Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour: the Di2-speed waning COVID edition

I’m beginning to think gears are overrated after my experience on this year’s return of the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour. See, on about kilometre 60 of the first day of my tour, my rear derailleur stopped working. But I decided to keep going.

I’d been waiting for the day for two years. I was riding with a great group, the weather was great, I was feeling strong and my bike was still mostly rideable. So there was no question of turning back.

I had been riding through the only bad section of the tour’s 210km Challenge Route — Ramsay Concession 8 — when my rear derailleur stopped working with the chain on the smallest gear. I’m pretty sure it happened at the bottom of a hill. The bike and I had been bouncing around uncomfortably (it’s hard to pick the smoothest line when you’ve got other riders all around you) but nothing outrageous.

Everyone’s first thought was ‘Crash Mode’ — which is something Di2 does when it detects a really hard jolt. It basically goes into a coma to avoid further damage. But my attempts to reset it during a roadside pee break were unsuccessful.

I still had two gears. Full gas (big ring up front, smallest at the back) and ‘climbing’ (small ring up front, smallest ring at the back). ‘Full gas’ was a fine — albeit of limited use — combination. Chain travel and tension was normal. ‘Climbing’ was another story. Wicked cross-chaining (wherein your chain drags itself diagonally across the cogs) and very slack. But I needed both.

Oh well. At least I didn’t have to stop and flip my wheel around to get to my other gear like in the very very old days.

But riding steady in a group was really hard. I basically had to attack on every descent to store as much momentum as possible for the grind up the inevitable hill. Climbs were interesting too. Up some gradients I would be out of my saddle early and there were tense moments and horrible noises when my chain skipped but I was fine to keep pace. At a certain level of steep, my cadence would drop well below 30rpm and my ride buddies would blow by me. On others I could keep the pedals turning but I had to hammer it and I would surge past everyone.

For them it must have been like playing cat and mouse with a particularly inept climber: constantly attacking and blowing up with way too many kilometres to go.

So on the climb bypassing Westport, I surged past everyone and decided to keep going. I reckoned they would catch me up — they were some very strong riders — but they never did. I expect they stopped at North Crosby. Possibly to make sure they didn’t catch me.

Bad diagnosis

I went through three sets of mechanics over the course of the afternoon and early evening to find a fix. Eventually Pedro from Velofix delivered bad news. It wasn’t in ‘Crash Mode’. The shifting mechanism in the rear derailleur — the thing that the motor is supposed to push — was jammed and he couldn’t move it. He could, however use the limit screws to ‘lock’ the derailleur into a more useful gear. We picked one about midway up the rear cassette. I thanked him, but was disappointed in the equipment and worried about getting home the next day.

I agonized for a long time about what to do.

There was no way I was going to take the bus home. The forecast was mediocre but do-able. Riding in two gears had been a bit taxing but I had spent a lot of time in the first five hours sucking the wheels of giants. My IF was around .70 and about 50 TSS per hour for the whole ride, so a bit high but not enough to bury me or make tomorrow difficult under normal circumstances. Plus we were meant to have a tailwind.

So the question was: which route? Challenge, Classic or Cruise. I decided to wing it. I figured I would see how I felt when I woke up. I loaded all three routes onto my GPS. I figured if the first hill north of the 401 was too much of a chore it wouldn’t be too hard to veer off and join the gentler Cruise route. If rolling up to Westport buried me I could take the Classic route back via Perth.

But I woke up feeling really good. For day two. I dressed optimistically, ate like my whole day depended on it, loaded up the Challenge route and rode.

With the tailwind, it would have been a great day to claim some Strava hardware but my cranks would spin out at around 43km/h. I was elated when I got past the first kick of the Westport hill. I did it standing and with an unhealthily low cadence, but I did it.

The spin-outs were a really good way to enforce the energy-conservation theme of the day. It also confirmed for me that riding solo was the best, safest move for the day. I saw later that the group I came down with rode the Classic route back in less than five hours. So they were flying and I wouldn’t have been able to go with them.

I got back to Ottawa on 100 less TSS and 40 fewer minutes than Saturday. I felt like I rode well — fast even — despite it all. I thought for a moment that I might actually run into the crew at Algonquin. They started later, but had less distance to cover. But they were so much faster than me, they were long gone by the time I got there.

I grabbed my bag (when leaving early and flooring it there is always a risk that you might beat the luggage truck) and coasted home.

My bike is at the doctors now and I pace nervously like a parent in a hospital waiting room. I’m told parts are rare and expensive. I also wonder what damage my day of cross-chaining did.