When you slather your perineum with anti-chafe cream before 5am on a Sunday, you know it’s going to be a special day.
The 37th annual Hairshirt is a semi-organized cycling event (it’s not a race but times are taken) that winds its way from Mississauga to Niagara Falls and back over 322 km in one day. A friend who was a ride veteran challenged me to join her. She bailed but I decided to go anyway, fascinated to find out what happens when you’re on a bike for that long.
An easy rollout from the Square One parking lot at 6am turned into ludicrously unsustainable charge by middle-aged men who should know better. Very quickly, sixteen of us stormed westwards on Burnhamthorpe with the sunrise gloriously lighting the road ahead. There was not much chatter – probably because most of us knew we’d be regretting this early effort. I stayed in the caboose at the back and got dropped on the only real hill, but got back on. Once around Hamilton and heading east, the speed went up again as we formed a pace line taking turns at the front – even me! It was the fastest I’ve ever ridden, but pretty nervy riding with that bunch.
Two Hundred Kilometres of Solitude
The group ride lasted about three hours, and then I was off the back for good, suddenly solo in the countryside west of Welland. I didn’t know it yet but eight hours of one-man riding lay ahead. Not much brain activity happens during such an experience – here’s an honest sample:
- “Onetwothreefour twotwothreefour threetwothreefour fourtwothreefour fivetwothreefour sixtwothreefour seventwothreefour eighttwothreefour….”
- “I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire ’cause I’m a champion and you’re gonna hear me rooooAAAR” [Katy Perry ear worm]
- Fratelli d’Italia [Italian national anthem ear worm]
- “Oh this is ridiculously difficult – how can I be moving so slowly?” [Headwinds approaching Niagara Falls]
- “Mwahahaha I am an excellent athlete” [Tailwinds, sweet sweet tailwinds, all the way from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Burlington]
- “I’m gonna do the heck out of this, cause I’m never doing it again.” [With increasing frequency]
- “Must. Go. Under. Eleven. Hours.” [Completely arbitrary goal that turned out to be realistic]
Can’t, Won’t, Don’t, Stop
When you have that far to go, the impulse to roll on is strong. But I actually stopped plenty, though for not very much time in all. Twice to ask for directions after I lost my map. Thrice more to check my position on my phone’s GPS. Once at Niagara Falls for a semi-coherent selfie/pee break/sunblock application where I sprayed my face while inhaling. The longest stop was in Niagara-on-the -Lake where I bought two massive peanut butter brownies, water and ice tea. Tragically, I discovered I could only eat a mouthful of one brownie before my stomach closed up. Good thing my water-soluble carbohydrate powder covered me most of the way.
Big blue sky; leafy green canopy; sun; shade; the rich stink of field manure; brief evil whiff of skunk roadkill; sweet watery ice tea mixing with chewy peanut butter; the mist of Niagara Falls; sweat and sunblock stinging the eyes; shuddering dusty under-construction roads; velvety smooth newly paved roads; tightening gluteus; hotspots on the big toes; the curvy silhouette of the “Marilyn Monroe” towers beckoning; and always the wind invading the growing emptiness between my ears.
No finish line, just a parking lot. Check your time, pack up the bike, change semi-discreetly out of cycling gear, exchange a few handshakes with other finishers. Walk stiffly into the shopping mall food court intent on rapid and intense caloric consumption. Not the stuff of self-actualization. But happy nonetheless. Next adventure!