It’s not easy being an independent musician in Canada. The pay is low. Tours are difficult because of the long distances. The wolves sometimes stalk you.
OK, that last one may only apply to one musician in Canada: Felipe Gomez, a Chilean-born bass player living in Saskatchewan who has, for the past several years, been riding a bicycle to gigs all across Canada. I mean that literally: He has crossed Canada with his instrument on his back, across tens of thousands of kilometres, stopping for tiny gigs all along the way, once even being paced by wolves.
I met Gomez last year while participating in a snowy group winter ride on a cold Saskatoon afternoon. I wasn’t sure what to make of him when he first pulled up beside me and started chatting, recounting some unbelievable road stories behind a big smile in his accented English. When he told me he had recently returned from a bike-and-bass tour, as he calls them, of the far north, I was skeptical. When he said that included riding his bike up the Dempster highway, and the associated ice bridges, to the Arctic coast in the middle of winter, I was tempted to just pull away from this deranged liar.
But his stories kept coming, and he won me over with his infectious positivity and photographic evidence.
Now, at a time when most Canadian musicians are parking the touring van for the winter, Gomez is finishing up a snowy 4,000 kilometre journey through northern Saskatchewan, where he performed gigs and spoke at high schools that rarely see travelling musicians, and never on bicycles. It’s safe to say that Gomez may be the world’s most accomplished winter-bicycle travelling bass player.
“I have done about 14,000 kilometres in Canada so far. Nunavut is the only place I haven’t cycled yet,” Gomez recently wrote to me in a Facebook message from who-knows-where in northern Saskatchewan. “I’ve learned that, in geography, Canadians all live in really different terrains, but at heart they are quite similar: They are all proud of their land, and often really generous with food and offers of places where I can stay.”
Epic bike rides in Canada are hardly rare, but Gomez seems to approach the entire experience differently. He’s not out to prove anything. Rather, he strikes me as a true explorer, with a desire to see as much of his adopted country as he can, and meet people along the way through his music.
Throughout his journeys, he’s adopted an inspiring mantra, which he recounts in speeches in school auditoriums between music gigs. He encourages kids to be unafraid of failure as a way of taking the kinds of risks that make life richer.
“I’ve learned that it is OK to fail at something, but fear can’t be the one thing that makes decisions for me,” he says.
He’s also become an advocate for winter cycling, in a different way than the extreme athletes who tend to undertake such epic trips.
He says his long, cold journeys started innocently, when he asked a friend in the bike industry if it was possible to travel on a northern ice road by bicycle. “I guess I was hoping for him to tell me that I was crazy and don’t do it,” he said. Instead, the friend gifted him with a bike and said he should try it. “Next thing I know, I am cycling the Dempster highway in -20 C with my bass.”
Indeed, it’s difficult to complain about a cold weekday commute when Gomez posts a smiling photo of himself in a stark winter landscape that is 200 cold kilometres from the nearest town, followed by smiling photos from such isolated places as Stoney Rapids and Uranium City, Sask. In the hands of someone else, such posts might come off as humblebrags. From Gomez, it feels like he’s actually reveling in the experience.
“I’ve learned that you don’t have to be ‘hardcore’ or ‘extreme’ to do this. All you need if you are on the city is to jump on the bike,” he says. “I’ve been in communities in northern parts of Canada where people bicycle ice roads to go to work, with no special gear or even fat-tire bikes, just normal bikes.
“After a 10 minutes ride to work in a cold refreshing day, I promise you that you will have a way better day.”
Gomez says the more he rides, and the more he sees of Canada, the more he wants to share his story. He has an event planned in his adopted home town of Saskatoon on Dec. 14, and more journeys lie ahead of him.
“I want to share the beauty of this country, and invite kids and youth to explore the outdoors and live and active life,” he says.