On writing and mountain bike riding
Novelist Claire Humphrey on writing and mountain bike riding
The 2013 iteration of Paul’s Dirty Enduro was perhaps the “dirtiest” in the race’s 21-year run, and Claire Humphrey was poised to have her worst race result ever. The rain, which started falling the night before, turned the course at Ganaraska Forest near Port Hope, Ont. – about an hour and half northeast of Toronto – into a muddy mess of dirt and sand.
Humphrey, a member of Toronto’s Lapdogs Cycling Club, was competing in the 30-km category of the annual long-distance mountain bike race that doubles as a fundraising effort for mental-health awareness.
As the rain began to get heavier in the early afternoon, it became clear that most cyclists would be posting dnfs.
“A lot of people were pulled off because their brake pads were just expired and everybody was taking so long to finish it – especially the 100-km riders, they were not going to make the time cut off,” says Humphrey. “I was doing one of the shorter races, but everybody who was behind me was also pulled off.” In fact, of the 45 participants in the 100-km classification, only six completed the race.
But Humphrey prevailed, and race marshals let her finish the course because of a bittersweet connection to the event. The year prior, she was registered to race but had to pull out unexpectedly because her younger brother, Ted, passed away from cancer the same day. A year later, she returned to compete in his memory.
“That was an incredible experience,” Humphrey reflects. “I think I ended up being the No. 1 fundraiser in the history of the event because it’s one of those stories, and when you tell it, everybody understands and wants to be supportive.
“It was absolutely my worst performance in a ride and yet also the most memorable and the most powerful.”
These days, Humphrey finds less time for competitive races, but enjoys taking her bike out to do some gravel riding and hit the trails in and around the Greater Toronto Area: “I love Durham Forest; it’s really beautiful. Albion Hills is really convenient and the Hydrocut trails in Waterloo. Those are probably my favourites that are close by,” says the St. Catharines, Ont., native.
She currently rides a Trek Cali, purchased using the book advance she received for her first novel, 2016’s Spells ofbloodandkin. Humphrey, who has worked as a buyer for Indigo for almost 20 years, has also received acclaim for many of her short works of speculative fiction, which have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies.
Late last year, Spellsofblood andkin won the annual Sunburst Award for Adult Fiction in the fantasy genre. It explores the i nterwoven lives of contemporary Torontonians with elements of all things witchy and macabre, but grounded in relatable themes such as family and personal histories.
“Part of the impetus behind Spellsofblooda ndk in came from the experience of my brother actually – the one who passed away while I was at Paul’s Dirty Enduro,” she says. “He was a really conflicted person and had a pretty troubled relationship between what he wanted to be and what his ability let him be; he suffered a lot from anxiety and depression,” she continues. “There’s a dark underpinning to that, but the other part was also I always loved writing fantasy in particular because there are some tropes that are just really fun.”
Her next book – a work in progress – is a cyclingthemed story that follows a woman who restores boneshaker bicycles in an imagined 19th-century milieu. Although, Humphrey doesn’t do tons of city cycling (she lives within walking distance of her office), she finds that writing and riding are indeed cosy bedfellows. On a recent Lapdogs training camp to South Carolina, the 42-yearold spent time doing some pretty sweet trail riding, as well as tackling writing deadlines from her cabin – among the old-growth trees of Pisgah Forest – while the roadies were off on longer rides.
She lets her writerly considerations impress upon the landscapes experienced from the saddle: “One of the things I love about mountain biking, in particular, is you get out on these trails that you can’t really access any other way,” she says. “It’s a little bit metaphoric, but that’s what I feel like I want to do as a writer. I want to give people perspectives that they could only see through my eyes.”
“It was absolutely my worst performance in a ride and yet also the most memorable.”