by Michael Barry
Photography by Walter Lai
The route was marked up with a highlighter on a map spread over the dining room table. A few nights before the event we drove the route by car and scooter (certain sections were impassable by car so we rode the vintage Lambretta) to post arrows and make sure it was possible to ride. It was going to be tough and that was the point.
My father knew most of the roads having ridden them over the years with the Toronto Randonneurs, the Queen City Bicycle Club, alone or with friends. The route was designed to cover as much gravel and farm track as possible between the start at the Toronto Zoo, in the east Toronto suburbs, and the finish 75 km north on the shore of Lake Simcoe in Jackson’s Point. Much of the final 20 km was on disused rail-bed adding an extra element of difficulty. We named it ‘the Trench’. The ties had been torn up so it was rideable, but snow machines, ATV’s and farm vehicles had made it rutted, bumpy, and tough going. In sections the bike would get bogged down with mud and in others it would sink in the lava rock, or worse, the rider would have to jump off to splash through knee deep puddles of icy water.
Mike Barry Sr. on the Hell and Back route in 2005
On a rainy day, it was a hard route, in snow it was brutal. In a way, I think my father hoped for the latter. In his mind, if he was designing an event on the same day as Paris Roubaix, it had to be as hard as possible, and in turn, something memorable for the participants. It wasn’t billed as a race, but a “challenge”. Everyone was welcome, there were no categories, and licences weren’t required. The rules of the road had to be obeyed and he suggested everybody be prepared to deal with the elements, the course and any mechanical problems. A follow vehicle would sweep the course but independence was emphasized.
To him, this was the ideal event. He is a man of adventure who, since he was a young boy, had always tried to find the little known trails, paths and roads that led to unique spots. And, he is constantly trying to share the experience with others and teach them how to enjoy a good day out on the bike that might create a novel adventure.
The first year of the event was a success as it snowed, rained and was hell for most participants. In an era before gravel bikes most participants rode their road bikes while a few had the foresight to ride cyclo cross bikes. Adding to the resistance of pushing through slush, snow and ice, the bikes became bogged down with frozen muck. Wheels barely moved, gears didn’t work, toes froze, icicles formed on nostrils.
On the route riders cursed my father, the weather, their bikes, their gloves and themselves. At the finish those same riders rejoiced in the warmth of the Irish House Restaurant (the establishment was run by local cyclist Sam Watson, who had once raced in the European classics with the best professionals) as they received free massages from the local massage school, or sipped pints of beer and ate bowls of chili con carne. My father was thanked, and praised by a few, for organizing such a great event. They all said they would be back. The event became an annual ride for the local racers and cyclotourists. A finish banner welcomed the riders to the shores of Lake Simcoe and a cobblestone trophy was awarded to the first rider across the line. As the years passed riders became better prepared, selecting the right bikes, the right tires and the right gear.
My father organized the event from 1986 until 2007, when he handed it over to La Bicicletta, a local bike shop. It is now organized by Ed Veal from Real Deal racing. I think it is now one of the longest running events on the cycling calendar. But, it wasn’t the toughest race he organized. That was Hell and Back, which was billed as the last tough event of the millennium. The event was run at the end of November in 1999 just before Y2K, and the predicted global apocalypse due to a computer programming error. The route was a big loop on similar tracks and roads used in the spring event. The start finish was at an old school house that had been turned into a community events space near Whitevale, ON. A keg of McAuslan beer, Dufflet Pastries and hot drinks welcomed the worn riders to the finish. Everybody had a story and most had a smile.
Although my father also stopped organizing the Hell and Back in 2007 it still continues in another form: Nigel Gray, from NRG, includes it in his Hell Week, which is a week of tough gravel and trail rides organized for his clubmates in an around Toronto in the last week of November. The spirit of his rides is similar on every level: it’s a tough day of riding that is guaranteed to be an adventure.
There are an abundance of good roads in the area, especially if you stay away from the pavement and stick to the rolling farm roads. Few cars will pass and you can let your thoughts wander or sink your body into the effort. It’s an area our family has ridden in since for over forty years and somewhere that I never stop enjoying.
North of the city there are dozens of ideal tracks, roads and trails that can be linked up for a great day out. Here is the map to:
Nigel’s NRG rides:
Ed Veal’s Hell of the North: