Cycling in the USA and Canada Part 3: In which I have uncomfortably close encounters of the bike and border kind

To recap, Parts 1 and 2 are available if you want to catch earlier events. Camping in NC was an experience of a lifetime and I genuinely hope to make it back sometime in the future and do it all again. This episode brings our adventure to a close but not without some great bike racing, some dodgy photos and a superhero origin story.

Personal highlights of the first leg of the trip definitely include the moonshine and the bear. I'm certain the Tim Tams were well received and my campfire damper was ok, although I burnt the bottom pretty badly. Of course the rides were great and most of all, the people and conversations around the campfire. We discussed all sorts of things including the relative merits of universal health care and how that affects taxation structures. This led into a side discussion regarding the price of beer in Australia where I believe I summed up our plight accurately "They haven't yet found a tax rate on beer that'll stop us from buying it." In short, if you get the chance to hang with PdC folks, you should do it. You'll always get a good story out of it.

On the Monday I left NC without Sui and Megabeth as they were still battling with the complexities of computerised vehicle management systems as filtered through a malfunctioning alternator (translation: the alternator died and took the car's computer with it). Fortunately for me a good friend of theirs (MsT) was also on the trip with us and I was able to get a ride back to DC with her after Sui and Megabeth assured MsT that I am not a serial killer. Out of respect for them and their endorsement I did not kill MsT although at one point on the drive I did encourage her to drive through what I called "an isolated heavy storm" and what we found out when we stopped for dinner was actually a tornado.

After 9 hours of driving and about 5 hours of sleep I got up on Tuesday morning to pick up the rental car and drive to Montreal. Apparently some people would consider a 700mile solo drive to be long enough of a trip on its own, but after looking at the map there were a couple of things that I felt I needed to add in:
1 - being a fan of The Greatest Television Show Ever Made (sorry majope, Buffy's great, but...), I had to drive through Baltimore.
2 - given the fact that I was already heading in that direction I figured it was only right that I continue through Philly and try a cheesesteak.

I like reading maps and planning routes, but I also like gadgets and so I decided to use my Garmin Edge 800 as a hand-held GPS device while navigating. Over the long run this was a really good option, especially navigating the cities and getting to specific locations. Unfortunately it's also how I wound up taking about 4 and a half hours to get to Philly, having gone via Delaware.Now technically that is the quickest way from Baltimore. The I-95 takes you right through but... well how about we just say ProTip: before using your Garmin cycling computer device as a GPS unit for the car, make sure you adjust the settings to include roads a bike might normally avoid such as Interstate highways and toll roads.

This is how I got to enjoy some of the lovelier parts of these US cities. I was especially taken aback by Philly which I may have subsequently described as a "shithole". Seriously, what the fuck's up with Philadelphia? I'm sure it's got plenty of lovely, maybe even charming areas. There are some good schools in the area I know, but still... was there some kind of competition for most rundown city in the US? But I get ahead of myself.

Philadelphia is famous the world over for two things:
1 - the dominance of their sports teams, the bell with the crack in it, that Tom Hanks movie where he makes out with Antonio Banderas
2 - Cheesesteaks

I had been reliably informed by people who know (two American co-workers) that I should go to Pat's in preference to Gino's. And so I did. I went for the authentic thing with onions and cheese whiz. One day I'll find it in my heart to forgive Pennsylvania. One day. This was probably one of the worst things I've ever eaten, and I've been to Scotland.
Just sayin'.

Anyway, some time after Philly I worked out my little GPS issue and from there it was a nice clean 12 hour run up to Montreal. My personal highlight was the interview with the Canadian customs guy at the border.

Him - "Are you bringing any guns into Canada?"

Me - "God no."

Him - "Are you bringing any alcohol into Canada?"

Me - "You mean you guys ran out? I can go back and get some."

Him - "Welcome to Canada sir."

Last year in Belgium I had the pleasure of meeting a bunch of PdC folk, among them were MathieuG and his friend Simon, fine men from Montreal. All I'm saying is if you ever go to Montreal, even if you have to pay him to take the day off, make sure Simon is on hand to give you the brew-pub tour. My personal favourite was the Benelux Cafe where shortly after our arrival the brewmaster stopped by to give us fresh samples of the hops they were harvesting at the back table and to talk through the beers currently in production. I swear I loved this place for the beer, it was just a bonus that the waitress was really cute. In addition to sampling many fine beers and genuine Montreal poutine, I also bought a hockey jersey (remember this, it'll be important later). Go Habs Go!

On Friday I drove up to Quebec City, which is just lovely. There's all sorts of cool architecture and I'm generally a fan of any city that has arches built from castle wall type structures. The circuit for the race is fantastic in terms of viewing the race as it was really easy to just slowly work my way around the course stopping at various locations and taking photos as the race passed by before moving on to the next location. I got some ok shots of the break and the peloton as the race unfolded but by far my best (and worst) picture came on the final lap.

Here is a small sample of photos from the day:

This is the break earlier in the piece


This one tells none of the story of the race but I like it


The arch just before the finish



On the last lap I'd posted up at about 450m to go figuring PhilGil would use the 500m sign as the indicator to punch for the line. Just as he came flying through on the final lap he lunged towards my side of the course and for a moment I was worried I was going to become the guy who hits the rider with his lens and destroys the race. In truth, like most men, I had overestimated the size of my lens and happily Phil was able to continue his ride to victory. This is the pathetically blurry sequence of photos:

Phil punching for the line


Wow he's going to pass right by me


Oh shit, I'm going to be the guy who's forever famous for taking PhilGil out on the last lap


Close call



Despite a bit of chat in the live thread I wasn't able to make contact with PopUpRolen on the day, but did catch up with MathieuG and Simon again after the race for another beer! On Saturday I was back in Montreal and took the opportunity to do a bit of riding around the city courtesy of their Bixi bike rental scheme. ProTip: When using a bike from a rental scheme, check that the quick-release lever for the seat height adjustment works BEFORE checking out your bike. My first ride was at the lowest possible seat height, which brought back some BMX memories of my childhood. Unfortunately there were no waterslides nearby.

When Sunday rolled around I decided to walk through (up and across?) Mont-Royal Park which is seriously awesome. It was great seeing so many runners and cyclists out but my personal favourite were the cross-country roller bladers, poles and all. As I walked through one of the hiking trails to the race I noticed an alarming thing - I think the squirrels are plotting against us. They're becoming more and more bold. I was followed by a group of at least 3 through the park and they weren't at all shy about making their presence known. When the revolution comes, I'm going to say that I tried to warn you.

I spent the first half of the race hanging out on the side of the climb with MathieuG and his folks who are also big cycling fans. I even tried some of my terrible French at times. I also got to meet paisley and her husband who had decided to drive up for the weekend. It was a lot of fun, but by far the best thing about this part of the race was finally uncovering the origin story of PdC's own Alp Superhero willj:

This is definitely exactly how it all began



Before the day was done, I decided to walk back down around the course and found a spot near the finish to watch the last few laps from. There I ran into a lovely Canadian couple and after attempting to explain some of the intricacies of how the UCI points system is applied (I told them they use it to determine the winner of the Tour a year in advance, and that the bottom 10 riders go into a pool to be popped for doping violations in the coming season*). Happily for me, they then offered to share their wine with me as we watched the final two laps.

Canada is a lovely country.

There are riders in this photo, but they're hard to pick out against the backdrop of the rather impressive crowd



The next morning I was braced for the short drive back to DC (lengthened by a planned detour for lunch in upstate NY halfway between Syracuse and Rochester - what can I say, I'm Australian... we drive).

As I arrived at the border crossing I mentally warned myself to not play any games like I had with the Canadian guy on the way in. Even though I was on my best behaviour, I was doomed from the start. ProTip: Never, never, NEVER tell a US Customs Guard that you went to Canada to watch a bike race, it will only confirm to him that you are a communist.

Him - "Why were you in Canada?"

Me - "There were a couple of bike races I went to see."

Him - "What kind?"

Me - "Pushbikes, you know, you pedal them?"

Him "And you enjoy that sort of thing do you?"

After that there was a discussion about the definition of the word "most" as it pertained to the length of my stay in Canada vs the US. My understanding of the word most is that it means more than half. His definition was apparently exactly however long I'd been in Canada for. Next he searched my luggage and then came back to the driver's window.

Him - "You bought some kind of jersey?"

Me - "Yeah, I got a hockey jersey."

Him - "But you said you went to Canada to watch bike races."

Me - "Yep."

Him - "You don't have any bike souvenirs."

Me - "Well it's not really like that. I've got a lot of photos."

RandomFact: Did you know that when I say Dulles it sounds like Dallas? Neither did I.

Eventually I was allowed to enter the country but I think mostly it was just because they wanted the rental car back. ProTip: It's probably best not to be a foreign national attempting to enter the US on September 12, 2011.

I once again enjoyed the generous hospitality of Megabeth and Sui on my last day in the US. It was really nice to catch up after the Montreal leg and I even got to enjoy a riding tour of DC just before I flew out. It really was one of the best trips I've been on and I can only thank everyone again who helped make it such a great time.

*That part of the story may actually be a complete fabrication, but honestly, it's not that much worse than the actual UCI system.

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