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Touring the hard way

Carla Johnson will cycle the length of Vancouver Island as part of this year’s Cops for Cancer Tour de Rock.
Carla Johnson

Working at a radio station means Carla Johnson is usually behind the scenes at the Cops for Cancer Tour De Rock, but this year she’s decided to take a more hands-on approach.

The tour kicks off Saturday, Sept. 20 in Port Alice. The 24-member team, comprised of RCMP, municipal and military police and media riders, will be in Port Alberni on Friday, Sept. 26 before completing their 1,000-kilometre journey down Vancouver Island in Victoria on Friday, Oct. 3.

Luckily for Johnson, assistant program director for Island Radio in Nanaimo and Port Alberni, this isn’t her first time on a bike.

“I had cycled a bit; compared to the totally average person I probably cycled a bit more,” she said, though comparing her previous cycling to what she’s doing now,  it feels like she barely cycled at all before.

However, compared to some of this year’s participants she’s experienced.

“One of the officers from the Saanich police department hadn’t been on a bike since she was five years old so she learned how to ride a bike to do Tour De Rock. It blows my mind that she’s that committed.”

While most riders know how to ride a bicycle before they start training for the 1,000-km ride, that level of commitment is par for the course during an event that is so personal to so many of the participants.

In January of this year, two of Johnson’s family members were battling cancer.

“It felt quite personal for me, to feel like I was doing something to fight it.”

It’s involved more hours in Spandex and on a less than comfortable bike seat that Johnson ever imagined possible.

“Training has been great. It has been very, very challenging, it has been very time consuming but it has been really rewarding as well.”

The training began with two days of riding a week in March and ramped up to three days in April, which are split between hill training, speed drills and long rides.

Carla Johnson goes for a spin

While the training has been challenging, Johnson has loved seeing the progress she’s made.

“There are hills and distances that in March were a real challenge and now we’re going three times that far and now we’re riding up hills that are unbelievable to me,” she said, adding that those are hills that she “wouldn’t be that keen on walking up because they’re so steep and now we’re riding our bikes up them.”

Along with the hills getting steeper, the rides have also gotten longer. The riders started with a 30 km long ride and have worked their way up to 100 kms.

“Now [30kms] is more like what we would ride on a Tuesday or Thursday, on those shorter nights.”

Their longest ride took place on Aug. 24. The team cycled all the way across the southern end of the Island and back, from the Saanich police department to Jordan River and back, a distance of more than 150 kms. It’s longer than the longest day of the Tour de Rock and done as an attempt to mentally prepare the riders for what’s ahead. In that same vein, the riders conquered the road up to Mount Washington Alpine Resort in July, a harder hill than anything during the tour.

Hopefully, that means that the Hump into Port Alberni won’t tire Johnson out too much when she and the rest of the Tour de Rock riders will ride into town on Friday, Sept. 26, just in time for the Boston Pizza Family Fair Dinner from 6-8 p.m.

It’s not only the physical aspect that’s been challenging in the past several months.

“Physically it has been challenging but that’s all very structured and I have total faith in our trainers to get us to where we need to go,” Johnson said. “I think the challenging thing has been fundraising because I’m not used to or comfortable with asking people for money.”

It’s been made easier, however, by the incredible generosity of everyone who Johnson has seen throughout the course of her fundraising efforts.

Carla Johnson participates is dunked for charity

“I was at an event on  Canada Day and I just had bottled water by donation and there was a guy who gave us $100 which is so amazing and I never thought that I would see that.”

But both the most rewarding and challenging part of training for Tour de Rock has been interacting with the junior riders.

Junior riders are an integral part of the tour and serve as a visible reminder of what the ride across the Island is meant to achieve: to raise money for pediatric cancer research.

For Johnson one of the most impactful moments was getting to visit Camp Goodtimes, a summer camp for children and teens diagnosed with cancer.

The camp is designed to help them forget about the sometimes grim diagnoses they face and just be kids again.

“When we’re actually meeting with and learning about and spending time with kids who have been affected by cancer it’s pretty hard to hear,” she said. But seeing the children playing and having fun together really drives home the positive impact of Camp Goodtimes on children who don’t get to feel like every other kid very often.

“One of the really important things for the kids there is that everyone there has been through something very similar so they don’t feel weird, and if they have scars and things like that, there’s nobody to judge them because for all of the other kids there it’s no big deal [and] they completely understand.”

Two of the children who Johnson has met are her junior riders, Griffyn Dmytar, 3, and Lucas Wetklo, 6.

It’s been a long, difficult fight with cancer for both children. Griffyn was first diagnosed when he was just five days old and has battled the disease twice now and come out on top each time.

“The really wonderful thing now is that he is healthy now,” said Johnson, adding that looking at him now, you would never guess that he spent the majority of the first year of his life fighting cancer.

“He loves superheroes and he’s a fun and super special kid.”

Her other junior rider, Lucas Wetklo, has also battled cancer twice, the last time only a few months ago.

“He was at B.C. Children’s Hospital for quite a long time,” Johnson said. Typically, most children are treated where they live and only in the most serious cases are taken to B.C. Children’s Hospital full-time as Lucas was.

But despite the hardships that he’s just recently endured, Lucas’ good spirits and love of superheroes are still winning out.

“The more obscure the superhero the better for him, which is pretty cute,” said Johnston, adding that she thought she “was doing okay when I could name the ones that have had movies but he called me on that pretty quick.”

Since Tour de Rock started, prognoses for children like Dmytar and Wetklo have improved greatly, Johnson said.

“Childhood cancer survival rates used to be much lower and now, four in five kids who have cancer come out of it okay,” said Johnson.

“But of course, when that one in five is your child it’s not nearly good enough and I think that’s one of the most powerfully motivating things for us.”