In the saddle

On a cloudy winter night, when the Durham forest is pitch black and covered in snow, a group of seven mountain bikers head out to traverse the one-foot-wide path. It takes them two hours, and they return home breathless but happy.

And for Tom Hanrahan, a Stouffville resident and one of the seven bikers, it’s the thrill that keeps him going. “I love mountain biking, be it as a form of exercise or stress relief. It’s a sport I pursue all through the year,” said the 48-year-old.

Stouffville's Tom Hanrahan

Tom has been cycling all his life. “Growing up in Unionville, I remember cycling to school. I even worked as a bicycle courier one summer. Mountain biking had just taken birth as a sport in California in the 1980s and was a natural progression for me. I took my bike off the road and onto the dirt.” The IT manager spends his days working and his evenings riding on two thick wheels.

“Mountain biking is different because it takes place off paved roads, mostly in forests and hills. That’s why mountain bikes have fatter tires. What I love most about the sport is the long endurance races. They cover 100 miles and go on for nine to ten hours at a time. I did four such races last summer.”

But for Tom, mountain biking is more about camaraderie than competition. “That’s why I fell in love with mountain biking in the first place. I’m not a 21-year-old trying to become a professional biker. These are friendly middle-aged men and women involved in a sport that’s much more social,” he said. While he rides four times a week in the summer, Canadian winters are hardly a deterrent.

“All it takes is a careful and slow-paced approach. Come winter time, I put on my big fat boots, double up on my socks, and mount one light on my helmet and another on my bike,” said Tom.

“In winter, we end up biking mostly at night because it gets dark so early. It can be a little eerie inside dense forests but it’s also thrilling and exciting. However, it is a balancing act and you can only bike about two and a half hours at a time because your hands and feet eventually get cold.” It wasn’t until a few years ago, however, that Tom discovered another aspect to the sport that gave him greater satisfaction.

“I decided to start giving back and became a member of the Durham Mountain Biking Association (DMBA), an advocacy group for local bikers. It has 450 members and the idea is to enhance the biking experience so we work hand in hand with local landowners to build and preserve trails. We also organize and participate in Earth Day clean ups and that too gives me a sense of accomplishment,” he explained, adding that mountain biking is to him what golfing and fishing is to some people. “I do give a lot of time to the sport but it’s what gets me excited.”

His wife Heather does complain “every once in a while” but Tom managed to find a temporary solution last summer. “She doesn’t share the same love for it but we got ourselves a tandem bike and so we can now ride together. We are looking forward to next summer so we can get on it more often.”

However, it isn’t always a smooth ride for Tom despite his years of practice. “Injuries do happen from time to time and I’ve broken a leg and a shoulder in the past. One also occasionally encounters porcupines and deer in the forest but they aren’t a real danger.”

From Whistler and Utah to California and Pennsylvania, Tom has navigated a wide variety of hills and forests and is nowhere close to stepping on the brakes. As he points out, “The older I get, the more fun I get out of it.”

by Kinjal Dagli-Shah

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