One of the riders who took part in a trial run of an upcoming major cycling event in Magnetawan next summer has a South River connection.
Jennifer Sohm was born and raised in South River and told The Nugget it was a thrill to come back and cycle on familiar territory.
Sohm, who is a high school teacher, lives in Toronto with her husband, an air traffic controller, and two daughters who are five and eight years old.
Originally the Ghost Gravel ride, which takes cyclists over historic trails in Almaguin, was to occur this past August but got pushed to next August because of COVID-19.
However, organizer Matt Foulk, also of Toronto, put together a trial run of the 140-kilometre ride and asked those interested to write to him and detail why they should be among the 15 test runners of the event.
Their experiences would be recorded so cyclists taking part next year would have an idea of what to expect on the trail.
Sohm said she wrote a lengthy letter explaining her ancestral history to the area and personal cycling experience.
The 40-year-old cycles about 5,000 kilometres annually, although Sohm adds she isn't an elite cyclist like most of the riders who took part in the trial run.
“Some of the Ghost Gravel cyclists will ride 300 kilometres a week,” she said.
Sohm says growing up in South River, “freedom came from riding a bike.”
“As a teenager, it was our way to get to work or school, which was faster than taking the school bus,” she said.
“Cycling was a way to stay fit and to get around.”
As a student at Almaguin Highlands Secondary School, Sohm was heavily involved in cross-country running and track and field.
When she attended university in Toronto, Sohm continued her cycling by joining a small club. But it was when she moved to England that her cycling opportunities mushroomed.
While visiting other European countries, Sohm made it a point of renting a bike so she could explore the community she was in.
When she got accepted to be one of the Ghost Gravel trial riders, a thought that kept running through her mind was how she would keep up with the elite class of cyclists – and whether she should even participate since she was out of her league.
She isn't sure if it's because the other cyclists were holding back, but on the day of the trail ride, everyone was able to stay together throughout the 140 kilometres.
To prepare for the event, Sohm began cycling 200 kilometres a week.
As the late-August trial run drew closer, she switched to practising on trails.
“So I wasn't focusing on distance so much anymore, but rather, I got on the trails to get my body used to jostling about because of the rocks and twigs and whatever else I would experience along the route,” she said.
Sohm said prior to the Ghost Gravel ride, she had never done anything close to the 140-kilometre trek.
In fact, she hadn't even done anything approaching 120 kilometres.
Sohm had to know if she could handle the distance and so one day, a couple of weeks before the test run, she pushed herself and successfully rode 160 kilometres.
Part of the Ghost Gravel ride takes cyclists along Old Nipissing Road and is perhaps the most rugged part of the route.
Sohm was grateful that this section of the ride happened at the start when everyone was fresh and excited.
“So psychologically it was easy, because it was at the beginning,” she said.
“But the terrain was still very difficult. There were stretches where you'd have to get off your bike and walk.”
Sohm said the actual moving time to ride the entire 140-kilometre trail was about five-and-a-half hours, but it took a little longer than that because the group took breaks at key areas.
She said she felt OK at the end of the ride, but one section that surprised her in terms of difficulty was the stretch by Lake Bernard in Sundridge.
Sohm said the terrain is somewhat hilly and certainly manageable, but what made travelling difficult over this part was the unexpected heat.
“It was the height of the day and the heat was significant, so it was challenging,” Sohm said.
The heat and humidity made it feel like 39 C on ride day.
Because the Almaguin Highlands is home for Sohm, and she was familiar with many of the trails, she provided running commentary to the other cyclists during the ride.
The Sohm family's roots in Almaguin date back to the late 1800s. The family is originally from Switzerland and, since first arriving in the 19th century, has grown quite large.
Sohm wasn't sure if she overdid it by talking about her family history.
“I became afraid the other people were becoming annoyed with me on the route,” she said.
“I would say that's where my great-grandparents settled, that's my parents' home and that's my grandmother's home. The whole route was dotted with my family members.”
However, taking in the historical aspect of the Old Nipissing Road is a big reason why organizer Matt Foulk picked it as part of the Ghost Gravel ride.
Sohm hopes to be part of next year's ride, which will see dozens of cyclists take part.
She admits as a woman, balancing family life makes it tough to take part in this type of event because of the time it takes to train.
In fact, when Sohm learned she was selected as a test rider, one of the volunteers told her a major reason behind her selection was to further help “break down the barriers that limit women from taking part in cycling events.”
Sohm told The Nugget these were encouraging words and helped her get through the ride.
Of the 15 trial run riders, five were women.
It's expected more women will take part when the official Ghost Gravel ride takes place next August.
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