I’ve been pretty lucky with the wind on the prairies. Until now...
My plan, yesterday, was to cycle about 85km from Moose Jaw to Chaplin. Mission accomplished. The ‘picturesque’ photo above is Chaplin Village Campground. It includes a giant pile of refined potash in the background. Just me and one RV. No shower. No light in the miserable washroom. No hot water. But plenty of grasshoppers stampeding ahead of me as I walk through the grass to a hose in the field marked POTABLE WATER. The single source of water apart from the washrooms. Two hundred metres to the south is the Trans Canada. The same distance north is the railroad, rumbling through my dreams all night.
Yesterday, I’d set the alarm for 3 a.m. hoping to get going by 5. I might enjoy a few hours of light wind in the morning. At 3, as if on cue, the rain started and I listened for an hour waiting for a break. Then I fell back to sleep. My second alarm sounded at 6:30 a.m. I tried to find a little morning sunshine to dry out my sodden tent. Coffee. Two ciabatta rolls with peanut butter. I got started around 8:30 a.m.
The wind was out of the west all day. 14km an hour, at first. Generally, a 5km headwind is equivalent to cycling up a .5 gradient hill — in terms of additional effort. And every additional 5km of wind velocity reduces your speed by 10%. Had I been riding on flat terrain this would not be so challenging. But for most of the route I was climbing rolling hills.
Yes. There are plenty of hills on the prairie.
My progress was slow. I told myself that if I could manage an average of 10km per hour, I would still roll into the idyllic campground (pictured above) around 4:30 or 5. Even counting a couple of breaks for food (there are two villages with services along my route) and a few short breaks just to get out of the saddle for a few minutes.
By noon the wind picked up. It varied from 20-25km an hour straight out of the west. So now any long rolling hill with an easy 3% gradient became a 5% or more. A 5% was suddenly 7%. With a loaded touring bike. Panniers hanging from the racks like sails.
To make matters more challenging, the highway shoulder was no longer smooth. At the halfway point it becomes concrete mixed with small stones. Similar to a city sidewalk. My bike is equipped with Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires. Very resilient. It is rare to have a flat. But that security comes with a sacrifice.
Over the pebble and stone concrete I could feel every vibration in my hands, my arms, and my ass. That, the strong wind, the constant rolling hills... I felt myself getting worn down.
Then the rain began. The wind came in fierce gusts. The temperature dropped a few degrees. The droplets so cold they sting. I had been watching isolated rain showers surrounding me all day. I was sure this wouldn’t last long.
Half an hour later, I was soaked through. The sunscreen on my arms turned chalky white with rivulets of brown where my tan emerged.
And then it happened...
The wind simply stopped. A complete lull. I turned on some speed to make up for lost time and reduce the duration of this misery. The lull continued for twenty minutes and I felt the wind shift. It was coming out on the northwest now. A miserly gift. But welcome.
By the time I reached Chaplin, my destination, it was past six. I pulled into the little gas station/convenience store and bought a cold orange soda. I could feel all my energy had drained away. There is a restaurant across the way but I discovered it was closed until August 8 due to a family emergency. I wasn’t hungry anyway. I mean, I was — but I felt a kind of nausea that made the idea of a full meal unappealing.
I cycled the final couple of kilometres to the campground. I staggered about as I got off my bike. Clumsy. My brain in a fog. But in fits and starts, fighting the wind, I managed to get the tent up and I crawled inside. My forehead was hot. As though I were sick with a fever but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t. Maybe the wind had been wicking the sweat off me too fast to actually permit me to cool down. I poured some water on a length of cloth and lay it over my face. I popped a couple of Tylenol.
Soon one of my legs began to painfully cramp. I regularly take electrolyte supplements. I keep hydrated. It occurred to me that my legs had no real chance to rest all day. A muscle cramp is simply a contraction that won’t release. That certainly describes my ride. Even downhill I had to keep pedalling. Constant tension on my muscles.
I got more leg cramps throughout the night — which is unusual for me. The alarm woke me at 3:30 am. I checked my phone for the weather. Already an 11km wind straight out of the west. I can’t do this two days in a row. I can’t face another 90km of strong west wind and rolling hills.
I get out of bed around 8:30 and make some coffee. It is blowing so hard my little alcohol stove can scarcely keep a steady flame to boil the water even though I am hunched over it with my back to the wind. I am not really hungry but I try to snack on a few mixed nuts. I can feel a wave of nausea as I chew. I spit them out before I retch.
Later I cycle to the village grocery store. Maybe find something more appetizing. It is closed due to a scheduled power outage. I check my phone. A broad swath of southwestern Saskatchewan, from Moose Jaw to just east of Swift Current, has no power. I go back and lie in my tent, still strangely exhausted, until noon. Power restored, I pick up a few groceries and make a meal. Still not really hungry, but I eat anyway.
So here I am in an eerily quiet village. I’ve seen almost no one all day. Late afternoon and I feel nearly restored. The wind tomorrow is forecast to be out of the south. The plan is the same. Get up early and make some progress before the wind really gets going. 90km to Swift Current.
I’ve come well over 3000km, so far. More than halfway. A little wind is not going to stop me now.