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600 km in Quebec
or rather, We Tried!

by Pamela Blalock


For our 4th of July holiday this year, Steve and I decided to drive to Montreal and ride our tandem 600 km around eastern Quebec. I've never been terribly comfortable riding on the 4th here due to additional traffic, but since it's not a holiday in Canada, we decided it would be a good time to travel north.

I contacted the organizer of the ride, Ted Milner, to get directions and more info. Ted graciously offered us a place to stay before the ride, and even fed us Friday evening.

Those who have followed our rides throughout the year may be wondering what we changed on the bike this week, since it seems we make some major change before each big ride. Well this one was no exception. We finally put aero-bars on Steve's handle bars. Steve had been grumbling about wanting them for some time now. At first we weren't sure about using them on the tandem, then it was a question of how well they would work with the motion from the Softride, and finally, we were worried that the top tube was too short and would cause him to be out too far over the front hub. One other concern was lost hand positions. We had been looking at several different types of bars and finally decided on a pair made locally by John Tobin.

I had seen these bars on a few local riders' bikes, and finally called John last week to see if I could get some. He is no longer making them on a regular basis, but still had a few left and said he would try to scrape together enough parts to get me a set. John sells these bars for $120 and I believe they are better than anything else I have seen on the market.

These bars are clip-ons, have an almost infinite range of fore-aft and high-low adjustments. The arm pads are located on a rotating-pivoting arm that also can be adjusted in an almost infinite way. The tops of the handle bars are left free for normal hand positions, and we found that the aero bar gave us a better place to mount the Nightsun Lights. I rode my commuter bike into Cambridge Thursday afternoon to pick them up, and we put them on the bike Friday when we got to Montreal. They performed flawlessly!

Too bad other things didn't.

The ride was scheduled to start at 4am Saturday. We rose at 3 to the sounds of steady rain. We fumbled around getting dressed, mixing Ultra Energy, and putting on rain gear. We were moving a little slow, so Ted gave us directions to the start and headed off. Steve misplaced his gloves and by the time we finally found them we were really late! We rolled up to the start just as the group was headed out. Another rider pulled in a minute later, and one of the riders from the group came back to start with him.

We paid and received our route cards and maps and prepared to leave. We figured the other two riders would try to catch the group and our best hope of staying with them would be to start now and have a chance to warm up. In retrospect, we should have waited.

I had forgotten my small flashlight for reading the cue, but fortunately we stayed on well lit city streets until dawn, so I was able to navigate via street lights. I have a map pouch that velcros on to Steve's Camelbak, so I can read the cue sheet or map on rides. I find this to be a great advantage of riding a tandem!

We only got a few kilometers down the road before nature called and I had to remember my French for "May I have the key to the ladies room?" See, we were still in the city, where there were no woods. Fortunately, I received a positive reply to "Parlez-vous Anglais?" as I did almost every other time I asked.

I had hoped the other two riders would catch us while we were stopped, but they didn't. We continued on toward the first control at 60 km. The rain came down steady and hard at times. I was glad that I had brought all my winter gear. I was wearing booties, tights, Goretex pants and jacket, and full fingered gloves. I usually wear a cycling hat under my helmet in the rain to keep the rain from running down into my eyes. I've just started using Rain-X on my glasses and have found it makes a big difference.

The bike seemed a bit sluggish, but there was a reason. In addition to a spare set of shorts, jersey and dry jacket for each of us, we carried 32 packets of Ultra Energy (8lbs), 3 Nightsun batteries (over 1lb each) and all our usual tools, first aid supplies, and did I mention that we both had colds, so we were carrying cold medicine too!

We finally reached the first control, a Boni Soir, which for Americans is like a 7-11. The ride organizers had arranged checkpoints at convenience stores and restaurants along the way. The clerks would timestamp our cards for us. We would not see a ride official again until the end of the ride. We found a covered place to park the bike and each contemplated going home. This was not going to be fun. It appeared it would rain for 40 days and 40 nights. It was cold and we were alone. We piddled more time away hoping to see those other two riders, but finally decided they were smarter than we were and had gone home!

Our road to Montreal had not been a smooth one, though and after all we had gone through to get here, we decided to forge ahead. The transmission on Steve's car had failed and was in the shop. He had to rent a car to drive to Boston from Bangor, Maine. We both had been fighting colds for a week, but had decided to try this ride anyway. So after spending all that money on the rental car and driving all the way up, it just seemed that we couldn't turn back because of a little rain!

But in addition to the rain, there was a very strong headwind (or is it tailwind in the wrong direction) coming from the south. The first 100K of the route was flat and headed directly south. With no hills, we got no break from the wind, no excuses to stand and no down hills to rest on. I was actually starting to hate flat terrain and was eagerly anticipating the start of the hills.

We continued on to the second control, where we had the same discussion again. "Are you having fun?" and "Do you want to go back?" We checked the weather forecast, which basically said rain for the rest of the day, but better on Sunday. I finally suggested that we continue on and if it really didn't get better then we could stop at a motel and ride back on Sunday. Amazingly, it was then that the rain started to ease up. Over the next few kilometers it varied from rain to light drizzle to sprinkles to rain again, but at some point it stopped. I didn't really notice exactly when, but the hills had started and we had finally turned out of the wind, and even though it was still colder than it should ever be in July, I was warming up a little and actually starting to enjoy the ride!

Our average speed picked up on the hills and with it so did our attitude, until ...

Pssssst. The sound of a flat tire on the rear. We pulled off into a driveway and removed the rear wheel. I tried to put air in the tire to determine the location of the trouble. My heart sank when I saw the tear in the sidewall right next to the bead. Booting wouldn't help this situation. We needed a new tire. And of all the things we carried, did we have a tire?

We use 26 inch wheels with 1.25 inch tires, and had had such good luck with flats that we did not carry an extra tire. We had plenty of boots for other types of punctures. We have not found a folding 26 inch tire (slick or not) and I just never expected this type of failure.

I walked back about 1/2 kilometer to a motel, where I asked about the nearest bike shop. There was a shop in the last town about 8 K back. The owner was headed into town and offered me a lift to the shop.

As we were driving into town, I noticed the other two riders finally coming along. They stopped and talked to Steve very briefly. One was suffering from hypothermia pretty seriously and needed to keep moving. They were both using 700C tires and couldn't offer any help, so they continued on.

The shop was in a garage behind a house. They had a few bikes and some tires and wheels hanging from the ceiling. I asked for a 26 inch tire, preferably smooth and preferably not too wide. We found a tire labeled 26 X 1 3/8. I paid $8 for the tire and then started trying to hitch a ride back.

There I stood on the side of the road dressed in rain clothes, holding my helmet and a tire and looking pretty miserable. It wasn't long before a kind sole took pity on me and gave me a lift back down the road to the bike.

In the meantime, Steve had been trying to work with what he had to boot the tire. The tire I bought said 65 lbs, so we decided to put it on the front, move the good tire to the back and aim for the next large town where we might find a better selection of tires. With all the weight we were carrying in the panniers, we felt we needed more pressure in the rear tire.

Then we discovered that not all 26 inch tires are created equal, and this one seemed to be 26 inches on the inside, where ours were 26 on the outside. Whatever the difference, we were out of luck. We decided to try to put the bad tire on the front with low pressure and nurse it back into town in hopes of finding something that would fit.

After a few false starts, we finally got everything together and rolled back into Knowlton, where we found nothing. The lady running the shop said there were big modern shops in Magog, the next big town, where we would be sure to find what we wanted, or back in Cowansville, if we were going to turn back.

I felt that since the bad tire didn't blow off right away that we could probably make it 30K to the next town, so I convinced Steve to go forward. I still felt like we had plenty of time to make controls and that we would still be able to sleep.

We rolled back out of town and past the point where we had had the flat. A few kilometers later, Steve noticed something rubbing the front brake and stopped to discover the tear had grown to 3.5 inches and the boot was about to come out. We let the air of of the tire and began looking for pickup trucks to give us and our bike a ride to town.

Unfortunately pickups aren't as common there as they are back home (in NC) but we finally saw one who gave us a lift to a gas station. From there I tried to call around to find a taxi or towing service to get us into Magog. After much frustration and finding nothing, it began to rain and things were looking pretty hopeless. We tried to decide if we should abandon the bike and hope for a ride to and from town or take it with us and hope for lots of friendly pickup trucks going our way.

Then the owner of the station arrived with his truck. I offered to pay him to take us to Magog and he agreed. It turned out to be much farther than indicated on the map or the cue sheet. Our latest white knight also turned out to be quite friendly and helpful. He took us all the way into the town, found the shop and would not leave until he knew we were set! I offered him $40 for the ride, but he would only take $20. After figuring out the cost of gas in Canada, I don't think we even covered his mileage.

At the shop, we bought two tires, one to carry as a spare, a couple of more tubes, and a device I like to call a *Winnebago Feeler*. I had seen one of these about 4 years ago, but had not been able to find one since. It is basically an orange flag that mounts to the rear rack and sticks out into traffic about a foot. It sort of encourages cars to give you a little more room when passing. It's on a spring that bounces up and down while riding and then can be folded out the way when not needed. Most of the cars had been pretty good about leaving us room, but it's those pesky motorhomes, whose drivers never quite know how wide they are.

I looked at our route card and the map, and realized that we had missed the cutoff time for our last checkpoint. Steve was in no mood to press on, so we decided to turn the ride into a tour. We found a motel, where we washed up and then walked into town for dinner. We had a delicious French meal and tried some Jamaican beer. After dinner we walked around town and through a small park by the lake and turned in.

It rained off and on throughout the evening, but the skies were relatively clear when we got ready to leave for Montreal Sunday morning. We started the ride by heading back into town for breakfast. We left the bike leaning against a light pole and went inside one of the many bakery/cafes in town for a treat. Unlike France, we were able to get eggs, and we both decided on vegetable omelets, croissants, fresh squeezed orange juice and coffee.

The real treat was watching all the people walk by and check out the tandem. We had received quite a few inquisitive looks the night before as we rode into town, and decided that not many people in this town had ever seen a tandem before. The bike is certainly odd looking. In addition to being a tandem, it has the Softride beam and aero-bars and of course the duck horn and the clown horn.

We watched as clouds started to roll in and realized that we were probably going to get wet again. But fortunately it was warmer on Sunday than Saturday and we were quickly in just shorts, jersey and tights. We picked a fairly direct route back to Montreal that would eventually take us back on course.

We had great tandem conditions for the first two hours with a tailwind and rolling terrain. We discovered a casualty of the rain was that our freewheel had started to freeze up and continued to move even when we coasted. As we passed through Granby, I noticed an open bike shop and suggested to Steve that we stop and get them to pull the freewheel and grease it, but there was a lot of traffic and it was starting to rain, so we kept going.

I also noticed a beautiful tall fountain in the lake going into Granby. We had actually seen quite a few fountains, along this route. Many homes had small and large ponds with small and large fountains in them. I think they might me status symbols, but they were certainly beautiful.

We were back on the 600 km route at this point and decided to stop at the next checkpoint for water and bathrooms. Just as we pulled under the shelter, the rains came again, this time accompanied by thunder and lightning. Oh how I wished we had stopped at the bike shop, where we could wait the storm out while wandering around looking at bikes and gadgets.

Instead we crouched under the shelter drinking Ultra Energy and Orangina. We waited for almost and hour as two storm systems rolled past. A third appeared to be headed our way and we realized that we might be there all day, if we were waiting for dry weather. The temperature had dropped significantly, so we again donned rain gear and resumed our trek toward Montreal. Not too much later, we stopped to remove our rain clothes as the rain broke and the sun warmed us.

Of course, this was just a tease, because an hour later we were rained on again. But it had warmed up enough and we were close enough that we stuck it out in light jackets and tights. The closer we got to town, the warmer we got, until we were both down to shorts and jerseys. When we finally reached the start finish point, the sun was shining, the clouds were gone and it looked like a great day for a bike ride.

(We managed to get in 100 miles on Saturday and 86 miles on Sunday, so at least we've knocked off our July century.)

We have decided to try this distance again in two weeks, when we will hopefully have better luck and will definitely have a spare tire!