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Jack Knox: A fundraiser, yes, but Tour de Rock is also a human story

The Tour de Rock journey begins this weekend with cyclists riding the length of Vancouver Island

It’s not even 7 a.m. Saturday, yet the well-choreographed ballet has already begun.

Except this dance hasn’t been staged since 2019, and it’s not easy to remember all the moves. Which decal gets applied to which vehicle, and where do the bicycle pumps go? What about the chargers for the hand-held radios?

Dozens of people are milling about the parking lot in front of the Admiral’s Walk Thrifty Foods, preparing the convoy for its drive to the north end of Vancouver Island. That’s where a score of cyclists will today begin zig-zagging a two-week, 1,200-kilometre journey back to the capital.

Getting to this point has been a challenge. This might be the 25th edition of the Cops for Cancer Tour de Rock, but it’s the first full event since COVID. The past two years saw only scaled-back versions, with riders from past teams squeezing into their fading lycra to huff and puff around one-day legs of the route.

It would have been easy to let the annual event die. Every fundraiser has its shelf life and the pandemic pause could have provided this one with a natural expiration date. Longtime sponsors and key volunteers drifted away. The Canadian Cancer Society, its finances battered by COVID, had to close its Vancouver Island offices and cut staff across the country, leaving the riders and the Tour’s volunteer steering committee without the usual level of logistical support.

Yet the cause — childhood cancer — remains. So does the personal connection between the people who ride and back the Tour and those they help. For while the Tour de Rock might be a fundraiser — since 1998 it has raised $26 million for pediatric-cancer research and Camp Goodtimes, the Fraser Valley summer camp that has proven so precious to sick kids and their families — it’s also about that bond.

Nanaimo’s Simon Douthwaite knows that. A veteran of the 2019 team, he has been co-ordinating this year’s effort, a task he equates to restarting a seized engine. And as the father of a daughter who was diagnosed with leukemia just before her third birthday, he can attest to how uplifting it is to have the backing of the team and an island that has embraced the cause as its own.

“What I’ll never forget is the first time the Tour came to Chelsea’s school.” As the sirens of the team’s escort vehicles grew louder, so did the buzz in the gym. “You feel overwhelmed with support.” His daughter is 11 now and is attached to the team as an honorary rider. So are the children of several other Island families who have dealt with pediatric cancer.

Ultimately, this is a human story, one that is about fear and courage and loss and hope. That was illustrated in August when one of the riders, Saanich police officer Lindsay Nicholson, found out she had breast cancer.

Initially, it was thought to be terminal. “I was originally told that it was stage four, and that it was in my liver,” she says. A subsequent diagnosis was more optimistic.

She kept training with the team, just as she had since the spring. Hill nights on Tuesdays, speed night on Thursdays, long rides on Sundays — even a 130-kilometre grind one hot day. To stop would have felt like she was making a statement she didn’t want to make.

Having begun chemotherapy Sept. 8, she’s heading up-Island with the team, but isn’t sure how much riding she’ll do. “Chemo sucks the cardio out of you,” she says. She has to guard against getting run down. “You have to keep yourself healthy.” In any case, she’ll have to break away from the Tour de Rock, temporarily, in time for her next weekly chemo session in Victoria on Thursday.

She explained all this while standing in the Admiral’s Walk parking lot with her youngest child, only 1½ years old, in her arms. The eldest, who has just begun kindergarten, was wrapped around her leg.

Ten minutes later the nine-year Saanich police veteran was astride her bike, heading off with the rest of her team for their first, largely ceremonial, leg of the journey before the drive north. They were to spend Saturday night sleeping on the floor of Port Alice’s recreation centre. Tonight it will be Port McNeill. Monday will be the 140-kilometre slog to another gym floor in Sayward, punctuated by a potluck lunch provided by the people of tiny Woss.

Among those watching the cyclists depart was Michelle Purvis-Fuentes, who lost her two-year-old daughter Madrona to cancer in 2013, and whose sons Rafael Jr., 14, and Zenai, 6, have been honorary riders.

Purvis-Fuentes wanted to stress how important such people find the passion and support of those involved in the Tour de Rock. It’s good for mental health, for the healing process.

“It takes a village to raise everybody up,” she says. “It fills my heart and it heals my head.”

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