3:45 AM Sunday, June 20th: I’m sitting on the ground outside the Eco Cafe in the small town of St. Jacobs, my bike and helmet on the ground beside me. I’m trying to stretch, but the nervous excitement bubbling up inside me makes it hard to focus on anything. In 15 minutes, I’ll be hopping on my bike and beginning my journey around the BTXL route, an 1120 km off-road course around the occupied territories of the Odawa, Mississauga Petun, Attiwonderonk, Missisaugas of the Credit, Saugeen, and the Anishinabewaki First Nations Peoples, commonly known as Southwestern Ontario.
I’ve done the route once before, so I know what I’m in for, but I’m still full of excited energy. The plan is to get through the route as quickly as possible, stopping only when necessary and sleeping as little as possible. I aim to beat my time from last year and the current FKT of 91 hours and 35 minutes. I’ve planned. I’ve trained. Now I have to ride.
The clock ticks over to 4:00 am, and I pedal off down the street into the thick fog. I wave goodbye to Anton and Adel, who was kind enough to get up at 2 am and drive me to the start line. As I cruise along the quiet farm roads, the fog thickens and soaks every part of me and my bike. I can feel the moisture in every breath and can barely see 3 feet in front of me. But slowly, the sun starts to rise and lights up the landscape in a breathtaking fashion. The fog glows gold in the sunlight, and fingers of pink and purple start to creep into the sky behind me as I tuck into my aero bars and pedal down the rail trail towards my first resupply, the town of Southampton 200 km into the ride.
The first leg of the ride (I call phase 1: “the warmup”) is mostly dirt roads and rail trails, with a few short sections of singletrack. The route does an incredible job of keeping things interesting; just as you start to get bored of one kind of riding, it switches up.
I arrive in Southampton around 1:30 pm, around an hour ahead of schedule. I resupply quickly, sit down to demolish a sandwich as long as my arm, stuffed to the brim with fresh veggies and cheese. I’m back on the bike by 2 o'clock. From here, the route heads north to the base of the Bruce Peninsula, and things start to get a little more serious. The landscape changes from vast open farms and fields to more densely packed forests with small ponds and lakes scattered throughout. I passed a group of BT riders who started Saturday morning. We say our hellos and wish each other well before I continue on my way.
The first chunky section comes up quickly, with a rowdy rocky descent down Skinner’s Bluff Trail. It acts as a bit of foreshadowing of what’s to come in the second half of the route. After that, it’s a gentle cruise into Owen Sound, 315 kilometers into the route. I resupply at a grocery store, and as I’m packing up my food, a pack of seagulls descends on my box of muffins. Before I can blink, one of them cracks the box open, jams one in its mouth, and takes off with the rest of the birds following quickly behind. From behind the window, the grocery store employees are laughing. I am not.
It begins to get dark as I climb out of Owen Sound and pass through the beautiful Inglis Falls Conservation area. I don’t stop to take in the falls; there’s no time for sightseeing this year. I enjoy the melodies of the falls crashing down below, and they are enough for me at the moment. So instead, I’m focusing on the section of singletrack ahead; it’s short but very rooty and rocky. I carefully pick my way through and push on towards Meaford.
It’s 11:30, and I'm 370 km and 19.5 hours into the ride, right on schedule. I pull out my bivy and take a 30-minute snooze. The mosquitos are having a feast, but I‘m too tired to be bothered. My alarm goes off, and I’m packed up and back on the bike within 5 minutes, feeling fresh as a daisy. Night riding is exhilarating. The world doesn’t exist beyond the beam of my headlamp; it’s just me and the trail ahead, blindly following the little purple line on my GPS into the boundless night.
I’m in Thornbury by 2:00 am, where the climbing starts. In my mind, this town marks the beginning of the most challenging section of the ride, which I was calling “Phase 2: The Reckoning.” The Reckoning is about 240 km long and includes about 3500m of elevation gain. About one-third of the climbing on the whole route is packed into this section, much of it on very rough ATV roads and singletrack. When you do get to descend, it is often on very rough, unforgiving tracks that don’t provide the rest you are so desperately looking for. My next goal is to cover 50 km in 3.5 hours and make it to the town of Flesherton by 5:30 am for a resupply. This will be the last on-route opportunity for food for 200 km.
Next up: resupply at Mono Mills, around 630 km. This intersection marks the end of The Reckoning and the majority of the most challenging stuff on the BT Route. There isn't much there, a Tim Hortons, a Starbucks, and a gas station. Both the Tims and the Starbucks are closed when I arrive, so I try my luck at the gas station. Unfortunately, they only sell candy and alcohol. I reluctantly grab a coke and a bag of chips. It’ll be another 130 km before I can grab some proper food. Luckily, the next section is my favourite part of the trail, over an hour of downward trending singletrack on the Bruce Trail. Beautiful flowy singletrack through fragrant pine forests, mossy boardwalks over swamps and ponds, and through colourful wildflowers. It never fails to put a smile on my face, no matter how tired and hungry I might be. After that, it’s all rail trail and dirt roads back to the town of St Jacobs, at 760 km. I pull over for another sleep, a luxurious hour this time, around 1 am.
When I wake up this time, I have a very tough time staying awake. I keep nodding off as I ride, which is very dangerous. I stop a few times for little 5 minute naps, but it doesn’t help. I try putting on loud music, upbeat, bubbly pop tunes, hoping it will see me through the next few hours until the sun comes up. Eventually, it does; I’ve made it through another night in one piece and am just a few hours from finishing the first loop of the BTXL.
I arrived in St. Jacobs after 54 hours and 17 minutes, over 11 hours faster than last year. I take an hour to clean myself up in the public washroom, drink a smoothie and charge some things before heading out on the second loop, the 350 km Grand Nith Ramble. To clarify, the BTXL is composed of two separate loops. The BT 700, about 770 km, and the GNR. They both start and finish in the same town, and when you ride them back to back, it makes the BTXL.
I named the first half of the GNR “Phase 4: Matt Kadey’s Revenge” after the race organizer and the brutal sections included in this chunk of the ride. Breaking up the route into these phases helps me not feel overwhelmed when thinking of how much I have left to do. I can tell myself that I just need to get to the end of each phase and that in and of itself is an accomplishment. However, when you think of the whole ride as one long push, it seems so long and hard, kind of impossible. This becomes demoralizing and makes pushing on seem pointless sometimes.
With only 350 km left in the whole ride, I am excited to get this thing done. I hadn’t planned on sleeping at all until the finish line, meaning I would have done about 475 km in one push. I make it to km 980 before needing to call it for the night. I had ridden strongly through the first half of the GNR, but once night hit, I entered the Dundas Valley Conservation Area. It’s a beautiful section but one of the more demanding parts of the ride. It’s long too; at my pace, it is almost two hours of singletrack with a lot of climbing. Doing it in the dark is no joke either. By the time I get out of there and onto the Hamilton Brantford Rail Trail, I’m cooked and starting to hallucinate pretty hard. Patterns in the gravel become the faces of animals, mailboxes turn into Kangaroos, and every rock on the trail is a frog that I have to avoid at all costs. After navigating a surprise construction site that requires an on-the-fly reroute, I arrive in Paris, which sours my mood. By this point, I have been awake for 26 hours. My friend and accomplished endurance cyclist Simone Bailey has been my go-to support throughout the ride, and she can tell I’m starting to fall apart. She tells me to sleep, and I am too tired to argue. I sleep for an hour behind a public washroom and wake up shivering. I need to get moving, and at this point, I only have about 120 km left.
I will remember the final day for a very long time. A beautiful golden sunrise turned into crystal blue skies with some amazing clouds. My pace drops significantly even though the last part of the GNR is pretty easy riding. I allow myself a little more time to take everything in, enjoy the sun and try to reflect on what happened over the last few days. I ponder the reason I do these things and what makes me want to go out and push myself so hard.
I've concluded that I never feel freer than when racing my bike, and life on the saddle is beautiful. I’m incredibly privileged to have the life I do; I have very little to complain about. But I’m also a very anxious person, and like everyone, I deal with some nasty brain stuff from time to time. So going out and riding non-stop makes me feel like everything will be ok and that I am in control of my own life. I’m in control of every decision when I'm out there, and it’s entirely up to me how I spend my time. No one bothers me; no one expects anything of me, no one needs anything. It’s just me and my bike tootling around the woods. And I really can't think of any other way I’d like to spend my life.
I finished the BTXL in 84 hours 17 minutes, about 7 hours faster than last year. My friend Glen is there to meet me at the end with a change of clothes, snacks, and a cold beer. I fill him in on what the last few days contained as we enjoy our snacks before packing the bike into the car and heading back to Toronto.
I’m genuinely grateful for the opportunity to have done this ride. Thank you to Matt Kadey for making this incredible route and to everyone who sent me a message during the ride.
Theo completed this race riding our GMX+, complete with our Walmer Bar 55. Follow Theo’s races and adventures: Instagram @theokelsey_