Monday, 16 October 2017

EUROPE – PART 2 – BELGIUM

From the window of my hotel room, I watch as cyclists — from 8 to 80 — pedal past on their way to the Saturday morning market.  Others walk.  There are very few cars.  The pace is slow.  I can’t help but wonder what the center of Charlottetown would look like were we so fortunate as the citizens of downtown Bruges.  I wonder how many of our decision-makers — planners, politicians, and business leaders — have ever visited a place like this on their own dime to see what a real city should look and feel like.

We flew from Dublin to Brussels and took the train from the airport to Bruges Station, a ten-minute walk from our hotel, the Salvators.  While many things are more expensive in Europe, travel is not one of them.  The flight and train cost a mere fraction of what it would have set us back in Canada: $260 for the two of us!

The Lonely Planet Guide says of the city: “If you set out to design a fairy-tale medieval town, it would be hard to improve on central Bruges.  Picturesque cobbled lanes and dreamy canals link photogenic market squares lined with soaring towers, historic churches and old whitewashed almshouses.” 

The city center, one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It’s almost too beautiful to be real.  The clippity-clop of horse-drawn carriages on cobblestone streets added to the ambiance as we sat in the central square on a cool Saturday evening and people-watched.  We spent two enjoyable days wandering around, sampling the famous Belgian chocolate and waffles, and taking in the atmosphere of this special place.

We arrived in Ghent just before noon and walked 30 minutes or so to our hotel using a feature I discovered on my iPhone: Google maps without WiFi, on airplane mode!  Although Ghent lacks the charm and intimacy of Bruges, it proved a very nice place to spend a couple of days.  It’s a port and university city of some 250,000, about twice the size of Bruges.

On our first afternoon there, we took a boat tour on the central canal and learned about the history of the city.  We also visited the Gravensteen, a twelfth-century castle built for the Counts of Flanders.  It is much better preserved than the castles we visited in Ireland and has a great display of instruments of torture, much enjoyed by Elva, I might add.
The centers of both cities are dominated by bicycles and public transit.  It’s fascinating to watch people come and go, riding casually to work or to shop; mothers and fathers cycling to and from school with their children.  There is little evidence of obesity here.  Everyone seems relaxed and healthy.  As for parking, this is what an underground lot looks like in downtown Bruges.
Belgium has a population of 11 million and covers an area about half the size of Nova Scotia.  The country’s capital and largest city, Brussels, is home to the European Parliament, NATO, and international agencies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the World Trade Organization.  The northern part of the country is Flemish and the southern part, closest to France, is Waloon.

We had to change our travel plans because of a national rail and bus strike.  Fortunately, our friends, Liz and Ira, were able to pick us up in Ghent and drive us to Ypres.  We settled in to our comfortable apartment in downtown Ypres, ready for a seven-day stay.

Next morning, we headed straight for Vimy, with the young couple in the front and the old people in the back.  It sure was nice to get a break from driving.  The Vimy monument was easy to spot, dominating the landscape as we approached from the north.  Driving through the village of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, we noted many Canadian flags flying in people’s yards.  The names of the 3,598 Canadian soldiers killed in the Battle of Vimy Ridge are inscribed on the magnificent Vimy Memorial.
Our victory at Vimy Ridge, the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fought together in a coordinated effort, became an important national symbol of achievement and sacrifice.  Canada entered World War I when Britain declared war on Germany; as a member of the Empire, we had no choice.  But things changed after Vimy.  Many historians claim that Canada took a first step toward true independence on April 9, 1917.

Wherever I go, I look for the Island connection.  One room of the brand-new interpretive centre features the stories of veterans who survived the battle.  Alfred McKenna made it back to Prince Edward Island; he and his wife raised a family of 13 children. 
A small plaque leaned against the tomb at the foot of the Vimy Memorial.  Something drew me to it and helped me discover the story of Patrick Raymond Arsenault who fought and died on April 9, 1917.  I shed a few tears when I read the words: “May this fine Island boy rest in peace”.  Georges Arsenault, good friend and eminent Island historian, helped me fill in the blanks.  Private Arsenault, son of Joseph and Isabelle of Seven Mile Bay was a machine-gunner.  But, he wasnt supposed to be at Vimy.  The person who should have been there was Benjamin Arsenault of Summerside who sailed to England on the same day, on the same ship.  Their names were reversed due to a clerical error.  Benjamin Arsenault survived the war.
The city of Ypres lies at the center of the World War I battles of the same name.  The third and last battle resulted in an Allied victory over the German army, but at great cost to both sides: close to half a million casualties and the obliteration of the old town.  The photo below was taken in early 1919 before reconstruction started.
In the early 1920s, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission built the Menin Gate Memorial for the Missing.  On its walls are engraved the names of more than 54,000 officers and men who died in and near Ypres but have no known grave.  Every evening at 8:00, 365 days a year, hundreds gather for a remembrance ceremony at the Menin Gate.  We attended several of these and found them deeply moving.
Cycling was the second main theme of our visit to Ypres.  On our second full day there, we drove across the border to Roubaix, France, to see the finish line of the famous Paris-Roubaix bike race.  The race, a one-day, 260-km torture test, is run on a course that includes long stretches of cobbles, slick as ice when wet.  I saw my first indoor velodrome and we walked over to the outdoor velodrome where the annual race finishes.

The four of us set out on a sunny Saturday morning to ride the Peace Cycle Route, stopping at a couple of war cemeteries.  We’d ordered “racing bikes” from a local tour guide.  Danny of MacQueen’s Bike Shop wouldn’t be caught dead renting the clunkers Kurt from Biking Box showed up with.  One was a 25-year-old street bike with a suicide shift.  Two of the others were very low-end Scatto, a brand we’d never heard of, and the fourth was a beat-up Scott.  But the ride was glorious and the Belgian countryside looked lovely in the bright sunshine and 20-degree temperature.

We rode to Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the world, and the final resting place of almost 12,000 servicemen killed on the Passchendaele battlefields during the First World War.  We were there to attend a special ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the final battle.
My mother’s first cousin, Ulric J. “Spud” Arsenault, enlisted in the Army on April 29, 1916, on his 18th birthday.  At least that’s what the recruiters thought.  Spud was actually 17, stood all of 5-foot-3 and weighed 130 pounds.  He fought with the 26th New Brunswick Batallion and was wounded at Amiens and Passchendaele.  I thought of him as I watched the sun go down over Tyne Cot Cemetery and remembered the child soldier depicted in this photo.

The ceremony was called “Silent City Meets Living City”.  I don’t know how many thousands attended, but it seemed that someone stood behind each one of the graves, holding a candle as night fell.  Letters from the battlefield and soldiers’ diaries were read, a pipe band played, and the choir sang On the Road to Passchendaele.  It was a low-key affair and demonstrated yet again that Belgians are experts at veneration and tribute.  There were no patriotic speeches by politicians feigning knowledge, glorifying war and sacrifice, and pretending to be sincere.  We rode the 10 kilometres back to Ypres in the darkness, trusting feeble lights to show us the way.

We hopped in the car next morning and drove to Zonnebeke where we visited the Passchendaele Museum, followed by the Canadian Memorial, a German cemetery, and Essex Farm, where Canadian John McCrea wrote the definitive World War I poem, In Flanders Fields.  The German cemetery holds the remains of 44,000 soldiers, 25,000 of them in a mass grave.  The contrast between this one and Allied cemeteries is glaring: black stones bearing several names lie on the unkempt ground.  In the Allied cemeteries, the lawn is immaculate, there are flowers everywhere, and the plain white tombstones stand arrow-straight.  Relatives and schoolchildren leave wreaths and notes.  The one that read “Dear Grandad” brought a tear to my eye.
Ira and I saddled up one last time after our tour and rode to the small town of Kemmel, about 10 kilometres from Ypres.  The town centre marks the start of the 3-kilometre climb up Kemmelberg, averaging 4% and topping out at 22%.  That’s bad enough, but half the climb is over cobbles!  Not my favourite way to travel.  But we made it up and back down safely and, after a detour to Zonnebeke, rode triumphantly into Ypres, through the Lille Gate.
I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like to be a soldier in World War I, but these few words I read on a plaque in an Ypres park sum it up best for me:


“Here for all of a couple of years
it’s the second before you die.
Little things are all there is.”
(Herman De Coninck)

On our last full day in Ypres, we reluctantly said goodbye to Liz and Ira, our sterling travel companions for the six days we spent together.  Then, we took one last walk along the Ypres rampart and through the main square.  It was time to pack and prepare for the next phase of our European adventure.


Thursday, 5 October 2017

EUROPE – PART 1 - IRELAND

We left home on the warmest day of the year, September 26, when the mercury registered almost 29 degrees Celsius!  In the Charlottetown Airport departure lounge, we watched and listened as a group of high school students prepared to leave for a trip to a leadership camp in Waterloo, Ontario.  We were most impressed, and it was hard not to get caught up in their unbridled enthusiasm.  Then, who walks in but hockey royalty: Ron MacLean and Don Cherry.
Jacques, Isabelle and Lucie met us at Pearson Airport in Toronto, and we spent a pleasant three hours together during our layover.  Lucie is growing up so fast!
Ireland had been on our bucket list for some time and, this fall, things fell into place for a visit.  We booked a self-driving B&B itinerary through Royal Irish Tours.  I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of driving for seven days on the wrong side of the road, but decided I’d give it a try.  We landed at Dublin Airport at 6:30, picked up our rental, a Seat Leon, a Spanish-made car I’d like to have taken home with me.

Then, it was out onto the motorway, try like hell not to get honked at, and stay out of major trouble.  Jet-lagged as I was, I managed to find my way to Belfast and onto the road leading north to the small town of Bushmills, home of the famous Old Bushmills whiskey.  Our destination for Day One was the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located at the far northern tip of the island.

Ireland, the island, is just a bit bigger than New Brunswick.  It’s divided into the Republic of Ireland, independent since 1921 and home to 4.6 million people, and Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, with a population of 1.8 million.  According to Wikipedia, winters are milder and summers cooler than in continental Europe, and “rainfall and cloud are abundant”.  There’s a lot of history here, much of it of hard times, and far too much to recount in a travel blog.

We arrived at the Giant’s Causeway in the rain.  It wasn’t pelting at the time but the wind gave a hint of worse weather to come.  We followed our guide from the interpretive centre down to the strand, listening to his detailed but colourful explanations of how this impressive natural feature gained notoriety.  His geological explanation included references to tectonic plates, volcanic activity, lava flow, basaltic beds; yada, yada, yada!

I like the “Once upon a time” explanation better.  The one that says the causeway between Ireland and Scotland was built by Finn McCool, a giant 53½-foot tall Irishman as a test of strength against his rival, the Scottish giant, Benandonner.  It’s the one I’m more likely to remember.
We checked in to our B&B, the Valley View, and were welcomed warmly by hostess, Valerie.  She was a delight, full of suggestions for places to eat and things to do in the area.

Day Two saw us drive to Carrick-a-Rede, site of a rope bridge first constructed by local salmon fishermen in 1755 to help them cross from the mainland to a rocky outcrop.  From there, they netted migrating Atlantic salmon as they swam past the point, searching for the river in which they were born.  We’d been told by Maynard, Valerie’s husband, to get there before the crowds.  Good advice, as it turned out.
From Carrick-a-Rede, we drove west along the Causeway Coastal Route, stopping briefly at the tiny village of Ballintoy and the beautiful White Park Beach.  Next, we came upon the ruins of Dunluce, a medieval castle perched precariously on a windswept headland.  In Portrush, we passed a beautiful links golf course and watched golfers crouch as they smashed their balls into the wind.

I’d seen Mussenden Temple on a BBC travel show and wanted to go there.  We walked from the parking lot, through the Bishop’s Gate and up to the ruined Downhill House, part of a magnificent estate built in the late 1700s to the greater glory of one Frederick Hervey, Church of Ireland Lord Bishop of Derry.  The Temple, built to house the Bishop’s library, stands precariously close to the cliff edge, high above the ocean.
Having had enough excitement for one day, we beat it south, crossed the border back into the Republic and made our way to Donegal, our destination for the night the magnificent Rossmore Manor.  We had a lovely meal at the Olde Castle Bar in Donegal.

Day Three began with a one-hour drive west toward Slieve League.  We’d been told it was not to be missed.  The weather in Donegal was lovely but it soon changed.  Dark clouds scudded above the hills as we neared the town of Killybegs and the rain began to fall.  But, as experienced travellers know: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes!”  Actually, as we turned onto the country road leading to the cliffs of Slieve League, the sky brightened a bit.  Up we drove along a treacherous mountain path, past grazing sheep, until we got to the end, a tiny car park seemingly on the edge of the earth.  We weren’t disappointed.  The wind was so strong that it carried sea foam up to where we were standing.  You can see a bit of it in the top right hand corner of the photo below.  The cliffs, at 2,000 feet, are the highest in Ireland, three times higher than the more famous Cliffs of Moher.
We stopped at Studio Donegal in the tiny village of Kilcar, where the tradition of handweaving is kept alive.  Then, we drove cross-country to our destination, Westport, stopping briefly at Mullaghmore Head, where we watched massive breakers crash onto the shore.  Across Donegal Bay, we could just make out Slieve League.

After checking in to Adare House B&B, we took owner Christie’s advice and walked into town to check out the music and pub scene.  We found ourselves in Hoban’s, a popular place to have a pint and listen to live music on a Friday afternoon, courtesy of the Mulloy Brothers.  Watching the locals and listening to the band made for a rich cultural experience.
Christie suggested we drive to Achill Island, about 50 kilometres west of Westport.  Arriving there, we turned onto a small coastal road, part of the Wild Atlantic Way, and came upon the ruins of St. Dympna’s Church in Kildavnet.  Between there and the tiny village of Dooega, we were treated to some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen — anywhere.  The sun shone brightly and the views were stunning.
Our destination, Keem Bay, the end of the road, is reached by a narrow road perched on the edge of seaside cliffs.  But the scene made it well worthwhile.  I’d have taken a dip if I’d had swim trunks; the water was warmer than I thought.

Our next stop on Day 4 was Kylemore Abbey and Victorian Walled Gardens.  The Abbey was built by Mitchell Henry, a wealthy London doctor, in 1871.  It stayed in his family until it was sold to the Duke and Duchess of Manchester.  He lost it in card game!  Benedictine nuns, forced to leave Ypres, Belgium during World War I bought the Abbey in 1920 and ran a private school for girls until 2010.  Today, the Abbey and Gardens together form an impressive tourist attraction.
By the end of Day 4, I was starting to feel a bit more comfortable driving on the left side of the road.  Early on, my brain was locked in a constant battle between competing impulses: the steering wheel is on the wrong side; why am I shifting with my left hand; how do I turn right at a stop sign; Elva should be sitting to my right, not by my deaf ear; etc.  It tires a fella out!

We got thoroughly lost trying to find our B&B in Galway.  The instructions on our reservation were unclear and, when I finally did figure out which direction I needed to go, I could find no trace of street or road signs.  Because there were none!  Eventually, we settled in to our room and walked down to the older section of the city, a pedestrian-friendly area where we found a nice pub for a badly-needed bite after a long day.
We had two things on the agenda for Day 5: the Cliffs of Moher and Bunratty Castle and Folk Village.  It was pouring rain when we left Galway and we debated whether to detour out to the coast.  We’d learned that if you don’t like the weather in Ireland, wait five minutes!  Sure enough, by the time we drove into the parking lot at the Cliffs, the rain had slowed to a drizzle.  We walked past the visitor centre and to the edge of the towering cliffs, bent at the waist, battling the 100-km-an-hour gusts, holding on tight to our cameras.

Bunratty Castle, located near Limerick, is a 15th-century tower house built by the MacNamara family.  It was restored as a tourist attraction in the 1950s and, together with the folk village, made for an interesting visit.  I was particularly taken by this simple stone farmhouse, all stone: floor, walls, hearth, and roof.  So simple, yet so elegant.  And the fence is typical of ones we saw everywhere in Ireland.
From the castle, we drove southwest to the town of Dingle and had an early supper at the Dingle Pub.  We arrived at the tail-end of a food festival and got to hear some excellent music, courtesy of six jamming accordion players, accompanied by a guitar and banjo.  Our day not yet done, we still had to find our B&B, the Imeall na Mara, in the tiny seaside village of Beale na nGall.  The road signs in this part of the Dingle Peninsula, were unilingual Irish (or Gaelic Irish)!  Long story, short, we were welcomed by Philomena and Michael and had a wonderful stay.
Day 6 saw us travel along the southern part of Ireland toward our destination for the night, the Fern Hill B&B in Tramore, a small seaside town near Waterford.  Along the way, we stopped at the Blarney Castle where I dutifully kissed the Blarney Stone.  Elva chickened out when she saw that to touch the stone with one's lips, the participant must ascend to the castle's peak, then lean over backwards on the parapet's edge, hanging on for dear life to two iron bars, suspended 90 feet above the ground.
The sun greeted us on Day 7 as we drove from Tramore to Waterford, our destination the Waterford Crystal factory in the centre of Ireland’s oldest city.  I’d seen glass blowing before but never the far more complex and intricate art of crystal making.  It takes eight years of apprenticeship and mastery of all stages in the process before an employee achieves the highest rank in the crystal-making trade.  Some of the pieces they make are one-of-a-kind, such as this cute little horse-drawn carriage that will set you back a mere $60,000!
Our next stop was Glendalough, the site of an early medieval monastic settlement founded by St. Kevin in the sixth century.  Although many of the original structures are in ruins, Glendalough is a major tourist attraction as well as an important religious site and pilgrimage destination.  We captured this image of the tiny village of Avoca on our way to the Cherrycreek B&B, our final destination for the day.  Fit for a postcard!
On our last driving day, we headed for Dublin, stopping along the way at Powerscourt, ancestral home of the family of the same name.  The gardens were once ranked #3 in the world by National Geographic but, once you’ve seen Butchart and Versailles, everything else seems unworthy.  Driving into Dublin to drop off our car proved quite an adventure without a GPS.  I got turned around a couple of times, got honked at by impatient taxi drivers, but eventually found my way.  It was nice to get back to our favourite way to see a city: on foot.

Dublin, the Republic’s capital city is home to 1.2 million people.  The city was founded by the Vikings in 983.  Downtown is very walkable and the most interesting tourist sites were close to our cozy hotel.  We started with Trinity College, founded in 1792 and renowned for its ancient library and one of the most famous books of all.  We learned the story of the Book of Kells, an illustrated four-volume set containing the Gospels of the New Testament, created by Irish monks around the year 800 AD.
On our last day in Ireland, we walked to the Guiness Storehouse at St. James Gate, home of the iconic Irish brewery, founded in 1759 by Arthur Guiness.  Today, it’s one of the world’s best-known and most successful beer brands.  We were blown away by the interpretive display at the Storehouse, one of the best we’ve seen in all our travels.  To top it off, we enjoyed a pint at the seventh-floor Gravity Bar, featuring stunning views of the city.


Christchurch Cathedral was the last stop on our list of must-sees in Dublin.  The Cathedral is the seat of two archbishops: Catholic and Church of Ireland (Anglican).  It was founded around 1030 by the Viking King Sitric Silkenbeard upon his return from a pilgrimage to Rome.  The church has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times, at great cost and sacrifice, and stands proudly today as one of the city’s most impressive landmarks.  And we couldn’t afford to save the Egmont Bay Church!
I can’t leave Ireland without a word about the roads.  An American we met in Galway put it this way: “Whoever designed and built these damn roads should be shot!”  I wouldn’t go quite that far but, suffice to say, the roads here are hell to drive on; an intrusion on the agrarian landscape, wasted farmland, as it were.  There are no ditches; tall hedges and stone walls encroach to within a foot of the edge of the pavement in places; the roads have more curves than a plus-sized model; there’s barely room for two cars to meet, let alone trucks; and sheep have the right-of-way, munching on grass with their butts hanging out, daring you to hit them!

We’d come back to Ireland in a heartbeat.  The scenery is beautiful, the attractions first-class, and you won’t find friendlier people anywhere.  There really are 1,000 shades of green!  As for the rented-car-B&B formula, it was a first for us.  While I found the 2,500-km circumnavigation a bit tiresome, there’s no better way to cover a country like Ireland than by car.  And the B&Bs, mostly four-star, were better than we expected.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

GRAN FONDO BAIE-SAINTE-MARIE
“ES-TU PARÉ?”

The weather couldn’t have been more different from last year’s as Elva and I stood in front of Vélo Baie Sainte-Marie: 15.5 degrees C and dead calm!  What a contrast from 2016 when we shivered at 9 degrees and were nearly blown away!

After the wonderful experience we’d had last year, Elva and I registered early for the third annual Gran Fondo Baie-Sainte-Marie.  I’d done the Lost Shores Gran Fondo in Guysborough two week before with my Charlottetown riding group, the Over The Hill Gang.  Elva opted for the 67 km Medio Fondo and I chose the 117 km Gran Fondo.

We branched off Highway 101 at Weymouth, drove through the pretty village along old Route 1, and registered at the majestic old Goodwin Hotel.  We’d stayed there many years ago during a driving tour around Nova Scotia and had fallen in love with the place.  Family-owned hotels like the Goodwin where the owner greets you herself and gives you the lay of the land are a dying breed, unfortunately.

We drove along the shore road past the massive granite Église Saint-Bernard that marks the entrance to La Baie Sainte-Marie.  We passed through the colourful villages of Anse-des-Belliveau, Grosses-Coques, Pointe-de-l’Église, Petit-Ruisseau, and Comeauville, their houses bedecked with Acadian flags welcoming us to Clare.  Gran Fondo headquarters in Saulnierville was all abuzz: helpful volunteers everywhere, the familiar smell of chicken fricot, and music.  We left there with full bellies and spent a quiet evening at the Goodwin, reading a book on the front veranda in comfortable Muskoka chairs, watching the sun set over the Sissiboo River.

Next morning, we got up bright and early, put on our kit and headed down to the dining room.  Sure enough, Pat was there to serve us breakfast.  She told us the Goodwin has been in her family for 47 years!  The meal was delicious.  A nice room and meal for two cost us the grand sum of $105!

Near the start line, we connected with several Islanders: Andréa Deveau, Cynthia King, Dwayne Doucette, Tom Crowell, Lisa McInnis, and the TeRaas, Tabatha and Arend.  There was a good vibe as the starter sent the first group off for the 160 Super Fondo.  I missed hearing last year’s Gran Fondo theme song, a piece by a local rap group called Es-tu paré?, Acadianese for “Are you ready?”

Then, it was our turn to go; a mad scramble as we crossed the start line; a gaggle of riders trying to squeeze through a narrow opening, all at the same time!  I felt much safer as we rolled along Route 1.  Unlike 2016, there was no treacherous cross wind to deal with and riders seemed much more relaxed.  I’d decided to follow Arend and Tabatha and hooked onto their wheels, ready to take my turn on the front when the time came.  Locals cheered us on, waving Acadian flags and ringing cowbells.  Their smiling faces encouraged us and made us feel appreciated.
Before we knew it, we’d reached the turnoff just past Saint-Bernard Church and headed inland on Route 340.  The fog was starting to lift as we rode through Weaver Settlement, our group down to a half dozen or so with the Islanders doing most of the work on the front.  One young rider, a 90-pound teenager, stayed with us for awhile, jumping ahead on every hill.  “He’ll be a good one, if he sticks with it”, I thought.

Rolling through Havelock, we caught up with a group and stayed with them through New Tusket and Corberrie.  The pace line was rather disorganized but I enjoyed the draft while it lasted.  A few riders missed the right turn at Corberrie Church but caught up before we got to Concession.  I remembered how cold it had been in 2016 when I felt hail going up the first hill on Patrice Road!

We rolled past the rest stop in Concession, onto Second Division Road, then a sharp right onto Saulnierville Road.  Soon, we were on the Bangor Road, my favourite stretch of the ride.  The scenery along Eel Lake and the Meteghan River is beautiful.  The water was like glass.  By that point, our group was down to six riders, each one taking a turn at the front.  We rode through Meteghan Station and along Clare Lake before turning onto the Meteghan Connector.  (I'm the old guy with the cleavage!)

I was feeling pretty strong as we rejoined Route 1 at the rest station in Meteghan.  Tabatha and Arend stopped briefly for water and I stayed with the two remaining members of our group, Dr. Mitchell Stewart and Sean Merritt, as we rode toward Mavillette.  But, as we climbed the hill that marks the start of the Mavillette Loop, my legs just gave out.  Non-cyclists may not understand this but, on a long ride, your legs don’t give out gradually.  They abandon you all at once.  One hill, they’re there; the next hill, they’re gone!

I watched Mitch and Sean ride off the front, knowing I’d seen the last of them.  I turned onto the John Doucette Road and coasted down to the dunes, taking in the beautiful sight of waves crashing onto Cape St. Mary’s Beach.  
Back on Route 1, I welcomed the slight tailwind although my old legs protested on every hill.  In Bear Cove, Arend TeRaa rode up beside me, saying “Those guys dropped you, did they?”.  “Like a sack of potatoes”, I replied.  Tabatha encouraged me to follow them, so I dug deep.  We wheeled into Meteghan and barrelled down the hill past Tim Hortons, so fast I didn’t even get a whiff of a “double-double”.  I suffered through Meteghan-Centre and Meteghan River, took one last turn on the front and then watched Arend and Tabatha ride away.  I used my last reserves to climb the hill up to Sacré-Coeur Church and coasted the last kilometre or so to the finish line.  My odometer read just under 3 hours and 36 minutes.  “Not bad”, I thought.

I reconnected with the TeRaas, Mitch and Sean, poured a bottle of cold water over myself and took in some much-needed fluids.  Elva was there to greet me, having finished her 67 km in a very good time.  She’d ridden most of the way alone.  The photos below show her riding past the Bangor Mill and arriving at the finish line behind two other riders.
We listened to the live music in front of Vélo Baie Sainte-Marie and I chatted with a few of the volunteers.  “How was your ride?”  “Where are you from?”  “Are you enjoying yourselves here?”  The locals were so friendly and seemed so glad to have us visit their community.  Acadien pur laine, I may be a bit biased, but the hospitality seemed to come so naturally to les gens de La Baie.  More than a ride, the Gran Fondo Baie-Sainte-Marie is truly a genuine cultural experience.

Half-starved, we rushed to the lobster tent.  Incredibly, all the beautiful markets lined up on the table before us had been donated by David Deveau of Riverside Lobster International Inc.  Nothing like a pound-and-a-quarter lobster with all the fixings to fill a 3,500-calorie sinkhole.  And what better way to enjoy such a treat than under a tent, on a folding table, sitting in a plastic chair, digging in with your fingers, juice flying all over the place!  Is there a more Atlantic Canadian ritual than that?
As I wrote in last year’s blog, I’ve ridden in organized events on Prince Edward Island, in Maine, in New Brunswick and in Nova Scotia, and in six Gran Fondos: three in Québec, one on Prince Edward Island, one in Ontario, and one other in Nova Scotia.  The Gran Fondo Baie-Sainte-Marie stands out because of its strong local flavour and the hospitality of the people.  It’s in my top two; maybe the best!  It’s also a great motivator for those who want to extend their riding season into the fall.  And where else can you get a cycling jersey, a lobster meal, and the experience of a lifetime, all for $100?
The online results showed that Elva finished 70th of 368 in the Medio Fondo, and 3rd among female riders in her 60-69 age group.  I finished 9th of 256 Gran Fondo riders, 1st in the 60-69 age group.  Tabatha finished first among female riders in the Gran Fondo, making it three Islanders in the top ten, four if you count Dr. Stewart who will move to Charlottetown soon to set up a family medical practice.

The 917 riders registered for the event ranged in age from 10 to 83.  Jim Hoyle of Dartmouth, a spry 83 years young, finished the Medio Fondo in 102nd place, ahead of 266 riders who rode the same distance.  Incredible!

Congratulations to riders, organizers, volunteers and residents of La Baie.  You’re the best!  Elva and I hope to  be back next year to hear the call to the post: Es-tu paré?  And my advice:


CHANGEZ POINT RIEN! – DON’T CHANGE A THING!

Monday, 11 September 2017

LOST SHORES GRAN FONDO

I’m not sure that I’d have chosen to brand the region “Lost Shores”, but as we drove along Route 16 from Tracadie to Guysborough, I could see how the barren countryside could give you that impression.  “God-forsaken piece of ground, if you ask me”, one of us remarked.  Things lightened up a bit as we drove past the turnoff to Rear Monastery.  Now, just imagine the theories on the origins of that poor community’s name conjured up by a group of seven guys away for a weekend in backwoods Nova Scotia.  I offered that it may be a translation from the French: “Cul-du-Monastère”.  That didn’t help at all!

We arrived in the pretty village of Guysborough (population 900) late afternoon and checked in at the Gran Fondo registration desk.  Our next stop was Big G’s Pizza and Restaurant on Main Street for the obligatory pre-ride dinner.  There wasn’t much to do in the village, except maybe pick up a few bottles of local beer at the NSLCC store.  Comfortably ensconced in our five-star accommodations, the Coastal Inn near Antigonish, we watched Canadian Michael Woods ride with the best cyclists in the world in La Vuelta a Espana.
Coach Ira rousted us at the ungodly hour of 5:45 and herded us into the van for the foggy drive to the Fondo.  Our orders for the day: Food! Coffee! Dump! Ride!

We stopped at the Days Gone By Bakery, the only place open for breakfast in downtown Guysborough.  Katie and her staff welcomed us with open arms and we were pampered by our server, the lively and good-humoured Lucina, who served us platefuls of delicious rib-sticking pancakes.  How could your spirits not be lifted by a person that cheerful at 7:00 in the morning?  We even got our picture on their website!  Things were definitely looking up!
The Chedabucto Education Centre, Lost Shores Gran Fondo HQ, was abuzz as we parked the van and reassembled our trusty two-wheelers.  We linked up with the eighth member of the Over The Hill Gang, Kent, who’d driven over with Miguel Arsenault, co-owner of Atlantic Chip Sport Timing.

By the time the horn sounded for the 120-km group, the fog had lifted, and 100 or so cyclists barrelled down Route 16 toward the turnoff to Larry’s River Road.  The three young bucks in our group, Kent, Ian and Mark, were off the front before we reached the bottom of the first incline, leaving Ira, Russ, Richard, John and me in their dust.
The ride profile showed a three-kilometre climb at the 5-km. mark, just what we needed to wake up the old legs.  John and I lost track of the other three, thinking they may have had a mechanical, but expecting them to catch up at the top of the hill.  As it turned out, both Richard and Ira had had to stop briefly to sort out minor bike problems.
John and I latched onto a group of half a dozen riders and pace-lined with them for about 40 kilometres, as far as Port Felix.  Riding through the coastal community of Larry’s River, I was struck by the number of Acadian flags waved by the locals.  Made me feel right at home!  While the scenery was quite stunning, we had to be very careful of the rough pavement.
We lost the other riders in our group when they pulled off at the rest stop in Port Felix, so John and I rode alone from there to the turnoff where we rejoined Route 16.  We both remarked that it was one of the nicer courses we’d ridden in a long time.  Three other riders hooked on to the back and rode with us into Canso, along what Fondo organizers labelled the “Tickle Loop”.  And how could you not chuckle at a sign like this one!
We got off the bikes for a quick bite and some fluids at the rest stop near Canso wharf, greeted by a couple of smiling and able volunteers, eager to please and anxious to know what we thought of the event so far.  A half-dozen riders lined up with us for the last 50 kilometres and we pedalled around the Canso loop and back onto Route 16.

By the time we reached Half Island Cove, the group was down to four and my legs were starting to feel a little rubbery.  It turned out to be a long, hilly 30 kilometres from there to Guysborough: down to sea level; up over a headland; down to sea level; up over yet another headland.  We rolled through Philips Harbour, Queensport, Peas Brook, Halfway Cove, Dorts Cove and Cooks Cove.  The striking beauty of the coastline along this stretch, reminiscent of the Cabot Trail and the Gaspé Peninsula, was lost on me unfortunately as I began to suffer.
I followed a strong rider from Fredericton up a three-kilometre climb at Halfway Cove, and John fell off the back.  The two of us rode the last 16 km. to the finish line, taking turns on the front, although his pulls were longer than mine.  I stayed on his wheel until partway up the last hill, and then bonked.  My odometer showed about 3 hours and 50 minutes as I crossed the finish line, totally spent.  Not bad for a pensioner!  The young bucks, long since arrived, looked fresh as daisies as I crawled over to greet them.  I couldn’t wait to pour a bottle of cold water over my poor old head, thankful the day hadn’t been any warmer.

The rest of our gang crossed the finish line shortly after.  We piled the bikes into the van and took our places in the food line, desperate to fill 3,500-calorie sinkholes.  I dined on barbecued ribs, courtesy of the Days Gone By Bakery.  They were some good!  We listened to the live music for a while, talked to riders and volunteers, took on needed refreshments at the Authentic Seacoast Brewing Company, drove back across the barrens to the motel, and hit the showers.

We motored into Antigonish and settled in at the Townhouse Restaurant, an eatery popular with the Saint FX college crowd.  One of the guys got a text from his better half: “I’m cooking chicken breasts for supper.  How will I know when they’re done?”  We marvelled at this example of how gender roles have evolved over time.  In a positive way, of course!  Ever the devoted problem-solvers, and following an intense group think, we decided on the following response: “You’ll know they’re done when the nipples are tender”.  The text he received in reply was, not surprisingly, adult-rated!

We learned that Guysborough is a brave little community, its residents eager to please and to make you feel welcome.  Chedabucto might be the Mi’kmaq word for “Place of Great Two-Wheeled Suffering” after what we went through, but we all had a great time.  The ride was well organized, the route was challenging, and the volunteers were terrific.  The Over The Hill Gang found the Lost Shores, and we’re glad we did.  We wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the event to avid cyclists like ourselves.

In the end, it’s all about the ride!
Over The Hill Gang – September 9, 2017

L to R: John MacQuarrie, Jean-Paul Arsenault, Kent Wood, Ira Birt, Mark Grimmett, Russ Melanson, Ian MacIntyre, Richard Birt