Posted by Miles Arbour
Cameron Dube, the organizer behind the Wendigo Ultra, describes it as “Canada’s only interprovincial fat bike ultramarathon,” starting from the Ottawa Valley’s Whitewater Region, crossing the Ottawa River into Quebec for a quick taste of the Cycloparc PPJ, before heading back to Ontario again. It’s a unique event, held in a special place that the locals are especially proud of. In the summer, a vast network of singletrack mountain bike trails brings in riders from all over Canada, and a good selection of those same trails are groomed for winter riding when the snow begins to fall.
This year, the event was offered in three distances: 50km, 100km, and 150km. We reached out to the winner of the 150km route, Benoit Simard, for a reflection on his ride. And Ottawa Valley local Paul Harding graciously supplied us with a selection of photos from the big day. Congrats to all participants and thank you to everyone involved in the planning of this year’s Wendigo Ultra.
Words by Benoit Simard
Voilà, c’est fait: the Wendigo Ultra 2019 is done and iced.
I was told about the Wendigo Fatbike Ultra a few weeks ago while riding with my friend Jerome on our freshly assembled Salsa Blackborrows. Jerome is an avid bike packing connoisseur, and he was preparing for that long distance fatbike ride north of Ottawa. Pedaling along, he was telling me about how he would set up is rig, which bags he would pick, and where the weight would be efficiently distributed in order to be as stable as possible. He got me hooked on the idea, and since I already had the perfect bike, I thought I might as well jump in the wagon!
Held in Cobden, a rural town located 100km northwest of Ottawa, this was the fourth edition of the Wendigo Fatbike Ultra. The Whitewater brew pub was the HQ for the event, and the owners opened early just for us and waited for all the riders to get home safe before locking up.
Caught in the hustle of life and work, I didn’t prepare much, but was fortunate enough to have connections for some of the best gear out there. The stock Salsa Blackborrow I was looking to ride was already equipped with a rack, and nothing seemed better suited for loading up all the love needed. Just needed an uber warm sleeping bag and a top quality mat, just in case…
I drove to Cobden in a wind storm via the Gatineau Park, entering the town at dusk, feeling like I’d entered no-man’s land. The atmosphere at the Whitewater Brewery changed that perception, though. Mandatory gear check was held there, and once in the hotel room on Friday evening, the howling and gusty wind made clear that it would not be a piece of cake to reach Le Cafe Art Brûlant, a randonneur-friendly coffee shop, for an espresso shot on Saturday.
The weeks leading to the event were filled with the best a real Canadian winter can do, (snow storms, freezing sub-20°C temperatures, and everything a penguin could hope for). However, three days prior the Wendigo, everything went south, and we saw the thermometer changing direction. That caused Muskrat Lake to slush itself inside out: snowmobiles were getting stuck in a two-foot deep of a mix of water and snow. The final take of this sudden weather change made it impossible to keep the original course safe, even with the forecasted -20°C on Saturday morning. As an events manager, I know the challenge of running a winter event. Cameron and the crew had to turn around quickly, and with the permission of the local snowmobile association, we were set to ride to Shawville, Quebec, in parallel to Muskrat Lake on the Algonquin Trail.
Showing up at 6:45 am for the pre-race meeting, it was good to peek at everybody’s bike set ups. I was almost surprised that there weren’t more party wagons like the ones Jerome and I were riding. Cam’s instructions were short and sweet: be careful, be polite, and you’re on your own. After a quick oatmeal and an orange, it was show time. The controlled start brought us to the trail we would ride on for most of the day. Overnight, the heavy and steady wind caused lots of snow banks to spill across the freshly groomed track. The ground was mostly solid and crusty, but when going through the massive snow accumulation, it was hard to keep the bike straight. For those who think that snowmobile trails are good for riding, let me offer an alternative viewpoint. The issue is that the track paddles churn the snow and make it loose. So, whenever we were passed by a sled and rode in its wake, the going would get super hard and slow. The idea is to spot the track left by the skis, and stick to it as long as possible. Stabilization and balance are required.
So, off we go. There’s ten of us for the long ride, I was expecting that we would ride grouped for a while since we had a very strong headwind to fight with. The snowbanks making it hard to pass by, I took the leading role. The big boy was going through the snowbanks like a breeze, kind of. The long wheelbase made it super stable. It was only after a few minutes that I realized I was already alone, way ahead of the bunch. Since I came to Cobden with no performance objective other than completing the whole thing with a smile, I wasn’t sure it was a good thing.
Not long after that, Adam passed by. We chatted a bit, but he then hammered away, opening a good gap. I tried to follow a few moments, but true to my “break no sweat” motto, I decided it was too soon (and too cold) to risk getting wet, and sat down, going back to contemplating nature. The early sunrise, ice fields, and the incessant wind made the surroundings particularly amazing and wild, despite riding parallel to the highway.
As I lost sight of Adam, another rider passed by like an arrow, clearly on a mission. We still had a strong headwind, and were now riding on a hardpacked iced surface, on the side of the trail. The occasion was too good not to take advantage, and I jumped onto his wheel. After a few minutes, we rounded a corner and were flying with the wind. Grahame was turning his legs like eggbeaters, hitting 25-28 km/h for some time. I hung until the first checkpoint, where I stopped for a chat. Grahame didn’t take time to say hi, and continued speeding ahead.
After a sip of Coureur des Bois, I clicked into my pedals and went back to meditation mode, enjoying the scenery and the solitude. The landscape was beautiful. A few farms here and there, the river further down. As I crossed a long bridge over the Ottawa River, the sun was high, and so was my spirit. Things went smoothly, and this segment was covered by heavy snow. Judging by the traces left by the leaders, I was the only one able to ride in those banks. I saw they had some difficulties, but personally and felt like a fish in water on the Blackborrow.
I caught up to the two speedy rabbits around the 60km checkpoint. I first passed Adam, who was readjusting some layers as the temperature had risen around -8°C. Shortly after, Grahame was in sight. We continued together as we reached the dirt road that led us to Shawville. It was 7km of an ice rink roller coaster. We were now fighting a side wind and the rollers, which made up most of the day’s elevation. At this point, both of us were looking for the church bell, as in Québec the saying say that, “If you don’t see a church, you’re not in a village yet.”
Once we’d seen Shawville’s church bell, we made our way to Le Cafe Art Brûlant. There, we were welcomed by the owner Raymond, a local cycling advocate. We were warmly invited to get in for an espresso. I quickly spotted Raymond’s coffeeneuring badge. The man is a coffeeneur, classy! We took advantage of the cozy place for a quick change of socks, warming up some toes and stretching. After 15 minutes or so, we got outside for the second part of the day. Thanks, Raymond, for the pit stop!
While taking turns on the ice road to save some gas, it was clear that Adam was tired from the earlier efforts. Once we got back to the trail, the wind was pushing us backward. The crusty surface made it twice as hard to move ahead, and we faced countless meters of littles challenges before we could hope for a tail wind. I knew this could be long, so holding on my “if you’re sweating, you’re speeding” motto, I kept some for later. We crossed paths with my buddy Jerome, still on his way to Shawville, and I stopped to inquire about how he was doing. What started as a trio melted to a duo, as we lost Adam on the way. The trail was really challenging now, but at this point, it was clear that I had the best bike for what was coming.
At the morning meeting, Cameron and a few veterans were joking about pre-ordering burgers and poutine for those who were thinking of not finishing before 10:00 pm, the hour at which they stopped making food at the brewery. The thought of the poutine got me from km 125 to the finish. Grahame and I encountered some massive snowbanks and it created a gap between the two of us. Around 40km from the finish line, I forgot about the no sweating rule and went for it. Lost between racing or not, wondering if the wind would stop and how salty the poutine would be, my mind wandered as my knees were starting to feel the grind.
The last hour lasted at least an hour and a half, but things went smooth and I only needed to use the light for the last 45 minutes. As the sun went down for a well-deserved break, leaving starts to dance across the sky, I saw a red flashing light indicating the last turn of the journey. Back at the brewery, Cameron gave us a hug and our finisher magnet. I ordered some chicken fingers and a poutine, along with a tasty Hopplehammer, and savoured the moment with great people, wondering what could be optimized on my rig for next year.
The Wendigo Fatbike Ultra is not for everyone. As we say in French, “C’est pas pour les doux,” but I guess that’s why we take on such challenges, to prove we’re not soft. Of course, there’s always the 50k and the 100k for those that aren’t as insane. I even tried to grow something that looked like a beard the week prior, but it was no match with my fellow riders’ crazy manes, but I guess you can’t win ’em all.
Farewell Wendigo Ultra, see ya next year!
Cameron Dube would like to thank Whitewater Brewing Co. for stepping up as the start / finish location for the event. Also, Wolf Tooth Components, Otso Cycles, and Endura for supporting the event. The event would not be possible without the volunteers, Tim and Sara Ward, Paul Harding, and Matt Hamilton.