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.
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.
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.