Sunshine and suffering: Riding the Heartland Tour along the South Shore

by Charles Mandel

In cycling it is an axiom that those who suffer the most are the ones who triumph. Multi-day stage races such as the Tour de France push cyclists' abilities to the limits and the ones who can withstand the pain the best are the ones who win.

Given that this is so, then you'd think I was a champion. I was sore all over with cramped calves, a stiff neck, and an aching back. I was chafed in a distinctly uncomfortable region of my body, and a sunburn the colour of a rare tenderloin stretched across my upper legs. I was definitely suffering.

In actuality I was as far from a champ as you could get. I'd just finished my first ever Heartland Tour along the back roads of the South Shore and, given it was my first time on a road bike in two years, I felt more of the 83 kilometres we'd covered than I'd care to admit.

The 13th edition of the Heartland Tour ran in mid-July. Presented by the Cardiac Cycling Society of Nova Scotia and designed to raise awareness of heart health and fitness, the annual cycling event consists of eight days of group rides around the province, including from Bridgewater and Mahone Bay, The latter showcase the stirring beauty of the South Shore's lesser traveled routes.

The South Shore portion of the event landed on a hot, sunny day on July 11. Some 500 cyclists gathered in Bridgewater and Mahone Bay to participate in one of the three rides on offer. Never known for my moderate temperament, I chose the longest distance to cover.

The ride got underway shortly after 9 a.m., and roughly 200 bikers climbed up Aberdeen Road en mass. It was at the second climb up Whynotts Settlement that differing levels of fitness began to become apparent. Obviously, I'd misplaced mine somewhere as I huffed and puffed over the hill.

Heading toward Blockhouse on Highway 3, I settled in with a quartet of cyclists, and two abreast (with me drafting in the back) we maintained 35 kilometres an hour into Mahone Bay. After a brief break at the town's waterfront, I joined a group of bikers from the valley as we rode the impossibly scenic out and back stretch along Indian Point, and then took the back way into Lunenburg for the lunch stop.

No one left Lunenburg hungry. It is a measure of the success of the South Shore leg of the tour that it has grown so large that lunch is no longer provided for free because of the number of participants. Even so, $10 nets even the most famished cyclist (and believe me, they're all ravenously hungry) a feast of a chicken, seafood or vegetarian wrap; four salads to choose from; a plethora of fruit; cookies; and water and Gatorade.

The difficulty with the lunch stop is getting started again after. Immediately bikers face the climb out of town up the steep hill by the golf course. My biggest fear was losing my lunch on the fierce grade. That didn't happen, but I did get dropped by the other cyclists right after the hill and ended up facing the second half on my own.

As I climbed the hills along Indian Path Road, the sun beat down, and a head wind slowed my progress. At this point, I began questioning my choice of distance. My calves cramped badly several times, necessitating that I stop and briefly coast to relieve them; and I became concerned with the possibility of heat stroke. Shade was in short supply along the route.

At one point a couple of tourists caught up with me on their bikes and began to draft off my back tire. That technique allows riders behind the front cyclist to gain respite from any headwinds and give them as much as 50 per cent more energy. The accepted rule is as the rider out front tires, the ones behind should move forward and take a pull up front.

Back on the road to Blockhouse, after sitting in back with the group for some time, I eventually rode up and took my turn at the front. It's always a shock to discover in the front just how much in back you've been sheltered from the wind.

By this time I was into serious pain management and not overly interested in company or carrying on a conversation. But the rider behind me kept asking questions and offering comments. "How long are you biking?" he asked.

I grunted "83 kilometres," and lapsed into silence. Behind him I heard his partner say, "How long is he biking?" He relayed the conversation.

"Was this part of an organized ride?" he wanted to know. "Yes, I replied.

His partner then wanted to know if I was participating in an organized ride, to which he again repeated what I'd just told him.

This went on for eight kilometres as I hunched over my bike's handlebars and my tired legs bore my forward into the headwind. At that point the two of them surged ahead refreshed from their eight kilometres of wheel sucking, and instead of waiting for me to drift in behind them, took off up the road, leaving me to battle the wind.

Thankfully, as I came out near the LaHave River and headed toward Bridgewater, I caught a tail wind at that point and switched into my bigger gears and began the cruise toward the finish, the river's glittering water to my left. Even so, I stopped a couple of times under the shade of trees to take in more liquid in an attempt to stay hydrated.

I was actually content to be on my own for the second half. I was so worn that I worried if I'd been in a pace line my attention might have wavered long enough to cause a crash. This way I was able to work my way back to Shipyard's Landing in Bridgewater at my own pace.

Overall, it took three hours and 15 minutes of riding time, but left me with memories of a lifetime. And as is the case with most endurance events, the moment it is over selective amnesia sets in and the pain is forgotten, and only the feeling of joy and accomplishment is left.

For more information, see: https://www.heartlandtour.ca/

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