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Cycling Ottawa to Westport: Five Hard Lessons Learned

By Sheila Ascroft

Adventure stories are supposed to have glorious endings, but on this trip I threw up before the finish. It was just a bike ride, Ottawa to Kingston, hardly registering on the scale of solo adventuring, but that made quitting even worse. I don’t know what hurt most, my stomach hurling or my mind churning with self-defeat.I sat alone in the dusty weeds beside an empty country road, feeling sicker than a dog who’d eaten a chocolate cake. Dizzy and hot, very very hot, and tired. Thirsty too. And deeply disappointed that I couldn’t force myself to finish the ride to Kingston. A lousy 30 more kilometres. But here I was stuck at 142 km unable to go on. I kept thinking how real cyclists ride to Kingston and back and I couldn’t even make it one way.

I threw up and then moved a few metres away to the shade of a old red pine. It was as far as I could manage. Dried weeds poked through my thin stretchy bike shorts. My head was boiling. I couldn’t think straight. It was so hot and humid. Nausea overwhelmed me so I laid down. Big mistake. Ants started swarming all over me. If only I could get up the hill, get around that curve, maybe I’d find some place to rest properly. But I couldn’t get up. Couldn’t go on. Damn, 142 km. All I could see ahead was the midday sun glaring on the hot asphalt, another hilly bend surrounded by trees. My non-cycling significant other was expecting me at the 401 highway junction in Kingston in two hours. I just prayed he’d find me.

I’d left the house in Ottawa at 5:30 a.m. when it was still foggy and cool. I actually needed my nylon vest before the sun broke through.

The ride had started with such simple pleasures. Sunshine breaking through to warm my chilled fingers and toes. Classic pastoral images to take my mind of the long stretches of asphalt: red brick Victorian farm houses, fields littered with giant rolled hay bales, black-headed lambs. And colours! Orange tiger lilies, brown-eyed susans, purple viper’s bugloss, yellow sow thistles, all abloom in the roadside ditch. I caught the odour of manure mingling with scented lilacs as I pedalled. Oh, the smell of bacon cooking. What temptation!

Solo CyclingAshton was my first stop after 47 km. A treat to get off the bike, stretch, refill my water bottles. The morning was still fresh and I was savouring being out of the office, having my own away-from-it-all excursion. Yuck, the Ashton water tasted terrible, but I didn’t want to turn back to buy some cold bottled water or Gatorade at the general store. Lesson one for future solo tours: buy bottled water.

Those first hours were so easy. Solo touring has some advantages: going where you want, when you want, how fast or slow you want, changing the route on a whim. Just me and my bike. This is the best part of cycling – exploring. God is not in a church, she’s out here celebrating life! Snuck into Perth the back way, past a factory that smelled like sweet soap.

Solo cycling. Okay, so there are some disadvantages like having to carry a heavy lock or being dependent on the kindness of strangers to keep your bike safe. In Perth, some seniors selling handmade quilts offered to watch my bike while I took a 10 a.m. toast and jam break. Damn, Perth water tasted funky too.

I retrieved my bike and took time to stroll around. This was my tour, not a race. Perth was a pretty town with heritage buildings, antique shops and boutiques for the horsey set. Found a shady river park behind the City Hall. It was quiet, cool and somehow soothing. I took off my sweaty helmet and gloves, and stretched out flat on top of the picnic table. Didn’t care how odd it looked. It felt so good to relax the neck and shoulder muscles.

I rode into Westport a little after noon. It was crowded with summer tourists. As soon as I got off the bike, sweat poured off me everywhere. I hadn’t fully realized just how hot it had become. I thought it was me not being fit enough for this ride. I slowly cycled about the village, but didn’t see any beach, just a marina packed with shiny antique wooden boats all floating in water scummy with algae. Finally, I just rode away, wanting to get to Kingston and be done.

Leaving Westport, I turned onto Old Perth Road or Highway 10 and stood on the pedals to make it up the hill. After that, the rolling hills kept coming. I was shifting, shifting, shifting all 24 gears, but sometimes I would still have to gut it out to the top. I wished I’d done more hill training at home, I wished for some flat road. That it might be too hot, too humid or too hilly didn’t register in my mind. No, the failing was mine. I pushed on. Lesson two: listen to your body not your mind.

There were so many more hills on the winding route through Canadian Shield country: granite outcroppings, scrub cedar and pine, bays and inlets and a lone curving road cut through the middle of nowhere. Going uphill was getting worse as there was no air to breathe, no wind, just hot black pavement and fat me overheating like a car engine.

I stopped on a small bridge, hung over the railing hoping for some coolness to rise up from the waters. Instead bile rose up from me to pollute the creek. I poured water on my head and put my helmet back on. I could hear the stillness, not even the frogs were croaking in this heat. I was so focused on cycling to Kingston that I dismissed my growing weariness. My legs still felt strong, so I got back on the bike, pedalled past another lake or possibly just another bay of the same one. This was tough. Pure penetrating sunshine. August midday sun. Cedars, rocks, water and a lonely road. Nothing to distinguish one bend in the road from another.

Halfway up the next climb I became dizzy and decided to walk. I crossed to the other side of the road where there was some shade covering the road’s edge, but I had to stop. I slumped to the ground where I was still sitting.

Woozy as I was, I sat up when a car went by so they wouldn’t think I was dead. I was sooo hot. My heart rate monitor hovered in the 140s. Too high. I got up and walked the few steps over to my bike. It lay by the side of the road like some wounded beast. Unmoving without me. I was alone. Damn. My cell phone had no signal. Double damn. I was in the middle of nowhere – 30 km to Hwy. 401 or 20-some km back to Westport. Both now beyond my abilities. I tried walking my bike to the next shady spot up the curve. I made it. Stopped. Nauseated again. I can’t do this. I wanted to go on, but couldn’t. It was 1:30 p.m. My partner would be at the Hwy. 401 junction around 3 p.m. Would he realize something was wrong and come looking for me? Yes, he’d find me. I would not think of other possibilities. I poured the last of the funky water on my head. How quickly my hair dried; all my skin felt dry yet I was so hot.

Riding solo definitely has some drawbacks. It meant no sag wagon, no one to talk to, no help when you collapse, and having to carry all your own food, water, clothing, tools.

Was this heat exhaustion? Sunstroke? What was the difference? I checked the time on my bike computer, 2:30 p.m. Feeling better. Stomach empty. Maybe I can bike a bit more – just get a little closer. I put on my helmet, threw a leg over my bike and realized I was dizzy again. Any movement and my heart rate soared like I was still cycling uphill. I want to go on. Mind fighting body. I understood at some unconscious level that I needed to stay put, but my sole desire was to continue. Lesson three: quitting can be smart sometimes.

Eventually I dug through my little bike pack and pulled out my “civilian” shorts and T-shirt. The soft shirt felt dry and comforting. And I finally realized my tour was over. I accepted now that I was going no further. I changed at roadside. Lesson four: accept your limitations.

3:30 p.m. I was not feeling any better nor worse. My heart rate had gone down a little. The next vehicle came around the corner – it was my chauffeur in search of a cyclist!

“Are you alright? I’m so proud of you,” he said unexpectedly.

“Yes, no, what? Why? I failed,” stunned by his lovely comment. “Westport is not Kingston.” I said gravely.

“No, you did fine! Today is the hottest day of the summer. The humidex is 42° C. When you weren’t at the junction, I thought I might find you unconscious by the side of the road,” he said gently lifting my bike into the back of the truck.

“Well, I kept trying, but I couldn’t go on.”

He turned then and gave me a safe-in-his-arms kind of hug.

“Did you enjoy the ride?”

“Yes, up until Westport.”

Well then, you did fine. No tour is a failure if you enjoyed yourself and learned something.” 

Lesson five: Revel in your accomplishments.

© Sheila Ascroft   (published in The Ottawa Citizen, Oct. 1, 2000.)

Sheila AscroftI’ve been cycling for 20-some years and writing about it for the last 10. My articles have been published in newspapers and magazines — and now on the women’s cycling website! I’m a member of the Ottawa Bicycle Club and the Canadian Kilometer Achiever Program. www.sheilaascroft.com

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