COVID-19 postpones major bike ride through rugged Almaguin terrain

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The uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 are forcing the organizer of a major bicycle event in Magnetawan to postpone the ride for a year.

Matt Foulk says the Aug. 21 event will now take place in late August 2022.

“It was a difficult decision to make,” Foulk said.

“It's been a challenging and strange year for everybody and we've been monitoring the situation closely.

We have been in contact with the local public health unit, the local stakeholders and riders, and for the safety of the riders and community we're postponing the mass event to August 2022.”

Foulk says everyone involved was on board with the decision to postpone for a year, adding “it was the right thing to do.”

The event, dubbed the Ghost Gravel bike ride, planned to take riders through Old Nipissing Road.

Promoted as one of Ontario's ghost roads, Old Nipising Road is known for the abandoned log cabins and barns, built by early settlers, that are seen along the roadway.

The event would have had cyclists ride their choice of an 80-kilometre route or one that is 140 kilometres long.

Foulk, originally from the United Kingdom, works in Toronto as an advertising strategist and is a serious cyclist, having ridden in places such as New Zealand, Spain, Tasmania, the United States and Canada.

He became aware of Old Nipissing Road after his wife's brother bought land in Port Loring and Foulk visited the area.

Foulk found the terrain in the Almaguin Highlands interesting and hatched the Ghost Gravel idea.

Well before the decision was made to postpone this year's event, Foulk said interest in the ride was strong, with more than 100 people indicating they liked the idea of trekking along an old historic road.

Foulk is very encouraged by the large number of people showing advanced interest.

Originally, the goal was to have 50 to 100 riders take part, but Foulk says with interest as strong as it is, the number of participants next year could hit 150 or even 200 riders.

But he adds 200 is the limit, otherwise the community could be overrun with a huge influx of people.

Foulk says hitting the pause button for a year has a silver lining.

Plans are in the works to have 15 people ride the 140-kilometre route on Aug. 21 and have them give feedback on what they encounter, so next year's riders know what to expect and how to prepare.

“We'll be able to iron out the kinks for next year's mass event, because people will want to know what's the best bike to ride and tire choices,” he said.

So far, 13 of the riders have been picked and six are women.

Additionally, the riders are from different parts of the province including Barrie, Collingwood, Ottawa, Parry Sound, Pickering and the Greater Toronto Area.

Foulk says at this time he can't stress enough that this year's Aug. 21 event is strictly for the 15 pre-selected riders.

“We're also making sure all 15 are able to ride the 140 kilometres and that includes about 2,000 metres of climbing the terrain,” he said.

Foulk has ridden along parts of Old Nipissing Road but has never completed the entire journey.

At this time, he isn't sure if he will be among the 15 cyclists preparing for the August ride.

Foulk says although other cyclists are being asked not to show up Aug. 21, he is working with Discovery Routes to publish details of the two Ghost Gravel rides so people can experience the trail for themselves before next year.

When it's time for next year's ride, Foulk hopes participants don't race along either of the planned trails.

He says the Ghost Gravel event is not designed as a race.

“I realize there will be people who will want to race it, but I think that would be a shame,” Foulk said.

“There is so much history and beautiful scenery to see that you'll miss all this stuff if you keep your head down and power through it.”

Foulk adds, given the rugged condition of some aspects of Old Nipissing Road, “it's not wise and would be quite dangerous” to race on the trail.

Foulk says there will be support mechanisms in place for next year's event, including having Parry Sound Bikes on board as a partner to help any cyclists who run into problems along the trails.

There also will be support from ATV and pickup operators to help riders in case any incidents occur.

With the mass ride pushed off to next year, when COVID-19 and social distancing should no longer be factors, there also is the possibility of creating some festive events around the Ghost Gravel ride.

Foulk says the festive side is just an idea at this point but is not being ruled out.

Also under consideration is a celebration gathering for the cyclists at the end of the ride.

Foulk says he hopes Ghost Gravel can become an annual event in Magnetawan.

“I think we've uncovered something here,” he said.

“There's a demand for escape and adventure, especially for some of us who stare at computer screens all day. We've hit a nerve with the combination of the history, the amazing nature and landscape and how friendly and welcoming the area is. I think we've captured people's imaginations.”

Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative, The North Bay Nugget

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