Fist-ever Ghost Gravel beckons cyclists to Almaguin

·4 min read

Magnetawan will be the site this summer for a significant cycling event.

The Ghost Gravel will take cyclists along Old Nipissing Road, considered one of Ontario's ghost roads because it's dotted with abandoned log cabins and weathered barns built by early settlers, says organizer Matt Foulk.

Foulk is an advertising strategist originally from the United Kingdom who now lives in Toronto with his wife, originally from Greater Sudbury, and their two children.

The avid cyclist has ridden in such places as the United States, New Zealand, Spain and Tasmania.

Last year, he put 8,000 kilometres on his bike.

Foulk became aware of the Almaguin Highlands, Magnetawan and Old Nipissing Road a few years ago when his brother-in-law bought land in Loring.

“As a keen cyclist, I realized how beautiful and interesting this area was to ride on a gravel bike,” Foulk says.

He reached out to Dave Gray, who is director of Almaguin Community Economic Development and also an avid cyclist, about organizing the Ghost Gravel ride.

The Aug. 21 ride will involve two components.

Riders can either cycle 80 kilometres along the trail, which will take them five to seven hours to complete, or they can pedal 150 kilometres of trail over eight to 12 hours.

Foulk expects the lion's share of the cyclists will be from the Toronto area.

However, he's hoping cycling enthusiasts from the Sudbury and North Bay regions, as well as Parry Sound and the Muskokas, also register.

The ride is not a race, Foulk stresses.

“My main focus is to introduce people to the wonders of this area, the natural beauty and history,” he explains. “I want to bring attention to the history of the area in terms of its settlement and the hardships faced by some of the early settlers. So the Ghost Gravel involves going slower rather than doing a sprint. You want to take in your surroundings.”

Foulk acknowledges some riders may want to race the trail, but he points out well in advance that some sections of Old Nipissing Road are challenging.

Part of Discovery Routes trails, Old Nipissing Road is mostly gravel with no facilities. There are rocky sections and others where the ground has loose material.

In addition, there may be instances where the rider will “hike a bike,” which involves carrying the gravel bike up an incline because there isn't enough traction for the tires to dig in.

Foulk is designing the route to make sure as much of it as possible is off road and “encompasses as many sites of natural beauty as possible.

“We want to make sure there's a variety of what to see,” he says.

Foulk hopes to attract 50 cyclists, and has set 100 as the limit who can take part in the event.

Gravel cycling, also known as adventure or off-road cycling, has grown in popularity, especially in North America, the past few years, Foulk says.

“And it really exploded and accelerated during the (coronavirus) pandemic,” he says. “People saw it as a fantastic way to exercise from a physical- and mental-health perspective. And people have also retreated into nature.”

Because of the nature of the event, Foulk expects to see spectators only at the beginning and end of the ride, which starts and ends at the community centre in Magnetawan.

With guidance from the Ontario Cycling Association, Foulk expects online registration can begin in a few weeks.

Depending where Ontario is at with COVID-19 during August, Foulk hopes the cyclists can gather at the end of the event to celebrate their ride.

Also because of pandemic restrictions, Foulk says there may be staggered starts to the beginning of the ride rather than one start.

This is the inaugural year for the Ghost Gravel and Foulk is grateful for the local support he's received.

And although this is the first time the ride is taking place, Foulk hopes it's only the beginning.

“We think we have a unique event that will capture people's imagination and it's the start of something much larger,” he says.

“We want people to say 'Wow, what a great experience.' And when they come back, they can explore other parts of the Almaguin Highlands area.”

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