Riding into the sunset to help Lac-Mégantic relief efforts

Three cyclists, 1,300 kilometres, two weeks, one great cause.
“Showers were a commodity, but that comes with camping,” said Nigel Maitland (right), pictured here with Mike Seccareccia (centre) and Hans Herrmann. “But for the first six days we were biking along the St Lawrence River and we swam every day. It wasn’t a shower, but it kept us clean enough to maintain our friendships.” / Photo courtesy of Nigel Maitland.
“Showers were a commodity, but that comes with camping,” said Nigel Maitland (right), pictured here with Mike Seccareccia (centre) and Hans Herrmann. “But for the first six days we were biking along the St Lawrence River and we swam every day. It wasn’t a shower, but it kept us clean enough to maintain our friendships.” / Photo courtesy of Nigel Maitland.

McGill bike trio raises almost $9,000 for Lac-Mégantic relief

By Neale McDevitt

When you embark upon a long-distance bike trek that spans several weeks you have to plan carefully. Routes must be mapped out, equipment carefully selected (because you have to carry everything on your bike) and you have to anticipate the unscripted eventualities, such as mechanical breakdowns.

But when Nigel Maitland, Mike Seccareccia and Hans Herrmann set off on Aug. 1 for their two-week, 1,300-kilometre bike odyssey to raise money for the Red Cross relief efforts in Lac-Mégantic following the devastating train derailment on July 6, the trio hadn’t considered one important detail: the utter isolation they would face.

“For most of the way it was just us,” said Maitland, back in Montreal after the trio completed its epic Lac-Mégantic-to-Charlottetown, P.E.I journey on Aug. 15, dubbed Pedal’aid. “We didn’t encounter too many people and, surprisingly, almost no animals except for one fox and a lot of mosquitos.

“Oh, and roadkill. We saw plenty of roadkill.”

And while the three McGillians (Seccareccia is an Education undergrad, Herrmann is in Environmental Sciences and Maitland just finished his degree in Physiology this past Spring) have travelled together extensively in the past, including numerous long-distance bike trips, the isolation – only compounded by the lack of electronic diversions – proved to be a little challenging.

“Normally we travel in a group so there are other people with us but this time it was just me, Mike and Hans,” said Maitland. “We’re all a little strong-headed and there was no one else there to act as a buffer.

“Let’s just say it was a little tense at times,” he said with a chuckle.

Minor conflicts about campsite selection aside, the trio enjoyed mostly smooth pedaling throughout the journey, following the old Atlantic railway eastward along the St. Lawrence River before cutting down to New Brunswick and then on to P.E.I. Winds were mostly favorable, the majority of roads were what Maitland called “very good,” and the few people that the team did meet were very friendly.

“When one man who had stopped to talk to us found out that we were trying to raise money for Lac-Mégantic, he insisted we take his bread and cheese and he gave us all his cans of Pepsi,” said Maitland.

The daily grind

The original plan was to bike 100 kilometres a day, a significantly shorter distance than some of their past excursions during which they have cycled more than 200 kilometers in one shot. The toughest part, said Maitland, was climbing back in the saddle day in and day out for two weeks – something none of them had ever attempted before.

“It was more of a mental challenge than a physical challenge,” he said. “For me it wasn’t so much the drudging effort of a single leg of the trip, it was more the knowledge that every day you had to bike another three or four hours to get that 100 kilometres.”

The long haul did, however, take a physical toll, mostly on Seccareccia’s knees. “Mike was riding a sturdier bike that broke down less [just once, compared to Herrmann’s seven breakdowns and Maitland’s five], but was harder on his body because it was heavier,” said Maitland. “We actually took an unscheduled day off partly so that Mike could ice his knees.”

The team also had to contend with some stretches of road that were virtually unnavigable by bike, forcing them to dismount and walk several kilometres to the next bit of decent pavement. “The difference between Quebec roads and those in New Brunswick is incredible,” said Maitland. “I’m sure the people in New Brunswick took extra care paving that first bit of road after the Au Revoir sign because the difference in quality is night and day.”

Small shoulders on the sides of roads proved to be another hazard as they forced the team (riding peloton-style in which they alternated taking a three-minute stint up front drafting for the two behind) to ride closer to traffic than was ideal. “Drivers were very respectful of us,” said Maitland, “but they are going very fast. When a big truck would whizz by, we would initially be blown outward before the vacuum [created by the truck’s passing] would suck us back in. We’d all tense up a bit when we heard a truck rumbling toward us.”

Chilly nights up North

And then there were the cold nights. As the team followed the St. Lawrence, they moved northeasterly. A night sleeping in their military style hammocks near Rivière-du-Loup or Rimouski meant contending with temperatures that dropped to 8 or 9 degrees Celsius.

“We’d go to bed at 9 [when the sun went down], wake up at midnight to stoke the fire, wake up at 2 a.m. to warm ourselves and again at 5 a.m.,” said Maitland, noting that the thermal blankets they had packed didn’t breathe properly, meaning all three woke up in a sloshing pool of sweat and condensation. “Luckily, once we hit New Brunswick and started heading south, the nights got a lot warmer again.”

A few tough nights aside, Maitland said some of the trip’s most enjoyable moments were had out of the saddle, including bedding down beside a beach outside Caraquet, a small Acadian town in New Brunswick. “We went to the beach around midnight and caught the Perseid meteor shower,” said Maitland. “It was the brightest sky I’ve ever seen with meteors going left and right. It was totally amazing.”

Another unexpected highlight was upon their arrival in Charlottetown, when they were taken to a local folk festival by a CBC reporter who wanted to interview them. “The band finished a song and told the crowd who we were and what we had just done and everyone gave us a great round of applause,” said Maitland. “It was the cherry on top.”

The trio will be making a return trip to Lac-Mégantic (by car) in the near future with a giant cheque in hand. Maitland said the amount is yet to be determined because people are still donating. To date, the Pedal’aid team has raised close to $9,000 – a far cry from the team’s original goal of $4,000 – $5,000.

“We’re keeping the donation link open for now,” said Maitland, “because we want to collect every last dollar we can to help the people in Lac-Mégantic.”

To make a donation to the Red Cross relief efforts at Lac-Mégantic, people are encouraged to go here. To see pictures of and read about the Pedal’aid team’s epic adventure, go to their blog.