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Cycling across Canada... In the winter

'It's mandatory for me to remain physically active since I've been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It requires a mandatory insulin therapy using an insulin pump implying rigorous management'
Carolyne Guay (left), has been driving the support car alongside Daniel Britten, who has been biking across Canada in the winter. Photo by Ryen Veldhuis.

Braving the cross-country highway on a bicycle is a challenge cyclists have welcomed over the years, but one could expect the number of participants to disappear the moment the snows hit the pavement.

But Daniel Britten didn’t let the weather stop him this year, as he passed through North Bay from the west coast on Friday. This winter, he decided to hit the famous trail with his bike specifically to up the challenge with the dangers of taking the roads in the snow.

“I’ve been thinking about it for many years,” he said, as he faced a constant life challenge. “I need to exercise as much during the winter as the summer. Recently, after being injured at work, I can't continue to work physically or manually as I did for the last couple of decades. I then decided to get on my bike since biking had always been the tool in part responsible for my salvation.”

And so, he set off, but not alone. Britten has been accompanied, luckily, he’s said, by his girlfriend, Carolyne Guay, who has been driving along in their electric/hybrid vehicle, carrying all the required gear. It was a decision they both made together after she accepted the challenge Britten felt he needed to complete.

Unlike in the summer, the conditions have been so fierce that he has required a support vehicle, as snow, wind, and the cold make it hard to reach optimal speeds for long with too much baggage.

“I worry a lot for him,” Guay said, since she drives the support car ahead for a bit, giving him time to catch up. “I have him on a GPS tracker so I can see him moving along the highway, just to make sure he’s alright.”

Despite the dangers that come to mind with this challenge, they said it’s been a relative breeze, all things considered.

“We caught nice weather for the most part,” Britten said. “We got stuck in Sudbury because of the snow storm, but apart from that, it’s been pretty clear.

With the buildup of snow on the side of the road, he said he’s had to bike more or less on the side of the lane on the highway, leading to some close calls with cars passing by.

“It’s not really the bike that’s dangerous when I use my studded tires I don’t really have a problem,” he said. “It’s the cars sliding on the road that’s what I have to watch out for. And the whole ride can be pretty mentally challenging since you can’t listen to music for safety reasons, so you’re biking for six or so hours, concentrating and pedaling away.”  

But for him, it’s more than just a personal challenge, but a lifestyle decision and a move to raise awareness to a life challenge not only he faces daily, but many other Canadians do too. That life challenge Britten faces is managing type 1 diabetes daily.

“It's mandatory for me to remain physically active since I've been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. It requires a mandatory insulin therapy using an insulin pump implying rigorous management.”

Since then, he’s had to keep particularly active throughout the year, not letting the winter months slow him down.

The ride, which began after the couple arrived from Montreal to Vancouver in mid-January, saw Britten ride an average of 50 kilometers a day through the frigid winter to get back to Montreal in March.

“The first four days it was rain, then after that, we were scared of getting hit by snow in the Rockies,” he said, “but we were lucky.”

But the hardest place to travel for them has been Northern Ontario, with winding roads, cresting hills, stiff winds, and the cold humidity of the lakes wearing them down.

And even for Guay, who’s been using as little gas as possible for the drive, it’s been an experience. To conserve battery power, the heat in the car is almost non-existent, as she bundles up as much as Britten on his bike, both wearing heaters in their boots.

“It’s impossible without support,” Britten said. “All I have to do is pedal each day and she does everything else.”

And together they’ve received support from Canadians across the country as they’ve used an online service where travelers can connect with people offering hospitality across Canada. Such a house is where they stayed in North Bay, offered kindly to support them at night as they prepared for another hard day of travel.

“You meet so many interesting people, all with different stories of their own,” Guay and Britten said. “We haven’t had any bad experiences. We’ve eaten a lot of good food, and met a lot of great people.”

It also gives the couple a chance to spread their message and their story, raising more awareness of the challenges of type 1 diabetes.

“We wanted to show people that if we can do this in the winter,” Guay said, “people can do pretty much anything.”