March to the Nuke, a 600km Brevet on 21-22 July 2018

They call it The March to the Nuke because it goes from Barrie to the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station north of Kincardine. But it goes much further than that. After leaving Kincardine, the route goes east to Teeswater and then south to Clinton. After that, it carries on east and north, going through Stratford, Elora, Fergus, Orangeville, Shelburne, and Creemore. From there it cuts across the north end of Base Borden and then returns to Barrie. In all, it is just over 600km. Here is a rough map.

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The route. All 600k in one go. Starting in Barrie and moving counterclockwise. Elevation profile below map, reading left to right.

I finished The March to the Nuke in 27 hours and 35 minutes (total elapsed time). I have never completed a 600km brevet in such a short time before. I am not sure how to account for it. For most of the ride, it felt as if some giant force or god was moving through me. It was as if I were a moon, and all the electromagnetic and gravitational forces of an enormous planet were moving through me, turning my insides, folding my core, and generating an immense and everlasting force. It was if I were a burning, molten moon of volcanoes and lava lakes.

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Io, the most volcanic body in the Solar System. Its insides are tides, twisted and swirled by Jupiter’s immense gravitational pull. Image in the Public Domain, courtesy of NASA, Galileo Mission, 1999.

True, I did capitalize on opportunities as they arose, like tailwinds and descents. They helped a lot. True, I had trained for months for this ride. Yes, I can take some credit for my feat.

But there was something else, something unaccountable. I seemed able to fight the elements tirelessly: I fought the wind all the way from Kincardine to Orangeville, and from Fergus to the ride finish I fought the rain and the cold. It’s not that I didn’t struggle in the wind, it’s not that I didn’t shiver and moan in the cold. I truly did. It’s just that the all the struggling and the shivering felt surmountable. And were it not for the little breakdown I had in Shelburne at 4:30am (more on that later), I could honestly say this March to the Nuke was my most inspired ride in over thirty years of cycling.

0km – 74.4km Barrie to Feversham
There were four of us, and we were pushing a very heavy pace out of Barrie. It was exhilarating. It felt great to count myself as one these cyclists: one of the strong, one of the fastest, and one of the most experienced. But there was one problem.

I was very concerned about our fourth rider. He was new to the club. He had never ridden a 600km brevet before, and he had already DNF’d on two 400km brevets earlier in the season. By riding with us, he was ensuring another failure, or so it seemed to me. I genuinely wanted him to succeed, and I knew he could do it, too; but he would only finish if he picked the pace that worked best for him.

There are certainly good reasons to ride with others—safety, a shelter from the wind, companionship. But in randonneuring you must be prepared to ride alone. It is unreasonable to expect to remain with others when the distances and times are so great: someone will want to go faster, and someone else will want to go slower; someone will need to take a break, and someone else will want to carry on. Riding someone else’s ride will cause you pain and suffering. It might even force you to quit, and, since you could be hundreds of kilometres away from home, quitting can be very expensive and inconvenient. (Are you going to take a cab from Clinton to Toronto?) I am not suggesting that teamwork cannot happen in randonneuring. It can and it does. And when it does, it is very productive and usually fun. But when I think about doing a brevet—especially a 600—I think first and foremost of solitude.

I looked behind, and our fourth rider was gone. It must have been difficult to let us go, but he did the right thing. Godspeed, brother. A few days after the ride, he sent me an email. He told me he had finished The March to the Nuke, and all on his own, too. You could see his pride and sense of accomplishment brimming out of his email. I was very happy to learn about his success. He is a really kind and fun-loving guy, and I did not feel good about leaving him behind, but I would have felt a lot worse if he had burned out and quit because he felt any pressure from me.

“I guess he decided to slow down,” said one of my companions.

“Yes, it’s good. I was worried.” I replied.

“Agreed. I think he was starting out way too fast for him,” chimed in my other companion.

I then gave my homily on realism in randonneuring. I will briefly summarize it here. You must ride your own ride. You must not allow others to prevent you from riding your own ride. If you think a pace is too high for you, then you must slow down. But, if you think you can manage a higher speed—a more daring ride—then you should go for it, and not allow others to slow you down. Go as recklessly or as sensibly as you can. Don’t try to be someone else.

So, realism in randonneuring is about knowing your limitations. Since you can’t ever know these with scientific precision, you have to depend on the interplay of experience and imagination: you should never get carried away thinking you can exceed your limitations; but nor should you ever think your limitations are so great that you can’t get carried away.

74.4km – 103.5km Feversham to Dundalk
Now we were a group of three, heading southward into a strong southeast wind. A series of wind turbines spun quickly in the distance. More were ahead. We worked together well: each took his turn fighting the wind so the other two could rest in the slipstream. This struggle was only to last for 18km, after which we would turn right and get the tailwind. But it was a taste of things to come: we would cross swords with this headwind again in Kincardine, and it would resist our hopes and dreams all the way to Orangeville, a distance of approximately 250km.

I knew this thanks to my thorough and weeklong study of Windfinder, which had revealed that the wind would be pouring out of the southeast and east all weekend long. There would be a slight lull in the evening and through the night, but it would return in the morning with higher speeds and gusts. The wind was also then expected to shift and come out of the east.

Since I had projected to take at least 30 hours to do The March to the Nuke, this knowledge was intimidating. To compensate, I developed a strategy. Up ahead, past the turbines, we would make that right turn. From that point onwards we would have a beautiful tailwind all the way the Bruce Nuclear Power Generating Station, a distance of about 120km. I intended to make the most of the wind. It was strong, and I knew it would enable me to reach Bruce Nuclear incredibly fast. My aim was to shave time off the beginning of the ride so that I would have a cushion later. Perhaps, if I was lucky and determined, I could make it all the way to Orangeville before the wind shifted and came from the east. This was an unrealistic goal, but I had to try. If I could manage it, I would have a tailwind pushing me all the way to Creemore, rather than the blustery crosswind that was sure to arrive later on Sunday. And who cared what happened after that? Creemore to Barrie is always doable. I suspect I could even finish that ride during Armageddon.

Just before we turned west out of the headwind, the road led us under the final wind turbine. It stood right next to the road, vibrating and buzzing jarringly with the passing of each blade. It felt like we were sneaking past a giant monster. I recall its immense and chopping shadows, swinging right across the road and over us. They swept quickly and repeatedly over the head, shoulders and back of the rider in front of me. This sight actually made me shiver. We were strong now, I thought. We were sharing the burden of the wind now. What about later? How will we feel in twelve hours? How will we feel in twenty-four?

I was not going to waste that tailwind once it had me in its embrace.

104.5km to 240.3km Dundalk to the Bruce Nuclear Power Station to Kincardine
We tried riding together after Dundalk, but somehow our cohesion started to break down. I took my turn on the lead. I checked over my shoulder and found that my companions had allowed me to pull away. Was I going too fast? I had been watching my speedometer closely, both when I drafted and when I took the wind. I had thought my speed was consistent. I wasn’t trying to drop anyone. Perhaps it was my homily on realism?

I chose not to think anything of it. It was such a powerful tailwind. I was enjoying myself. From time to time I checked back: they were always just in sight. Gradually they got closer, and before I knew it they had caught up with me. After that, we rode together between Markdale and Chesley, always with that wonderful tailwind.

We reached Chesley just after 12pm. We had a control there. I was concerned about this control: the bridge was out, and most of the town was across the river. We coasted up to the Road Closed sign, and looked at each other, indecisively. It was weird. We had been riding for seven hours with such purpose; now we just stood there, astride our bicycles in the middle of the road, looking at each other. An awkward silence ensued. Phones were pulled out. Wives were placated and reassured with texts. We were all getting a little embarrassed and irritated when, finally, I suggested Chesley Fuels and Convenience as our control. It was just up the road and on our side of the river. It also lay directly on our route.

This should have solved all our problems, but somehow things only got worse. By the time the gas attendant had filled out each of our control cards, it was clear that we would not be riding together any longer. First, the joke I cracked about the anatomy of Big Bruce, the giant Hereford bull (or steer) statue across the lawn, fell completely flat. Next, one of the riders was severely exasperated with me for calling the town “Chelsey.” (All this time I’ve been calling it Chelsey, and I don’t even like soccer, I apologized, somewhat sarcastically). The last straw was when I suggested getting lunch together in Paisley. Both men looked at me like I was a madman.

“I’m not stopping for lunch in Paisley!” said the one who was fastidious about place names.

The other randonneur stared at the ground, his eyes bulging, his toes kicking the dirt, as if he was embarrassed for me.

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Big Bruce, the Hereford statue in Chesley and the source of some controversy and embarrassment

I’m not sure what was so horrible about my behaviour. All I had done was crack a silly joke about a bull (or steer), mispronounce Chesley, and propose we eat lunch together. My companions had confused me, but one thing was very clear:  if we were already having difficulties in Chesley at 1pm, then things between us would probably be a lot worse by 1am. It was a shame. We had worked together for 174km—that’s more than 100 miles. Most cyclists rarely ride that far. We should have been proud of our accomplishment. I was. I still am. But now we were tired, and fatigue was making us grumpy. We had helped each other get this far, but apparently we had tested each other’s patience in the process. Clearly the time had come for us to do our separate rides.

I bought a Pepsi. It was my first caffeine of the day. I took an Advil. I wasn’t hurting yet, but I knew I was going to start hurting soon. We all left Chesley together, but in less than 500 metres I was riding entirely alone. And I didn’t look back either. I rested my elbows on my handlebars to assume a more aerodynamic position. I found a good gear and spun my legs at 90 rpm. My Garmin said I was doing around 35km/hr. It did not feel like I was overdoing it. By the time I was closing in on Paisley, I was doing closer to 40km/hr. There was no way I could stop in Paisley for lunch. I can get food in Kincardine! I ripped through Paisley like a child opens Christmas presents.

I quickly escaped Paisley, and soon I was in another realm of wind turbines. I rode past dozens. I barely took notice. Polyphemus and his siblings couldn’t threaten me, not this time. Unlike this morning, now I had a perfect following wind. Mother Wind. She had my back. And I was flying. I would’ve dared phantoms and the Devil to a race if they had had the audacity to show up. And I would have beaten them, too! Again, I rested my elbows on the handlebars. Again, I spun at 90 rpm in a big gear. Again, I increased my speed. There were 45km to cover between Chesley and Bruce Nuclear: I had covered that distance in just under 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Isn’t this hubris?

If it is, then hubris feels amazing! Such speed! Such panache!

But … such impudence, too! Not to mention imprudence… It was imprudent impudence… or it was impudent imprudence.

In any case, I had gone unforgivably fast. It was exhilarating, but doubts accompanied me: yes, it was daring, yes it was fun, but had I been reckless? Only time would tell. All I could do was just keep on going. I would have to wait and see if this March to the Nuke would leave me crying and cursing, or if I would get back safely to have supper with my family on Sunday night.

to be continued…

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Aerial photo of the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station, the largest nuclear power plant in the world. Image taken by Haljackey [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
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Copyright T, 2018

Creative Commons License

Diary of a Randonneur by Timo Grav is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://weavingwildroads.com/.