I woke up at 3:30. I was wide awake and staring at the bedroom ceiling, excited about my ride today but also dreading having my soul crushed. The steady rain for the last two days have made everything a soaking wet mess, and the cold is just going to make it tougher. I'm diving in head first, knowing full well that this will be one of those rides where throwing in the towel will cross my mind several times. I won't want to even look at a bike for the next week. I eat my breakfast and pack my bag, checking out the window every few minutes to see if everything had miraculously dried up. The cold window fogs as I breathe on it, looking at the wet road in front of my house. The weather forecast is -1 degree all morning, feeling like -8. I had better pack my cold weather gear today, and as much waterproof stuff as I own. And wool..... lots of wool.
I step out into the cold and dark morning with my bag in hand, its chilly out here. The truck warms up as I strap down my bike and throw my gear in the back seat. A little bit of windshield de-icing and I'm off, heading towards Indigo Lounge in Tillsonburg for the start. I'm there early, only three other people so far. It gives me a chance to chat with the mastermind of the TillsonBurn, Jeff Ward. He has put alot of work into planning this ride and it shows. The route map has thoughtfully put together loops that will get the most out of the local gravel roads and hills, lots of hills.
Everyone is rolling in now. I put on my gear and wait for the riders meeting, all while shaking like a leaf in the cold morning. I'm eager to get started and warm myself up, its just too cold to stand still. Before long we are organized into a group, arranged by speed / skill level. I keep near the back, knowing that I'll be stopping for photos and going my usual slow and steady pace.
We set out. Its a one hundred(ish) bike parade through town and out to the Participark. Its not long before we get into our first bit of real mud near highway #3. Its slippery goo and my CX bike is having trouble maintaining traction along this stretch of beat up ATV trail. I start to wonder if a mountain bike might have been a better idea but there is no going back now. I slog through it, using what grip I could get from the 42c tires, and eventually make it to the gravel roads. "At last" I think to myself but little did I know that my struggles were just beginning. Not long into the gravel and the hills started.
Once into the climbs, the mass group starts to split up into smaller groups of similarly skilled riders. I'm suffering on the climbs but a quick glance behind me and I can see the same on everyone else's face. At least I'm not alone. Chit chat along the route with my old friend Donny, and new friend Don, and they assure me that there are no more tough hills and that there are only a few more km to go. I know better and laugh it off.
With each passing climb the group breaks up more and more. Before long I find myself flying solo. I keep my head down and grind out the miles along the country roads, following the orange arrows and hoping like hell I don't miss one. I pass the odd rider and am passed by other in return. One thing I notice is how diverse the group of riders is today. There is everything from full on racing minded guys, to fat bikes, there is even some vintage iron out here today. Some riders are experienced veterans, some are brand new to riding and just trying to slog it out. One thing we all have in common is that we are having fun. And suffering..... lots of suffering.
Miles in and we drop in off the road into a field. Its a hard go in the soft muck but I'm doing the best I can to keep on top of it and moving forward. We enter the first real trail section of the day and the mayhem really begins. I go in following a fat bike, which has no problem riding the soft wet trail, who quickly drops me as I fight the bike to stay upright. I mash on the pedals frantically, trying to keep my lowest gear moving me forward as I'm bogging down in the muck. The Norco is great on mixed surfaces but has a really tough time with full on mountain bike type trails. Its slow in these trails but makes up for it everywhere else.
A little ways through the singletrack and I come across a rather tough looking downhill. Its steep and straight down, with a sharp corner at the bottom. The surface is battered and slippery. I have my first "fuck it" moment and get off the bike to walk down. I'm frustrated that I didn't ride the downhill out but the penalty for failure could mean that I don't finish the ride. I'd rather do the walk of shame then have to ride out in an ambulance.
Back out onto pavement and my legs are screaming at me. I'm doing what I can to spin them up and work the knots out, but the mental games are beginning. I'm working hard at mind over matter right now. I can't feel most of my toes in my left foot and I can't feel my right foot at all. My hands are killing me from being smashed by drop bars in the singletrack. The next road section of soft sand has my legs burning and my arms numb as I try to pick a line through the wet sinkholes along the way. My first thought of quitting crosses my mind. I'm near 40km in and just keep telling myself "only 10 more to go" even though I know its going to be over 60km by the end. I think of the shame I'd have if I quit now. I've got to keep moving on, I don't want to have to show up in Tillsonburg in the orange van of shame, the "quitter-mobile" I call it in my head.
I block out the noise in my own head and all of my self doubt. I know I can finish this. I am able to hype myself up enough to get a second wind of sorts and hammer on. More miles grind out and I eventually arrive at the rest stop area. I enjoy a banana and some gatorade mix and get a chance to warm up my feet at the fire. Its only a short while before I can finally feel my feet again, its seems that my double wool socks and winter SPD boots are no match for some of the chilling winds out there on the open road sections. I'm back on the bike and into another trail section after the rest stop. I get through the singletrack and onto an old roadway that has been long forgotten and nearly taken back by mother nature. I stall out and walk the long gentle climb to Bell Mill Side Road. Some of the fastest guys running the 100km route are passing me now, they go by me like I'm standing still, which makes me up my mental game to keep from giving up out of frustration.
I emerge from the last trail section, knowing that there isn't far to go now. I pedal into the headwind back into Tillsonburg, the thought that the ride will be over soon it the carrot on the stick for me right now. My legs are shot, I've been running on empty for a while now. I feel like laying down on the side of the road and crying myself to sleep. I eventually cross over Highway#3 again and am in the town limits of Tillsonburg. As I ride down Simcoe St I get a renewed sense of vigor and attack the climb up Tillson Ave. I make it most of the way before completely bonking out and granny gearing it the next few blocks.
Pulling into Indigo Lounge, I am broken but smiling. I can barely stand, I'm out of energy and running on adrenaline only at this point. The endorphins and adrenaline, coupled with the sense of accomplishment, have me feeling a little euphoric.
I did it, I beat the TillsonBurn. According to my GPS the "50km" route was 63km. I've never done such a tough / long ride so early in the year. I guess all that winter fat biking paid off and kept me in somewhat decent enough shape to ride this out. I'm quite happy with myself as I've checked off the first box on a list of achieved personal accomplishments that I hope to fulfill this year. On the flip side, I'm so worn out and hurting that I don't want to even look at a bike for the next week. Its going to take a few days for my cement legs to loosen up anyways. The gravel roads, trails, and climbs have worn me down.
I'd like to extend my personal thanks to Jeff and all the other volunteers for the countless hours spent organizing such a great ride. His commitment to 'The Burn' and his fellow riders was easy to see today and he was happy just having people come out for the ride. His vision brought together a very diverse family of riders, making memories and stories for them that will be remembered for years to come. The ride was completely free of charge, but any donations made were going towards the purchase of a bicycle(s) for disadvantaged children. These selfless acts make him a champion of the local cycling community and I hope that he continues to put on this ride for years to come, I'll be there each time. Thank you Jeff!
I can't wait to bring on the pain again for TillsonBURN 2017!
The Bric...._ mountain biker, road rider, heavyweight gear abuser. Built like a brick sh*thouse. No bike is safe.