A Total Newbie Rides the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour

Go here for the 2003 experience.

By Markus Wandel, with pictures by Andrew Lavigne and Markus Wandel

Here are a first-time rider's impressions of the RLCT.

This ride was done together with my friends Andrew, Lorraine, and my sister Johanna, who came up from Guelph to do it. It was her first tour too. Andrew and Lorraine had done it the previous year on a tandem bike.

Past History

It had been bugging me for years. Here was I, who could ride 100km if I really pushed myself, and let myself recover for several days afterward, and there was everyone else who could ride the 354km Rideau Lakes Tour and nonchalantly say it was no big deal. How could it be that they could bike so much farther than I could?

Gradually, through many hiking expeditions, I learned that endurance is not just a matter of pacing, but also of eating and drinking, before you actually get hungry, during the activity. If you don't do this, you will, at best, become exhausted too soon, at worst suffer the dreaded "bonk", which makes you weak and dizzy and dead exhausted even after you've eaten and drunk again. With proper eating and drinking, a reasonably strenuous activity can be carried out for 10 hours or more at a time.

By summer 2001 I was up to biking from my home in Kanata to Champlain Lookout in the Gatineau Hills and back (85km round trip) and had once completed a "century" - that is, a 100 mile (161km) loop. Then Lorraine called up one day and challenged me to ride to Kingston. We could ride the 177km one way, and get picked up by Andrew and his friend Luke, who were returning from a day racing at Shannonville with two cars. I agreed to try it. We rode the "cruise" route of the RLCT by following a GPS track previously recorded by Andrew when riding the RLCT that year. This allowed us to bike steadily without dismounting at every road junction to consult a map. I even added to the challenge by first biking from Kanata to the meeting place, and then some more in Kingston, sightseeing, to rack up a total of 209km for the day. And I could still walk. I decided then and there that I was now ready for the RLCT.


It costs $100 for OBC nonmembers to register for the RLCT. This includes tour support, a t-shirt, and accommodation and food in Kingston. All in all not a bad deal. We sent in our registrations as soon as we heard that they were being accepted - in February. Later Johanna also decided to join.

The sort of bicycle I ride is a far cry from the average bicycle ridden by RLCT participants. I had bought my heavy but reliable Schwinn road bike for $55 secondhand some years before and ridden it for thousands of kilometers, so I saw no reason not to use it for the tour. However, breakdowns were undesirable, so I spent quite a bit of time overhauling and replacing things. In the end I had a new rear wheel and tire, rear brakes, front bearing balls and cones, sprocket cluster, chain, shifter cables and housings, pedals, handlebar tape and computer. I also cleaned and oiled and greased and adjusted everything, removed or tightened loose rattly bits and tested until the bike ran smooth as silk and quietly. The only thing still wrong was the bottom bracket ran rough, I thought new bearing balls were in order, but in the past when messing around in that area I sometimes didn't get it tight enough afterward and it would work loose while riding, so I left it. Other than some bearing noise it was no problem.

The most important preparation is training. You need "bum time" on your bike seat so you can handle sitting on it for up to 10 hours. You need physical fitness. The tour materials recommend a minimum of 1000km of cycling in the spring prior to the tour. I took this very seriously. It's a 20km round trip to work every day, plus I'd head into the Gatineaus with Andrew or Lorraine or my colleague Norm after work sometimes, ride errands downtown and elsewhere on my bike, and the Sunday before the tour I did something tougher than one leg of the tour: From home into the Gatineaus, two loops in the hills on the parkway, then bail out at Notch Road, up the Chemin de la Montagne to highway 148, then to Quyon (in a wicked headwind), cross the ferry and ride home to Kanata (in a tailwind). Total exactly 100 miles with lots of wind and elevation. It took me several days to recover from that. With one more ride to work during the week, I racked up exactly 2000km. I was ready.

Meanwhile I found I was not registered for the tour! Canada Post had lost my application and I had not received a confirmation letter. People had said not to worry about it, just show up, but I called to make sure, and Rosmarie at the OBC said no, I was not registered, and all she could do is put me on the waiting list. But she called me the next day and said I was in, special consideration because I was riding with friends and sister. I did have to pay the extra $15 latecomer's fee.

Here are the materials that were mailed to me. Note that the specifics can and likely will change slightly from year to year, so do not take this as gospel for future tours. However, there is information here that you can't find on the OBC web site.

Confirmation Letter Info Sheet 1 Info Sheet 2 Info Sheet 3 Info Sheet 4

One last preparation: On Friday evening just before the tour, we met to consume a huge quantity of salad, spaghetti, meatballs and dessert. We stuffed ourselves to just short of the point of pain. It is said that this sort of "Carbo Loading" gives you more endurance the next day when all those calories have been digested and made ready for use.

For provisions, people pack anything from a pannier bag to a handlebar bag to just their jersey pockets. I never pack light and I always wear a knapsack, even on a bike, so I decided to take along an extra 1.7L of drinkables (beyond my two water bottles), about 10 granola bars, three salami-and-cheese sandwiches, long nylon pants and Gore-tex shell in case of bad weather, a steel cable and padlock in case I needed to lock up my bike, repair kit and pump, camera, spare batteries for the camera and my GPS receiver, and a bunch of film containers and zip-loc baggies full of pre-measured quantitites of drink mixes. This was too much. For the return trip, I emptied the extra bottles and sent the lock back in the overnight bag. With about a million dollars' worth of fancy bikes all around, it would have been ludicrous to lock up my old clunker.

The Weather

When you pay $100 to register for an outdoor activity, months in advance, you take your chances with the weather. The Rideau Lakes Tour has been "blessed" with all kinds of weather over the years. Relatively speaking we were lucky...

Ottawa Weather Forecast Kingston Weather Forecast

What wasn't so nice was the wind forecast (which was accurate) - southwest on Saturday (i.e. headwind) and stiff northwest on Sunday (i.e. crosswind). As for how it turned out - cloudy grey all the way on Saturday with the odd sprinkle of rain, and very nice and sunny on Sunday, with temperature just barely warm enough for shorts and t-shirt on Saturday if you kept moving, and still comfortably cool on Sunday because of the wind.

Ottawa to Kingston

My end-to-end average speed for long rides, cycling alone, including all breaks, had always been around 17-18km/h. So I figured on budgeting 10 hours for the ride to Kingston, plus possible delays such as flat tire repairs. The registration materials said that registration for the "Classic" route opens at 7AM. I figured with over a thousand riders registered, there would be long lineups, so we agreed to meet at the start point at 6:30AM, to get going as early as possible. It turned out that lots of people were already there, and there were no lineups, and nobody cared whether you were a "Challenge Route" rider (for whom the registration starts at 6:30AM) or not.

Johanna, all set to go Markus, still in warmup clothing, but not for long! Registration at Carleton University Registration at Carleton University Registration at Carleton University Registration at Carleton University

At registration, they give you a "bib" - a large number label made of a tough fibrous paper - and four safety pins to attach it with, plus a baggage tag with the same number to attach to your overnight bag, plus maps and cue sheet. You can see these here:

Maps Cue Sheet

You really only need this for emergencies, because the route itself is labelled with signs, plus there are so many riders that you can usually see where everyone is going anyway.

Andrew, Markus, Johanna and Lorraine, just before the start We started the ride in headwind, so we fell in behind some people who were riding at a speed comfortable for us to save effort. After 25km or so, Andrew and I offered to take the lead and did so until the first rest stop. It was quickly obvious that riding directly behind another rider (no more than one foot separation between your front wheel and the leader's rear wheel, and directly aligned) gains you about 4km/h in speed at the same effort level, which translates to quite a lot of power savings - something like 30-50% depending on the speed! And that's only behind one rider. When a large pack of serious cyclists - the types with matched jerseys riding in perfect formation - blew by, we almost felt sucked along, but they were so much faster that there wasn't much temptation to fall in behind them. Besides it's considered impolite to do that, even though it doesn't actually rob them of any power.

So we made it to Ashton in fine form. After a week of relaxing my muscles, and now getting them warmed up in this way, I felt great, literally like I could jump over the moon! After our rest stop, when we set out again, one of the folks we were riding with told us about how it's done: You ride in a "double pace line" - an arrangement two riders wide by however many long - and at the discretion of the leaders, you rotate new leaders into position, by the right column falling back one position, the front left rider moving to front right, and then the left column advancing by one. This way everyone does their turn at the front, and yet has the option to abort their turn early if they don't feel up to leading for very long.

We discover formation riding.  Photographed by Andrew exactly at Lycra-clad bum level! It worked! Our group grew to about 10 people. Our formation wasn't perfect, not like those serious cyclists whose pelotons still blew by us, their formation so fine that they could have been joined with struts. But now we often passed single riders or small clusters of riders at a similarly impressive passing speed and it felt great. Occasionally one of them would join us, and of course the bigger your pack gets the easier it gets for everyone. It is the most perfect example of symbiotic teamwork I've ever encountered. Too bad so few people bicycle this seriously, because it would be the perfect "team building exercise", the sort that management gurus are always inventing. The other thing about a double pace line is that the person next to you always changes, so it's a nice social activity too.

Rest stop in Perth.  Lorraine and the couple we rode with all the way to Kingston Johanna helping herself to the free drinks in Perth Rest stop in Perth Rest stop in Perth Rest stop in Perth Rest stop in Perth Mike Plummer, bike mechanic extraordinaire, provides mechanical support Mike hard at work Our group in Perth

We had initially worried that Johanna might be too slow and would have to join a slower group. She had done far less training than the rest of us and was riding a mountain bike besides. But she was doing fine, and once she realized she was strong enough to stay with us she got right into it and led with as much gusto, when her turn came, as anyone!

One thing that wasn't so nice was the interaction with cars, on those segments that were on busier roads. Some drivers swear at cyclists, like "Get off the f**ing Road!" as they blow by, regardless how well behaved the cyclist is. Those are the jerks. But we saw mostly well-behaved drivers, the kind who slow down and pass carefully. On the other hand some of the cyclists weren't so good. When you're blocking traffic you should really tighten up or even fall into a single line to let the cars by. Many groups didn't do so at all and cars had to pass them at their peril. No wonder some drivers get mad. I didn't see any correlation between how serious the cyclists looked (i.e. small groups on clunky bikes versus large fast groups with matched jerseys) and how likely they were to move out of the way for cars.

We had grey weather and occasional light drizzle all the way. The ride went fine though. In Westport there is a very steep drop as you enter town from the north, where I noticed 67km/h on my speedometer. In the Gatineaus, on much longer descents, I only ever get about 62km/h maximum. By the North Crosby rest stop, just past Westport, I started feeling a bit run down so I made sure to eat and drink well. It worked! I got a second wind and fairly blew to the next rest stop at Perth Road Village, often riding ahead of the group, which had kind of broken up, or even with a faster group. Poor Andrew had to stop at one point to pick up something he had dropped, and the separation from the group, which would not stop to wait for him, took 20 minutes to make good again, and only by him attaching himself to a faster group until that group caught up to us.

Well hello to you too! Drinking the power elixir at the store in Perth Road Village

At the last rest stop, I was worried that my second wind would not last to the finish, and besides there would be more hills to Kingston. I made use of my secret weapon: Ingestion of almost a litre of chocolate milk bought at the store there. This often gives me a power boost. And sure enough the second wind lasted, and it wasn't very hilly either. We got to Kingston without any problems to speak of.

Uh oh! In Kingston, we were just about 900m from the finish (according to Andrew's GPS) when something gave way under my butt. We stopped at a traffic light and I checked. Uh oh. One of the metal rods comprising the supporting structure of my bike seat had broken. The seat was no longer functional and could not be repaired! So after completing the arrival formalities (get room key, put bike in room, pick up overnight bag, etc) Andrew and I zoomed off to a bike store (I on Johanna's bike), with half an hour before it closed.

So this is the seat everyone says I should have At the bike store, they had the "Body Geometry" bike seats that Andrew, Lorraine and Johanna all use and swear by. So I dithered a bit between a super-comfortable wide seat with springs ($30) and this modern marvel ($40) and decided to try it. It sure didn't feel comfortable on either Johanna's bike or Andrew's, but that was supposed to go away quickly. I had to borrow a wrench from the mechanic van to install and adjust the seat.

After that was done, I took a hot bath, because heat is supposed to break down or otherwise reduce the lactic acid that makes muscles sore, and I still needed my leg muscles for tomorrow! Also I had taken a fair bit of Ibuprofen, of which Johanna had a whole film container full along, and it had certainly seemed to help against sore wrists and possibly sore leg muscles, although that may be imagination. Anyway thus doped and bathed up, I figured I'd done all I could to ensure survival tomorrow.

Packed cafeteria With Lorraine's friends Rob and Tamsin Next, off to the dreaded dinner lineup. I'd heard and read about how bad that can get, but in the end we were in line for less than 15 minutes. Dinner consisted of Penne pasta with marinara sauce, Turkey a la King on rice, various vegetarian fare, other pasta stuff, and all the bread, drinkables, salad, soup you can imagine, and desserts and ice cream too, and you could eat as much as you wanted. The hall was packed, but the picnic tables outside were free, and we dug in. I ate a heaping plate (like 3" high) of main dishes, plus soup, about 3 trips to the dessert table and many glasses of drinkables. This amount of dinner on any other day would make me sick, but it went down great! They had ice cream, but the others all pooh-poohed the idea of eating cafeteria ice cream and so we went to a gourmet ice cream parlour in town. I wasn't too keen on the 2km walk each way.

Thus the evening was spent, and as soon as it was dark we hit the sack.

Summary of the day's ride

We took 8 hours and 45 minutes to do the 177.4km, for an end-to-end speed of 20.3km/h. We spent one hour and 39 minutes at rest stops, for an actual moving average of 25km/h.

7:08Depart Carleton University39.325.4
8:41Arrive Ashton
8:56Depart Ashton39.226.4
10:25Arrive Perth
11:02Depart Perth45.924.4
12:55Arrive North Crosby
13:23Depart North Crosby25.525.9
14:22Arrive Perth Road Village
14:41Depart Perth Road Village27.522.9
15:53Arrive Queens University

Kingston to Ottawa

I'm a terrible sleeper. Even at home in perfect circumstances, I only sleep about 1.5 hours at a time and have trouble going back to sleep each time. On the road, or with worked-up muscles, I often get very little sleep unless I'm already running a sleep deficit from previous nights. Considering all that I didn't do too bad, probably about 5-6 hours of actual sleep. Anyway I was up at 5AM.

What do you do for breakfast after an enormous 2500 calorie (pure guess) dinner the night before? Why you stuff yourself of course! Scrambled eggs, ham, toast, cereal, milk, orange juice, down the hatch! Stuffed again just short of the point of pain!

Checkout in Kingston Johanna, all set Crowds at Queens University, ready for departure Crowds at Queens University, ready for departure Crowds at Queens University, ready for departure Getting going

We got rolling at 7:19AM. The legs felt funny, not sore but certainly I thought I'd rather not be biking anywhere if I didn't have to. But that was an illusion. They worked fine. We fairly blasted off into the hills north of Kingston. It was a lovely sunny day with not too much wind initially. And the scenery between Kingston and Westport, where you really do cruise visibly through the Rideau Lakes, is very pretty.

Rolling hills outside Kingston, lovely morning Rest stop at Perth Road Village Rest stop at Perth Road Village Rest stop at Perth Road Village

Fairly early on, a couple of guys named Ken and Julio joined us and stuck with us all the way to Ottawa, so there was generally six of us riding in double file. We occasionally picked up, but didn't keep, additional people. Once we had three of them who were very strong and set a wonderful pace when in front, but eventually they peeled off and went with a faster group.

What wasn't so good was this new bike seat. It wasn't comfortable and it didn't get better, it got worse! Whose ever body geometry it was designed for certainly didn't match my body geometry. Rest stops helped a bit, but generally it was pain, especially when riding in formation, where you can't burst some speed and then cruise standing up in the pedals; instead you have to sit down and pedal evenly and smoothly. And formation riding was necessary because after we got out of the hills around Westport we were in open country and the wind (a northwest crosswind) was strong enough to raise whitecaps on a lake we passed. I was just about ready to tear a strip off the next person who dares advise me on bike seats. Well duh. They say don't change anything major on your bike before a big ride, and never, never the seat! Actually, modern plastic/foam bike seats don't "break in" anyway, it's your bum that has to break in to the seat.

Between the seat malady and general tiredness of yet more granola bars and drinks (either sweet stuff which is not good, or Gatorade which is good for you but I don't like the taste much) and thus slight dehydration, I was pretty run down by the time we approached Ashton and counting every kilometre until the blessed rest stop.

At the gas station in Westport At the gas station in Westport At the gas station in Westport Johanna and Ken climbing the Westport hill Lorraine climbing the Westport hill Julio climbing the Westport hill Rest stop in Perth Rest stop in Perth Rest stop in Perth Rest stop in Perth Rest stop in Perth Rest stop in Perth Rest stop in Perth Rest stop in Perth

At Ashton, I had a 500ml chocolate milk (power boost for the home stretch!) and also a hot dog with mustard. Somehow these things helped bring forth the blessed second wind. After Ashton I felt strong, and the more my butt bothered me the more I'd ride hard, to get off the bike sooner and to distract myself. I tried to get as many and as long turns in front as they'd let me have, and when they said I was too fast I started using too high a gear to slow myself down!! The second wind lasted all the way to Ottawa! Let the headwind come! Let the hills come! In a grim way I was enjoying attacking them with all I had left, knowing that once I get off that bike at Carleton University I don't care if I get so sore that I can't walk tomorrow.

We made it!  Victory picture! When we arrived at 4:44pm, I looked at the overnight bag pickup area, and arbitrarily estimated that about 75-80% of the riders had already come in before us, just based on how many bags there were. Who cares, we made it! And as soon as I got off the bike seat I basically felt fine. Now it was time for the high-fives, the victory group photo at the finish sign, the overpriced sausage-on-a-bun from the university pub. Really, the ride back was good. For me, if I'd had my original seat it would have been enjoyable, and if we hadn't had any wind, or better yet a fair wind (i.e. southwest like on the first day, i.e. a tailwind) it would have been a walk in the park.

How were the others doing? Well, Andrew didn't have his customary inexhaustible power because one of his knees was bothering him. Johanna and Lorraine appeared unfazed during the ride but claimed afterward that it was really tough for them. Anyway we all did this together!

Summary of the day's ride

We took 9 hours and 25 minutes to do the return trip, for an end-to-end average speed of 18.8km/h. We spent one hour and 49 minutes at rest stops, for an actual moving average of 23.3km/h.

7:19Depart Queens University27.522.0
8:34Arrive Perth Road Village
8:55Depart Perth Road Village25.527.3
9:51Arrive North Crosby
10:01Depart North Crosby1.624.0
10:05Arrive Westport (gas station)
10:16Depart Westport (gas station)44.324.2
12:06Arrive Perth
12:50Depart Perth39.222.6
14:34Arrive Ashton
15:07Depart Ashton39.324.3
16:44Arrive Carleton University

And Then...

Well, I've got my certificate, see it here:

RLCT completion certificate

Refueling with fried rice and other goodies And a nice t-shirt with the same logo as on the certificate, and then we went out to stuff ourselves first with stuff from the BBQ at the finish, then downtown for gelato, then with a high calorie meal at a Chinese restaurant. Andrew said we wouldn't be able to finish the huge portions of fried rice, noodles etc. but we polished them off clean.

I'd only taken a couple of Ibuprofens in the morning, and no hot bath, and I did have some lactic acid type soreness in my major leg muscles on Monday morning. But nothing too bad. By Wednesday I felt at full strength again, but hadn't yet gathered the courage to sit on that dreaded bike seat.

All the Pictures

Carbo Load Dinner, Friday Evening
Kingston, Saturday Evening
After the Tour, Sunday Evening


The 2003 Tour
The OBC's Rideau Lakes Tour page
Johanna's side of the story
Andrew's RLCT2002 page
Andrew's RLCT2001 page
Markus's various bikes
Markus's home page