The Great Canada Bicycle Tour 600km brevet ride report by Martin Cooper

The Great Canada Bicycle Tour 600km 


On May 6-7 I participated in an amazing 600 km bicycle tour of southern Ontario first undertaken by the Chicago Bicycle Club in 1883. Of course, their ride pre-dated the invention of the inflatable tire and was done on heavy steel penny-farthing bicycles.  While they spent more than one-week touring Ontario, we had to complete the same route in under 40 hours, including time spent stopping for food and sleep.  In addition, the Chicago wheelmen were fully supported, while our ride was self-supported except for the overnight. The route began in Windsor and ended in Burlington.  

Not only was this the 140th anniversary of the Chicago club’s Great Canada Bicycle Tour it is also the 40th anniversary of Randonneurs Ontario, a long-distance cycling club affiliated with Audax Club Parisien (ACP), which organizes the oldest continuous cycling event in the world: Paris Brest Paris (PBP). PBP was first done in 1893 and is now held every four years. This year happens to be a PBP year and many Randonneurs Ontario members are doing the necessary rides to qualify for PBP, which will be held in mid-August. To qualify you need to successfully complete a series of 200, 300, 400 and 600 km brevets before the end of June. A ride of this distance so early in the season is challenging for most of the participants. I had already done a 200 km brevet in mid-April and at the end of April a very challenging Creemore Classic 400km brevet that started in Port Elgin, where we had multiple climbs of the Niagara escarpment in the Collingwood area and -6C temperatures on the way back to Port Elgin. We finished in just under 25 hours, including a 45-minute sleep stop in the vestibule of a low-rise apartment in Chatsworth. We rolled into Port Elgin as the sun rose, the surrounding farmland was cloaked in heavy hoar frost which reminded me that Port Elgin was located north, at the base of the Bruce Peninsula.   

Route Design 

The GCBT 600 route was carefully conceived of and designed by John Cumming, a club member who lives in Ilderton. Here is a link to his detailed report.  John used the original detailed accounts of the Chicago wheelmen’s epic and audacious tour and the 1878 Illustrated Historical County Atlases that we are all familiar with, charted out a route that matched as closely as possible the original route. This involved the Counties of Essex, Elgin, Middlesex, Huron, Perth, Oxford, Waterloo, Brant, Wentworth, and Halton! John’s father founded Mika Press and was responsible for the reproduction of most of the county atlases in the 1960s. Of course, wherever possible quiet roads running parallel to busy thoroughfares were chosen for our route. The controls where we have our brevet cards signed to verify passage, wherever possible were the locations the original tour visited, ate, and slept. For example, our overnight in Goderich was in the historic Bedford Hotel, while the control in London was the Griggs Hotel, which still operates as a restaurant. In addition, our route toured around the historic districts of each city we cycled through including Windsor, St. Thomas, London, Goderich, Stratford, Paris, Brantford, and Hamilton.  Our RideWithGPS generated route also included various notations and quotes from the 1883 ride report. Of particular note are the references to each city’s suitability and potential for good cycling. 

The Ride 

At 5:00 AM on May 6, 26 cyclists started the GCBT 600 at Great Western Park on the Windsor waterfront facing the skyline of Detroit and travelled through the historic Walkerville district, which was home to a number of large distilleries, heading southwest through the farmland of Essex County to the north shore of Lake Erie.  Typically, favourable southwest winds provide a nice tailwind on most of the route but to our chagrin the wind was blowing from the east and southeast for the next two days which meant headwinds and crosswinds for most of the ride. This proved to be especially challenging for the first 200 km following the flat and exposed north shore of Lake Erie to St. Thomas. To mitigate the effects of the crosswind I rode for a while with a group of about a dozen riders who were in an echelon formation.  I found after several hours that they were going too fast for my liking and anyway I prefer riding on my own and at my own erratic pace even if it meant being buffeted by the wind.  As I passed the statue of Jumbo the elephant in St. Thomas, I was relieved to know that the next 175 km northwest to the overnight in Goderich would provide some relief from the wind. At the St. Thomas control I joined up with another rider, John Kieffer who had also decided to ride at his own pace. Arriving in London around 6:00 PM we decided not to stop for dinner but to push on, grabbing some food in Lucan, where we passed by St. Patrick’s cemetery where the Donnelly’s are buried just as the sun was setting and feeling relieved that it wasn’t yet dark. Five members of the Donnelly family were murdered in 1880, three years before the first GCBT. We arrived in Goderich just after midnight after cycling for almost 20 hours over 375 km. The Bedford Hotel is in Courthouse Square in the interesting and unique historic core of Goderich. The Bedford was there in 1883 and probably had not been upgraded since but we were welcomed by club volunteers, John Cumming, Carey Chappelle, Jim Morris and Con Melady who directed us to a large room on the main floor that held our bikes and drop bags and then to the third floor where there was hot food and cold beer. I made my way to my room, took a well-deserved shower, and then slept the sleep of the dead for three hours.

After a breakfast of hot oats, I headed out on my own in the dark at 5:30 AM, knowing that the forecast for the second day was headwinds all the way to the finish with the added news that there was an 80% chance of rain for the rest of the day and temperatures ranging from 6 to 10 degrees C. Shortly after, cycling along the Maitland River I witnessed a spectacular sun rise consisting of brilliant scarlet and deep indigo, reminding the sailor in me that it forecasted a day of hostile weather. About two hours later while pushing against a brutal headwind I saw a flash of lightning and an instant crack of thunder, which always makes me seek cover but remember, perhaps wrongly, that I am safe being of compact stature and riding on a carbon bike shod with rubber.  Soon after the rain started, I rolled into a tree covered ditch and put on all my rain gear. It continued to rain heavily until I arrived in Stratford at 465 km and just before 11:00 AM. The control restaurant featuring an all-day breakfast was lined up with tourists and locals.  I searched around for an alternative as 6 or 7 other randonneurs also arrived looking for a place to eat and get warm. I left Stratford and headed into the wind to the next control at Brantford some 90 km away. The weather began to clear as I cycled through Tavistock and then Paris where the route crossed the Grand River. I arrived at the Branford control just before 5:00 PM.  The control was a Tim Hortons and there were at least a dozen riders who were, in Bob Segar’s words: “strung out from the road”.  We were all in various states of hunger, nausea, physical pain, exhaustion, and determination to get this thing done.  With 50 km to the finish no one wanted to linger too long. I joined up again with John Kieffer and we cycled on, actually enjoying the rolling hills and scenic views of the Jerseyville Road. Just as were getting into Hamilton we noticed that the wind had finally died down. We enjoyed the long but chilly descent down the escarpment to the lake and a great tour of Hamilton’s working-class north end where my grandfather lived when he first came to Canada in 1913. We were getting a little concerned as we entered the final hour before the 40-hour cut off, that we could get held up by traffic, mechanical problems or getting lost. Despite some navigational mistakes we rolled into the final control at Aldershot Station with 31 minutes to spare. Although there are no easy 600’s, this one was the most challenging I have ever done but also the most remarkable.  

The Great Canada Bicycle Tour 600km brevet ride report by Michael Charland

How not to Ride a Brevet – A Long-winded Tale


The Great Canadian Bicycle Ride Tour (GCBT) is a 600km bike ride in honour of the 140th anniversary of the original ride done done in 1883. For a great in-depth article see: It was held on May 6th and 7th of 2023.

The Day Before… 

I chose to ride from home to Burlington which was about 100km. Long term plans here are get use to riding consecutive long-distance rides. Ride went super smooth as I took it really, really easy. I road through Joe Sames Leisure Park which was really nice. I arrived at around 11:30AM after a quick stop getting food in Waterdown. Bike drop off was super smooth and the guys were super nice and I felt my bike was in excellent hands. I then walked around the VIA station looking for a bathroom to get changed and where to wait for the train. After that I found the other Randonneurs and we talked until the train arrived. Minor scare we heard last call for the train and the train hadn’t even arrived yet. Thankfully the train showed up slightly after that. The train ride went smooth, there was about a 30min delay in the middle of nowhere as we waited for another train to go the other way. We arrived in Windsor just after 5PM and all the bikes were setup out front. I found the group of guys I was sharing the Airbnb and we slow rolled over to it. It was on Riverside drive near the start of the ride. After that I wandered around Windsor and ate an awesome dinner at Nooch. Then back to the Airbnb to get off my feet and try to get to sleep. Slept like crap as cars are always driving on Riverside. Some racing in the middle of the night. It was really nice of the host to provide ear plugs, but at the same time a little worrisome.

The Day Of… 

I woke around 3:30 and couldn’t get back to sleep. So, I read on my tablet for a bit. I pushed my “I’ve read for at least 5min every day” to 1219 and then went for a short 10 min run to push that consecutive day streak to 495. It was nice and warm and quiet outside. Then tried to eat a couple of figs, bug my stomach felt like shit as I don’t normally eat at 4:10AM. I started to get ready and judging by my run and checking the weather forecast thought I could wear bib shorts, undershirt, jersey, and arm warmers. But when I was going to leave, I quickly realized it was much colder than I thought. Also, I remembered that it’s always colder in the countryside. So, I quickly changed into my bib pants and finotherm. I was last out of the house, locked it up, and rolled to the bag drop off. Which was absolutely fantastic. I wouldn’t have to ride with my pannier. The start was little down the trail and I was one of the first 10 people there. I got my brevet card, tried to talk to some people. I suck at starting conversations. Eventually a bunch more people showed up and we all pushed off just after 5AM. Nice and slowly on the trail for maybe 400m. When we got to the road the fast group started pushing the pace and I decided to go with them. This was a lot of fun rolling through the intersections working our way out of town. I eventually got dropped as I didn’t want to go too hard, too early, so I spun at my own pace as we left town. Eventually on some dark ass street a large group caught up to me and I talked to Brenda for a while which was super nice. We then missed a turn, went back then nearly went on the wrong road again, and finally found the correct road which ended in a bit of gravel, then teeny tiny bridge, which I snapped a picture of people crossing. After we crossed the bridge, nearly everyone, except John and I made the light. I was hoping to catch up to the group but then got stopped at the next light and was going to roll through but there were some cars coming so made quick stop, unfortunately I didn’t clearly communicate this to John and brushed by me. we were both fine. The light ended up turning really quickly and cars didn’t make it through. Then John and I road together for a while. A group of three of the guys I stayed with at the Airbnb caught up to us and we all rolled together. John did some great pulls and we rolled smoothly until we nearly missed a corner and I another rider accidentally slowly ran into me. We both fell to the group. He ended up being fine, but bent his hanger. Him and his friends fixed the hanger. I was really cool seeing them work as a team. I slightly bruised my hip and knee. Bike was fine. This all happened less than a km before the first check point.

First Check Point

John and I eventually got going again and rolled into the Tim Hortons first check point. We signed each other cards. By luck the big in front of us was just about to leave and I really wanted to ride with them. So left early. I had barely drank on ate anything and felt good. There was one guy in front of me and I was going to slow roll and let the group catch up, but I missed the first major and road maybe 0.5km the wrong way before realizing I was off track. I got back on course, then proceeeded to go off course again. Finally I found the correct road. I then road for a long while without seeing a sole. I eventually got to detour and couldn’t ride my bike through it. So I pushed my bike for a bit then rode the smooth sections. I stopped in Wheatley to refill and remembered stopping there last year during the Erie Oh 300. I got to the second control and the AirBnb guys showed up just after I got there. Somewhere between the checkpoints I lost my brevet card. I don’t know what happened to it. I think I put it with my cell phone and pulled out my once and maybe the card was attached and flew off. 

Second Check Point 

Thinking I was DQed because of the loss of my cards, I was already planning ways to get out of finishing. But the AirBnb guys said as long as I signed their card and took pictures with them it would be all good. But we had to stick together the rest of the day or at least meet up at checkpoints. I was low on liquids and had found the Blenheim Variety store to get refilled. After buying some Gatorade and real fruit gummies, my Garmin decided that it was time to fuck the directions and head straight to Goderich. I reloaded the route in which I had split before hand into two days and it did the same stupid thing. I saved my ride and reloaded the route, same problem. So now, not having directions I resorted to opening up the RideWithGPS app on my phone and it wouldn’t load it. I kept getting some bull shit error message like “Route could not be found” even though I had favourited it beforehand. Eventually after about 5 tries it downloaded and I went to start a ride, but you have to be a premium user to download the route and do turn by turn directions. I don’t have a phone mount on my bike so I signed up for premium. Luckily there was a free save day trial period. I finally got rolling again. The turn by turn directions worked great to get out Blenheim. “Turn left in 50 meters onto …“, and a couple of minutes later “In 73km turn right”. Not thinking much about it I rode into the headwind, trying to think of strategies to break down riding 73km at roughly 20km per hour. Stupid headwind. So I slowly chugged along, further thinking of ways to quit. I stopped a bunch of times, some times I just got off my bike and walked it along the side of the road. My ass was sore as my new bike (<100 km) wasn’t magically fitting me. I eventually caught up to the AirBnb guys and was feeling ok, but really fucking hating the headwind. I stupidly had a time I wanted to be in St Thomas by and was now hours behind that. Also RideWithGPS had ate through 25% of my battery in less then an hour. So I turned it off. I didn’t need directions for another 45km. But now what the fuck was I going to do. I stupidly packed my phone charge cable in my pannier, because I never have phone battery life issues. But today, podcasts had also ate my 23% of my battery, so I was under 50% and now even half way through the ride. Eventually Nick and Vytas came rolling by as I was not giving a fuck sitting on the side of the road and I rolled with them for a while. Super nice guys. The AirBnb guys caught us and we all rolled together until Wallacetown. Nick and Vytas kept going, the AirBnb guys made a quick stop, and I couldn’t give a fuck and stayed for a while. Then I rode to St Thomas, the wind had shifted so I started rolling a little better. I passed the AirBnb resting under a tree. It looked so nice, I was tempted to stop with them. But I wanted to get to St Thomas. I was trying to problem solve for a charge cable. I know there’s a Wal-Mart in St Thomas, but it’s on the other side of town. 

Third Check Point 

Eventually I got to St Thomas. Sat in the Tim Hortons and gave up. I phoned my wife, who phoned her parents who live by and they came and got me. I didn’t want to ride into the night, and stupidly thinking I still had a 100 miles to and judging my current speed I wouldn’t get to Goderich to well after midnight. I’ve only ever rode once over midnight and that’s when I started at 11AM and a fantastic ride. Not today. I texted Chappie that I was DNFing. We arranged when I could pick my bag up the next. The in-laws let me borrow one of their vehicles and I drove my sorry ass home. As I was leaving Vytas said “You could ride with us” and I had already quit by then, but am so thankful to those nice words. I ended up riding 219km in 9:55 of riding and 11:52 elapsed. 

Lessons Learned 

Problem: My Garmin route will fail at some time, what the fuck am I going to do about it? 

Solution: Split the route into per checkpoint, and make sure they are available in RideWithGPS. My guess is that there were to many points and it got fucked up someway. Less points hopefully will make this less likely to happen. Worst case here I pay for RideWithGPS and do turn by turn. 

Problem: Phone Battery Dying / Draining quicker than anticipated. 

Solution: I Had a fucking charge block but couldn’t charge my phone so always pack a charge cable. I’m also going to purchase a battery case that I could charge my phone and still listen to music / get directions and charge the battery case. 

Problem: Losing my Brevet Card 

Solution: I’ve done this twice now after a check point I get the card signed then put it my jersey pocket. I need to find a secure location ot put it. I think beside my charge block in the top tube bag would be the best place for it. 

Problem: Indoor Brevets != Outdoor Brevets 

Solution: Well duh. But there are things I can do to make them more similar. Indoor brevets are ultra convenient and I can help my family out when needed. When I rode the 400km, I make my son, and daughter breakfast and lunch, and helped out with dinner. I need to ride for more similar distances / times that outdoor brevets would have. For example the checkpoints where 70km apart, I should ride for that distance. And only have the food / drinks needed for that period. Also you know, ride outside. 

Problem: How much to eat? 

Solution: I should be eating roughly 60 grams of carbs per hour. I need to keep better track of what I’m eating on training rides to know better how much to eat. 

Problem: Worry about not getting to certain places at the pace I thought I could maintain? 

Solution: Plan on times based off of cut off times. So if I’m not ahead I’m not finishing. Also add an average speed field to my Garmin based off of elapsed time, not riding time. I just need to keep that number above 15km/h. 

Problem: Not having experienced afternoon / night rides 

Solution: Work a normal day, then go for a 100+ride. 

Problem: Not having my gear dialed in for the longer rides. 

Solution: I heard this advice before, but ignored it, gear up for a shorter ride with what you would need for a longer ride. I’ve done a bunch of 200’s with bare minimum on my light road bike so my time ended up being really fast. I even stretched this to a 400km. But for me this doesn’t scale. I don’t feel comfortable riding a 600km ultra light, so I’ll end up going much slower. 

Problem: My lips got chapped to hell 

Solution: Bring lip balm 

Problem: Not feeling like I can put out any power. 

Solution: Not racing an ultra the week before didn’t help as I get this feeling like I can’t / refuse to push. I’ve updated my training calendar to block out two weeks before and after events. I understand the recovery for running vs riding is different, but this will hopefully help me not over commit / set myself up for failure in the future. Also working on longer tempo intervals outside would be helpful. 

Problem: Hot feet 

Solution: New shoes? Meta tarsal pads? I’ve put 10k on my current shoes and still get hot feet on my road bike and touring bike. Not sure what to do here. 

Problem: Fucking tired 

Solution: Rest more, realize I have more time left. I gave up roughly 12 hours in, there was still 28 hours to go. I couldn’t have stayed in St Thomas for an hour or longer then continued on. I think if I do more rando rides the experiences will help with dealing with this. Also I was thinking about doing something like a ride as far as you can in a 24 hour period or align it cut off times. So I could spent a weekend riding as far as I could for 40 hours. 

Problem: Still going? 

Solution: This is a weird one as I had paid for my VIA ticket, and hotel rooms so I was quite committed, but I didn’t ended up doing the 200km outside it ended up snowing and be shit as cold, next one because of family commitments then the weather was absolutely shit the next weekend, and finally the last chance was too close (3 days) to my Ultra for me to ride. Yes I did ride two 200’s, one 300, and one 400 virtually, but as noted before these aren’t the same. 

Next Up? 

Unsure, might ride the 300km Simcoe Lake Loop on the 28th.