By Fred Chagnon, ridden on 17 July 2021
Today was the day — the day I would try to complete my first 200km brevet; an organized group-depart event with the Randonneurs Ontario club. Earlier this year I didn’t think I would be able to make this event, which was a shame because it was the only brevet that starts in my resident city of London, Ontario. I was scheduled to participate in Race the RockStAR, an annual multi-sport adventure race up in the Haliburton Highlands. But it’s cancellation freed up this weekend which turned out to be serendipitous.
However, pulling in to the Tim Horton’s at 6:45AM, I was in a bit of a state. Sure I was excited about the prospect of completing my longest ride to date, and my first official ride with this club. But it was raining, and that was wreaking havoc on my psyche. I had attempted this route before once, back in October 2020, and the all-day rain had played it’s part in preventing me from finishing that solo run. I did not want a repeat of that when other more experienced riders were present.
While I unloaded and packed my bike, my wife, Kim ,went in and bought me breakfast — two farmer wraps, one which barely saw the light of day, and the other which I packed for later. Kim told me that there were several “bike people” congregating inside, so she bid me well and left me in their capable hands.
I sat among the crowd of folks wearing brightly coloured vests amid rain gear. While I introduced myself, many of them were reuniting after not having seen one-another for some time; this being one of the first brevets since the pandemic lockdowns had been lifted. Being in a group was putting my mind at ease. After a group photo, we departed as a group, 12 in total, and were on our way.
The ride within London was wet, but we stayed collected as a group for the most part. I chatted briefly with Brenda and Tim, both of whom had just completed a 400km ride the previous weekend. I met Xinghua who, along with Jersey, had driven in from Oakville earlier that morning. However, it wasn’t long before the lead pack started to peel off ahead, becoming nothing more than an array of blinking tail lights on the horizon ahead of me. Ride your own ride, Fred.
Headwind and rain through St. Mary’s
I queued up an audiobook to keep me company; Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, expertly narrated by Wil Wheaton. The book was periodically interrupted by navigation cues from RideWithGPS.
As I pedaled into the wind and rain along Prospect Hill I eventually lost visual on the group of taillights, but I was aware of a single headlight that was slowly gaining on me. That turned out to be Ben, who had just the day before, made the 220km ride from Amherstburg into London with the rain in his face. I assumed without asking that this also meant that he’d be making the reverse trip home tomorrow — over 600km on the weekend. You’re made of strong stuff Ben.
As the two of us pulled into St. Mary’s the headwind picked up. It was as if the small quaint town was exhaling, doing whatever it could to prevent us from arriving. After the climb on the way out of town I was gassed. My bike felt like deadweight underneath me — as if I was pedaling my old Honda Shadow motorcycle. As Ben continued on his very consistent 20+kph pace, I fell back to something more manageable. Ride your own ride, Fred.
Deja Vu all over again
Somewhere around Rostock I pulled over. The rain had stopped and I wanted to lose my rain jacket. While protecting me from the rain, it was acting like a giant sail, making it very hard to ride into the ceaseless headwind. Since I was stopped, I thought I would check the batteries on all my electronics. My Garmin fenix watch was the most important; it’s job was to record the ride for proof of completion (and bragging rights). Over 90%, so it was going to last. I had a Garmin 200 I was using for visual navigation — it was about 75% so was ok for now. My Android phone was running RidewithGPS for audio navigation cues, as well as audible — 56%. I decided to plug it into my external battery for charging.
USB port disabled. Despite having my phone sealed in a bag secured to my top tube, the rain had found a way in and the phone was wet enough to refuse getting charged. I tucked the phone away in my much safer top box, and told myself to figure it out at the first checkpoint.
Checkpoint 1: Millbank – 94km – 12:15PM
The first checkpoint on the route was Anna Mae’s bakery; a small bakery in Millbank at the 94km mark. While the rain had stopped, the wind certainly had not, making the ride into Millbank a mental and spiritual battle.
My last visit to this place was during a full lockdown, so the bakery was closed. Today, it was open….well….kind of. The pandemic restrictions in Ontario were due to be lifted the following Monday. As I sat on a bench eating the other wrap I’d purchased earlier, I listened to the restaurant patrons bemoan the fact that the bakery was not yet open for indoor dining. This didn’t deter any of them from lining up, however. The more the line grew, the more I knew I wasn’t going to be using that washroom to fill my bottles and empty my own reserves. It seemed that, for a second time in a row, I’d be leaving Anna Mae’s empty-handed (and full bladdered).
I heard the approaching buzz of a freewheel behind me. “Little bit of wind, eh?”. I laughed before even turning around to greet the newcomer. Similarly dressed in a highly visible vest, bike packed for all kinds of adventure, this understatement came from Richard (Dick) Felton. Dick and I had connected briefly online prior to this event, resolving to ride together. However in the flurry of the morning departure I had lost track of who was who and wasn’t sure if he ended up in the lead pack. I was happy with the prospect of sharing the road with someone.
My phone also started accepting a charge, so I secured it away in my top box and crossed my fingers. Dick and I left the checkpoint resolving to find another place to solve the water bottle / bladder issues.
With a blue sky in front of us (and not the stormy kind of blue), it was shaping up to be a nice afternoon as the two of us headed out to close the back half of the route.
Where there is headwind, there must also be tailwind
The moment we made that turn southbound the world went eerily quiet. I’d had the wind in my ears for a solid five hours, and now it was right at my back. Dick must have noticed this too as he commented that “there’s nothing wrong with our bikes after all!”.
Dick was a great riding companion. We traveled at a similar pace, and when the road conditions permitted it, I got to hear all kinds of tales. This was a guy who was now in his mid-seventies, and took up ultra endurance running and cycling only after retiring at the age of sixty. And in that time he’d run in over one-hundred distance running events, and countless randonneuring events. He’d even been to France four times to compete in the Paris-Brest-Paris event. This 1,200km (750 mile) signature event occurs every four years, and is attended by amateur randonneurs who qualify by completing a 200, 300, 400, and 600km brevet within a single calendar year. The next such event will take place in 2023 and Dick figures he’s got one more in him. While Dick wishes he’d have started much younger, he stands as an inspiration to anyone that it’s never too late to make a turn to a healthy and active lifestyle.
Checkpoint 2: Stratford – 140km – 2:40PM
The ride into Stratford was glorious. We’d long passed the high-point of the route, so most of the road before us was filled with sweeping descents and a tailwind that made for easier riding. The sun was out too — it was turning out to be a glorious day for riding.
The route took us along Lakeside Drive which follows Victoria Lake and passes the Stratford Festival Theatre. As we approached the Boar’s Head pub, the site which marked the second checkpoint on this route, we saw no evidence of any fellow randonneurs. Like all eateries, the bar was closed to indoor dining, so we decided to make our pitstop at a Foodland up the road.
When we stopped, I opened my top-box and checked on my phone. Battery was showing 10%, and it refused to charge. I sent my wife a flurry of texts indicating my estimated arrival time in London, and that my phone was likely going to die. I skipped taking a Checkpoint 2 photo. Once the messages were sent I swore as I put the phone away.
“Don’t worry, there’s no need to get angry.” said the angel on my shoulder. (Actually, maybe that was Dick).
While the Foodland didn’t have a bathroom (at least not one they would let someone who looked as though a clown had thrown up on a construction worker make use of), I grabbed some raspberries and a large bottle of water I used to fill my own bottles. Upon depart, the bathroom issue was still unresolved, but it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be handled discreetly once we were out in the country again. And so it was.
The long ride home
At around the 150km mark Dick and I were introduced to another rider in our group approaching from behind. James was from Cambridge, and had missed the group depart. I didn’t catch the reason why — maybe he made the same mistake I did and set his ‘Monday-to-Friday’ alarm for a Saturday morning wake up. Whatever the reason, he’d started an hour after us and caught up. After a brief chat James resumed his regular pace and disappeared into the horizon.
Sustaining an even tempo of about 20kph, Dick and I eventually made it back to London. As we approached the arrival at Tim Horton’s he motioned for me to take the lead. Recognizing this was my first completed brevet, he probably didn’t want me to feel like I was being pulled in by a ride sweep. So I made the final push to finish strong.
As I rode into the Tim Horton’s parking lot, I spotted our SUV. Kim, along with our youngest son West, had been there for an hour and a half! Having lost the ability to track my movements live after my phone died, they arrived early and had kept themselves entertained with a Nintendo Switch. These little adventures don’t work without some degree of support and I’m always so thankful for this from both Kim and the kids.
I introduced Kim to my newfound friend. She mentioned having seen the other members of our troop, who tasked her with the duty of taking our picture upon arrival, before they themselves departed. And so she did.
I had done it! I had completed my first 200km brevet. Like a runner who has completed their first triathlon and wears the mantle ‘tri-athlete‘, I could now proudly call myself a ‘randonneur‘. Lessons learned from this ride:
- Randonneurs are tough as nails. Also very friendly.
- In case of rain, pack your mobile phone like it’s going to be underwater.
- Ride your own ride…
- BUT…if you can find someone who also rides your ride, so much the better.
- Even when it’s raining, pack sunscreen.