Wednesday 5 June 2024

Rebound: My Gravel Ride from Ottawa to Vankleek Hill on June 1, 2024

 As a regular view of the Global Cycling Network, I was interested to learn about a global challenge ride that was sponsored by Shimano and called Rebound.  This is in reference to Unbound, the high-profile gravel bicycle race held in Kansas, attracting over 5,000 riders, including pro racers, for different distances, with the longest version being 320 kms.  As the GCN video indicates, Rebound is an alternative for those unable or unwilling to make the trip to Kansas, but requires participants to ride on the same day, which in 2024 was June 1st.  


To participate in the event I went online to register at and checked the rules.  There was also a Strava challenge noted.  It seemed pretty simple: at least 15 kms of gravel riding, self-supported and with two rest stops.  I felt that I could ignore the 6 a.m. start time (the same time that Unbound begins in Kansas) but also planned to do a lot more than 15 kms.

The route I picked would be the Prescott-Russell Recreational Trail, a converted railway right-of-way, that ran from the village of Hammond, Ontario, eastwards to St-Eugene, near the Quebec border. My plan was to ride from Ottawa, joining a link to the trail proper, and go as far as Vankleek Hill before returning, which would total just under 200 kms, with about 30 being the asphalt roads from my home through Blackburn Hamlet to the trail.

 I called my friend Chris to see if he would be interested but he had family obligations on Saturday.  However, he did say that he would be happy to ride with me to the trail, since I was not sure how to get there and it looked like it was necessary to get through some roads with major traffic. He also said he would ask some other friends to come along and the plan was that they would ride with me for the first 50 kms or so.

The weather was ideal when I woke up early on Saturday.  The bike, my custom Marinoni with 28 mm tires (indestructible Continental Grand Prix 4 Seasons), was all set up and I had two frozen bottles on board, along with plenty of food to see me through.  Riding to the meeting point, the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, I was delighted to see Chris and his East End Boys, fellow club racers, so we were nine in all, departing at 8 o'clock.  We had a fast start heading east along the George-Etienne Cartier Parkway it was closed to car traffic (as on all summer weekends) as we entered.  Fast pacing brought us to Blackburn Hamlet then across Innes Road, all along marked bike lanes, and after 16 kms we were on the Ottawa link to the trail.

It was fun riding with the group as the kilometers flew by.  The trail was packed gravel dust and offered quite a firm surface.  Everyone else was riding current-style racing bikes and had no problems.  Well, not until one of the group had a flat.  A comedy of errors followed as it turned out he had brought a tube that had a valve too short for his deep rim wheels.  I had one long enough but when it got installed it blew up out of the side of the tire, which turned out to have a torn sidewall.  Everyone offered helpful advice so it took quite a while to get rolling again.  In the meantime we had all been a feast for the mosquitoes in the woods but at least there were no blackflies here.

The trail follows the right-of-way of the line established by Canadian Pacific in 1898 running from Ottawa to Montreal with the primary function of taking on agricultural freight--wheat and hay--from farmers in the region. We passed through the village of Bourget, where the original station still stands.  We were surprised to find the trail asphalted for 2 kms here but in fact there are four sections outside of villages on the 72 km that are done up like this.  After Bourget our group split and I was on my own as the others headed north on paved roads before they would turn west for home.

The trail crosses numerous roads, requiring some care to get around the gates that are installed on the trail.  While a few of the roads are fairly major (albeit with seemingly zero traffic), many of them are very rough gravel and would be pretty much farm roads.  The builders of the rail line had it easy as the route is very flat and there is only one larger river, the Nation, that needed to be crossed.  CP passed ownership of the line to VIA Rail and the tracks were removed in 1986.  The first section of the recreational trail was opened in 2004 and completed to its current length the following year.  However, by 2016 the United Counties of Prescott and Russell considered closing the trail due to maintenance costs but a solution was found in 2021 in an agreement between VIA Rail, the Counties and a non-profit organization for ongoing management of the trail.  It is used by cyclists and walkers in summer and snowmobilers in winter.  One segment of the link to Ottawa is for equestrians.

For the most part the trail is well-maintained and in addition to the four paved sections mentioned there are also six pavilions in Hammond, Bourget, Alfred, Plantagenet, Vankleek Hill, and St-Eugene.  These are very attractive structures that offer covered tables, a portajohn, and a structure with signage and some rather poor maps.  

The signage is not really that good as for most of the ride you have no idea where you are.  Furthermore, as originally an agriculturally-focused railway, the trail only goes through tiny villages so any services are not to be found close by, or are at least not indicated anywhere.  It was strange that my destination of Vankleek Hill, one of the larger towns in the region and directly on the trail, was not shown on the one sign indicating distances on the trail!

As someone with a keen interest in history, I was grateful for the occasional signs that explained something about the railway's past and the stations that served it.  There are also signs about the natural environment and I learned about the Alfred Bog, a Class 1 Wetland that is a domed peat bog and home to numerous endangered species of plants and animals, an example of a boreal forest environment far south of where it would normally be found.  In terms of manmade evidence, the signs always seem to indicate that the interesting train stations, except the one in Bourget, all burned down or were otherwise demolished at some point!

By far the most interesting thing that existed on the trail (except for the Alfred Bog, clearly) was Caledonia Springs.  I had never heard of this before but wondered about some of the village names east of Ottawa, such as Carlsbad Springs, indicating some kind of thermal water presence.  It turns out that Caledonia Springs was a spa resort, based on the supposed healing properties of its waters, and established in 1836.  It attracted visitors not only from Ottawa and Montreal but as far away as New York and even Europe.  The community grew to include a number of hotels and facilities for visitors and reached a population of 500-1,000 residents.  The CP bought the biggest hotel in town, the Grand Hotel, in 1905, renaming it the Caledonia Springs Hotel and making it part of CP's national chain of luxury hotels.  It closed in 1915 and the last hotel in town shut down in 1947.  The tracks and fancy station were taken out before 1986 and nothing whatever now remains of the village and its well-heeled past except two signs and the trail.

The trail brought me to Vankleek Hill or, more accurately, its outskirts.  I had my lunch in the pavilion and then left the trail in search of more to drink.  There was a Foodland nearby and while it was easy to reach riding on the paved shoulder of Hwy 34, it was impossible to cross over due to the heavy traffic so I just rode back the way I came and returned to the trail to head home.  I did not feel the need to ride to St-Eugene, which would have added another 38 kms to the ride, there and back to Vankleek Hill, but I had not ridden this far for some years, even on a flat route, so was happy to turn back after my cold Gatorades.

The slight tailwind I had enjoyed riding from the west became a rather hot headwind on the way back.  It was, to be honest, a pretty boring ride as there is not much to look it.  It was enlivened a bit when I fell off my bike while slowly passing through one of the gates and discovering a big hole directly in front of me and, trying to avoid it, I lost my balance and tipped over.  No damage except to me ego, although my right shoulder was a bit sore the next day.

So that was my Rebound ride: 192 kms in 8 hours 30 minutes of cycling, with a paltry 345 m of altitude gained.  I do not really understand the attraction of riding on gravel, which is bumpy, slow and dirty, except that there is no traffic to threaten you.  On the Prescott-Russell Trail on a beautiful sunny Saturday I only saw perhaps ten cyclists and another ten pedestrians over the entire distance.  The day after the ride it took nearly two hours to clean the bike properly but at least I can say I participated in a global cycling event that covered six continents and 4,452,229 miles!

Sunday 17 September 2023

My Challenge Ride at Lake Placid, September 15, 2023

Lake Placid, located in the New York State's Adirondack Mountains region, is one of only three places that have hosted the Winter Olympics twice, the others being Innsbruck and St. Moritz. Lake Placid held its events in 1932 and 1980 and remains a destination for winter sports enthusiasts, as well as for outdoor activities of all kinds throughout the year. It offers road cyclists some outstanding opportunities for riding and one of these is the Ironman Loop.

My route along the Lake Placid Ironman loop and Whiteface Mountain

The first Ironman triathlon in Lake Placid took place in 1999 and for many years was the only Ironman venue in the United States besides the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. The cycling course, which has varied slightly from year to year, is two circuits of a 90 km (56.5 mile) course. Each of these loops has an elevation gain of 640 m (2019 ft), with most of the gain coming in the second half.

Lake Placid, which is two hours' drive south of Montreal, is keen to market itself as a cycling region and many of the roads are marked to show bicycle traffic. Shoulders are paved and wideand generally in very good condition. All along the route, even when there is no Ironman on, there are “portable restrooms” marked with very visible signs. The scenery is beautiful although this route apparently ranks as one of the toughest Ironman courses. That said, the Men's Ironman World Championships, recently held in Nice, was much harder, featuring a bike course with double the elevation gain!

Main Street, Lake Placid

The Pines Inn, my hotel

On a beautiful early Fall day I rolled out of my hotel (possibly one of the very few budget alternatives in town and probably THE place to stay in Lake Placid circa 1912) and eased downhill and onto Main Street, which runs along the shore of Mirror Lake—for some reason the village of Lake Placid is not actually on nearby Lake Placid!--and takes you past an amazing number of restaurants, outdoor equipment stores, and realtors' offices. It takes you past the hockey arena where the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” match took place and the big high school, which has the Olympic speed skating oval in front of it. A little further and you are out of town and following Route 73 southeast in the direction of Keene

Olympic ice hockey venue

There are reminders of Lake Placid's Olympic past as you will see on your right the two towers that mark the tops of the 100 m and 128 m ski jumps, the only jumps in North America that are homologated for summer as well as winter competitions. Built for the 1980 Games, they were modernized in 2021. The next bit of Olympic history is when the Ironman course takes a little detour to the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex, which is the home of the bobsled track. The track was built in 1930 and used in the 1932 and 1980 Games. The most recent version of the track was constructed in 2000 and the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Although Route 73 had a fair amount of traffic on a Friday morning, the shoulders of the road make riding safe enough and for a good portion of the Ironman loop here the road goes downhill, making some sections very speedy indeed. Exhilarating, in fact.

Reaching the hamlet of Keene, you leave Route 73, turning left onto Hwy 9N, and enjoy a beautiful ride on a quiet road heading north alongside the Ausable River until reaching the hamlets of Upper Jay and Jay proper. Jay has a nice village green but is notable as having the only covered bridge in the Adirondacks. Originally built in 1857, it eventually fell into disrepair and was removed, while the current bridge, using original hand-hewn beams, was opened as a footbridge in 2007.

Another left turn takes you from Jay onto Route 86, which goes northwest and gradually climbs before the Ironman course takes another out-and-back detour along Haselton Road. Unlike most of the loop, this 22 km total section is shaded by tall trees and features lots of gentle climbs and descents as you reach the turnaround at the hamlet of Black Brook and come back. A really lovely section of road. Next stop: Wilmington.

Wilmington near the base of Whiteface Mountain and I took a break at the Visitors Bureau, which was all decorated for Fall. Speaking with the lady working there, I learned that she was the chief organizer of the bicycle race held every June that starts at the Visitor Bureau parking lot and goes to the top of Whiteface Mountain. She told me that the hardest part of the ride is the section up to the toll house, with the remaining 8 kms (5 miles) to the top being steadier. I had planned to ride up to the toll house to consider whether I should go on or just come back down and continue with the Ironman loop but, feeling encouraged, I set off on the big climb.

Passing North Pole, New York (“Home of Santa's Workshop”), a little theme park that opened in 1949, I found this section of the Whiteface Veterans' Memorial Highway to be fairly arduous. The climb has been described as the American equivalent of the Alpe d'Huez, which I have actually ridden, and both certainly start off hard. Reaching the Alpine-inspired toll house (fee for a cyclist is US$15), I needed a short break to recover before the next section.

Whiteface Mountain's east side was used as the Alpine skiing venue for the 1980 Olympics and features the highest vertical drop of any ski area in the Eastern United States. Opened in 1929 by then-Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Memorial Highway rises at an average of 8% to a parking lot at 4,610 feet above sea level, and access to the actual summit, another 280 feet, is either up a set of steps or an elevator. Those 8 kms uphill seemed to last forever. Unlike the Alpe d'Huez, the Memorial Highway does not really have any switchbacks until the last 2 kms so it is a steady grind, with no relief along the way. Stopping to take photos was tricky as getting going again at that gradient was not very easy. Views from the summit are impressive and it was a fine day but already quite cold.

View of Lake Placid

I had the foresight to bring a small backpack with extra clothing—arm and leg covers, glove liners—which turned out to be a good idea as returning downhill at speed (even for this terrible descender) felt freezing. The road surface is excellent but at the steepness speed builds up very fast and it was not so comfortable until I passed the toll house. Oddly, I found doing this final section into Wilmington much better as the curves were wider and easier for control.

Back in Wilmington, it is time to head southwest along Route 86 and the 21 kms back to Lake Placid. This section of the Ironman loop features steady climbing, including three little climbs known as the Three Bears, which would be very tiring if you were doing both loops of an Ironman race. Traffic was heavier here again and while the shoulder is paved it is rather narrow in some spots. There are little parking spots were people stop to go fishing in the Ausable River.

Soon enough one is back in Lake Placid and unlike the Ironmen/women, I did not have to run a marathon after getting off the bike, thankfully. In all, I had covered 120 kms and climbing just under 2100 m. A beautiful day out that can be recommended for any cyclist—well, maybe with more modern gearing that my 34-26!

Mirror Lake, on the shores of which is found the town of Lake Placid, oddly

As to the Ironman Lake Placid race taking place on July 21, 2024, this will be the 25th Anniversary Edition, with various special events. General registration sold out in August already for the 3,200 participants so you just have to do it on your own.  The Ironman website provides a map and turn-by-turn instructions for the course here. The Veterans Memorial Highway information is here.  And if you really want to race up Whiteface Mountain, you can check out the event information here

I had planned to enjoy some craft beers at the nearby Lake Placid Brewing Company but my legs were so exhausted that the best I could do was stagger over to the nearby McDonalds, where I recall eating pretty much the entire menu.  The next morning was not much better as I walked to a local diner and had the biggest meal, the Adirondack Breakfast, on the menu, which disappeared as soon as the waiter set it down.  Apparently my ride the day before had used up something like 5,00 Kcal!

Feeling somewhat more myself and having packed the car, I drove over to a state historical park.  This was the one-time home, and then only briefly, of famed abolitionist John Brown, who helped ignite the Civil War by leading a slave uprising to seize the arsenal at Harper's Ferry in Virginia in 1857.  Executed for treason, he is buried with some of his followers at this farm in North Elba.  It is a beautiful site and a peaceful setting considering its association with a pivotal and still-controversial figure in United States history.  More information on the John Brown Farm may be found here.

Tuesday 22 August 2023

Monarch of the Mountains: August 21, 2023

When I was at the Tour de Whitewater, I saw a brochure for a series of organized rides starting in Eganville, Ontario, in August.  The Tour de Bonnechere offered rides of 20 and 65 kms on the road, with another one of 60 kms on gravel but what interested me was the 100 Km "Monarch of the Mountains," which I overheard someone say was a very hard ride.

Looking up the course online, I did in fact see a reference to it being one of the most challenging rides in Ontario but I also found a GPS course of the route, which I was able to download.  With my experience of the Tour de Whitewater, I was not sure that I would want to pay again to ride by myself.  Admittedly, that ride had included lunch and two rest stops with drinks and snacks, but as I often do 100 km rides with some good climbing getting to and from Gatineau Park self-supported, I decided to do the route that way.

I sent a copy of the map and directions to Alec, my neighbour who does triathlons, and asked him if he wanted to join me. He would be available on Monday, August 21, when the weather looked promising, as he had taken the day off for other reasons.  He said we could go with his SUV, making handling the bikes easy, and I said I would be happy to buy him a meal in Eganville after the ride so all was good.  There are a few advantages besides saving the registration fee in that you can ride when the weather is most suitable and start the ride whenever you want.  Alec pointed out that he was not an early riser and with a 90 minute drive to Eganville leaving at 8 am would be fine.  An organized ride would also have a much earlier start time as I found at the Tour de Whitewater, which was a negative, but an event also has refreshment stops and as we discovered on this ride there is basically nothing en route.

I had checked a map of Eganville and found that there was a community arena, so hopefully we could use the showers there after the ride.  It turned out we couldn't but while we were able to park in the arena lot we saw it was right beside a small beach and there was a building for changing and outdoor showers so that would work.

The directions for the ride are quite straightforward as it is a big figure 8 and there just are not a lot of roads here.  We followed County Road 512 southwest for just over 20 kms.  The road was fairly quiet but there was some construction along the way and it was a relief to get past that.  Then we came to the Foymount Hill, which I experienced years ago during a randonneur ride and I recall as being quite hard.  It definitely is, climbing around 185 m in 2.2 kms, with maximum grade of 14%.The hamlet was once a listening post in the NORAD Pinetree Line during the Cold War but the base was decommissioned in 1972. There was a nice wide shoulder to ride on so traffic was not an issue but it was a slow grind.  My gears were a bit of a limiting factor but not as much as my weight as Alec is 15 kgs lighter so he flew up the climb.  Well, he was faster than me, anyway!

Reaching Foymount my GPS kept us on the course but in the wrong direction as we should have turned right onto Opeongo Road West but instead continued straight through on 512 until we reached County Road 66.  There was an absolutely marvelous descent on freshly-paved tarmac, which was such a pleasure that in the end we did not care we were going the wrong way around the loop.

There were plenty of up-and-down bits but the scenery was beautiful as we rode through the heavily forested countryside, with the odd farm and summer cottage and skirting along the edges of some lakes.  Turning onto Letterkenny Road (all the names in the area reflect Irish Catholic settlement), we discovered why this ride was considered one of the hardest in Ontario as there were some brutal (albeit short) climbs to deal with as we continued along this segment for 18 kms.

We reached the hamlet of Quadeville, which was the only settlement after Foymount, and reputed once to be close to the summer home of gangster Al Capone, which was very unlikely but is clearly something of a local legend.  We turned onto County Road 515, rolling northwards for 17 kms and reaching Foymount again.  Back on course, there were a few dips and climbs as we followed Opeongo Road West, which took us to McGrath Road after 13 kms.  This was a lot easier to ride as the road was flatter and descending and I felt quite invigorated and was able to push the pace a bit.  12 kms further and then we turned onto Highway 41N, which was the road we had driven in on, and this brought us soon back to Eganville, although this 4 kms was not very pleasant given the amount of traffic.

Back in Eganville we showered at the beach (cold water only but it was a warm day) and got changed. I had packed some cold water and that was good to have after the ride.  Then we had a very pleasant lunch at the Rio Tap & Grill, sitting outside and overlooking the Bonnechere River, before heading back to Ottawa.

The GPS course I had downloaded showed that we would be climbing 1100 m on the route and even though we did part of it backwards I was still astonished that in our 105 kms of riding we had actually seen nearly 1700 m of altitude gain.  But it was a great day out, with riding time of just over 4 1/4 hours and an average of 25 km/h.

Monday 17 July 2023

Tour de Whitewater, July 15, 2023

With the Covid-19 pandemic basically killing all travel plans and the inertia that takes over when one is retired, I realized that it has been ages since I went riding anywhere outside of Ottawa, with the last major cycling trip being along the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2017!  Figuring that the least I could do was get to know this region a bit better, I discovered an event taking place west of Ottawa that was a reasonable drive away.  The Tour de Whitewater in Westmeath, Ontario, offered a number of different distances and so warranted a two hour drive to get there.

Of course, getting there turned out not to be as easy as I expected.  The Queensway in Ottawa, the main east-west highway, was closed as there has been major work going on in bridge reconstruction, so going that way was not an option.  Crossing the river into Quebec, there was a slow drag through Gatineau, getting every single stop light even though there was no traffic whatever at 5 o'clock in the morning, but then the road was quite pleasant and I let the Corvette off the throttle a bit.  There are very few bridges across the Ottawa River west of the city but there is a small two lane one behind a small hydroelectric plan at Portage du Fort.

The organizers had even put up a YouTube video showing the 100 km route which, while not looking exactly like the Swiss Alps, offered at least a chance to ride some new, and probably very quiet, rural roads.

I was directed to a good parking spot beside the local hockey arena as the volunteers were concerned that the Corvette was too low to get into the temporary lot they were using.  I registered inside and noted that the changing rooms were ideal for my quick-change into cycling gear.  I enjoyed a coffee and a donut and breakfast was available for those wanting it. I unpacked the bike (to the bemusement of several people who were surprised you could fit a bike into the back of a Corvette), got changed and joined the others getting ready at the start line.  I chatted with a lady from Orleans (east of Ottawa) who was wearing a jersey that indicated she had done a bike tour in Italy.

The organizers told me that they had 400 registrations, with one-quarter doing the 100 km route.  There was a group of younger riders on fast carbon bikes who were going to run a paceline from the way things looked.  It was to prove so as after the start at 8:00 am sharp I only saw them once as they passed in the opposite direction.  Slowly riding out with a big group, I looked around are realized we were all of a certain age, although I soon found myself riding beside someone in his 30s who was good company and quite proud of his new-to-him fancy carbon bicycle.  However, although I was riding a fairly relaxed pace, all those months of training in the Pain Cave were showing results as I pulled away easily on each climb and soon found myself alone.

The first part of the ride had some nice rolling climbs but I was surprised when at around 25 kms we came to Beachburg and the first rest stop.  I didn't see much point in stopping so just took a photo and headed onwards.

Although I had loaded the course onto my GPS unit, I was somewhat confused when I saw the fast people riding back along the road I was going down, not realizing that the course ran down one road and then up another that was parallel.  So after reading down the long straight and rather boring Queen's Line Road, I turned right at Chenaux, following Chenaux Road east but then got confused at Magnesium Road, which led me to Mine View Road.  At this point, I could not figure out the way so just rurned around and went back--realizing later that if I followed Mine View Road for its full length south I would have been on the right track!  

No matter.  After the long drag back along Queen's Line Road, I turned right onto Foresters Falls Road, which soon enough took me to the small town of, yes, Foresters Falls.  Here was the second rest stop and it was very busy.  I took a short break but really should have joined the long line and filled up my water bottles but my Tommasini attracted a great deal of attention and being the proud owner I had to answer lots of questions.  

The next stretch along the Grants Settlement Road was the best part of the ride, going for around 15 kms alongside the Ottawa River.  There were some sharp little climbs and I paid the price as I seized up with bad legs cramps.  Luckily I had brought my Hot Shot stuff with me and that took care of the problem right away, although it tastes pretty terrible.  I continued along the edge of the river, rejoining Lapasse Road, which was part of the outgoing route, then turned left onto Gore Line, which brought me on a very straight course back to the finish line in Westmeath.  Of course, the few little hills on this road were enough to start the cramps up again but I persevered.

After getting changed and packing up the bike, I enjoyed a simple lunch in the arena, and was particularly happy to have something to drink, going through several bottles of water.  It had not been a very hot day or very windy but I was definitely dehydrated.  

Returning to Ottawa, this time I drove along the Trans-Canada Highway, stopping at friends in Carp where I had arranged to use their shower as I knew it would be a long trip home.  In fact it was pretty bad as all the alternative routes to the Queensway were completely snarled up and instead of the usual hour to get home from Carp it took closer to two and a half.  But arrive I did in the end.

The ride itself (except for getting a bit lost and having cramps) went well enough.  I ended up adding 12 kms to the official route, making my Tour de Whitewater 116 kms long and there was around 500 m of climbing involved.  I was surprised that my average speed was 29 km/h since I rode almost the entire course alone but the Tommasini is such a pleasure to ride quickly once you find a rhythm.   It would have been nice to work with a group but I could not find anyone riding at my speed so perhaps my next ride does not need to be an official event I have to pay for since I ride alone anyway!  At the arena I did see a flyer for a ride near Eganville, the Tour de Bonnechere, in August and that looked interesting as I heard someone say how hard it was!