West Coast Experience
In early Spring 2019 I pitched an embryo of an idea to four friends: “Hey, we’re thinking of doing a gravel ride on the west coast of Newfoundland in July, you interested?” I had chosen the recipients well since the responses were brief, “Yeah, sounds cool, I’m in, let me know when.”
Flashback to January 2019 and a conversation I had with Pete Ollerhead, owner of Cycle Solutions in Cornerbrook, NL, after a backcountry ski I had taken the day before. I was struck by the beauty of the terrain and inquired into summer cycling opportunities. Pete’s eyes lit up and he enlightened me about a guided gravel trip that he was planning to launch in Summer 2020 that required some beta testers (translation: guinea pigs.) In a few minutes we realized we were aligned on the ingredients of a great adventure- the trip needed amazing riding, incredible food and solid apres opportunites to refresh with cold beveradges. Pete promised all three in spades. We selected a date that would work and left it at that.
Newfoundland is a LARGE island with a rich heritage dating back thousands of years. Its harsh climate and geographic isolation has created a history that embraces surviving off of the land and the water. This has created a province of incredibly social and adventurous people more likely to be enjoying the outdoors or a kitchen party with neighbours than sitting solo in a Starbucks. Good thing because there’s only two Starbucks in the province and they were 700 kms from where we were riding. Not a problem however since Pete not only owns a bike shop but also two of the best cafe’s on the West Coast! Great coffee would not be a concern in the wilderness of NL.
They say that the success of a mission is determined by the level of preparation. If so we really had little reason to expect that our adventure would be an experience we would savour forever. I began to get a little nervous when June rolled around and I hadn’t heard much from Pete. Little did I know that he had been working in the background to handle all the logistics down to the smallest detail. Pete assured me that one of the major benefits of a guided tour over self-guided is not having to stress about a million details like airport shuttles, nightly accomodations, meals, snacks, cooking facilities, routes that only the locals know, the list is endless. Riding? That’s the easy part that many of us have a solid handle on but the devil is in the details that happen off the bike to ensure you can relax. Not getting lost in the wilderness is another bonus a guided adventure offers I would guess.
One of the reasons I fell in love with Newfoundland in my previous visits was the local vibe. At risk of getting too meta, the franchising of our world is making everywhere feel the same. The homogenization of our potential experiences limits our ability to discover. We struggle to find authenticity because of the banality of our same-same environments. Newfoundland is still a land of authentic and original experiences, many seemingly unchanged since forever. Day 1 was a loosen the legs day that took in the majestic Port Aux Port peninsula with its entirely coastal route. A history of Acadian and Basque descendants added colour to the place names and the roadside views. While one might be inclined to grab a quick box lunch or a general store sandwich mid ride Pete had other ideas. We were greeted by Clemon and Dru, Pete’s tour maestros, at a cliffside park overlooking St Peters Bay with a spread of smoked salmon, bagels, heaps of fruit and cold craft beer from a NL craft brewer. As we sat on the cliffside deck of our accommodations overlooking the ocean that evening a local celebrity chef arrived to knock our socks off with a meal crafted from local ingredients.
Day 2 could be a trip in itself. 130+ kms of empty gravel logging roads, snow capped (yes it was July) mountains, a bit of mid-ride orienteering between two wilderness areas and a dory shuttle to an isolated ocean beach cottage who’s only nearby tenant seemed to be the minke whale chasing mackerel just offshore. Heaping plates of steamed mussle appetizers kept our appetites at bay as we cackled about the day’s experiences while more-than-occasionally pulling up the gaff line of growlers from the beach surf to recharge our glasses while Pete stoked the driftwood bonfire on the beach.
Day 3 involved an early morning dory shuttle while bald eagles surveyed our progress up Woman’s Cove. More empty gravel roads led us to a huge sinkhole waterfall and other wonders that only seem possible in exotic travel magazines before dropping us down a multi km descent to Woody Point in Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. By this point the evening dinner bar had been set high but local chef Jason Whitle met the challenge by preparing and presenting us a meal that is best described in the following exchange “this cod is unreal, I’ve never tasted anything like this!!” ’That’s because it was caught a couple of hours ago, you’ve never had truly fresh cod my son!” A late evening jaunt to a Woody Point pub for some local entertainment capped off the closest thing we could call ‘urban’ on this trip.
Day 4 started with a ferry ride across the mountain ringed South Arm to a breakfast and espresso stop in Rocky Harbour. A day of brilliantly bluebird skies, incredible tailwinds and Gros Morne roadside attractions accompanied us as we rolled effortlessly northward. Most of this ride was spent within a stone’s throw of the Labrador Strait and a end-of-day dip at our oceanfront villa in Cowhead confirmed this fact. The air might be 21 C but the water was 2 C.
Anyone who has travelled knows that the final evening of an adventure sees a mixed mood of emotions wash over the group. Familes missed, responsibilities accepted, deadlines returned to, memories catalogued and friendships cemented. Every rider has their own scene to return home to but universally one emotion stands out above all: we need to do this again.