Wednesday, December 23, 2009

To-Hell-And-Back 2009

A belated To-Hell-And-Back report - event was back in mid November.

I am precariously balanced on a thin berm of dirt, mud is more like it, leaning on my bike, axle deep in the water of a huge puddle to my left. To my right, is more swampy water. This is supposed to be a bike ride, but I feel like I am in some kind of weird circus act. You do these sorts of things, on the annual T0-Hell-And-Back ride.

I could have tried to ride this part, but falling head-first into all that water in the trail and then getting soaking wet in the middle of a 144K ride, when it's only about 7C out, would not have been a good thing. So I opted for the easier, but more conservative thing to do - the Cirque-de-Soleil like balancing act along the side of the trail. Onwards I go on foot.

The To-Hell-And-Back race/ride has an obscure and shady history in the Toronto area. Orginally it was a race, set up by Mike Barry Sr., Father to Michael Barry, Pro rider for Team Columbia/High-Road. It was set up to emulate the famous Paris Roubaix road race. It was run on some of the gravel and dirt roads north of Toronto, some old farmers tracks that connected some of the north-south concession roads, as well as a 9k section along an abandoned rail line running south from Sutton, up near Lake Simcoe, at about the mid point of the route. It was this last item that was referred to as "Hell", as it was/is particularly treacherous, due to it's soft gravel, sand and rocks that have to be ridden over. Hence the name - To-Hell . . . . And-Back!

Not sure what happened to the race. These days there are a couple of informal To-Hell-And-Back rides. The one that I have done in the fall, was resurrected by the folks at Cervelo about 10 years ago - for a few years Gerard Vroomen, one of the co-founders of Cervelo was a participant. You can read an account of one of Gerard's To-Hell-And-Back experiences here. This ride is now organized by Triathlon coach Nigel Grey. The traditional start, is in the small community of Box Grove just south and east of Markham, Ontario. The route runs more or less straight north, picking out some of the few remaining gravel roads, hitting some of the original farmers tracks, adds in some new trail sections in the area of the Oak Ridges Moraine, and then carry's on to the "Hell" section south of Sutton. This is the one spot on the course that support is sure to be found and, it's the traditional bail-out point if you don't want to ride the final 54km back to Box Grove.

This years event was scheduled a few weeks earlier than normal. This was a good as the last two years, have been "blessed" with snow and very cold temperatures( -15C at the start two years ago). The forecast for the day was a high of 10C some clouds, no rain and light winds - about as good as it gets at this time of the year.

Equipment choice is always key for this ride. Traditionally, the event was done on retro-fitted road bikes( wider tires and MTB Pedals) With the increased popularity and availability of good cross-bikes now, everyone, save me, was on a cross bike. I was riding my relatively new Cervelo R3 with some wider 28mm tires and MTB pedals.

Tradition has it that the "slow" group sets off at 7:00am and then the fast-group at 8:00. This year there was some talent in the slow group with a couple of sub-10 hr IM guys and some pretty good road riders. The un-spoken goal of the day of course is for the Fast group to catch the Slow and/or the Slow guys to hold off the Fast. So, at the first light of dawn, off we go at a not too bad clip to get things going. It would seem we are using the "Talk-Test" to keep the pace under-control with lots of chit-chat in the group as we hit the road. With-in the first 5km we come to the first off-road section - a roughly 2km farmers track connecting two concession roads, and it's a good indicator of how the day is going to go. The bike set-up feels good and I do as well. We get a bit strung out through the section, but then re-group back on the pavement and off we go.

It would seem that despite some detailed maps, course knowledge, and a GPS unit, we somehow got off the course, but after a bit of a back track we are back on the route. It's turning into a nice day as the sun is shining and the temperature is warming up. There are six of us in the group and we either work a double pace-line on or single pace line on the paved and gravel sections and then it's just have-at-it on the trail sections. We are all evenly matched and working well together and we start to cover a fair amount of ground.

A tough section south of Gun Club Hill( dead-end of Kennedy Rd.) sees all of us off the bikes on a particularly technical and slippy section that would have been best on a MTB bike. Then two downed trees have to be bush-whacked around. Then straight out of the bush with sandy and dirty tires slipping all over the place we have to tackle the Gun Club Hill - the steepest and hardest hill on the whole route. It's a lung and quad buster. Mercifully it's short, but I am still struggling to keep the bike up-right as we come to the top - with the sounds of gun-shots in the back-ground from the Club!!

Heading north on Kennedy we see the support Van. They pull along side as we roll along, and tell us that they'll see us after the notorious Boag Road section. It's pronounced Bo - aag, but we just call it Bog Road. No matter how dry it's been, this section is always a swamp. It's the part I started talking about at the beginning. Actually, really cold weather, with the ground and water, frozen often makes this section easier. I survive the Bog and am feeling good. A quick stop to re-fuel and get some of the mud out of my brakes.

Then it is onto Sutton and the the off-road section that defines this ride - the dreaded abandoned rail line south of the town of Sutton. Just before entering the section we are alerted by the support Van of two things. The Fast Group is closing in on us, and there is a bridge out on the Hell Section and we'll have to take a bit of a detour. Onto the rough gravel we go and it's going not too bad. Of my three times over this section, it's in the best shape that I have ever seen it. The trick is finding the firmer less rough gravel and sand/dirt parts and following that groove along. Problem is, this may only last 100m and then you have to find the smoother surface again, so you tend to shift from side to side of the trail trying to find the best combination of smooth surface, traction and dryness. After a few Kilometers on the rail line a quick glance back and our worst fears are realized - the Fast Group is going to catch us. They have made great time.

We merge with them and for a time all 12 of us ride together, however the fast guys are going really fast over this rougher stuff - 30km/h at least. I am barely able to hang on. I dig in as I know the support van will be waiting at the end of the Rail Section and I can get a bit of a break. The faster pace does split the group and soon we are all strung out in two's and ones along the trail. This is when the pounding of 4 hours of riding on lousy surfaces starts to add up. My hands are getting sore, and so is my back. However, I must say that the R3 is an amazing machine and is the most comfortable road set-up for riding in this sort of stuff.

Not soon enough we swing back towards the road and off the Rail Section and there is the welcome sight of the support Van. We all take a bit of a break here to re-group, refuel and check the bikes over. The Fast Group does set off just about the time that I roll in. The reality about these sorts of stops on rides like this, is that you don't want to stop for too long otherwise you start to get chilled, stiff, and perhaps start to have some second thoughts about going on. The comfort and warmth of the support van is tempting. 90K done and 54 to go. Can I do it? I'm feeling OK. The good news is the worst of the rough stuff is over, we now have a slight tail wind and it's warmed up a bit. The bad news is that . . well . . . there is still 54K to go and it's reasonably hilly. After no more than 5 minutes off the bike, we are back in the saddle and heading south. Unfortunately, the group starts to break-up - some faster some slower. On rides like this I find rhythm is key - going slower than what feels like a good rhythm can actually feel worse. I forge on with one other rider and we work well together taking equal good pulls as we press-on.

Yes, the worst of the off road sections was over, but there were still two short, but tricky ones to go. One, in one of the York Region Forest Tracts that is almost all sand. This had me doing a fair amount of walk/running with the bike for nearly a kilometer and then another section further south from there that was only about 200m long but was a total quagmire. It looked like something out of a WWI in Europe - water and that sticky light brown battle-field mud everywhere. We make it through here, and then it's only about 10K to the finish from there - most of it on gravel roads.

I am really starting to hurt about now. Energy wise I am good. I have fueled myself well - but 6 hours on the bike is about 3 hours longer than I have been on the bike in a very long time. My riding partner and I continue to work well together over the final few K with good rotating pulls on the front. Honestly, I could not have ridden this final 50K this well without him. He admits to me the same. This is one of the things I really like about road riding - these ad-libbed partnerships that are formed out on the road in races or on training rides. You depend on each other to get to the finish.

And then we swing left onto the final stretch of road in Box Grove and into the parking lot where 6 hours earlier we had left at the first light of dawn. I am done and can barely get off the bike(Pic at top). A few whoop, whoops and it's pack things up and head home. I am bagged.

Many thanks to Rhys Spencer and Cary Moretti for driving the support van. We could not have done this with out you.

The R3 fared well. There were only a couple of places that the road bike with slightly wider tires(28 mm) was a bit of a liability. Check out the pic below. It would appear that I had some clearance issues but the front wheel was still turning freely despite the mud in there. If it had been wetter and more muddy, I might have had some problems and a true cross-bike would have been the better option. It is amazing how far you can push a regular road bike.



Awesome report Steve! Congrats on finishing such a challenging event. I hope the bike is OK?

Fleck said...

Larry - I good hosing down and some soap and water and the bike was good as new.

Rhys Spencer said...


Fleck said...

Rhys - you can't call yourself a serious Toronto cyclist until you have done this!