There are two maps one uses when cycling the Cabot Trail, and one is infinitely more useful than the other.
The first is a regular map that shows the trail (a paved, two-lane road shared by cyclists and motor vehicles alike) making a circle of the northern half of Cape Breton, with really no exits or intersections. There’s no way to get lost on this trail, so there’s really no need for this one.
The second map, however, is the elevation map, which essentially looks like the EKG of a mouse on steroids. It does not take long to learn that your sense of distance will not be measured by street signs, but rather by the number and steepness of ascents and descents left til your destination.
Elevation treated us well for the first day. Tyler the Bike Guy drove us to the trailhead in Baddeck, from which we pedalled 97km. This is less masochistic than it sounds since this was the flattest leg of the journey and we figured it was best to make as much headway as possible.
They have a saying in this sea-battered part of the world that goes “if you don’t like the weather in Cape Breton, just wait 15 minutes.” Not to cast doubt on the local wisdom, but after 15 minutes of the skies opening up and casting off their icy burden of rain-bullets on us, we were starting to doubt the local wisdom. A lesser deluge may have dampened our spirits, but it was impossible not to laugh in the face of this frigid 4-hour baptism of precipitation. By the time we arrived at a dining establishment (we had packed sandwiches, but knew they would disintegrate in an instant if we took them out of their bags), we were squeaky-clean and smelled fresher than any cyclist ever has.
(Apologies to the Belle View restaurant in Margaree, however, for leaving such colossal puddles on your floor. Thanks for the hot chocolate!)
We arrived in Chéticamp that evening, wrung out our clothes and our bones, and rested in the satisfaction that it was all uphill from here (har har)…
One blissful rest-day and one corny elevation pun later, we embarked on Trail Day 2. This was technically our shortest trail day, barring the fact that two mountains stood between us and our next stop in Pleasant Bay. We bid à bientot to Chéticamp, relishing the freedom of carrying nothing but the panniers that hung from our bicycles. And then the mountain came.
My last experience with mountains was Cuba’s Pico Gayón, which for me was definitely a Pyrrhic victory. I technically made it to the top, but not without leaving every ounce of decorum, pride, and excess oxygen behind. Needless to say, I was nervous for this.
Fortunately, Sara had used her med-student authority (they don’t legally have any, except over their spouses) to get me to pick up a secret weapon before this trip, and for this I will be forever grateful. Armed with my nifty new inhaler, I could feel my lungs working their hardest without ever experiencing that familiar burn and tightness that would have previously forced me to pull over. As the incline steepened, I shifted to the lowest gear and hunkered down for the long haul. Progress was comically slow, but always steady, and every switchback revealed a majestic new cove or inlet filled with the sparkling Atlantic. It was a redemptive experience, to say the least.
These were the ascents. Day 3’s was undoubtedly the most brutal, with the blazing sun and a 13% grade (that’s a third steeper than the aforementioned Arlington Bridge…and for four unrelenting kilometres!). By Day 5’s ascent, however, we felt like naturals.
Then came the descents. While the ascents did feel less daunting as we became accustomed to them, we never became desensitized to the thrill of careening down mountainsides on two wheels, or that perfect balance of self-reliance and surrender.
Trail Day 1 graciously provided us with what I like to call our ‘training mountain’ (and before the deluge, no less!). Less than half the height of the next days’ mountains, we still pulled over after the descent to exclaim to each other about the drawn-out adrenaline rush we had just experienced. Such wonderful prairie innocence.
If you ever see a photo or postcard from the Cabot Trail, it’s probably of Day 2’s Mackenzie Mountain. Its harrowing switchbacks tumbling toward the ocean make for a fantastic aerial shot. They also make for a steep learning curve (pun inevitable) for flatlanders like us, especially when combined with a sudden downpour at the last minute and a lot of construction. This descent felt the most challenging, as we rapidly learned that switchbacks need to be taken very slowly, especially since it’s impossible to see more than fifty feet in front of you. Still, as the ground levelled out at the bottom we felt we had truly reached a milestone in our cycling careers.
Far be it from me to judge billion-year-old landforms, but in my opinion Day 3’s North Mountain is undoubtedly the best… both in the traditional sense of wonderful, as well as in the more masochistic sense of most challenging and therefore ultimately most rewarding. Its monstrous height (the tallest on the entire trail) combines with slightly gentler curves than Mackenzie Mountain that allow a rider to reach ludicrous speeds while fully taking in the vastness of the landscape. The momentary rush of adrenaline becomes a prolonged state of mind as the descent lasts long enough to alternate multiple times between shrieks of glee and deep contemplations of one’s own insignificance in the face of nature’s magnificence. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Day 4 lacked any major mountains (though it did contain some major seafood chowder), which brings us to Day the Last, which included the talk of the proverbial town: Cape Smokey. Frequently, when we’d tell people our general itinerary, they would respond with “Oh, so you haven’t done Smokey yet!” Though not nearly as tall as Mackenzie or North Mountains, they were always keen to inform us about how steep it was. One Cape Bretoner in particular reassured us that “It doesn’t matter if I’m in a car(rrr) or a bike, I just close my eyes and hope for the best!”
And though we kept our eyes open the entire time, I can see their point. If North Mountain was thrilling on a spiritually-moving level, Smokey was just pure fun, a roller coaster with no seatbelts. The ocean felt closer than it did on any of the previous descents, and there were a few spots that zigged and zagged so wildly (and seemingly unnecessarily) that I actually laughed out loud. Yet just as the roar of the wind in our ears reached a deafening climax, the ground levelled out and it was all over. This daunting task that we had set for ourselves was complete, and besides some very sore knees we were undefeated.
The last few hours on the trail were not unlike the last few hours of summer camp: calm, relatively uneventful, and bittersweet as we knew this adventure was coming to a close. The Englishtown ferry met us at the end of a long spit of land hardly wider than the road itself, a surreal iron barge after a week of tiny fishing boats. Our two bikes were dwarfed between SUVs and Winnebagos, and there on the other side stood Tyler the Bike Guy like an ode to narrative symmetry. As he kindly secured our bikes to the rack on the back of his car, we bid farewell to a place that had simultaneously tested and enchanted us more than most places could in less than a week’s time.