This is a post about riding my first brevet with Randonneurs Ontario. For those of you who haven’t heard about randonneuring, here is a great historical introduction. In short, a brevet is a long distance bike ride of a predefined distance (either 200, 300, 400, 600, 1000 or 1200 kms) that has to be completed within a set time frame. At 200 km in length, the shortest brevet in the series must be completed in 13 hours. To ensure that all riders are sticking with the prescribed route, there are a series of controls where riders must get their control cards signed. For Randonneurs Ontario brevets, these controls are unstaffed, so you ask someone like a general store employee to sign your card.
If you don’t own a car, it’s hard to get to Randonneurs Ontario brevets because their starting points are usually out in the suburbs. In the case of the Markham-Woodville 200, the brevet starts at a Tim Horton’s in Markham, some 40 km northwest of my Toronto home. Of course most long distance cyclists, including this writer, prefer to ride in a rural setting. So for those of us who love long distance riding, but choose to live car-free in a large city, getting to these rural settings is challenging.
For the purposes of this ride, I took a multimodal approach to getting to the starting point, riding the 5:15 a.m. Yonge St. bus north to it’s final stop at Steeles Ave. From there I had a 20 km ride to the brevet’s starting point. I arrived at Yonge and Steeles at around 5:45, which left me plenty of time to get to my destination by 7:30 a.m.
I love riding at this time of day. Even suburban thoroughfares like Steeles are largely empty so early on a Saturday morning. My route took me along Steeles for about 9 kms before winding northwest through empty industrial land. I took it easy, conserving my energy for the day’s ride, but still found myself moving too quickly, so when the eastern horizon came into view with its almost garish dawn colours, I forced myself to stop and take pictures. These two scenes, found within 100 meters of each other, screamed J.G. Ballard to me. The results can be seen below and at the top of the post.
In the end (or, at the beginning) I arrived an hour and a half before the ride was due to start, allowing time for a leisurely second breakfast. But as it turned out, I wasn’t really that early. I wasn’t even finished my cup of coffee when cars started pulling into the parking lot and disgorging riders and their bikes, so I spent the next 45 minutes meeting some of the other riders. This is where I should point out that my memory for names is horrible – it is perhaps the most embarrassing of my ADHD symptoms. I have even been know to temporarily forget the names of friends. That said, I remember a few names: Bob MacLeod, another first-time rider, Harry Kreamer, Kathy Brouse, the ride organizer, and David Thompson. I remember the first three names because I rode with all of them at various points throughout the day and I remember David, who would finish more than an hour before me, because we share a surname.
About ten minutes before we were to leave, I asked someone when we’d get our route sheets.
“You mean you didn’t bring one,” he responded?
No, I hadn’t.
Although clubs always post their route sheet archives online, many of them hand out up-to-date sheets at the beginning of each brevet. The Markham-Woodville route sheet available online hadn’t been updated since 2007, so I assumed that the route must have been tweaked sometime in the intervening four years. Wrong! My heart rate returned to normal when Kathy, the ride co-ordinator generously gave me her own sheet. Luckily she had a GPS with the route programmed into it and she’d be riding with others.
As we gathered on our bikes in the parking lot, Kathy introduced Bob and I to the other 12 riders. With these formalities out of the way, we 14 riders eased their bikes out of the parking lot onto Highway 7. I had never ridden with a large group of riders before and I didn’t know anyone there, so I wasn’t able to match myself with similarly paced riders. Eventually, as we headed north on Ninth Line, I found a pace that suited me (somewhere around 30 kph), which seemed to put me in the middle of the pack. Soon, the people behind me fell back quite a ways and the riders ahead became specks on the horizon.
By this point I’d left the suburbs behind and I began to look around at my new surroundings. The morning was grey and cool, so I was glad I had kept my long-fingered gloves and windbreaker on. The landscape consisted of fields of various crops, punctuated by the occasional stretch of trees. Early in the ride, the climbs were easy, but soon enough (though I had not really foreseen this eventuality) we’d be riding through the Oak Ridges Morraine, with it’s steep glacier-carved hills.
Now I grew up in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley from which mountains where always visible to the north and south, at least on rare clear days, so mountains are in my blood. I think this is why I always forget about Southern Ontario’s hilliness. You don’t necessarily see these hills from far away as you would a mountain. Instead they just sort of pop out at you as you’re about to climb them. But you would think when I see road names like Mt. Albert Road on a route sheet, I would expect to do some climbing.
So as I approached the town of Mt. Albert, I reset my expectations. I was still making good time and a little ways past Mt. Albert I caught up with Harry who was sitting at a crossroads looking a bit confused about what direction to take. We rode together for a while and chatted about this and that. Invariably our conversation turned toward cycling gear. I should note here that my bike, a touring bike with stainless steel fenders, a hub generator, gearing optimized for fully loaded climbing, peddles with clips and leather straps and a Brooks saddle, really stood out among the other randonneurs’ bikes. Although I didn’t get a close look at all of their bikes, most of them seemed to be racing bikes (I did see a couple of Brooks saddles, however). So invariably throughout the day, people would ask me about my bike. I must admit that I was hoping to see a wider variety of bikes. I plan on building up a randonneur bike of my own when funds permit, but it will be based on a more traditional French design. And having ridden an aluminum framed bike for a few years over Toronto’s sometimes bumpy city streets, I will never ride anything but steel again.
Soon, Harry and I arrived at the first control, a small gas station in Udora. We got our cards signed, bought some junk food and went back to our bikes. I was getting cold, but Harry was finishing his coffee and chatting with someone on the phone, so I decided to wait for him. As I waited, three or four others rolled in. Bob and Kathy were riding with this group. They made quick work of their control business and they were back on the road before we got moving.
I probably shouldn’t have waited. Soon after Harry and I got back on the road, he pulled ahead, perhaps revived by the cup of coffee he’d had. I was happy to be riding at my own pace again, but I realized that I should have left the control earlier. Ultimately, my ride took much longer than I’d hoped because I spent too much time at controls and over lunch. In future brevets, I plan to stick to my strategy of spending as little time as possible off my bike.
I caught up to Kathy and Bob as we approached Woodville. I was getting hungry by this point, so I slowed down to their pace. There was a small supermarket and a restaurant in Woodville and I opted for the restaurant along with four or five others. I hadn’t eaten enough during my morning ride, so I was ready for a big sit-down meal. As we waited for the food to come we chatted about past bicycle tours and brevets. Lunch took a while to get to us, which ultimately pushed my ride time for the brevet over ten hours, but it allowed me to get to know Bob, Harry and Kathy a bit better and it helped me recover from bonking on the way into town. I also found out that Bob also lived in Toronto and he had extra space on his bike rack, so he offered me a lift back into town at the end of the ride.
When we left the restaurant the sun was shining, so I wasted more time stowing away my windbreaker. Bob and I had decided to ride together after lunch. Kathy, a more experienced randonneur, was already back on the road ahead of us. I finally stowed the wind breaker and Bob and I got moving just ahead of Harry. But we wouldn’t maintain our lead over him for long. A few hundred meters down the road I was forced to stop once again to don my windbreaker. I somehow couldn’t get a handle on the temperature. While we were stopped, Harry passed us.
Finally back on the road, I established a good pace heading out of town with Bob following close behind. I’m not sure if the landscape got better after Woodville or if the sun just improved my outlook, but the old brick farm houses and the early fall colours were beautiful.
As we turned south, I was starting to feel overheated so I stopped to take off my windbreaker and told Bob to ride on ahead. I was pretty sure I’d be able to catch up to him again. Once I got back on the road, I did manage to close the gap between us, but I could only get so close. In the end I didn’t manage to catch up until just before the next control where he missed the turn onto County Road 13. In retrospect, I wasted too much psychic and physical energy trying to catch him. Although I enjoy the camaraderie of riding with others from time to time, I was forgetting that this was my own ride.
The hills on this part of the route were steeper and more frequent then they had been in the morning and I would have managed them better if I’d paced myself. At the same time, I was feeling some knee pain, so I was afraid to push myself too hard on the hills for fear of injuring my I.T. bands. And, obsessed as I was with catching Bob, I wasn’t eating and drinking enough.
When we finally got to the control at Leaskdale, I was really tired. I gulped down a bottle Gatorade and filled one of my water bottles with another. Five other riders were there, including Kathy and Harry. While we chatted, I opened two Cliff Bar packages and put them in my jersey pockets so I could easily eat on the move later on. Why I hadn’t thought of this earlier, I can’t tell you.
After a few minutes we were back on the road. At this point I was still making good time, so I thought I’d be able to make it in under ten hours. I passed Kathy, Bob and a few others on 6th Concession, but I got confused by the directions when I arrived at Main Street. My brain was getting slow, a sure sign that I hadn’t yet recovered from bonking earlier. I misread the cue sheet, which seemed to be telling me to turn right (westbound), but go east, so I just coasted until I figured out my error. By that point the rest of the riders flew by me.
We rode through Uxbridge’s historic downtown and then headed south along 7th Concession past a small lake and then up a hill into the countryside. Bob had already pulled ahead of us, when Kathy too pulled away. I was running out of energy, paying the price for my neglecting my nutritional needs earlier on. I realized that I wouldn’t make my goal of finishing in less than ten hours. The last kilometres of the ride where through beautiful countryside, but all I wanted to do was finish.
I was actually relieved when I got back onto the suburban section of Ninth Line. And I was surprised when, a few minutes later, Harry caught up to me. Apparently he had missed a turn, heading down a steep hill before realizing his mistake (there always seems to be a steep hill involved in a missed turn). Nevertheless, he managed to fly past me along the home stretch, but we didn’t have far to go, so I pulled into the Tim Horton’s parking lot a minute or two after him.
I grabbed a cup of coffee and joined the group of riders sitting around chatting about the ride. I was disappointed with my time, but as Kathy pointed out, our long lunch didn’t help things.
As it turned out, my bike didn’t fit on Bob’s rooftop bike rack because the fenders got in the way. He felt bad about leaving me there, but there was nothing else he could do. The only way my bike would fit in the rack is if I did major surgery on it and I wasn’t about to do that. I love my fenders!
I rode over to the go station and a bus pulled up almost right away, only there were two kids in front of me with their BMX’s, so the bike rack was full. My cell phone was down to 4%, so using GO’s web site was out of the question. Back home, MM was managing five sugar-crazed girls (my daughter and four friends were celebrating her birthday with a slumber party), but she generously took time out from this enviable task to check the bus schedule. There wouldn’t be another bus for an hour.
I decided to bike the 20 kms to Finch subway station (here I’m omitting the swearing and ranting that ensued when I realized my predicament). Lacking the battery juice for Google maps, I was forced to stick with main streets. It was getting dark out and, in contrast to road conditions early that morning, southbound traffic was heavy. But my Schmidt lighting system and reflective vest gave me some measure of comfort. The journey along Finch was interminable. Of course, compared to my brevet, this ride was nothing, but, given the circumstances, I just wanted to get home.
Unfortunately, the subway was only running as far as Eglinton due to track maintenance, but that was about 8 kms from home and forms part of my daily commute. I carried my bike up the stairs at Eglinton Station and emerged onto Yonge Street. Again, traffic was heavy, but at least there are more bikes on the road closer to downtown. I flicked on my lights and started pedalling north, slowing down to pass a minor accident scene. As I crawled past the cab of a tow truck, the driver chose that moment to fling open his door. Somehow, despite my fatigue, I still had some reflexes left, so I swerved to avoid direct impact, only catching my right hand between break lever and door.
“To honour your longest ride ever, we present you with your first Door Prize! Congratulations, Jason!”
The rest of the trip, thankfully, was uneventful.
I did well riding my first 200 km brevet, my longest continuous ride ever. My time was much slower than I’d hoped, but I can easily shave an hour off that by making more efficient use of my time out of the saddle. I also have to remember to ride my own ride. Though riding in a group is fun, there are times when it makes sense to either leave them behind or let them pull ahead. Finally, although I have a lot of experience taking care of my nutritional needs on long rides, I ignored them on this ride because I didn’t want to slow down. Ironically, this oversight was to cost me time. I would have finished stronger if I had stopped to eat when I needed to.