The morning after my first 150km day, I awoke completely immobilized by muscle pain. In this cycle-induced “locked-in syndrome,” I couldn’t even muster a moan; instead I protested silently, my mouth flapping open and closed with the dumb shock of a fish out of water.
The Sunday morning canicule (“heat wave”) didn’t help my sorry state. Stiff and contorted, I stumbled over to a nearby diner for breakfast. I would have been a hit, if I was auditioning for an extra’s part for the Walking Dead. I also broke fast with a zombie’s violent dexterity, pausing only for the briefest of moments to contemplate the Quebec diner’s “all meat” dish, which included not just the usual bacon, ham, sausage tri-yum-virate, but three additional slabs of unidentifiable salami and/or pepperoni. Any revulsion, however, was quickly swallowed along with a generous dose of ketchup.
The route to Quebec City was populated with a wide diversity of cyclist sub-species. I leeched on to the competitive cyclists, who whizzed by me on their daily training rides, trying to match them pedal for pedal and guiltily drafting behind them. In contrast to other cyclists, I became aware of my growing impatience to meet my daily mileage goal. The most impressive were the cross-Canada pilgrim types, creaking along with mini-trailers and bikes laden down with gear. Hardened by so many days on the road, their bodies seemed to have morphed into caves, housing hermetic consciousnesses, drawing forever inward, away from the quotidian discomforts of the road. There outside appearances were cavelike indeed; crannies ran through rumpled clothing, shaggy facial hair sprouted here and there, a patina of dust settled permanently on every inch of their body and gear. The pilgrim exhibited a remarkable stoicism, a complete acceptance of personal limitations, married with an almost fanatical certainty in their final destination.
I also encountered another bohemian breed of biker. Laden with dreadlocks instead of helmets, dirty and over-exposed to the elements, these carefree nomads offered another counter-point to my zealous pedaling. For bohemians, destination is merely a suggestion. Cloaked behind their unkempt, odorific exteriors, these hippies hold a certain wisdom and tenacity, managing to move slowly while continuing to live in the “now.”
The one break I allowed myself was to give in to the gravity of one of the many strawberry stands strewn along my route. When Steinbeck wistfully bellyached that “the strawberries don’t taste as they used to and the thighs of women have lost their clutch!” he clearly hadn’t spent six hours on the saddle of a cycle. Stuffing my face with these summer strawberries was an unparalleled pleasure. In addition, I was relieved not have to test the clutches of the burly farm lady who served them up.
The rest of my trip to Québec was a tale of Beauty and the Beast. First, the beauty – the 50 kilometers leading up to Québec is absolutely stunning. The cycle trail shoots off from the highway and drops into a sudden expansion of lowland along the St. Lawrence River, which bursts with verdant fecundity.
After marveling on nature, on this hidden beauty, I had to confront the beast: the writhing, impenetrable tracts of highway surrounding the city. Roaring beltways and sprawling construction sites cut off my approach to the city time and time again. I grew edgy, even desperate, like a poor migratory beast, instincts snubbed by an impossible barrier. Despite fading energy reserves, dizzying hills and arduous detours, I managed not to collapse. At nighfall, I crept across the comely cobblestones of Vieux Québec, and crashed uncontrollably, face first, into a youth hostel pillow.