Monday, July 14, 2014

Crossing boundaries - Lap of Lake Ontario 1000K July 2014

Take a look at a globe, any globe. Look near the eastern side of North America along the US - Canada border and you will see Lake Ontario.  Lake Ontario is 193 miles long and 53 miles wide. Its north shores are in Canada and its south shores are in NY State. The border crossings are bridges at Thousand Islands on the East and Niagara Falls on the West. Lake Ontario is one of the Great Lakes formed by glaciers thousands of years ago. 

The Lap of Lake Ontario is a 1000 Kilometer (622 miles) long randonneuring event that has a simply stated goal; ride a bicycle around Lake Ontario, carry everything you will need with you, and complete the trip in less than 75 hours. The ride had no drop bags or pre-arranged sleep stops. Each rider would be responsible for figuring out when, where and how long they slept, ate and rode.


I was one of the 42 riders who showed up to take on the challenge. Riding across an international border would be a first for me. Also, although I have completed one 1200K, this would be my first attempt at a 1000K. For several of the other riders this would be not only their first 1000k attempt but their longest ride to date. Completing the ride would put many of us in new territory - in more ways than one. Everyone of us would have a different experience taking on this challenge. This is a bit of mine.

Bagpipe Serenade

 George S., JB and I had agreed to ride together. Lucky for me, JB had done the route several times before and had a strong knowledge of the course. George was a first timer like me. Our basic plan had us riding about 300 miles the first day, 200 the second and the final 122 on the third. Yup. That was the plan, despite the fact that I had never before attempted  to ride 300 miles without sleeping. It had all made sense when I read the email months ago. Now the butterflies were having a dance party in my stomach.

The ride began at 7 pm on July 9, 2014. Pete D., the ride organizer, lives in Ontario NY right at the edge of the lake. I made the six hour drive and arrived at around 4:00. It seemed like most of the riders had arrived an hour or so before me. A few more would soon arrive. I checked in then found George and JB. They had driven up from NY with Steve Y. Gil from Jersey City and Andre from NY were also there, so the six of us packed into Steve's rando minivan and headed off for a pre-ride early bird dinner. 

By the time we returned, just about everyone was there and final bike prep was underway. Energy levels were high. I met Susan O. (from Oregon) who had ridden from Chicago (over 600 miles) to get to the ride start and was now ready to ride 622 more. I also got the chance to meet up with DC Randonneurs, like Mike W. and Mike B., who I know from Facebook and one past ride. Everywhere you looked introductions and re-introductions were taking place amidst the joyful melancholy of the music of bagpipes:   

video

Soon enough, Pete gave out final pre-ride updates and information. Then we were off.

Moonlight and the Gazebo

The Seaway Trail is a collection of roads that create a scenic route around a good part of Lake Ontario. We are on the trail almost immediately. A tailwind pushes us along into an easy fast start over the flat to light rolling terrain. The conditions allow many of us to ride together and the energy of the start carries over into the road as we converse, mingle and acquaint. Above us, the blue sky is slowly slipping into its little blue-black dress to go with the large pearl moon. Ahead, the road stretches interminably to the horizon. On our right, the fields shine gold and green in the setting sun. On our left sits Lake Ontario; patient, calm and immense.

The waxing moon makes an early appearance over the water. As darkness falls, we transform into red lighted fireflies and white lighted will-o-wisps; dancing lights that stay just out of reach as they recede into the distance, twinkling along the length of the road. 

Time and speed soon sorted the riders. Soon we three were riding with Gil and Mike W. and the five of us continued as a group. Early in the night, Gil had a flat. We stood around and "helped" while he changed it. Then we were off again.

Some enjoy night riding. They find it peaceful and contemplative. Others endure it, pushing back against the claustrophobic blanket  of darkness and the disembodied sounds of nocturnal creatures. For me it is not the darkness that is the issue, it is the time of night. A time when I should be sleeping. Did I mention that the ride started at 7 pm? After an all day drive? Well by the time 2:00 am came along, I was more than ready for some shut eye. It was well past my bed time. 

In the wee dark hours, Mike W. flatted. I decided I could best "help" by sitting down and closing my eyes. Then George pointed out the nearby town gazebo. Three or four of us walked right over to lay down on the warm wood floor. I set my watch to alarm in 10 minutes and I was asleep so fast my snoring almost woke me right back up. 10 minutes later, we are off again, riding under the colorless light of the moon.

The long night is a challenge, but the company I keep lightens the burden. The conversations are engaging and funny, the silence is comfortable and the pace is brisk but not exhausting. Then we get the reward of the all night ride, the opportunity to watch a full and gorgeous sunrise.











We had planned to have breakfast in Cape Vincent, 136 miles after starting, but we arrived before Cape Vincent was awake. The marina was closed. No diners open. Only the quiet rhythmic lap of water against the docked boats. Breakfast would have to wait about 15 miles and the Koffee Cove in Clayton. About 5 miles into the breakfast run, George, JB and I formed into a paceline and our speed began to ramp up. Soon the breakfast train was running express knocking off mile after mile. As we hammered our way to coffee and calories we offered others the chance to hop on, but most, wisely, declined. So we pressed, on streaking into the rising sun, feeling the full power of a new day.

Thousand Island stare


At its north eastern point, Lake Ontario flows into the St. Lawrence River. About 1500 small islands dot the waterways. Some are no larger than the house that sits on it. We cross the Thousand Islands area by walking our bikes across two long bridges whose narrow pedestrians walkways bounce and vibrate with each passing truck. We walk  hundred of feet in the air. Some of  us (Mike and George) bravely hold the bridge to stabilize it as the trucks pass. It worked: they managed to get through with dry shorts.

Border crossing

I will always remember crossing into Canada by bike. The getting there made the being there a truly momentous occasion. The crossing was straightforward. Show the passport, answer a few questions and done. Of course when the Customs officer asked how long I would be there, my mind instantly went blank. I asked him "A day?" as if he would know if that was the right answer but he said nothing and handed back my passport. By the way, Canadians don't stamp American passports - even if you ask for one.

The first day in Canada was what I had hoped; the signs were in English, but still different enough to be clearly foreign. The distances were given in Kilometers. We used an ATM to get Canadian money and tried to figure out the difference between a looney (one dollar coin) and a tooney (two dollar coin). We rode bike paths and into quaint small lakeside towns. Although it was Thursday, we found festivals in more than one town. In one town where we had lunch, I decided that another 10 minute nap was in order. Just as I lay down on the park grass on my ultra light air mattress (best overall addition to my brevet equipment) the band started playing! Luckily, with a thumb in each ear, sleep was just a few deep breaths away. Minutes later, up again and back on the bike.

We rode through Canadian farmland along the Loyalist highway until the sun crossed the sky to settle on the western horizon.

Under the cover of darkness, we rolled up to the Lotus Hotel in Coburg and ended our 36 hour day and 294 miles of riding (in 27 hours) with 3 blissful hours of sleep. 

Toronto 

Toronto almost ruined the entire trip. Toronto all but drained the joy from the ride. Now I can understand how their mayor got elected. The course routes around most of Toronto and then through the western side. However,the route around still goes through the suburbs of Toronto. 

The timing of the ride meant that we arrived at Toronto mid-afternoon and would spend most of that afternoon and early evening dealing with Toronto. Here's why that was a problem: At the risk of overgeneralizing, the people in Canada were some of the friendliest and politest I have ever encountered anywhere - so long as I met them in person. However, the drivers in Toronto were like the evil twin to that personality. I have lived in and ridden bicycles in numerous cities and small towns and Toronto has more dangerous, aggressive and just plain reckless drivers of any place I have had the displeasure of visiting. They tailgate each other, the pass on blind curves, they menace cyclists by driving a lethal speeds within inches of riders. 

And to make matters worse, we were there during full daytime traffic after not having slept much for over 24 hours. Riding through Toronto was stressful, dangerous and, in all candor, not worth the risk. For the first time ever, I have to say that I would not do this ride again unless the ride was to re-routed to avoid Toronto or timed to start so that it goes through Toronto very late at night when, hopefully, all those raging idiots are off the road. 

I took no pictures in Toronto and for that I have no regrets.

Where to sleep? When to Sleep? 

Ride organizer Pete and volunteer Marcia, met us in Erin Mills. The work that they put in to keep track of the riders, show up at controls with food, water and information, to set up secret controles/refuel stations along the hardest parts of the course was simply astounding. They worked as hard if not harder than any rider in taking care of all of us. It seemed like they managed to be everywhere for everyone. Truly momentous support, especially for a ride of this length.

The hamlet of Erin Mills was near the end of the Toronto segment. It was also getting close to the end of the second day. Randonneurs overlapped at the control, eating, making calls and gearing up for the next leg. Our group of three - George, JB and I - had reservations in NY just across the border. Mike W. had reserved a room in NY with another rider. Gil had no plan. Others were staying in Canada near the border. The first option meant getting to bed about midnight and "sleeping in." The second option meant stopping earlier but getting another early start the next day. Despite our plan, after having ridden 420 miles on 3 hours sleep, getting to bed sooner was my preference, I wanted to go with the second option. Plus we could see Niagara Falls at dawn. We left with unresolved plans and re-entered the Toronto traffic fray. Luckily, in just a few miles, the suburban asphalt sprawl gave way to greener pastures. The drivers however, were still from Toronto. . .

  Keeping the Universe in Balance

One given in this sport, as in life, is that all things will eventually change. Eventually, Toronto receded below the horizon. Eventually, we returned to low trafficked roads and scenic views. Eventually, the Niagara escarpment rose into view. JB said we would have to climb that escarpment before crossing the border - but the climb was not too bad. Hearing that, I resumed my recitation of all the reasons why crossing the border after sleeping was really a good idea. George and JB agreed - or let me have my way. Either way, I was relieved. I really needed some off saddle time, especially before a big climb.

At the next control, we called and cancelled the NY hotel but were unable to reserve a place in Canada. 441 miles in and coming into the early evening and we officially had no confirmed place to stay. We were riding without a net. It was also just the three of us again.  Gil and Steve Y. had agreed to share a room and had left to get there. Mike W. was committed to making NY and left to get there.

So the three of us left to ride the 45 miles to Niagara on the Lake. The accumulated mileage and lack of sleep weighed heavily on me. We agreed on a riding pace and, at my request, tried to keep it at about 14-15 mph so that we could be done in 3 hours. I didn't want to bonk, not this late in the day, not this close to finally getting some sleep. I just want to get there and be done for the day.

Everything went according to plan until this kid comes along. This teenager is riding a BMX based bike with a nice large rectangular mirror on the left handlebar. He has full over the ear headphones on over his brown mid length hair and is cranking the pedals in shorts and a t-shirt. We pass the kid. I am leading the line. In my mirror, I see the kid accelerate just as we pass and he is gaining on us.  The whippersnapper is trying to pass us!

Now, some of you will already understand. Others will need an explanation. Here it is. The universe requires balance and order. Without balance and order, chaos takes hold and soon threatens the fabric of life. Lambs will chase lions. The waters will rise and the mountains will fall. I know this. I was once a young man on a similar bike. I once made every effort to pass every spandex wrapped rider that I came across and every time I was able to do so I knew that the spandex was a costume, a disguise, not a necessity but a symbol of chaos. So out of respect for the sport, respect for the natural order of the universe and primarily for the benefit of that kid, I accelerated. 

The kid sped up too. So I rode faster. The next thing I know I am pulling JB and George on a 20+ mile per hour pace line through some neighborhood in Canada while a young man in headphones slowly gets dropped.

When he turns off and our pace drops back to normal, JB and George laugh about the pace and ask what happened to 15 mph. I plead mea culpa and laugh too. However, I also realize that they did not let the kid pass them either. They could have let me go off the front and kept the pace. But they went with me. Why? Because the fate of the universe is too important.

Ride to the Tower of Mordor and Across the Rainbow Bridge

Niagara on the Lake is a quaint, ritzy town on the shores of Lake Niagara. Finding a reasonably priced hotel there on a Friday night proved to be a bigger challenge that we envisioned. The hotel where the other randos were staying was booked up. Luckily the Best Western had a room and the receptionist was willing to give us a break on the price considering our late arrival and early departure. As a result, we got three hours sleep.

We left at 3:45 am to ride 16 miles and get to the border before 5:12, when the control "closed."  The sleep was refreshing. The night was cool but not cold, so we pulled off the arm and leg warmers and proceeded to the escarpment. The tower atop the escarpment was visible from a distance. It seemed to hover impossibly high in the night sky. After JB told me that was where we were going, I said "to Mordor!?!"  He said the climb was not to bad. He was right. 

We reached the Rainbow Bridge just in time. Both falls were visible in the predawn sky, huge and silent in the distance. Water, land and sky mixing and churning wherever they touched, creating order out of chaos, as the falls continue the process of slowly destroying itself in a most dramatic and memorable manner.


 The Severna Park Peleton

We breakfasted at Denny's and again we overlap with riders. Susan O is on her way out as we arrive. Bob. T, Gil and Steve Y. all arrive. We catch up on the ride news, eat and get ready to roll. 

Back in NY, the world has returned to normal. The roads are smooth, scenic and the drivers few and generally polite. The camera comes out again. This is what I signed up for.

Second breakfast comes a few hours later. Then back on the road. Gil has rejoined us and later Mike W. We ride though farm fields, cherry orchards, cabbage patches, picturesque towns. It is 60 miles to the penultimate control.

Along the way, a group comes into view of my helmet mirror. They are maybe six members of a group of Randonneurs who are part of the Severna Park Peleton. They are working out of food digestion pace into mile digestion pace. As they pass, I jump on the line and we talk.  I plan to ride with them just until we bridge the small gap between me and JB and George. Except when we get there, they jump on too. At first, its all good. then the pace picks up and the peleton goes into express mode. Brian is leading the line in excess of 20 mph and the distance to the next controle is shrinking quickly.

After a while, I bail from the train. Thoughts of implosion cause me to re-think racing toward the finish. This was supposed to be the easy day. In minutes, they are gone from sight. 

A little while later, I see Mike and Gil. They fell off the train too. Oh well, it was fun for a while.

The post-apocalyptic parkway

Lake Ontario State Parkway is a four lane concrete divided highway to nowhere located just outside of Rochester NY. Cars were such a rare sighting that we entertained the idea that the robot or Zombie takeover had begun. Riding that shadeless road in the heat, the idea seemed quite plausible. In fact, by the time we turned off of it, my soul felt a little sapped. Luckily, right there at the turn was a local fruit stand complete with a shaded area to sit. So sit I did. I bought a box of cherries and ate them one by one. Steve Y. rode past. I called out. He stopped too. He also bought some cherries and enjoyed the shade.

It turns out that Pete was just around the corner less than a quarter mile away. He had water and pocket food. So we stopped again. Then Steve and I rode together to the penultimate control (but not before missing a turn and adding 10 bonus miles to the 622 we needed to ride to finish). 

 JB and George had waited for me at the control, much to my dismay. We were only 26 miles from the end. It must have been frustrating to be that close to the end and not know when they could leave. I insisted that they go ahead and finish without me. I knew they were ready to go, but I also knew that I needed to eat something before riding anymore and I would only delay them more. So reluctantly, they left. 

Gil showed up. He had fallen asleep leaning against a tree. He was hungry too. So he, Steve and I sat down in an air conditioned restaurant. Steve and I had a beer and we all ate second lunch. Then it was time to bring the ride to a close.

Gil had a golf ball size swelling in his knee. So much so that he was basically riding with one leg. The last 26 miles had more climbing than the 100 or so miles that preceded it. This was going to be a tough way for him to finish his first 1000K. 

We stayed together for all but the last few miles when the thought of finishing the ride brought on renewed energy. Steve and I rolled in together. To a round of applause, Gil came in minutes later, swollen knee and all, triumphant.

As with all true boundary crossings, we all returned to the place we started richer for the discoveries made in the exploration.  

Good times shared are multiplied. Hard times shared are divided.

 ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Thanks to Pete, and all the volunteers, especially Sandy, Marcia and Marcia's brother and the bagpiper.

Thanks to my fortuitous riding partners Mike W., Gil. for the company and to Steve for being an awesome closer.

And huge thanks to my inexhaustible, unflappable, generous riding mates and roommates George S. and JB.

I took some pictures. You can see them here.

12 comments:

  1. It was a great pleasure sharing this adventure with you, my friend. This is one I will not soon forget. Your stories and photos make the memories even more vivid. Looking forward to our next adventure.

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    1. For each of us, taking on a ride like this with folks we hadn't ridden with before was a bit of a gamble. I am pleased and relieved that it turned out so well. Looking forward to our next adventure as well.

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  2. N, Thanks for sharing your ride with us, even though I've done many of them I always like to see others experiences.

    RAR 1954

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    1. Thanks for reading. I enjoy hearing about others' experiences too.

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  3. Hi. I rode with you for a bit on the zombie highway, I shared a cherry with you.
    Your blog is very well written, I have shared it with others. Your assessment
    of the Toronto section reflects my thoughts exactly. I reached my breaking point
    in Toronto. It was an extremely unpleasant and dangerous experience. I ended up
    riding on sidewalks and in the gravel on the North Service Road.
    Because of it, I will not be doing this ride again. Despite this, it was still
    a great experience for me. It was my longest ride ever. I enjoyed the other 90% of it.
    Pete was always a welcome site on the road, thanks Pete!

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    1. David,

      Yes. The cherries on the zombie highway were delicious. So much so that I got 2 pints at the first opportunity.

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  4. Thanks for taking the time to do this write up of the event. It sounds like a really special ride (minus the Big T portion).

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    1. Actually it was a really special ride. And if the Big T portion gets worked out this would be a "must do" event.

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  5. The fate of the universe... so perfectly written! Thank you for keeping it all in balance.

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    1. It's a tough job but someone had to do it . . .

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  6. Nicely written report. Thanks for sharing pictures also. I did enjoy the ride this time more than I did back in 2010 even with the Toronto traffic. Also the night start worked better for me. I think Pete D. could add more miles around Toronto to bypass Big T section and turn the LOL 1000k into the LOL 1200k.

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  7. My mom is from Toronto and my Dad is from the town of Wilson, about 20 miles from Niagara Falls on the American side. I grew up in Rochester and spent four years at Fort Drum, near the Thousand Islands. Thank you very much for the trip down memory lane! I've often thought about cycling around Lake Ontario, but at a much more leisurely pace than yours!

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