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Adventure Stories: Falling in Love with Solo Bikepacking by Rachael Dean
When I started gravel riding, I had only ever ridden on roads. I had a single speed bicycle—23-millimetre tires with no tread on them—and an old-school touring bike. They were great for what they were, but I wanted to ride with other people, and neither bike would let me keep up with everybody else on long rides outside the city. The Peterborough region is covered in these beautiful gravel roads, and I wanted to experience them. I'd been so focused on school in the years I've lived here that I hadn't had the chance to really explore, and it seemed like gravel riding would give me a way to do that. I was determined to give it a try.
So, I borrowed a bike from Kieran, one of the owners of Wild Rock. It was great for a bit, and it gave me a taste of what I could be experiencing, but it wasn't quite perfect. So, I invested in what I thought would be a good gravel bike: a (leopard spotted) Trek Domane SL5 endurance bike with gravel tires on it.
With the help of one of my friends from Wild Rock I got my first experience of gravel riding. We started with short rides before work, 30-45 kilometres and then, one weekend, we did 150 kilometres in a day. It was hot and it was hard, but it was incredibly rewarding. And it planted the seed of an idea: I could do this for long distances, really long distances, and experience so much. I already love camping, as well as cycling, so combining the two seemed like a recipe for perfection. I could explore Peterborough and environs, see the worlds that existed down a hundred gravel roads, camp at night and have the thrill of tearing along under my own power all day.
Soon after this, Jeff Faulds, the aerobics manager at Wild Rock, organized a bikepacking trip for anyone who was interested. It was getting towards the end of summer, easing gently into fall—perfect weather for cycling—and so I signed up right away. I wasn't sure who else would be going, but I was pretty good friends with everyone who might and had every reason to believe it would be a good time. What I hadn't anticipated was that everyone else on the trip would be so much more experienced than I was, and able to sail through obstacles that I'd never dealt with before.
Coming from a road-biking background, when you see things like mud and sand and gravel in front of you, things that you're going to have a physical interaction with, you know that interaction won't necessarily be a happy one. And this gave me a great deal of anxiety. These are things that you actively try to avoid, and on gravel bikes we were ploughing through them on purpose. I must have come off my bike a half dozen times in the three days of that trip. By the time we were done I had attempted and failed at so many things, I was bleeding and bruised, my ankle was twice the size it should have been, and I felt pretty defeated emotionally. But it just made me even more determined to head out and give it another go. I felt the need to prove to people that I wasn't bad at this, and that I wasn't afraid to do it. So, with Jeff Faulds' help, I organized a solo trip for myself: 200 kilometres over three days and two nights. I was a little bit afraid that people were going to judge me because I'd performed so poorly on the first trip – the feeling of defeat that I'd experienced, of falling behind, holding everyone up, not being up to scratch, was that strong. So, at first, I hesitated to tell people I was going on a second trip: I didn't want to be judged pre-emptively. But about a week before the day, I was planning to leave, I started to tell people what I was doing, to ask for advice or help in small ways – all to make sure that I was taking everything that I'd need and nothing I wouldn't. And people didn't have the reaction that I'd imagined: I thought people were going to tell me that it was a bad idea, but the few people I told were genuinely supportive.
I left for my solo adventure right from Wild Rock on a Saturday night after work. It was raining, and it had been raining all day. I knew that the roads were going to be kind of gross, and I knew that I was going to run into some trouble, so I made sure that I was waterproof from head to toe. I didn't have any problems until it got dark, and I found myself on a pitch-black ATV trail that was pretty much submerged. Vaguely measuring the puddles by dipping my bike into them told me that some of them were a foot to a foot and a half deep. Having to navigate around these small lakes and rivers meant that I spent a lot of time carrying my bike instead of riding it, which really slowed me down. By the time I got back on to a proper road it was raining again, and because the rain was blowing into my face my lights weren't illuminating the road; they were just illuminating the rain as it flew towards and past me. It was like travelling through hyperspace.
At one point a woman leaned out of her car window and shouted something about lights, and my first reaction was that she was just being another asshole driver not wanting to share the road. But just in case, I got off the bike to make sure that all my lights were working, and everything was good. That's when I discovered that my rear light had fallen off—which meant that all drivers could see from behind was my black rain jacket, my black backpack, and my black pants, on top of my grey bike with its black bags. I improvised quickly, rigging my headlamp to point backwards and putting it on its highest setting. This clearly wasn't working much better, because a few minutes later a couple of guys pulled over next to me and said that they had passed me, and then turned around because they couldn't see me after they'd passed me. They were worried about me, they said, and asked me where I was going, how far I had to go, how long I'd been cycling for... I assured them that everything was fine – that I wasn't going very far and that a friend was going to meet me when I got where I was going, which I stressed again wasn't very far.
Even so, the driver insisted on following behind me to light my path, which meant that he was driving on the highway going 27 kilometres an hour – something he could only do because there were no other cars, which of course also meant that there was very little point in him doing it at all. I finally stopped after he'd followed me for an uncomfortable length of time, and said that I was going to stop here, that my friend was going to pick me up and that everything was fine—I was going to be OK. They drove off and everything was good. Once the car was out of sight I got back on my bike and started riding again, though I did actually get a hold of a friend to ask if they could bring me a rear light, because I had two more days of cycling and I didn't want to risk not being properly lit. When I finally got to the campsite, which was not much more than a clearing next to a boat launch, on Kasshabog lake, I was dead tired but happy to be on an adventure.
The next day had its own set of challenges, even though it was a beautiful day to be in the middle of nowhere on a bike, with nicer weather – albeit still a bit wet. Because it had been raining the trails were all flooded and muddy, which made them difficult to cycle – and so I did a lot of walking: It took me almost three hours to travel 40 kilometres. At one point I reached a location where the Garmin was telling me to cross a river, even though there was clearly no bridge. I got off my bike and wandered around looking for some way to cross, after it became clear that I wasn't going to be able to, I had to contact Jeff to ask if there had been some sort of mistake. I eventually figured out that the only way to get across the river in front of me was via two slimy tree trunks with planks nailed to them – these were my "bridge". After three days of rain, they were wet. Very wet.
It was clear that this was the only way forward though. Having no alternative, I went back to my bike, took off all the bags and carried them across, then went back to get my bike. After days of rain the river was really quite high, the water was running very fast, and I knew that falling was not an option: If I didn't just hit my head on a rock I would almost certainly drown in the current. I was so determined to prove that I could do this, though, that I didn't really care that it was dangerous—though I did take the precaution of putting my Garmin into my bra, so that if I did drown, or fall unconscious and wash up on shore somewhere, they'd be able to find me because my Garmin was attached to my body.
I survived the crossing, and everything from that point on was smooth sailing, or relatively so. I had to make some adjustments to my route, so that I wasn't caught in the dark again with my less than fantastic rear light. I arrived at my next campsite, and it was one of the most beautiful things I can imagine: I sat and watched the sun go down over a lake on a completely deserted beach. A few people did come and stand on the beach for a bit before leaving again all of them asking where I'd come from, how far I was going, if I was alone… Everyone responded with surprise or shock that I had come so far, had so far to go and was all by myself. I was offered pillows, blankets, food, water, or a place to stay by several people, as happened throughout the course of the trip.
The last day was everything that I could have wished for. It was a perfect temperature, and the roads were amazing. And everything was beautiful; it was Thanksgiving weekend, so the autumn colours were flaming bright. I got home in good time and in good shape and wanted to do it again... so, I organized another trip...
I wanted this one to be longer; I wanted to see more. I felt more prepared this time and planned out a route that would take me four days and three nights; I carefully calculated how much food I was going to need, what clothes I needed to wear, all the while trying to keep gear and supplies to a minimum and everything as light as possible. My goal was to not have to stop except to get water and to sleep. I planned a bit better this time and was leaving on a Sunday morning rather than Saturday night, giving me all day to get to where I needed to go. Everything was going to be perfect...
And then, about an hour into the trip, my right knee started to hurt. Cycling has been my main mode of transportation for over 20 years, and I've never had knee pain before, so I figured that it would just sort itself out and that everything would probably be OK. Unfortunately, within a few hours it had gotten worse; I couldn't walk or cycle without serious pain, and I was desperately looking for somewhere to camp for the night. I found a place that we'd camped at on the first trip, which meant cutting my day short by around 30 kilometres. With the benefit of hindsight, I know now that I should have stayed the night, turned around and got myself home, but I was determined to see it through. That night I was sitting in my tent at 5pm in the pitch black, drinking hot chocolate and holding a Nalgene filled with hot water against my knee. The eerie silence was only broken by howling—which when you’re alone, is deeply unsettling. I mentally added coyote spray to my list of things to bring next time then hung up all my food, garbage, and dirty clothes in a tree.
The next day I cycled through constant pain. It spread from my right knee to my left and intensified until every moment was soaked in pain. The beautiful scenery began to lose its magic, every beautiful winding road was just more pain. And so, at the absolute furthest point from Peterborough on the journey I'd planned, I called it quits. Thankfully Jeff knew where I was and was willing to come get me. His generosity saved me a lot of misery.
Each trip had its own set of challenges and dangers and with every fall, mistake, and scary moment I learned a valuable lesson or added something to my packing list. After my experience with the guys pulling over to make sure that I was OK, I started thinking about how trips like this would be different if I weren't a woman. Would anyone have cared that I wasn't visible if I were a man? One of the most interesting aspects of all the solo trips I've undertaken is the reactions people have to my situation: They're shocked that I'm alone, or by how far I've cycled, or by how far I'm going to cycle. I don't know if a man would get that same reaction. And 200 kilometres really isn't that far—it's totally achievable in a day. But doing it over three days apparently makes me badass.
Despite all the challenges and all the pain, I don't think I've ever been so in love with an activity in my life. And although I had such a miserable time on that first trip, holding everyone up, I'm so grateful to have been introduced to something that I'll hopefully be able to do for a long time. To anyone looking to bike pack: there will be challenges and if you’re unfamiliar with the terrain, it can be scary. I’m glad that I was able to prove to myself (and hopefully to others) that doing these things alone is safe and rewarding. Still, I don't know that I'll be doing any more group gravel rides with people that are far more experienced than I am; but then who knows.