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Illustration by Drew Shannon

Quebec is a special part of Canada, and a strong reminder of this comes when I go cycling on its rural roads, through small quiet towns with giant churches, depanneurs and fleurs-de-lis flags flying proudly. This uniqueness becomes even more apparent on and around the end of June.

I grew up in Ontario and must admit that while I was aware of la Fête Nationale, Quebec’s “pre-Canada day” holiday, it was impossible to fully appreciate the event until I lived in Quebec. There’s a positive vibe and energy everywhere. Fireworks! Parties! Fine food! The Saint-Jean-Baptiste weekend marks the start of the long lazy days of summer. One doesn’t have to be particularly nationalistic or religious to officially welcome summer a week earlier than the rest of Canada.

Many years ago, my wife’s parents made it a habit of visiting our growing family in Quebec during the province’s biggest long weekend. We made the most of it: grabbing poutine at our local casse-croûte, long walks along the water and falling asleep to the sounds of fireworks that seemed to go on for hours. Stoney, my father-in-law, got serious about cycling around that time, and he and I got into the habit of heading out on rides together. We got into a nice rhythm, planning new routes near his home in Ontario and at our home in southwestern Quebec, we’d figure out the best spots to pause for the view and grab a snack or refill water bottles. Each year the rides got longer, meandered further from our houses, but the rides always justified a cold beer and great meal upon return.

Longer rides were always in order around the Saint-Jean-Baptiste weekend when Stoney visited. It dawned on us that our routes were also becoming quite “saintly” – we rolled through towns named Saint-Eugène and Sainte-Anne-de-Prescott (both actually in Ontario, near the border with Quebec), Sainte-Justine-de-Newton, Sainte-Marthe, Saint Lazare ... It seemed fitting to officially baptize these longer trips, “the Rides of the Saints.”

Cycling provides a perfect pace for sightseeing, but also for long conversation and deep dives into the big questions of life. We took full advantage of this. While religion was never the main topic, the conversations over spinning spokes were certainly spiritual.

We also pretended to be birders on our bikes. “Oh, there’s a Cooper’s hawk over there,” (yeah, right), “What’s the difference again between a raven and crow?” We always dissected the cycling stats (“how’s our average speed today?”), tracked the conditions of the roads and debated important things such as the taste of Cliff Bars compared with other kinds of granola bars. We always agreed that cars from Quebec tended to give cyclists a wider berth than those with Ontario plates and that strong headwinds are wheel-y annoying. I learned a lot about my father-in-law on these rides, cycling helped cement our relationship.

Stoney died in 2018, and his loss is still felt. Stoney was my friend in addition to being my father-in-law. He offered me support, about my career or what it means to be a good father. He always gave advice that was direct, powerful and meaningful. He never lived with regret, envy or guilt. He lived a good life and continues to inspire me to live a good life.

Grief never ends, I’ve realized – it just changes. Grief hangs on, often catching you unawares. I miss my friend a lot and think of him often. Many have grief as a partner in their life, and the pandemic has brought such significant loss to so many. Hopefully, we can all find ways to connect with our lost loved ones. I continue to associate cycling with Stoney, and I often find myself talking out loud to him when I’m spinning through the small towns in rural Quebec.

Just before his death, Stoney talked about his love of cycling. He mentioned that death, to him, meant long, never-ending bike rides on his favourite roads. He talked of giving us a wave as he metaphorically rode past while we continued to live full and happy lives.

I keep doing the Ride of the Saints on the Saint-Jean-Baptiste weekend, without Stoney, but sometimes with other good friends who share a love of the open road and good conversation. We talk about a lot of things as we zip past those churches and flags, grabbing selfies at each town’s “Bienvenue” sign. We agree with Stoney that headwinds suck and Cliff Bars are weird.

Long weekends are a good time for taking a pause and reflecting on the important things, including those we love, even if they are no longer with us. Maybe you can join me on the 24th of June this year, for a ride with the saints or among the saints. We don’t have to be shoulder to shoulder to share the experience, we can connect in whatever way makes sense to you – but let’s be sure to wave at Stoney. He’ll be with us, gears clicking, wheels spinning and a smile on his face.

Chris Buddle lives in Hudson, Que.

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