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Cycling into the prairies

June 22nd, 2013 | Posted by Dino in Canada | Uncategorized - (1 Comments)

Day 16: Brooks to Redcliff (98.5 km)

Cycling through the prairies could drive you slowly insane.

When we set off this morning the scenery looked like this: green fields on all sides, large dome of sky, grey strip of tarmac heading straight forward, a ceaseless line of pylons on the left.

The prairies have just dulled my senses.

The prairies have just dulled my senses.

20km later and the scenery had not changed. An hour later it was still the same. Still the same. If I didn’t have the odometer on my bike I wouldn’t have believed that we were actually moving forward so endlessly monotonous were the surroundings.

Dino: "caption for this picture?" Sofi: "It looks the same as the other one"

Dino: “caption for this picture?”
Sofi: “It looks the same as the other one”

The only excitement of the day came in the form of two birds. One plover and one wader (possibly a curlew sandpiper) which we saw in quick succession after lunch. I thought that the unchanging scenery was the mental challenge of the day- I was wrong. It was the wind.

After lunch the wind really picked up. The wind progressed from bad to awful. It was an east-north-east wind and we were headed directly east. Our average speed was battered by the wind. It dropped from 20km per hour, to 15km, to a miserably punishing 12 km. The distance between us and the campground seem to expand as our speed dropped. Oddly the land was slightly undulating. It was actually faster to climb the hills (marginally) as the incline of the hill gave us a precious bit of protection from the ceaseless wind.

Trucks rumbled past. A couple times today we felt ‘the suck’. The suck is the feeling of the vacuum around the passing truck – first the air current pushes you out and then it pulls you in like a tumbling ocean wave. It’s scariest when it pulls you over the rumble strips.

After 90-something kilometres of riding we pulled into the small town of Redcliff, a few kilometres short of Medicine Hat. The town isn’t much. It’s a small place where people drive pick up trucks and the wind kicks dust into your eye. But it has a municipal campground.

Thankfully the tornado warning for the area has now been lifted. Yes, tornado. However there is still a severe weather warning for overnight.

Upon arrival at the campground we inspected the cleanliness of the washroom. We decided that it was safer to bed down inside rather than camp out in the open. (The washrooms here are very clean.) The wanderers were going to sleep in the disabled showed until one of them realised that the shower was motion activated (!) so we’re now all bunking down in the disabled toilet cubicle. At least it’s en suite.

I write this blog post from inside the local tavern, having just eaten my own body weight in chips, burger and carrot cake. Outside the heavy rain, blasting wind and shaking trees do not look inviting. I am glad to be sleeping inside tonight.

Tomorrow we have another 90-something kilometres to ride. I really hope the wind is on our side. Our backside that is.

Thunder and sunshine

June 19th, 2013 | Posted by Dino in Canada | Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Day 15: Calgary to Brooks (106.5 km)

“Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me, That ever with a frolic welcome took The thunder and the sunshine” ~ Tennyson, Ulysses

A shock of electricity burst in white sparks as it struck the pylon next to me. My vision flashed. Thunder cracked like a hammer against the anvil of my head. Booming, deafening thunder a metre from my skull. I cowered.

The words of John and Kumiko’s last email ran through my head: “…and don’t cycle in thunderstorms.” Here I am, cycling on Monty, in the eye of the storm.

I could see the washroom up ahead. I pulled off. The rain started lashing down more heavily, I opened the door and pulled Monty inside. I’m safe, I’m alive, I’m out of the storm.

The wanderers had sent me a message “hope you and Monty are sheltered right now.” “Monty & I are sheltering inside a washroom. lightning cracked above us.” I replied. They were in a car and had just passed a sign for 19k to Strathmore. I was 15k from Strathmore. Worried that they were about to drive past me I tried to type as fast as I could… Before I could get to the end of my tweet I heard the crunch of wheels outside the washroom.

I opened the door to rain and a Mercedes GL550 SUV. The rescue.

The wanderers climbed out and helped pile me and Monty into and onto the Mercedes. My wet feet squelched inside my cleats. And then we were driving. Karen, one of the wanderer’s aunts, in her car was the saviour of the day. She drove away from the charcoal clouds, away from the flashes and the cracking lightening. She drove until the sky was blue.

And then we climbed out the car and I saw still wet but it was hot. Only puffs of white cloud sailed overhead. We ate lunch at a picnic bench. Having eaten my fill of avocado and crackers I lay on my back and looked up. A rainbow shone in a perfect arch around the sun. I smiled. I was safe.

It was so hot we peeled off layers before getting in our bikes and heading out into the prairies. The land was flat. The road was dead straight. And the wind was behind us. Trucks rumbled by close enough that you could smell their loads: logs, hay bales and manure. Highway 1 cut a straight line through endless grassy fields. A red-winged blackbird called from a fence post. We passed some cows. Sometimes my vision would flash in an echo of the morning’s thunder. Yet all around was sunshine. And on we cycled, non-stop for 46km.

We pulled over at the outskirts of Brooks. This is a strange town. It’s famous for its XL meat processing plant which recently have to recall its products. Our campsite adjoins the town museum. The museum features farming machinery, a fake Adventist church and one train carriage. What a place.

We ate Popsicles in the sunshine at the campsite.

Addendum: We had just finished eating dinner and Katie Wanderer checked the weather online to discover a weather warning for “severe thunder and lightening with large hail stones.” There was a motel over the road. The wanderers went over to negotiate a price and, given that our lives are collectively worth the €85, we packed up camp as fast as possible before scuttling over the road under ominous violet clouds. Lightening cracked like a bloodshot eye on the horizon.

Thank you for praying for me. I am glad to be alive. I have survived the thunder and the sunshine.

P.s. I should add that the day actually started nicely as Steve and his young son Reid (people I’ve been staying with) led me through the bike paths of Calgary. It was a real pleasure staying with the family.

Running out the mountains

June 18th, 2013 | Posted by Dino in Canada | Uncategorized - (2 Comments)

Day 14: Canmore to Calgary

There’s nothing like starting a 95km bike ride with a quick run. Call me nuts, but before I left the UK I thought it would be fun to do some trail running in Canada.*

Finally this morning I actually made use of the running gear I’ve been lugging around by joining Betti, Ric and Sofi Wanderer for a refreshing 5k run along the river. Betti and Ric are incredibly lucky to live in Canmore – it is such a beautiful place. And we were incredibly lucky to stay with such wonderful hosts. Grey mountains watch over the old mining town on the edge of the Rockies. We ran on perfect dirt trails alongside an ice-cold fast flowing Bow river.

The run was followed by a delicious breakfast (I’ve been craving fried eggs so much!) back at the house. We carried on chatting and laughing for hours. It was midday before the Wanderers and I packed up our panniers and said our goodbyes. I sure hope to be back in
Canmore again one day.

Duatheletes. From left Katie, Sofi, me, Betti and Ric. Thanks for a great run.

Duatheletes. From left Katie, Sofi, me, Betti and Ric. Thanks for a great run.

What a beautiful day for cycling. Sunshine, lots of short hills to sprint up and long, easy descents. Fuelled by fried eggs, laughter and the 5k run warm up, my legs felt powerful as I climbed out the saddle to sprint the short hills. Slowly the mountains slipped further behind us. Over the course of the day the surrounding jagged mountaineer smoothed into rolling hills and then flattened into a pancake horizon of green fields.

Goodbye Rocky Mountains. Hello country roads. (Someone will get this)

Goodbye Rocky Mountains. Hello country roads. (Someone will get this)

As we headed out of the mountains the wind picked up. First it was a soothing brushing across my chest, then it wrapped around my head, muffling my ears. Then a strong northern wind battered against my wheels, buffering my bike back and forth as we descended. Towards Calgary I approached a number of sharp descents that were nerve-wracking to tackle in the wind. A large articulated lorry (semi) stormed by, whipping the wind so much that my tshirt nearly flew off.

There weren’t many places to stop. By 4pm we hadn’t found a shelter for lunch so sat out under the sun munching crackers and avocado. I turned around to catch a last glimpse of the Rocky Mountains. It’s been an adventure. I do love a good hill climb. And I hope to come back here (Kettle Valley rail trail Ruth?) But the mountains are only the beginning.

I’m headed into the prairies and it will be like this all day: hot, flat and windy. In order to get to Winnipeg in time for Canada Day I’ve got some serious biking to do. Expect 150km days and long, hot hours in the saddle. I’d best get running.

*This idea was inspired by my New Zealand travel buddy Sina would used to go on a run almost everyday while travelling around Canada and NZ. I thought it a very cool thing to do.

Slumbering bear

June 16th, 2013 | Posted by Dino in Canada | Uncategorized - (1 Comments)

Day 13 Lake Louise to Canmore (89 km)

Chateau Lake Louise is pretty impressive. Seriously if you’ve not heard of it you should look it up. The wanderers had a spare bed in their €750 a night room so had invited me (and Monty) to stay with them. I’ve not been sleeping much in Canada and was looking forward to a decent night’s kip.

There was a moment wandering around the sixth floor hunting for room 6923 and still (after about an hour) unable to find the wanderers when I was beginning to wonder if it was just a big wind up. There weren’t any rooms with four digit numbers. I’d been told to find the East elevator and was hopelessly trying to take a bearing from the sun in order to work out which way was East. To no avail. Eventually Sofi Wanderer found me sitting in the lobby. I was trying my best to look inconspicuous in a five star hotel whilst wearing trail running shoes, shorts and a bright red waterproof. We picked up Monty and whisked him inside on the elevator without anyone noticing.

The view from the view was impressive.

Room with a view

Room with a view

Oddly I had the worst night’s sleep. The bed was so soft and squidgy that I constantly felt like I was sinking. I woke up again and again. At 3am I couldn’t get back to sleep. I was very tempted to blow up my thermarest and sleep on that but worried that noise of inflating it would wake up the Wanderers. Eventually I did get to sleep by lying upside down on the bed with a pillow between my legs.

6.30am – time to go swimming.
There is only going to be one morning in our lives when we have the opportunity to swim in the crystal glacier-fed waters of Lake Louise and then sink into a hot tub: this was that morning. The water was so cold that “if you threw an ice cube in the water it would stay there”. We crawled in like Golum over the wet rocks, swam about 10m and then Golumed out again. We padded down the carpeted corridors wrapped in towels trying to find our way through the labyrinth to the hot tub.

I'm going to start a list of lakes in the world I've swum in. Lake Louise joins Lake Baikal.

I’m going to start a list of lakes in the world I’ve swum in. Lake Louise joins Lake Baikal.

8:15am – breakfast
The cheapest breakfast on the hotel menu was €18. But we are but humble cycle tourists. The girls had only beef jerky and one protein bar in stock so I shared out all that I had. We were limited to 3 crackers, one third of a spoon on peanut butter scrapped as thinly as possible, two thirds of a banana each and a mug of coffee. We ate like peasants in a palace.

11am – actually doing some biking.
Our cycling route to Canmore was supposed to be ‘all downhill’. Katie Wanderer was looking forward to an entire day of coasting. She had absolutely no intention of pedalling if it could be helped. It was disappointing then for us to find hills en route. The route had been described as downhill and mostly flat.
Indeed, encouraging people had on multiple occasions described the approaching terrain as “Oh, mostly downhill and flat compared to what you guys have biked already.”
As Katie pointed out, what we’ve biked already are several Rocky Mountain passes. “I want you to compare flat with flat, not flat with Allison’s Pass.”
Fair point.

Cycling along highway 1a to Banff we saw three peletons of cyclist, an elk and a black bear. I’m particularly pleased about seeing the bear as we were almost out of bear country.

Photo credit: Katie Wanderer. Yes, we were that close.

Photo credit: Katie Wanderer. Yes, we were that close.

Talking of bears, it turns out that I’ve nearly seen a bear twice. Firstly Nic and I cycled straight past a bear on our way up Allisons Pass and didn’t realise. But the Wanderers (who stayed an extra day at the campsite in Canyon Hot Springs) found out that the next morning that a bear had been wandering around our campsite, indeed was right outside our tents in the night. We (wanderers and I) had stashed all our food in the laundry room, far from our tents. Bryan (being arrogant/ stupid?) had left all of it outside his tent, neatly packed in a bag just a few yards from our canvas abodes. The wanderers discovered all this when the saw the wardens setting up traps the next morning. Needless to say, I’m glad I found out about this a safe 200+km away.

We cycled to Banff and stopped for a prolonged break, trying to wait for the rain to stop (it didn’t).

Sarcastic signpost on the way to Canmore.

Sarcastic signpost on the way to Canmore.

The last 24km to Canmore were delightfully along bike path. The wanderers were staying with a family friend so just out of town they phoned them to get directions.
“Erm… We also have a third cyclists with us. Could she camp in your garden?”
Well, it turned out Betti and Ric live in a condo but were more than happy to let me unroll my thermarest in their living room. After a wonderful evening with them (featuring great food, private Irish folk music performance and lots of laughter) I lay down on my thermarest on the floor of their living room and had the best night’s sleep I’ve had in Canada.

Day 12: Golden to Lake Louise (85 km)

I’m so tired I could face plant into my couscous.

The only time in my life when I’ve been this tired was when my Mum and I went on a 24 mile walk. My mother, I should point out, is a hardcore walker. Whereas I am not. I think I did actually fall asleep into my dinner that night.

Today I cycled 85km up the infamous 10 Mile Hill and over Kicking Horse Pass. It was my fifth day in a row of cycling. As soon as I got back onto the highway and began the first steep ascent the leg burn kicked in. I began to wonder whether racing my own imaginary Giro d’Italia up a mountain pass, then only eating left overs and not stretching was perhaps a bit… Foolish.

I climbed. All day I climbed like a tortoise. I felt zapped of energy. The tank was empty (because some fool decided to only feed it two meals in 118km yesterday!) My muscles and joints ached.

And then I remembered how the tortoise won the race. Sometime last year I did a 100k women only bike challenge with my mother around the rolling (read: hilly) South Downs. I remember my mother overtaking pink gym bunnies half her age. Some had stopped and were pushing their bikes up, other pink bunnies were only pedalling just enough to save falling off backwards. And my mother pedalled past them…

The trick, I recall, was to slip into the lowest gear possible and then just keep pedalling. So somewhere in my exhaustion I remembered this. And thought “if my 58 year old mother can cycle up these hills then so can I.” And so I kept pedalling. I munched some more jelly beans. Thought about my mother and the pink gym bunnies. And somehow found the strength to tap away at about 7km up this Rocky Mountain pass.

I wanted to get to Field for lunch but by 2pm I had done 50km (7km short) and my tank needed desperate refilling. I stopped by the side of the road. There was nothing around except wilderness sliced in half by highway. I was apprehensive about lunching in the wild alone for fear of bears.

So as I hung out my tent to dry in the sun and spread my avocado I began to sing. I started with John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” (obviously) but soon ran out of lyrics. So I started Aretha Franklin’s “I will survive” which seemed equally suitable. My avocado was finished but my tent was not yet dry. So I used some precious battery on the iPad to listen to some tunes (namely “what a beautiful day” by the Levellers and “C-A-N-A-D-A” by Raffi.) And I sung. And I danced. And felt very happy and not so scared of bears.

Drying out in the sun

Drying out in the sun

I pedalled off happily only for the leg burn to hit within 1 minute up the relentless hill. When I arrived at Field I was accosted by a lonely cyclist who gave me his card and clearly wanted to chat. I did not. I wanted to cycle up the infamous 10 Mile hill before I collapsed.

Straight out of Field it was horrendously steep. Horrendously. Alongside the road was a river – a gushing fast-paced whitewater river that was beautiful to see but was also a cruel reminder of the gradient.

The rest of the day basically continued in this way. I felt weak. The hill went up.

Somewhere near the top. Not sure if this is BC or Alberta as there was no sign.

Somewhere near the top. Not sure if this is BC or Alberta as there was no sign.

Finally the mountain relented and I was freewheeling. The end was near. The most beautiful thing I saw all day was the sign “Lake Louise next exit”. I let out a yell.

image

Finally, finally I had arrived. For weeks I’ve been telling myself that if I can cycle to Lake Louise then I can cycle across Canada.

And now I know I will.

Ps. I actually left BC and entered Alberta today but I didn’t see a sign which was most disappointing.