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!