Concord to Collingwood, a 400km brevet on 7 July 2018

There are four main distances in randonneuring, the 200km, the 300km, the 400km, and the 600km.

The 400km brevet is my least favourite distance. On these rides I suffer the most, get the most demoralized, usually sustain some type of knee injury, and, worst of all, I feel the most exposed to danger.

That is why I was not very eager to do this Concord to Collingwood brevet, especially considering I had already done it before in June of 2014. It is a particularly challenging route because it goes up and down the Niagara Escarpment three times and has some other very difficult climbs. Of course, the distance is nothing to laugh about either.

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 1.47.17 PM
438km all in. Heading North, then South, and going counterclockwise. Elevation profile below, reading left to right.

My goal was to finish this ride as quickly as possible so I could arrive at the finish before midnight, and thereby avoid the crazy (texting and drunk) Saturday night drivers on my return into the city. Last time, I finished this route before 2 am and did not like it. This year I had trained and prepared to improve my time, but it proved unfeasible. About halfway through the day, I realized that I just was not strong enough to finish as early as I wanted. I had to readjust my expectations and go into survival mode.

The ride started out well. The weather was perfect and the forecast looked promising for the entire day. I was riding strong, even the climb up to Honeywood did not unhinge me.

It was at the bottom of Beaver Valley where my struggle began (165km). I knew I would have to slow down if I was going to finish successfully, but my egotistical side was not quite ready to submit.

I stopped and forced myself to take some photos.

I started thinking about why it is so difficult to capture a true sense of a slope’s intensity in a photograph. Perhaps I am just a bad photographer. There must be a trick.

In any case, this photo below does not do the hill justice. The slope It is extremely steep. One wonders how anyone could have engineered and constructed a road here at all. And, yet, there it is, reaching a leg-draining 16% on its steepest stretch. This looks like a nice photo of a winding road, not a killer hill. If I suggested you were looking straight down 100m into a valley you would think I was lying. But there it is.

Beaver Valley
171km in. Half way up the climb up Beaver Valley

These questions about photographs and slopes helped me to overcome my egotism and to settle down… somewhat.

173 km. On the way to Markdale Canola grows.
A mellow, yellow vista for a good-tempered and temperate heart, or so I thought

But the longing to be faster was not quite finished with me. By the time I reached the next control in Markdale (179km), I suddenly resolved to pick up my pace again. Three things influenced my thinking: one, I expected the wind to start working in my favour, two, I would be riding downhill for several dozens of kilometres, and, lastly (and embarrassingly), I was jealous of all the younger riders who were so far ahead of me.

I pushed hard out of Markdale, and actually caught one of these young men. He did not seem eager to work with me, so I said, “See you in Collingwood!” and kept my pace high. I kept looking over my shoulder to see if he would change his mind and join me. Eventually, he disappeared.

The descent into Thornbury steepened. I stopped pedaling and let gravity do the work for me. I could go faster down big hills like this if I pedaled a heavy gear, but I prefer to use them to rest. I quickly reached 60km/hr. As I flew closer and closer to Georgian Bay I noticed the wind shifting. 60km/hr quickly turned to 45, then to 32. This was ridiculous.

My young friend suddenly appeared behind me. He had an enormous grin on his face. He had obviously pedaled hard down the long descent and easily caught up with me.

With the wind changing and the young man’s grin, my ego finally submitted. Now I concentrated on finishing this ride to the best of my ability, rather than overcoming my anxieties about getting older or satisfying projections conjured by my imagination.

I stopped for a nap. It was a lovely grassy patch under some trees. It was right next to the road, but it wasn’t very busy, so I wasn’t too worried about the traffic. I sat down in the shade, took off my helmet and shoes, and lay down.

255km. Taking a nap before the climb to Ravenna

I do enjoy taking naps on these longer bike rides. Many randonneurs frown on taking naps. Instead, they opt for pedaling slower. If I reduce my speed to 10/hr, they reason, I will rest my muscles and still be 10km ahead after an hour’s time. I’d rather rest in the open air and enjoy some time off the saddle, flat on my back, looking up at the sky. It enables me to actually enjoy the land more intimately. I cease to look at it as a series of roads to be traversed, or a distance to be conquered. The nap allows me to look at the land as a place to be. There it is under my back. It is actually touching me, not my wheels.

Being still and being in motion offer their respective experiences…

A driver stopped, “Are you OK?”
“Yes, I’m OK.”
“Do you need water or a ride somewhere or anything?”
“No, I’m fine. Just taking a little break.”
“OK, well. Just checking. We worry about you!”

Then a farmer pulled up in his tractor, “Are you OK?”
“Do you need…”

You get the picture.

Several people stopped to “help me.” I understand. From their perspective, I must have looked awful. A dried-up, salt-stained, skinny rake of a man lying next to the ditch. I patiently assured them that I was fine. After the fifth car stopped (in the space of 15 minutes), I decided there was no point in taking a nap. Up I got and rode up to Ravenna and then down into Collingwood.

299km. Collingwood wheat

The rest of the ride was uneventful. Now that I knew I was not going to finish the ride in record time, I decided to just go slow and enjoy myself. I took pleasure in all the wheat growing between Collingwood and Creemore. I have noticed more and more wheat in Ontario these days. I must say that I quite like the look of it, both as an entire field and in closeup.

303km. Another break before the climb up Fairgrounds Road, just north of Creemore.

I rolled into Maple/Vaughan after 1am, exactly what I had hoped to avoid. My worst fears were confirmed. The drivers were horrible, especially along Teston Road between Kleinburg and Maple. At times, I felt like I was riding a bicycle in the middle of a midnight drag race. More than once I shook my head, at their wild behaviour and at my stupidity and weakness. At least I was able to finish the ride before last call.

I did not quite make it to the Vaughan TTC station in time to catch the last train back into the city. With the help of two TTC security guards, I was able to catch a bus to Yonge and Finch and catch the Blue Line bus from there. Oh, the conversations you can have with strangers after 2am when you are delirious, dehydrated and starving, and dressed in spandex… perhaps I’ll save that for another time.

I was finished. I didn’t get it done with panache or power or speed, but I got it done. I would have loved to have completed it earlier — both for the sake of safety and my ego — but it wasn’t really necessary. After all, I had 27 hours to finish the whole ride. My time of 19hours and 26 minutes, though not astounding, is still pretty good.

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Diary of a Randonneur by Timo Grav is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


403.7km. Finally done at 1:26 in the morning

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