Day 68: Corney Brook to Ingonish Beach 101 km)
“You feeling okay?” he asked
I was packing up my tent, pondering my fate high amid the dull blanket of cloud and the obscured mountain top above me, when Dad from yesterday’s fish supper came over.
My stomach was in a knot of nerves. But I replied cheerfully.
“Oh phew,” he breathed, “I was worried about you. Because my wife was up all night being sick. And all I could think of was what about that cyclist.”
Suddenly I felt sick. I leant over to pull up a tent peg when a reflux of something caused me to hiccup. What an idiot, eating shellfish the night before the hardest mountain in Canada. And I’ve never eaten shellfish before. What if I’m allergic?
Visions appeared in front of me: there am I bent over the soggy side of the mountain, heaving my guts into the verge. My one and only comforting thought, dear reader, was that the shellfish-poisoned-mountain-climb would (in hindsight) make an excellent blog post.
Sick with either worry, nerves or shellfish, I knew not which, I departed from the coastal campsite to meet my fate. Immediately I started to ascend. 100m down the road and I was greeted good morning by a signpost demarcating the foot of French Mountain. And a sign warning of the 12% gradient ahead.
And so it began. I climbed, pushed with all my might. The road was quiet. Damp, cool air hovered under the white cloud that obscured the view. The road curled up the voluptuous contours of mountain side, pulling away from the coast of the St Lawrence and entering into the forest of black spruce and balsam fir. I shifted into my lowest gear and pedalled relentless upwards.
As I approached the top it was pea soup. Visibility was reduced to 100 meters. The trees faded into paler shades before they disappeared off the edge of the world. The mountain vanished into a isolating whiteness. Slowly a silhouette transformed into a signpost: the summit of French Mountain.
I pulled off at a rest stop to pee. A woman was asking one of the Park wardens were she could see a moose. I do love how tourists demand to see wildlife. I’m sure the nature conservation movement would be so much better supported if the wild animals and birds only stood in line and danced a merry jig when the tourist bus came through.
I would be quite content just to see the Road Ahead. The descent of French Mountain was like being dropped in a pot of white paint. The road threw terrifying twists and loops down the back of the mountain. My hands cramped from braking. I signed in relief when I came out of the cloud and skirted into the coastal village of Pleasant Bay. I was back at sea level again. Another mountain loomed.
North Mountain: oh my goodness.
It is hard to compare given the gaps of time but this mountain is in the running for the hardest climb of my life. Harder than the Rockies, harder than Alpe d’Huez, harder than Mount Ventoux. Oh my life.
I was in my lowest gear. I was pushing on the pedals with every ounce of strength. I felt like I was doing endless reps of leg presses with maximum weight at the gym. My heart was pounding. I gasped for breath. I fought like I was sprinting for an Olympic gold metal. Yet I was inching along JUST fast enough not to topple off my bike backwards.
I cannot stop. For if I stop I will never get back on again. My muscles are in knots. All the way from my knees to my mid back my muscles are a riot of pain. It is a cool day but I a wearing just a vest top and the sweat is dripping from my forehead to my legs. What’s that smell? A weirdly familiar smell takes me back to England. It smells like… The London Tube? Another car screeches down the hill and I realised that the smell is caused by the vehicle’s brake pads. Oh, if only my legs gave off a smell from this – it would be stinky!
I am practically in tears. I have not even the mental wherewithal to sing the M&M song. The mountain seems to steepen. Courage. We all suffer. Keep going. A thought enters my mind: if I keep going I will see the Atlantic. If I can see the Atlantic I can call myself a transcontinental cyclist. Keep going.
A car comes down the mountain on the other side of the road. Two road bikes are strapped on the rear carrier. A very cool looking dude with stylishly dishevelled black hair and large sunglasses leans out the window and gives me the thumbs up. I am Marco Pantani. That was my support vehicle telling me I am going to win. Thank you, Cool Dude.
After 40 minutes of relentless, knee breaking ascent, the road levels out. The sign approaches. At the top I celebrate by eating a Naked bar. One which I brought from England, waiting for a special moment. It is now downhill to the Atlantic. But not without first tackling the switchback bends. The road veers over to the edge of a precipice before snapping back the other way. My fear of heights is reawakened. I descended almost as slowly as I had ascended.
And then I see it: a line of blue in between the lumps of land like a tshirt poking through a v neck jumper. Monty and I tackle the afternoon hills with renewed vigour. The highland hills lay like an upturned egg box. We pull off the Cabot Trail into a small fishing village called Neil’s Harbour. Lobster pots are piled high next to bundles of fluorescent buoys. The lighthouse sits at the edge of the rocks looking out into the Atlantic. The Atlantic!
Monty and I arrive exhausted but satisfied at our campground. I pitch the tent, upload Monty and then together we go on a small excursion to Ingonish Beach.
I carry him over the beach wall and prop him up on the pebbles. There were pebbles on the beach at Victoria, I remember. The sun breaks through the day-long cloud and casts a auspicious light on the rolling waves. Monty wheels into the surf.
Whatever else may befall Monty and I, we will always remember today. Today we made it.
We cycled from sea to sea.