Once again I jumped onto my trusty old Trek hybrid bike to complete the 2023 Ride to Conquer Cancer, a 200+ km journey from Toronto to Hamilton to Niagara Falls. Feeling a bit exhausted this morning, but happy to be one of the 90 “Sweet Sixteeners”, cyclists who’ve done The Ride every year since it began in 2008.
For a few days, thanks to the forest fires and poor air quality in Toronto, it looked that the Ride might not happen at all. Fortunately, the weather turned in our favor with two days of rain before the start date of June 10th, which literally cleared the air.
Last year was the first “real world” Ride since COVID. Happily, this year participation numbers were back up to normal levels and together, riders raised $17.3 million. My donors were extremely generous, which spurred me on to complete what turned out to be an onerous journey due to (a) the weather (b) crowding and (c) significant route changes.
The biggest challenge on opening day was the heat: 30 degrees by the afternoon! Fortunately, a mild headwind and light cloud cover shielded us. I know from my running days how draining – and dangerous – heat can be. It’s vital to drink enough water and to replenish electrolytes through Gatorade, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to take in enough.
Training for the ride is essential and it’s easy to underestimate how much you need to do. Ride organizers urged participants to complete at least two 75 km rides. Given the routing this year, this was clearly inadequate for ordinary mortals.
Opening speeches were nicely delivered and not overlong. Efforts to prevent a bottleneck at the start worked well and I was off and riding faster than in previous years. As always, Lakeshore Blvd was closed to traffic, which got us out of the city quickly until we hit a glitch turning north onto the Queensway. Often in the past, I’ve grumbled about training in the city, dealing with rough roads and traffic, but this proved invaluable now while negotiating the next 40 km until we headed into the welcome countryside.
Lunch wasn’t served until the 75 km rest stop. Fortunately, my loyal roadcrew, Ed, brought Rahier sandwiches at the 50 km stop where I could refuel and rest up in relative calm. Little did I know what was awaiting me for the next 25 km!
Many years ago, the route had a long stretch of rather nasty hills. My buddy, Marci and I trained for these by doing several stretches of 80+ km rides in the hills north of Holland Marsh. For the past several years, route organizers have skirted this section for flatter countryside, but not this year. The hills were brutal, especially in the heat. From experience, I’d learned that conserving energy is vital to finishing a race, so I walked up several of the longer inclines.
I did wonder if perhaps I’d skimped a bit on my training until I ran into my friend, Della, from yoga class. Della is a super-strong cyclist who trains around windy Lake Simcoe. When she pronounced the hills “brutal”, too, I felt vindicated. We both envied Della’s friend who’d opted for the “Ride Express”, thus avoiding the hills altogether. The sweep vehicle / sag-wagon was pretty busy during the last half of the ride: beginners suffered.
Toward the end of the day came our reward: a glorious 3+km downhill into McMaster University. The route winds you through the campus, past the Phoenix Pub, Ed’s watering hole from student days and over the finish line to “camp” and a most welcome Steam Whistle beer!
Free food and lots of it: pulled pork and chicken, mac and cheese, lots of salads. Ed and I shared a plate after I parked my bike in the secure lot. Then home for a most welcome shower and sleep. I dozed off in the car while Ed fought through the weekend traffic.
We were up at 4:30 am, grabbing a quick breakfast and putting our cat on gravity feeders. The drive to Hamilton went smoothly with practically no traffic and I was on my bike off and riding shortly after the route opened at 6:30 am.
Much cooler temperatures were a relief as was the cloud cover. We glided through early morning Hamilton, though here, as in Toronto and later all through Niagara, the road surface was rough, pitted with hazards, especially for the super-skinny tires on modern bikes. Carbon fiber bikes are extremely light and fast, compared to old hybrids like mine, but they’re fragile. Bike breakdowns were common. In the past, several volunteers helped fix flats and did easy repairs, but I didn’t spot their friendly vehicles this time out.
Route organizers sent us to the top of the Niagara escarpment the familiar way, up a 7 km long bike trail with a very low uphill gradient. From there, the route headed into the countryside past vineyards, huge stone mansions, horse farms and the like. I was passing the derelict barn where last year I’d sheltered from a thunderstorm, when I felt the first few spots of rain.
I’ve done the Ride in the rain a few times. First, you go into denial. It’s just sprinkling, it’s not that bad. Then resignation, as you realize, it is not going to stop. Luckily I had with me the impermeable rain coat I’d bought from a Goderich bike shop – a life saver. Getting wet is uncomfortable, but the worst thing about rain is getting cold.
I pressed on and after an hour or so, the rain tapered off. In Jordan, I had deja vu all over again. The route goes right past our friends, Bill and Lynda’s house where they were cheering riders on. So great to see them! I took the opportunity to pack up my raincoat and drink some much needed Gatorade.
Bill was inspired by the new rule that allows electric bikes. He’s envisioning charging up the many batteries needed for the distance by pedaling a stationary bike!
I carried on and had a few animal encounters. I was charged by a squirrel and a large grey tabby cat and once again, praised my disc brakes. A short distance later, I ran into two Canada geese crossing the road. Those birds weren’t stopping for anyone. As I headed them off, they took wing and we nearly had a mid-air collision!
An unwelcome change to Day 2’s route happened hours before the event began: a 23 additional kilometres. Organizers claimed this extra mileage was beyond their control. Once again, the sag-wagon was busy as were the first-aid riders and ambulance pick-ups.
The new route did not pass my favorite apple orchard, but we did cross the drawbridge over the Welland Canal. I slogged through the distance, refueling with Starbucks goodies provided by Ed. There was once particularly evil hill, impossible to bike up and one which leaves you breathless even pushing your bike up to the top. I had to agree with the older gentleman cyclist beside me who said: “That hill was unnecessary.”
The route finally landed us on the banks of the Niagara River. In the past, this stretch was the reward for a journey well-pedaled, but honestly, by then, I was too tired, longing for the end. There was supposedly one last pitstop before the end, but if so, I missed it. Before I knew it, I passed under the arch at the finish line. What a relief to finish: 127.97 km, the most I’ve ever ridden in a day.
Sadly, the Steamwhistle people had run out of beer: the first time in 16 rides, so Ed and I settled for a free glass of wine instead. We chatted to a few fellow cyclists, including a young woman who’d done a scary header over her bike, but carried on nonetheless to finish. What commitment!
We headed home. Lots of tourists crowding Table Rock and the sidewalks along the Falls. The Horseshoe Falls were shrouded in mist and even the American side looked beautiful, much more water than normal. We drove through Niagara-on-the-Lake, which appears to be thriving, then fought through the horrendous traffic back home to tea, Rahier cookies and an early night.
Will I do the Ride again next year? Perhaps it’s time to let younger riders on new equipment take the field. The cause, of course, is wonderful and compelling…I will let you know.