Two cross-country rides through two very different Canadas
JaBig, a Montreal DJ, discovers many sides to himself and this vast nationPhoto by: JaBig
By Jean-Aimé Bigirimana a.k.a. DJ JaBig
Everyone knows Canada is the second-largest country in the world. I have known that from an early age. I only appreciated how big this nation is when I crossed it by bicycle not once but twice, just to be certain.
In 2016, I hopped on my fixed-gear bike on a cold January day to pedal from Montreal to St John’s, N.L., turn west to Victoria, and then head all the way to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., where, after 15 months, I ran out of road not because it was frozen but because I had reached the farthest north anyone can ride by land in Canada. I also broke a Guinness World Record, and almost some bones.
In 2020, in early August, I rode a similar route on a bicycle with a lot of gears. It was all I could do to get away in a pandemic. I started in Victoria on the Pacific Coast and went all the way to Rivière-du-Loup, Que., when I ran out of road not because I had reached the Atlantic Ocean but because the country stopped at the New Brunswick border. The Maritimes had closed themselves off from Canada. I did not break a Guinness World Record but I accomplished something more meaningful: I raised close to $14,000 for charity.
The only things in common between those trips were the names of the roads. While they were all in Canada, it felt like I had ridden in two different countries. The different seasons and the effects of the pandemic changed everything.
My story had a very sudden start
One afternoon in June 2015, I walked past a local bike shop in Montreal, my hometown. A nice-looking bike caught my attention. The shop staff had told me that it had one gear and that the wheel was fixed. All the technical-ities didn’t make sense to me at the time because I knew nothing about bikes. They said I could take a ride around the block to feel the difference.
Two minutes into the ride I fell because I slowed down and the pedals kept rotating. I went head first over the handlebars. I could not understand what was going on and why the pedals of that BLB La Piovra Air were acting strange. I did, however, like the feel of the ride and how I felt at one with the bike. I was sold.
From June until late September, I was on that fixie pedalling all over Montreal at first, and then venturing off the island into farmlands and even all the way to the Laurentides, northwest of the city. I did 100 km, and then my first 160 km, which I later learned was a big milestone for cyclists. Someone had told me about an app called Strava to document my rides. The farther I went, the more I wanted to go the day after.
Where did I find all that time to ride? I’m a professional DJ. I work weekend evenings, which means I had all the rural roads to myself on weekdays. I took my “rest” days on Friday, Saturday and Sunday because I had to travel locally or internationally to my gigs.
In early autumn, I was playing around with Strava, trying to figure out what in the world cadence, elevation, FTP and all the other geeky cycling terms meant when I came across a statistic: 5,000 km. That was the total distance that I had ridden that summer. The figure struck me. I thought, I basically rode from Montreal to Vancouver this summer. Maybe one day I will ride to Vancouver and the Pacific Ocean. But that seemed too wild and crazy, so I promptly dismissed the idea and kept riding around Montreal.
At that time, my career was doing well. I had a good life, but deep down I felt the pressure to become even more accomplished as an artist, and yet also to become more of an adult: meet someone, get married and have children. These pressures started to weigh more and more on me. One day I just decided that for my sanity, I had to stop everything and get away from it all to reconsider my life. That summer, I had realized that I experienced true happiness when I was pedalling. I could put my problems aside for a few hours and come back to them rejuvenated and ready to deal with them with a clearer mind. The crazy idea of riding across Canada started to make sense.
Winter was coming. If I didn’t go right away, I would never do the big ride. My international gigs would take me to warmer countries in early 2016. By summer, I would be so overbooked that there would be no way to excuse myself from my professional engagements.
The first trip
On Jan. 31, 2016, six months after getting my first bike, I threw my leg over another fixed-gear bike that I had just gotten delivered 48 hours earlier. I started my journey across Canada with the mission of riding coast to coast to coast and attempting to break the Guinness World Record of the longest journey by bicycle in a single country.
My summer bike was a track frame that had road tires. While I was able to ride up to 200 km with 23-mm-wide Continental Gatorskins, I knew that cycling across Canada on a fixed-gear (because why not?) would require a frame with a more relaxed geometry and with the ability to accept wider tires for roads that would be covered with snow.
I settled on a Cinelli-Mash cyclocross frame that had more of an endurance configuration so I could ride it for longer distances on 28-mm-wide tires on dry roads and 38-mm 45Nrth studded tires in snow without any issues.
When I left Montreal, I had never done any bike touring, ridden in snow or even camped. But I had to go. Something was just pushing me to just get started. The rest would fall into place. Worst case scenario? I could return home with a little embarrassment but having given something crazy a try.Canada.
The ride from Montreal to North Sydney, N.S., where I had to catch a ferry to Newfoundland, was actually easier than I thought despite freezing temperatures. I had learned to dress properly when I was in London, on a DJ tour. I walked into a store that sold cycling apparel. I asked them to help me pick clothing for the adventure that I had in mind, keeping in mind that I was talking about a Canadian, not a British, winter. I remember thinking to myself that cycling was such an expensive sport. Even the clothes were costly. Months later, I learned that I had walked into the most premium store of them all and that there were cheaper alternatives. Yet, I’ve stuck with Rapha because I didn’t have the time or inclination to research alternatives. I also learned very quickly to stick with what works and not to try anything new when you are in the middle of nowhere.
Newfoundland was hell. In my 15 years living in Canada, I had never seen such a mix of snow and freezing rain. Instead of sitting out bad days, I kept riding, thinking that I would warm up. The opposite kept happening. Twice, I had wanted to quit the ride and go home. But each time, I still had to finish the day’s ride to get to my destination. Then I could quit for good. Naturally, after a warm shower, a delicious meal and a good night sleep, I would wake in the morning and do it all over again until I reached St John’s.
I was wiser by the time I turned around to head to the Pacific Ocean. I would sit out very windy and rainy days because not only were they dangerous to ride in, but they also took my joy away and required more energy, which meant more food and more money. For the first time in my life, the workaholic in me learned that being an overachiever for the sake of being one is actually stupidity. Learning how to strike strategically and resting properly was actually the smartest way to take on the challenges.
Summer started when I was in Ontario. I spent a week in Toronto visiting friends and spinning a few DJ sets to finance my trip. I hit the road again after what seemed a well-deserved break.
In Burlington, west of Toronto, I popped into a store. During the few seconds that I had left my bike unattended, it was stolen. It would take weeks and the donations of good Samaritans to help me get a new bike so I could resume the ride. It was upsetting to waste all of August not riding. But, to be honest, riding in 40 C temperatures was quite challenging. It was actually harder than riding at -40 C.
I reached Victoria on Dec. 30 and spent New Year’s in Vancouver. In mid-January, I rode from the Pacific Coast through British Columbia, Yukon and the Northwest Territories to Tuktoyaktuk, a small hamlet covered in snow. After a few minutes of rest, I was ready to go farther north to look for the ocean as the only thing that I could see were vast fields covered in snow. A local man told me that what I was seeing was the frozen Arctic Ocean. There was no more road. I had gone as far as I could on a bicycle. In a way, it was anticlimactic. I thought there was more, but no. I was done. So I pedalled to the closest airport, put my bike in a box and flew back home.
On Aug. 25 2019, the day I turned 40, I embarked on a DJ world tour by bicycle. This epic ride would last five years and have me pedal more than 100,000 km. My planned route, which zigzagged across continents, was designed so I could explore and experience many countries. I really had planned for everything on this world tour. I had even come to my senses and had gotten a bicycle with gears, an Open U.P.P.E.R. with a 1-by SRAM Force eTap AXS groupset. It had Zipp 303 wheels, René Herse tires, a Brooks C15 saddle, and Tailfin panniers and seat pack.
After six months, I had cycled through three U.S. states and five European countries when the pandemic hit. The Canadian embassy called me and urged me to return home as getting consular assistance would be impossible as the world was shutting down. From March until July 2020, I was in lockdown in Montreal and was hearing the predictions of a second wave in autumn. With that in mind, I decided to cycle across Canada again, but amid the pandemic, with the objective to make it coast to coast to coast in record time, arriving back home before the country would likely start shutting down again in October.
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The idea was to ride what I had done three years earlier in reverse: start in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., pedal south to Victoria, and then head east toward St John’s, N.L. This time, I would not be chasing a Guinness World Record. I would be raising money for World Bicycle Relief. My objective was to get my social media audience to donate $12,000 to support my 12,000 km charity challenge.
The third part of this second journey across the second-largest country in the world is that it would happen in summer. While I’d have wildlife to worry about, at least winter rain, snow and cold were non-issues. I figured a cross-Canada summer ride would be far less complex and challenging than my winter one. I did, however, under-estimate the pandemic factor.
A modified ride
For starters, I could not begin my ride in Tuktoyaktuk because I would have had to quarantine before travelling through any of the Territories. That would have meant a whole month of not cycling. So I scratched off the idea of starting from the Arctic Coast, eliminating 4,000 km from the 12,000 km epic. In early August, I dipped my front wheel in the Pacific Ocean at the start of the Trans-Canada Highway in Victoria. Then I started pedalling to St John’s, or so I thought.
Riding a bicycle with gears in summer meant that conquering the Rocky Mountains was child’s play compared with my fixed-gear bike in snowstorms. I was also riding longer with all the summer daylight, averaging 140 km daily in 2020 versus 100 km in 2016–17.
While the actual riding was easier this past summer, everything else about a cross-country trip was different because of the pandemic. I couldn’t stop at Tim Hortons shops, my go-to pit stop for breakfast, water-bottle refills, Wi-Fi and bathroom breaks. Most restaurants across Canada were closed and only offered takeout or drive-thru service. So, I had to spend as much as $10 a day on water bottles from gas-station convenience stores that were still open. The cost of staying hydrated added up. A seasoned adventurer might have gotten a filtration system and taken water from rivers and lakes. It is Canada after all, right? But as I mentioned, I have never camped. I am a city boy. Drinking water from random sources is an absolute no for this risk-averse, kinda-coward jet-set DJ.
During my first cross-Canada trip, I used the Warmshowers platform or the Couchsurfing app to connect with locals who were up for hosting cyclists on long journeys. I’d also reach out to fans of my music and social-media audience for places to spend a night as a way to save money. I stayed with more than 110 families and made friends that I still speak with. This past summer, I did not want to put anyone, including myself, at risk or have awkward conversations, so I mostly booked motels. I can guarantee that they were even more expensive than usual. Many Trans-Canada Highway workers were back on the job after five months in lockdown and occupied most of the rooms.
Another major difference between rides was how busy the roads were. Summer means an increase in traffic, but this past year, people could not travel abroad. I’m guessing 2020 is the year with the most road trips taken within this country during its entire history. I had so many encounters with inexperienced drivers with camper trailers who would forget what they were hauling. After their vehicles would overtake me, they’d pull to the right too soon. Usually, I have no fear of riding on busy roads. I mean, I’ve ridden in New York traffic, in London, Paris, Montreal and Toronto. I can handle myself. Yet on Highway 17 in Northern Ontario, I literally shed tears of worry whenever inconsiderate RV drivers passed me without giving me my legal 1-m of space, even when the opposite lane was clear, which was most of the time.
To add insult to injury, I was pulled over by an OPP officer who told me that someone had called in to say that I was riding erratically in the middle of the road. I raged at that unfair report that could have resulted in a fine. I explained to the officer that for a whole week, I had my eyes glued on the road so I could stay on the 30-cm ledge of asphalt between the painted road line and the rocky gravel shoulder.
Still, summer cycling was a beautiful experience. I got to appreciate the blue lakes and the green forests that became more and more orange as I kept pedalling east into autumn. On the first journey across Canada, everything – from bodies of water to wooded areas – were white with snow, a very unified scenery.
On a bicycle with gears and with fewer days off for sightseeing or to visit with friends, I arrived in Quebec quickly. It turned out to be the last province I would be able to reach. I couldn’t ride into the Maritimes to reach the Atlantic Ocean because of the Atlantic bubble. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador had pretty much separated their provinces from the rest of Canada by putting up strict travel restrictions. The bubble blocked my fundraiser ride.
Instead of cycling 12,000 km to cover this vast nation, I was only able to cover 5,000 km because 7,000 km of it made non-residents personae non gratae. It’s amazing how a country, in which free passage is never an issue, had to divide itself into bits and pieces as a means of survival.
At the New Brunswick border, I simply turned around. I pedalled to the closest bus terminal, put my bike in a box and took a bus back home from Rivière-du-Loup to Montreal, my hometown. I had the feeling of unfinished but finished business because I had cycled the Canada that was legally accessible to me.
For the second time, my ride had ended in a rather anticlimactic way. The winter journey had finished abruptly because, while I was willing to keep on riding, I had run out of country quite literally. On the summer journey, three years later, I was also willing to keep on riding but I figuratively ran out of country.
A fundraising success
The good news is that those following my adventures kept the donations coming even though I didn’t ride the intended 12,000 km. As matter of fact, I was able to reach $14,000, which means that the fundraiser was nothing but a success, a rather big consolation prize.
My first trip across Canada was more about the journey, while the second was about the destination as I was racing to stay ahead of the pandemic’s second wave. If I could go back and do one of them over again, which would I pick? Both. The point of each adventure is that it had its own set of amazing and challenging parts. The ability to adapt to new situations is what determines if the bike trip will be pleasant or the worst.
I am not naive. We have been ushered into a decade of pandemics, in my opinion, but that will not stop my passion to see more of the world on a bicycle. As a matter of fact, I am already plotting my next project, which will be the most daring to date, its foundation set by two big trips in Canada.
This story originally appeared in the February/March issue of Canadian Cycling Magazine