Engineering the Unexpected #3: When Failure is a Success

I’ve talked here and elsewhere about various bike trips I’ve made – a couple of trips to Montreal for the Friends for Life Bike Rally, the second of those taking me all the way to Quebec City, a trip to NYC by way of Ottawa, Montreal, and Vermont to promote kindness, and a few others.

One I haven’t shared publicly, though, is one that never happened.  In 2014 I was fascinated with Detroit. There seem to be so many interesting initiatives taking place there from public art to public space to urban agriculture. I registered for the Tour de Troit – a large group ride throughout the city and booked an Airbnb at an urban farm that was helping inner city youth learn agriculture.

I planned my route across Ontario, booked campsites.  The Friday before my trip I was scrambling, packing bags – I’d be bringing four panniers this time so that I had camping and cooking gear.

I loaded up my bike on Saturday morning and headed out into a cloudy and a little drizzly day.


About 30 km in, I had the joy of meeting a Facebook friend in Mississauga for a coffee and together we rode to Oakville when he had to turn back to go home and do his grocery shopping. When he turned around, the wind picked up and the sky opened up with a cold rain. Still, I had signed up for this. I was making my way with literally everything I needed from food to tent to books to read. I pedaled onward and eventually as I passed Milton the road got a bit hillier and before long I was climbing up the Niagara Escarpment with a bicycle that weighed close to 100 lbs with everything loaded on it.

As I crested the top of the biggest hill of the day I could feel something was not 100% right. It was being really physically difficult. So much so that I stopped on the side of the road and started checking Google maps. Maybe there would be a closer place to stay than the campground I was headed for that was still 30 km away. No matter what way I looked, though, the answer was the same. I had 30 km to go to anything. And I had over 60 km to go if I just wanted to give up and go home. So I called home more for a cheering up than anything else. And wow, what an emotional outburst that was – It wasn’t long before I teared up. This was, without a doubt, the hardest physical challenge of my entire life. Hands down. And I still had more to go. Of course a more lucid part of me also knew that there was a reason I was not only really upset but also barely able to move the pedals: I had not accounted for the extra fuel it would take to carry not only my usual bike and myself all this way but I was also carrying everything I needed. I was experiencing what cyclists call ‘bonking’ – basically it is hypoglycaemia. I should have been eating far more than I was. There was no more energy to move my pedals because I’d burned it all up. Still, my stomach was just not happy with the energy bars I was eating. Even though eating a couple would have likely put me right soon I couldn’t choke them down. So I’d eat a piece or two here and there and interestingly enough I could feel within a few minutes the extra energy it would give me before it faded and once again I was physically and emotionally at rock bottom again.

Still, I pushed onward, in my lowest gear even on flats and gentle downhills at a pace 1/2 to 1/3 of what I normally would maintain. Even then it felt like I was climbing a mountain.

At one point about 5 km before the end I passed someone’s driveway with a bunch of balloons tied to the mailbox. While I know they weren’t for me specifically it was as good as. It cheered me right up.


I arrived at Valens Conservation area just before dark with my odometer reading 88 kilometres. I found my way to my campsite and set up my tent, still a bit dizzy with hunger and effort – but I wanted to get things settled before it was dark. Finally I was done and it was totally dark. I found my way in to the tent and opened up my food bag. Inside were several bags of ready to eat food. I grabbed two potato curries (I really was needing carbohydrates) and ate them. Even store-bought, ice cold and eaten from a bag, they were, without a doubt, the most delicious curries I have tasted in my life. Finally satiated I relaxed a bit in the tent and then went to bed, lulled to sleep by the geese on the lake.


The night was pretty cold – close to zero. While I was warm in my sleeping bag, for some reason I kept waking up partially out of the sleeping bag. Still, I slept in hours later than I usually do, waking up to the sun hitting my tent at 8:30 AM. I sat up and noticed something. I was wheezing. A cold I thought I had shaken earlier in the week was back with a vengeance. I made the call then to turn back. I didn’t need to get sicker on the road. And so I had a leisurely morning, making coffee and oatmeal, reading my book while I waited for my iPhone to charge, and then packing up and heading out – but not before making sure I’d had close to 1,000 calories (on an unladen bike I burn about 50 calories a kilometre and the previous day showed me I burned way more.). I turned due south for Burlington where I would catch the GO train home. It was still a 40 kilometre ride but mostly downhill. I was surprised at how easy it was to ride that morning. So much faster than the grinding I had been doing the night before. Amazing what a little food will do!

I got home that day and pretty much went to bed and spent almost a week recuperating. While I wasn’t deathly ill, I was sick enough to not do much more than watch TV and read for all that time. Every day I would wake up and be so glad I wasn’t in some campsite trying to stay warm while being sick.

As unpleasant as the ride itself probably sounds (at least re-reading it it sounds that way), I got so much out of it! I learned how much I am capable of when I need to be. I learned that I really can travel by bike and carry everything I need to do it. I also learned the valuable lesson of eating enough to carry not only myself but all that gear as well. In retrospect, I can see where I should’ve just broken out the stove at a park and cooked up a curry when I was near Milton. It would’ve been a different experience. So I feel truly lucky to have been through that – and even as it looks like a failure from outside, I’m more than a little pleased with myself for doing it.

In future trips I used this information to ensure I ate enough food and kept fueled up. The difference has been shocking.  Last summer I did take my bike on a trip up to Bellfountain – not far from this route and with lots of climbing. I managed it beautifully.  And on our last bike trip I did much more climbing that that day and one day even traveled twice the distance.

I never did make it to Detroit but looking back even the hardest moments are a positive memory for me. I learned lots and as importantly, I learned that even when I thought I had nothing to give, in tears riding on a flat road feeling as if I were climbing Everest, I could push through that. I had reserves I didn’t even know I had. I would never have discovered any of this if I had comfortably ridden to Detroit, or just stayed home.

This is much of why I ride.

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