Cycling in the city with Tom’s boy, Roy

Published on June 21, 2011
— Submitted Photo

“I was a fat kid,” says Roy Sandland, “I used to go out and try and do rides with dad. …”            There is no fat on Sandland’s lanky frame today. He turns 50 this year, and after a lifetime pedaling the hills of St. John’s, the six-foot-two Sandland resembles the caricatured Tour de France cyclist, Champion, of the award-winning animation “The Triplets of Belleville.”

Roy’s dad was a cycling enthusiast, too. Many will remember Tom Sandland from his daily bicycle commutes to work through the muscle-car clogged streets of ’70s and ’80s St. John’s. The elder Sandland was the strongest of a handful of voices who promoted the bicycle as a vehicle of fun, adventure and fitness, as well as a sensible alternative to the gas-eating North American iron most of us relied upon for our short daily commutes.

Tom Sandland fought for cyclists’ rights and begged the city council of the day to position storm drain gratings with the longer slots perpendicular to traffic flow, so they couldn’t trap the wheels of cyclists hugging the curb edges of the street. Once, Sandland even had to battle a suggestion that bicycle traffic should travel in the direction opposite motor vehicles.

Not that the senior Sandland was anti-auto. The Sandlands often travelled in comfort in the family Buick with dad at the wheel, but, as Roy says: “The car was something reserved for special occasions. … I don’t remember ever going for a drive with dad as a kid. We walked. I remember walking in order to go to the pool to go swimming, and you know, it was always a big expedition going down the street. We walked. That was it.”

Born at Broseley, England in 1927, Tom relied much more on his long, strong legs for getting around.

“Everybody cycles (in England),” says Roy. “Fuel prices have always been higher over there … the land is flatter … it’s just a way of life over there. Everybody cycles, it’s considered the norm.”

Roy is the youngest of four children born to Tom and his wife, Prince of Wales Collegiate teacher Merle Taylor. The St. John’s connection that eventually brought Sandland and the Cupids-born Taylor together was Tom’s sister, Nora, a war bride who settled with her husband, Wolf Hynes, on James Lane. Before Tom embarked on the journey of marriage and family, however, he decided to make a solitary trip across the entire breadth of this large and wonderful country — Victoria to St. John’s.

In 1953 the 27-year-old Brit, toughened by time served with the British army in India and Burma (now Myanmar), equipped himself with camping gear and made the 8,000-kilometre trip on his bicycle, of course, eating and sleeping in campgrounds and even on the roadside.

“Dad was always a bit of a wandering soul,” says Roy. “Dad would never do any travel with somebody else.”

After that bit of wandering, the elder Sandland went to work for Eaton’s on Water Street and settled into family life. He and Merle had two daughters, Helen and Ruth. Then the young family was off across the pond to Coventry, England where Tom worked as security at an auto assembly plant, and Barry and Roy were born. When Roy was nine, change was in the wind again.

“I remember the telegram arriving … telling of granddad’s death and it wasn’t too long after that. …”

The sudden, accidental death of Roy’s maternal grandfather, Lorenzo Taylor, precipitated a move back to Cabot Street in St. John’s. Soon the family was packing and taking all they could carry.

“I remember not being so excited about having to wear six pairs of underwear coming over on the plane … Mom had us wearing three pairs of pants, four jackets … same for all the kids. I’d be wearing my brother’s pants because I had three pairs of my own on underneath it!”

It took a while for Roy to adjust to life in St. John’s.

“I got beat up a few times for talking funny … Go to the store and ask for a ‘bag of crisps,’ you know … But we were on the nicer end of Cabot Street, we had very good neighbours.”

After a short time on Cabot, the Sandlands moved to Campbell Avenue, where they bought a corner store. Merle ran the store and Tom rode his bicycle to work at MUN, the Confederation Building, the Viking Building, and out to the new Motor Vehicle Registration Building in Mount Pearl.

Tom’s two-wheel travels were not confined to commuting to and from work. He was one of the founders of the St. John’s Cycling Club and regularly rode with them twice weekly, sometimes covering distances of 100 km or more. In his 40s, Tom ordered a custom-built bicycle back in England, flew over and cycled around solo for a couple of weeks.

While siblings Helen and Barry cycled competitively, the youngest Sandland was kept off the pedals by more serious issues than being “a fat kid.” Roy had a condition that weakened his spine, forcing him to wear supportive neck collars in his pre-teen years. Although he wasn’t involved in sports or competition, he wasn’t sheltered either. He camped in Newfoundland parks with his family, swam and canoed — sometimes with paddles, sometimes without. “The canoe would be tied on atop the old Buick LeSabre we had and we used to get up in the canoe and we’d be going around … on top of the car!”

Roy recalls one camping holiday at Terra Nova National park — that involved rigorous activities such as jumping off wharves, running through trees and carrying gear and firewood — that was cut short by the appearance of an RCMP officer.

“I was told, sit down over there and don’t move! Next thing you know he goes to the car and gets out this collar, and I’m getting a collar put back on my neck again.”

Doctors at the Janeway hospital had reviewed his X-rays and decided he was at risk of a spinal injury that could paralyze him, or even worse, and they wanted him admitted right away.

“Next thing you know we’re packing up the tent and going home … I remember being told, don’t sneeze, don’t lift anything, don’t do anything, just put the collar on!”

Back at the Janeway, Sandland, already fasting for his procedure, was not thrilled when he discovered the details. He was scheduled to be fitted with a medical device known as a halo — an apparatus that stabilizes the cervical spine by means of metal bars and a ring that immobilizes the skull. He stole two chocolate bars from another patient, wolfed them down and confronted the staff.

“I threw the two wrappers at the nurses and said I want to talk to my parents, and they went ballistic! One of them slapped me. I got her in trouble for that … So I didn’t get the surgery after that.”

The compromise was the application of a less restrictive immobilization apparatus for a much longer period of time. But eventually, Sandland was able to ride with his dad — 34 years his senior and still a formidable cyclist. Sandland reconstructed a conversation he once had with his dad while cycling up the crosstown from the Waterford Valley: 

“Dad! Your legs burning?”

“I got long pants on, why would my legs be burning?”

“No dad, lactic acid!” (in the leg muscles)

“I’ve only done 100k.”

Tom Sandland wrote about cycling, too. Recently, I read a little gem Tom published in 1983 to mark the 100th anniversary of the first Newfoundland cycling club. It is a compilation of news articles that trace the history of the bicycle in Newfoundland from 1869 to 1981 when Newfoundland cyclists were gearing up for the 1981 Canada games.

“Something About Bicycling in Newfoundland” (still available at ) is a who’s who of Newfoundland sports and cycling figures — including the Sandland kids, peppered with newsy tidbits and photographs that give historic context to many bicycle milestones and accounts of cycling parties pedaling out to the Royal Octagon Club and beyond.

“Something About Bicycling” begins with the tale of Heber Earle, who, fuelled by romance in the spring of 1869, leaped onto his 90-pound “velecopede” 5:30 one afternoon in St. John’s and, “although subject to several stoppages reached Long Pond, three and one-half miles beyond Topsail, at a few minutes past half past eight o’clock.”

Entries range from reports of a Quidi Vidi woman taking early morning rides on her bicycle wearing ghastly “bloomers” to talk of the possibility of a “three-foot cycle path” being built at the time street car tracks were being laid in St. John’s, to the 1935 cycling excursion of future

St. John’s mayor, John Murphy and two friends to Placentia — “A long road and a lot of punctures later, they made their destination.”

When Tom retired at 65 from Motor Vehicle Registration, he was presented with new rain gear that he wore on his second solo cross-Canada bicycle tour.

This Father’s Day, I had hoped to join Sandland and cycle one of his dad’s favourite routes, and try out the new blacktop bike lane on the crosstown, but he was whisked away to Halifax to be feted and presented with an award for saving the life of a fellow ski patroller.

Busy boy, Tom’s Roy.