As he rides across Canada raising funds for youth leadership awareness and a national tandem bike event for disadvantaged young people, Derrick Shirley is overwhelmed by the support he’s receiving in big cities and small communities.
Leaving Vancouver on his 45th birthday last April 16, the motivational speaker and family counsellor plans to complete the exhausting 8,234 kilometre ride on Canada Day, July 1.
Last January, Shirley became the chief executive officer of the St. Thomas-based “It Takes 2 Youth Leadership Institute” established to develop exceptional youth leaders through partnerships and be the main destination and support resource for youth leadership in North America.
He said the tandem bike ride, a provincial relay across Canada with young people between the ages of 15 and 18 riding in front of police officers, is the organization’s signature event. He anticipates the first ride will take place next year once the organization has secured enough financial resources from individuals and corporate sponsors.
“Tandem riding is one of the most challenging and physically rewarding team sports,” said Shirley. “Teams must work together, develop trust and rely on each other for the duration of their ride – both on and off the bike.
“Police and youth around the world have faced off against each other in protests and day-to-day street interaction for decades, but police sponsored intervention programs often go unnoticed. With distances ranging from 75-130 km (45-80 miles) a day for four to five days, youth and officer teams will be challenged physically and mentally as they develop a lifelong bond and unique shared experience full of fun and enjoyment.”
As the organization’s leader, Shirley explained why it was imperative for him to cycle across Canada prior to the main tandem event.
“Before the young people embark on this historic ride, I needed to do it myself,” said Shirley, who is also the vice-president of the Port Stanley Village Association. “It’s one thing to say we can do this, but it’s another to say I did this and here are some of the challenges you might run into and this is how you need to motivate yourself.”
The ride is also personal for Shirley, as there was a time when he weighed almost 400 pounds.
In the last six years, he has trimmed his waistline by almost 200 pounds.
“This is the end of my weight loss journey,” he told Share during a stop in Toronto. “I just could not talk to young people about leadership and goal-setting if I could not attain that one goal in my life which was to lose weight and be fit. I would not have had any credibility if I didn’t want to do what was needed to reach a goal.”
Along the journey, Shirley has interacted with hundreds of young people and their parents to ascertain their concerns and goals.
“So far, what I have been hearing from the young people is that they want freedom and flexibility with guidelines and open lines of communication,” said the University of British Columbia and University of Calgary graduate. “From talking to the parents, I have discovered that the more active they are with their children, the more well-adjusted the child seems to be. They are more well-rounded and leaders.”
From Vancouver, Shirley cycled through the Rockies on the way to Lethbridge, Regina, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and Toronto, reaching speeds of up to 90 kilometres an hour with a favourable headwind. On some days, he rode almost 190 kilometres non-stop over a nine-hour period.
He said he relished the ride even though he seldom sees much of the country’s majestic beauty.
“The bike is set up in an aerodynamic position, so I keep my head low and I don’t get to see much of the terrain,” said Shirley, who recently signed up for the Subaru Ironman 70.3 Muskoka on September 8. “I see about 10 feet in front of me. The medians are not very wide so I really have to pay attention to where I am going. I don’t see that much of where I am going until there is wide shoulder or there is a bit of a tail wind that would allow me to straighten up and look around. It’s an interesting way to travel the country and what I am doing is tourism in its most raw form.”
The ride has not been without incident.
Shirley, who intends to cycle to work when it’s complete, suffered a nasty fall when he somersaulted over his bike near Lake Superior.
“I also fell about six times when my feet got caught up in the pedal,” he said.
With a camera as part of his travelling equipment, Shirley is compiling a documentary focussing on his interaction with young people and their parents. He intends to select the 50 top stories for a book, The Big Book of Wow! Discovering Exceptional Teens.
Born and raised in Regent Park, Shirley spent some time in Scarborough before his mother relocated to London, Ontario.
“I started to hang out with the wrong crowd when I was in high school and my mom decided to take me away from that environment,” he said.
Shirley makes his final stop at Signal Hill, which is a national historic site.
Sitting amidst the spectacular view of St. John’s Newfoundland and the sea, Signal Hill was the reception point of the first transatlantic wireless signal by Guglielmo Marconi in 1901 as well as the site of harbour defences for St. John’s from the 18th century to the Second World War.