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Canada 2017

#6: Pancakes with Dave

We met Dave at a rest stop just out of Malakwa.

You find yourself attracted  (magnetically, not necessarily physically) to other cyclists when you’ve been riding a while. The shared experience of being grimy, achy and sunburned is a good conversation starter.

Dave was the trove of generosity and openness that a cycle-tourist should be. The usual “hi, how’s it going, where are you going, we’re from the UK, ah nice!” evolved into a couple of hours swapping stories and touring tips, then absorbing lessons on history, geography, world affairs, energy, culture, kit, conspiracies and everything else.

His bank of stories was bigger than his gear, and he was the most well-laden cycle tourist I’ve ever met. He carried more than us two combined, most of which rested on a huge trailer behind his bike. It was a truly formidable set-up.

A benefit of so much gear is that you’re afforded certain luxuries that the more streamlined tourer sacrifices. A huge tent and custom-made 1.5x size sleeping bag is one example. Supplies for a full pancake breakfast, complete with syrup and butter is another example.

Dave’s invite to join him for the latter is one of the highlights of the ride so far.

As he began to unpack his full kitchen and pantry, I washed the melted butter out of his pannier bag – fine barter for a pancake breakfast.

For a few minutes Kristian pottered about, Dave kept unpacking things, I cleaned.

The stories kept flowing. The rest stop we were at was the site of The Last Spike, where the final spike in the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven in 1885. “Every Canadian kid knows that”.

The pancake mix and syrup made an appearance, as did the redundant eggs and butter. Each item unpacked sparked a foray into a new task or story. “If you buy frozen strawberries, you can eat them over the next couple of days!”.

I finished evicting butter from the bag and started making some coffee, which prompted Dave to unpack his coffee making set-up. Comparing gear is another essential part of chatting to other cyclists, so we evaluated each other’s cooking and coffee making arrangements, taking photos and notes so we could improve ours later. My Bugaboo received warm and deserved praise.

Kristian started making pancakes while I made coffee and Dave unpacked more things. He told us about the merits of a plastic egg holder, about his life in the Middle East and his time spent teaching English in South Korea, about T. E. Lawrence and his unorthodox military career, about his night spent camping at the Eton Boat Club, about Paul Hellyer’s declaration that aliens are real and, my favourite, about two Swedish girls who are cycling too, one of whom is a mechanical engineer and told Dave that his trailer was mechanically inefficient because of the arrangement of the axles.

His touring tips were often accompanied by labelling us ‘Innocents Abroad’. I enjoy the implication of a Master and Apprentice dynamic where us young tourists are earning our stripes and collecting experiences and miles from the road, and knowledge from other people riding it.

This dynamic was immediately flipped when a guy came over and introduced himself as Miguel, touring North America in a van with his girlfriend Misaki. He asked us for tips for preparing for his first ever cycle tour, and it felt great seeing his enthusiasm build as we answered questions about distance, kit, hills, and everything else.

Another great example of the automatic camaraderie between people on adventures,

Miguel’s observation that after a long time travelling – when the days and places start to blur into each other – that “it’s all yesterdays” was nice too.

So cheers to Dave, Miguel and Misaki for a fine pancake-filled rest stop.

#7: bike life

You wake up earlier. Not quite with the sun, but not far off.

A ‘snooze’ means getting up at 8.15, leisurely packing and faffing means hitting the road around 10.

Then you point your bike in a direction, and you go.

When you’re smashing the miles, you’re moving toward your target.
When you’re struggling up a hill or through a lull, you’re moving toward your target.
Even when you’re despairing and craving a beer or a bath or a bed, you’re moving toward your target.

At other times one of three things is happening: you’re eating, sleeping, or preparing to do one of those things.

It’s a very simple life.

The creaks, cracks and groans have worked themselves out of our bikes and our bodies. There are aches and twinges, but the former are low key and the latter seem to go away if you treat them with respect and push through.

Beyond that, you learn to diagnose things while moving – what the heck is that sound? is it coming from the front or the back tire? should I be concerned? if I push that thing, does the noise stop?

Roadside snack stops offer a chance to address anything that can’t be solved on the move. Stretching on picnic tables, poking at upturned bikes with allen keys and wrenches. Also time to reflect on and jot down the day’s events.

These snack stops are the one time during the day you aren’t moving toward your target, but the respite is always welcome. Standing in the hard shoulder and scoffing a couple of mouthfuls of trail mix is just as welcome as two hour pancake-fuelled conversations.

Then you get to a town some time in the late afternoon or evening, order a cold beer, wash the grease off your face and hands in the restroom to make yourself more socially acceptable, and feel smug about the miles you’ve smashed to get there.


#8: reflections on B.C.

Canada provinces

Yesterday we hit Alberta and ticked the first province off our ride.

Now feels like a good time to reflect: our first day off, drinking a coffee with cream, and recharging our devices and ourselves in the café of a hotel way outside of our price range.

The defining expectation for B.C. in my mind was the Rocky Mountains, and the dread of the inevitable climbs they promised that I hadn’t trained for. Some consolation came from the knowledge that over 50% of the ride’s elevation would be chipped off in the first 15% of the  miles.

Foothills and forested mountains led us out of Vancouver, their elevations hinting at what was to come. Occasional grey towns punctuated riding along wonderful secluded roads winding down valleys, and alongside rivers and lakes. Heavy traffic was usually filtered onto parallel highways, although as provincial roads consolidated down toward cross-country highways we were more often amongst the roaring motorcades.

A string of fruit stalls and resort towns lined the shore of Lake Okanagan, where we resigned ourselves to a few days of camping in paid provincial parks rather than free wild campsites.

The park warden at Bear Creek campsite told us, with an expression exactly half way between concern and complete disinterest, that we should “watch out, as this next stretch is one of the most dangerous roads in Canada”.

A slightly ominous review, but no different from advice we’ve received two or three other times. The winding picturesque roads that usually follow never seem to fit the warnings.

The same thing happened with hills. Asking what the road is like between here and wherever we’re heading is a good conversation starter and usually yields some foreboding news about monumental inclines we’ll have to conquer. “There’s Three Valley Gap”, Dee Dee told us. “That’s three valleys, and a gap”.

After wondering briefly what a gap entailed, my mind wandered back to a ride in Yorkshire involving two valleys which broke me completely. The thought of three was too much but, as usual, in Canadian reality the road wound through the valleys rather than over them, and the incline was barely noticeable.

True snow-capped Rockies didn’t appear until the second week, and the moment will stick with me forever. We rounded a wide corner and the view of our first Rocky Mountain vista slowly revealed itself.

They are truly majestic: ice blue, huge, ancient, formidable.

And all I could think was “man, I’d love a Coors Light!”.

Never have I felt so cheated out of an opportunity to be humbled by and connected with nature’s grandeur. Instead of experiencing something spiritual I kept thinking of Jean Claude Van Damme masquerading about in tight jeans.

But even the mountain passes are relatively tame. Rogers Pass and Kicking Horse Pass were touted as some of the toughest hills in Canada, but the gradients never go over seven or eight percent. Instead of the old British technique of slapping a road over a hill to get from A to B, Canadians built long, gradual and infinitely more sensible passes. You drop into the lowest gear and lock into the rhythm, and an hour later you’re at the top.

So after preparing for gruelling climbs, neither of us felt like we’d been kicked by a horse after that pass. My ass was a bit tender after Rogers though.

A sign marking entry to Alberta was a backdrop for goofy pictures, and a moment spent feeling accomplished and buoyed by beauty of the ride so far, safe in the knowledge that the hardest hills are done, and that our legs still function as intended despite 95 mainly uphill miles.

The thing that strikes me most so far is the narrative thread that’s been woven through people and places we’d never met or heard of two weeks ago, and how prominent these things become in our daily activities.

So far it feels like a cork board. Initially everything gets pinned up, but as miles and places and people accumulate things will be buried beneath new additions. Committing things to words provides granular snapshots of specific times and mindsets along the way, making those details available at the end when the day-to-days are distilled down to a collage of highlights in my mind.

#9: City life

It’s incredible how quickly you switch between rhythms and paces of life.

When  not cycling, the reality of the amount of free time we’ve given ourselves becomes apparent. Three months where the only structure imposed on us is from within. Distances, budgets, bed times.

Our three day stop in Calgary saw our relatively disciplined daily routines revert back to 2am bed times and too many beers. Our organised pannier set ups become unruly piles next to the sofa in our friend’s spare room. Wet tents and tarps weren’t hung out to dry until the final day.

And it was wonderful.

Yesterday seven of us inflated a ten man raft and floated 15 miles down the Bow River, which runs right through downtown Calgary. Five hours of cruising, navigating mini rapids, stopping at island beaches, and hurried life-jacket-equipping and beer-can-hiding when police motorboats approached.

A couple of evenings back we played frisbee in a park then sat beside (and eventually on a rock in the middle of) the river eating cheese, skimming stones and watching fish do their various things.

These events were interspersed with walks around the city, games, bars, playing music, meeting people.

Slotting temporarily into an established group of friends is a privilege, and I’m grateful for this opportunity. Everyone we’ve met in Calgary has been interesting, fun, kind, and willing to let two random dudes join in. Thank you Ben, Randi, John, Becca, Tim, Dave, Jenny, Jesse.

This ties into what I’ve written before about paying it forward: as more and more generosity is given to us, I get more excited about offering the same to visitors to wherever I’m living in the future.

Spending days off relaxing, eating good food, drinking beers and performing various leisure activities in or near the river has been fantastic, and a good reminder that it’s possible to relax too much. I had this realisation while chewing a piece of gum before bed rather than going downstairs to brush my teeth.

I did shave though, so facially I’m more presentable than I have been so far on the trip.

Today we get back on the bikes and head into the most rural part of our trip so far, which will include a night in “one of the richest dinosaur fossil locales in the world”, a night camping in an actual ghost town, and hundreds of flat, repetitive miles that we have been repeatedly urged to avoid.

Knowing the bike is outside, waiting to be loaded up with gear and to return us to days with some semblance of structure is a nice feeling.

But then so is sitting on a sofa, freshly showered, drinking coffee made with actual appliances, surrounded by guitars.

#10: Prairie Dodgin’

We are 140 miles into the Prairies. Here is some advice we received from well-wishers regarding this region:

“Honestly, I can’t think of anything worse [than cycling across]. Driving Saskatchewan was so unbelievably dull – it really is just straight flat road with nothing interesting in sight. I started to think I could see buildings in the distance. Turns out they were just wisps of clouds.”

“Cycling across Canada could be very very boring! By the time you reach Winnipeg [near the end of the Prairies] you’ll be pining for gradients and bends”

“Yeah to be honest, skip the prairies. You’ll get the enjoyment of seeing what they look like from the train without spending about 3 weeks cycling across flat land.”

“Once you’ve seen a few miles you’ve seen it all”

On Sunday we will get a train from Saskatoon to Winnipeg, allowing us to skip a few hundred miles of the Prairies.

It turns out the advice was accurate, especially the last bit. Fields upon fields upon fields are dissected by long, perfectly straight roads.

It’s beautiful, but a much more rustic and unpolished type of beauty than the mountains we’ve ridden through previously. A beauty with lower replay value, in that it doesn’t really vary from mile to mile (or even day to day).

Neither of us are too attached to the idea of “riding across” the whole of Canada, so skipping some miles by train in favour of having more time for the exciting miles later on isn’t a problem. Even despite being told “that’s cheating!” by one person we spoke to on the way.

It’s wonderful how much advice people give freely when we speak to them. We’re grateful for it all, but deciding which bits to heed and which to ignore is one of the practicalities of the road I enjoy most.

We were advised to avoid Calgary. “There is no cycle infrastructure into the city, just highways”. While painfully true, our time in Calgary was uniformly excellent, so we were glad to ignore this advice.

We were advised to avoid drinking water in the Prairies. Our first bottle refills in the Prairies tasted strongly like eggs, to the point of being undrinkable (both because of the flavour and because of genuine concerns for our well-being). We decided to follow this advice after initially forgetting it.

We were advised to avoid tunnels if we didn’t have lights. After putting our lights on in the first tunnel and finding basically the same levels of light inside as outside, we ignored this advice. Our temporary riding buddy Patrick went beyond the advice, avoiding tunnels altogether in favour of walking his bike over the treacherous mud tracks outside.

We were advised not to camp down the 5km dirt track. Advice immediately followed: we instead camped in the $20 mountain lodge with the hot tub, the terrace overlooking the mountains, and the kind and hospitable staff (if you’re reading this, hello and thanks again!).

We were advised to take Highway 550 after Bassano instead of carrying on along the 1, because this would trim about 20 miles off our ride to Dinosaur Provincial Park. I was very excited by this prospect, although it turns out Kristian knew about this route already. This type of advice is always more than welcome though: locals’ knowledge of roads and areas and shortcuts saves time and often leads to more scenic, less busy riding.

We were continuously advised to go to Edmonton instead of Calgary, mainly because the route follows the Icefields Parkway which is among the most beautiful roads in the world, but also because the train links are better. Despite my previous point about locals’ road knowledge, we ignored this advice because fun times were promised (and provided!) in Calgary.

Ignoring this advice guarantees me another trip to Canada in the future to cycle the Icefields Parkway.