Just a few years ago it seemed like a really big deal to travel my 10-minute commute to work through the streets of downtown Toronto on a bike.

And yet, this weekend I’ll begin a cycling ride all the way from Toronto to Montreal — something that had never before crossed my mind as a possibility.

The 11th annual Friends for Life Bike Rally, a fundraiser organized by and in support of Toronto People with AIDS Foundation (PWA), includes hundreds of riders and support crew and lasts six days.

Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that writing a travel piece before the trip is a bit unorthodox. But on this ride, the journey begins long in advance of the official departure date.

In preparation for the 600-kilometre ride to Montreal, there is a series of weekend training rides in and around Toronto. A first time rider could be forgiven for anticipating that these rides would be a necessary evil, but, for me at least, they’ve already become a huge highlight.

In short, the training rides cause you to rethink distance. On one of the first rides in April, you learn that it only takes about two or three hours to cycle a loop from Kennedy station out to the Toronto Zoo and back.

By May, you’re biking from Kennedy to Pickering, from Kipling to Oakville, and from Finch to Aurora.

In June and July, riders start to discover all sorts of hidden GTA gems. For example, most Torontonians have probably never even heard of Terra Cotta, let alone visited there.

This charming community in Caledon feels a bit like Brigadoon — a village locked in time. Nestled by a creek that winds through a ravine, Terra Cotta invites you to lie down in the grass and stay forever. (Of course, that sensation may have something to do with the huge hill you’ll have to conquer in order to escape.)

The ride from Kipling to Terra Cotta and back is 102 kilometres and takes about five or six hours (less for advanced cyclists) including a lunch break.

After a few of these rides, you realize that it’s possible to cycle over 100 kilometres a day quite comfortably, which is a big enough distance to get you almost anywhere in the Golden Horseshoe. By the end of a typical training ride you’ve cycled through urban, suburban, and rural areas, many of which you’d previously considered to be only accessible by car.

With the training behind us, we leave from Queen’s Park at 9 a.m. sharp this Sunday morning. It’s still hard to believe that by that night we’ll be in Port Hope, and by day two we’ll be in Napanee.

So what motivates people to do this? There are many different reasons to ride, explains co-chair Michael Cress, all of them legitimate. Some thrive on the physical challenge, others on the sheer fun of it.

When Cress started doing the ride eight years ago, it was “a great way to give back to PWA” for the support they’d given him when he became HIV positive.

“It had never crossed my mind that I’d be able to do that, to take back my life. Now I ride for the people that can’t, for the friends I’ve lost to AIDS,” says Cress.

Even while Cress carries that weight with him as he rides, he also emphasizes that “this is a great way to see Ontario. People in the small towns we pass through have come to expect us; they come out to cheer us on.”

And, as he puts it, the ride “makes it possible to expose people to the impossible,” whether that’s the prospect of living with a frightening disease or of biking further than you’ve ever biked before.

Donate online

• To sponsor Metro’s Chris Tindal for this year’s ride, visit bit.ly/bike09.
• To learn more about the ride, visit www.bikerally.org.

More details
• The ages of riders last year’s Friends for Life Bike Rally ranged from 17 to 65.
• The 2008 ride raised over $1 million for Toronto People with AIDS Foundation (PWA).
• PWA is the largest direct support service for people with HIV/AIDS in Canada.