Strava: Morning Ride
Unlike previous brevets, this time I was actually woken up by my alarm at 4:00 sharp. Crud! No time to lose, I had to be out the door by 4:15 at the latest to get to the starting point with a comfortable margin of error. Luckily, I had laid out my clothes, ground my coffee, and packed the bike the night before, and I flew out the door and down the stairs in a whirlwind, directly on schedule.
Two blocks down the street, I noticed a pleasant but unexpected sensation of wind blowing through my hair, and thought… 600 kilometers of unpredictable but predictably bad pavement? Riding down hills at 50 km/h in the middle of the night? I suppose I should turn around and get my helmet!
It was after 4:20 as I rolled out for the second time, and I crossed my fingers that the new tires I had installed two days ago hadn’t yet picked up any shards of glass. Crossing the Jacques-Cartier bridge with 20 minutes to spare, I finally started to relax again. The weather forecast was full of nothing but awesome (26 and 24 degrees, no rain, very little wind), and in my schedule of riding the brevet series in “tick-tock” fashion, this was to be the “tock” of riding slowly and sightseeing versus the “tick” of pushing myself to a personal record that had been my goal for the 400km and 200km brevets.
As with the 300km, I had one goal for this ride: beer.
More precisely, to make it to the sleep stop at Lennoxville before 3AM in the hopes of downing a small glass of beer to relax my muscles and ease me into slumber. Or, if this wasn’t possible, simply to eat the entire breakfast buffet at the Bishop’s University dining hall the next morning.
Unfortunately, a few fellow riders had been informed by phone (I got a garbled message from an 819 number that I summarily ignored) that there was to be no such buffet. So, beer it would be.
Heading out of Brossard into the rising sun
The whole group (twenty-some odd riders!) started out at a reasonable pace, rolling out Victoria/Lapinière and Grande-Allée. I pledged myself to obey the heart rate monitor and never, ever, to let it go above 140bpm except on hills (of which there would be none for at least 60km). So, as the peloton predictably sped up on the smooth pavement in Carignan, I purposely started to fall off the back, prompting Jean to ask me if I had bonked already! In the end I was able to hang on for a little while at a reasonable level of effort, until the last turn before Chambly, where the group of 10-15 that I was in sped up to a pace that, while perfectly sensible and even a bit slow for a 200km, is completely useless for a ride of this length. I knew that I was going to pass them all at the controls, anyway.
A few others had the same idea and dropped off with me, though Martin “defrag” apparently took it one step further and decided to ride the whole brevet in the small chainring! We watched the peloton climb over the canal de Chambly, shining in the early morning sun, and marveled at the size of the crowd that had showed up – as Martin said, “a peloton on a 600k is not something you see every day”!
Usually, a “road closed” sign means “you can ride here anyway, it’s just not suitable for cars”. And sometimes, as in the segment of the 208 between Compton and Martinsville on today’s ride, it means “the road is totally gone and don’t even bother trying”. Luckily, we had some news reports and even people on-site to confirm that. So I was a bit surprised to see another “road closed” barrier on the chemin des Dix-Terres just before Rougemont. This one, it turns out, was yet another kind of sign, which actually means “We finished building the bridge and put down some nice new pavement, we just didn’t get around to removing these concrete blocks and orange signs yet. Enjoy!”
St-Hilaire and Rougemont
I came across Gabriel fixing a flat, on a brand new tire, apparently. He had everything under control so I continued on to St-Césaire, now obsessively checking my (also brand new) tires. I punched in, filled my water bottles, and grabbed a carton of chocolate milk for the road. I had been wavering on whether to take the bike path into Granby and finally decided that, since I was trying not to go fast, I should at least not add any additional distance. In the end, the extra distance on the bike path is a grand total of 900 meters (this versus this) and the ride is much nicer. Oh well.
Montérégiade à Granby
I sipped my chocolate milk on the way out of town, crushed the carton and shoved it in my handlebar bag, and continued at my deliberate pace towards Granby. My average speed, despite the relaxed pace, was 27.7 km/h up to the first control. I decided that this tine I would reset the counter at each control to track the evolution of my speed across the brevet. At this point, the route would begin to go mostly uphill until Orford (130km, 368m) and I knew it would be a challenge not to push myself too hard. A few riders passed me here and there, asking me if I was okay… yes, just taking it easy!
It was 130 km to the next control at Compton, and I succeeded in doing the whole thing with only one stop, at the donut shop (Beignes Dora) outside of Eastman, where I bought a donut and, after some hesitation and a couple trips back and forth to the bike to gather up loose change, succumbed to the temptation of their cheese and spinach ciabattas. The bread was fresh out of the oven and still warm, and as I munched on it while rolling through the pass towards Orford I wished I had bought two of them.
J’ai poigné la beigne!
This year, I was mentally prepared for the detour towards the Mont-Orford ski area (on the “141 south” which actually goes north for a few kilometers) and I made a point of using my 34×32 low gear on the climbs. Just as when I rode past the other side of the Orford park on the 400k brevet a few weeks back, I thought about the cross-country ski trip I took here in March and marveled at the transformation of the landscape from black and white to green all over in just a few months. The descent into Orford town was great fun, although my arms were starting to get tired from holding myself in a full aerodynamic tuck on the descents, and I found myself wishing I had been able to hold onto some of the upper-body strength I had developed from classic skiing all winter!
I sped through Magog and then let myself slow down again on the long false flat heading towards Ayer’s Cliff (which, along with nearby Moe’s River, puts the lie to the claim that apostrophes are not allowed in place names in Quebec!). The rodeo was in town, but unlike some of the bigger western festivals, there wasn’t much sign of it aside from a horse-drawn cart plodding down the 208 on the way out of town and a truck with some horses hanging out in the back.
The route was now entering what for me was the worst part of the ride last year – between Ayer’s Cliff and Cooksville, passing through Compton, everything looks easy on the map, but in actual fact, the climbs are steady and relentless as you go from 170m in Ayer’s Cliff up to over 450m before descending to Sawyerville on the 253. This year, armed with the knowledge that there would be climbing, I moderated my pace again and found the ride to be quite enjoyable, especially climbing the wooded valley up to the last hill before descending to Compton. I stopped for a few seconds to refill my water bottles at the fromagerie de la Station (which does not sell cheese curds) and rode into Compton with a bunch of fellow riders in tow who had caught up to me while I was stopped.
Mégantic on the horizon
A week before the brevet, this area had been hit with an unprecedented amount of rain, flooding out and destroying a bunch of roads in the area between Compton and Coaticook. After some research and scouting, the route was changed, in my opinion, for the better, as we oh-so-sadly had to forego an extra 6km excursion to Martinville as well as two gratuitous climbs, in favor of simply continuing straight on chemin Moe’s-River after it stops being desginated as route 206. I have found it strange that the Montreal brevet routes will take such easily circumvented detours (see also the routing into Magog via the 141 and Orford instead of simply continuing straight on the 112…) without using a control to enforce them. Better yet would be to take the shortest practical route and simply go further, but oh well… Given that it isn’t a race, and most of us (I think) look at these rides as training for PBP or other things, there’s no good reason to cheat!
The two Martins (Doyon and Dugré) bailed into an inviting-looking bakery while I continued onto the official control at a dépanneur, with the intent of making a very quick stop before continuing on to Cooksville. I found Ralph, Trevor, and Olivier C. there, who I would continue to ride with off and on for the rest of the brevet, though mostly off, as their pace between stops was considerably faster than mine during the day. After downing a V8 and a Coke in quick succession, I headed off to see how bad the flood damage was. The rivière Moe was still a raging torrent, and large sections of the road’s shoulder were destroyed or crumbling, but in general the road was in better condition than some of the ones we would face later on! Again, most everybody caught and passed me on the way up to the high point before Sawyerville, and I simply waved them by, having no desire to suffer on this section like I had before. In the end I did succeed in going very slow – my average speed between Compton and Cooksville was barely over 20 km/h! I did manage to catch a third Martin (Lemay) on one of the hills, who I wouldn’t see again until the next morning in Lennoxville.
In Cooksville I skipped the dépanneur, initially thinking I’d eat at the IGA, until I saw that there was a Subway down the road. I bought a foot-long veggie sub, saving half of it for later (not wanting to repeat the mistake I made at the end of the 400k of overeating and making myself sick!) and filling my water bottles with mountains of ice. Shortly before I left, Marc and someone whose name I forget stopped in to do the same. I left feeling refreshed and fully prepared to take on the notorious route 212, a mostly straight line traced directly across the flanks of mont Mégantic and the Appalachian foothills by the US border.
Mégantic from below
I don’t remember how many hills there are on the 212 between Cooksville and La Patrie, but I do know that it essentially goes uphill for 20km, and I also know that once you see the “wall” of Notre-Dame-des-Bois, there are exactly three large climbs before the descent to Woburn, where the route turns north towards the next control at Lac-Mégantic. I cranked past some other riders who had stopped at the dépanneur in NDB, intending to make it all the way to the top, where I would stop at the rest area and eat the other half of my sandwich. This rest area features a fairly spectacular view of mont Mégantic, along with such curiosities as a fake Métro station entrance and an interpretive sign which is cut out to exactly “frame” the skyline of the mountain.
Mégantic from above
At Woburn, I was now starting to feel fatigued, and I stopped to grab a V8 and some sour gummy sharks. I had forgotten that there are a number of small but annoying climbs on the road to Lac-Mégantic, which doesn’t exactly follow the lakeshore. I hadn’t noticed last year, but the entire eastern side of the lake seems to belong to a giant private hunting club. I thought that there were previously signs for the mysterious Lac des Araignées (named not for any significant population of spiders but because its shape resembles one) but these seem to have disappeared. In general this section feels strangely remote, until finally the landscape opens up into fields and spectacular views on the lake and shortly after you descend into the rapidly growing south end of the town.
Somewhat shockingly, what used to be downtown Lac-Mégantic, on the left bank of the Chaudière river, is still a fenced-off landscape of slag heaps and excavation two years after it was annihilated by gross corporate negligence, and more specifically, a runaway train carrying explosive shale oil from the fracking wells of North Dakota. There is, however, a new bridge that connects the right bank with the newly built surrogate “downtown” along rue Papineau. Despite the sad suburban power-centre architecture of the place, it was buzzing with people walking around and even eating on terrasses, enjoying the perfect weather. I cut over to the old main street, stopping to pay my respects at the memorial for the 47 people killed in the explosion, then continued up rue Laval towards the “halfway” control (actually a bit over 320km) at (beurk) Tim Horton’s.
A moment of reflection
The town’s municipal library was also destroyed in the tragedy, but a new “Médiathèque“, as libraries are being called these days, was fairly rapidly opened to take its place, its collection made up of a huge number of donated books. What is most remarkable to me about this library to me is that it is named after none other than the late writer Nelly Arcan, who was born Isabelle Fortier in Lac-Mégantic. It is impossible to imagine a small town in the rural USA or Canada naming its library after a local native, no matter how famous or talented, best known for writing a book named “Whore”! For some reason this was the thought that stuck in my head as I climbed the long hill towards the control, along with a strange feeling of affection for this ugly duckling of a town, with its wide, treeless boulevards and clapboard ville-champignon architecture, nestled in a setting of spectacular natural beauty.
Tim Hortons’ food is as terrible as I remember it. The donut shop was clearly understaffed, with two teenagers running back and forth like headless chickens behind the counter. I had arrived ahead of schedule due to spectacular efficiency at the controls, and though I still pretended that I wasn’t looking to set any records, I was anxious to get out sooner rather than later, before dark at the very least. Around 8:30 I put my shoes back on, filled up my water bottles, and headed up the rest of the hill. As I passed the Fromagerie la Chaudière I thought to myself, there’s no way it would still be open, is there…? And yet, through the window, I saw people at the counter, so I rode up to look, and was stunned to find that it was open until 9. I contemplated the ice cream briefly but settled on two bags of cheese curds, one plain and one barbecue, which I figured would make a good “recovery” meal after my arrival at Lennoxville.
One for the road
In theory, the whole section from Nantes, the next town up the 161 from Lac-Mégantic and the place where the death train rolled downhill from, to Cookshire, is predominantly downhill, and despite the darkness (and, this being an official dark sky preserve, it is extremely dark) and 320km in the legs, ought to go by pretty quickly. My only fear was that the tailwind we had enjoyed going east would now be hitting me in the face, but it had simply vanished as the sun went down. Last year, however, this section was anything but quick, and although I had left Lac-Mégantic at a reasonable hour, before 10:00, I didn’t make it to Lennoxville until 4:30AM! As I coasted down one hill after another between Nantes and Milan, I realized why this was – last year, out of some combination of masochism and extreme cheapskate-ness, I was using a sidewall generator for my lights, which drastically slowed me down on the descents and sapped my energy on the flats and climbs. This year, with superior technology, the kilometers seemed to melt away before me, and it wasn’t until after Milan that Ralph, Trevor, and Olivier finally caught up to me, after having watched my taillight go up and down the hills for the last hour. It was good to have some company, although at one point, while trying to avoid a passing car, a pothole, and another rider, I nearly hit a porcupine that had the bad idea to sit on the shoulder of the 214!
As we left Scotstown on a seemingly endless climb out of the valley of the Rivière au Saumon (which, oddly is called “aux Saumons” upstream in La Patrie – guess there is only one salmon left by the time it gets to Scotstown!), the glow of Sherbrooke appeared on the horizon – we had clearly left the dark sky preserve. Soon, we found ourselves back in civilization, merging onto the 108 for the long, fast, but somewhat treacherous descent into Cookshire, where we paused for a few minutes at the top of the hill on the way out of town. Only 19km left to the sleep stop, and it was not even midnight… I would get my beer after all! The distance signs on the 108 played tricks on us as they started out by giving the distance to Lennoxville (now a borough of Sherbrooke) as “Sherbrooke” and then inexplicably switched to giving the distance to the original city of Sherbrooke itself, some 6km further. Finally, the broadcast towers and the lights of the city appeared as we crested a hill, and we coasted down to the next control, arriving at 12:45. My riding partners headed off to sleep, while I noticed that even the Subway was still open, and stopped in to grab a sandwich to go before heading across the street to the Golden Lion for a pint to celebrate having made such good time.
The pub was full of a handful people at a fairly advanced state of obnoxiousness, but I grabbed a quiet stool at the bar and asked the bartender what their lowest alcohol beer was. Since the response was some kind of blueberry flavoured atrocity, I opted for the “Best Bitter” instead, without reading the description of it on the beer menu. Unfortunately, the brewer seems to have taken the name of this beer style a bit too literally and pumped the bitterness up to astronomical levels, totally overwhelming any trace of malt flavour and throwing in a good dose of diacetyl to top it off. Nonetheless, I grunted my way through half of the pint until my leg muscles went into a pleasant state of relaxation, then headed back to the Bishop’s University dorms to catch a few hours of sleep and a shower.
Before parting ways at the control we had talked about meeting up a bit after 6AM but without any conclusive plan. I woke up straight away with the morning light around 5 and lounged around in bed, contemplating the possibility of waiting for the complimentary breakfast, which may or may not have been served at 8. Restless, I got up and showered and headed out the door instead, figuring that the others would soon catch up to me anyway. In town I noticed that the Valentine was open already and serving breakfast, so I stopped and ordered some scrambled eggs and coffee. Upon turning on my phone I saw a text message from Trevor and invited him and the others to join me, which they did just a few minutes later. As we ate, we saw Marin Lemay roll through the intersection and up the huge hill leading out of Lennoxville. We all set out together at around 7:15 and quickly caught up to him somewhere in the maze of roads on the way to Magog, making a solid group of 5 riders. The sky was still clear and there was absolutely no wind to speak of, and I felt really pretty good as we rolled up and down the hills and finally hit the 112 and the long flat stretch to Magog.
Before the wall, gazing upon Orford
Riding this sort of long flat stretch in a group seems to be a huge problem for me, and I forgot that I had wisely chosen to split from the peloton at the start of the ride for just this reason. As we pressed on to Magog at a speed that, despite my heart rate monitor’s insistence to the contrary, was a bit outside my comfort zone, I started to feel the intense feeling of irritability that means that I’ve just exhausted my energy reserves. I suggested we stop at the supermarket in Magog so that we could remove our jackets and I could revive myself, which I attempted to do by, even more unwisely, chugging first a grape pop (200 calories) and then an orange pop (210 calories), the kind of insanely unhealthy beverages that I would never even look at under normal circumstances. This produced an immediate sensation of relief, followed by a creeping malaise that followed me out of Magog and punched me in the gut at the top of the impressively steep Southière climb. Though I had no problem on this short, sharp grade, as I turned onto the chemin des Pères, the other riders in the group seemed to magically float away from me, leaving me limping along on this roller-coaster of a road, tremendously popular with cyclists, that, just like the road into Lac-Mégantic, approximates but does not in any way follow the shoreline of Lac Memphrémagog. The views of the lake and mount Owl’s Head were spectacular, but I was feeling pretty pathetic.
I stopped at the rest area before Bolton Pass to pee and, since I no longer had any group to ride with, resolved to push through the rest of the brevet in full-on “Energizer Bunny” mode, slowly, but without stopping.Since I was riding so slowly, with my heart rate barely pushing 120, I reasoned that I wouldn’t really need to eat much, in any case. My butt was starting to hurt quite a lot. I was ready for the ride to be over. In the end, I stopped in Cowansville for the control, where I ate a bagel, in St-Césaire for the seemingly obligatory bathroom break (something about this town…), and at the same dépanneur in Marieville where I revived myself with a Pepsi last year, except that this time around I sipped a V8 and watched a couple more riders pass me by. At this point I started to have other problems – not only were my sitbones sore but my hands had also gotten sore from all of the broken pavement. At one point on the Yamaska River road, I hit a pothole, letting loose a loud and long stream of profanity, only to be promptly passed by a group of riders who had caught up to me after the last control. Oops! How embarrassing…
Another bloody Tim Horton’s. Almost done.
On the way out of Chambly I forced myself to pick up the pace, knowing that in any case I was almost done, but my efforts were foiled by what seemed like every single traffic light in St-Hubert and Brossard conspiring against me. Nonetheless, I had texted my wife, who graciously agreed to pick me up at the end of the ride, that I would be arriving at 4:15, and remarkably, I was able to make this time almost to the minute! My official arrival at the last control, a couple kilometers before the starting point, was 4:05PM, for a total time of 35:05, a good 3 hours faster than last year.
It seems that, despite my idea of “tick-tock” scheduling of a fast brevet with a relaxed one, it has been on the supposedly “relaxed” rides involving beer that I’ve made the biggest improvements in my time since the year before. There must be a lesson about proper pacing in this somewhere… In the end, my average speed between controls went steadily down from 27 to 20 km/h up until Lac-Mégantic, but then rebounded somewhat to around 22 for the rest of the ride, which of course makes sense since it was predominantly downhill.
Having an overall time goal for a 600k brevet is, I think, kind of futile unless you plan to ride the whole thing straight through without sleeping, in which case you need to be fast enough to do it in not much more than 24 hours. In theory, this is achievable, if you keep time at the controls to a minimum, since it’s only an average of 25 km/h. However, the whole section from Compton to Lac-Mégantic is legitimately very difficult, and I don’t see how I could reasonably maintain an average of 25 without an immense amount of training. I’m already a reasonably fast climber, and it would be no problem to ride that fast in and of itself, but it would come at the cost of being able to do the following 280km, at least at any reasonable pace!
Even though there is no PBP next year, this ride is for me a significant achievement in itself, and, aside from the sore hands, butt, and shoulder, a very enjoyable way to see a large amount of really beautiful countryside. I don’t think I’ll do it in 24 hours next year, but I do think I’ll try to get even more sleep in Lennoxville!