Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour, 2005: Crawling the Cruise

Heat was the big story for this year’s Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour. At Queen’s the dining hall was abuzz with stories of people who’d dropped out from heat exhaustion. I met one guy who didn’t mind the heat but hated the wind. “Yeah, but that’s because your brain’s been boiled and you can’t think straight.”

4:51pm, Saturday June 11, 2005
Gordon Hall Kingston

I’m trying to think if I have ever been so hot in my life. No, I can’t say as I have. I made it. I presented myself to the club volunteers at 2:59pm, spent a good long time in a cool shower and soon I expect I will be able to breathe normally.

I’m doing the Cruise route this year. It’s as long as the regular one, (180km each way) but it’s unmarked and more or less unsupported. The club limits registration to 300 riders.

While you have the same elevation gain as the regular route, the hills are for the most part nowhere near as dramatic. I had kind of hoped it would be easier than the Classic, but it doesn’t seem so.

Hills, while certainly physically demanding, do add some variety to the scene. For me, what makes me want to give up is rarely fatigue – it’s boredom.

On the Cruise, there are lots of itty bitty ups and downs until you get to Battersea, then it looks more like the Classic – long, swooping descents and climbs that, after 150km of riding seem slightly sadistic.

I can still feel my helmet on my head.

The real story of today, however was the heat, I think. Ottawa was forecast for 32C, with extremely high humidity. I phoned Irene when I got in and she told me the radio was littered with dire warnings against all forms of outdoor activity. And here was I riding 180km under the burning sun. Ha ha ha.

I got on the road just after 7am. I was already sweating profusely by the time I got to Carleton. But my legs felt strong, the bike was moving smoothly and I was feeling good. You really want to get riding as soon as you can when you’re going solo, especially heading to Kingston, where the prevailing winds will not favour you.

I loved the route to Merrickville. I ride to Merrickville a fair bit as a training route, but the route I take is not brilliant. This route has much less traffic, much nicer scenery and variety to the road – a tour, in other words, rather than an interminable slog along a razor straight, sunbaked road.

It might be an unsupported route, but there are lots of places you can stop and refill your water bottles, buy snacks and generally recuperate. The club’s map is very good, and the road signs are faithful to the truth. The “support” you’re missing is in case of accidents and serious mechanical failure. These things do happen. There’s vans filled with bike parts, bandages and trained volunteers patrolling the Classic route.

I got to Merrickville around 9am. I chatted about bikes with a group of riders who were heading the other way. They were checking out the GPS on my bike, which they quite liked, although they were wrinkling their noses at my bike. “I’m not familiar with that brand,” one woman said, delicately. I explained that Schwinn had changed hands and were now a consumer brand, sold through Canadian Tire, but that this one was a reasonable road bike. And in any event I wouldn’t notice the difference between my chromoly-steel and, say carbon, I said.

“Oh, but you would,” she said. “Having carbon totally transforms the cycling experience. It absorbs so much more shock – it’s much less ‘rock and roll’.”

I’ve been breathing so hard all day it hurts to yawn.

From Merrickville, it’s a bit of a slog, along a couple of straight stretches to Elgin, via Jasper.

But that stretch pales in comparison to the Elgin-Battersea leg of the tour. I had started feeling the wind pushing against me and on my right side from about 9am onward. And by noon as I trundled past Elgin I was definitely getting tired.

The heat enveloped me and sucked the water from every pore. My legs felt deflated, useless. I was coasting as often as I could and trying to maintain any speed beyond 25 km/h. This seems as much as I can manage. I abandoned my target pace of 30km/h and 90 rpm long ago. I slow to a crawl at the top of each rise, and despair at the thought of having to do this all in reverse tomorrow.

Eventually I screw my mind around to ignoring the distance (switching the trip computer back to cadence helps), and focus on moving forward at whatever speed I can muster. I’m focussed on getting to Battersea, some 25km out of Kingston. Tomorrow? Doesn’t exist.

I imagine Joe Simpson crawling back from Siula Grande, his leg shattered, over morraines, scree and through rock gardens. He focuses on a rock in the (short) distance and getting to it. When he reaches that rock, he picks another. He doesn’t contemplate how far he is away from camp – only on the immediate. He survives. So will I.

When I get to Battersea, I take a long break. One crew heading out gives me a water bottle that they couldn’t empty. I pour it over my head. The feeling is rapturous.

I check my trip computer and realize it’s only 25km to Kingston – not 30. I may be tired, but 25km is still nothing. I start to move faster. This will be okay, I figure. I focus on getting to km 160, then to km 170. Then at 2:59pm, the OBC volunteer signs me in.

Dinner time.

Sunday, June 12, 4:15pm, Overbrook, Ottawa

I almost feel too tired to write.

I have open sores on my butt – first time I have ever experienced saddle sores – it’s exceptionally hot in the house but I am so glad to be home.

Dinner last night was what it always is: pasta with tomato or meat sauce, roast beef with vegetables and some sort of egg and bread loaf thing. I loaded my plate with the vegetarian stuff, without complaint. Food as medicine.

I went for a quick walk after dinner but came back to my room for 8pm. I hadn’t run into anyone I felt like hanging out with, so I settled down with The Beckoning Silence (another Joe Simpson book). I do like his writing.

By 8:30pm I was hazing in and out of sleep, so I decided to give in to it. The Queen’s residences have hit a new low in terms of bedcovers. It seems it is possible to make something that vaguely resembles linen out of a mixture of cardboard and garbage bags.

And now I know what happens to all of those styrofoam pellets that they ship computer gadgets with. Queen’s crushes them and turns them into “pillows”.

Fortunately, my room was so hot I had no need of a covering. For what the club provides, and arranges with Queen’s, the tour is very cheap. So it’s understandable that the university is looking to cut corners.

I was out of bed by 5:30. The sky was overcast and a flag hoisted above some grand tower was pointing at Ottawa. So things were looking up on both fronts.

I ate a big breakfast (eggs, fried potatoes and pancakes made from material left over from the residence bedding), fetched my bike, dropped my bag on the pile, applied sunscreen and headed off.

My wheels hummed effortlessly over the road, my legs felt unstoppable, bolstered by a significant tail wind and a lack of scary-heat-warning heat. Battersea, Sunbury, the Rideau Canal, Elgin – all seemed half a world away from each other yesterday, but today, they were practically neighbours.

I stopped in Elgin to refill my water bottles and to get more batteries. I’d become addicted to the GPS’s track feature. No-brain navigation – gotta love it, although I note that it doesn’t track ad infinitum. After a certain point it starts erasing the old track. But even after my track disappeared I still had the club’s map and my memory.

The temperature started rising, but I reached Merrickville still in good spirits. I had lunch and bought a couple of bananas, the quintissential bike tour miracle food.

After Merrickville, I started feeling tired. But I was still keeping good speed, no doubt due to the wind at my back. At a certain point, near Kars, I think, tired turned to deflated as the sun started casting faint shadows and the route switched directions (or the wind did) and my tailwind became a cross wind.

I skipped the stop in Kars, but just a few km up the road, I rode over a large pothole and punctured my rear tire. Apart from my final arrival in Ottawa, getting a flat was the best thing that happened to me all afternoon.

It was a new tire, and a real tight fit, so at first I worried that with my dilapidated physical condition I wouldn’t be able to change it.

But I calmed down, had a good long drink, and waited a few minutes to catch my breath. I did the repair, my morale boosted by all the people who slowed down to check on me as they rode by. I was back on the road with a slightly squishy but intact rear tire. And with the rest, the kilometres again seemed to fly by.

Before I knew it, I was coasting down Manotick Main street watching two riders giving cyclists a bad name by riding two abreast down a busy street with wide, safe lanes, then suddenly deciding to play pedestrian and jaywalk in front of a minivan turning right. Words were exchanged and I saw one of the riders shake his fist and call the driver a “piece of shit”.

To the minivan driver, may I say that we’re not all total idiots. Some of us do observe the HTA and are mindful of the presence of cars. On behalf of those who do not and are too thick to realize what jerks they can be, I apologize. To the rider with the temper: give your head a shake. And be thankful that the driver you called a “piece of shit” had reflexes enough to save you from yourself.

The rest of the trip home went quickly, but for the 8km stretch along Limebank Road, which was rough, full of cars, and running across the wind. I got in around 2pm or so, breathing hard, sweating profusely and relieved to be done.

Someone recognized me from the page I put up last year about my experience doing The Challenge, and we chatted briefly. Another guy said he thought I looked in distress and pointed me to the nearby lawn sprinklers. I stood under the spray for a while, then got my bag, got on my bike and crawled home.

To give you an idea what wind and heat can do, my average speed today was 30.1 km/h, where yesterday it was 26.6 km/h. Today, I was riding for just under six hours, yesterday it was closer to seven.