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Canada 2017

#16: Cycling is…

A succession of never-agains. We pass through towns and lives and businesses in one direction; returning to a place more than once feels unusual. I realised this when we ate breakfast at a motel we’d had a beer at the night before and returning stood out as a novelty.

Temporary companionships, with varying lengths of temporary.  Ranging from short conversations in gas station forecourts, to shared campsite evenings and maybe breakfasts, to a few days riding together. Encounters are always fleeting, but enriching.

An ever-expanding patchwork of knowledge. People value different things and have their own unique experiences to recount and advice to share. So we accumulate a great cross-section of knowledge including Canadian history, local tips, French slang, opinions on the world, solutions to its various problems, and an endless amount more.

Gradual depletions. Of energy, food, money, cleanliness, quality of gear, lubrication of moving parts, concerns about wild-camping or encountering bears.

Gradual increases. Of endurance, daily distances, distances between rest stops, stories to tell afterwards, people met, names learned, moments shared.

Delayed gratifications. You think about a cold soda for thirty miles before you can satiate the thirst and wash away the fatigue of cycling for two hours. You know there’s a toilet in the next section, but you don’t know exactly where.

Inordinate pleasure in restoring yourself to the baseline. Laundry is a privilege, as is a cup of proper coffee in the morning. In town, sleeping in a bed is incomparable to tent and sleeping bag and roll-mat, but at the end of each day camping, tent and sleeping bag and roll-mat is inordinately luxurious.

Arbitrary decisions. Our destination, route, time-frame, diet, budget and attitude is completely up to us. Many times we’ve found ourselves walking with conviction through a town for several minutes before realising neither of us know where we’re going, then bumping into someone or something interesting that makes the decision for us. Curating some of the experience and having this supplemented by random encounters and experiences is rewarding and liberating.

Small accomplishments. Getting to the top of a hill is an achievement, and one you can enjoy multiple times in a day. This is why hills are preferable to headwind: even though you put in the same effort riding each, you can turn around an look at what you’ve achieved when you hit a summit. Arriving in a town that was 80 miles away this morning gives you a buzz of satisfaction every time. As does looking at the ever-lengthening lines we’re marking on our maps.

Occasional hassles. These are inevitable, manageable and forgettable (except for the lessons you learn to prevent them happening again).

Small, simple, frequent and constant pleasures.

#17: sleep


Today is our fiftieth day on the road. So far we’ve paid for accommodation on 13 sleeps.

We gravitated toward campsites earlier on in the trip, attracted by showers, charging, laundry, safety from bears, and the opportunity to lay in without being hassled.

Recently though we’ve mainly wild camped, thanks to a combination of lowered standards and increased confidence in finding somewhere to sleep. (These wild camps have been supplemented by various wonderful and generous beds too, to be detailed in another post!)

Last night was the biggest indicator that our standards have shifted. We slept in a park, side by side under a tarpaulin amongst some trees no more than five feet from the path. Our plan to go a few miles out of town and camp in the bush was waylaid by a combination of a late start, a few pints, and a rainstorm that erupted as we were eating dinner in the park.

It was 10pm when we’d set up and readied ourselves for sleep, and a family walked past. “Oh there’s some bikes!” they said, then “oh, there’s some people…”. Our attempt to hide by turning our head-torches off and sitting still obviously didn’t work.

Their tone was in between disappointment and mild concern, and they walked away at a quicker pace than they’d arrived. We wondered whether bikes made our presence in the park more or less palatable to passing civilians and rangers.

I slept well considering the visibility of the pitch and general sogginess of the surroundings. My mind spent a while automatically assembling a collage of all the sounds it could hear before it was happy to let me sleep: waves lapping the lake shore, muffled sounds of faraway fireworks, insects chirping and buzzing, leaves skidding down the tarpaulin above us, dwindling rain.

As the collage became more sophisticated and its composite sounds more familiar, I imagined fewer bear footsteps and approaching conversations and sleep came easily.

Getting up at 6.30 to avoid capture by park rangers means we’ve had a much more leisurely day, too.

#18: Traffic

“Get the f*ck off the road, you assh*les!”

Our most cryptic yell of encouragement yet, supplied by a blustering red effigy leaning out of a pick-up truck window on highway 17.

Not everyone approves of what we’re doing, which is fine. Some people specifically disapprove of us doing it (“get a job!”, Kristian was told). Others, thankfully infrequent, disapprove of the whole concept of cyclists.

To them I say, “there’s plenty of space for us on the roads yo!”. If you’re against cyclists and reading this and remain unconvinced, email me and we can discuss in more detail. It’s hard to provide a counter-argument more sophisticated than a middle finger when you’re speeding away from us in your pick-up or vehicle of choice.

Usually support – verbal, gestured, honked – is more straight forward and pleasant. Things like “wow, that’s amazing! Ride safe boys”, a thumbs up, a wave, or a couple of good old fashioned horn honks.

Trying to decipher intent behind honks is an ambiguous and interesting game though. A sustained blast seems to signify “get out of the way” or “look out behind you”. A series of short pips usually feels encouraging, especially if it’s a recognisable rhythm. On a bike, the closer a car is when they honk the more hostile it feels, but it’s hard to gauge if this is intentional.

We deal with this ambiguity by taking every honk as supportive.

But trains honking is a different matter. When you’re sleeping in rural places and they honk incessantly through the night it’s a nuisance (apparently this is a legal requirement whenever they pass an un-barriered crossing, which can be quite common). When one honks immediately behind you on tracks running parallel to the road, it’s almost heart-attack inducing.

This happened once and I bowled straight off the road into the shoulder, nearly slipping over, because I thought a juggernaut was approaching in the road and giving me a desperate and last-minute “don’t get flattened” warning.

#19: Montreal

As we arrived at Alex’s front door the odometer read 2998.34 miles since Vancouver, so close to the fortuitous, cinematic moment I’d imagined where Alex’s door would be mile number 3000.

After the puncture-ridden afternoon and lost-in-the-suburbs evening we’d had making our way to Montreal, we didn’t feel like fiddling the numbers and taking a slightly longer route to Alex’s house. Thousand-mile milestone photos are better when it’s light out, too.

Arriving in Montreal on Thursday night capped off a calendar month with only one rest day, and a daily average distance of 58.98 miles (1828.38 miles total between 11/7 and 10/8, with 120.3 the longest day and 20.36 the shortest).

Waking in Montreal on Friday morning, our legs reminded us of that fact with aches and pains that we somehow suppressed on the road. Presumably with the knowledge that we’d have to ride again the next day and that aches would only make it harder. A defence that becomes redundant and ineffective when rest days arrive.

Saturday’s 10k jog around the local landmarks (many of which are located at the top of a mountain) bolstered the aches we’d collected from riding, and gave us a few new exciting ones too. Particularly in our groins for some unknown reason.

Aches aside, resting is wonderful. We spent Friday on the sofa eating biscuits and cheese on toast and watching comedy. The weekend has involved coffee, pancakes, poutine, and lazy meandering around leafy neighbourhoods and galleries. Also a thorough rinsing by the most intense and sudden thunderstorm I’ve ever seen.

In the flat, a shower and laundry and a comfortable place to sit is available whenever we want it. The accumulated grime and grease of the road has been washed off of our skins and spattered temporarily onto the tiles and shower curtain.

Bike grease is still ground into my shorts, and walking around covered in bold stains feels less acceptable in trendy suburbs of a proudly metropolitan city than the more casual streets of a rural town.

#20: Incompetence Patrol

“Just one more episode of Peep Show, then we’re off”.

It was noon on our first day riding after four rest days. We were tempting mishap and testing our theory that things only go wrong when we leave early (which two puncture-fests in three days, both after 7am starts, prompted).

We were half-packed, and decided finishing the remaining two beers before we left would be prudent.

At 1.30: “just one more episode of Peep Show, then we’re really off”.

At 2 we closed the apartment door behind us, and realised immediately my helmet was still inside.

Problematic because Alex had the key at work, and going to collect it this late in the afternoon would almost definitely prompt a light-hearted berating for being disorganised.

So it was either save face and ride without a helmet, or save head and lose face.

At 5, after organising key collection with Alex via patchy wifi, riding from and to and from the apartment, and being called “the incompetence patrol”, we hit the road.

It turns out the theory was false: things can go awry when we leave late too.

The 75 miles we’d planned dropped to “somewhere around 30” and we adapted our route between Montreal and Quebec City to be slightly shorter.

The ride, though short, was lovely. Montreal’s suburbs don’t last long, and you’re quickly in flat green farmland with good cycle paths (although their bridges with only steps are a bit sadistic).

We arrived at a park beside a marina in Vercheres around 8pm and decided to camp there. Probably the most public place we’ve camped yet, but for some reason less nerve-wracking than similarly exposed spots elsewhere in Canada. Either because we’ve been told the Quebecois are more relaxed, or because knowing we wouldn’t be able to understand people telling us to move on removes some of the pressure.

We stood on the manicured lawn wondering if camping there was allowed: there were no signs forbidding it but none inviting it either. A grey area we’ve found ourselves in many times before.

“I bet if we wait here someone will talk to us and tell us it’s alright”, Kristian predicted.

“[something in French]?”, said a guy nearby.
“Parlé vous Anglais?”

Then, within the usual exchange of information about tos, froms, distances and dates, he coloured the grey area and assured us camping would be fine.

“There’s potable water there too, and a toilet block there.”

It’s interesting how much faith we’re happy to put in one person’s approval on this trip. It turned out the guy (Renault) was right: we camped hassle-free.

Another case to back up our other theory that things end up going right even if they went awry briefly earlier 😉