Mere Mortals on the BT700
Photographer Martin Lortz and a group of intergenerational friends recently took on the 2021 BT700 bikepacking event in Southwestern Ontario, pedaling through some 760 kilometers of rolling landscapes. Find his story of experiencing highs, lows, and Canadian hospitality here…
Words and photos by Martin Lortz (@lortzphoto)
Every time I move, a different part of my body threatens to cramp up. I wonder why? Perhaps a day spent aboard a loaded gravel bike along terrain worthy of mountain bikes, ATVs, or hiking boots has something to do with it.
Good morning, day four of our BT700 adventure, what do you have for us today? Like every morning, we’re greeted with the social media buzz of other riders’ accomplishments. Today it’s all about Daniel Horn and his superhuman abilities, finishing the 760-kilometre BT700 route in a mind-boggling 40.5 hours. One thing’s for sure, there will be no buzz about our group of four on the interweb—we’re all mere mortals.
Four decades span our groups’ birthdates. Timothy, at the ripe age of sixteen, is back for his second go-around, Dan and Chris can justify the experience as a mid-life crisis if need be, and as for me, somebody has to keep an eye on the youngsters. For all of us, rides that stretch into triple digits, be it in length or vertically, are limited by life’s allowances of work and responsibility. So, records will be set this week to be sure, but of the personal kind, as each day pushes us to new limits. Now, I just need to find a way to crawl out of this cocoon of a one-person tent without getting hurt.
Our BT700 journey begins on June 20th, the longest day of the year, in the picturesque town of St. Jacob, Ontario. Photos are snapped against the backdrop of a red tractor as a steady stream of loaded bikes and riders pedal into the countryside. The third annual BT700 grand depart is well on its way, reduced to a trickle by COVID restrictions, but the vibe is all smiles.
Affected by the distance they’re coming from and last-minute formalities, half of our group is running late, so Chris and I opt to depart together. Dan and Timothy will catch up at tonight’s campsite. The first part of day one plays out as expected; beautiful farmland and gravel roads shared with a steady stream of Mennonite horses and buggies.
Hmm, that’s strange. Ninety-five kilometres into our day, nausea starts to swirl in my stomach. I blame it on poor nutrition management, early and small breakfast, no lunch, a few energy bars on the go, and now, drinking sun-warmed water. Whatever the reason, the final couple of hours are about to become much less enjoyable. The rushing cold spring water at the tap in Mildmay Rotary Park seems like the solution to my problem, but whatever water I ingest is shortly returned to the ground in a scene worthy of a college frat party movie, followed by a core workout of dry heaves. This pattern of drink and throw-up repeats itself for the next hour until a can of Coke stays down and begins my trip toward recovery. A steady flow of juice, pop, Gatorade, and sub sandwich has me back to normal by bedtime.
Day two, kudos to the staff at Saugeen Riverbank Campground, who went above and beyond taking care of us, providing chairs and ways to charge our electronics. So appreciated. Dan and Timothy arrive in the dark, and after a good rest, we’re ready to roll.
Again, the morning has us smiling as we make good time along rail trails and a super fun section of singletrack. After lunch, here we go again. The sky darkens, giant raindrops explode against the pavement, and the wind howls, forcing a tight grip on the bars and quick action to cover what can’t get wet. As fast as it arrived, the rain and dark clouds are gone, but the wind is here to stay. A steady 35km/h head or crosswind, often gusting to over 50km/h, slows our progress to where even going downhill requires effort. On the positive, the views of the beaches and the blue water of Lake Huron offer visual candy for the mind. It’s 6 p.m. when we reach Southhampton. The pretty beach town looks deserted as the wind continued to rage and the temperature falls. Hungry, cold, and tired, we revisit the day’s plan, adjust our objective, and roll the bikes into the nearest hotel room.
Day three, no wind, sun shining but still on the cool side with the temperature in the low teens. Well-rested, the spring is back in our legs as the kilometres pass at a satisfying rate. Butter tarts at the general store in Shallow Lake provide the fuel for the run into Owensound, where The Casero Kitchen Table reenergizes us with some delicious Mexican food. Unfortunately, to get us back on track, we have to skip the new northern section added to the BT700 this year. Renaming our effort to the BT700 classic, we roll on.
Stops by Inglis Falls and the Coffin Ridge Boutique Winery make us feel like tourists, and the afternoon of ups and downs along gravel roads and trails is everything it should be but perhaps a bit uneventfully dull in comparison to the days before. We set up camp in the lakeside town of Meaford and top the day off with a sunset over the Georgian Bay. A good day had by all.
So here we are, day four. Welcome to Ontario’s Blue Mountains. Feeling the effort of the past three days, we linger around camp longer than we should. A good stretch of rail trail offers a warm-up before we turn for the hills. The road points up in an intimidating fashion as we depart the town of Thornbury and the shore of Georgian Bay. But before we have a chance to break a sweat, Chris’s pedal disintegrates, and we roll back into town to deal with our only mechanical all week. Attempt number two is successful, and the day plays out as expected. What goes up must come down as we bob through back roads, hills, trails, and water crossings. By the time we roll into the Eagle Adventures Camp for the night, all feeling good, the day’s effort proves to be the biggest of our cycling life: 111 kilometres with 1,334 metres of elevation gain.
Day five was always going to be the toughest of the trip. Perhaps we spent too much time thinking and talking about it beforehand, hence the look of doom on our faces as we tick off 1,000 metres of elevation 30 kilometres into the day with much more to come. But grind on we did with the uphills cresting 2,000 metres by day’s end. Let me tell you; it’s no easy task getting my nearly 300-pound package of bike, gear, and body up and over all those hills. On the positive side, the hospitality, food, and drink at the Duntroon Highlands Golf Club did wonders about raising our spirits, as did the downhill blast through the trails at Mono Cliffs Provincial Park at day’s end, despite tired body and fading light.
Then there are the aid stations and hosts. These are locations where you can refuel or spend the night in people’s backyards along the route. Our hosts tonight are Craig and Linda; not only did we find an array of energy snacks and cold Rally beers in the cooler, but they fed us pasta and salad, shared laughs around the campfire, and, of course, offered a place to pitch our tents. Simply the best, thank you.
Day six, 150 kilometres to the finish. On paper, that distance and today’s expectations are within our abilities; going for it is the conversation around breakfast. But first, there are still hills to tackle and some of the best downhill and flowy singletrack of the trip to enjoy. The next aid station is at the residence of local cycling legend Sarah Caylor. Her pep talk of how the remaining 120 kilometres are almost a walk in the park made us believers, but before we had a chance to throw a leg over a bike, the rain started, and things went downhill from there.
When I say downhill, I don’t mean the kind of downhill that helps you cover distance but the type that turns a rail trail that’s supposed to be our fast lane to the finish into a quagmire of energy and speed-sapping glue. Wet, cold, and frazzled by the grinding noise of brake rotors full of grit, we revert to plan A and step into the lobby of the Breadalbane Inn in Fergus, looking a mess. Like so many helpful people along the way, the staff jumps into action. Bikes and bodies are hosed down outside, and dinners and drinks are ordered before the kitchen closes for the night.
In the morning, with only 42 kilometres to go, our final day feels more like a recovery spin than any of the challenges of the last few days. The rain finally let up around 11 a.m., allowing us to enjoy the ride and finish dry. Feelings are surprisingly neutral about the whole thing; sad it’s over but happy about the same. The conversation revolves around the next time, how would we do it differently, would we even do it again. The inner force that got us up all those hills vows, next time, will be faster. But there is something to be said about more time. Time to enjoy everything the route offers, beaches, wine, beer, food, a chance to sit back and take in the scenery; maybe a 10-day BT700 crawl is the best approach.
For now, back in St. Jacobs, photos are snapped, butter tarts enjoyed, and the sound of clinking beer glasses mark the end of this adventure. Till next time, BT700, thanks for the good times!
About Martin Lortz
Martin Lortz is a Toronto-based freelance photographer/writer specializing in outdoor adventure. These days, spends most of his time showcasing outdoor adventure opportunities in his home province of Ontario and beyond. Long time mountain biker and recent gravel/bikepacking convert, cycling for interest and work are happily becoming a more significant part of life. Find more of his work on at LortzPhoto.com and on Instagram @lortzphoto.
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