Me, Yak, Banani and the Road
In July and August of 2009 I finally did a multi-day ride (tour) on my bike, a project that has been on hold since I was 15. Yes, alright, I ignore a little 2-day jaunt from Bordeaux in 1980, and my 3-day test ride to Bridgewater via overnights in Chester earlier in the summer, but those were well within my comfort zone when I did them. A few people have expressed an interest in reading about my trip (perhaps mainly they are curious to see what strange mental side-trips I can slip into the narrative) so with the end of the outdoor cycling season (for me at least) here goes... The reader is warned that I am often accused of being pretty verbose so there are lots of words. At times it took me longer to type up a day's trip than to actually ride the thing on the bike!
What follows is a trip down memory lane (writing in November-December 2009), progressing through some preparations, the bike tour itself, and a bit of "afters". Because of this it is not posted in normal blog fashion with the first day at the bottom of the page and the latest day at the top; it's a narrative that reads from the top down (from this point on). I didn't keep a diary, so there are bound to be some inaccuracies both of omission and commission. Nor did I take along a camera, so there are no pretty pictures to accompany my inadequate verbal descriptions. In fact, let's admit it, I'm not very good at describing the artistic side of life although I do somewhat better at the technical side of it. I hope at some point to go back in here to add links to daily maps and route profiles if I can get that figured out. Reader comments are welcome using the Comment feature at the bottom of each entry. Or, if you know me verbal is okay too. Sideswiping along the highway as a form of vehicular expression would be considered rude and provocative...
It was all set in motion by a spur-of-the-moment decision when I saw the e-mail announcement of Velo Cape Breton's Yarmouth to Sydney supported event, dubbed The Nova Scotia Tip To Tip Tour, or TNSTTTT; not a tongue-in-cheek name either, I can tell you: just try keeping track of your tongue when saying that mouthful! But it was really just the when and whereto that was spontaneous since I had already started thinking in terms of cyclotouring as early as 2004, and had actually laid plans (mostly in my mind (an irony if not an oxymoron, since I am mostly considered to be out of my mind)) to go to and around the Cabot Trail in late summer of 08. Then there's the long-term plan to spend several months biking around Europe... wait, though; back to the current story!
The '08 tour plan got shelved due to issues of cost, an inefficient (i.e. hard to drag around) and squeaky baggage trailer (poor choice on my part), dog boarding what with Gershwin getting on in years, and general procrastination which I'm getting quite good at (I am in training with a Master Procrastinator, CB). However, I had put in a large amount of preparatory riding (i.e. training, although I rarely meet a recreational cyclist who admits to that concept) and figured I was in pretty decent shape. But there was always that element of doubt, mainly because I never tied together 2 long days in a row: anything more than about 2 1/2 hours was preceded and followed by a light day of 30km or less at or near a recovery rate.
Preparing the Bike
Perhaps the most important thing I did to be ready for that (and subsequent) tours, particularly in view of the fact I would be hauling a baggage trailer of some sort, was refitting my old race bike, Banani, with a set of mountain gears. A brief historical blurb: Banani was a state-of-the-art custom-built machine (by a Danish bike builder- still in business today although it is the next generation doing the work) which my dad bought for me in 1970, when I was in high school and racing quite well. This was in the days before mountain bikes, indexed shifting for gears, and even before 6-speed clusters; 2 chainrings x 5 rear cogs was as good as it got. The smallest small chainring we could get back then was 45 teeth, and the biggest rear sprocket on any of my interchangeable clusters was 24 teeth. So my smallest gear was a 45x24, which was okay back then when my legs were pretty strong and I was in the best shape of my life, very light, and living in Edmonton Alberta, a city notable for an absence of large or steep elevation changes. When I found myself living in one of the hillier parts of Nova Scotia 9 years later with my conditioning reduced by years of living the life of a sailor, I was able to find a rear cluster that went up to 27 teeth and needed every one of them (and then some). But then from the late 80's until 2002 I didn't ride a bike at all, and was pretty sedentary except for some low-speed gardening and landscaping, all nicely sub-sub-aerobic and calculated to avoid releasing any drop of sweat. When I got back on the bike after my long lay-off a 3km ride was enough to drain me! and the gearing was just not small enough for me to get around the local hills anymore. Several bike shop visits later I was no further ahead; the general answer was, nope there's nothing you can do to put lower gears on that bike. But I was back in love with riding again, so over the next summer worked my way up to a 35km ride, and then in September 2 rides to Windsor: 50km with the long Ardoise hill on the way back (just over 1500km for the year), by the end of which I had pretty much decided that I should look into a new bike in order to get the benefit of lower gears: new road bikes were generally fitted with a 39-tooth small chainring and 25- or 27-tooth largest cog on the rear (mountain bikes had even lower gears but I'm a roadie at heart). So that was when the Yellow Giant TCR came into my life, and the gearing was fine for most hills here. But ranging further, the hills out of River Herbert, with ramps of 14% slope, were a real struggle. Eventually I fitted the Yellow Giant with a compact crankset (34-tooth small chainring) and found a cluster that topped out at 28 teeth. So I could get myself up a 14% slope, but for touring with respectable daily distances and baggage it wasn't going to be close to what I needed. Meanwhile with the passage of another couple of years on the fringes of the bike culture and many winter hours spent with the Internet I figured out that there was a lot I could do to upgrade the power train of Banani, notwithstanding what I had been told by "experts" earlier, and once I knew a plan the bike shop was able to help with details of specific parts. The first step was to replace the bottom bracket bearing set. Some initial concern over whether or not the standard threading of the old days was still a standard; turned out not to be a problem. With the new bottom bracket (2 pieces as opposed to 31 or so in the original), I could fit a triple chainring crankset, and I chose one with 44-33-22 tooth chainrings. Of course this required a new front derailleur to handle the triple, but the old friction-shifters were still able to do the job. It also required a new rear derailleur to handle the extra chain take-up required with the bigger difference between the large and small chainrings. So then with a bit of experimenting I found that I could use a modern 9-speed rear wheel in the bike with a bit of fighting to stretch the forks apart (bikes were narrower at the back in the days of 5- and 6-speed freewheel clusters). It's one of the advantages of the bike being made of steel, it has more than enough spring in it, whereas an aluminum bike would be a horrible problem in this regard. I also found a bike shop on the Internet (Harris Cycle) which made clusters meant more for touring than racing, with cogs of up to 34 teeth, so I got one of those too. Again, the old friction shifters were quite happy with handling 9 gears rather than 5 at the back. So I was happily set up with a smallest gear of 22x34, sufficient I hoped to be able to drag a trailer of baggage up a small 15% mountain like North Mountain on the Cabot Trail (and smaller than the gearing on my mountain bike!). On the other end of the gear scale, my largest gear was only 44x13 so I spun out at about 45kph. But that would be okay for touring, it would just force me to coast down steeper hills and take a rest from pedaling. In practice, I found the lowest gear was indeed sufficient for me to drag the trailer up any hill in NS and on the downhills the dynamics of the loaded trailer meant that I was braking most of the time anyways and was limited to not much over 35kph at best. The only fly in the ointment is when I need to change a tire or tube on the rear; it was a real struggle to get the wheel back in, but I was able to jury-rig a strange apparatus to spread the forks using a couple of pieces of wood and an automotive disc-brake puller; then a short while later I found a purpose-built and inexpensive fork-spreader at KoolStop on the Internet which works rather better and is lighter and more compact than the one I created. So a rear tire change of a wheel which has a longer axle is now possible without too terrible a struggle.
So when the notice of TNSTTTT flashed around in fall of 2008 I put my name down as being interested, figuring that actually putting some money down and making a commitment to someone else would motivate me to actually do the trip. Still, no payments due until the new year. Meanwhile my buddy Gershwin wasn't his usual lively self, so it was also a definite criterion that I wouldn't be leaving him while I went off on a bike trip. Sadly, it developed that he had a cancerous tumor behind one of his eyes so in December I had to take the decision to stop his suffering. Which allowed me to commit to the tour without reservation.
Going a bit Crazy
Thus an old man's fancy turned to spring... started thinking about getting ready for TNSTTTT and thinking about the details of doing it. One thing "bothered" me-- getting back from Sydney. It seemed kind of iffy: take a bus (with bike and baggage?!) or see if someone else on the tour had room in a car going to Truro. A couple of couples from the Annapolis Valley whom I knew from my Saturday riding with the Centennial Cycling Club (CCC) were also signed up for TNSTTTT and between them could get me and my bike back home as separate packages, but the logistics seemed troublesome. Somehow from somewhere my mind switched gears: if I can ride for 7 days surely I can ride for 14 days?, cycling to the start point for TNSTTTT and then back again from the end. The small issue of baggage transport during the non-TNSTTTT parts (the group ride had a baggage truck to shift everyone's baggage each day) could be solved by getting a nifty little one-wheeled trailer called a Yak, a much superior critter to the heavier squeaky thing which irritated me in 08. Oh and by the by, as long as I was going to be riding home from Sydney, why not return via the Cabot Trail? It would only add 2 days and 4 Nova Scotian mountains to the route. (Mountains, oh boy! Definitely a motivating factor, since I've become an idiot about going uphill (at, I might add, a fairly sedate pace)). I didn't make a definite decision to bike the extra distance until about a month before setting out (but the mindset was in place for quite awhile before that), after a 3-day mini-tour to see how me, Banani, the Yak, and the road would get along. More on that later.
I knew from one of the Centennial Cycling Club (CCC) riders who did a previous tour with Velo Cape Breton that there were likely to be some rather fit people in the group. I wanted to be able to ride with as wide a spectrum of riders as possible without either slowing them down or burning myself up, so I took on a training program with an Internet coaching service starting in March. It was of course oriented mostly towards racing cyclists, but that was expected and quite useful anyways. So I found myself doing intervals of varying lengths and intensities a couple of days per week, steady rides at lower intensities sometimes, strength exercises a couple of days a week, regular rest days, and a short cycling-specific yoga routine daily before getting on the bike. I had previously learned about pacing myself using heart rate data from reading Chris Carmichael's "The Ultimate Ride", but there were some holes in the specific "how to"s in the book which the coaching filled in for me.
During the winter I discovered that hauling toboggan-loads of firewood uphill was a really good strength exercise for the legs, and also good aerobic interval training too. Unfortunately, it meant that my legs were at their strongest in late March and lost some tone before the weather was good enough for regular bike workouts on the road. I've got to find some way to use that winter exercise to better advantage...
Also, and less esoterically, during the winter I ride on a fantastic indoor computer-controlled setup, a Fortius machine from TacX. It has several modes of use: a data-only mode in which the computer can control the resistance to meet a specific program (manual adjustments also allowed); some virtual reality terrains with animated opponents; and Real Live Video mode, in which one sees a video of an actual route moving past at whatever speed you are actually making the trainer go at, and which drives the resistance unit to simulate the actual slope of the road you are driving over. The videos available include some mountain passes used by the various Grand Tours, and parts of some of the classic race routes from several countries.
Not everything went swimmingly with the training. I provided details of what I had been doing for training in the month or so before starting with the coach, they entered it in their software, and immediately scaled back my activity by quite a bit. Some mathematical models have been developed which calculate the physical stress of activity and projected activity, and guidelines set to try to maintain a specific stress balance; I found the balance point to which I was being steered was quite a bit less than what I was used to doing. We never really came to grips with this issue, and the most noticeable effect was that I seldom really had a good night's sleep during the reduced training load (because I wasn't tired enough)!! I should have been more rested, but instead it is hard to say if I was or not! We had another glitch when I went away for 8 days with not much exercise during that holiday (a couple of 1 hr jaunts on an uncomfortable borrowed bike); this time off had been projected to the coach in our initial info exchange but caught him by surprise when it happened. Then afterwards training intensity was again knocked way back to counteract the effect of sudden unloading and to avoid a sudden reloading! We were not amused.
On the positive side, this coaching program got me started on a daily 15 to 20-minute yoga set, specifically designed to stretch cyclists where they need stretching etc and this has made a great difference in some aspects of my health, most notably the absence of hamstring cramps which used to attack me a couple of times a week, and a happier lower back.
My winter training exercises on the bike/ trainer were based on Power output objectives, since the trainer instrumentation provided this data. Once spring allowed me to shift to the road, we had to shift to heart-rate based training. I found I was being even more over-rested than before but my complaints in this regard were pretty much ignored. Then one day by an accident of circumstances we discovered that we were using different models of heart-rate-based training zones, so that his Zone 3 was about 30bpm higher than mine! Yet the information of which model I was using had been passed on at the beginning, and was available to him any time he would have looked at my log pages; I was beyond annoyed... I suspect that cost me a certain amount of muscle strength over the weeks that it had been going on, but on the other hand I learned how to go at a very sedate pace (even up hills) while trying to meet the exercise instructions I was being given, and this came in handy during the long tour. Well, all's well that ends well, no?
In the end, I trained less than I would have if left to my own devices, but trained differently. I was certainly ready enough for the long tour but might have been stronger if things hadn't gone off the rails. But we'll never know.
At the end of Peony season (when I closed up my nursery for the year) Centennial Cycling Club had a ride in the Bridgewater/ Lunenburg area. Normally that is out of my range, since I have this philosophical problem with spending more hours driving in a car to get to a bike ride than the bike ride actually takes... But this summer I had decided to turn it into a chance for a 3-day test-tour, overnighting with friends in Chester each side of the Club ride. Several objectives to this ride: 1 see if I could do 3 long days in a row; 2 see if I could do them with the Yak and a load of gear; 3 see how the Yak towed with a load; 4 find out what sort of average speed I could plan on; 5 find out if I was packing the right stuff (however you might want to interpret that!); 6 ride new roads, see new scenery (or at least new from the bike).
Day T1: Mt Uniacke to Chester (86km) The day dawned grey and overcast, with the possibility of rain later in the day, but a forecast of sun for the next day. The route today takes me from 200m elevation down to sea level and then back up over the same central lump of rock and back down to sea level on the other side of the province. It would also be possible to get to Chester without so much climbing by going down through Sackville, but weekday traffic on Hammond's Plains Road is a nightmare (even to me) and the distance is exactly the same, so I opted for the hillier route. Chomping at the bit to get going, I completely forgot to do my yoga set before leaving- not the first time, and unlikely to be the last. Pulling out of my driveway and onto the highway I was shocked by the wobbling that the Yak transmitted to the bike. Yeesh! wondered for a minute if I wouldn't have to abort; but hey, other people use these things so maybe it's just a matter of getting used to it. (I had towed the Yak before, the 50km from Dartmouth to home, but it was essentially empty at the time and with no apparent effect on the bike.) The manual advised against towing at speeds greater than 30kph, and what with the wobble and facing an immediate downhill journey of over 1km I was quite happy to use my brakes and keep the speed down to something ridiculous. It didn't actually take all that long for my body and subconscious mind to get used to the motion of the loaded Yak and start compensating properly. It wasn't anything I had to think about, it just happened. By the time I got 6km from home and started the long downhill from Ardoise to St Croix I was happy to let the speed go to 30kph.
Routine but slow cruising until Martock (30km), but feeling a bit strange-- at Martock was when I realized that I hadn't done the yoga. So I stopped at the community hall and did some of the routines, sort of (the grass was wet with dew and cycling shoes with road cleats aren't ideal for standing on while doing various stretch poses). Not ideal, but it did make some positive difference. Detoured onto Sangster Bridge Road to do some calibration runs for my bike computer, which took a bit of energy out of me.
At Smith's Corner (almost Vaughan) (Mockingee Lake) I went off to the provincial picnic park for my lunch break. Of course the road in the park was packed dirt and gravel, not so bad, but there was a great heap of loose gravel to be negotiated just when leaving the paved road. Oh yeah, that was fun. Even more fun on the way out from a dead stop: less traction, extra weight and a third wheel... yeah, okay lets just walk this rig out onto the highway and try again; that's better... Slight drizzle either side of lunchtime, but otherwise dry.
There had been a bit of climbing before lunch but after restarting the road went more uphill. And down. And up. Basically the same undulating central mound/plateau terrain as around home but a few dozen km further west. Most of the ups and downs were around 9% slope which meant riding the brakes on the way down and crawling up in the 22x34 microgear at about 8-10kph. Eventually the downhills seemed to be getting longer than the ups and finally from a crest, salt water and a blue on blue horizon were visible. And about time! A couple of hours on the bike always seems to go slower and take longer when I don't know the road, and today was no exception. I had also started to ride at a slightly higher heart rate (or work rate, if you prefer) than I knew I should have and so was getting a bit weary.
Finally got into downtown Chester after a detour to the NSLC to find a wee gift for my hosts, and then a swift and steep downhill to the waterfront and into quarters. It was nice and clear in Chester so I got to watch a fogbank forming in the next bay over, i.e. St Margaret's Bay; it was explained to me that this is a regular phenomenon, making Chester a much more popular place with the yachting crowd since for some reason they prefer to see where they are going when on the water.
Slept like a log that night despite unfamiliar surroundings (a familiar theme while I was bike touring!). The sound of waves dragging the rocks around on the pebble/stone beach was soothing too, and I listened to a lot less of it than I might have wanted.
Day T2 Chester-Bridgewater-Lunenburg-Chester (125km) The day dawned bright and clear, promising to be a hot one by the afternoon. The bay was as smooth as a millpond, the beach rocks had clearly defeated the waves during the night. All new roads for me as a cyclist today. Set out without the Yak for the bike commute to Bridgewater, where Centennial Cycling Club was meeting for the day's ride. Picked the steepest hill out of Chester that I could find, just for fun, because the rest of the day would be fairly flat. Small rollers along the way, not high but steep enough to want some gear changes. Most of the route paralleled the coast a small ways inland and cut along the base of the many peninsulae, but there were a few nice stretches right along the shore to remind me of where I was. A long section of water's edge was about the flattest road I've been on in NS or maybe it just seemed that way because the definition of "flat" around Mt Uniacke includes "shorter than 100m"... But, back inland a bit. Eventually one of the least interesting stretches came down to Mahone Bay, beautiful and picturesque as always, and even at that early hour already awash in sightseers (and why not?); and then I was looking for a hill that had featured in the complaints of one of the CCC'ers. Well, I never came across it or anything resembling a hill in that area but yet made it into Bridgewater in good time so I zipped into the ubiquitous Tim Horton's for a snack and some coffee; it was of course certain that I would have a long wait before we made our usual late start. A good chance to apply sunscreen-- especially as we congregated on a shadeless parking lot; barely 10a.m. and things were hotting up quickly already.
Finally we set out after the usual discussion of what route we might take (hey, what about taking the route described in the schedule for a change?). The prime movers were apparently looking for a majority vote but 80% of us really didn't care what route we took just as long as we took off on one right quick. Somewhat rendered the vote ineffective. As you can tell, I'm not fond of the pre-start folderol but once we're on the move I'm okay. Our start wasn't exactly a bike race, more of a case of straggling out in pairs and bunches. Considering we had a bit of downtown Bridgewater to negotiate, including a few traffic lights and a metal-grate bridge I'm sure we managed to annoy or at least confuse and bemuse the heck out of a few dozen motorists.
But finally we were rolling along a nice tree-lined road along the west bank of the La Have River, bound for the La Have Bakery (unfortunately too close for a mid-morning snack). It turned into an extended stop, the last laugh being against those like me who rushed the morning's start since shortly after we got there the ferry across the river left from our side (we had passed it at its landing just before reaching the Bakery) and then we had to wait for it to come back. I don't know how long we were stuck there, but I'd have to say too long, and it seemed like an hour but was probably less. Finally we saw the ferry depart the opposite landing and so drifted along to take our place in the lineup to get aboard. No we didn't, we rode right on past the cars to the front of the line. Just before going down the ramp from the highway to the landing apron one of our group who was on a brand-new bike lost her brakes. Yep, the brake blocks, housings and all, actually fell off the bike onto the road; well, not all of them but the ones that didn't were so loose as to be not far from following suit. Unprecedented!
Some of the guys fell all over themselves to fix the bike for her, which was very nice of them but to me somewhat fell into the category of "give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime (or at least until the Feds DoF makes it illegal to fish)". I intended to take the tough love approach of making sure she had the right allen key and all the parts recovered from the road and then leaving her to sort it out herself, but my approach was moot given the apparent competition to be of most assistance in the repair. Ah well. (I've never before seen so many people working on, or trying to work on if they hadn't been getting in each others' way, the same bike!) But, for anyone reading this, Please people: bikes are not toys and cyclists going distances from which they can't walk home need to know enough to be able to fix basic problems (I'd put brake repair right up there in that group, along with changing an inner tube). Buying a bike is not like buying a pair of new shoes. But I suspect I'm a bit of an anachronism in this regard; too many people (of either sex) now seem to feel that the only tool they need to take on a long bike trip is a cellphone and their spouse's phone number. Just seems irresponsible to this dinosaur.
Meanwhile, we pack ourselves onto the ferry and shift across the river, then turn right and wend our way closer to Lunenburg. The scenery varied from sublime to mundane, the traffic light, the roads good. At one point I lost my mind (who would notice?) and went ahead, following someone whom I assumed knew the route. However, it turned out that they decided to follow me, assuming that I knew it (although I had never been on the Lunenburg ride before). Hmm, just like walking my dogs, whom I followed out of curiosity while they kept a surreptitious eye on me and made sure they kept going the same direction that I did... with less-than-stellar results sometimes. As was the case this day. We missed a turnoff; I didn't even realize we passed a sideroad because of the angle it entered our road at, and a building right at the corner hiding it. When we did finally reach what we thought was the first possible turn, we did the normal thing of waiting for the group. We'd been traveling fast (for us) so knew the wait might be awhile. But it got ridiculous so 2 of us went backtracking and found the intersection (the other two were time-crunched and headed on to Lunenburg directly) but no sign of anyone else (they had assumed we knew the way...). It turned out to be a marvelous backroad, nicely scenic and with a couple of nice 17% folds in the ground just before Lunenburg. The pack had dispersed for lunch so as to avoid overloading any one place, and we only ever saw one of them so then we were three. A good lunch nonetheless, but when we got to the after-lunch rendezvous there were no other bikes and we found out that a herd of cyclists had "just left" (which could have been anywhere from a minute to a half hour ago-- no point in attempting a chase.) Typically, the rendezvous had been decided as a place only and no time attached, which meant that even the first to arrive there didn't know if they had been left behind by earlier departers; I heard afterwards that there was effectively no r/v and the return was all in small splinter groups...
We headed north, but when we got to an intersection where one road headed towards Mahone Bay I decided due to the frustrations of the day to continue the dispersal process and head back to Chester by the more direct route rather than return to Bridgewater where everyone else had their cars.
This road to Mahone Bay was new to my bike, pleasant and a bit more rolling than the rest of the day but very hot as it was more inland than coastal. It brought me into a nice rear entrance of the town. Thereafter I was retracing my tracks from the morning. Picked up a nice tailwind during the coastal segments which was a welcome push after a long day. Finally cruised into Chester; a cool shower was all the reward I could want!
In the time before supper, I got out on the water with my hosts to play yacht games, during which I was probably more of a hindrance than a help.
Another restful night.
Day T3 Chester-Mt Uniacke (86km again) Sunday dawned grey with a threat of rain, and indeed it was drizzling lightly when I left Chester. I picked a nice steep exit hill to see how I'd do with the Yak on a near 15% slope, since that was what was promised on North Mountain on the Cabot Trail (although a lot longer). My experiment was foiled however; a tree had fallen across the road overnight, in the middle of the steepest block of the hill. No way around, not even for a bike!! So back down and along to the next street, but it wasn't as steep or as high. Oh well.
The drizzle let up soon after getting onto Highway 14, and the rest of the day was cool and dry, a downpour holding off until about 5 minutes after I got home. I had a nice tailbreeze the whole way, even after turning the corner at Windsor. The ride was rather easier than the outbound journey, possibly due to familiarity with the road, especially the last 50km which I have ridden several times over the years. Nothing noteworthy, really.
So, a successful pre-tour: (because:) the Yak was no problem after a short adaptation period; I could get it up a slope of about 14% with not too much difficulty; I was still as good on Day 3 as on Day 1 (better, actually, by a small degree); and, I rather enjoyed the whole trip and everything around it (well, not counting the milling around and the getting separated on the Saturday)!
I now had 2 1/2 weeks to survive before I could set out on the main objective of the summer. The training program called for tapering-off during the last week before departure, mostly just light rides, not too long, to keep the legs turning over and relaxed.