The year of the flood

“Meteorologists see perfection in strange things, and the meshing of three completely independent weather systems to form a hundred-year event is one of them. My God, thought Case. This is the perfect storm.
– Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm.

Gonzalo says that my Spanish is as good as the day I left Spain, but even so, I find myself struggling to explain the flood. I remember basic words: inundación (flood), caudal (water flow), but how do I explain the vastness of the water, how close the water came to washing out the bike paths, how it got to a point where there was nowhere for the water to go  because everywhere it could go was already topped up, saturated, soaked. I don’t have enough words for water to explain what a challenge this spring has been. So I will use the dodgy second-person-singular narrative trick to try, in my own language.

To say that this has been an eventful year would be understatement to the point of lying. First, the floods; then, Doug’s mom’s hospitalization. Your father passes away; a week after the funeral, Doug’s mother passes away, almost eight months to the day after her retirement party. It’s only a month on that you feel like you’ve stopped reeling enough to get your bearings, to think about what the hell is going on and what to do next.

You try to escape. You think to yourself, well, where’s the harm in unplugging? You just buried your dad the week before (only in the official sense, since the goodbyes, spoken and unspoken, were long in coming). Even if the waters have receded, the flood isn’t done with you.  The beach is soggy, pasty with algae and mud in most places, and the ground hasn’t had enough sun to dry out enough to get your tent pegs in so that they’ll stick. Worse, you’re close enough to the Canadian Shield that any sand or topsoil is an illusion under all that rock that makes up the Shield, and the morning sun bakes the residual humidity of the nearby lakes and swamps into afternoon thunderstorms that Never. Fucking. Well. Stop.  You try to make the best of it, even though the sound of the rain on the fly of your new tent make you think of what it must be like to sleep in a drum that someone is dropping lentils onto. In fact, sleeping in a lentil-pummelled drum would probably be a few decibels quieter. Sleeping in a two-man tent is starting to get old, especially when said tent is shared with someone who starfishes in his sleep, forcing you off your sleeping pad. You try to make the best of it, even taking the obligatory camping selfie with new Parks Ontario hoodie and red Solo cup (just diet ginger ale – more than a couple of drinks per night is a guaranteed recipe for a 2AM panic attack). There is exactly 623 m of cycling because the road outside the provincial park is under construction and there’s no shoulder to speak of. The last day, you cannot haul ass out of there fast enough, for the sanity of everyone involved.

IMG_20170702_171701806

Nature and cancer take their toll one more time, and even though you’re tempted to leave the whole vacation thing to one side and stay in town and say fuck it, you decide to give it one more try. The day before you start your holidays, you book two campsites on a wing and a prayer. The first campsite is a place you used to go as a kid, before the move out to Kemptville, when your parents still had money and time and energy to be in the Great Outdoors without resenting the hell out of it. The first two days are pleasant enough, including 15 km on the Waterfront Trail between the campsite and Upper Canada Village. The park is quiet, the plots are huge, and if it hadn’t been for that godawful thunderstorm that threatened to inundate the park, the storm that sent you scurrying, soaked, pissed, running to Cornwall to get a hotel room to wait out another inundation, it could have been a good start to the holidays. (And a few more dozen kilometres on the bike.)

IMG_20170725_101356825

Still, the rest of the week is promising. Oka! Cheese. Memories of a turning point in Canadian/First Nations history. Trees everywhere. Nice beach. (Why is the secondary school so flipping huge?) Something like 10K on the Route Verte near the Oka National Park (though nowhere near the 20K you were hoping to do, to get to the train station that would have taken you into Montreal, where you could have done some serious urban cycling.) But you tell yourself you don’t mind. After so much drama over the previous few months, you’re due for some boredom.

IMG_20170729_135807252

The problem with letting the panic subside, however, is that it starts making room for thoughts. Some are rational, some are existential, and some are downright panicky. Is this all there is? Am I going to get stuck with someone who can’t do more than 10K a day because he’s literally dying for a smoke and a beer fifteen minutes in? Am I ever going to get out and be able to do a trip by myself? I don’t remember signing up for signing away every single weekend and not being able to cut loose and bike away. Admittedly, some of this angst is because you missed the Adventure Cycling Association weekend bash in early June, but at the same time you wonder if it speaks to something deeper, some kind of signal that keeps getting lost in the noise of everyday life.

So you bite the bullet and spend a grand on a ticket back to Spain, something you’ve been promising everyone — not necessarily yourself — that you would do. (An hour later, you’re Skype-ing with an old biking buddy, setting up a marginally realistic cycling trip that will both have you gobbling Advil like candy, but what’s old age for, if not to go out in an arthritic blaze of glory? Besides, you’ll get to wash the Advil down with some primo Ribera del Duero, since that’s where you’re going to be. Water? No thanks. Had enough this year.) And then you decide on a whim to take the weekend to yourself and do the damn bike weekend anyway (well, A bike weekend – not necessarily the one you spent weeks, planning, but a getaway). The weather report is not great, which is no real surprise. The weather has been floody all summer. Life has been floody all summer. But at some point, you just gotta get going.

Staying the same vs. moving (on)

One of the weird things you have to get used to after being abroad for a while is how much your city can change and expand on you. Ottawa is certainly no exception to the rule. When I left, most of the city was contained within the Greenbelt, a swath of federally-protected land that consists of forests, swamps or farms run by the Department of Agriculture. Not now. Like Mr. Creosote, the feasting man from the Monty Python movies, Ottawa has blown its belt and keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

From a biking standpoint, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it’s meant that Ottawa’s biking infrastructure has expanded, as well. For instance, when I was a kid in the 1970s, the area around the Watts Creek Pathway was nothing more than easement going down to the 417, and we used to sled down the existing berm towards the snow fence. (All nine feet of it.) Since then, a second berm has been constructed to separate the pathway from the first berm, leading to a rail trail created from a section of rail line that used to ship supplies out to the military base at Shirley’s Bay.  When I got back to Canada five years ago, I was surprised to find that the trail had also been extended along Stony Swamp, over Timm Road, and down to Robertson Road to join another rail trail that forms part of the Trans-Canada Trail leading out to Stittsville. Urban expansion also means that Stittsville still maintains its charm but has effectively become another western suburb of Ottawa (which, as I’ll argue shortly, isn’t such a bad thing.)

Even though it wasn’t that far from Ottawa, I’d never been to Stittsville. Not that I remember, anyway. I don’t remember us travelling a lot when we were younger; when we lived in Ottawa, my mother told me, we’d travel out to different beaches and places for picnics and the like, but when my parents decided to move to Kemptville, the added stress of building a house and creating a life from nothing in the middle of nowhere effectively curtailed any activity that didn’t have to do with getting the house done. We ended up spending most of the summer of 1977 living out of a Lionel pop-up trailer (I remember sitting in the trailer on a rainy day and watching Elvis’s funeral cortège roll out of Graceland on August 16th of that year), and while we did manage a couple of trips to Toronto to see my Dad’s family, we didn’t really go anywhere. On Saturdays, we went to the dump. (No garbage collection when you’re five miles out of town.) The occasional Sunday, we might go to the United Church in Kemptville, more out a need for social contact rather than any kind of religious conviction. We didn’t really pack up and travel anywhere for the sheer hell of it. And I think that’s where my need for travel — calling it a love of travel over-romanticizes it a bit too much — comes from.

I considered staying in the neighborhood and just riding the new bike up and down the Sir John A. Parkway. It would have been easier. But then I thought, Nah. I’m on my own this weekend, so why not go explore something new? Why not try something new? What happens if I don’t try something new? Admittedly, a coffee run out into the ‘burbs really isn’t the same as biking across Canada, but I’d rather start little and work my way up. And since I like to think of myself as a fan of greenways, it didn’t make much sense not to at least try the stretch of the Trans-Canada Trail (TCT) that uses the old rail bed to Carleton Place. I could even get breakfast at Quitters Coffee while I was at it.

I set out at about 8:30, cleared the Britannia-Carling section of the bike path before a charity walk for Crohn’s got underway (I can just imagine the amount of bad blood and side-eye that’s happening among the cyclists and the walkers!), went down Watts Creek, and up Corkstown Road, rather than using the bike path (the stone path that runs along the rail line was quite washed out the last time I rode it, and I didn’t feel like doing that much bike handling that early on). From Corkstown, I took the path running under the 417, rode the hill up to Stony Swamp, and kept on it until I reached the TCT bridge that goes over Robertson Road, in what used to be Nepean, but is now effectively the central-west suburbs of Ottawa.

There’s not much to report about the trail itself; it’s a stone-dust trail which pitches slightly upward until you get to Eagleson, then levels out on its way to Stittsville. It would be nicer if it were paved, but paving doesn’t come cheap and it might be that there just aren’t the same overall numbers of users along that stretch of the TCT as there are on other parts. Sundays seem to be busy, though, and after about 35 minutes of quiet riding, I got to Stittsville, hung a left, and had coffee and a muffin at Quitters Coffee, which was founded by singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards.

Truth be told, the 22-odd km of today’s ride was the longest ride that I’ve done in a while – probably two years, no kidding – so when I got to Stittsville, I felt overdressed and overheated and in desperate need of some carbs. The seat post also started sinking, and I thought I’d better get home before I ended up kneeing myself in the boobs all the way back. (I had my Allen keys with me, but fixing things on the road never seems to be the best way to fix things.) Thankfully, the 61 bus goes from Stittsville every half-hour on Sundays (one advantage of Stittsville effectively being part of Ottawa), so onto the bike carrier the bike went, and we were home within three hours of starting out.

Not the ride I was expecting for this Sunday of Bike Weekend, not the kilometres I would have liked to put in, but like they say in Spain, something is something. Let’s see what this week brings.

n+1: Giant BeLiv 2 City review

There’s an old joke among cyclists: “What’s the perfect number of bicycles to own?” “N+1: however many bikes you own, there’s always room/need/desire for one more.” When you live in an apartment, you kind of have to keep that in check for obvious reasons, but it also gives you a good reason to update whenever time and money allow you to. I’d been putting off going down to Giant Ottawa to get a new bike, mostly because it wasn’t like the old Giant Escape 2 W wasn’t…bad…it was just long and heavy. Seriously heavy. At first I thought it was me (grad school, combined with working a full-time civil service job, didn’t do any favours to my girth) but then I realized that, no, maybe the Escape was just a little bit more of a flatlander than I needed it to be.  I’m also kind of short through the torso, and found that I was leaning on the flat handlebars more than I had to, which was generating numbness in my hands. (I’ll cop to a case of RSI that pre-dates grad school by about 20 years, but, again, typing a 140-page thesis didn’t help that, either.) Or maybe it was just the pull of the new; leasing, unfortunately, isn’t a thing with bike manufacturers, which means that, inevitably, a changeup always means a purchase. And I’m not one for impulse buys, and certainly not ones of this calibre. I guess that spoke for itself this morning when I went to pick it up, and the salesperson noted that I’d come armed with matching accessories.

So here it stands in my living room: the Giant BeLiv 2 City.

IMG_20170604_090652700

This is the first commuter/cyclocross bike I’ve owned since I bought the Orbea Arama in 2008 to go across Spain. I loved that Arama, but like the Escape, it weighed a ton: the bike took a ton of abuse, but could only do so because of the steel frame and heavy components. I’d been warned by the sales staff at Giant that the BeLiv would weigh about the same as the Escape, but the BeLiv feels about five to seven pounds lighter.  The matte black finish is pretty cool, punctuated by silver and hot pink accents (hubs, headset and wheel rim accents) so it doesn’t look like you’re riding a two-wheeled version of the Stealth Bomber). Here’s what I love, (with one big minus that, really, doesn’t take away from the bike all that much):

Overhand brake levers. God, how I missed those from the days of the Arama!

IMG_0001

Shorter frame length: when I’m climbing, my wrists hit my knees. I don’t know if that’s a proper bike fit or not, but it works for me, since that’s what I’ve got on my road bike.

Road handlebars: so many more options for hand position, and a LOT less numbness in my hands.

The step-through frame: Normally I’m not a fan of step-through frames because they scream “girly”, but the older I get (and the harder it gets to swing a leg over the back wheel), the more I can come to peace with them. The one thing I’m not sure about is how low the top tubes are relative to the bottom tube, especially for retrieving the bottle, but that’ll probably come with practice.

Disc brakes. Yeah, I’ll admit to being a little reticent about having disc brakes, especially since I’d gotten pretty good at replacing brake pads on the road bike. The brakes are still a little loose on the new bike (I almost had to Fred Flinstone it today at a four-way stop) but I don’t know anyone who’s regretted making the move to disc brakes.

All of which brings us to the one downer: the rack. Oh, the poor rack.

IMG_0002

The side rails on the rack come down about 3″ from the top of the rear tire, which makes it too low to put Arkel panniers on them. There is another tube that sits above the rear wheel, but it’s rounded, which means the clips of the pannier don’t sit cleanly on them. The design might be specific to Axiom panniers; but after paying nearly six hundred dollars for a set of Arkels, I’d rather swap out the old rack that was on the Escape, and buy a new rack for the person who’s buying the Escape.

So that covers the features. The ride is smooth and zippy, even with tires that have a bit more grip on them – not knobby tires, exactly, but they’ve got enough tread to handle gravel and uneven surfaces. The more compact frame makes climbing less of a chore (even with grad school weight!), and a triple chainring means that you’re not going to be out of options before you’re out of gas. I can’t say that I’d ever want to go back to riding mountain passes in southern Spain or the Pyrenees, but if I had to do it, I’d much rather do it on a bike like this: light, well kitted-out and just plain comfortable to ride.

 

 

 

Best-laid plans, meet human frailty.

Well, up until 9:40 last night, I would have said that my plans for next weekend were 100% solid. And then I went to check on my 85-year-old dad, who’s been in poor health since my mom died in December of 2014….

I may still do it. I’m know that I’m not thinking clearly enough to make a proper decision. We said goodbye to Dad and the coroner, and the transit workers from Beechwood Cemetery, and the cops who, by law, had to witness the whole thing to make sure that there wasn’t something illegal going on with the body some time around 1:00AM this morning. I’m going on 90 minutes of sleep since 5:30 yesterday morning and I had a side of smoked salmon and three Caesars for lunch. My bags are still packed. I’m not saying “no” quite yet, simply because I’m tired of life getting in the way of things that I want to do. (The funeral probably won’t be until late June, anyway.)

Summer’s here. Let’s get moving.

The Adventure Cycling Association, based in Missoula, MT, is one of the best English-language resources available for information and advocacy related to bike tourism. Not only are they the driving force behind the US Bicycle Route System, they are, hands down, the best place to go if you want to connect with other cycle tourists. I’m stretching writing, here…they’re cool and they’re informative, and you have to check them out.

To get an idea of the reach of the Association, check out their web page for the Bike Travel Weekend, which (I understand) happens every year during the first weekend of June. Cycle tourists from all over the world (seriously, check the map out) post their three-day trips and promise to post information on the trip they take.

I figured that this would be a good chance to gently get back into the swing of things, so basically, my trip is going to be the longest commute home I could possibly take. From work on Friday, I’ll ride up to Cantley, Quebec, and stay in the campsite there. Saturday, I’ll ride along the Gatineau River to Wakefield (covered bridge, here I come!), then skirt along the north side of Gatineau Park over to Sainte-Cécile-de-Masham (which, I have it on good authority – my sister-in-law – is home to some of the best patates frites in the Pontiac region). After spending Saturday night in Gatineau Park, I’ll tackle Trails 50 and 36 and hopefully not get too lost/covered in poison ivy, head along Meech Lake and then down through Kingsmere and Pink Lake to the Ottawa River, and head home. Basically, it’s a 80-km trip home from work, two days late, but it takes advantage of the numerous campsites and park infrastructure that we have close to Ottawa. (This is something I should have pointed out in yesterday’s post: If you don’t have a car, getting in and out of eastern Ontario and western Quebec is a bit of a headache, but we’re not lacking for things to do and places to go in the area.)

Oh, and I bought a new bike for the trip. Don’t tell Doug.

(Postdatum: I’ll post the technical and tourist information once I get back. In the meantime, you can see the map by clicking here.)

But first, a Buff…

They say that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Let me stop it right there, and say that no, this time, we’re going to start with a Buff.

You might know Buffs. They’re tubular pieces of woven poly-cotton fabric, about a foot long, basically big tubes of t-shirt material that can be tied up in a variety of ways and take a lot of abuse. Well, I found my favourite Buff two days ago, at the bottom of a storage Tupperware container that’s spent the last three years in my storage locker. That’s about the second time I thought I’d lost it forever. The first time was when I left Spain in a hell of a hurry, five years ago this fall, and the Buff somehow got lost up in all of the things that made it into postal boxes, sent to Canada via surface mail, and which made it to Canada in record time, in spite of only being sent surface mail.

You see, this isn’t just any Buff. This Buff has almost as many kilometres on it as my road bike does. It accompanied me on a rather trying trip across Spain. For thirteen, maybe fourteen years it’s been my constant companion, go-to hair accessory, face drier, ice carrier, tent pole binder and, probably, witness to some of the most epic bike-based meltdowns I’ve engaged in.

But let’s face it: If you’re here, it’s not because you’re interested in my hair accessories. It’s probably about the biking. Which I used to do a lot more, before things happened. Before effectively fleeing Spain for Canada, for eastern Ontario, which I’d fled by going to London, then Prague, then Spain, for what I thought was going to be forever. Before I re-met my boyfriend, who was someone I’d known since I was nine. (That story used to be cute.) Before giving up on entrepreneurship, before grad school, mom’s death, the Pan-Am Games, the thesis. And then before I knew it, I was up fifty-five pounds, admittedly with a good job and an M.A. and a defended thesis, a stable relationship and a French certification that I don’t have to re-do until the fall of 2021, but without biking.

This blog, then, represents an effort to get back into both cycling and writing (which I have done in abundance over the past three years, but unless you’re into the cross-cultural ramifications of international sporting events seen through a systemic-functional analysis framework, it probably doesn’t count).  See, I used to be a hell of a cyclist. I competed in road cycling. Rode one of the toughest sportive rides in Europe (four Cat 1 climbs in the Pyrenees, boo-yeah!) in a more-than-decent time for having turned forty just seven months before. And now…? Well. I’ve biked to work six times this year. That’s about 40 km more than I did all of last year. But this is the year that it changes and the road gets taken to. (Yes, passive voice; you know who the actor is in this case. No, it’s not bad form to end a sentence with a preposition.).

Why now? Well, not having grad school hanging over my head is a big bonus. So is having paid holiday time. (For the first time since 1998!) So is — and this is such a shallow confession — having a decent salary. Paid on time. One that gives you the financial wherewithal to have things like credit cards, which allow you to do things like make campsite reservations, and buy nice things for you and your bike, like bike clothes that fit properly, and good, solid bike gear. (Like the Arkel OD panniers you’ve been drooling over since Floridians were counting chads and deciding elections. Or the tent that you’d actually like to have, not just the one that your budget can accommodate.)

Really, though, the most substantial reason why isn’t all that different from the reason that fuels a lot of other bike-related malarkey. I’m getting older. I miss the freedom of the open road, even though the open roads in Spain were interlaced with excellent, cheap public transit options which made exploring any part of the country logistically easy. Public transit is, to put it, a cycle touring nightmare in the Ottawa area (I’m looking at YOU, Greyhound Canada and your mandatory-ten-buck-fee-for-a-stupid-box.) And yet, we have great cycling infrastructure in Ottawa: I tell my buddies back in Spain about our bike paths, the bike racks on our municipal buses, how close good campsites are, and they just shake their heads. (They shake their heads at how flat this place is, compared to the hilliness of Spain, but that’s another post for a future date.) We have municipal and provincial leaders who advocate heavily for bike tourism and better infrastructure. We have great, long paths, such as the Waterfront Trail, the Great Trail (formerly known as the Trans-Canada Trail, which goes right in front of my apartment building), and more bike shops than you can shake a bike pump at. There’s no excuse not to be out there.

So, with new tent, new panniers and new gear (and, hopefully, a new bike shortly), I’m doing it again. As the posts over the next few weeks will show, it’s not always an easy trip, for various reasons. But I gotta get out there again. I can’t not get out there.