[If you enjoy musical accompaniment, it is recommended that this gem be cued up and enjoyed whilst perusing this story ]
It was a spring evening in the late 1970’s in suburban New York when I pedalled for the first time sans training wheels. The bike was red, and had a banana seat, and that’s all I really remember. Oh, and the neighbours daughter, Amanda, was watching, no doubt impressed by the bowl-cut blond lad spinning around the circular communal driveway. The bike may have looked something like this:
What I do remember with exceptional clarity is my first crash on that bike, coming down a steep hill around the corner from my house and cutting up my elbow and hand pretty nicely. I still have a scar on my ring finger.
Next up: a 1981 Huffy Pro Thunder. I was 9 and around the corner from my house was a big dirt jump at the edge of the Bronxville School playing fields. I’d watch the older grade 5’s and 6’s catching air on their BMX bikes. I’m not sure the wheels of my Huffy ever left the ground, but I do remember spending many an evening screaming around the neighbourhood, and really liking the yellow mag wheels. Most memorable ride: Saturday mornings, to the bakery to pick up a box of a half-dozen jelly donuts.
The BMX-love continued on to my next bike, a legit BMX that actual pros rode. My 1983 TORKER 280X was shiny chro-mo steel with a cool split top-tube and proved it’s worth on both sides of the border, moving with me to Montreal in 1984 and being pressed into service for riding to school, jumping over friends, and, most memorably, ripping around our hand-made dirt track at nearby Picardy Park.
My BMX zeal morphed into the skateboard years…I probably didn’t touch a bike more than a handful of times all through high school until around grade 11. Eventually my step-dad’s Miyata Ridge Runner was pulled out from the back corner of the garage and pressed into service for ghouling around suburban Montreal neighbourhoods to partake in underage drinking and occasional illegal forays on the trails of the nearby Morgan Arboretum where I was discovering that it was pretty fun to ride trails.
My step-dad also owned a sweet, pea-green mid-80’s Elvish touring bike. I have no idea where he found an obscure French road bike, but it made for a great school commuter for my post-high school/pre-university years at John Abbott College. “Elvis” (I scratched the “H” off the logo stickers) was a fast, smooth-rolling steel-framed steed and served secondary roles as a means of locomotion at 3AM after nights out in Ste Anne-de-Bellevue’s pubs.Fast-forward to the Fall of ’93, my scholarly pursuits having landed me in the first capital of the United Province of Canada, Kingston. Somehow I’d made it all through my first year at Queen’s University walking everywhere (shudder), but now that I was living a good 20-minute walk from classes, a bike was in order. I’d also spent much of 1992-93 watching two first-year floor-mates returning to the halls of Gordon House, covered in mud and grinning, and cleaning off their Cannondale’s and Norco’s in the guys washroom showers. This mountain biking-thing looked kinda fun.
My 1993 Specialized Hard Rock was a 22″ XXL frame, a lumbering horse of a bike that ripped around the singletrack trails at nearby Fort Henry and along the Lake Ontario shoreline with aplomb. She was stable and clunky and could handle multiple bags of groceries slung off the handlebars with no complaint. We parted ways in the Spring of 1994, when someone decided to steal her from the backyard of my house on Johnson Street.
Now fully smitten with trail biking, the Hard Rock was quickly replaced by a 1995 Specialized Rockhopper Sport, a lavender beauty that was a bit more nimble and sprightly (downsized to an XL frame) than the Hard Rock and saw serious mileage on the limited-but-grin-inducing singletrack around Kingston. My most memorable ride on the Rockhopper was ripping around Kingston after midnight during a freak March blizzard, the streets deserted and the snow hammering down and my roommates and I bombing around town, dropping stairs on the Queen’s campus and sliding wildly around corners and through stop signs.
The Rockhopper followed me west when my post-academic life brought me to Banff and was a trusty companion on the rough and rooty singletrack of the Rockies – Tunnel Mountain, Lake Minnewanka, and a memorable “I wonder where this trail goes?” exploration of the bone-rattling Rundle Riverside trail all the way to Canmore, over Whitemans’ Gap and back along the Goat Creek Trail to Banff. This was the first ride where I learned what “bonking” was. My friend John and I had cleverly brought one apple between the two of us to refuel on what was a bit of an epic at the time.
For a few years, I used my meagre ski industry wage as an excuse for not getting a new bike but eventually shelled out some dough for my first full-suspension bike, a 2000 Specialized Enduro Sport. The deal was sealed when my test-ride included riding down the front steps of the Banff International Hotel, unfathomable on my rigid Rockhopper and now suddenly not only do-able, but fully enjoyable as the squishy suspension soaked up the descent.
The Enduro served me well and got me through my first few 24 Hours of Adrenalin races at the Canmore Nordic Centre and all over the Bow Valley’s ample singletrack offerings. In hindsight, it’s cool to look back on the evolution of bikes…in my mind at the time it was a great bike, but as soon as I moved on to (yet another) Specialized in 2008, I realized how high up and tippy-feeling the Enduro and it’s 26″ wheels were.
I drank the Kool-Aid and jumped on the 29’er wagon, pulling the trigger on an unseen-but-looks-good-on-paper 2008 Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Expert 29er – their first full-sus production 29’er. Over 9 years, I had a lot of memorable rides on this bike but will always remember the first rip on the nearby Horseshoe/G8 trail. I cleaned the first big climb like it was nothing, a climb that was 50/50 for success on my old Enduro.
The bigger wheels and corresponding frame geo gave me an “aha, so this is what a bike that fits feels like!” moment 10 minutes into my first ride. Gone was the high, tippy, I’m-gonna-launch-over-the-bars feeling, replaced with a stable, glued-to-the-trail, riding “in” as opposed to above the bike sensation. Love! Many years of love. The Stumpy accompanied me around the Canmore 24 Hours of Adrenalin course every July for 7 years and on countless rides on my local trails. The furthest it strayed from it’s Bow Valley home were the lovely trails of north-central Washington’s Methow Valley, where it also proved adept at plowing through ample mounds of cow dung.
While the Stumpjumper was a worthy trail bike, it didn’t exactly shine as Canmore-to-Banff commuter bike. Enter the 2011 Kona Sutra, a classic steel frame touring bike that has served me well for many years of Legacy Trail riding to and from work in Banff. The shiny metallic British racing green was certainly quite fetching and drew lots of admirable comments. “Classy”, being a recurring one. The rack-and-panniers alleviated the need to ride with a pack and the bike rides beautifully even when fully burdened.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I had aspirations of one day unleashing its true potential and letting the Sutra stretch its legs on a long bike tour, somewhere, but truthfully it’s rarely had the chance to range beyond the Bow Valley. Regardless, having an end-of-day ride home from Banff, usually with a prevailing westerly at my back, was something I really looked forward to and made for many a memorable evening of cruising along enjoying a podcast or some tunes and gazing up at the hulky mass of Mt, Rundle.
A few highlights from the Sutra years:
- Whipping past nearly-stopped traffic on the Trans Canada on a Labour Day weekend evening, thousands of cars heading home from the mountains and barely moving on the highway as I sped along the trail with a spicy tailwind. Haha, suckers!
- Quietly riding past Bear 148 only a few days before she was moved out of the Bow Valley. My wife Kristen had ridden from Canmore to intercept me halfway along my ride home. At the Banff park gates she’d encountered our friend Robin who was outside her Parks Canada truck holding an antenna-thingy aloft…ok, so it was a telemetry device tracking signals from the grizzly’s collar. “She’s about 300 metres ahead, just inside the fence”, said Robin. Kristen and I rendezvoused and rode back along the Legacy Trail – where I’d just come from – and sure enough, there was this beautiful grizzly, just quietly doing her bear-thing only 10 metres away from the rush of highway traffic on the other side of the wildlife fence.
- Meeting friends and family after work in Banff and pedalling home together, often stopping for leisurely picnic dinners mid-way along the Legacy Trail with the towering flanks of Mt Rundle as our backdrop.
- Countless awesome sunsets. Extra awesome-points during two summers’ worth of extended weeks of wildfires south and west of Banff.
- Catching the almost-daily late June afternoon thunderheads passing over and through the Bow Valley – sometimes getting respectably soaked, but more often being rewarded with arcs of colour.
In the summer of 2015, an enthusiastic and somewhat drunken wedding conversation about bikes with a good friend inevitably led to a discussion around the well-known and widely-held scientific notion that the ideal number of bikes one should possess could be expressed as N + 1, with “N” defined as being the number of bicycles currently in one’s possession. It was mid-July and the decision was made: we should buy fat bikes so we could ride snowy fields of powdery whiteness all winter long.
Fast-forward to a week later. My phone rings. The drunken-wedding friend is in our local bike shop. “Dude, ex-rental fat bikes! I’ve talked ’em down to $1500 each if we buy two, including frame bags and some cool fork-cage-thingy’s! You in?” I deliberated for about 3.4 seconds. “Let’s do it! I want the red one.” I was now the proud owner of a gently-used extra-large 2015 Salsa Mukluk.
The addition of a fat bike to my quiver of two-wheeled companions upped my level of cycling zeal by introducing the notion of being able to ride bikes over snowy trails all through the (long) Canadian Rockies winters, while simultaneously rendering my garage obsolete as a functioning car-storage-space. Too impatient to wait for the snow to fly, I bought a second set of tires (the bike came with studded tires for winter riding) and got to know the Muk’s personality on the trails around town.
By no means nimble, the fat tires instead provided a slight cushiony ride from their ability to be run at a lower air pressure and gave gobs of traction. The rigid aluminum frame and fork brought back memories of my Hard Rock and Rockhopper days and made me approach my familiar local trails with a light-handed, find-the-cleanest-line riding style that was kind of a fun contrast from the plow-over-and-through-everything approach that a full suspension bike allows.
Following Salsa Cycle’s Adventure By Bike mantra, the Mukluk is great for exploring off the beaten path – up bouldery creek beds, down loose gravel roads, over snow and soft sandy bits of trail – and the frame bag and lots of other bolts for attaching bottle cages and stuff to the forks made it an ideal dance partner for my first few forays into the world of bikepacking.
After a few bikepacking adventures on the fat tires, I learned that one could build up a second wheelset for a bike like the Mukluk and have a skinnier-tire option for a more nimble and responsive ride…the fat tires were stable, but sometimes sluggish and prone to “self-steer” when the air pressure wasn’t dialled in. I patiently collected the requisite bits and pieces – hubs, rims, cassette, brake discs, tires – and had a nice 29″ wheelset built by the lovely chaps at Rebound Cycle. Set up tubeless, I dropped the weight of the Mukluk to under 30 lbs and had a pretty ideal bike that was way more fun to ride in non-snowy conditions.
The Mukluk’s grandest adventure to date has been the 1034 km BC Epic bikepacking race, from Merritt to Fernie, BC in the summer of 2018. She tackled the route with nary a complaint, carried all the gear I needed and was a comfortable set-up for 12+ hour days in the saddle.
While getting out on longer bikepacking-type excursions has occupied much of my attention since 2016, it’s impossible to live in Canmore and not partake of its excellent trails, so keeping with the theme of making my garage as crowded as possible, a new two-wheeled companion was brought into the stable in the summer of 2016, the Devinci Hendrix. Like my 2008 Stumpjumper (which was passed on to my brother), the Hendrix is a cushy full suspension with slightly beefier 27.5 x 3″ tires and has a different feel than the Stumpjumper. A lot had changed in bike geometry and design over 8 years and the Hendrix jives nicely with my newfound mid-40’s appreciation of a more upright riding position, wider bars and very stable and cushy tires.
Getting back to the Kona Sutra, I regretted not ever having used it to it’s full potential as a roadworthy world-tourer. My desire for longer overnight bike adventures was still strong, but in 2018 I realized that most of the trips I was envisioning involved dusty gravel, old logging roads and trails winding through the backcountry, and minimal pavement. So with some hesitation I put the Sutra up for sale, and within a few weeks happily passed it on to a tall, lanky chap who drove from Lethbridge to pick it up and whose cycling aspirations matched the Sutra’s pedigree as a great touring bike.
Back in 2013 a Banff friend rode out to Lake Minnewanka for a coffee-outside date. He unpacked his small stove and aeropress out of a frame bag on what looked like a road bike but had knobbier 29er tires and a weird, kinked road-style handlebar that reminded me of a Texas longhorn. It was a Salsa Fargo, and it seemed at home pretty much anywhere my friend took it – pavement, dirt, gravel, even some singletrack. Every couple of years I’d see a Fargo out somewhere and liked the idea of it’s ‘swiss army knife of bikes’ tag. Once the Sutra left my hands, the idea of the Fargo meshed well with my current aspirations for longer, dirt-oriented bikepacking trips.
The good folks at Rebound Cycle called me on a cold day in February 2019 saying my Fargo had arrived. I walked it home on a -28 day (no pedals) and spent the next months in my cold garage adjusting the drop angle of the handlebar and experimenting with a variety of stem lengths and angles to get the cockpit set up just so – somewhat necessary to make the most out of the weird-but-great-once-you-figure-them-out “Woodchipper” handlebars.
The net result of my tinkering was a bike that was a comfortable commuter and, if the sun was out on a late April afternoon, had no problem with taking the long way home via dirt and singletrack. The Fargo is a mountain bike at heart with it’s somewhat upright frame geometry and capable 29er wheels, with the added quirkiness of a ‘dirt drop’ handlebar – kinda of a road-bike bar, but with flared drops that make it comfortable and adept at off-pavement rambling.
At it’s core, it’s a bike designed for long days off-road – a perfect bikepacking machine – whose versatility and comfort really make you want to take it anywhere and everywhere. In July 2019, I had the opportunity to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route from Whitefish, Montana back to Canmore – a 600 km route of mostly gravel and dirt with some pavement thrown in. With it’s double-wrapped handlebars (the brown tape giving it a look somewhat reminiscent of a young bull elk’s antlers – thus nicknamed ‘Wapiti’) and an assortment of bags, it was the perfect choice for a ride like this,
Later that summer, Wapiti saw some more action on the Alberta Rockies 500 bikepacking race. The rear rack is an ongoing experiment (vs. the Green Guru saddle bag I’ve normally used for bikepacking trips). It adds a bit of extra weight, but scores points for keeping weight low and sway-free, and for being able to easily take a dry bag of the bike for ease of packing.
[At the time of this update (the Fargo section) on March 22, 2020 the globe is in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. Future updates, hopefully, on using the Fargo for social distancing purposes and getting out for a few nights outside in 2020 will be added.]
Thus concludes this historical reminiscence of bicycles I have known.
Stay tuned for future updates.
In the meantime, enjoy these wise words from H.G. Wells.
When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race.
I pledge to continue to do my part so that H.G. Wells would not be in despair.
One thought on “bicycles i have known”
Love this. Sounds like you’ve given all of your bicycles a great life!