The Great Canada Bicycle Tour 600k

Last December, Jim and Pete each forwarded me an email from Randonneurs Ontario in which they were gauging interest in a 600k ride from Windsor (near Detroit) to Hamilton, Ontario. I've ridden across some of this section of Ontario on my motorcycle years back, and it didn't strike me as particularly scenic. However, the ride was touted as an anniversary ride, commemorating an 1883 Chicago Wheelman tour. There were historic news articles that intrigued me, but I needed to figure out the logistics and expenses of this ride. I deferred making decisions until April, when I employed the "you only go around once" approach. I can overthink things sometimes. I registered, bought train tickets across Ontario, and made sleep arrangements in the Caesar's Casino in Windsor and at the control hotel in Goderich.

This was a spring 600k scheduled before the 400k I wanted to ride this year, but I felt capable after a hilly PA 200k, a quick-ish 300k, and plenty of other riding so far this year. Any last concerns were calmed by the relatively flat profile of the route and the likelihood that this was quite likely to be powered by the prevailing winds from the west. This was sure to be an easy ACP-sanctioned 600k. Once I got this ride behind me, I'd need to do some challenging rides to train for the hills of PBP.

Two riders (including the RBA) pre-rode the course the week before the ride in "cold temperatures...hours of rain, and 4 or 5 hail storms." Images of dirty and frozen derailleurs were circulated. The forecast was predicting a headwind. Anything could happen.

The Route. The Route.

I had prepared my motorcycle for another run into Canada. Last year, I purchased a bicycle rack to strap my bicycle, all of the required bags, and accessories to head to several rides. My justification was that this allows my wife to keep the car when I go out to play, but really, it's just a lot of fun. If a bicycle loaded with bags and fancy lighting doesn't start a conversation with the sports-inclined, this setup will engage the biker crowd. So, on the day before the ride, with a double layer of gloves and multiple layers of clothes, I crouched behind the plexiglass windshield of my loaded Honda and shivered down the road to the Thruway. The temperatures climbed as the morning progressed, and I crossed the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls in the late morning and shot up the QEW to the train station in Aldershot, just past Hamilton.

Within an hour or so, 26 bikes were loaded into a trailer in the station parking lot, and I left my motorcycle to fend for itself for a couple days. While waiting for the westbound train to arrive, I had the chance to meet a few of the other riders on the platform. The ride across Ontario on the VIA train was uneventful, allowing me to preview some of the landscape I'd be passing through. We rolled into Windsor a few hours later and met our bikes outside the train station. After checking into the Casino hotel I was sharing with Michael Henderson, we joined most of the other riders for a bite to eat a couple blocks away and then returned for an early bedtime.

Windsor to Kingsville

The start of the historic ride began in the riverside Great Western Park, whose name hearkens back to days when this would be considered "the west," which seemed appropriate for such a ride, conjuring up visions of ghosts of wheelmen mounting their high-wheelers with us. Ordinary men, yes, but the advances in bicycles and roads since then have given us such an upper hand that you must tip your cap to our predecessors' adventurous spirit and grit.

I've long since given up trying to start any ride fast. But, inevitably, most riders speed off to bank some time early. My engine is slow to warm, and it's best not to ask too much of sleepy legs, lungs, and heart too soon. Our work is cut out for us, and we're all playing a long game here. We weaved through Windsor and soon found ourselves on rural roads on the 30-mile leg to the second control in Kingsville.

At some point, I rode with Michael Charland, who was my planned roommate at the Goderich sleep stop. I commented on his beautiful custom bike, and he told me he had bought it used, so it was not custom for him. Even so, there's something about these bespoke machines' hand-painted look, attention to detail, and elegant componentry that you can't get in an off-the-shelf machine (even if you can, it doesn't honor the craftmanship of a handbuilt bicycle). Imagine my horror when I collided with him from behind at a light. There was no damage, just my embarrassment for not paying attention. I apologized and sheepishly continued. It's terrible to think about damaging someone's bike, especially one as nice as that, but even worse, contributing anything to diminishing another rider's chances of finishing. Sorry, roomie!

A few miles down the road, we encountered a group of three riders in a mini-paceline, and joined to form a group of five. It was perfect. No one was pulling too hard, and it looked like the ideal solution for a windy day. Finding a group I could ride with all day has always eluded me, but this seemed promising...and then, just a kilometer away from the Kingston control, one of the other riders and Michael collided, this time a little worse than our previous bump. A bent derailleur hanger for one, and reported bruising for Michael. I hung out to see if I could help, then soft-pedaled to the first Tim Horton's of the ride. This paceline group dissolved after that mishap.

Rapid work fixing this bent derailleur after a collision just before the first control. Rapid work fixing this bent derailleur after a collision just before the first control.

Kingsville to Blenheim - 47 miles of headwinds

Every region has local chains that recur in cue sheets as controls. It's Wawa or Sheetz in PA; Byrne Dairy or Speedway in CNY; and Canada loves Timmy Ho's. This one was surrounded by the bikes of the main group of riders, who were enjoying a leisurely morning meal. After I gobbled down a muffin and a cup of coffee, I stashed a breakfast bagel in the bag for later, then joined the peloton to grab a wheel or two. As the sun rose, the winds picked up, and a headwind tried to push us back to that Timmy Ho's for the next 100 miles.

The group employed a paceline to punch a hole through the air. I stuck with this group for about five miles before I sensed the pace was quickening past my comfort level. It was great to be pulled along on the leeward side of the line, almost effortlessly passing the windward riders until I reached the front, where I had to pump hard to get enough distance to safely cross over. With an oblique crosswind, the windward side only afforded protection once I was a few riders back.

A little shelter from the steady headwinds until the pace picked up. Fun while it lasted. A little shelter from the steady headwinds until the pace picked up. Fun while it lasted.

Each successive rotation through the paceline took its toll until I had to drop off the back. I soon found a new, sustainable rhythm, turned on my speaker, and played downloaded tunes from my phone. I scanned the horizon across Lake Erie for any sign of Cleveland. I knew it was due south of me, but all I could see was a hazy, featureless line between the water and the sky. A subset of the peloton waited at the end of a long dirt detour around a road construction area. I tried to rally and hold on to their wheel again but found that pace too much. For the next 20 miles, I passed lakeside drilling rigs, rows of power-generating windmills, and huge vegetable greenhouses until I arrived at the next control, riding solo.

Blenheim to St. Thomas - Daydreaming for 50+ miles

I again found some of the riders at another Tim Horton control in Blenheim. Wasting no time, I got my card signed, filled my bottles, and took off again, only stopping for another minute at a store to buy a package of cheap, cream-filled sandwich cookies to stuff in the bag. Beating into a headwind all day would drain my energy quickly if I didn't eat. Leaving Blenheim, the peloton and I again had a brief, unsuccessful encounter before they disappeared down the road without me.

I studied the route weeks before the ride to identify landmarks, stores, and points of interest. The road from Windsor to Fort Erie is called the Talbot Trail, and the most I could find out about it was that it was there. Usually, I can remember a little about any given part of a ride, but this exposed piece of road left little impression. My brain took a side excursion and occupied itself elsewhere, having set my legs to autopilot with instructions to wake it up when something interesting happened.

This is a part of randonneuring that I find very interesting and under-discussed. Hours and miles of road can go by with me only tangentially participating in their passage. I tell myself stories about myself, reliving old memories, imagining the future, or pondering some idea while only a little aware of the sweating, eating, drinking, and heavy breathing outside my head. Occasionally, I surface long enough to check the cue sheet and map to see if I've daydreamed myself past a turn. But there is little chance of it on this long, straight road, so the repetition of breathing, beating, and pedaling on Highway #3 pulls me back into that hypnotic state. I come out of the trance again briefly at an octagonal structure called the Crazy 8 Barn to eat the now-cool breakfast sandwich from two controls ago from my bag, sheltered from the wind by a tree line.

I arrived at the first turn for hours in the town of Shedden. I stopped at the Country Grocery to fill bottles and remove some layers. I like my clothes to sit under the food and tools I may need to access in my front bag, so I pulled everything out of the bag, rearranged it, and set off again, unaware that I'd left my bag of tools and spares on the ground. This, I realized, in London, 30 or 40 km later.

St. Thomas to London - Poor Jumbo

As I entered the city of St. Thomas, I passed under an elevated train bridge, before arriving at one of the tour's highlights, a statue of Jumbo the elephant, memorializing his death by a train when brought to town for a circus, just a few years before the ride we were reenacting. A few families and I took pictures of the statue because that's what you do when you see a figure like that.

Jumbo statue in St. Thomas. Jumbo statue in St. Thomas.

The control in St. Thomas was another Tim Horton's. I opted to jump over to the Subway next door and was hoping for a sub, but a large family in front of me ordered more sandwiches than I was willing to wait for. I got a signature, water, then I got out. I didn't want any more Timmy Hos. The RBA had done a pre-ride of this brevet the week before. His report recommended a pub on the north side of London for dinner, and I was looking forward to it.

The approach to London was uneventful and short, and I stopped at a downtown Tim Horton's to get a signature and discovered I had no tools beyond my multitool and no spares other than inner tubes. This season I had moved away from the wide, thin-walled tires I had used in previous years (which resulted in more flats than I cared for) and was using a more durable tire. Facing my mistake, I was glad for the switch. Even so, I felt I needed to acquire at least a pair of tire levers. The new tires used a wire bead, and I was wondering if I could mount them by hand without tools.

The streets near Victoria Park were closed to traffic for HockeyFest. I dismounted and walked through the crowds milling around the fenced-off street hockey games until it was safe to ride again. I noted signs in the park that announced that there would be a poutine festival there in a week or so. I like these sorts of distractions if they don't amount to severe delays. This one didn't, and it made for fun people watching.

Of course it is. Of course it is.

Leaving the park area, I came upon a family who was cycling home and struck up a conversation. I asked them if they knew of a hardware or department store nearby where I could buy some tire levers, after which the father went into the house and handed me a set, which set my mind a little more at ease.

In North London, I pedaled into the parking lot of the Waltzing Weasel, the pub I'd been dreaming about since St. Thomas. As I took off my helmet, a car pulled in behind me, and the driver handed me my cell phone, which apparently had leaped out of my bag when I wasn't looking, landing in the road. I was really being taken care of by the London crowd that day!

I sat at the bar and ordered a Coke, a salad, and a sandwich. While I rested and waited for my food, I looked out the window to see a small group of riders go by, working together. I'd taken almost no breaks all day, and I felt that a sit-down meal off the bike was a good idea, but after seeing that group go by, I started to feel impatient. I ordered another Coke, and waited what seemed to be forever for the food to arrive. When it did, I wolfed it down, quickly paid the bill, and got on the road again. It had been over an hour stopped.

London to Goderich - Night shift

As the sun went down, I passed through the villages of Lucan (which has an Irish bent on account of the infamous Donnellys), Exeter, and Bayfield. The route zigged and zagged through the regular grid system, which took me in every compass direction at some point during the night. Mostly, it was a tailwind, but I'd be frustrated by yet another turn into the wind occasionally. No one said brevets were the fastest way to get anywhere.

After the descent to Lake Huron and into Bayfield, the route climbed back away from the lake and seemed to subject me to little roller after roller for 15 miles until I reached the Bedford Hotel on the Town Square in Goderich. I parked my bike inside, grabbed some very burnt lasagna from the kitchen, and ate a couple of oranges before taking a quick shower and climbing into bed for about 3 hours of sleep.

Twilight time is the right time for farming. Twilight time is the right time for farming.

Goderich to Stratford - Winds and rain

The Stratford control was about 60 miles from the hotel, and it closed at noon. I set my alarm for 4:30 am, and it went off moments after I fell asleep, which was zero moments after my head hit the pillow. I dressed and went back into the kitchen for some oatmeal. Many of the riders were already eating and getting ready to leave. I left the hotel before most of them at 5 am, knowing they'd catch me soon enough. I had 7 hours to go 60 miles. No problem.

As soon as I climbed the first hill out of town, I realized this would be another day of headwinds. My sleepy mind drifted for a while before I realized I had missed a turn and climbed a hill into the wind for an extra 3 miles. The return trip was quick, but I didn't need those bonus miles. Still hungry, I pulled into a Circle K in Clinton and devoured a couple salty hash browns like it was the best food on earth.

A few riders had passed me on the road, some more while I was taking my bonus detour, and then I met Vitus and Nick after my convenience store potato snack. We rode together for a while, and their relaxed pace and conversation worked well for me. Nick had a bad back and needed to stop a few times to stretch. I remembered Vitus from last year's WNY Waterfalls 1200k, which I didn't ride, but helped support.

While riding with them, the skies darkened, and I put on my rain jacket just as the rain started to fall. I didn't remember a forecast for a cold shower before setting out, and I knew some of the riders didn't bring any rain gear, but I was glad to have a jacket, a wool cap, and gloves. A few close-by lightning strikes and thunderclaps added to the drama. I arrived at the Stratford control with just 30 minutes to spare.

Hydrating the hard way. Hydrating the hard way.

Stratford to Brantford - Caffeine and adrenaline

I grabbed some fast food at Popeye's in Stratford and probably overate on the fatty foods. It tasted awfully good going down but didn't sit well in my gut for the rest of the ride. I started feeling very tired and worried that the sleepiness, intermittent rain, and cold would cause me trouble, so I stopped at a grocery store in Tavistock and purchased some caffeine pills. Within a half hour, I was awake again.

The second day was the hillier day of the two, and the east winds were not letting up. It felt like there was a bowling ball in my stomach as I bounced down the scenic Blenheim Rd. and then turned straight into a wall of wind until I got to the tiny town of Paris (London and Paris on this trip!) and crossed the Grand River. The sun was popping out again, and I had to stop and strip off my rain layers. Unfortunately, I was starting to realize that I would be cutting the last two controls close. I wasn't making the time I had hoped I would, and I began to feel panicky that I wouldn't make the time cut.

Even a minute gap between riders can be isolating when riding these rides. Even though there could be another randonneur just over the next hill or around the next curve, I can feel like the last rider. Everyone else must be way ahead. I'd fallen too far back. I'm not going to finish. This was the head game that I'd played before. Today, it resulted in a shot of adrenaline instead of dragging me down. I huffed and puffed through Brantford until I reached yet another Tim Hortons surrounded by bikes and filled with randos. I was in and out before they even knew I was there. I wasn't feeling social and didn't know how long this temporary high would last.

Brantford to Aldershot - The escarpment and a twisty finish

The ride from the control to Niagara escarpment was longer than I expected. I later learned that the Toronto riders come to this area to ride Jerseyville Road to experience these hills. I repeatedly rose out of the saddle to get over each little crest.

The descent was a tame 500 ft drop on Wilson Rd through Ancaster Heights, a western suburb of Hamilton. I noted the Bruce Trail trailhead and a couple of pull-offs to visit waterfalls go by. The route weaved through city streets, skirted McMaster University, and through trendy Westdale before joining a waterfront trail. I would stop and tour these features if I had more time. I just wanted a straight shot to the finish, but there isn't one. Up, down, right, left, stop light, railroad track. Good grief.

I reached the train station and finished with 30 minutes left on the clock. The organizers congratulated us and I waited around to see who else would finish in time. A few more came in, including the group I watched go by while I ate dinner yesterday. I was sure they were ahead of me. A few fast riders waited for the last few minutes to slide in under the wire. I think they stopped for beers somewhere in town.

After a soda, I rode to a nearby cheap motel about a mile away. I stripped out of my lycra and layers, filled the tub with hot water, and soaked in it, falling asleep a couple times. I woke about an hour later, climbed in the bed, pulled the heaver blankets over me, and slept like the dead. The next morning I woke up, fell asleep, and repeated multiple times before rising and riding to the nearby Skyway Diner for a huge breakfast. An hour later, I had the bicycle disassembled and fastened onto the Nighthawk for the return trip to Ithaca.

randonneuring Randonneurs Ontario brevet Lake Huron Lake Erie Lake Ontario