By Scott Fitzgerald
Some things in life require careful planning and a lot of thought. Other things you can do on a whim, with little foresight or calculation. Deciding to ride to Midland, ON from downtown Toronto on a fairly random* Saturday should probably fall in the middle of those extremes – at least plan the route, agree on what to pack, try and calculate how long it might take so loved ones need not be worried. Simple, obvious things.
My Mariposa teammate and friend, Marshall Eidinger and I decided to buck the norm, and in truth all logic, and planned only to ride. That was it.
*okay, it wasn’t exactly random. I have an addiction. I may need help. I can’t get enough butter tarts. Sweet sweet Canadian buttery goodness. So hooked on these treats I’m willing to put myself and any companions through all kinds of physical pain and mental anguish by riding what turned out to be almost 360km to get some!
The one thing we did plan on however was the departure time. As I stared at my alarm at 5am that Saturday morning with some disbelief, I was quietly excited about what lay ahead of us. A day of “thereabouts” inspired riding. We had our handlebar bags packed, we had our t-shirts on, we had our Mariposa Bicycles, and we had the perfect tire pressure for riding heavy on varied terrain. We were ready for the adventure (apart from any of the afore mentioned planning items).
As I rode west across the city to the meeting point at Marshall’s place I was as happy as a dog with two tails. The weather was spectacular – after what seemed like an interminable winter and a spring, which brought so much rain, that Lake Ontario is experiencing the highest water level since 1952. Summer had finally arrived, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and even at this early time, the temperature was already in the low 20s. Perfection.
Maybe it was due the gentle tailwind, maybe it was due to my (in)famously good time keeping, or most likely it was simply due to our lack of planning and therefore lack of messing around with extra things a thoroughly planned adventure might have, but we rolled out from Christie at 6:30am as agreed and on time.
As we headed west through The Junction, our spirits were high and the conversation easy. With little traffic at that time of the morning we had the normally choked roads to ourselves. As we veered north on Islington we were lost in our own world – the morning sun on our sides, pedals turning effortlessly, conversation flowing, full of energy and excitement for the day ahead. In what seemed like an extraordinarily short time we were already getting to furthest edges of the city, past the last traffic lights, and finally in the country side proper. All too soon it seemed we had reached Schomberg, a picturesque village near the Holland Marsh. In keeping with the spirit of the ride there was no actual plan to stop here, but stop here we did. The temptation of a coffee and the day’s first treat were too hard to resist, and there was no reason not to give in.
Schomberg tends to be a destination point for many cyclists from Toronto’s west side as it’s the perfect distance from the city (around 60km) for a mid-ride coffee and pastry before testing the legs again on the way home. The magnitude of the task ahead of us only started sinking in when a couple of Schomberg regulars, Kim Connelly and Dave Pickwood, turned up from the city as we drank our coffees. They had done a good workout to get there and would be well fatigued by the time they returned home, so the look on their faces when we told them where we were heading and how far we were going definitely gave me my first inkling that today might not be all sunshine and buttercups. Having said that, I was in the middle of enjoying a good coffee and scone, so still felt invincible.
Leaving Schomberg the sun was getting a little higher in the sky and the heat was building. Still early, the roads were quiet and the dew had yet to burn off the lush grass in the fields. Within minutes we turned straight north on Sideroad 15, which turned out to be a great 20km or so of hard packed gravel road with some elevation changes. At this point we were working up a sweat as the sun and heat intensified. We were spoiled – not a cloud in the sky, no wind, legs spinning, gears whirring, conversation flowing. We had everything that composes a great ride. Things were soon to get better as we were surprised to reach the first section of rail trail earlier than expected – in fairness neither of us was exactly Ferdinand Magellan with our cartography and planning skills, so really the entire route was a surprise to us, but the roughly 12km of empty rail trail all to ourselves which brought us north to Thornton was certainly a pleasant revelation.
Rail trails are scattered all over Southern Ontario and a real boon to cyclists: little elevation change, good gravel surface, free of cars and an escape from densely populated Southern Ontario. Feeling strong, with just the discourse and the sounds of the gravel under our tires, the kilometers went by unnoticed.
By the time we were just west of Barrie, about to enter the second and longest rail trail section, we had already ridden 120km. The next 60km would be almost entirely rail trail all the way to Penetanguishine and into Midland. The North Simcoe rail trail skirts the famous Minesing Swamp and passes by Fort Willow, before linking up with the Tiny trail to get us to our destination. Passing through farm land, marsh, and historic forests kept our minds fresh and our sprits high.
It was around this point though we were both aware of the heat of the day, certainly one of the hottest of the year to that point. We had been in the saddle for close to 5 hours, which on a regular Saturday would be deemed a quality bike ride. Grateful for the shelter of trees lining the trails we pushed on being conscious to eat and drink enough. The fact that we had yet to reach our destination, and the thought of the return leg were thoughts we didn’t want to contemplate too much.
As we reached the infamous Fry Guy on Horseshoe Valley Road, it seemed like a great place to take on sustenance, and as with keeping with our poor planning, it was a pleasant surprise to us when we came across it. Thankful for the icy cold water and snacks, we pushed on with little delay, eager to return to the shaded trails.
As fantastic as the rail trails are, when we reached 160km or 6.5 hours, I determined they are too straight! A section of the trail from Elmvale through Wyevale didn’t have a single turn for over 12km. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you are trying to ignore the fact that your legs are tired, you haven’t reached the half way point of your ride, it suddenly became a “thing”.
After just over 7 hours riding time, and about 175km, we reached Penetanguishene, which in my mind was essentially Midland. Blame my out-of-province geographical education, or more likely the growing hunger, heat stress and fatigue, but the ride from Penetanguishene to Midland proper seemed to be at least twice the mere 7km it was. We rolled into a hot and bustling Midland Butter Tart festival triumphantly, thankful to have made it, yet also, and as yet unspoken between us, slightly tormented by the fact that it was “only” half way. We both knew getting home was going to be a challenge.
We spent an hour or so eating some quality nutritionally dense health food – 6 butter tarts and a chicken parmesan sandwich. Looking at the time we decided to push on. At this point our lack of planning was evident. When I first met Marshall at 6:30am, some 8 hours earlier, he laughed at me when I told him I brought lights. Now, leaving Midland after 2:30pm it was pretty obvious the “we’ll be home around dinner time” Marshall had told loved ones, would actually be nowhere close to our arrival time. As soon as I sat in the saddle and turned my legs, the pain in my butt and the leaden weight in my legs told me it was going to be a tough ride home.
Stopping at the edge of town to fill up our bottles at a gas station, we were given some unsolicited cycling advice from an obviously non-cycling but well-meaning lady filling her gas tank. Her sage wisdom was two-fold:
1. never ride too far in one trip (something we were obviously doing) and
2. to always be conscious of our testicles while riding (something I always am ha ha).
It was an awkward conversation, but nice to know that she associated spandex wearing cyclists with testicular health checks. All we could say was “ehhhh…thanks”.
Bidons and bellies full, we set out for home, essentially retracing the same route back. The wind had picked up and was now in our faces as we headed south from Midland. I was wholeheartedly looking forward to the beauty, isolation, and more importantly the shelter from the beating sun and strengthening wind the rail trails would provide. As we passed through the mottled light and shelter of the rail trail south of Wyevale it was time for the mutual gun show appreciation society to make an appearance. Stopping briefly, we swapped our t-shirts for tank tops. “Sun’s out, guns out”! In truth, this change of top really helped with the humidity and it felt refreshing as we kicked off again on the route home with the extra air circulation. Yes, we looked great too.
The shelter of the trails from the winds was really a boon. If we had been on open roads with direct headwinds, I shudder to think how long it would have taken us and the resulting mental anguish. On a long day out like this it’s almost impossible to eat and drink enough to keep sated and to maintain the energy levels. I appreciated the cloud cover and was hoping for a rain shower just to cool us. I’m a pasty Irishman. Marshall did not exactly share my longing for the rain.
As we reached Cookstown we had done 260km and were 12.5 hours into the day. We were happy but at this point we reached survival mode. No longer in the shelter of the gravel rail trails, running low on liquids and energy, we stopped here to refill the bidons, eat some sugary treats and drink a couple of cokes. Stepping off the bikes we realized how jelly-like our legs felt. The continuous heat of the day had really worn us down. It was 6pm, and we were still almost 100km from home. It was now dinner time: Marshall was late. I was thankful I brought my lights knowing we’d be at least another 4 hours on the road, including any stops, before we made it back to the city.
After a long rest, with some calls to loved ones trying to allay any worries, we resumed the ride home. Before this, my longest ride was 240km (Jeff Sykes Tweed Ride™). Marshall had done a 300km ride before. While I do love these point-to-point type of rides, I find that beyond 200 to 220km the mind and body start to do funny things, and you really don’t have any idea what those things will be. Further to this, you really start to develop a case of Gottagetthereitis – you simply just want to get home as soon as you can.
We stopped talking, it was also time for me to simply go to my happy place. I’m no psychologist, but I find that when the going gets tough it’s really helpful to think of positive thoughts – what these thoughts are might vary from person to person, but usually involve loved ones and family. I think of these people, the pain dissipates and the kilometers pass more rapidly. This works in races too.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet shared this wonder tip with Marshall. The 30km to Schomberg is tough going on a normal day, with plenty of elevation changes and some gravel. But on a long day like this day every single undulation takes effort and saps the energy. By the time we reached Schomberg the sun was low and so were the sugar levels yet again. Sitting for a bit, composing ourselves I was a little concerned for me, but genuinely worried for Marshall. Still 60km from home, we were both genuinely exhausted. There was talk of ubers, taxis, calling for pickups. While tempting, and actually probably the smart thing to do, the serious case of gottagetthereitis we had developed would not allow us to accept anything other than finishing the ride. We rode on.
At this moment I shared by secret happy place psychology technique with Marshall. I wouldn’t call it a pep talk, but if they ever make a movie of this day I hope they cast Gene Hackman as me so he can give a Hosiers style Schomberg rally cry!
I always thought this technique worked for me, but could never be sure. The change in Marshall’s attitude pre-Schomberg and post-Schomberg was definitive proof it works. He was a monster. A new man. He sat at the front for the next 40km without uttering a single word and was reborn (he must really love whomever he was thinking of!). Selfishly, this worked out exceedingly well for me for two reasons:
1. I got to sit on his wheel and shelter from the headwind
2. I had the only rear light, so me being at the back made most sense anyway.
By the time we reached the outskirts of the city and Woodbridge, we had covered 320km and had been moving for 15 hours. The 6 butter tarts were a distant memory. My mind was only concentrated on Marshall’s rear wheel, my bed, and ice cream. Seeing Toronto gave us both the energy and the belief that we were actually going to finish!
The last 30km in through the city flew by. Rolling fast through the mostly quiet roads, in the warmth and the dark, with extreme fatigue and dreams of treats and naps was quite surreal. The banter started up as our excitement grew. We knew we’d both visited a place physically and mentally we hadn’t anticipated, and now we were coming out the other side. As we reached Marshall’s house, we congratulated and thanked each other. With perfect timing my Garmin battery died even though I had another 10km to ride. It was an incredible and memorable day out.
Marshall named his strava ride “A near death experience”, which actually seems fitting. Cycling is the gift that keeps on giving. Even when it truly chews you up and spits you out, it still does positive things for you. We knew that despite the serious test we’d been through, only the good memories would prevail. I’ll always remember the ride, the experience, and who I shared it with. Such is life. Such is cycling.
Link to information on the rail trails.