For Women only, Duh' - the GT Grade goes Bike Camping
There is a certain satisfaction to rolling out of your front door, steering everything you need in a few tidy little packets. In my case, that roster consists of a tent, alcohol stove, a few changes of bike clothes and a stick of lipstick for any city nights, all strapped down to my newly outfitted GT Grade.
The bike is designed for all-including road riding, with a light alloy frame and double chain ring geared to be speedier than most dedicated touring bikes, and plenty of clearance for CX or gravel road tires. The limited number of braze-ons required some ingenuity when hooking up racks, but I managed to fasten my well-worn front rack and handlebar bag brimming with snacks to the front fender mount, and a cleverly designed Blackburn rear rack which could accommodate disc brakes and fasten securely to the bike’s sleek frame. I built up a snazzy front wheel with a dynamo hub which could charge my phone and lights with pedal power, and switched out the stock pedals and saddle with a pair of crankbrother eggbeaters and a well worn Brooks saddle. The end result was a bike that was geared to speed along country highways but was solid enough to take on gravel roads and rutted out trails.
I had plenty of opportunities to test out both of these strengths over the next 800 miles, on a trip that highlighted so many of the aspects I love about cycling. The route was so simple, even an obstinate German two year old could follow it; From New York City, follow Bicycle Route Nine North along the Nine W, cross the Hudson to get on the Nine G, then merge onto the Nine. Follow that to Albany where you can rejoin Bicycle Route Nine, take the Nine N along the shores of Lake George to Lake Champlain, which then connects to the Lake Champlain Bike route system and the Quebecoise ‘Route Verte’ Network.
I rolled out of Brooklyn with 6 of the ladies from FWOD Brooklyn (‘For Women only, Duh’ or ‘Friends Without Drama’, among other titles.), a chill social Tuesday ride for female, trans and GNC folks.
Riding with this group was my introduction to the New York cycling scene, and has spawned friendships which have allowed me to grow into a competitive track racer as well as inspiring many adventures. FWOD has recently started up chapters in Montreal and Toronto, and through connecting these dots with a series of signed bike routes and rails to trails paths, I was able to chart out a very enjoyable tour.
On the first day, we rolled north along the Hudson River Greenway to the South County and then North County Trails. These multi use paths make the best use of a former freight line right-of-way, providing a thin barrier of trees between cyclists and the traffic flowing into NYC. The path winds through old railway tunnels and past a damn fine brewery before dropping you off in the quaint town of Carmel.
From there, a steep climb takes you out of suburbia and into the forests of Clarence Fahenstock State Park, where we set up camp at a secluded site surrounded by old growth pine forests and bordered by the Appalachian trail and a deep, cold lake.
After a 73 mile ride, it was a relief to meet up with another friend from FWOD who had opted to drive up the mountain with a car loaded with cold beers, veggie dogs and various grill-able delights. We enjoyed an evening around the campfire, and enjoyed rolling into our tents for some well deserved rest at least as much.
The next day, the rest of the squad rolled back down hill and caught a train back into the city from the Cold Springs station, while I continued north along New York State Bicycle route 9 to Albany, where I met up with my dad. After several decades of bike commuting and longer, supported rides, I had convinced him to try out self supported touring at the tender age of 70. He loaded up his old commuter with the one pannier that was in stock at REI, and strapped some camping gear on the side with a high performance system of bungee cords and carabineers (don’t worry, he’s an engineer!) and flew up to Albany. We made sure to leave an extra tip for the unlucky maid who would have to clean up the extra dirt and bike grease we had left behind after reassembling his bike, and continued north.
Day 4 of my tour took us further north along the Hudson, well into the rust belt. Many of the regions deserted freight lines have been converted into pleasant bike paths. These connect towns with names like ‘Mechanicsville’ and ‘Victory’ with lush greenways that follow outdated canals now filled with lily pads and rusted pieces of locks. By the end of the day, the landscape became distinctly more rural, with old growth pine forests raising up around us as we approached the shores of Lake George. That night we camped in the shadow of a 40 ft tall Santa Claus Statue shaking hands with an equally gigantic Uncle Sam, next to a 50’s era Wild-West themed amusement park that had once served the area’s prosperous mill town.
The 5th morning we left the industrial areas behind as we followed 9N along the emerald shores of Lake George. The road curves through dense forests, frequently passing a stunning vista of the lake below or a quaint diner waiting for a hungry cyclo-tourist. The only serious climb of the whole trip lies in this section, where the road crosses the Tongue Mountain Range.
Continuing north from Lake George, we past through Ticonderoga to pick up some food for camp and then headed across Lake Champlain into Vermont. The lake Champlain region has branded itself as a cycling destination, and for good reason. Between separated bike paths and quiet country roads, the area boasts a whopping 1600 miles of cycling routes. Add to that a bevy of creameries, cheese producers, and breweries, and we had the recipes for a great bike ride. Spinning through the rolling hills of southern Vermont gave me the perfect opportunity to test out the GT Grade’s advertised ‘all road’ capabilities. Outfitted with a pair of 32 mm cross tires I was able to forge ahead through gravel paths and navigate through potholes on dirt farm roads without sacrificing speed on paved roads.
As we rolled towards Burlington on the 6th afternoon, we looked on line and realized that the Ferry which connects a small break in the bike path crossing lake Champlain wasn’t running until the next day. We also realized how close we were the Magic Hat Brewery. After ‘sampling’ 4 pints of beer and a pretty ridiculous variety of Vermont Cheddar, we were still able to make it into the scenic North Beach campsite right on the waterfront of the town by early afternoon.
During the night, the weather changed and a stiff, cold wind blew up from the south. A gust knocked down a large tree on to the site where we had initially set up our tent, and moved only after careful deliberation on where the flattest piece of ground was. That morning we drank our instant coffee from inside the tent, hiding from the chilly drizzle while we watched park rangers drag giant branches off of the empty site. By the time we packed up, the rain had mostly stopped, but the wind was still going strong, pushing us north towards Canada with gusts of up to 35 mph. Here, the path follows a breathtaking causeway which runs through the center of the lake for 3 miles, connecting the Grand Isle to the mainland.
With this blustering tail wind, we arrived in Quebec by 3 in the afternoon. We crossed the border at a sleepy little country crossing, with not even a cow in sight. After knocking on a few windows, I was able to rouse the border guard to stamp our passports.
Since we had made such good time, we decided to go beyond the campsite we had picked out while sitting around the campfire in Burlington. Even just 5 miles from the border, we had no cell service and couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. We posted up in a roadside resto-bar for a while, sipping on Labatt Bleue and googling campsites with the low rumble of Québécois accents around us.
We continued north along the Richelieu River for a few more miles before finding a well kept RV Park, where we stayed the 7th night. The host was a bubbly lady who motioned my father and I into her golf cart, where she chatted happily with us in French as she gave a driving tour of her tiny property, seeming not to care that neither of us had any idea what she was saying.
On the morning of the 8th day, we packed up early and headed to Montreal. Approaching the metropolitan center, the cyclists we past on the bike path began to change - from a smattering of other bike tourists out in the woods, to kitted-out roadies as we reached the outskirts of town. We past a few group rides getting coffee in the suburbs, and then families loaded up for a picnic in the city parks. By the time we reached the city proper, the bike path was packed with Canadians enjoying the brief window of sunshine, all heading towards what turned out to be a ten day festival celebrating Québécois culture, complete with poutine vendors. We watched from the outskirts, sipping beers and munching on fries smothered in veggie gravy and cheese curds.
The next morning was father's day, so I ensured we had a proper amount of time for brunching before Dad packed up his bike gear and flew home. I headed out of town in the afternoon, and spent the 9th night in the gorgeous Parc National d’Oka, across the water from the the Island of Montreal, where the Ottawa River meets the Lake of the Two Mountains. No sooner had I begun unpacking my tent then one of the local residents popped his furry little head straight into my panniers, going straight for my chocolate! I chased off the coon who had stolen my treats, and another one came up and grabbed my camping spork and dragged that into the woods as well.
As soon as I had assembled my tent into something that looked vaguely racoon proof, I packed up my snacks and fled my campsite for the beach. I jumped in the water to rinse of the day’s layer of sunscreen and road grit, and ate my dinner as I watched the sun sink into the water (with my hands, because I was down a spork). Returning to camp, I found that the raccoons had made it into my tent, where they had torn apart all the ziploc bags holding my toiletries and dirty laundry, before settling on my sunscreen. The bottle had been gnawed through before the clever little critter realized that it was not food. After cleaning up the mess and stashing my snacks safely in the park’s event space, I curled up in my tent, lulled to sleep by the sound of screeching coons fighting over the shredded remains of my chocolate bar wrapper.
On day 10, I struck out west towards Toronto, following the bicycle route network known as the Route Verte in Quebec, and then the Waterfront Trail in Ontario. I followed the St. Lawrence River through rolling, bright green hills and ridiculously quaint towns, including one where a police officer stopped me to tell me I was going very fast - and then congratulate me on that. He informed me if I was tired of paying for camping I should really just pitch my tent wherever I felt like, and gave me a list of places where I could shower for free. As the sun began setting I found myself in the Upper Canada Migratory Bird Sanctuary, and decided to take his advice.
The 11th day took me through the Thousand Islands, Occasionally on the northern shore of the St. Lawrence, and a spots on low narrow causeways connecting the tiny rocks and outcroppings in the river.Through the park, the bike lane is separated from traffic, creating optimal conditions for staring at the lake and daydreaming. The views were breathtaking, at times distracting me from the 20 mph headwind coming relentlessly from the west. I stopped for lunch in the tiny town of Front of Yonge, where, as if on cue, the bartender and a regular began arguing about the origins of the ‘Thousand Island Dressing’ that bears the area’s namesake. The sun was just beginning to set at 9pm as I rolled into the town of Gananoque, home to a brewery! (and I imagine a few other things). I grabbed a fancy beer and some cheap pizza before retreating back into the park to stake out my campsite for the night.
As I rode west, I was informed by locals and fellow campers that I was heading towards the ‘Best beach in Canada!’ a dubious distinction to be sure, but a consistent enough recommendation that It seemed worth a visit. I took a ferry to Prince Edward County, a small peninsula known for its scenic farms, breweries, and the Sandbanks - Canada’s best beach.
On the morning of the 13th day of my tour, I received a rather rude awakening from the camp host, who ran his ride on lawn mower directly into my tent and then sat there blowing grass cuttings underneath my rain fly. As quickly as I could get my clothes on, I jumped out of the tent to see what exactly inspired this unwanted alarm. The crotchety old man on top of the mower informed me that he simply did not like tents and did not want any tents in his campsite (only RVs), and then yelled at me for knocking on the door to the camp office while trying to figure out where to pay the night before. Without giving me time to explain myself, he drove off, stopping to lock the door of the bathroom on his way by. Without much incentive to stay on the flooded RV Park any longer, I packed up and headed to the tiny store in town to scrounge up something for breakfast. I gave the owner a brief recap of my morning, and she apologized profusely that anyone would welcome me into Canada in such a way. Determined to uphold her motherland’s reputation for pleasantness, she started to give me random items from the store, including a juice box, a lighter, and another cup of coffee, which I enjoyed while we chatted in the sun.
I continued west along the Waterfront Trail. I was rushing to make it to Toronto in time for an alley cat race that weekend, but still had time to stop in a local brewery and try every one of their beers. From there, I turned away from the lake and headed up into the hills to the RV resort and campsite of Cedar Valley, which not only was not flooded (at the time) but also allowed tents! The owners were very concerned about the idea of me sleeping outside, and invited to let me set up camp in the event pavilion. After unpacking my tent, I realized how fortunate this was; Because of where my tent pole had snapped, it was impossible to set the tent up in even a vaguely waterproof fashion, no matter how much duct tape I used. Soon the sky opened up and began dumping rain, and the roads and pathways of the site quickly flooded. I fell asleep in my limp tent, comfortably dry under the pavilion, and watched the lightning travel across the sky.
On the 14th morning, I lingered in the shelter, and drank three cups of instant coffee while I surveyed the saturated ground around me. Much to my surprise, the rain stopped before 10. I quickly suited up in my rain jacket and waterproof shoe covers rolled out. Before I even left the campsite, I ran into the first washed out road. Waterproof shoe covers don’t help very much when you are biking through water above your bottom bracket, so I quickly had to resign myself to soggy feet.
I passed through 2 more washed out roads before making it back to the Waterfront Trail, which was indiscernible underneath a dark brown layer of water. I continued vaguely in the direction of Toronto on suburban streets, before coming to a main intersection which was also completely submerged. The road had been blocked off to traffic by some local police, to prevent cars from stalling out in the new town lake if their engines took on water. My engine is not quite so temperamental, so I was able to roll through the water and continue on my way. To avoid some of the mounting suburban traffic (not to mention the questionable drainage systems) I headed to a nearby commuter rail station and soon arrived in Toronto!
One of the lovely ladies of FWOD Toronto had offered to host me, and upon reaching the city I went to meet up with her at her cafe. I sat somewhat awkwardly in my soggy bike clothes in the corner and sipped a beer while watching the usual patrons traipse around in nicely pressed shirts and heels. Once my host, Ashley, finished her shift we went back to her place for a shower and an enormous bowl of Ramen. I was feeling significantly more urban, and ready to race the FWOD alley cat the next day.
30 people in total showed up - a great turn out for any unsanctioned bike race, but very impressive for one open only to Women, Trans and Gender Non-conforming cyclists! Ashley and KiKi had organized the event and collected prizes from over a dozen different sponsors, ensuring there were enough prizes to recognize both speedy veterans and new riders who wanted to try out racing.
After unloading my panniers, the GT Grade was light and nimble, able to hug corners tightly as we wove through city streets, and glide over potholes and Toronto’s many trolley tracks. I was the only person there from out of town, putting me at a distinct disadvantage for navigating through the course.
When the race began, I simply found someone who looked like they knew what they were doing and stayed on her wheel for the first 2 hours of so of the race, speeding between parks on the west side, fountains downtown, and playgrounds on the east side. Amber, my de facto guide, had been a messenger for several years, and knew all the shortcuts and alleyways of the city. As we reached a particularly steep hill with just one check point left to visit before completing the race, I decided to break away - only to realize at the top of the hill that I had absolutely no idea where I was, and no phone service to help figure that out. I dawdled around for a bit before seeing a woman I recognized from the start, and was able to follow her for the remainder of the race. When I reached the finish line, I found out that Amber, who I had initially been following, had easily won the race. I was happy to settle for 5th place and the most thrilling tour of a new city you can hope for.
I spent 3 more days in Toronto, eating good food and spending some amazing times with the ladies of FWOD Toronto. The next Tuesday I rolled out of town, back towards America. I crossed the border in Niagara Falls, stopping to get my passport stamped on the Rainbow Bridge. I camped in a deserted boy scout camp near Buffalo that night, and packed up at sunrise to pack up all of my adventure gear and catch a train back to city life.