The temperature gauge in my car said -27C. It was 5h20am on Saturday, Feb 26 and my car wasn’t happy. Luckily the engine started but it felt like the brakes didn’t work for the first ten minutes of the drive. Most people over 50 wake up late on a Saturday morning, go to a café, order poached eggs, and read up on the latest news. Not this over 50 guy! That morning I had a 100 km fat bike adventure planned along with 47 other ambitious participants across three distances; 50km, 100km, and 200km. The Wendigo Fat Bike Ultra race is hosted by Cameron Dube and a small army of volunteers. It is an annual event that takes place the last weekend of February in Cobden, Ontario.
The Wendigo Fat Bike Ultra uses shared trails converted from old rail lines now called the Algonquin Trail and the CN Trail. In the summer it is a multi-use trail and in the winter snowmobiles are the primary users, however, on this one weekend, dozens of fat bikers congregate for a mini fat bike festival in the heart of Cobden, in the Whitewater Region of Ontario. Cobden is at the centre of the race. The 50km race starts in Cobden and sends riders to Renfrew and back. The 100km and 200km races guide riders north to Petawawa with a turn around at the Petawawa river. The 100km group terminates their ride back in Cobden while the 200km riders continue on to Renfrew and beyond to Arnprior along the CN Trail where they turn around to rejoin the Algonquin trail ride back to Cobden.
I arrived around 6am to a flurry of activity at the Whitewater Brewery, an event sponsor and space host for the start line. I was impressed with how many people had already arrived and were ready for the 6h30am start time. Feeling a sense of urgency and with the extreme cold slowing my every move, I hurried to put my bike together, arrange my gear, and go through the final preparations. It was still dark and my body was shivering. In my hurried state I didn’t get a chance to exchange pleasantries with my fellow racers. At one point, a kind woman approached me asking me if I wanted a set of Wendigo socks set aside for after the race. Of course, I said yes and then I gave her my name. She laughed and said: “Gene, can you not recognize me, I am Cat?”. I felt so silly for not recognizing Cat Weaver, a friend I met via the Fat Bike community a few years ago. Cat was volunteering and supporting the racers. In my defense, she wasn’t in her cycling gear and had a big mask on.
We all gathered in the brewery parking lot to follow Cam’s truck as he guided us to the official start line along the Algonquin trail. He joked with us that the street through Cobden to the trail had a 20% grade. I laughed and then wondered if he was telling the truth. Later, upon checking my RideWithGPS file, the maximum grade on that short stretch touched 8.7%. It still felt sharp on a cold body riding a fully loaded fat bike with all the mandatory gear.
Like most other racers I barely slept the night before. I booked a hotel only 20 minutes from Cobden but the room was cold, the heater was loud, and the guests in the next room were noisy. I tossed and turned all night listening to news and podcasts hoping they would put me to sleep, but the news these days is not very restful. The other option was to sleep at home and wake around 3am to drive the 1.5 hours to Cobden. My plan to book the hotel didn’t pan out in terms of rest. But I think most of us barely slept the night before.
We all lined up along the start line on the Algonquin Trail in Cobden. Cam didn’t keep us long, knowing how cold it was and that we had to get moving. The official start time was marked at 6h39am and he captured this fun video of the start. I’m the second rider on the right hand side.
And just like that, the race started. But quickly into the ride, I noticed my rear tire didn’t have enough air pressure. I had assumed the 5-10cm of snow that fell the day before would create softer conditions. But the extreme overnight cold froze the top layers of the snowmobile tracks making it for a faster ride. Within about five kilometres I stopped to find my pump and fumbled trying to pump air into my rear wheel. After about 5 minutes of frustration I finally used my air cartridge and within seconds I was back to pedalling. I noted that in future races to have an air cartridge and release valve at the ready in an accessible pocket. After that I left the air cartridge in my jersey pocket in case I would need it again. Despite my strong start many people passed me as I fumbled with my tire. So I had to accelerate the pace to regain my positioning. But in doing so, I aggravated my hip and knee, two issues I’d been managing all of February.
After approximately 15km of riding my feet were freezing and the pain behind my right knee and left hip became more pronounced. I stopped to fish out my booties from my panniers. I should have put them on at the start. I also remarked how beautiful it was with the frost on the trees, a light mist in the air, and the warm rays of the rising sun. Despite the minus twenty-something celsius temperature I was incredibly moved by the beauty and felt more alive than I had in a while. However, I was also dealing with thoughts of abandoning the race. Earlier in February I developed some tendonitis behind my right knee thanks to new boots changing my saddle height. I also had bad luck the weekend before the race with a hard fall on my left hip. That hard fall left me wondering if I had broken the top of my femur or my actual hip. I fell with a noticeable thud and immediately wondered how I would get out of the trail. I could barely pedal. But within a few minutes the endorphins kicked in and I was able to make it back to my car. The whole week before the Wendigo I took it easy with a few light rides on the insider trainer. In the end, despite my strength and fitness, the last few weeks before the Wendigo were not ideal. I wanted to maintain that balance between pain and keeping fitness.
For a few minutes I contemplated bailing. But I brought naproxen pills just in case. I popped two pills and decided to muster on. I slowed the pace and drank more water to keep the foul taste of the pills from creeping up my esophagus. For about an hour I rode easy and a combination of the pills, the heat of the sun, and my body warming boosted my energy. On a long gradual climb I passed two cyclists in the race and began feeling a lot better. My hip pain subsided and the knee pain was always just on the edge.
The Algonquin Trail to Petawawa skirts along the Ottawa River for several kilometres before Pembroke. I was in awe of the beauty and started making plans in my head to come back in the summer. I was already planning my next 400KM journey – a one day ride from Ottawa to Petawawa and back on either side of the Ottawa River.
I eventually made it to the turn around point at the bridge over the Petawawa River after about four hours of riding. I saw many other fat bikers at the turn around point and my spirits improved even more as I’d been on my own from the moment I passed the two guys on that rise before Pembroke. The sun was shining and the temperature was warming quickly. All the riders in the 100KM race had a mandatory check point at Gear Heads in Petawawa. Warm pizza and treats were advertised at the checkpoint and I gratefully consumed a huge slice of pizza to replenish my calories. I also used the rest stop to change my upper layers into dry clothes and convert to water flasks instead of my water bladder. I refilled on water and grabbed a few treats for the road.
At first, the journey back was much warmer with a sunny blue sky and very little wind. I felt strong and rode hard to catch other riders. And then around 1pm the weather started to change. A new weather system with gusting winds, heavy snow squalls, and darker skies moved in. On top of the new weather system the trail surface was getting more and more chewed up by the snowmobiles that came in waves. At night, the cold freezes the snowmobile tracks, but as they use the trail during the day, the tracks get mashed up and soften the first 5-8cm of snow turning the trail into “mashed potatoes” snow that dramatically slows your pace. The climb I remember ascending at 12 km/hour earlier in the day became a slog to descend at 10 km/hour with new snow, chewed up tracks, and a biting sidewind.
Once I passed Pembroke on the way back, I saw a guy on a fat bike in a yellow jacket about 800 metres ahead of me. He was only moving about half a kilometre per hour slower than me and I think it took me 20 minutes to catch up to him. Once I caught him (Spencer who was in the 200KM race) we ended up riding the rest of the 20-30 KM of the 100 KM route together. At one point, as snowmobiles passed us, I got too close to the side of the trail and my front wheel fell into deep and soft snow bringing my bike to a complete stop throwing me over the bars. Luckily I landed on my feet along with a loud yell. Spencer asked if I was ok and continued pedalling. I used this stopped opportunity to get the bottle of Coke out of my pannier to help sustain my energy for the next hour. I eventually caught up to Spencer again and just in time as the wind started to pick up and we were in fields with no protection from the winds. Just riding together gave us motivation to keep our pedals turning. I was careful not to draft as the Wendigo event is meant to be an individual race. But having a fellow cyclist at your side, in blowing winds and snow squalls gives you extra motivation and a shared sense of suffering. During that long stretch Spencer and I got to chatting and realized we had a lot in common. Only later did we realize we had both raced the 8 Hours of Hurtin’ in Haliburton in September 2021. Spencer won the fixed gear race category in Haliburton.
The last ten kilometres were tough. Just as we crossed the highway for the last time my energy dipped and I felt a sense of despair. I knew I was on a sugar low. I was low on water but still had a few shots of Endurance Tap in my flask and drank the rest of it. I also had two granola bars in my pocket that I picked up at the rest stop in Petawawa, so I ate them. Pretty quickly my energy came back. I started riding hard and in a one handed attempt to squeeze out the last bit of liquid from my water flask, a wind blew hard and I lost control of my front wheel and fell off my bike. I thought I may have lost my Endurance Tap flask in the crash so I ran around on the trail up and down about 20 metres but I couldn’t find it. Upon inspecting the bike I realized I had placed the flask in my right hand bar pogie. I thought it was in the left one. Sometimes your mind plays tricks on you during hard efforts.
Upon our approach to Cobden the winds started to calm and the snow stopped falling. In the last 200 meters of the Algonquin trail section my Garmin popped up the route to guide me along the official roads back to the Whitewater Brewery, the official finish line. At first, I followed Spencer and another 200km rider who had caught us, but I realized I was not on the official trail. Being a stickler to rules, I didn’t want to get disqualified so I turned around and reoriented myself with the trail, the roads and my Garmin. Once back on the route, I had about 5 minutes of riding to the finish line. The very last segment is short and steep. I remember doing this section in February 2020, at the end of the 50KM race with cramping legs. Luckily, this year, on the 100KM ride, I had no cramps and made it up the hill without any issues.
I was thrilled to hear I finished in third place on the 100KM ride. Given how I felt earlier in the day I wasn’t sure how I would do. Earlier in the day, I contemplated abandoning the race. I’m happy I powered through and trusted my training and fitness. In the end I finished the ride in 8h42m with about 7h45 minutes of riding. An incredible phenom, Jarrod Forrest finished first in 7h08m and Jordan Dube finished second overall and first female in 7h46m. Congratulations to Jarrod and Jordan. Incredibly, Jordan is also in her first trimester! She is a machine!
While pedalling at 10km/hour on soft snow, in snow squalls, and fighting a biting wind are challenging, I absolutely love these moments of true grit. I know the pain is only temporary and the only way through it is to “pedal, push, and endure”.
The overall Wendigo weekend is so much fun. It starts on Friday evening with gear check and doesn’t end until the last 200km rider finishes sometime on Sunday. Thank you to all the volunteers, the organizers, and the sponsors (Thief Bikepacking Bags, Woven Precision, Bushtukah, Montu, Bikestud, Whitewater Brewing, Madawaska Coffee, Whitewater Sno-Goers, Lanark County, Renfrew County, Gear Heads, Ottawa Valley Recreational Trail). Also thank you to my fellow racers for your constant support and inspiration. And finally thank you to Cameron Dube for your vision and leadership surrounding the entire Wendigo event.
I also want to congratulate all the riders who started the Wendigo. Congratulations to everyone. You can find the results at this page.
Food / Nutrition
Many people asked me what I ate or consumed to power myself through the ride. Here is what I ate:
- 5h40am – Egg McMuffin
- 9am – Cliff Bar
- 10am – Cliff Bar and Endurance Tap
- 11am – piece of pizza
- 12h30pm – Cliff Bar
- 2h30pm – Granola bars and endurance tap
- Throughout the day I probably drank over 3 litres of water. Two bottles had electrolytes in them.
- Sometime between 1pm and 2pm – one bottle of Coke
- Post ride – a massive Caesar salad at the Whitewater Brewery
Many people ask me why I had so much gear for a 100km ride. Cameron wants all riders to have the gear required to stay safe in case the weather gets really ugly or if there is a trail incident. Next year I will balance more weight to the front with a rollbag for my sleeping bag. I also learned a little more about drinking and food. While I never got really hungry, thirsty, or bonked I wish my food and drinks were more accessible and didn’t require me to stop as often to open bottle lids or fish out food from panniers. I already bought two new insulated water bottles that I will mount on my bars. I tested them with thick winter gloves to ensure I can press the water release valve without taking my gloves off. I also ordered a custom full length top tube bag from Thief to house all my food so that I can access it while riding instead of having it in my panniers. My 27.5″ wheels with 4″ wide tires may have not been the best wheels for this route given the snow conditions. I may try to borrow some 26″ wheels with wider tires for 2023. Other than that, I hope I can better manage my sleep before the event and show up with no injuries.