Dreaming of adventure
From ex-pat and inactive in Vancouver to touring the Canadian east coast, Chris Velupillai proves that bike exploration permits a novice prepared for a steep learning curve.
It was the beginning of 2011 and I had just moved from the burbs to a small unit about five kilometres from downtown. I was recovering from a haemorrhaged lower disc so my options for physical activity were limited. I loved the outdoors, trail running and kayaking; however, due to my injury the only exercise I had been able to do over the past months was walking and stretching.
It wasn’t too long before I noticed that many folk in the inner city were bike riders. I often watched people riding past my home on their way to the local park, shops or into the city. I was extremely jealous of their freedom and eventually the watching became a yearning to join the herd.
So one morning I decided to change the tyres on my mountain bike (which was slowly rusting in storage) from knobblies to slicks, and join in the fun. The local store sold and fitted my new tyres and I was on my way.
For someone who had lost all fitness, I found bike riding to be a fantastic reintroduction to exercise. The obstacles to entry were low and inexpensive. You simply needed a functioning bicycle (of any sort), a helmet and a basic sense of balance. The upright position of a mountain bike was comfortable for my injury and a firmer seat meant my tailbone didn’t sag and cause undue stress on bumpier roads.
That afternoon I was coasting effortlessly around my neighbourhood and eventually around the seawall, and inner city. As the weeks went on my legs and lungs grew stronger, I found more confidence riding in traffic and I realised I could cover greater distance than I’d imagined possible.
While riding the streets of Vancouver I began to dream. I was waiting on approval for my work visa for the coming year but instead of taking an expensive vacation involving a flight and a set itinerary I wondered if I could set forth on an adventure by bicycle, build my fitness, see Canada and only leave a miniscule carbon footprint along the way. This was the adventure I had been waiting for and once the idea had taken hold of my imagination, I knew I was powerless to resist.
Making it happen
Canada is a large country with long stretches of wilderness in-between major cities—how would I begin? Riding on my own, in a foreign land and to destinations I knew little about was daunting and potentially dangerous. So I made a few decisions early in the planning stage that provided a bit of structure to the journey.
I would start out in Ottawa where the summer was filled with festivals and there was plenty to do and friends to stay with. The city itself had phenomenal bike paths that I could use while becoming more familiar with towing a bike trailer, using clip-ins and deciding on the finer details of what equipment to take and what to wear.
There would be no off-road which meant I could save cash using my existing bike with its new slick tyres, whilst still comfortably covering 100km a day. I wanted the flexibility of no hard and fast fixed route, so I would choose my next destination using a 100km radius and always working my way east, toward Nova Scotia. To avoid encounters with dangerous wildlife like grizzlies, cougars or moose I would only camp in official camp sites or in open fields.
I also wasn’t going to cycle just for the sake of cycling. There is definitely something to be said about the puritan pleasure of simply pushing that crank around and around; however, if there was going to be long stretches of motorway then I would box my bike and try catching a coach to avoid cycling next to lumber trucks.
Lastly, I wanted to finish in Halifax, Nova Scotia; a place I had imagined to be impossibly remote as a child. By this point I would know the outcome on my visa and I could make a decision on my final destination.
To keep costs low I had decided to tow a small trailer with my two-person lightweight tent, self-inflating mattress and portable camp kitchen inside. I was fine with sleeping outdoors on cold nights, but hitting ice with nothing but slicks can be darn frightening (I had done this a few times on chilly Vancouver mornings). As such, I wanted to be off the road by autumn when the temperatures would drop dramatically, especially on the east coast. This meant I had to finish my journey by October – there was a lot of ground to cover and many exciting places to see in just four months.
Here’s a manifesto of sorts from my journal at the time:
“Eastern Canada will remain mostly unplanned due to my desire for a true adventure. It will be a test of my resourcefulness and a challenge making friends while crossing cultural and language barriers.
I don’t plan to spend too many days alone in the wilderness, however, this may come into play on this trip and I place faith in my good judgement, outdoors experience and strong spirit to get me through.
I set out truly believing the future is bright and laden with many opportunities for the motivated.”
Forming true grit?
A part of every great adventure is the emotional distance you need to travel. It may provide much needed perspective, teach you a life-changing lesson or perhaps reveal thoughts and emotions you never knew were lurking within. Setting out on this journey, a part of me wanted to know what my physical and emotional breaking points would be and if I could truly stand to be alone with my own company.
For nearly two months I rode on my own and during those long rides on mostly empty roads I would fall into what my partner calls “cycle meditation”. You gain a great awareness of yourself and the environment you pass through. You see everything, you smell everything, your senses become super heightened and your bike truly becomes an extension of your body. With your spirit willing the momentum, organic and synthetic combine to create the cycling experience.
It happened to be the first day of my trip and I was cycling from Ottawa toward Hawkesbury 95km away. As ‘luck’ would have it, the temperature was set to rise to a record 46°C that day, and there I was towing close to 30kg of gear and pedalling as fast as I could. I had made arrangements to stay overnight with friends in Hawkesbury before going on to Montreal and I knew at the end of the ride there would be a swimming pool and a barbeque. With the blistering temperatures, I was desperate to get there before the sun went down, to spend some time cooling off in the pool that night.
That morning I pushed for good distance on mostly flat terrain, but about 20kms from my destination I encountered my first major hill. My legs began to cramp in the heat so I clumsily unclipped and squatted in the shade of a parked oil tanker by the side of the country highway. I realised I had been riding as if I was rushing to my next appointment. I needed to slow down, feel the road, use the gears and find my rhythm. If not I was either going to fall off my bike or pass out.
Removing as much clothing as possible, I poured water on my face, tied a wet bandana across my brow, turned on my mp3 player and remounted. I will always remember those first acoustic strums of ‘Hotel California’ as I broke momentum and slipped into middle gear. A little over an hour later I was in the swimming pool, exhausted and burned but with a beer in hand and my first road lesson learnt.
I may not have made the connection at the time but it stands out to me now how often we are rushing through our lives trying to reach that next destination as quickly as possible. We often set ourselves an unrealistic pace, and we burn out before ever reaching our desired goals.
After a few more hills like this I located my ‘hill pace’: my legs would steady to a particular cadence, my breathing would deepen and I would assume the hundred yard stare as my mind focused inward and went through a revolving check list of breathing, movement and balance. Pain would surface; I would recognise the discomfort, acknowledge it for what it was then discard it as unnecessary before continuing on. The bandana-tying ritual at the base of every mountain helped me find the composure I needed, as did a playlist I reserved on the mp3 player specifically for major hill climbs. I owe a big thanks to The Eagles’ Hotel California, the Peppers’ Californication and Notorious B.I.G’s Ready to Die for getting me back home in one piece.
Rewarding the body and the soul
I had heard of the 100 mile diet however I had never conceived the notion of having to ride that far for my meals. Sampling the seasonal produce and local cuisines as I travelled through the different regions was fantastic. The added bonus was never giving a care toward my diet or my waist line. If it looked good I ate it, as it was simply fuel to get me back out there on the road again.
Some folk might have had a more scientific approach, working out calories required for the distance to travel but I just listened to what my body was saying. After a long day of pedalling in the sun my body often demanded that I wash down my meals with a liberal dousing of ice-cold chocolate milk, so that’s exactly what I did.
Once outside the major cities, the Canadian wilderness was pristine and immense. With great forethought I had purchased a quality telescopic fishing rod that fit handily in my rear pannier. On many occasions I found myself hiding my bike and gear in the woods before clambering down the embankments to a crystal clear river below. There I would spend a few hours fishing for trout, dolly varden or small-mouth bass that hid from the late afternoon sun in the shadows of bridges and overpasses.
Seasoned travellers will agree that you quickly fall into mindless routines that just work. One of those was to make sure my rear insulated bag had at least two cold beers in it when I set out each morning. If I ended up fishing, my catch went into odour-proof bags next to the brews before I headed on to my final destination for the night.
Most nights I headed toward camping spots indicated on road maps. I found a great way to make friends as a single traveller was to try and always arrive with food to share. People were already curious of this lone stranger pulling a bicycle trailer so when I asked if they wanted to try some local fish they never said no, and almost always invited me to share their meal and a few drinks around the campfire.
Finding a team on the road
It may have been the friendly nature of the coastal Canadians or the fact that I was a lone traveller, but I never once felt lonely on my journey and easily made friends in every town I visited. The locals proved to be exceptionally welcoming, pulling over to offer cold drinks when it was hot, inviting me into their homes for meals or providing a place to stay while I visited in their town. I definitely never had a need for a GPS; as soon as I pulled out a map on the road, someone was guaranteed to stop and offer directions.
Along the way I had different friends join me for varying stints on the road. One of them was a new friend who unexpectedly stayed for the long haul. Claire was her name and she had been a whirlwind romance in the last two weeks before leaving Vancouver.
Two months later, I was travelling through Quebec, still talking to Claire and very much interested in seeing her again. When she told me she was moving back east with two months’ vacation up her sleeve there really was no choice other than to tempt her to join me on my journey. Claire said yes to meeting up in Cape Breton in August.
In one of our early conversations we had joked about the Amazing Race TV series and how every couple should compete before they tied the knot. Fast forward a few months and here we were set to participate in our very own series along the coastal roads of Cape Breton. Meeting at Sydney airport in Cape Breton, we sat awkwardly on a bench while waiting for her bike which had been boxed up for transport. Claire turned to me and asked if I had any hesitance about travelling so closely with a virtual stranger. I could tell that she did, so I lied and said no and we never looked back.
Cycle dating was exhilarating; however, after pedalling solo for months, being part of a team took some getting used to. Pace, stamina and endurance varied and we were totally out of sync for the first few days. Trust also wasn’t great after I assembled her bike but missed the screw connecting the stem to the fork steerer. Luckily the brakes worked well, or our journey together may have ended prematurely on her maiden ride.
Compromises had to be made in order for us to work as a team, so when we hit our first climb, which was 240m in 7km up Kelly’s Mountain, I introduced her to the bandana-tying ritual and slowed down to her rhythm. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves and solidified our team pace, gaining strength and assurance from grinding out the climb in unison.
Over those weeks there were mountains, rivers and forests for us to traverse. We rode all day stopping for picnics and yoga sessions in open fields. We nibbled on treats from the farms that we passed, got lost together down back roads and supported one another through difficult sections when things got tough. The days were physically exhausting yet emotionally we were very much invigorated and so very much alive. At night my small tent became our bedroom, quite often on the coast where the waves could be heard as a distant lullaby soothing us to sleep.
We sweated, laughed, sang and cycled. We even fought and made up on the odd occasion, just to keep it lively. She said she loved my cooking and positive attitude and I admired her reflectiveness, honesty and humour. We were a newly formed riding team touring from town to town and absorbing every ounce of life along the way.
We took our time and toured for two weeks along the Cabot Trail, before heading to Halifax where we spent some time volunteering on an organic farm and making the most of the last days of an unforgettable summer.
Travelling over four months, two thousand kilometres and five Canadian provinces, I changed 16 flat tyres, climbed over five mountain passes and completed three official cycle trails (my favourite being the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton).
I have backpacked through Latin America, road-tripped in Western Canada and enjoyed resort style vacations before, but it is fair to say that bike touring Eastern Canada changed my life in ways that your standard holiday never could. Claire has since followed me back to Melbourne where we enjoy exploring the phenomenal bike network and multiple rail trails in our new backyard. However, the embers of exploration still glow for us both; the world still has many more fantastic cycle destinations for the adventurous.
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