I hit 9,000 km riding in the wilds of Huntsville this week.
After a lifetime of cycling in Essex County, Ontario, this cyclist was not ready for the hills of Muskoka.
My family and I are on vacation and I brought my bike along. For more than a week before we arrived, I felt a distinct trepidation and couldn’t figure out why. I debated at length about bringing my bike. My wife and family encouraged me, but I worried that the hills of Huntsville were nothing to be trifled with. All I could see happening was me getting out into the county roads, flying down a hill into a sharp turn and crashing, or facing hills so steep I could not climb them.
As it turned out, both happened. Sort of.
I found a 60 km route in Muskoka online.
I set out for the ride on my second morning, just after sun up. It was a bad omen when the hill at the end of the parking lot in our resort complex proved too steep for me to cycle. I’m superstitious about stopping while cycling, and even more superstitious about getting off the bike entirely. I did both and walked the bike up the hill.
Got to the main road and coasted down an incline steeper than anything I had ever faced before. It wouldn’t be nearly the steepest by the end of my ride.
Made my first turn, and zoomed down an even steeper slope. Eight hundred meters ahead of me I had a sharp left turn. My substantial momentum, and then some, was gone by the time I reached that turn and I was distinctly out of breath about five minutes into my ride.
The rest of the route occurred through forest. It was neither pleasant, nor unpleasant. It cut the wind, so that was good. It was quiet. No traffic. Road quality was better than fair: paved, rutted in places, wet in places from overnight rain. But the bland neutrality of endless trees prickled my claustrophobia.
It was immediately apparent the long distances I cycled in Essex County left me utterly unprepared for continuous, substantial hill-climbing. I agonized to the top of a few slopes, and flew down the other side of each. Never has my speed exceeded 50 kph so many times in a single outing.
Then I got to Mount Ball Buster. There was no way. I pedaled up a short way, and then dismounted and walked my bike, preoccupied with my heavy breathing. As I neared the top, I made the mistake of checking my distance. I had traveled 10 km by that point. Felt like I had cycled 75 km.
I began to wonder about bears, moose, snakes, rabid beavers, hill people. Suddenly, a blood-chilling shriek issued from the tree canopy overhead. My rational mind said it was a bird of some kind, but it’s call sounded like a war cry. I was ready to surrender. It shrieked again.
“You sound really scary, whatever you are,” I said aloud.
It shrieked once more. The sound was followed by a flutter in the foliage overhead. I guessed it was a hawk with a bad case of hemorrhoids and heartburn.
I continued, hitting 57 kph on the way down the other side of Mount Ball Buster.
As I progressed, I got into a rhythm of powering down inclines to propel myself up the next one. It didn’t work as often as I wanted. I shifted gears madly trying to find the formula to keep a decent pace. It wasn’t possible.
My route guidance kept me on track through the winding roads, which all looked the same. Unfortunately, a location early in the ride was somehow pinned as a destination, so when I passed that early in the ride, the route guidance continuously implored me to turn around at every side road I encountered afterward. My faith in the technology flagged, somewhat.
The idea was to get to Brunel Road and ride up to the town of Huntsville for the final leg of the route. By then I was turned around. After cruising down yet another hill, I struggled to stop for a STOP sign at a road up ahead where I saw traffic. I intended to continue straight, but across the way it appeared to be gravel, so I turned right, instead, thinking I had kibashed my route. Unbeknownst to me, that was the turn I needed.
After hitting 63.1 kph going down an incline along Brunel Road, I felt it best to get off that road—contending with traffic while clinging to my bicycle down hair-raising descents did not make for an enjoyable ride.
I turned onto Britannia Road, and gained no advantage. The odd truck barreled along and the hills along that road were just as formidable. Surprisingly, though, when I checked my progress on my cycling app, I was keeping a decent pace. By then, all that concerned me was getting back to my family in one piece.
Hill by hill, turn by turn, I made my way back. At one point, I flew down a particularly steep slope with a car behind me.
“Sorry, buddy,” I said aloud, “but first things first.”
This was followed by a series of smaller rises and descents and then a gravely hairpin turn with a rocky gulf beyond it. I glimpsed it in a heartbeat and understood the danger immediately. Turning too sharply would have launched me over the unguarded edge, into the rocky abyss. Hitting the brakes too abruptly would have done the same thing. By the grace of all the cyclists who have gone before me, I hit the right medium and made the turn, though a chill ran up and down me for the rest of the ride, contemplating how close I came to disaster.
Finally, I got to the road on which I began, and felt like an astronaut returning to earth: close to home, but not out of danger. I navigated a few more leg busting rises, and entered the resort complex. I coasted down the sloping driveway I could not climb, earlier, at 55 kph.
There was not a soul around to witness my arrival, my victory.
As I slowly rolled across the parking lot, I thought, I won’t do that again.
A few hours later, I pondered changes to the route to try out the next day.