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All my prep didn’t prevent my rookie mistake

And then things went to hell

Tom Perlmutter standing in front of a sign for the Arctic Ocean Photo by: Francine Plante

We camped hard by the Arctic Ocean at the top of the continent. Finally we would be getting on our bikes and starting the long road down to Panama.  This is what I’d spent months training for; the continuation of my quest for the magic that the road brings. Was it my excitement at the prospect of what lay ahead, the blazing midnight sun or the howling of the dozen or so dogs kennelled hard by our camp site that kept me from sleeping? Probably a mix of it all. Even so, I was ready to tackle the road come morning, which in fact was no different from the night.

I clipped in and off we set down the gravel highway from Tuktoyaktuk to Inuvik, a distance of about 150 km. A welcome breeze played across my face keeping the mosquitoes at bay. I felt an inexpressible joy to be riding here. I was strong, the gravel manageable, the scenery stunning. At about 20 km into the ride I started to feel a twinge on the outside of my knee. Kinks, I thought, from not having ridden for a week. I pressed on . The twinge became small shafts of pain. I thought the seat height hadn’t been properly adjusted after the flight. It felt a little low to me. I raised it a couple of mm. That didn’t do the trick. The lateral knee pain grew worse. I wasn’t going to let it defeat me on my first day out. I pushed on—40, 50 km. After that I realized to continue was stupid. I had months of biking ahead of me. I broke off riding at lunch. I was depressed and mad. I never had any problems with the Salsa Marrakesh, which I’d used on my previous two long treks. I cursed myself for having switched to the Surly. I cursed the bike for making a fool of me. Then I realized that I had been a real idiot. I had made a cardinal rookie error.

The gravel road south

I had written in an earlier blog, “never assume, always verify”.  Well, I had done it again. I had made an assumption which led me false. I had trained intensively on the Salsa Marrakesh indoors on my trainer and on the Surly Bridge Club outdoors. Never had any problems. So why was there an issue now with the Surly? It hit me. I had gotten Assioma power meter pedals for the Surly. That meant I had to get shoes with Look Keo cleats. These were not a shoe/cleat combination I could use on an expedition trek. When I switched to my regular shoes with SPD cleats it never occurred to me to check how that would work on the Surly. Bad assumption.

The next day we were at Tsiigehtchic, a hamlet on the confluence of the Mackenzie and Arctic Red Rivers, which happened to have internet service. Ten minutes of research I figured out what I had to do. I repositioned the cleats on the shoes (moving them all the way to the inside and to the rear). Back on the bike I was flying. No knee pain. All was good.


But as it turned it wasn’t going to be my week. I knew that on a long trek like this stuff happens. I didn’t expect it all to fall on me in the first week.

We were cruising along the Dempster Highway—the 742-km gravel road that connects Inuvik to Dawson City. It was the day before we were due to cycle in to Eagle Plains and our first rest day. It wasn’t a particularly long day, only about 90 km of riding, but with a lot of rolling hills, 2,500 m in total of climbing, with the quality of the road varying almost minute by minute. I’d been careful on the descents holding back when hitting loose gravel, and opening up when the road was firmer. On one descent the road looked pretty solid so I let the bike go. Then the road changed. Suddenly, I was in deep loose gravel. The front wheel juddered violently. I didn’t know what to do. I’m not a mountain biker. I never had experience with this sort of situation. I didn’t want to brake. We were almost at the bottom and I was praying that the bike would steady. It almost did. I don’t know exactly what happened. I just know I was suddenly thrown off and I could see the bike fly over my head.

I took a minute to get over the shock. I dusted myself off, pulled my bike off to the side and inspected myself for damage. I had a variety of scrapes, nothing that seemed serious. A big bruise formed on my left thigh. My shoulder was aching. I had a first aid kit with me. I swabbed my wounds and dabbed them with some betadine. I checked out the bike. The handlebar had gotten twisted. I got out my multi-tool and straightened it. Otherwise it seemed ok. My devices, Garmin headset and lights, were undamaged.

It was 20 km to camp. Ahead of me was a nine-km ascent with a nine-degree gradient. The road was deserted. The mosquitoes were swarming. I decided my best bet was to keep riding. Eventually, I made it into camp. Chris, TDA’s medic, an ER nurse from Tulsa, Oklahoma, patched me up. I set up my tent and figured I’d make a decision in the morning whether to ride.

With the bruising on my left thigh and right shoulder I found it hard to find a comfortable position for sleeping. I also seemed to have swallowed a ton of dust because my throat was scratchy. As I’d been warned, my bruises had stiffened by morning. I was half in mind to continue anyways but I was convinced to let myself take the day off.  We had a rest day coming at Eagle Plains.

Eagle Plains

Eagle Plains, which is halfway along the Dempster, is a motel and garage. That’s it. It had been constructed to house the workers who’d built the Dempster. When the highway was finished it was converted into a motel. I was sharing a room with David, an avid cyclist from Leeds in England. I was settling into our room, still feeling that gravel dust settling in my throat, when David biked in. For some reason, I told him that I was going to keep my mask on and I was going to take a rapid test. We were both convinced that it would show up negative. Wrong. I was positive. I had Covid. Two others in the team had come down with it a couple of days before. I’d spent about an hour chatting with one of them before they’d tested.  We’d been outdoors but still in fairly close proximity. Covid. My third strike of the week.

I had the prospect of being in isolation in Eagle Plains for seven days with no one and nothing about. Not even internet service. A couple of days before I’d read in the local newspaper a story about a young German woman who’d been walking across Canada with her dog. She’d arrived in Eagle Plains and got stuck there because of Covid lockdown. So, I figured, I wasn’t that bad off.

In the event, the TDA organizer struck a deal with Lawrence, a Gwitchin mechanic at the garage, to drive me and one other rider, who had also tested positive, to Dawson City where we could hole up in more comfortable circumstances. Lawrence knew we had Covid but he didn’t give a damn. He’d had it a couple of times himself and didn’t believe in what he considered the hype around it. So we set off, masked, in pouring rain in his beat-up Ford pick-up, which seemed held together with bits of wire and chewing gum our bikes and bags lashed in the back. Seven hours, and one slashed tire later, we pulled up to our motel at around midnight.

Lawrence strapping in our bikes

I’m figuring this gets all the bad stuff out of the way right at the start of this journey. My isolation may be a blessing, letting my bruises heal. I’m eager to be back on the road, my urgent need for that something other that the road brings unabated.