Ride Report by Fred Chagnon: You can dampen my map and my phone, but not my spirit!

Ride Start: London, ON

It was still dark, and already raining when Kim and I set off for the departure point; my bike strapped to the hitch rack of the SUV, and all my gear in the back. I couldn’t help but think that I should have done this yesterday when the weather was cool but dry. This was not just a casual bike ride that I could decide to do another day, however. When you register a ride through a club like Randonneurs Ontario, the date is logged and there’s insurance involved. And besides, battling through discomfort is a core tenet of the randonneur.

Kim steered us through the drive through where I picked up two farmer wraps; one of which I ate immediately, and the other I stowed away for later. I thank her for the ride and told her that if I could maintain a pace of about 20kph, I’d be about 10 hours. She initialed my brevet card, we said our farewells, and I set off just before 8AM.

My trusty Trek Chechpoint AL3

The Long Road to St. Mary’s (0 – 40km)

It was only about 500m up the road that I hit my first snag: I wasn’t getting any audio cues from my mobile device. I pulled over and pulled my phone out of my pocket. The marked route was there, as planned, but it seemed the data I downloaded to my device in advance of the ride failed to include audio cues. This meant that I would have to keep my phone mounted on the handlebars in front of me, which presented two issues: extra battery drain, and exposure to the elements. 

The first issue I was prepared for — I had a spare battery pack that I could use to charge the phone, so I could sustain the extra drain that would result from having the screen on. The issue of rain, well, it was supposed to stop around noon anyway, so we’d just have to see how that went. 

About 90 minutes into the ride, I had just passed through Prospect Hill, well north of London. The audiobook I was listening to was interrupted by the robotic ramblings of something else on my phone. At first I thought that my navigation app had decided to start using audio cues, but that delight was quickly dashed. The rain had soaked through the buff I was using as its makeshift rain-cover, and the water had activated talkback mode – the accessibility option for the visually impaired. After struggling to disable this feature for several minutes I finally screamed “Turn Off Talkback” to the Google Assistant. Decades of experience working with technology, and it was proving to be my undoing today. 

I decided to stow my phone in my rear trunk bag to keep it dry. After another 15 minutes of riding however, I had a nagging feeling that it wasn’t going to record the ride that way. Not wanting to lose the digital proof of the ride’s existence I pulled over to confirm. Sure enough, when I unlocked the screen, the navigation app had not yet resumed recording, as a result it cut off a small corner of my route. “Please let that not be the difference between 199 and 200kms” was all I could think. I confirmed the nav was running properly and put the phone in my inside pocket instead.  

St. Mary’s to Millbank (40 – 95km)

Pictures never quite capture fall beauty…

The ride from St. Mary’s had me pretty settled in. I had music, my phone was charging, and the fall colours were beautiful. But the rain was constant. In fact anytime I thought it was settling down Mother Nature would betray me with a gust of strong spray. Eventually I turned south into a strong, cold headwind. I was averaging only 15 kph until I could finally turn back north-east toward Milverton. It was only a few short kilometers, but that battle was draining. On this route, checkpoint 1 was Anna Mae’s Bakery & Restaurant. It was just a few kilometers ahead, but every time I looked at my nav screen it felt like it was getting further and further away. To keep my mind occupied, I began to list the things I needed to do at this checkpoint: eat, drink, pee, change sock, picture, brevet card stamp. 

I let my find conjure up images of the apple fritters I’d heard the bakery was famous for, and maybe something warm to drink, oh and a butter tart for the road of course!

When I finally pulled up to the bakery I wasted no time snapping a selfie. I’d logged 94.6km, and declared victory on reaching CP1. 

Anna Mae’s Checkpoint 1, 94.6km

I removed my helmet and my wet gloves. I fished my brevet card out of my inside jacket pocket and found it was sopping wet, and completely useless. So too was my paper cuesheet. If this were a real brevet event, that would have been grounds for disqualification! I cursed myself for not thinking to pack these articles in the map protector I own for adventure racing events. Nevertheless, I donned my mask and proceeded to the restaurant entrance. 

It was closed. There wasn’t a soul in sight. It was a Sunday afterall, and Google confirmed that the restaurant doesn’t open on Sundays. Why I failed to work that detail into my plan is another thing I’ll chalk up to rookie mistake.

I walked my bike around the side of the restaurant and leaned it up against a bench. I pulled out the farmer wrap I’d bought earlier and ate it while I considered my options. I had food, and plenty of water. I’d taken note of my arrival time at CP1, and the fact that I had no witnesses was likely a non-issue, given the situation. Honestly the only problem I needed to solve was that I needed a washroom.

I removed my shoes and my wet socks. I used a buff to dry the insides of my shoes as much as possible before putting on some dry socks and replacing my footwear. So involved was I in this costume change that I failed to notice the patrol roll up next to me. The officer had clearly been watching me for awhile. 

“You picked a hell of a day for a bike ride” the officer said. 

“No bad weather, just bad gear, right?” I said, unconvincingly.  

“Where are you coming from?” he asked. 

“London” I replied. 

“London?!? That’s a long way back” he said. 

“Should be about 200 kilometers by the time I’m done” I told him. 

“Well you probably do this all time time”, he said, “But if you’re going back through Stratford, try to avoid highway 7, it’s pretty busy today.” I nodded in agreement. I knew my route didn’t touch the highway. “I bet you were hoping for a hot coffee and a pie, eh?” he laughed. 

“Actually, it was their little boys room that had me most excited” I told him.

“There should be a port-a-potty behind the building” he said. He wished me well, and he was gone. I packed up and mounted my bike. I looped around the building, and although there was evidence of a construction operation, there was no port-a-potty. This is normally an issue I could solve with a little discretion, but cycling bibs make that discretion more difficult. My spirits were lifted as I resume my ride. Despite my full bladder, I was fed, I was rested, and my feet were dry. On to CP2.  

Millbank to Stratford (95 – 140km) – Toil and trouble in the Bard’s backyard

My elevated mood was well timed because the afternoon was filled with a series of climbs and descents. I always tell myself that climbs are the price we pay to ride the descents — but today the descents were equally unwelcome. The hard rain just hits harder and cuts deeper as you pick up speed. And so the combination of effortful climbs with grueling descents forced me back into a game of mental endurance. “Embrace the suck”, my aikido sensei would say. And so I did. 

At around 130kms, the Bluetooth earbud I’d been wearing finally started alerting that it’s battery was low, so I pulled over. The earbud’s case stored a little bit of energy, allowing them to recharge when stored. I swapped the dying ear bug for it’s fully charged partner. While stopped I checked my phone and saw my battery was at 35% so I decided to charge it from my portable battery pack. When I plugged it in, nothing happened. I removed the cable and tried again – still nothing. I checked to see if the battery was capable of charging my headlight and confirmed that it was indeed issuing power. Tried the phone again, and this time I saw a warning message that told me the USB port had been disabled because it detected water or debris. Not good, but not something I could deal with by the side of the road in the pouring rain either. I was still 10km outside of Stratford so I resolved to evaluate my options over a pint, which would only happen after I used their washroom (yes, even now this was still a going concern). 

Bad news

The route in Stratford was brilliantly mapped: a picturesque cruise along Victoria Lake that took you right through the theatre district. I imagine on a day that wasn’t pissing it down, where I wasn’t suffering from extreme battery drain anxiety, and worried my bladder was going to burst, I might have even stopped for a picture to take it all in. It was 4:30 in the afternoon by the time I arrived at the 2nd checkpoint. CP2 was marked at the Boar’s Head pub, a British style pub noted for it’s bicycle friendly patio. I pulled into the patio and parked my bike beside two others clearly packed for touring. I hoped I’d be able to swap stories with these individuals, whoever they were. 

Control 2, Stratford — The Boar’s Head 140km

I made a beeline for the washroom. I took a free stall and removed my soaking wet clothing. Once I was relieved, I just stood in place with my eyes closed for several minutes. It might have been five minutes before I finally began to re-assemble myself. I went to the bar to make my order.
“Can I make an order for the patio?” I asked. 

“Oh, hon, the patio’s closed. It’s raining outside”. she replied. 

You don’t say? I supposed I earned that. Honestly this is just an issue I have leaving my bike unattended. I accepted that I’d be eating inside so I sat at a table where I could see my bike parked. I ordered a cider and a bowl of chili. As I waited for the order to arrive, I tried to charge my phone again. Still nothing. The battery was at 10%. 

The waitress arrived with the cider. I took a long swig and sighed deeply. Then I called Kim. 

“Where are you?” she asked, after we greeted. 

“I’m in Stratford, at the second checkpoint” I said. 

“That’s amazing! What time do you think you’ll be back in London?” she asked. 

“I think I need to call it here. Can you come pick me up?”. I explained the issue I was having with my phone, and that I had no cuesheet to fall back on. Also, I really didn’t like the idea of having no means of contact in case of emergency. 

I used what was left of my battery to stop my trip recorder in RideWithGPS, which triggered an upload to the Strava social network, followed by a quick update to Facebook to report on my accomplishments of the day. 

I had one realization that dawned on me while I waited in the parking lot for my rescue ride. For all the challenges I had with technology this day my bike was absolutely perfect. Not once did it skip a shift, make an odd noise, or even an unwelcome grind. I reflected on how much of a mental load it can be for a day like today if you’re not completely confident in your ride, and bike-related mechanicals were the furthest thing from my mind. Someone must take very good care of that thing. (You bet I do!)An hour later Kim arrived. She’d brought a dry change of clothes for me to change into. As we drove home and I related to her my highs and lows of the day I couldn’t help but think about the endurance it would have taken to spend another few hours pushing through the rain, especially as daylight started to recede. A dryer day would have seen completion of the route, I have no doubt, but I have no regrets about knowing when to admit that enough is enough. It’s critical to have a lifeline for events like this, and I was thankful for the rescue.

Live to ride another day, whenever that day may be. 

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