Caution - fresh gravel.
Road unmaintained ahead.
Steep descents, not to fear,
You chose the right tread.
No winter maintenance.
Wait, but is there summer care?
With ruts and rocks poking out,
The trails are all but bare.
No exit, no sign at all.
Hills that wind around the bend.
A long day in the saddle,
What a perfectly exhausting blend.
I asked myself several times leading up to this ride if it was foolish to do. Foolish to do in one go? Foolish to do solo? Foolish to do three days before I moved across the country? I have zero regrets though, and would do the same if given the opportunity, despite my sleep deprived state.
My longest ride before this was 225 kilometres on a fully loaded bikepack rig, across the same escarpment, twice (Summer in November). In theory, adding another 15 km, and more elevation gain seemed like an achievable goal. I had, however, been riding very little up until this point this year, busy with getting ready for the big move. But hey, endurance is sometimes more about preparation and mental fortitude than fitness. I wanted to complete a solo challenge before I left Ontario, a memento of sorts. And that was enough to get me in the right headspace.
I didn't have much time to make delicious homemade snacks, so rather than stress, I bought an assortment of goods to get me through the day, knowing the pièce de résistance was going to be a sandwich from the Ravenna General Store. I had eaten a sandwich from this store while on the BT 700 route the summer prior and it was noteworthy. So noteworthy that I hacked off 17 km of the official No Winter Maintenance route, and tacked 17 km up at the top so the store was enroute. It looked like this:
I packed pretty heavy for the day, wanting to be prepared for mechanicals, change in temperature and darkness. It kind of looked like I was ready for a bikepack without the sleep gear...
I got to bed quite late, bags all packed and ready to rock and roll... only to be awoken at 3 am to the sound of an engine revving in the neighbourhood. Unfortunately (fortunately?) I was too excited about the ride so couldn't get back to sleep. So I decided to do a little prehab and get on the road. I arrived at my start, Hockley Valley Provincial Park, just as the sun was peaking out. I tried to curl up in my front seat for a little nap (car was full of move items at this point) with no luck. Okay, cool. Let's do this ride on three hours of sleep.
It was a chilly start! And I was not bold, and did not start cold. Subsequently, I needed to rip off my arm warmers around the first gravel bend. Kind of ironic (iconic?) that my first gravel road presented me with a sign that said 'Caution. Loose gravel and grading work.' The tone for the day was set. I got a little lost finding the first bit of trail, which jutted out from the road up a steep incline which I walked as I was attacked by mosquitoes. I was a bit anxious at this point, letting thoughts of 'what am I doing out here' creep in. Thankfully, thoughts of 'you can do this; it's okay if its a fumble of a start' also crept in. The flowy singletrack in Mono Tract Forest helped me to reset.
For a while after, I was just in awe at what a gorgeous blue sky day it was. Smooth gravel and sunshine; nothing to complain about.
I think it was somewhere in Boyne Valley that I spotted my first BTers of the day. The BT 700 Grand Depart was four days prior so there were some bikepackers still out and about. We said hello as we crossed paths, keeping our momentum in the hopes that mosquitoes didn't target us. Spotting BTers got me very excited. On the gravel roads outside of the valley, I spotted a couple more on the other side of the road, waving. So far everyone seemed to be having a good time. My memory again is a bit foggy here, but I think it was in the Garden of Eden that I ran into a solo BTer walking up a huge sandy hill. She was not having it and thinking of quitting when she reached her bed and breakfast at the end of the day. I tried to give her a little nudge, and reminded her that it was still early in the day, and parted with a smile. (She did appear in route finishing photos and I was super proud of her for finishing. BT 700 is one thing. BT 700 solo for five days is another.)
I had a list of stops on my phone that I was sure to hit and rehydrate at the least:
70 km water - Singhampton Mylar Restaurant
100 km food - Ravenna General Store
105 km rest + water - Bowering Lodge
125 km water - Kimberley General Store
145 km water - Feversham General Store
200 km food + rest - Mansfield Convenience Store
I made it to Singhampton to find that the restaurant hadn't opened yet since I departed earlier than planned. I stocked up at a gas station and jumped back on my bike, with the promise of a sandwich in the next hour or so.
I got to Ravenna and had my sandwich made and wrapped up to go, shoved it in my feedbag and kept on pedalling to Bowering Lodge. I had slept in the grass here during BT 700 and knew I wanted to take a little nap and visit with Richard, the owner. Luckily he was around and we got a chance to catch up while I ate my sandwich in the hammock. He is the sweetest man and full of so many adventure stories. I'll definitely be planning a stay when I go back to Ontario to visit.
Shortly after my arrival, two BTers arrived. We chatted a bit but then it was time for my forced nap out on the back deck on a shaded lawn chair. I eventually fell into a drool-worthy deep sleep and awoke to my alarm clock. When I went back to the front, the two BTers had left and two new arrived. One turned out to have a mutual friend (who did the BT 700 with me)! His friend had lost his phone a couple kilometres, and much elevation back on an offshoot. Since NWM is the reverse of the BT 700 in this particular section, I offered to do the offshoot also and see if I spotted it. Unfortunately I did not find it. (I really thought I would since I have good phone karma! I forgot my phone in a hostel in Patagonia once and coworker who was visiting the same town a month later retrieved it for me.)
It felt like I got to Kimberley pretty quickly after the phone detour. In Matt-style, the route could have stayed up top the escarpment, but instead there was a steep descent into Kimberley, only to turn around and climb right back up. I made it about halfway up the rocky ascent and then practiced my remounting so I didn't have to hike-a-bike. I'm still on the fence about hike-a-bike being a good break for muscles, it absolutely exhausts me, but perhaps something I will grow to like.
And just as quickly, I made it to Feversham for a water refill and cold ginger ale. At this point, I had reached 140 km and somewhere in the ballpark of 2,000 m elevation gain. Still feeling good and ready for more.
The middle of the day seemed to go on forever though! I was getting worried when it seemed 'flat'. Where were the big hills? Where was the additional 1,500 m elevation gain? At this point my back started to hurt (I was riding a weird makeshift bike fit - in between two fit suggestions but not quite right). I took a long break where I talked to the cows. The herd saw me and quickly came to the fence to hang out. Apparently one of my simple pleasures these days is talking and petting pasture animals as I was quite happy in this moment. I continued on and found a baseball diamond where I could rest my back on the bleachers. My pinched nerve in my neck had also started to flare up so a break was definitely needed. After about half an hour, I hobbled back on the bike. Let's do this.
I was still chugging along, stopping to take photos when I wanted, even though I knew darkness was approaching. As I honed in on Mansfield, I decided to cut off a block of the route and beeline for the convenience store that would be closing on the hour.
So here I was, sun setting, in Mansfield with a craving for something warm. The store owner was so kind and boiled me water (instead of giving me warm tea water) and even gave me some chop sticks to pair with my noodle soup. I sat there as the sun went down, eating my soup and laughing that it was 10 pm and I still had 40 km to go. Luckily I'm not too scared of night riding and find a sense of calm in the crisp air and quiet surroundings. This is where a large chunk of the remaining elevation gain was found. It's interesting climbing hills in the dark when you can't always see the crest.
One of my first turns was into an uphill sandpit. Thanks Matt. All I could do was hike-a-bike, laugh and stop and take a photo. Once out of the sand, it was all gravel and pavement meandering back to the start.
This was my first ride with my new Wahoo Elemnt Roam... and unfortunately it malfunctioned twice. Shortly into the darkness, and 57% charged, it died on a whim. Thankfully it recovered my ride and I kept on pedalling. About an hour later though, it stopped picking up GPS signal and lost the route, even with a reboot! This just so happened to be after passing barking dogs on a road, only to hear another in the distance barking that I was to pass. Something about riding past barking dogs in the dark didn't sit well... so I pulled out my fully-charged Bolt and used it to detour past that road and to the finish.
I arrived at the parking lot to decide if I would nap in the car and drive home or head on over to my friend's house less than 20 minutes away. Oddly there were people camping in the same parking lot when I arrived... likely Bruce Trail hikers that wanted an early start the next day. I opted for sleeping in my bivy in Sarah's backyard - who is the most excellent BT 700 aid station host! I was grateful to catch up with her and the doggos in the morning one last time before my travels out west. I will miss this crew!
All in all - 237 km and 3,536 m of vertical. A solid day on the bike. And I was happy the entire 18.5 hours out and about. Even when my nerve flared up and I had to take a break at the baseball diamond. Even when darkness fell. Even when my GPS computer malfunctioned in the pitch black. It was really fun to try this solo and see if I could do it, at my own pace, while still enjoying the day. Turns out almost 6 hours of that time was me taking breaks at rest stops, napping, talking to people I met along the route, phone hunting, taking photos and petting animals. Wouldn't have had it any other way!