Eganville -- Two years since local cyclists last gathered for the Tour de Bonnechere, dozens of cyclists woke up at the crack of dawn and braved the pouring rain on Sunday to ride the 2021 edition and support mental health services in Renfrew County.
Rather than biking as fast as possible, organizers said the goal was to create conversations about mental health.
“It’s not a competition,” said Susan Patterson, of North Renfrew Family Services, one of the volunteer organizers. “To hopefully get more people out to participate.”
The joy of being at an in-person event was palpable as members of Ottawa Valley Cycling and Active Transportation Alliance (OVCATA), Moving on Mental Health, and cyclists from across the county gathered for the first time since the pandemic outbreak in March 2020.
“This is the first (event) that we’ve been able to get to all year,” said Mark Johnson of GearHeads Petawawa. “You can see it on everybody’s face that there’s just this massive amount of relief to be able to interact with people and to be able to be out and doing something recreational together.”
Dozens of participants departed at 7 a.m. for the 100 km “Monarch of the Mountains” route, 8:30 a.m. for the 65km “Bonnechere Beauty” route and 8:45 for the “Gravel Grinder” 50 km loop around Silver Lake. Rain poured down until around 9:30 a.m. when the skies slowly cleared.
Dodging raindrops up and down the Opeongo Hills, Findley Organ of Wilno was the first to arrive at the finish line from the 100 km route and be crowned “Monarch of the Mountains”.
When cyclists arrived back, they were greeted by lively tunes from the group Music Healing Veterans. A tent set up by GearHeads bike shop offered minor bike repairs.
“What we need in the Ottawa valley is lots of funding and support for initiatives like this, initiatives like OVCATA and for our local businesses that sponsor events like this so that we can enjoy them,” said Jodie Primeau of Primeau Law in Deep River, an event sponsor and participant. “It was great to ride with you all today.”
Money raised by participants goes to the coalition of groups known as Moving on Mental Health and Addictions Renfrew County, a network of service providers that aim to help children, youth and families access mental health services in their communities.
This is part of Ontario's Mental Health and Addictions Strategy. In Renfrew County, the lead agency for this initiative is The Phoenix Centre for Children and Families. Over the years the annual event has raised more than $10,000. Each year $1,000 is given to the Eganville Food Bank.
Money raised this year will help in the development of a smartphone app to weave together the services of the 50 agencies that address mental health across the county.
About 25 volunteers woke up early on a Sunday to help out with the event.
OVCATA volunteers helped out with event safety and put up signs to direct riders.
“The event has promoted active transportation and mental health; it’s just a wonderful event,” Ish Theilheimer of OVCATA, said.
Mr. Theilheimer said that over the decade the event has taken place, roads are becoming safer and safer for cyclists.
“You do have to follow all the rules of the road and you do have to be careful but what pleases me is that the local municipality and the province are taking steps to improve bike infrastructure,” he said.
Participants were able to submit “virtual” rides throughout the month of August or choose to ride in person on August 29th.
“The hybrid model has become really popular,” Ms. Patterson said.
Organizers say they are likely to continue with a hybrid model in future years.
Chris Hinsperger of the Bonnechere Caves sponsored the event because of how bike tourism can stimulate the economy.
“Renfrew County has some of the best cycling... in Canada,” he said.
He said that biking is good for the local economy because it draws people from outside the area to come in and access local businesses which, in turn, creates employment opportunities including for young people.
“Just having more cyclists come to our area… is part of our local economy and good economy is directly tied into good mental health,” he stated.
Mark Johnson of GearHeads Petawawa agreed.
“Our focus is really on community involvement. It’s important for us to get involved to foster the sport of cycling.”
He explained that the bike store’s website, Gearheads.ca has a list of other such bike events in the community.
For those who missed out on the Tour de Bonnechere, the Township of McNab/Braeside is organizing the Tour de Poutine which will be held on September 18th. All participants who complete the 24 km bike tour will receive a poutine from Betty’s Chips.
At Sunday’s event Mr. Johnson and his colleagues topped up tire pressure for a few people and did some minor gear and brake adjustments. He said that if people are thinking of buying a bike and participating in next year’s event, now is the time to go into your local bike shop to get help finding a bike.
Christina Vietinghoff, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader