A faint surge of electricity comes when you know you're doomed, or at least doomed to a quick bout of uphill intensity.
The jolt came at the foot of the towering green curtain that's the Niagara Escarpment, spreading for kilometres left and right.
Admittedly, it's probably a few notches less electrifying than, say, riding up the Col du Tourmalet, the Passo dello Stelvio or any other near-mythical European cycling mountain shrine. But on a one-day, do-it-yourself tour from Toronto to Niagara Falls, the Escarpment came as a revelation, an idyll of beautiful riding in Southern Ontario's own backyard.
I'd been pining to take one of the multiday European tours offered by Rapha, the upmarket cycling clothing and tour company, or its fun-sounding, hellish-sounding climb-fest on Japan's back roads. But the thousands of dollars that it would take to go was unrealistic. Instead, I had to settle for the cheap, quickie option: Niagara Falls.
I hadn't planned on making this day trip such a big deal; just me and my cyclocross bike, a few essentials and a map in one of my son's drawstring soccer bags on my back. I'd never ridden this stretch so far east of Hamilton, so far from my usual turnaround in Burlington back to Toronto. After tagging along for part of an early-morning training ride with friends, I had it in mind to continue on to the Falls and to take the special bike-friendly GO train back that evening.
I'd also decided on the scenic route, knowing full well that "scenic route" usually carries an undercurrent of masochistic when it comes to cycling.
In this case, it was this particular Escarpment access road. The road, sitting a little ways east of Hamilton, first lulls you with soft, fuzzy suburban-ness. The cue to turn right and away from the lake was a sign marking the site of the Winona Peach Festival, coming in late August. And then, on Fifty Road, stood rows of happy pear trees. All I needed was Bob Ross as my guide.
Yet looming ahead was the forest wall. I'd seen the elevation chart online; the access road is drawn as a sheer vertical. Looking back at it online, I see it has a 12.6-per-cent gradient at its worst.
That's steep, but let's be honest: It lasted, what, five minutes, time being more metaphor than reality when you're focused on each crank rotation. The hill was easily done in a light 34 x 23 gear (to get technical about it), and this road is also an entry point to the Bruce Trail, belying forest treasures such as the Fifty Road Cascade waterfall, which I blithely ignored. (Next time, Bob.)
Yet, the short hill also brought a welcome routine, the familiar dance of rhythmic breathing and harder work (which motivates rides like this), along with a Walter Mitty mindset. It's ridiculous to admit, I know, but when spending hours on a bike, it's hard not to emulate racing tradition a little, something that Rapha has tapped into well with its photographs and short films of road cyclists climbing a steep gradient just because.
Rapha gets the culture, history and diversity of road cycling spot on, so well, in fact, that the entire road-cycling industry has tapped into this tone of hardscrabble commitment and go-it-alone individuality on the one hand, and a certain unspoken communality on the other.
And Toronto to the Falls, and the GO train back, is a much more common excursion than I realized. Cyclists of all fitness levels and all manner of bikes do it. Some of the assortment of riders whom I stood with earlier in the day as we waited for the drawbridge to lower and lead us to the Hamilton lakefront – all of us wearing our candy assortment of coloured jerseys, with our hodgepodge of bikes – were some of the same riders I later saw at the Niagara Falls train station that evening.
Hearing about their rides, all seem to have taken the direct route. This had led them past Hamilton and along the lake more or less, to Niagara-on-the-Lake and then down the Niagara Parkway to the Falls. This meant long stretches along the service road running parallel to the roar of the QEW highway. I wanted to avoid that.
Some, such as one woman with flowers decorating the rear basket on her steel 10-speed and her friend with a heavy-looking mountain bike, had taken an even shorter version, arriving by train to St. Catharines, then cycling to the Falls, followed by the return train home. No one had ridden the real highlight of the region.
After the short access road through the forest, the Escarpment opened up into an hour-long straightaway east on Mud Street, which halfway along turns into Fly Road – country roads on which the occasional driver gave me extra wide clearance in an ultraneighbourly way. The air was markedly crisper and cooler on the Escarpment plateau, which stretched in all directions. This is John Deere country, with riding lawn mowers outnumbering bicycles 5 to 1. I was also forever heading toward dark storms that morning, yet the rain never arrived and the wind was forever on my back, which added to the majesty of it all.
On the map, this stretch is about 25 kilometres. The entire day was 185 kilometres, maybe closer to 200, accounting for all the little detours. It hardly matters.
There's a reason for this imprecision. A cyclocross bike like mine (bear with me here) is derived from an on-road, off-road, off-season type of racing, a steeplechase on wheels, sometimes through mud and mire. And so, a cyclocomputer with an odometer, GPS, readouts of your power output in watts, VO2 max, with a sync to the Strava app seems excessive, even ridiculous. It doesn't match the lineage of this kind of bike, puritanical as that sounds. Besides, paper maps are more fun.
Starting the day a little before 6:30 a.m. in Toronto, I had met up with those aforementioned friends at 7 a.m., leaving them in Oakville by 9. Around 1 p.m., I was approaching St. Catharines, cycling not fast but steadily, having stopped a few times to check the map, take in the scenery and gorge on a Larabar and trail mix, before reaching Niagara-on-the-Lake for lunch at 2 p.m. Packed to rock-concert proportions as it is throughout the summer, the tourist town still makes for a pleasing destination.
The road down the Niagara Parkway to the Falls was another 20 kilometres or so and an afterthought, save for a little section of Escarpment, a short uphill epilogue climbing to Brock's Monument near the Falls.
My mind was still back on the longer stretch of Escarpment roads from earlier in the day, and I was getting tired. When I was younger, this would be the point in long training rides when I'd start air drumming to Iggy Pop tunes pulled from the brain's recesses. (Sometimes I see tired bike couriers doing this, too.) But this time, from an unfathomable depth, the inner soundtrack played, on repeat, Captain and Tennille's Love Will Keep Us Together.
Then came the Falls, with its natural beauty and unnatural gaudiness, its hordes and yet surprisingly little traffic. The Falls is only worth it as a destination for bragging rights. Food at this point of the day is a priority, but there is little to be found.
Better to aim for dinner at one of the many wineries up the road, assuming cycling attire is acceptable, or to end the day further back, perhaps at Port Dalhousie, and then take the returning GO train from St. Catharines. A warning though: The seasonal summer bike train gets crowded, with bikes stored in slots in the downstairs of the special cars and seating for passengers upstairs. People getting on at St. Catharines had trouble finding slots.
An even better option might be to do exploratory loops around the Escarpment and end up at Niagara-on-the-Lake, stay overnight and then cycle back home the next day. The woman at the head desk of a small, well-appointed Niagara-on-the-Lake inn said they would allow guests to keep bikes in their rooms when I poked my head in to ask. (I tried to look a little pulled together, less caked in salt when I asked.)
But next time, the Escarpment will be my focus. It promises what road-bike image makers and tour companies covet, endless vistas and go-the-distance bloodymindedness. Yet all that falls away on the actual ride. What remains is simply a beautiful stretch of land, and a sense of connectedness on two wheels to something far older than you and lasting far beyond.
If you go
Essentials for a Toronto-to-Niagara Falls day cycling trip
Getting back home:
It's best to plan the day thinking how on earth you'll get yourself home. The special GO train summer service between Toronto and Niagara Falls, with stops in between, has compartments for storing bikes, and it leaves Niagara Falls at 7:20 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. But check biketrain.ca for details and other station options.
It seems best to arrive at the station at least half an hour before the train is due to leave Niagara Falls. It can get crowded.
What to take:
Full water bottles and trail mix or energy bars, maybe a banana or two, are a must. So is a warmer top for the end of the day. Any chance of rain obviously complicates things and could mean taking a jacket and possibly a dry change of top.
The usual cycling paraphernalia for fixing a flat (spare inner tubes, tire irons, perhaps an extra patch kit and a multitool), as well as money and a cellphone for emergencies and, of course, a map, all go without saying. For some, using GPS, odometers and logging the trip using apps such as Strava are also part of the fun.
Lights for the evening ride back home after arriving at Union Station (or wherever you depart the train) are essential, too, but easy to forget. Also, some people brought locks to safeguard their bikes inside the GO train. I didn't. Carrying a heavy lock on a full day of cycling isn't fun.
There is a mini-revolution these days in terms of new, ingenious designs for handlebar bags and saddle bags that are able to carry a large assortment of these kinds of essentials without traditional panniers, but a simple drawstring bag on your back will do. (Wrap everything in in a plastic bag though, unless you don't mind things getting soaked with sweat, a lesson I had to learn).
A good route is to follow sections of the Toronto-Niagara Falls-Toronto "Hairshirt" round-trip ride. (The organized annual ride's name riffs off the medieval garment worn as penance.) I only followed half of that gruelling one-day route, just the portion from Oakville to Niagara Falls, but I traced it backward, which meant turning its downhills into my uphills. The full route can be found here.