The Wind at Our Backs
Notes from a Long Haul, Two-Wheeled Journey
By Lawrence Scanlan | Michael Cooke Photo By Lawrence Scanlan
[Published in Kingston Life Magazine 2012]
The confusion was understandable. I would tell people I was cycling to Newfoundland and what they heard was this: I was going to fly to “The Rock,” noodle around there on a rented bicycle, then fly home. No, I said. I’m bicycling to Newfoundland — from Kingston.
Oh, they said. When I bought socks at Runners’ Choice and told the owner of my plans, she smiled and said that crossing the country by bicycle was on her bucket list. A triathlete who works at Chez Piggy (we often encounter each other on morning dog walks on Mack Street) offered me two of his cycling jerseys. I’m 63 years old and what I was getting was a lot of way-to-go-Gramps encouragement. Rose DeShaw was dispensing lemonade outside the Kingston Community Credit Union on Market Street and when I told her of my adventure, she said, “Good for you, honey.”
The trip’s genesis lay with an old friend, Michael Cooke, who had cycled in 2007 from Vancouver to Toronto with his 21-one-year-old daughter, Liz. She wrote artfully about their trip in a blog entitled “Me, the pa and 5,000 km of open road.” Michael, now 65, had a notion of completing the coast-to-coast trip but Liz was unavailable — so I put up my hand.
I cycle most days spring through fall, but my 1972 Bottecchia 10-speed is for errands and the odd day trip. Now it was being asked to get me in shape for a trek.
The literature on preparing for “touring” (long-distance cycling) prescribes hills, hills and more hills — “and finish every hill,” one book sternly warned. The first time I rode up the hill at Fort Henry my legs and lungs were burning by the top. Starting early in March (that mildest month of the winter that wasn’t), I gradually lengthened my rides. One bold day I rode to Gananoque and back but I had not properly hydrated and I crawled home with my tail between my legs. Lesson learned. Drink water before, on and after long rides, with granola bars as fuel. When my training time was limited, I would do hills only and by mid-June I was comfortable climbing seven Fort Henry hills in a row.
Training rides taught me how blessed we are in this city. A ferry takes you to Wolfe Island where cyclists are offered a gorgeous, virtually car-free 54-kilometre ride to the eastern-most point and back. Howe Island offers another quiet lake-view road. Finally, the jewel: the Kick and Push Trail (accessed off Sydenham Road below the 401) takes a mostly shaded route all the way to Sydenham village and Frontenac Park.
“I’m so glad you got me into this,” I remember saying to Michael on one such trip. The marshland views, the smell of fresh-cut hay, the adrenalin from sharp descents: the cyclist experiences sensually what the driver is denied.
Michael and I did one last training run in mid-June — with saddlebags loaded. Was he testing me? I did keep up but I also got separated from him near Peterborough. I paused outside a village corner store and when I looked up he was nowhere to be seen. He went southwest and I went west, and while we did hook up at our destination, I had tacked on 30 kilometres on a 32-degree day. I wondered: a harbinger of what’s to come? Still, we did 260 kilometres in two days. I didn’t look very pretty at the end of it, but I managed.
June 25. After a weekend of Fenway franks and late nights in Boston, I arrive back in Kingston on the train Monday morning. The annual Scanlan brothers baseball trip is not the ideal springboard to a month of cycling, and the lads agree: Senior’s nuts.
We depart from my house mid-morning, with balloons and a bon voyage sign on the lawn and half a dozen neighbours gathered. I have not even left the property when the tie on a sloppily attached front pannier becomes ensnared in my spokes and snaps — requiring a quick fix. Inauspicious start.
I am riding a brand new all-Canadian Opus Legato. These touring bikes are Canadian-designed and “most” (their website claims) are assembled in Montreal. The wry wit at T.I. Cycle in Gananoque where I bought the bike said something about all that Chinese lettering on the box it came in and pronounced the bike “about as Canadian as won ton soup.”
Still, I love the bike. I have bought bright-red Arkel panniers (“hand-made in Montreal”) at Cyclepath so I look the part of all-Canadian cyclist as we head for Quebec and La Route Verte. The Green Road (ranked by National Geographic among the top 10 cycling routes in the world) hugs, in part, the north shore of the St. Lawrence River and snakes through lovely villages on the historic Chemin du Roi (the Path of the King).
I now wear mountain-bike shoes that click onto the pedal. This means greater efficiency since both the down-stroke and the up-stroke are counted. The trick is to remember that your shoes are fixed to the pedal, and that exiting requires a quick twisting-out motion. I thought I had it mastered until I came to a full stop at the Wolfe Island ferry docks after a training ride with Michael and, in slow motion before a sizable crowd, toppled onto the asphalt with the grace of a felled tree. I will not do that again.
July 21. After shipping our bikes home and flying from St. John’s to Halifax to Montreal, with a train from there, we are warmly welcomed home. Liz is there at the train station, plus Juliet (Michael’s wife), Ulrike (my wife) and our Senegalese friends — the younger ones holding aloft small bouquets of white carnations and handcrafted signs of congratulation. Sweet.
From start to finish, Michael and I cycled 2,425 kilometres — ending at a bar on Water Street in St. John’s called Scanlan’s. The longest day was a 175-kilometre ride on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River but for me the most gruelling day was a 150-kilometre marathon of Murphy’s Law wrong turns coming into Montreal on Day Two. The shortest day was a mere 25 kilometres, with 110 kilometres the average. We each carried 45 pounds of gear — clothes, tents, sleeping bags, air mattresses, plus cooking, repair and medical kits. As for strokes of the pedal, my own count exceeded 500,000. It took us 25 days to reach Newfoundland — and eight hours to return.
The great challenges of long-distance cycling are hills, heat and wind, which can combine to punishing effect. With each passing day the level of cardiac fitness increases but so does fatigue as the odometer clicks on (which may explain why we slept 12 hours on the ferry from North Sydney to Argentia). Thankfully, bikes and bodies held up nicely.
What made the trip so magical, in part, was all the luck. The west wind usually offered a helpful push. The weather — but for monsoon rain in Quebec City — was mostly benign. We often got lost but were never separated, and we made every imposed deadline. To our great delight, we often rode while flanked by water: the St. Lawrence, Canaan and Saint John rivers, lakes and ponds, the spellbinding sea. And the song of the white-throated sparrow seemed to follow and guide us from the forest sidelines.
What lifted the trip into yet another realm, though, was not the luck or even the compelling landscape — viewed at bike speed on back roads, or what American writer William Least Heat-Moon once called Blue Highways. No, it was the people. We camped six nights, found B&Bs for three, and otherwise bunked with friends or folks just met. The warmth and hospitality of people known to Michael or me were perhaps to be expected, but extraordinary nonetheless. Being welcomed into houses in six provinces afforded special insight into the unique character of each.
We were gobsmacked, though, by the kindness of strangers. Was it that Michael and I are pensioners and therefore less threatening? Was it about travellers triggering some primordial instinct to aid? Was it cyclists sheltering members of the cycling tribe? Was it my lime-green cycling shirt and all my anti-sunburn paraphernalia — French Foreign Legion-style head, neck and ear protection, solar stockings on arms and legs, white sunblock plastered across my face — that lent me a comic air? (“Nice getup,” said a woman in a market in Bristol, New Brunswick.) Maybe, by turns, it was all of the above.
I had thought the journey would present foremost a physical challenge, and there were times when our fibre (and our bums) were sore tested, but there was no whimpering and all manner of laughter. One tiny example: On a blue highway near Stellarton, Nova Scotia, we encountered a father and his eight-year-old son biking to the store. I learned that the two live in Kingston, New Brunswick — a fact the boy cheerfully relayed after I told him I come from Kingston, Ontario, and had recently passed through Kingston, Prince Edward Island. Seeing the boy eyeing my attire, I asked him, “Do you have a question for me?” He thought for a bit. “Are you going to the Olympics?” I laughed out loud. “The geezer Olympics,” Michael responded.
We were embraced like kin by such solid, such trusting, such compassionate folks — young and old — on our journey. I came back lifted, encouraged, heartened and inspired by the Canadian hinterland and its people. Changed somehow.
Michael knows a Spanish proverb: No basta leer; tiene que ir y ver. (“It’s not enough to read; you have to go and see.”) My advice: go and see from the saddle of a long-distance bicycle.