Rob Buren

Rob Buren
Little did long-time cyclist Rob Buren know but that his morning ride on October 5, 2008 would change his life forever. In the blink of an eye, he went over the handlebars of his mountain bike – not something he hadn’t done several times before – but this time was different. He broke his spine at vertebrae T11, leaving him without feeling from the top of his abdominals down.
On his road to recovery, a road that involved great challenges physically, emotionally and financially, Rob decided that he wanted to be the first handcyclist to participate in The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation’s Ride To Conquer Cancer. A challenge for all Riders, The Ride To Conquer Cancer would take a herculean effort by Rob. He chronicled his extraordinary experience.
“Back in January, I signed up for the 200 km, two-day Ride to Conquer Cancer. I had only been home from rehab for a week, deep into home renovations, and didn’t own a hand cycle yet. But I knew that this was a great cause and that it would be a goal that I could focus on and would be proud to achieve.
“Within two weeks of registering, I had exceeded my (fundraising) goal. I had 36 donors and raised $4,271 for cancer research.
“On Day One, I woke around 5:30 and pulled into the CNE after 7. There I met Brian, an exceptional friend who I’ve known for 10 years. The miles that I’ve travelled with Brian over the past 10 years have been some of the most memorable in my life. Damian is a friend of mine through Brian. There was no lack of laughs amongst the three of us over the two days. They made sure I was taking care of myself and helped me with anything and everything. I’m so grateful for their support and encouragement throughout the training, the Ride and after. A fourth member of the crew was our good friend Craig, who was there with my wheelchair and our gear at the end of both days.
“Within the first hour of being at the starting line getting ready to go, the enormity of the event began to hit me. I learned that the yellow flags that Riders had on their bikes signified that the Rider was a cancer survivor. There were so many yellow flags on bikes! Over the course of the Ride, I got to know a few of these individuals and I was truly inspired by their stories. One woman told us that she was concerned that she might not be able to ride this year, as she just finished her chemo three months ago. I was surrounded by amazing people.
“We started riding a little after 9:00. All along the route, we were cheered and thanked by countless people standing on the side of the road, or at the end of their driveway where they had noisemakers, smiles, cameras (I think I must have had my picture taken by hundreds of strangers who had never seen a hand cycle before), and signs. One of the signs that impacted me the most read: ‘A Survivor Lives Here – Thank you for Riding.’ The amount of support that we all received was wonderful and certainly propelled us to carry on. Amidst the excitement, however, there were also sobering moments. I keep reflecting on a cyclist who passed us early in the Ride. He had a child’s seat attached to his bike and on the back was a small little sign that read, ‘I’m riding for my son.’ I like to think that his son is a survivor, but I don’t know. The thought that he’s not is too hard to imagine.
“Up and west of Mississauga, we found ourselves on the country roads that I trained on. I would often go for rides by myself, so being in a sea of yellow jerseys was fantastic. Through Milton and climbing up into Ancaster, we connected with a friend who we know from work. Barnaby, his wife Michelle and their son cheered us on and took pictures. At the top of the escarpment, between Ancaster and Hamilton, I was struck by the beauty of the countryside. The landscapes, farms and estates are postcard-worthy. We soaked it all in and then raced down the Ancaster Hill. Top speed was just over 70 kms. per hour before having to brake suddenly for a truck that pulled out. Speed equals fun, and my hand cycle loves to go down hills. I would regularly fly by a pack of riders going downhill, only to be passed by those same riders on the way up. Climbing hills with your arms is tough.
“Unfortunately, for every good downhill there is an equally difficult uphill, and the last 8 kms. of Day One were pretty much all uphill. The reward, however, was arriving at Mohawk College to a group of cheering people welcoming us into camp, followed by a few pints of some cold and delicious Steam Whistle beer. We strategically parked ourselves in front of the beer tent and recounted the events of the day. It was fantastic! The entire event was masterfully run and volunteers were a huge part of the success. Day One ended perfectly with (my wife) Sabrina joining us in Hamilton for a nice dinner, drinks and many more laughs.
“Arriving at the college from the hotel in Hamilton just before 8:00AM on Day Two, Brian took it upon himself to properly inflate all of our tires and we were off. The majority of riders had already left, but feeling great and averaging around 23 km/h, we quickly caught up to and passed a number of cyclists. Atop the escarpment heading towards Niagara, we could see Toronto across the lake. It was beautiful and the weather was perfect. Around 35 kms. into our ride, flying down a hill, I pulled the brake to slow down for a coming turn and heard my front wheel pop, followed by all the air hissing out. My front brake pad was out of alignment and had cut through the side wall of my tire, bursting the tube. Not being able to walk and not having my wheelchair poses a few challenges for me if I’m by myself in my hand cycle. Fortunately, Brian and Damian pushed me to the side of the road and just as we were figuring out the best way to fix the tire, a support van pulled up with two volunteers who replaced my tube and slipped some cardboard in between the tube and the tire to prevent the side wall from bulging and bursting again. All the while I sat comfortably in my seat. We cruised to the next stop, which was lunch, and as before, I sat in my hand cycle and ate a sandwich while another volunteer from Bay Cycle replaced my damaged tire with a brand new one. It was beautiful -- just like a racing car pitstop where wheels are replaced and fluids are topped up in a matter of seconds, we were on the road again in a matter of minutes.
“Into the back roads of St. Catherines, we were joined by my cousin Paul on his bicycle. I grew up riding bikes with Paul and it’s always good to get together again. I remember being 10 and riding the streets of Byron wearing his Dad’s old motorcycle helmets and giving each other thumbs up and high fives, trying to be cool like John and Ponch from CHIPs. Today, our bikes are more expensive and I’ve gone back to three wheels, but the feeling is the same, and it feels good.
“At the second to last pitstop, I called Sabrina to see where she was. She was just leaving home with my Mom and the girls. We had just 30 kms. to go to the finish line. We slowed the pace and enjoyed the views as we cycled into Niagara. Sabrina called me when they arrived and we cycled into a fantastic crowd of people cheering us into the finish. It was stimulation overload! I wanted to look at and thank everyone personally for all of the support and good wishes I received. Throughout the Ride, it seemed like every fifth rider had something positive to say to me as they passed, or as I passed them. There’s nothing like it -- it is so powerful. And all of this reached a peak at the finish line. WOW! I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry, so it worked out well -- I laughed while Sabrina cried! I feel so blessed to be surrounded by so much support. I’m making a mental note to remember this for those days when things are tough. How lucky was I to have a cheering section waiting for me? Not only were Sabrina, the girls and my Mom there to see me come in, but my sister Doralyn, my brother-in-law Brian and my nephews Keenan, Callum and Quinlan were there with posters and pompoms. So much love -- it was fantastic! Beer, pictures, burgers and more beer ended the perfect Ride. Countless people congratulated me on completing the Ride and many said that I inspired them.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to learn that others are motivated by your achievements. I smile with the thought that something good can came from how I’m responding to my injury. The thing that you may not know is that it’s reciprocal. The positive feedback I receive actually inspires me to continue on my journey, and I truly feel like the lucky one, so thank you!
“As for next year, I’ve already signed up to do the Ride again".
Reviewed: October 2013