Canada is a well-known destination for mountain bike enthusiasts. Many dream of shredding Whistler Bike Park, going for an epic tour of the North Shore, or perhaps freeriding in Squamish. The common feature of these places? All are situated on the far-western side of Canada. For someone from Ontario, this is a little disheartening and, perhaps, a little unfair.
Mountain biking in Ontario isn’t bad, in and of itself, but it certainly is not the proclaimed ‘Holy-land’ – the mountain bike Mecca, if you will – that is often associated with British Columbia. For those on the Westernmost coast of Canada, it is reasonable to mountain bike year-round due to the rather mild temperatures. Not only that, but if you happen to burn yourself out, a short drive in any direction will put you at the base of some incredible mountains, for hours of fun on lift accessed ski terrain. For an Ontarian, the winter months are often brutally cold and, adding insult to injury, ski-lift access is few and far between. Those winter months require some sort of physical activity – and sitting inside on the trainer simply doesn’t cut it. A sense of adventure is needed to keep motivation up and deal with the dreary, short days that form part of a Canadian winter.
‘Fatbikes’ are widely seen as the vehicle of choice for filling this void: indeed, I am a full proponent of the fatbike movement. If nothing else, it gives me two wheels that I can ride outside even in the dead of winter. However, being a (slightly) competitive cyclist means that riding by myself is not good enough. What I need is a sense of adventure and competition. Luckily, some other Ontarian’s seem to feel the same as I do, and the ‘Wendigo Ultra’ was born. Winter ultra-endurance events are not necessarily new; however, this event would be the first of its kind within Ontario’s borders. I knew that this sort of event was a great idea: not only do I love pushing myself physically and mentally, but it also means that there is a growing group of dedicated individuals who wish to push themselves the way I do. Personally, I think events like these are going to take off in Ontario. Canadians, whether by a natural proclivity towards winter sports or a common sense of pride in our collective suffering during the winter, seem to be eager adopters of any sport related to winter. The advent of ultra-endurance winter events is a natural evolution of this collective sentiment.
After a couple months of relatively consistent training, the Wendigo Ultra was finally on the horizon. With my mandatory gear list checked and double-checked, and my bike all loaded, I made the 7-hour journey to Ottawa, which is only one and a half hours from the start of the Wendigo. Being a university student means that I don’t have access to the greatest gear and can’t spend too much on travel. After borrowing my parent’s car (they weren’t too thrilled about that), and spending the night before the event with some friends at the University of Ottawa, I made my way to the start point, near Pembroke. As I hopped in the van, still groggy from the night before, the thermometer in the car read -19 degrees Celsius. I shuddered. Not ideal for being out in the elements all day, especially since I didn’t have winter riding boots. Despite this, I knew that once I got moving my core temperature would rise steadily and I would likely be fine. I was lucky that it warmed up throughout the day, I suppose.
Once in Pembroke, I got my gear set up and passed through the mandatory gear check. For those unfamiliar with an ultra-endurance gear check, you are required to carry certain items that are for emergency situations. This one was relatively bare-bones (as compared to some of the original ones, like the Arrowhead or Tuscobia), but I still had to show a certain amount of consumable calories, reflective gear, sleeping pad and sleeping bag, along with 2L of insulated water. I brought a fire-starting kit too, just in case my situation became truly dire. I also brought along a handful of common tools for minor bike repairs. Once through the gear check, we had a brief rider’s meeting that discussed etiquette, rules, and other such things, followed by a preliminary photo at the start line. Then we were sent off.
Traversing Muskrat Lake was our first obstacle, facing 11km of open, wind-blown snow. We had a rough path to follow, but it was still slow going. One of my first mistakes was to hop on the wrong snowmobile path. Once I realized my mistake, I tried running over to the correct one, but, the first step off the snowmobile track resulted in my sinking up to my thigh in snow. My summer riding shoes were, within the first 30 minutes, already wet. Great. On top of this, it was bright – I mean very bright. All that snow acts as a great reflector and all 5 million lumens were bouncing directly into my retinas. My glasses had frozen up almost immediately, so I rode most of the day without them. In retrospect, snow-blindness was a legitimate possibility.
After a 1.5-hour slog along the lake, I reached the end and started heading up a twisty mountain road. It was a surprisingly nice 2km climb, given the previous terrain I had faced. After a short while on some roads, we turned onto some snowmobile trails, which by this time were starting to soften up significantly. I found myself frequently stopping to lower my tire pressure, although I never seemed to get the traction and stability I was seeking. The snowmobile trails we were on were very flat – which I was thankful for – but were filled with long straightaways. I had much time to think and anticipate upcoming turns (music is a friend on days like these). After a few hours following the marked snowmobile trail, we continued onto an un-maintained section that tested both my technical skills and my patience. At the end of this section was the halfway point, with a small shelter, a refuel station, and some water. I took a quick look at my phone: 4 hours and 33 minutes to the halfway point. I did some quick math, and figured that if I continued at this pace I could probably get back in 9 hours, maybe 9 and a half if I slowed in the second half. After a quick refuel and layer change, I started heading back. I started to see other riders trickling in towards the halfway point. Some were looking incredibly strong, others looked to be having a rough go of it. I’m sure I wasn’t looking to great at that point either, but it gave me an interesting game to play: who will finish? Who is going to make a late push and pass me?
After having thought through the possibilities for a few kilometers, I started to get into some soft snow that required most of my attention and energy. As I pedaled into a small snow drift, my pedals skipped to the sound of a loud “snap”. Several thoughts ran through my head at that point, but as I looked down nothing appeared to be wrong. So, I continued pedaling and was fine for a while, until the “snap” happened again. At first I thought my chain had snapped. I didn’t think this would be a particularly worrisome mechanical: I knew I had the tools with me and I could probably be up and running in a few short minutes. But when I looked down, my chain was still very-much intact. As it turns out, my free-hub had catastrophically failed. “F@#k” I thought, and yelled, to myself. There was no fixing this – I was stranded in the middle of nowhere, on a small snowmobile track with infrequent use. At least I had partial cell-service. In an effort to keep positive, I just kept going the way I was going anyways, hoping to find a road at some point. Besides, walking and riding on the snow is not too different. I reckon I was half as fast whilst walking.
After a couple kilometers of walking in the snow – with my feet getting colder and colder – I made it to a road with solid cell-coverage and got in touch with the event coordinator, Cam, who said he could come out and get me if it was a dire situation. After a brief rest and re-fuel, I kept walking to the pick-up point. To my surprise, Cam then offered to lend me his bike so I could at least finish the race. Apparently, I had come from the furthest and he wanted to see me finish on two wheels. Although I was feeling somewhat sorry for myself, I decided I had better accept such a gracious offer. It sounded better to finish with some dignity, rather than none! By the time I had walked to the pick-up point and had transferred some gear, two riders had passed me, with another closing the gap. I talked with the incoming rider and we decided that we would ride together as I got back into the swing of riding (and not walking). By this point, the light was starting to fade, so we wanted to get to the lake as quick as possible. ‘Quick’ is a relative term after 9.5 hours in the saddle… When we got the lake, it was basically dark, so we strapped on our lights, grabbed a drink of water and a quick snack, and headed out. The fading light and dropping temperature helped to firm up the snow, to which we were both thankful. By this point the hot packs in my shoes were no longer even remotely warm, and my feet were feeling more like blocks than anything. As we neared the finish, my riding company was kind enough to let me cross the line ahead of him – not sure if it was his deliriousness from the race or his laid back attitude – but for all intents and purposes, we finished at the same time. After almost 11 hours of racing – if it is still called racing at such an oddly slow pace – my day was done. A wild, epic, and interesting event that taught me lots about ultra-endurance bike setup, emergency preparedness, and keeping a level head in less than ideal situations. For those considering pushing their limits, both physical and mental, this event is for you. The second installment of the Wendigo will take place February 11, 2017.