike,” Mike states simply.
Michael also has a great fondness for the city of Toronto. As a youth, he imagined the Sunnybrook hill, the Bayview Extension, and the hills north of the city as a climb in the Tour de France.
“All my dreams began there,” he declares.
I have defeated these hills and I know the sense of accomplishment you get as you leave the hill behind and catch your breath. It’s extraordinary. Not like a Tour de France maybe, but nonetheless a challenge worth accepting.
“My favourite ride is to go through the city on a bike,” Mike says. “You see how the city has grown and changed, how it smells and sounds. You can’t do that any other way.”
In high school, he read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. All the Toronto sites described in the book were places he knew from cycling past them. Sadly, his classmates hardly recognized the sites. He believes they drove past the sites regularly, but were oblivious.
Michael declares that he has “a completely different relationship with the environment” as a result of his bike.
“I haven’t been a Torontonian in fifteen years,” he adds, “but whenever I come back, it feels like home.”
“Do you have any particular bike stories you’d like to share?” I ask, certain I will hear something spectacular about the Tour de France. Yes he has, but it’s not what I expected. Michael wants to describe for me the end of a five-hour training ride. As he and his team member were completing the day’s training, riding through Girona—the town Michael now calls home—the teammate looked across at Michael and said, “Man, I could do this forever!” An elite athlete’s life is not easy. You compete ninety to a hundred days each year. There are “terrible injuries.” And yet, “you appreciate being able to just ride.”
“It’s the essence,” Michael explains. “Whether the ride is two kilometres or two hundred and fifty kilometres, at the end, I feel elated and refreshed.”
After our interview, I have a drive from Kingston to Toronto ahead of me. All I can think about is that Miss J is in the hatch. While my cycling abilities are very different from Michael’s, we have one thing in common: Toronto is my city, too and when my bike and I hit those streets this afternoon, it will feel very much like home.