From left: Jody Wilson, Robin Todd, Pryer Hollin, Hannah Rydlo and Neil Gold at Feversham’s Heritage General Store.
United We Ride
By Robin Todd, photography by Jody Wilson
A diverse group of cyclists face challenges, conquer fears and discover the power of unity on an epic ride through the No Winter Maintenance bikepacking route.
We met before dawn, just outside of Collingwood, on a cool morning. The moon was still looming overhead as our lights guided us towards each other. The other four riders were local to Collingwood and were good friends, while I was from Guelph, a few hours away, and had known only Jody Wilson, the hub of the group and a fellow Velocio ambassador. We were a diverse group. Jody was a fixture in the Collingwood bike scene, a seasoned rider, recently back from Spain where he had raced in the 360-kilometre route of the Girona Traka, and the founder of The Gravel Society cycling group. Neil Gold was a national sales manager for Cannondale; he loved challenging, technical riding and was not afraid of getting dirty, as he did recently at Ghost of the Gravel race in Water Valley, Alberta. Hannah Rydlo and Pryer Hollin were both university students and talented cyclists. Hannah recently raced the UCI gravel Fondo in Collingwood, coming 6th in her age group, while Pryer was an exceptional downhill rider, racing for Kamikaze Bike’s team and putting in some impressive results at races like The Sea Otter Canada Air DH and the Horseshoe Triple Showdown. At 58, I was the elder stateswoman by a few years, and though I had a strong background in bikepacking and other endurance sports, I was glad that it was only afterward that I learned the pedigree of the other cyclists in the group.
The idea for the ride had begun many months ago when Matt Kadey, organizer of the No Winter Maintenance route (NWM), had proposed that the grand depart for the NWM be a memorial ride for Kevin Walsh, a pedestrian who was tragically killed by a hit-and-run driver in July of 2022. Kevin had been a passionate and talented cyclist, a community volunteer who served on the board of the Kolapore Wilderness Trails Association, and an avid explorer of local bikepacking routes. Kevin’s partner, Lisa Pottier, explained, “Kev loved the sense of a community carrying out meaningful projects together. Ultimately, he always wanted to make things better for a wider community; he was excellent at doing so and mastered a ‘working hard, playing hard’ life balance.”
Jody and Kevin became friends through The Gravel Society, exchanging stories and laughter each Tuesday night on a different route. Jody spoke of the weight of Kevin’s absence: “This past year, Kev has been greatly missed by myself and our little gravel group. I keep his spirit alive by remembering a few of the crazy moments we shared descending specific trails or racing up certain climbs. I love to tell people about Kev and his wonderful spirit on the bike; he will always be with us on Tuesday nights.” As a tribute to Kevin, Jody had mapped out a route that would take us on the northern loop of the NWM, including some of the trails that Kevin had explored and loved.
Hannah Rydlo and Robin Todd make their way through the the newly dedicated “Kev’s Way” trail, named in memory of Kevin Walsh.
Neil Gold and Pryer Hollin ridiing near the Beaver Valley.
Even before our group of five met for the first time, we were connected, in a sense, by our shared trepidation. I had been worrying for days about whether I would be able to handle the single-track portions or the steep climbs. Neil told me that he, too, had a litany of concerns: “How much do I eat before? Am I bringing enough food? Where will I fill my bottles if it really warms up? Is my bike ready? What to wear?” Finally, Hannah had her fears: “In the days leading up to the ride, I had been too preoccupied with work and prep to give myself a chance to think. But now, facing the cold nighttime air, a wave of self-doubt rushed through me. I tried my best to push these anxious thoughts away, but I also had to acknowledge it was valid that I was nervous; after all, this was going to be my longest ride by about 60 kilometres. I didn’t want to hold the group up. I worried I hadn’t packed enough food or that I would get hurt or that I would get too tired and would have to turn back.”
Though each of us may have started off with our private worries, one of the benefits of cycling in a group is that it takes you outside of yourself and away from your own preoccupations. As Hannah said, “as soon as I got on my bike, most of those fears fell away. Something about the simple act of pedaling let my mind calm, and I just focused on the tire in front of me.” As we started into the first climb, with the gravel crunching beneath us, our voices were threaded together in conversation, and the world slowly materialized out of the darkness. The drop-in temperature was a clear indication we were climbing the Niagara Escarpment, and we all shivered with a collective chill.
Descending into the valley, we rode through a marshy area, pausing on a small wooden bridge as the rising sun turned the world and ourselves a golden hue. It felt like a gift to be so immersed in the world, free of daily distractions, with the space and time to sit and marvel at this silent and pristine place.
Of course, one cannot marvel forever, and after Jody scrambled back from the reedy marshes where he had ventured to capture the moment, we started into some rocky, rooty, and muddy sections, which is where I took my only tumble of the day, leaping up relatively unscathed and moving on with the group, my focus outwards. Thus, the aches that I might have obsessed over while riding alone became more muted, and only later did I notice my bruised state.
It was while we were climbing one particularly intense pitch that the day took a potentially disastrous turn for Neil: “just as the difficulty level increased and we were climbing up a techy rock section of the Escarpment, where my bike and strengths should shine, I pushed with almost maximum effort attempting to clean the line with no dabs. And, crack! Out of nowhere, a branch jumped into my rear wheel and derailleur, spinning the hanger and derailleur into a contorted position that no one’s bike should ever be in. I stopped pedaling and jumped off immediately to prevent damaging anything further. To say the least, I was crushed. I didn’t have a spare derailleur hanger with me (lesson learned!). Pryer and I attempted triage. After a few thousand mosquito bites, we had the bike upside down and were able to salvage three or four gears and get the bike rolling to complete the day.”
While we watched Neil and Pryer fix the wounded bicycle, other cyclists appeared out of a ghostly dawn, packed up on a wide range of bicycles, and beginning their second day on the NWM route. There was a sense of camaraderie amongst them that was almost palpable, and I felt the warmth of it as they greeted us and inquired about Neil’s bike.
Once the repairs were complete, we tackled the first big descent (down Sideroad 7B), which offered lots of fresh gravel. Knowing the road well, Neil warned me that I could not just let it rip. I thought, there’s no danger of my doing so—in fact, my greatest concern was that I might actually wear out my brake pads before I reached the bottom of the hill, and I confess I used the brakes quite liberally all the way down.
The reward for getting down the hill safely was the Kimberley General Store, which was buzzing with the energy of a dozen riders sipping on fresh coffee and feasting on fresh butter tarts and quiches, all made in-house by the very kind owners who had opened early to accommodate the cyclists. I consumed a coffee and tart with abandon, not realizing the steep climb up ahead on Sideroad 7A. I was grateful we were traveling with no packs, as we passed several cyclists whose load forced them to walk their bikes up the steepest pitches of 15%. Pryer, in contrast, managed to do a wheelie as he rode, but I am chalking that up to youthfulness, and told him I would be truly impressed if he could repeat such a feat when he is in his 50s, which he will no doubt manage to do.
There were so many beautiful moments on the single-track sections, but by far the most moving one was reaching the trailhead for Kev’s Way, a new trail that had been developed by the Kolapore Wilderness Trails Association and named in honor of Kevin Walsh. I wish I had had the privilege of knowing Kevin, who had clearly been a vibrant and generous member of the cycling community and who is deeply missed by his friends and family.
As we were winding our way up one particularly steep section of rocky trail, my confidence faltered, and instantly I lost momentum and had to clip out and walk, as did Hannah who was just ahead of me. We grumbled a bit about walking when we should be riding, and then, with the next pitch looming, we got back on our bikes. I watched Hannah pick her line and drive up to the top, and I was determined to do the same. With Jody encouraging me from behind, I surged up the steep pitch, focusing on my path, keeping my front wheel down. I was elated when I reached the top, knowing that had I been by myself, I would have walked up that section, and that only the faith and energy of the group had compelled me to keep going.
Though each of us may have started off with our private worries, one of the benefits of cycling in a group is that it takes you outside of yourself and away from your own preoccupations.
While it might be easy for a group to be unified at the beginning of a ride, when spirits are high and everyone is eager for adventure, what is more telling is the final part of the journey, when legs are tired, the day is growing cold, and the wind is kicking up. That is where the strength of our group really shone through. We continued to pull each other along, with Jody shepherding us and stopping for brief fuel breaks when necessary. Near the end of the ride, he could hear me behind him, a crazed animal tearing through the wrapper of my final bar, and he drifted back to make sure I could sit on his wheel while I frantically gnawed away. With ease, he pulled us back to the other three who had raced down the last hill with joyful abandon.
Part of what made the day special was not that our fears never came to pass, but rather that they did, and we conquered them. As Hannah recounted, “I got stung by two bees just as we were heading up a steep and technical climb. At 90 kilometres, I started to bonk. Somehow, though, over the course of the ride, I became confident that I could overcome the obstacles I had been so worried about. I fought through the pain of the bee stings and was able to eat an entire bag of chips while riding to combat my bonk. As we passed the point of my longest ride, I no longer felt the fear I had felt in the morning, but in its place, I felt excited at my new accomplishment, and immensely proud.” I felt a pride similar to Hannah’s. I had feared the technical parts of the route, but had surmounted them. Sure, I crashed once, and had to unclip a few times, but as I kept going my confidence grew. Finally, Neil had worried about whether or not his bike was ready to go, never imagining that a close encounter with a stick would do such harm, and yet in the end he crushed the ride despite such damage. We had worked as a unit, facing the challenges and enjoying the gifts that the day offered, and as we reached Collingwood and prepared to go our separate ways, our weariness was eclipsed by euphoria and gratitude. E
For more information on the NWM bikepacking route, bt700.ca/nwm.html