Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour 2004: a road too far

If I lie down for a few minutes after any form of exertion (doing the dishes, moving a chair upstairs) I'm fine. But the day after doing the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour I'm still exhausted.

This was my fourth time doing the tour, but my first (and likely last) time doing the Challenge, the 225km route that takes you from Ottawa to Kingston via Lanark, then back the next day.

I really don’t know what I was thinking. It was indeed a road too far.

For the last two years, I have done the Classic route – 178km each way via Perth. It’s marked, there are organized rest stops, and tour support vehicles, including a mobile bike mechanic cruising the roads.

Last year, I was under-trained and I found the Classic route at times to be unpleasant. The last 60km stretch from Ashton back to Ottawa made me crazy. But for some reason, this year I thought I would do the longer route. “Push yourself, see how far you can go,” I reasoned. Hah.

This year I was much more religious about training. I got out at least a couple of times a week for increasingly long rides, often to the neglect of household chores. By the time the tour rolled around, not including commuting, I had racked up 976km of preparation. I was feeling strong and confident. Hah.

I was planning on riding alone, so I got to Carleton to register as soon as possible. By 6:40am I was on the road.

The Challenge route follows the regular route until just past Ashton. Your paths diverge at the aptly named Cemetery Road, though I didn’t actually notice a sign that said “Cemetery Road.” This would be a recurring theme.

I moved confidently all through the early morning. I felt strong and took advantage of flat or gentle downhills all the way to Almonte. I encountered only a few cyclists, none of whom were doing this route for the first time, which made for easier navigation. As in: stop, wait for them to catch me up and watch which way they go.

The tour map is fairly detailed, but would have been more helpful in the pre-amalgamation days. A lot of roads identified on the map by county road numbers now have names. And the township has zealously removed the old signs.

At Almonte I hooked up with Bob, who warned me that the extended portion of the Challenge route was, indeed challenging. Lots of short steep hills, curves and not a lot of places to get any momentum going. But I was still feeling invincible so I left him behind and said (not imagining this would happen) that I’d see him again when I ran out of energy.

Still, on I rode and I got to Lanark still feeling strong. I stopped for a banana. Good thing too. It was getting mighty ripe and was about to burst in my shirt pocket.

The sun shone although the air chilled my skin – perfect for riding. I pressed on toward Macdonalds Corners. The songs running through my head I picked up through lyrics that matched my thoughts.

Ryan Adams “Starting to hurt” (it’s a long way down, but I feel alright), Johnny Clegg “Into the future” (into the picture, I feel strong, I feel the river moving on) and excruiciatingly Tom Petty “I won’t back down” (Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out).

By Elphim I was indeed starting to hurt, so I stopped for lunch. My strategically designed sandwich was disgusting. Dry, chewy, awful. I drank an entire water bottle to wash it down.

As I was eating I watched another cyclist cruise by, swerving to avoid a truck intent on rolling the stop sign. That was Herb. We shared the next 29km or so through Maberly and back to the Classic route.

We chatted about unions – he’s a PSAC member who works at the Mint – politics and of course, cycling. He asked me where I trained and how much riding I do. I told him. He turned to me and said “you shouldn’t be out here today.”

Herb had done this route 17 times or so. He rides to work all year from Orleans to downtown and does club rides too. All in all he figured he’d put in about 5000km this season.

I stopped pedalling. My legs lost their energy. I fell back a few metres before regaining my composure. I pulled up even with Herb again and I said, “well, I’m out here, I might as well keep going.”

“Yeah,” he said. “There was a road back there that leads to Perth you could have used to bail but now the most painless way is to continue.”

I think Herb was bored and was willing to slow down for the company. He dropped me as soon as we rejoined the classic route.

Back on the Classic route I began to feel better. There are some long hills but they aren’t steep, and you can get momentum going and keep it for long stretches.

There is, however the matter of the crowds. This year’s RLCT was booked up solid. There were waiting lists. And County Road 10 was swarming with cyclists doing all kinds of things that creeped me out. You’re not supposed to have more than 12 in a pack, but some groups had easily twice that. I encountered some riding four abreast, climbing hills with a long line of cars waiting behind them. Annoying and dangerous, ignoring the signs asking cyclists to ride single file up the hills.

I ran into Rita and Reuben at Perth Road Village. They were doing the Century (100km from Perth to Kingston) for the first time. They’d done exactly one training run. But they were enjoying themselves, mountain bikes and all.

The kilometres into Kingston evaporated mercifully quickly, though the ruts and dents and bumps on Division Street rattled my bruised rib, causing me to yelp a couple of times.

After eight hours, 45 minutes travel time, 7:23 moving time, I stepped off the bike at Queens, amidst a swarm of lycra and blue cotton tour shirts.

I think my trip computer is a bit whacked, because it registered only 215km travelled while the club’s map says the route is actually 230. So if you believe it, my average speed was 29.1. If you believe the trip computer. If you believe the map and my time, my average was 31.15 km/h.

You spend a lot of time in line when you get to Kingston. You line up for your room keys. You line up to check in. You line up to pick up your luggage. You line up to get a shower. You line up to get dinner.

I was really tired, so I didn’t mind that much. Standing still was about my speed. I minded greatly that when I got to the showers there was no hot water. So I splashed off the worst of the grime and went to dinner.

At dinner I ran into Jane Inch from the canoe club and two of her pedalling compatriots. I had run into a couple of people who work for the same place I do, and my bike gear pusher Phil Brun Del Re from Full Cycle. Normally I don’t run into anyone I know.

After dinner I shuffled back to my residence and watched parts of two Euro 2004 games on the common room TV. I sat with a cyclist who, being Greek, was more than a tad thrilled that Greece upset Portugal 2-1. I kept my discipline and bowed out after part of Russia-Spain.

Morning found me awake and contemplating rising at 5:30. I had been toying with the idea of going back via the classic route – what with Herb’s words of encouragement and all. My informal survey of the one other Challenge rider I ran into in Kingston suggested Herb was closer to being right than wrong.

But when I phoned Irene she told me to obey what my body was telling me. When I awoke, I felt surprisingly good. I remember years past limping down the residence stairs, searing pain from stiff muscles as my quads tensed for the simple act of taking a step down. This year I felt none of that. My legs were limber, my arms, back, feet and butt felt good.

So stuff Herb, I figured. I’d take the Challenge back too. At 7:10, I left.

The first bit went by really quickly. Before I knew it, I was in a solemn procession of riders, butts in the air, climbing the hill out of Westport.

My strategy all morning had been “energy conservation.” Coast wherever possible. If climbing is at all difficult, drop to 14 km/h and just crawl. “The only person I have to worry about is myself.”

I think my real problem on the second day was the awful taste of biking food. I have a really hard time eating on the road. Those frigging powerbars or cliff bars or whatever bars are all really dry, chewy and sickly sweet. And of course, I was dreading my sandwich.

And if you’re working harder than you ought to, you start to feel nauseated. I stopped often. At MacDonalds Corners I had a chat with the guy who owned the general store. Told him about road biking. He seemed impressed with the speeds you could reach, and the prices you could pay for the latest ten speed torture instruments.

He told me that between MacDonalds Corners and Ottawa the elevation dropped 300 or so feet. That encouraged me. As I was saying good bye to my new friend, another (rare) rider churned past who was to become my best friend indeed.

I got back on my bike and seemed to be able to keep the rider in my sight, although this was clearly a stronger cyclist (weren’t they all, though?). In Lanark I stopped by to say hi and have a drink. François told me he’d gone to Kingston via the Classic route, but was feeling strong and adventurous enough to take the Challenge back.

He asked me if I wanted to ride with him. Earlier he’d said his best Ottawa-Kingston time was five hours 15 minutes (I’m strictly a 6:20 kind of guy). I said thanks but that he’d probably have to drop me, so I didn’t think it would work.

François was taking a significant stop in Lanark, where I’d just had one in MacDonald’s Corners, so I rode on. I saw Herb again, teamed up with three other older riders. They had been stopped in Lanark, but they caught up with me at the 522/8 junction and basically left me eating dust. I told myself it didn’t matter. But I was tiring.

County Road 16 is unbelievably long, undifferentiated and boring. The crest of each rise promises to deliver a sign of progress, but Almonte just kind of appears.

I got to Almonte and realized I still hadn’t eaten lunch. It was about two in the afternoon. The sun had been beating down on me and the temperature at 27. Perhaps it was the impending heat stroke, but I reasoned that those Tim Horton’s Ice Cappucinos have enough calories in them for a meal, so why not have one of those instead. A little treat for having broken the back of this long, gruelling ride.

The ice cap was way too cold to contemplate. I let it sit for a while before drinking it. Was it ever delicious. I worried about keeping it down. I still had almost 70km to go.

After I got back on my bike I hit another disaster. I missed the turn back towards the main route. I was several kilometres down the road before I realized that I had gone too far.

I asked for directions and got sent back the way I came. I realized that I hadn’t missed any signs – there were none – but coming from the other direction Appleton sideroad is actually well-marked.

So I turned onto Appleton sideroad and into a 20 km/h headwind. Shit. I pulled up for a pee break and a map check to see how much more of this I was going to have to endure. My trip computer was at 166km.

Who should pull up but François. François is a chemist who lives in Sudbury, though he’s originally from Québec. He’s a single dad with two sons, 9 and 11. And he has a heart of gold. He saw my look of despair and offered to pull me. I accepted.

At first I offered to take turns drafting. I was actually prepared to. I figured I could match his pace and I still had energy. But François is a tank and declined my offers to switch. At one point when I offered, he said “well, I might,” but no.

All the way down Appleton and back to Ottawa I stared at the black and yellow striped back tire on François’ bike.

We overshot the turnoff onto the main route. By now it was about 4pm or thereabouts and the dearhearts with the tour seemed to have taken down all the signs. So we rode through the place where we were supposed to have turned left and we ended up on Richmond Road.

Richmond Road will take you back to Ottawa, without going too far out of your way, but it’s got a lot of traffic and it’s in terrible shape. The bumps took a real toll on me. At some point when François did one of his speed checks I asked him to drop a click. He was incredibly obliging. “I can be put on a leash,” he said.

It worked. The slower pace allowed me to recuperate and we were back to our normal 31ish before long. It’s amazing how your body can sustain this sort of activity. Of course it’s easier if, like François, you’ve got a couple thousand training kilometres under your belt.

We got in at 5:10pm, just over ten hours on the road. Eight hours 17 minutes of travelling time. Average speed 27.7 if you can believe my trip computer. Probably slightly higher, 229km on my trip calculator. Probably longer in real life. I think putting a 23mm tire on the back threw off my computer.

I bought François and I a beer. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep mine down. But I managed it. He told me – sounding very much like Withnail and I – that the first time he’d gone on a 200km ride by mistake, someone had pulled him the entire way, so he knew what it was like to be out of your depth.

I was very grateful to be the recipient of his cycling karma.

Today, I’ve been napping on and off, and my diaphragm feels stiff from breathing so hard all day yesterday. I feel completely dopey and out of it. I’m taking the day off work and avoiding sitting on anything hard.

If I do this again, I don’t think I will do the Challenge. I just don’t have the time to do all that training. And I think the club needs to update their literature. It warns that you should have trained at least 1000km before riding the Challenge. It should say that you can ride the Challenge with only 1000km under your belt if you don’t mind being near death at the end of it all.

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