Well I’ve been at home for a couple of months, they’ve been cold months in Melbourne and I wondered how I was going to get the training needed to ride the Canadian Summer. I eventually gave up on Melbourne and bought a ticket North to Queensland’s Sunshine Coast I stopped shivering the minute I paid for the ticket. I desperately needed to get some long distance training in, actually enough daily riding to toughen up my butt. It worked, with the warm rays of the sun loosening my muscles and I was able to get in much needed constant long days in the saddle. I even had a couple of swims. I’m as fit as I can be, in a few days I will be put to the test.
Before I knew it I had arrived in Chicago and floundering about partially jet lagged, partially dog-tired and on unfamiliar territory. I caught up with Eddie Atkinson a work mate from Melbourne who has taken a Construction Management job in Chicago. After work he took me out and showed me his new city. Chicago is impressive and it’s title of Skyscraper city is very much justified. A walk along the river’s edge is difficult with your head constantly stretching up to admire another shrine to someone’s ego.
Amongst the steel and glass towers on the Chicago River, Chicago.
I went up in the Willis or old Sears building, a queue taking an hour and a half to look out over the city from 103 floors up. There below one spire after another stretches high into the sky. At twenty bucks a pop and over 1.5 million visitors per year the observation tower’s a big money spinner. It’s probably ho-hum for those working on the floors below.
Looking down from the 103rd floor of the Willis tower.
The second thing the city is famous for is its food, some tasty, all of it calorie loaded. A Portillo’s “wet” Chicago beef roll with sweet chillies. From the fiery, wild-eyed expression on Eddie’s face I won’t be eating the hot chillies. And it only took me a few seconds to understand wet ? That is having the roll and meat dunked in beef gravy, only in America. As Eddie kindly pointed out, the first two layers of wrapping paper soak up the oily gravy, and are literally transparent whilst the third layer holds the thing together. Eddie mate, Kenny added that a Chicago lean is required to eat the god damn thing to ensure your clothes aren’t completely ruined. Not even running the famous Chicago marathon would free your body of the stodgy feeling after finishing one of these tasty sodden submarines. Kenny ate his with gusto throwing fries into his mouth on alternate mouthfuls, a real local. I visualised his arteries clogging, surrendering to a sea of oil and gravy.
My room in Chicago was just out-of-town in a place called Damen on the Blue line, handy for O’Hare airport. It was typical Brunswick / Fitzroy in Melbourne, partially derelict but über cool till the prices eventually rise forcing the hipsters out.
A four-storey backpackers. Like many of the buildings here it is externally brick with everything else timber. You could hear every footstep on every floor as you lay in your bed. The bed was a steel bunk which played its own unique music every time you rolled over. It was the constant floor squeaking that really did me in. The young guys who started prepping (read skolling beers in the dormitory kitchen) before heading out to party at one am. Yes they went OUT at one am that made me wish I’d been like the real locals…. and had a gun. Must be time to move on. In the morning I flew to Toronto
Toronto, the starting point for my cycling. I’ve lumbered the bike half way around the world and after a luxurious sleep in a proper bed I build the bike in my room. Robyn would have freaked “the carpet, you’ll ruin the carpet” she would have wailed. Wandered around the city for a few hours then took the bike out for a test run. The bike is ready, I hope I’m ready and tomorrow morning I meet fifteen other nutters to head off towards St Johns, in Newfoundland. I’m a bit nervous but I’ve done the training so here goes, most of the others started in Vancouver. Five thousand klms to the West !
As are all “group things” we are a mixed bunch with only our common love of cycling to bond us. That said there are also various levels of commitment. Some want to leave at the crack of dawn, some want to stop and eat ( oh my god actually stop, sit down and eat more than a sandwich ! ) and some just plod along spending many, many hours out on the road with no chance to stop and smell the roses. I’m somewhere in the middle I guess and quickly found a local couple who also started in Toronto. Together with a twenty year old boy, Richard from Vancouver we churn out the klms then break for coffee, lunch or if we are lucky a winery. Before you ask if we spit at the winery tastings the answer is we swallow every last drop ! The countryside is green and pretty and most of our time is on back roads far from heavy traffic.
Our hotel start was the exception to the standard camping days. A camping day starts with a zipper being dragged down, usually at 5.30am and usually by the Austrian, I’m guessing he once lived in Switzerland his clockwork is so accurate. Then like stunned zombies we gather toilet bags and towels to stumble across a wet grassy field towards now neglected toilets. You see most vans today have their own showers and loos so the parks no longer diligently maintain their toilet blocks. Two quarters gives you a decent shower although half of your allotted time goes in working out the various plumbing configurations.
Our tour truck and trailer. Each of us has a pigeon-hole for our clothes and tent whilst the rest is filled with food and the portable kitchen.
The days have quickly found a distinct pattern. I saw it early in the way the ones going the whole way from Vancouver to St. John’s acted in the morning. They don’t think much, in fact the less you think in the morning the less likely you are to question. Why would you would put your body through such continues pressure day after day. ccFew speak, I think scared that if they break the spell they’ll simply stay in their little tent and refuse to come out.
Zips are something I had never really thought much about but in the cocoon that is your tent all sound travels. Bodies turning on squeaky mattresses, coughs, farts and the occasional snorer. We are packed tight together in most campsites and it’s like you are sleeping in a dormitory minus the actual viewing of your group, it’s far from escapism, that comes at each fifth day when we hotel it. But the zips are my alarm clock. Sometimes early if someone unzips their tent for a 2am pee but usually it’s a zip out of a sleeping bag, a zip to open their clothes bag,a zip into their toilet bag for a toothbrush. The big zip is to escape their tent, unfold their stiff selves then crawl the first metre on wet grass before being able to stand unhindered.
Dinner time and we were always starving hungry from the days riding.
Our tents almost spread far enough apart to muffle the snoring.
We fall into groups both by ability and what we are looking for in the trip. I’ll try to explain. There are two from Yellowknife, look it up, it’s further North than whoop whoop. They ride alone, I’m thinking you are either a fugitive or don’t like people to live up there. They are both quirky. Evelyn rides the road, its her road just as much as the cars and trucks. How she has traversed 6000 kms across Canada without being taken out by a frustrated truck driver is impressive, she’s one tough gal. There are three guys mid sixties to seventy-two, yes seventy-two who ride together and eat subway or anything from a food chain found at major highway intersections. Then there is Stefan the Austrian who surprisingly worked with me into a tough headwind yesterday but come lunch rode on, he eats oxygen and no-one has seen him eat anything not supplied by the tour company. He is a machine, fluid riding style, noiseless bike, eats like a surgeon, erects his tent by numbers. His first sex would be with a manual in his shaking hand, you’ve got the picture. Next would be the party boys, an Aussie from Sydney, a Greek Cypriot who has ridden the whole tour in a sleeveless moth-eaten t-shirt he bought twenty years ago on a beach in Southern Europe and the kid, Richard twenty years old, being led astray by the previously mentioned. They have renamed the tour wings and beer… Every opportunity they have they are in a bar ordering chicken wings by the kg and drinking copious quantities of the provincial beer. The youngster is a good rider being pulled back to the pack by the other two amigos….. Finally there is my group, a couple from Canada who are both fit and we ride in a similar style but most importantly we stop anywhere we see a local cafe or restaurant with a veranda and would rather ride another hour into the wind than eat chain muck, so you get the picture. The riding foodies, the tight ar$es, the dubious outcasts and the party boys, there’s room for everyone.I guess we’re all a little quirky otherwise we’d be in a tour bus sleeping against the window.
Awaiting our truck to catch a ferry.
But one thing is for sure the country is magnificent. In the first ten days I have ridden for days next to a very powerful river, the St Lawrence. It was the river that allowed access into the heart of Canada. For an Australian it is mind-blowing in its width and the Great Lakes aren’t puddles. I started seeing them in Chicago and I couldn’t believe I was looking at fresh water. In Montreal I didn’t realise I had ridden thirty klms on an Island in the middle of the river with the city of Montreal perched on it. We are following this huge tributary on much of the Eastern part of the tour but tomorrow we head inland for a few days, we’ll rejoin it in a week or two as it spills out into the ocean.
Rideau Canal, our route into Ottawa.
Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City.
I’ve left Quebec Province and entered New Brunswick, the clocks change by an hour. As if I need to lose an hour sleep. The flatlands through Quebec and adjacent to the river have slowly changed to undulating hills and more forests hugging sparkling lakes. It is my boyhood images of Canada and North America, fishing, camping and tramping through the great outdoors. I feel like I am in some great outdoor camp right next door to the Brady bunch ! The towns are now much further apart with rarely a house between each small town but the beauty of the landscape continually takes your breath away. Everyone is enjoying the summer, it’s short and sharp so the whole country seems to be behaving like this happens every day but I’ve been told come September the cool winds start and the grey skies reappear until a fully blown winter is upon them. Enjoy it while you can, has to be their motto.
A pair of Osprey squawking about something !
We rode into Fredericton yesterday afternoon in pretty warm weather, a day of 164 klms and non stop hills. It has been 620 kms in only four days. Everyone left in good spirits but there was barely a smile between the twelve of us as we rode the last klm, up hill of course, to our accommodation in the Fredericton University. The rooms were stifling hot, they can keep the cold out but are sealed tight with no way of getting the built-up heat back out. Somehow I did my washing and then stumbled down the hill to a bar with most of the others. The warmness of the night, the hunger that comes with a long days riding. The thought of a rest day had me throw caution to the wind and kept me out till midnight. I left the party boys still in top gear and slowly made the uphill walk back to our rooms. With my head already throbbing I lay on the bed until sheer exhaustion and a belly of beer took over. I had a massage this morning, she asked “where is it sore ? ” “Where isn’t it” I thought. Yes, I’m still enjoying it and somehow looking forward to our next week and a bit through the Maritimes region.
The rest days have been poorly described, I’ve been hoodwinked….all I seem to have is enough time to wash out my cycling gear, shave,replace punctured tubes, gather bags of nuts, sweets and dried fruit to keep me going during the riding days. Maybe a layback lunch or a special meal usually gate crashed by one of the party boys whilst I’m trying to recall what has actually occurred, fill in my diary. Straight up rest or sightseeing…..phfff.
We stayed at the Three Bears Camping ground last night. The tent sites were on a steep angle and I envisaged everyone eventually sleeping against the lower wall. The wind roared all night. Bill forecast it would rain today and as I walked back from the toilet block the sky was swirling a crimson red. No sooner had I reached the tent than big fat drops started to slap against the tent. A race against the weather to get my tent down and into the truck before it is a soaking, wet mess that needs drying later in the day. The tent is in the truck in ten minutes then it’s prison porridge,the stiff heavy glug as it hits your outstretched bowl only sweetened with dried fruit, maple syrup and a dash of yoghurt. Suddenly it looks palatable.
We’ve been loving the little country diners, almost disguised to the point of looking closed or derelict. Usually at anywhere from 25-55 kms after our camp breakfast we find one. Inside is another world, laconic but motherly waitresses, who slap plastic coated menus on the tables, pour coffee without asking lick their pencil and fold over their order pad. We all have eggs, I only order them to be able to say “easy over” then there is the bacon grilled or fried, fried potatoes, thick slabs of ham and an array of toast types. Heaving plates are hauled from the kitchen and the cheap talk stops just long enough to thank her before we start shovelling it all in. We’ve had waitresses get us all together for photos, we’ve drunk litres of chocolate milk in unlit bars and we’ve scoffed food with our backs pressed hard against slot machines. Then it’s back on the bikes, a little slowly at first but soon the second breakfast starts to drive the legs. Before you know it another 50-60 klms has evaporated up the road.
We somehow rebelled against racing into camp the other day, we were within four klms of the finish when we found ourselves in a small seaside town. There was one seafood restaurant after another. Five of us clomped in starving hungry and wide-eyed. The special was a pair of canners, three-quarter pound crayfish or lobster for $35. Crayfish are not my thing but the 35 mussels in a tomato based bisque shut me up almost as long as the claw snapping and sucking noises coming from the others. A local red beer washed it all down and one became two, etc. The last four klms were slow due to both the beer and contentment felt by all. The tent erection and showers had us at the camp table just as they served dinner. Yes, we still fronted for a baked salmon dinner although lunch had been enough if it wasn’t for the one hundred plus klms we’d ridden.
Beautiful red morning sky but an hour later a day of drenching rain on the bikes.
We paid the price for kicking back having a lazy lunch, all night the trees groaned behind us from the buffeting winds. We rose to burnt crimson sky and no-one said a thing. Again droplets of rain started to fall as we dismantled our tents. By the time we were eating breakfast it was torrential and we hid in the trailer with our bags hoping we could simply hide there till we reached Charlottetown. It poured for an hour then in a break we left reluctantly. No need to wonder which way we were heading it was always going to be straight into that wind. The wind flattened briefly to allow the rain to build and we were wet, cold and not enjoying much of it. There was to be 66 kms till we reached our first possible cover at the Federation Bridge linking New Brunswick with Prince Edward Island. We pushed on.
Rain-jackets on between showers
In case any of you haven’t ridden in theses conditions I have looked around for comparisons. What about getting that old exercise bike out of the garage, sit it on the front lawn, jump on, find someone with a grudge, give them your garden hose to squirt you between the eyes. Every so often allow them to bend down, pick up a handful of fine gritty road gravel and toss it viciously between your stinging eyes. The others here say I should mention a department store size fan playing on your forehead but I’m thinking you’ve got the picture. Not so quick, you have to sit there like we did yesterday for 144 kms or about six hours, shivering. My skin was a mass of wrinkles and I peeled layer upon layer of soaking clothes into a pile on the floor where it sat till this morning. Am I allowed to say that after more water, this time scolding hot in a bathtub, a quick stroll into town, a couple of beers, some chicken wings and a juicy steak and salad, I felt decidedly good, sick huh ? Oh yeah, it was still raining as we walked back but then as I lay down the lights went out in my world and I slept without flinching till first light.
It was an eventful morning straight after the rest day, a loose piece of steel on the road kicked up and damaged my rear wheel. The next minute there was a snap and a spoke broke. We stopped, I swore, and adjusted the brakes which were rubbing on the buckled wheel. Ten kms later I hear another twang and that was the end of the day’s ride for me. I rode in the truck to the ferry terminal. We sailed from Prince Edward Island to Nova Scotia whilst a couple of the other riders chased up bike shops open on a Sunday. By the time we had berthed there was a game plan and an hour later I was the proud owner of a Canadian Tyre $400 special. A clunky one size fits all bicycle but enough. I finished the day but had to work hard to keep up. So problem solved although I have been adjusting and tweaking the bike to eliminate the many groaning noises it makes. I hope to resell the bike to the local bike shop in St Johns to recoup at least some of the dollars. No one wants it and I end up gifting it to the receptionist in St John when the trip is finally over.
Ferries jumped us across bays and rivers.
Our campgrounds have been right on the water in Nova Scotia, wild weather, big skies and sparkling big bays, the wind chopping it all into whitecaps. The rains come every day here but I guess the greenery wouldn’t be there if it was as dry as Australia. A two month summer ? Chewing through the klms, no distance seems impossible anymore as long as we can find fuel to keep the legs spinning. Soaked to the skin, wet tents every morning yet somehow we collectively rise, dress, eat and then pack our gear knowing when we arrive at our next park we will hopefully be able to dry everything and laugh our way through dinner. Everyone has been supportive of each other and there’s always a word of encouragement, a cheap joke or a tease to keep the mood bright. The two girls driving the truck and cooking seem to have perpetual smiles whatever happens.
The first sad face on the two girls driving and cooking our meals. Crayfish funeral.
The end is tangible, we can almost smell it, reach out and touch it. We arrived at the ferry terminal after a short morning ride and the overnight ferry will plonk us down in Newfoundland and 144 kms to St Johns, our destination. The truck is loaded with the bikes and we sit like normal ? tourists waiting to board. Some wander about, the thought that there is only one more day playing on their mind. This has become a ritual, a trance and it is going to be broken when there is no truck there to get your tent out of in 24 hours. The operator of the tour was right when he wrote in the tour notes that it is as much mental as physical, it has left marks on some of the participants. We sit in the ship’s lounge listening to a young local girl playing guitar and singing many local folk songs which resonate with the crowd with nowhere to go. I look around to observe many older passengers mouthing the words to her songs, she’s hit a strong chord with the passengers.
We all wake a bit jittery, we have 144 kms to do and won’t start till around 10.30am it’s actually nearly 11am when we finally leave. I don’t like late starts. My best riding is always in the morning I tell the others, half asleep I’ve often done 60 kms before I look down to the speedo, then there’s only another 80 kms to the next campground and I can eat lunch with the knowledge that whatever happens I’ll make it in before dark. The day is grey with the occasional strong but brief shower, it only helps to wash the perpetual sweat from my helmet band. Newfoundland or the Rock as it’s known locally is sparse of population except in the towns. Moose signs are abundant but still I see no cows with big ears. I peddle on, the showers are steady but only make me more determined to get this over with. My legs spin like a mix master the clunky bike giving it’s all.
Then around the corner a smattering of factories, new poorly built cottages and then what can be seen of the original town of St Johns. I had my mind set on a sleepy seaside village but with oil and gas exploration the city’s population has doubled here in ten years. The town size has got away on the locals and they’ve been thrust into the 21st century rather reluctantly. I wheel into our hotel, not a tiny place painted in blue and white but a four storey monolith of bricks and mortar. I dump my gear and start to pack, happy to be out of the rain. Then Stefan arrives he wants to find Signal Hill, Ed lends me his bike and suddenly I’m out on the road again pumping my legs furiously up the Hill to a view of the surrounding country tinged in mist. The top of Signal Hill, the finish of my tour, suddenly my ride been given a real full stop. There no more land, no more bitumen, hazy mist as far a the eye can see. Somewhere out there is Ireland, same mist, same soft voices of the locals.
Top of Signal Hill, St.Johns. The Irish mist background is mandatory.
Tonight we drink and ignore any soreness, we’ve arrived intact and all very proud of our achievement. We eat pizza in a small conference room in the hotel weary but satisfied a few speeches are made. We all head out to spend a few hours in George St, a strip full of lively music bars. We choose an Irish pub, fast drinking, Irish ballads and a very talented fiddler leaves the crowd mesmerised. Tiredness overcomes me, it can happen when your body realises it can finally relax. I head back out into the night, the swirling mist wets me to the core in minutes. I can only think of Ireland.
So, it’s over, this morning my head is throbbed but I knew that before I left to go out last night. My damaged bike is packed, we have our last meal together and say our goodbyes. I head to the airport. I’m off to Halifax, Nova Scotia for one night booked a long time ago and then on to New York and a wedding.
So, I board the plane feeling very much alive, and so, so happy to have seen a big chunk of Canada.