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A Chip-Sealed Fate

A Chip-Sealed Fate

On surviving the tour de Great Slave Lake
By Jimmy Thomson
Oct 25
2018
From the October/November 2018 Issue

Familiar road stretches out like Silly Putty ahead of me and snaps back into place behind me, with all the kilometres extending and contracting in my mind as my two thin wheels bounce along the chip-seal. The highway connecting Yellowknife to Hay River has become a crisp, high-definition version of the landscape I’ve whizzed by in the driver’s seat of my teenaged Volvo countless times; what had been green blurs now resolve into shrubs, grasses, flowers and trees. Bison loom larger than ever on the side of the road.

I take a few long sips of warm watered-down grape juice as I pass a sign that reads ‘Fort Providence Corporate Limits’. A rest, some shade, and a cold drink are all within reach. I pull my bike over and vomit purple on the side of the road as my companions carry on ahead. Ten kilometres left for today.

I’m more than halfway through the YK2HR ride—an increasingly popular 500-km marathon bike challenge that has run for a decade. This is the first year the ride is happening in the summer. Usually the late-May timing keeps the bugs down but the mornings are freezing cold; now, cool mornings are the only escape from the late-July heat.

A light rain sprinkled on us as we started off from Yellowknife. It was too early in the ride to appreciate and it blew over in less than an hour. Five hours later, I would have done anything for a drop of that rain, the last we would see all weekend.

My first inkling that I might not be ready for the trip occurred somewhere just south of Mosquito Creek, about 100 kilometres out of Yellowknife. With temperatures soaring above 30 C, the pavement shimmered into the distance ahead. At the foot of the most substantial hill of the entire ride, a steady wind hit me like a wall and my head felt like a boiled egg being pulled from a pot. Why had I failed to do any training for this ride? Why did I only bring along 600 millilitres of water?

Why did I sign up to do this in the first place? Maybe it was my way of joining the ranks of true Northerners, who shrug off the region’s inherent discomforts and lean into the pain. Or perhaps it was peer pressure, surrounded as I was by friends and acquaintances wearing their own smiles, grimaces, sunburns and road rashes. Whatever the justification, hundreds of people have braved the elements and the bumpy roads over the years and earned their bragging rights. Now I was joining them.

I limp into the next rest stop, which finally comes after several blue rest-sign hallucinations. Another rider arrives just behind me. Noticing his distress, a volunteer—one of many in cars along the route who helps cyclists recuperate with snacks and drinks —asks, “Is it the hill or the wind?”

“The sun,” he gasps. “It’s the sun.” He has a point: when the sun is out and the clouds disappear, the shade of the trees just out of reach beckon like sirens to sailors slipping into insanity. The only possible action is to keep moving and hope the next rest comes soon. After the hill, I give into what is quickly turning into heat exhaustion and sheepishly accept a ride to the next check stop, killing my hopes of biking the whole distance.

But when the clouds give us some sun cover, the challenge seems almost doable. I learn the principle of drafting, nestling in behind another rider or group of riders to be whisked along with them as their wind carries me forward. We fall into a groove—a group of us takes turns leading the others by breaking the headwind and setting the pace for as long as we can bear it, then fall back to let another rider lead. Chatting with other riders helps the distance slip by. What had been a stoic solitary challenge becomes group therapy: we chat about life in Yellowknife, Northern adventures, and how great jumping into the flooded quarry will feel later on.

Now, on the last stretch of highway, the 40 kilometres connecting Enterprise and Hay River, I tuck in behind two riders barrelling along. My hands have lost their ability to grip, yet the two men, easily 20 years my senior and YK2HR veterans, seem comfortable and motivated as they slip away from me. Ten kilometres left. I keep my purple juice down this time, and keep pedalling.