My Rowbike Adventure

From September 2000 to August 2002 the love of my life has lived in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Sometime around December 2000 I decided that upon the completion of my job as a chemist at a pharmaceutical company in Alliston I would go out and spend a few weeks with Amy before she moved back to Ontario. We thought it would be fun for me to use a cardiovascular and muscle-toning method to travel from Ontario to Nova Scotia. At first, going by bicycle seemed like a good idea, but we all know that although bikes do a great job working cardio and lower body they do nothing for the upper body. Rowing, on the other hand, is a full-body workout. That was when I decided that I would row out to Halifax. Lacking an uninterrupted water path between Ontario and Nova Scotia the rowing would have to occur on land.

At the time I did not know that such a beast as the "Rowbike" existed. I assumed I would have to build my own. I consulted friends, especially engineers and physicists as to the feasibility of such a contraption. They seemed divided as to whether it was possible; and if possible whether the rowbike could have an efficiency even half that of a typical bicycle. Even then I knew that there are a few hills along the route and the hope was to be able to climb most of them on the machine. One spring day in 2001, the day before I was about to scour garage sales in search of old bicycles and exercise equipment I could use in the design of my contraption, my friend Vince discovered the "Rowbike" while watching a New Products show on television. I realized that what I had thought was a new idea had in fact been invented and available for sale since 1996. What do you know? Calculus, evolution, and now the Rowbike had been thought-up by more than one independent mind.

The inventor of the rowbike was Scott Olson. At the website there's lots more information for you. But the typical rowbike looks like this:

I immediately decided there was no point in designing what someone else had already invented. For a while I canceled my plans to row to Halifax. But on March 6th, 2002, in a moment of wise foolishness, I said "Hmmm... why the hell not?".  I had only 3 months to train and so I immediately went for a run. On March 6th I ran for about 15 minutes and it almost killed me. It would be a little work building up the cardiovascular system. I ordered the rowbike and in early April (on a snowy day) the rowbike arrived from Minnesota.

Not knowing anything about regular bicycles, let alone a rowbike, I played around trying to assemble the rowbike according to the manual for about 20 minutes, then I decided I could use a hand from someone at least knowledgeable about bicycles. I took the machine to "Sports Excellence" in Alliston.

The following morning the local bike guru (Dan) showed up and after 2 hours of him playing around (for a fee) we had the thing assembled. When I first realized how the steering worked I was convinced the rowbike came from the company pre-assembled incorrectly. The steering works by moving the handle bars. When the handle bars are in the resting position this corresponds to an up down motion. When you pull back on the power-bar (the bar that drives the rowbike) the plane of the steering movement on the handlebars changes from up/down to towards-you/away-from-you.  While the powerbar is in the resting position the steering seems opposite to the steering in a motorcycle (on a motorcycle you push down on the side you want to steer towards). I thus re-assembled the steering to be backwards by reversing the steering cable and went out to a parking lot to practice. In about 10 minutes I realized that it was impossible to remain balanced with the steering the way it was. I went home, reversed the steering, and this time around I learned how to rowbike in about 5 minutes.

If you're wondering what rowbiking it like, basically what the developers claim on the rowbike website is true. It is easy to learn and it feels very natural to do it. The rowbike is designed well. During my two months of training the problems I ran into had to do with the bungee chord and the derailleur. The bungee chord is attached to one end of the chain and it is responsible for pulling the powerbar back after a stroke. The bungee chord had become over-stretched. This was solved by purchasing 2 meters of bungee chord off a reel from a local hardware store and then making a hook at one end using wire (I also prepared several spare bungees for the trip). The problem with the derailleur was that the original one broke (a spring inside snapped) after only around 300 km. I bought a new one for CDN$15 (along with some spares). Derailleurs on a rowbike swing much more than on a regular bicycle and thus suffer more abuse. Dan from the bike show suggested I could buy a "bike-transmission" (comparable to a car transmission) that is located inside the hub and allows very smooth nearly instantaneous shifting. I emailed the rowbike people about this and they said that much success was found with such transmissions, but because it was going to cost me at least CDN$150 from the local bike shop I elected to pass on it.
The day before departure. Amy and I at the University of Toronto.


The trip begins

Day 1, June 8, 2002: 75 km traveled by rowbike

On Saturday, June 8th, the day of my 25th birthday, I left Toronto at around 12:40pm. I left from the house of my gracious hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Woods, the parents of Terry Wood. I ate Mrs. Woods' delicious asparagus soup before departing. Mr. Woods was very excited for me. I became convinced that if he was maybe five years younger he would be accompanying me on his own rowbike.

Mrs. Woods and I right before departure.
Mr. Woods and I.

Before leaving I went to the supermarket and purchased some trail mix, dried apricots, a can of ham, a few apples, beef jerky, iced-tea powder and peanut butter. I would eat basically these types of foods for the next 11 days.

As soon as I began rowbiking I realized the rowbike was very heavy with all my equipment on the back. Quite frequently when I was stopped I would accidentally "drop" the rowbike the way you can drop a motorcycle if you lose balance. This happened about ten times a day and each time it provoked cursing. It was a bit of a mistake not having obtained a kickstand for the machine before leaving. An extra-long kickstand, such as one made by welding two regular kickstands together is what was needed. It was also frustrating without the kickstand because I was unable to put the bike down just anywhere, I had to find things to lean it against. On the first day I died going up the Don Valley, but I made every other hill in Toronto. After around four hours rowbiking I took a break in Oshawa. Because of all the dropping of the rowbike and the fact that the first few times I tried to pointlessly save the bike from falling by holding on to the steering bars, the steering cables needed adjustment. I over tightened the cables, something I realized when I got going and found the steering to be extremely sensitive. It was so sensitive I would of been unable to maintain control down steep hills, so I loosened the cables. I rowbiked until around 10pm, wanting to log in at least 75 km. Having accomplished that I set up my tent in a field along Highway 2 somewhere past New Castle.

The randomly chosen field I chose to set my tent up in the first night.

Day 2, June 9: 105 km traveled by rowbike

I departed at around 8 am this morning. Unfortunately I had no water left. I tried to refill at an Esso station near Port Hope, but the water there was from a septic tank and not recommended for drinking. I finally refilled at a Tim Horton's. The day has been filled with lots and lots of hills. I stopped in a park in Colborne for food and water re-fill. It has also been very hot and I have struggled to maintain 10 km/hr. By nightfall I make it nearly to Belleville. I rode on until 9:45 pm to make it to town. By now I realize that doing 200 km a day is going to be unattainable. As on the previous night, I select a spot to sleep within 3 minutes of starting to look for one. This time I slept in the backyard of a church along Highway 2 called the Church of the Holy Trinity or Divinity or something. I was absolutely exhausted that night, especially my lungs. I assembled the tent around 20 meters from the train tracks. Several trains passed by at night and each time I sat right up in my tent terrified until I realized what was happening. The train whistles were very loud and I could actually see the train headlight so that each time I heard a train and shot up in my sleeping bag I actually contemplated whether someone had moved me onto the tracks for a joke as I slept. So far I'm still eating my original purchases and wearing the same clothes I left in.

The kind church that unbeknownst to them provided me with a camp site.

Day 3, June 10: 102 km traveled by rowbike

I departed around 8:30 am from Belleville. It was very hot again and I soon ran out of water because I didn't refill in town. On the side of the road where Highway 2 turns into Regional Road 24 I stopped in front of a house with the intent of going to ask for water. Just then 2 bikers, Mike and Steve, stopped to chat with me. They wanted to know all about the rowbike of course. They'd passed me on the road yesterday and they had stayed in the Ramada in Belleville. They were a little surprised at my random camp-on-the-side-of-the-road tactics. It got even hotter and the ride to Napanee was very painful and slow. In Napanee I bought a submarine sandwich at the Sub Shop inside a Mac's. I ate it in the ugly parking lot. Then I continued riding, and within 500 meters I came upon a gorgeous park. Here I collapsed and slept for about an hour. I then continued on to Kingston and found that the nap had done me very well. I averaged around 20 km/hr from Napanee to Kingston. I refilled water at a Tim's and rode past Frontenac Street in Kingston, the former home of my excellent friend, the honorable Craig Lilly. I departed Kingston at dusk. I saw a deer on the roadside that stared at my contraption as I rode by not unlike the hundreds of people that have done so up until that point. I camped in a farmer's field.

Day 4, June 11: 83 km traveled by rowbike

As soon as I got going something began to rub against my back wheel. Upon inspection I realized the frame for my supplies had cracked. Part of the reason of the breaking was the stress put onto the frame whenever the bike would fall or when I had no where to lean it against and would put it down on the ground. I walked 8.8 km to Gananoque where I would attempt some sort of makeshift repair. While resting at Sculpture Park I suddenly heard a familiar voice calling my name. I turn around and there is Craig Lilley and his lovely girlfriend Pam. We are shocked at our chance encounter and take pictures. Since I'm still wearing the clothes I departed in and am looking to minimize the weight on my bike, I give all my clothes to Craig to take for me, except one other shirt and a pair of underwear and socks. I manage a makeshift repair and proceed onwards.

Craig and I at Gananoque.
Pam and I at Gananoque.

The rain hit me hard before Brockville. I was so cold I thought I would die. It was also hard to see when water beaded on my glasses. When I got to Brockville I stopped at Tim's for hot chocolate. Once out of the city a man stopped me to talk. He was a previous rowbike owner and apparently well traveled around the world. He recommended I use a tape recorder next time. This is an excellent suggestion since otherwise I forget almost everything. The weather is still looking very threatening and I camped just past Prescott.

Day 5, June 12: 72 km traveled by rowbike

Today I woke up in an inch of water. It was a poor decision to set up my tent in tall grass. My intention had been to be unnoticeable in my tent but now I was soaked. I cursed my stupidity because I had known that tents are only water-proof when nothing is touching the walls. I stayed in my tent a long time but seeing as the rain was not going to ease off I left at 11:30 am, a very late start. After a half hour of rowbiking I began to warm up. I ate a sub for lunch in Morrisburg. The rain had stopped but it was still ugly outside. But shortly thereafter the weather began to clear. I put on my wet T-shirt to dry and was cold for a while. The road and scenery on the way to Cornwall were amazingly beautiful. I was stopped by a collector of bicycles. Apparently this man had received word from a friend around Brockville that a man on a strange sort of bicycle was heading east and he had spent the day driving around looking for me. The man had 96 bicycles in his collection, 5 of them wooden and some made by John Deere. Of course he had never seen a rowbike. He suggested to me a bike trail which runs along Highway 2 all the way to Cornwall. I went on parts of the bike trail but found it too windy and went back on the highway. In Cornwall I decided to stay at the first cheap motel I could find. I stayed at Martin's Inn, which cost me $44 including tax. I washed my clothes in the sink and wow did a lot of dirt ever come out of them! I also showered, hung my sleeping bag out to dry, set-up the tent so it would dry, brushed my teeth, and of course called Amy on my cell phone before all of this.

The view outside my tent. There is an inch of water on the floor of the tent.

Day 6, June 13: around 100 km by rowbike

When I woke up in my bed after excellent sleep the tent was dry (least important) but my sleeping bag and clothes were still wet. I would have to dry them in the sun later. I planned by what roads I would get to Montreal, had breakfast at A&W and hit the road. The road between Cornwall and Quebec was gorgeous, mostly running along the St. Lawrence River. I had developed blisters on my toes when the previous day I had removed my soaked socks and put my bare feet in my shoes. And so now I strapped my shoes to the back of the rowbike and proceeded in my socks only. I'm not sure exactly how far I traveled today because the computer that tells me my speed and distance was malfunctioning due to water inside of it for the first 20 km or so. After that it dried up in the sun and began working again. I hit Quebec around 4 pm. I crossed where Highway 2 turns into Highway 338. A woman that lives in the last house in Ontario took a picture of me at the border. Unfortunately, my camera did not survive the previous two days of rain and the last picture I would have was in Prescott. From here on in the winder did not forward properly and all the pictures were on top of one another. When I realized this after developing my pictures in Halifax, the replacement 35mm camera I bought would have a manual winding so that this sort of thing would be prevented in the future. In my new camera the battery is only needed for the flash and everything else is manual. Anyhow, it was neat at the Quebec border to see two houses beside each other, one being the first house in Ontario, and the other the first in Quebec. The road was nice along 338, with a separate road for bikers. All along my journey so far people have been very enthusiastic about the rowbike. But the Quebec people are the loudest and most vocal. Approaching Montreal dozens of cars passed me with people, especially young-ins, shouting out various things to me. I am very sad I could not understand most of it. I camped in a nice spot at the side of the road in Chateauguay, just outside of Montreal. When I called Amy, I spoke with her roommate Kevin. Kevin translated a sign attached to one of the trees where I was camping for me to mean "Free Land", meaning anyone could camp there. What are the chances? -- I actually wasn't breaking the law!

Day 7, June 14: 89 km by rowbike

Today was a "turbo" tough day because of the very busy roads around Montreal and the fact that the roads were narrow and in disrepair. Yesterday, I took Highway 338 to Highway 201, then Highway 132 to Chateauguay. Today I proceeded east on 132 to just before Highway 15, where I went North on Ch. St-Francois-Xavier. Highway 132 felt like the 401 would feel on a bicycle with trucks whizzing by at high speed. My plan was to turn onto Boulevard Rome in Brossard, which is just before Highway 10. According to the map Boulevard Rome intersects Boulevard G.-Boucher which would lead me to Highway 112. Such planning was necessary because bicycles are prohibited on the major highways in Quebec such as highways 10, 15, 20, and 30. Unfortunately, when I found Boulevard Rome I could not find a Boulevard G.-Boucher branching off it. I later concluded that my map had mislead me. I was using a MapArt Canada road atlas book which featured a large scale Montreal & Environs enlargement page. However, this map was not as detailed as a city map would be and the map did not show that Boulevard G.-Boucher had a different name when it branched off from Boulevard Rome. I lost about half an hour trying to find my way but eventually got to Highway 112. I camped along Highway 112 about 10 km west of Granby behind a large mechanic's car garage with an "A Vendre" sign in the window.

Day 8, June 15: 48 km by rowbike

It was raining when I woke up. As I packed my stuff in the rain I decided that I would call Via Rail when I next encounter a phone booth and am able to look up the toll-free phone number. Over the past few days I'd been contemplating taking a shortcut. Initially, of course, I had planned to row the entire 1800 km from Toronto to Halifax. But over the last few days I'd realized that 100 km a day was about the most I could do given the reality of the situation. By "the situation" I mean THE HILLS! I haven't talked about the hills much up ‘til now, but rowbiking hills deserves a few sentences. In a nutshell, it sucks. It is incredibly difficult, especially with weight on the back of the rowbike. Often I'd be fighting up a hill with everything I have, then I would look down at the computer (which tells me speed and distance) and find that I'm moving at 6 km/hr, the equivalent of a brisk walk. The rowbike is actually designed so that the back wheel locks when you try to turn it backwards. I assume this is so that you don't roll backward down a hill. Even though I would stroke very quickly in either 1st or 2nd gear up hills, by the time I came up to the "catch" (beginning of stroke) I would very often be nearly stopped and lose my balance. Anyway, the reality of the hills meant that although I would row from 8am till 9pm (with total 2 hours break in there somewhere) I could not do better than 100 km a day in this terrain. I was too anxious to get to Halifax to do the whole trip. The Via Rail people told me I could catch a train from St. Hyacinthe, Quebec to Moncton, New Brunswick at around 8pm. It would cost me $95 including tax for a student ticket and $17 for the rowbike. I proceeded up Highway 137 to St. Hyacinthe in the rain. I arrived in St. Hyacinthe at around 3 pm frozen from the rain. I ate a sub at Mr. Sub and removed the foot rests and steering bar from the rowbike so that I could put the rowbike into the Via Rail required "bicycle box".

Day 9, June 16: 89 km by rowbike

I arrived by train in Moncton around noon in light rain and had my rowbike assembled and on the road by 1pm. When I stepped off the train it was raining and I still had water in my shoes from Quebec. I now had about 300 km to Halifax. The day was pretty uneventful, I had a lot of smooth unhilly road which allowed me to get good distance despite my late start. I got about 15 km inside the Nova Scotia boundary when I decided to camp alongside Highway 104.

Day 10, June 17: 104 km by rowbike

A good part of today was spent in the "Cobequid Pass", a $3.50 toll section for motorized vehicles, which I was allowed to pass for free as a rowbiker. The entire way was filled with enormous hills. I think it would have killed me to row up all the hills so I ended up walking up quite a few. Since yesterday I've been riding on a busy highway with a 110 km/hr speed limit the majority of the time. I've had only a 6 to 18 inch shoulder most of the time. I really would not recommend this to prospect bikers or rowbikers. There are smaller, safer, and more scenic alternatives such as highways 2 and 4. I simply take the most direct route because I want to get to Halifax as soon as possible at this point. There were some stunning views today. Unfortunately, there were some really torn up sections of road before the Cobequid Pass. I had to be really careful when coasting down hills, sometimes I was forced to apply breaks. Somewhere within the Cobequid my front brake cable snapped. I camped along the highway just passed Truro. I used my cell phone to call Amy and to tell her to expect me tomorrow around 5 to 6 pm.

Day 11, June 18: 93 km by rowbike

Today was also filled with a slew of hills. The day was spent pulling as fast as possible so as to quicken my arrival in Halifax. The day started overcast as all of yesterday had been but the sun came out in the afternoon. While nearly at the airport my bike rack ripped off from the frame of the rowbike. I spent half an hour on the side of the highway and managed to rig it up in a make-shift fashion that would hopefully hang through until Halifax. I would have to get off and re-adjust the rack every few minutes though for the remainder of the trip to stop my storage pouches from rubbing against the tire, an extremely annoying and slowing thing.

I had decided to take the bridge from Dartmouth to Halifax. The bridge shaves 10-15 km off the trip. Highways 118 and 111 leading to the McKay bridge were quite busy and scary on the rowbike, especially when I had to take left-side of the highway exit ramps in 110 km/hr zones. My bridge-crossing adventure began as I pulled up to the McKay toll booth. A bridge patrol officer in a car flagged me down and told me I would have to head over to the MacDonald bridge because bicycles were not allowed on the McKay. I asked him if he thought that what I was riding looked like a bicycle but he said not to be smart with him and he pointed to the off-ramp immediately passed the toll booth. Glancing at my watch I saw that I could still make it to Amy's house by 6 pm. I rode around Dartmouth and shortly thereafter reached the base of the bridge I wanted to cross, the MacDonald. As I approached it I was not exactly sure how to get on the bridge. I followed a small street which went underneath the base of the bridge and then I spotted a footpath where I saw pedestrians entering the bridge at an opening in the concrete wall. I rowed up to the opening and looked back toward the intersection where the sidewalk began and where the cars were coming from. I did this to ensure that no toll was being collected from pedestrians because I was not looking to break any rules. I saw that pedestrians walked freely onto the bridge. I began to walk the rowbike, not sure of whether riding the rowbike across the bridge was permitted. I then saw a sign that said, "Pedestrians Only. Bicycles other side." I figured "No Problem" to myself. I began to cross the road to get to the other side. I must point out that during my crossing I heard an inaudible gurgle over a loud speaker. At the time I had no idea it was directed towards me. On the other side of the bridge I found the bike path and proceeded to ride across the bridge. On the Halifax end the fenced-in path spirals downwards before releasing you onto the street. It was during this downward spiral as I picked up speed that I lost my only remaining brake, the rear brake (if you recall my front brake cable snapped the previous day). Specifically, the brake cable popped out of the housing in the brake lever. This had happened once in Ontario and I had easily re-installed the cable. The reason this happens from time to time is that the rear brake cable that came with the rowbike is not a proper brake cable. It is actually a gear cable that has a smaller tip and is not designed for a brake lever. The reason it was put into place was that the rowbike is longer than a regular bicycle and a typical brake cable would be too short. Anyway, back to the story, I found myself barreling down a narrow path with no brakes. To complicate matters, as I turned the last bend, I saw a brightly dressed officer of some sort standing directly in my path with his arm extended and palm towards me indicating that I stop. As I approached he yelled "Stop!". I yelled "GET OUT OF THE WAY!" as I barreled towards him. In the last moment he jumped out of the way just as I jumped off my rowbike. The rowbike went crashing and I was unhurt in my fall. What followed was an intense interrogation session with the officer. It turns out that he was there waiting to give me a "Warning", wanting to say that I should have turned back when the voice over the inaudible speaker told me not to cross the road. Of course things became complicated when the officer took my brakeless-state near impact into him as an act of aggression against his person. Furthermore, he did not understand that I entered the bridge from the side and not at the intersection where the cars begin (he did not know there was such an entrance until in my defense I was forced to go back across the bridge with him and take him there) and therefore he did not believe me that I didn't see signs clearing marking where pedestrians and bikers go and signs that prohibit crossing. And so this officer tried his best to be angry at me for a) nearly running him down, b) pleading ignorance to the signs I did not see, and c) my explanations of my actions, which he took to be smart-ass excuses. I could tell that while being angry the officer could not help to wonder about my strange contraption. It took over an hour to get myself out of the mess at the bridge. A little over an hour late I finally rowed up to 6026 Cedar Street, where Amy Jones was waiting for me. Quite possibly the happiest moment of my life.
This picture was taken by Amy as I approached 6026 Cedar St. Amy was waiting for me on the balcony. The last few meters.

Post-rowing commentae

It's always a good idea to train in the exact fashion you'll be traveling in or to at least do a thorough dry-run before hand. Had I done this I would have realized that the extreme weight of the rowbike with my gear strapped to it necessitated a kickstand and that the baggage frame needed to be reinforced or else it wouldn't make it.

The trip was definitely fun. I'd love to go across Canada coast-to-coast someday, but I think that maybe I would do that on a regular bicycle instead just because the hills on the rowbike really slow you down and exhaust you. But if you don't mind traveling only 6-8 hours a day and you don't need to go further than 50 kilometers a day I say go for it on the rowbike if you like. The rowbike is a fine contraption.

Upon arrival I discovered that Amy and her roommates had posted these maps in their kitchen. They kept track of my progress by extending red string to a thumbtack at the point in the map to which I traveled by rowbike each day. (note the gap where I took the train)
When I arrived I was wearing a T-shirt with this caricature on it. It depicts the 3 roommates I would be staying with for the rest of the summer, from left to right: Shane, Amy and Kevin.
One of the Hooligans (Shane) mastering the rowbike.