the alberta rockies 500

On a hot evening in July 2017 I was hanging out in the parking lot of Canmore’s Rebound Cycle at the “neutral aid station” for riders in the Alberta Rockies 700 bikepacking race, about 1/3 of the distance in along the 700km Coleman-to-Hinton route. 

So began my tale of riding the BC Epic 1000 bikepacking race in the summer of 2018. For expediency, and out of laziness, I figure that’s a good starting point for this story as well…

That night back in 2017 was indeed hot as I hung out to cheer on riders as they rolled through Canmore. The “old” version of the Alberta Rockies bikepacking race traveled the front ranges of the Rockies, mainly along the gravel Forestry Trunk Road. For it’s 4th year in 2019, Jonathan the organizer tweaked the route, turning it from a logistically-challenging (in terms of getting to/from the start/finish) point-to-point route into a vaguely figure-8 shaped course that started and ended in Canmore. He also added a shorter 500 km option along with the 700 km full-meal-deal. Ever since finishing my BC Epic adventure I knew I was keen to try another event and this one ticked a lot of boxes: start/finish in my hometown, interesting route, a whole bunch of bikepacking friends taking part, and the chance to stand beneath the world’s largest dump truck…again.

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Riding the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, July 2019.

Similar to other bikepacking races, the spirit of the AR700 dictates that riders follow a route under their own power with no outside help. You carry all the gear and food you need, and pedal as much or as little as you like each day, get up early or sleep in late (me), and stuff your face with calories at any restaurant, gas station store or raspberry bush along the way – basically, if it’s something available to all racers, it’s fair game.

Also similar to my experience riding the BC Epic, the time leading up to the race was a fun few months of poring over maps to get to know the route, tinkering with my bike set-up, gear and clothing, and doing a few rides to get the body ready for long days in the saddle. In reality, I skimped a little on this last point – I’d done a 4-day 500km ride from Whitefish to Canmore back in July and had felt pretty good, but unlike my BC Epic prep, that was about it. No gym time. No watching all the “Rocky” movies to get pumped up.

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Before I knew it, it was mid-August and I was enjoying a beer at Sheepdog Brewing with the 30-odd riders who’d signed up for the race. It was the night before the August 17 “grand depart” from Rebound Cycle and still raining, as it had been all day. There were plenty of familiar faces in the room and a fun time was had chatting about bikes, gear, plans for our ride and beta about the route. I was home by 8-ish for a bite of dinner and last-minute packing. Wapiti (my bike…in a certain light, the brown handlebar tape takes on the velvety sheen of an elk’s antlers) was weighing in around 55 pounds, without full water bottles. It’s a steel-framed drop-bar mountain bike – a Salsa Fargo – that’s really comfy for long days and seems to enjoy carrying lots of stuff without much complaint.

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ye olde Fargo, aka Wapiti

Day 1 – Horses, calzone and dump trucks.

7 AM was cold and misty, only a few degrees above zero and with a nice dusting of snow on the peaks surrounding Canmore. I loved being able to ride out of my driveway to the start of the race. Riders milled about the Rebound Cycle parking lot as Jonathan snapped photos of all of us, and after a reminder to remember to turn our Spot’s on (most riders carry an emergency communications device that also transmits a riders position, allowing the race to be followed by “dot watchers” on a website, Trackleaders) it was time to go!

We rolled out of town following bike paths to the east end of Canmore, an opportunity to mingle and chat with other riders as we pedaled away at a mellow-ish pace, slowly warming up and anticipating the first big climb on the route, out of the Bow Valley up and over Skogan Pass.

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Socializing on the misty ride out of Canmore

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As expected, when the path ended, the mud began and our peloton slipped along a greasy powerline road. At Dead Man’s Flats we crossed a creek on a rickety bridge and started the long ascent up the Skogan Pass trail. At long last I’d be riding up the powerline that I see every day from my kitchen window. It was as “fun” as I’d anticipated…steadily climbing, sometimes out in the open, but more often dipping in and out of the woods, with a few steeper hike-a-bike sections. It was a long slog but the view back over the Bow Valley was lovely, with the fresh snow up high and clear blue skies. Eventually we reached that snow, which by the time I got there had already seen about 20 people pass by so it was more of a muddy stew.

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Skogan Pass

What goes up must come down. After cresting the pass, a long, muddy descent into the Kananaskis Valley eventually spit us out at the Nakiska ski resort. The fast downhill track had me missing a route turn, at the same spot others had – long skid marks of frantic braking let me know I wasn’t the only one who’d sped past the turn. Unfortunately it was a bit of an uphill to get back on route, but the short climb warmed me up after the chilly descent. I met up with Greg from Jasper and another rider. We rode together (and missed another turn together) before getting onto some pavement to Kananaskis Village. First bear sighting: a little black bear dashed into the bush as we rode through the empty Nakiska ski hill base area.

The paved respite ended as we plunged back into the woods on the 8 km singletrack  Terrace Trail. It had been awhile since I’d ridden it; I was remembering it as a fast, fun bit of trail, generally trending downward and not overly technical. Well, with a heavily-laden bike and slippery roots and rocks, it was technical enough and fairly slow going through deep woods along the lower flank of Mt Kidd. After a creek crossing and a few more rough and rooty bits, the race route spat us out of the woods and into sunshine for a paved stretch: 18 km on Highway 40 and then 10 km or so on the paved bike paths winding through Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.

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I was glad to be off the somewhat-busy Highway 40 as I meandered along the paved bike path through the forest, daydreaming about a cold Coke at the Bolton Creek trading post ahead. My thoughts were interrupted by a gaggle of families on bikes coming towards me. “Kids, move over!”, yelled parents who looked equally unsteady on their bikes. They were, however,  kind enough to let me know that a bear was lurking about just ahead.

They spoke the truth. A few hundred metres on I spotted a collared grizzly, ambling across the open powerline towards the woods where the bike path was taking me. I upped the volume and frequency of my “hey-oh!” bear-avoidance-yells which I guess worked cause I didn’t see the big bruin again. Or, it was likely just off the path in the bush, patiently waiting for yet another annoying human to pass. The bike path was indeed busy – I shared the bear warning with at least 5 other parties, and eventually met an Alberta Parks conservation officer in his truck, no doubt en route to haze the bear away from the busy bike path.

The paved path provided easy pedaling to the Bolton Creek Trading Post store. At this point in the race, I hadn’t seen anyone since the start of the Terrace Trail and wondered if I’d see anyone as I lingered maybe a bit too long enjoying a cold Pepsi out in front of the store. Lo and behold I was soon joined by another racer, my friend Megan from Canmore, who I’d last seen an hour or so into the race when she was dealing with a blown-out tire just before Skogan Pass and was now reeling in unsuspecting fellow racers. I knew she was a strong rider and it was inspiring to see how quick she’d made up the lost 1.5 hours of her exploded tire debacle. As she rode away from Bolton while I sat eating Cheezies, I guessed (correctly) that that was the last I’d see of her. She ended up riding 285km that day, and finished the 500 km route by Sunday evening 

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This is Megan. She rides her bike really fast.

My next milestone for the day would be climbing up and over Elk Pass, the low divide that’s also the Alberta/British Columbia border, and a part of the route I was familiar with after riding it in the opposite direction a few weeks prior. There are a few steep climbs over the first few kilometres of the Elk Pass trail, but the grade then mellows considerably and it’s a fairly easy pedal up a powerline to the pass. A nifty carved wooden gateway welcomed me to British Columbia’s Elk Valley as I crested the climb and began to look forward to the next few hours of riding through the beautiful  Upper Elk Valley. It was around 3 PM at this point; I mention this only because it meant I’d need to get moving in order to make it to Kapp’s Pizza in Elkford in time for a calzone.

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Upper Elk Valley

I rode on, alone aside from a few wandering horses and the occasional vehicle – the Upper Elk Valley Road is open to cars, and used by logging trucks. I was feeling great, the weather was cool and the route rolled generally down towards Elkford, which made for fast riding aside from a few rutted and potholed sections. I reminded myself to take some time to absorb the awesome grand views of the peaks and treed flanks of Elk Lakes & Height of the Rockies Provincial Parks, and aside from a few stops to refill water, stretch and talk to horses, I was making pretty good time as I rode south. The soundtrack for this stretch was Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere”, which replayed endlessly in my head as I tried to recall the lyrics, but I never really got past “I’ve been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo…”. To do: memorize all 91 towns named in the song.

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Wassup, my equine friends?
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Obligatory bike-leaning-on-pile-of-logging-slash photo

The day I’d ridden this stretch of road back in July had started off murky and cold, and I’d had the unsettling experience of hearing unseen low, rumbling industrial noises from somewhere on the eastern side of the valley – the Greenhills mine, one of several coal mines in the region – emanating out of the fog. As I neared Elkford, this time I could now clearly see the massive scale of the mine across the valley, huge and black and stark, a giant scar on the broad ridge of mountains across the Elk River.

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Elk River & the Greenhills mine

I stopped at a clearing and there again was the low hum of industry, the clanking and groaning of giant machinery that I’d heard a few weeks prior, slowly eating away at the ridge to expose the bituminous bounty below. The various footprints on the land that we see from the seat of a bike at a human-powered speed – the track of a grizzly, a bald swatch of  logged mountainside – paired with actually having time to reflect and ponder are rare and purposeful moments away from everyday distractions – where the mind can stretch its legs and wander as it sees fit.

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A few more kilometres down the road, the route track took an abrupt right-hander onto a singletrack trail – part of the extensive Elk Valley trail that continued on down the valley to Elkford, Sparwood and Fernie – that was a welcome respite from the past few hours of gravel road riding…for about 5 minutes.

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The trail was great – well-graded climbs through forest and old logging cuts leading to fast, flowing sections of downhill and some awesome banked corners – but would have been infinitely more enjoyable if: 1) I hadn’t already been riding for 10.5 hours; 2) I didn’t have an extra 25 pounds of food, water and gear strapped to my bike. But, tally-ho, I was there at that exact moment because I’d chosen to be, and a hot calzone was less than an hour away, so I figured what else was there to do except pedal and smile.

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Sweet singletrack into Elkford

After my adventures in solitude down the Elk Valley, I was pleased to spy a small herd of dirty, gear-laden bikes saddled up outside Kapp’s Pizza Place. It was 12 hours into day 1 and I was ready for some food that wasn’t in the shape of a bar or bag-of-trail-mix form. A rap on the glass caught my attention. There sat Neil from Canmore and Brian from Quesnel BC, waving and smiling amidst a table laden with pizza and cokes. I joined them and got my order in for the long-anticipated calzone, inhaling a salad as Neil, Brian and some other friends – Randy and David from Regina, and Greg Van Tighem from Jasper – recapped their day’s events, and plans for the rest of the evening.

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oh baby.

It was quite amusing to pause and reflect on being among this weird tribe of people who had been perched on bike seats since 7 that morning and already logged over 150 km, yet still were unquestionably eager to saddle up and ride on. The camaraderie of these shared experiences, as well as the inspiration of fellow riders, is such a great aspect of these races. As I enjoyed the garlicky crust and layers of mozzarella I mulled over my plans. Having accomplished one of my goals for day 1 (getting to Elkford in time for dinner) I was feeling pretty positive about pressing on for a few more hours towards Sparwood, but also slightly hesitant at the thought of finding a random camping spot, somewhere, in the impending darkness.

Eventually I was alone again, paying my bill after the others had left to ride on south. I think I was about 64% committed to keep riding as I re-packed bits and pieces of gear and clothing that had been used through the day and had ended up haphazardly stuffed or lashed to various spots on my bike. It was just coming on 9 PM as I donned a windbreaker to meet the evening chill and re-mounted Wapiti. “Hey, how’s it going? Are you doing the AR?” It was Corrine from Anchorage, Alaska, who I’d last said hello to on Canmore’s paved bike path about 15 minutes into the race that morning. She was pulling up for the night, pondering a hotel room – I pointed her across the road to the Hi-Rock Hotel, where Guy, Neil and I had laid up for the evening back in July after a full day of rain and cold from Fernie to Elkford.

No sooner had Corrine pedaled off towards the Hi-Rock, another voice approached from behind…”TJ!” It was my good buddy Guy from Canmore, who was “feeling great” and pressing on to Sparwood. As Guy rode off, the thought of having a companion for the next few hours of dark Elk Valley trail was all I needed to commit to riding on. I rode across highway 43 and plunged into the darkening woods on the singletrack Elk Valley trail.

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I caught up to Guy about 20 minutes later, right about when the inky blackness of the night truly settled in. With bike lights ablaze, we followed a variety of trail: singletrack meandering through tight forest and vast clearcuts, old doubletrack trails, winding cattle tracks and barely-there paths through overgrown meadows as we traveled southwards towards Sparwood. The exertions of the day caught up to us on a few sections, as any divergence from the often-narrow path would inevitably lead to a hidden rock or rut that would bounce our weighted bikes off the trail into the brush. We missed numerous route turns – our GPS devices eventually alerting us to our wayward trajectories, hauled bikes under tangles of giant fallen trees and endured all variety of tight, twisting dark trail before finally reaching the gravel Line Creek Road and the paved solace of highway 43 and the Lower Elk Valley Road.

True to the spirit of the race, we avoided tempting pavement alternatives to more singletrack and finally rolled into Sparwood around 12:30. We caught a glimpse of fellow Canmorite, Neil, heading east towards Crowsnest Pass on Highway 3, but for Guy and I the day was drawing to a close. I posed for a weary photo at the Terex Titan, glad to have my first-ever 200 km day under my belt, and followed Guy on a final piece of dark, twisty trail to a tent spot he’d reserved at a campground just out of town. My tent was up and I was out cold within 15 minutes, oblivious to the highway noise 50 metres away.

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Day 2 – Traffic, candy corn and bovines.

True to form for my “race strategy”, I had decided against setting an alarm, figuring a decent sleep would be better for my constitution for day 2 of the race. Guy and I were up at 7 and zombie-ing around our tentsite, slowly packing up and munching on some calories. He was doing the 700 km race so his route had him continuing southwestward towards Fernie; we said our farewells and I rode off towards downtown Sparwood, my mind set on Tim Horton’s for more chow before heading east on Highway 3 towards Crowsnest Pass.

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Greg VT from Jasper rolled into Timmy’s just as I was inhaling the last chunks of my sour cream glazed donut. He’d had a late arrival the night prior too, and opted for one of Sparwood’s fine motor inns to rest up. By the time I hit highway 3 it was somehow 9:30 and I questioned my tactic of sleeping in, as the day was heating up and the summer weekend traffic was already busy enough to make the highway riding stressful.

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I was feeling a bit sluggish from the long day prior, and starting to feel some mild knee aches as I struggled to find a decent and comfortable pace riding eastward into the hot sun of the day. After 45 minutes or so, the constant stream of trucks, RV’s, and pickups towing boats and dirt bikes was starting to wear on me, especially on a few of the sections with very narrow shoulder and I was glad to have a few minutes to re-group, mentally and physically, with some water, food and stretching at the Crowsnest Pass Summit pull-out.

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After my break, a monster tailwind propelling me swiftly eastward through the notoriously windy pass was a big mental boost and I was feeling great as I rode past the shimmer of the Crowsnest Lakes. I’d actually been in the area a few weeks prior on a work trip, to check out some of the wildlife-vehicle collision mitigations that had been put in place to reduce collisions with resident sheep on this stretch of Highway 3.

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Remembering what looked like an old road that paralleled the highway, I took advantage of a gate in the fence near one of the animal jump-outs that allow sheep to get off the highway and back on the right side of the fencing. I decided that I’d had enough of the busy highway and officially went “off route” – which sort of goes against the ethos of the race – but I reckoned that I was still riding the same overall distance, I was just taking a safer route off the highway for a few km’s to get to the Travel Alberta visitor centre.

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The break from the busy highway was another nice snippet of enjoyable riding – quiet road among the peaks and lakes of the pass, and a great view of iconic Crowsnest Mountain towering in the distance. After a few minutes I was at the Travel Alberta visitor centre, lolling about in the shade on the grassy lawn and enjoying a favourite treat that my wife had packed for me – a small sack of candy corn. Delicious!

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The trifecta of self-care (candy corn, water refill and stretching) at the visitor centre was a nice little reset before the next leg of the ride, as the route headed back northwards along the Alison Creek Road through the front range mountains of the Livingstone Public Land Use Zone. This was uncharted waters for me and I was looking forward to seeing part of Alberta that I’d never seen over the next 100 km or so of riding from Crowsnest Pass to Highwood Pass.

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I said farewell to the busy highway, crossing over it to start the climb up Alison Creek Road on a cloudless day. Amazing views of Crowsnest Mountain dominated the next couple of hours, the road eventually transitioning to rougher gravel and steadily ascending through amazing scenery – Deadman Pass and the Alberta/BC border running along the ridge of peaks to my left, and the lofty summit of Crowsnest Mountain to my right. Lots of random camping all along the road, and the consistent buzz of dirt bikes and quads riding the hundreds of kilometres of random trails in the region was always in the background for a few hours, but the actual road traffic was pretty light.

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The rough rocky road and steady climbing in the hot sun wore me out pretty quickly and my pace slowed as I rode north. Like the morning I found myself in a bit of a funk – achy knees, and just not feeling like I had enough gas in the tank. I knew I was eating and drinking enough, but after a time the Alison Creek Road was just becoming a drag. I made the effort to just take it all in and enjoy the quiet scenery, and to talk to the endless herds of free-ranging cattle that roamed throughout the Livingstone.

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A few times the grade reversed to some fast downhill riding and would bring a smile to my face, but then the inevitable climbing would start again and I’d grind away, head down, just never seeming to find the right cadence or a comfortable position on my saddle. It was lonely country.  A few gas well operations here and there. The occasional dirt biker gave me a wave riding past. I’d stop frequently and enjoy the moment of rest to chew on some wine gums. More cows. Endless blue skies and patchwork ridges of spruce and grassy alpine meadows.

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As I neared the junction with the Dutch Creek Road, the next leg of the course that swung eastward towards the forestry trunk road, the road became muddier and I started noticing bike tire tracks. I pondered who they belonged to and thought about the other riders who’d passed this way before me. Were they just around the next bend? 100 km ahead? How were they doing? How were they feeling? Seeing these tracks is always a great reminder that I wasn’t the only one who’d endured the endless climb, or the rough rocky road, or the huge rutted sections of muddy cowshit water. We’d all have our moments on these rides – good times, bad times – and seeing those tracks helped put some perspective on how I was feeling. Keep pedaling. Keep smiling. Be grateful for being there, being able to be there.

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The tire tracks also inspired many minutes of thinking through what at the time seemed like a fantastic idea, and one that would surely be embraced with enthusiasm by the off-road cycling community: NAME TREADZ. What about a custom-made tire, that, rather than random, ridgy, knobby patterns, would instead have the riders name, so that you’d always know who’d ridden the trail ahead of you! How cool would it be, my thinking went, to look down right now and see NEIL NEIL NEIL or MEGAN MEGAN MEGAN in the dirt, instead of just some boring Maxxis Ikon tread?? The kilometres rolled by as I excitedly fleshed out the Name Treadz idea. Some names would obviously work much better. The rounded profile of letters in a name like BOB would be less than ideal compared to something sharp and angular. Like XERXES.

After awhile my mind was jolted back to the present as I was forced to focus more on the extended sections of muddy ponds and rutted roadbed on the Dutch Creek Road, and had less time to wonder about which names would provide the best bike tire tread traction. My forward progress roller-coaster’d between fast downhill stretches, and then hitting the brakes hard to crawl ’round, or through, the muddy ponds and cow dung. I was grateful to be riding through in daylight and not in the inky black of night, where I’m sure many of the deep, mucky crossings would not have been immediately visible.

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After awhile the fast/slow pace grew wearying and I was grateful to reach a broad grassy expanse of random camping sites, now quiet in the early Sunday evening as most RV weekenders had packed up and headed home, save for a few trailers here and there at beautiful spots along Dutch Creek. My dinner break – tortillas, sausage, cheese, avocado – under the shade of a big Douglas fir was quite pleasant and refueled me enough to enjoy the next section of fast, swooping curvy gravel road through beautiful aspen stands to the junction with the Forestry Trunk Road and a left turn north towards Highwood Pass. My destination was Etherington Creek campground – a shorter day than yesterday, but reckoning that I was ahead of my planned 4-day pace for the route, it would be a good place to stop for the night and then do a final push home to Canmore on day 3.

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The first few km’s of the dusty Forestry Trunk Road were smooth sailing – I was still riding my sausage-cheese-avocado high and my legs attacked the slight uphill grade with renewed vigour. The sinking sun was fractured into hundreds of rays peeking through the dense spruce forest flanking the road, welcome shade after being out in the direct sun for about 9 hours by that point. Slowly, though, the day caught up with me. Energy levels and enthusiasm seemed to drop at an inversely proportional rate to the increase in the grade of the road. Hills became loathsome; the flat bits along the Livingstone River provided some respite, but the gravel just stretched on endlessly ahead, always subtly climbing. Aches and pains in the knees and shins were becoming worrying.

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By around 8 PM I was having to constantly micro-adjust my foot position to find a pain-free motion for a few dozen pedal strokes before something else would start hurting. It was slow going. The darkness rolled in as I rode along, no vehicles, just hoards of pesky black flies that had no problem keeping up with my snail’s pace as I rolled past gas wells and clear cuts. I knew the climbing eventually would end, but it couldn’t come fast enough. I started having doubts about my ability to finish the race and spent the last few minutes of twilight scanning the roadside for spots where I could just pull over and crash for the night. “Never quit at night”, a pearl of wisdom I’d seen on many blog posts and Bikepacking forums. Sleep, rest and re-assess in the morning.

When the road leveled on a long straightaway I finally stopped and turned on my lights and threw on a windbreaker, committing myself to at least reaching the Cataract Creek campground, a few km’s short of my planned Etherington Creek stop but better than a roadside clear-cut camp-out. Imperceptibly the road grade slowly tipped downward and all of a sudden I was flying, descending fast, through a cold, black night, adrenalized by the constant scanning of every single shadow at the perimeter of my handlebar light’s reach as I envisioned slamming into a deer or bear ambling across the dark road.

In the distance my light caught upon a tiny reflective glimmer – the Cataract Creek campground sign. I pulled off the road and headed up the 1/2 km driveway to the dark, vacant campground and rolled into site B2. Off the bike, walking was not much better as I pitched my tent, munched on a Clif bar, and stashed my food bag inside the campgrounds bear-proof recycling bin, all the while wondering what the morning might bring in terms of my ability to get back to Canmore under my own power. I swallowed an Advil and crawled into the tent for a fitful and cold, shivering sleep in my summer-weight bag.

Day 3 – Canada’s highest paved pass!

A frosty morning greeted me as I unzipped the tent and hobbled to my feet. The previous days aches and pains were feeling marginally better, but I was seriously doubting my ability to pedal a hundred or so km back to Canmore. But, onward! I set an immediate goal of at least getting to the Highwood House store, where the gravel forestry trunk road ended and the paved stretch of highway 40 began, heading up, up and over Canada’s highest maintained road – Highwood Pass – and into my backyard of the Kananaskis and Spray valleys.

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Aside from a few short climbs, things were mostly downhill towards the junction. I was flying down the gravel on an amazingly crisp, sunny morning, taking in the rolling hills and grassy ridges and the far-off rocky peaks around Highwood Pass. My aches and pains receded to the recesses of my thoughts, Wapiti rolling smooth and fast and stable. Aside from a few wandering cows I had the road to myself and I was feeling pretty good about how the day might unfold.

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At the Highwood House store (closed on the Monday) I sat in the shade and munched on trail mix in the company of a small herd of cows lolling about, mooing and snorting in the morning sun. It was time for a long stretch of pavement. Endless panoramas of the Highwood River valley and light traffic made for pleasant enough progress, slowly climbing all the while and getting to know the area up close, having only driven that route once or twice in my 20 years of living in Alberta.

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“Hey, how’s it goin’?” The voice came from behind my left shoulder a few minutes after a final water-bottle refill before the last steep climb to the summit. It was Dion Clark, a Calgarian and a name I knew from the BC Epic. For the past few hours I’d wondered where AR700 km racers were – and also figured that they wouldn’t be catching up to me. Chatting with Dion for a few minutes was an awesome boost to my mood, him wondering if I’d seen race leader RJ Sauer, and me marveling at being in the company of folks like Dion and my Canmore friend Megan, their minimal bike set-ups and their ability to hammer out mile after mile. Dion gradually pulled ahead to chase down RJ and I slugged my way up the big final climb to the pass, dwarfed by the surrounding peaks and stoked to be reaching another big milestone for me on the route – and realizing that I might actually be able to finish the race on day 3 instead of day 4.

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I savoured a celebratory bag of  cheezies and enjoyed the lofty views from upon high before re-mounting Wapiti for the long descent down the other side of the pass. Within a few pedal strokes I was suffering the most heartbreaking disappointment of the entire ride – rather than an effortless paved downhill cruise, a monster headwind blew up the highway and I actually had to PEDAL to move down the hill. Tragic. No free rides on this course!

After 10 minutes or so of descending the route left the highway and followed the Pocaterra and Whiskey Jack trails – double-track dirt trails that are part of the winter nordic trail system. Thankfully it wasn’t an overly taxing stretch of riding; I’d suggested this part of the route so that riders would be able to hit the Bolton Creek Trading Post store for a re-supply option before the final push to Canmore, and dreaded the thought that I may have suggested a heinous stretch of trail.

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At the Trading Post I caught up to Dion again and sat for awhile for more good chatting about our experiences over the past few days while swilling a cold Mountain Dew. It was late afternoon by this point and I was figuring on at least another 5 hours of riding to get back to Canmore, so I saddled up and rode the paved bike trails in reverse of the way I’d traveled 2 days prior. No bear sightings this time. The route turned onto the Smith-Dorrien / Spray Valley road – a road I’d ridden several times – however rather than riding the gravel all the way back to Canmore, both the 500 and 700 routes included a 12 km section of singletrack on the High Rockies Trail.

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The High Rockies is a great trail, nearly 80 km of mostly machine-built, flowy singletrack, connected by some older bits of utility and logging roads running from just outside Canmore to the Alberta/BC border at Elk Pass. The section we were on, from Lower Lake to the Sawmill day use area, was a newer stretch of trail – all singletrack, and really fun to ride…on an unloaded mountain bike. But, hitting it in early evening after riding for many hours with a loaded bike was a bit of a slog. The trail started off with a steady but well-built climb, leveled for a bit, and then became endless ups and downs, the climbs short and punchy and agonizing on my aching knees whenever I had to mash on the pedals to move my portly bike.

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I reached the High Rockies well-known Blackshale Creek suspension bridge, and, thinking that it was not much farther to the Sawmill day use area, picked up the pace for a few minutes. The trail meandered endlessly on through dusky dark spruce forest and I slipped into a funk again as I rolled on and on, up and down.

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Reaching the day use area, I was spit out of the dark woods and enjoyed a delicious tuna-cheddar wrap amidst hordes of mosquitoes as the sun dipped behind Mt Murray. My mood improved as I bid adieu to the singletrack and pedaled north on the gravel Smith-Dorrien Trail.

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The 20-odd km along the gravel highway was a mix of highs and lows – some fast cruising interspersed with horrible rutted gravel, headwinds and washboard – but passed by relatively quickly as I psyched myself up for the final stretch of trail to Canmore…back on the High Rockies as the last of the sun disappeared for a short bit of lakeside singletrack, then an hour or so of dark doubletrack. The rapidly fading daylight made for an intense round of “stump or bear”, the shifting shadows playing with my nerves as I scanned the trail ahead and upped my frequency of bear-calls, but I knew the route well and was pumped to be so close to home.

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Right before getting to the end of the High Rockies at the Goat Creek parking lot, there was a short stretch of pitch-black, uphill, closed-in trail. By that point I’d gotten used to writing off every questionable shadowy stump as just that – a stump. But as I slowly pedaled up the climb, one of the stumps moved…or did it? Yup. Definitely did. And then another stump – a second cub – moved across the trail 10 metres in front of me, little bear legs moving quickly as it passed through the beam of my light. The bigger stump – mama bear? – at trail’s edge wasn’t moving, but it was a pretty easy decision to quietly dismount and start backing down the trail. When I was convinced that the bear wasn’t interested in following me, I hopped on Wapiti and flew down the trail towards a power plant access road that I knew would get me up to the Goat Creek parking lot. So, once again, I violated the spirit of the race and went off-route – but avoiding a 10 PM bear encounter seemed like a decent enough reason to.

The last climb! A short one, from the Goat Creek parking to Whiteman’s Pass, but a blasting headwind to really make sure I got the most out of the AR500. The lights of Canmore shone in the valley far below as I pulled over at the crest of the pass to throw on a jacket for the long descent. I spent a few quiet minutes enjoying the view of my hometown and anticipating the big fast downhill and the Main St cruise to the finish line. I allowed myself an enthusiastic whoop as I set off, flying through the night and thinking back over the past few days, how far I’d traveled, the amazing scenery, quiet time alone and rewarding moments of savouring a good meal or riding with friends, grateful for the opportunity and mildly surprised that I was actually here a day earlier than I thought.

The gravel turned to pavement, still flying along, past familiar haunts – the Nordic Centre, the reservoir, the dog park. The road leveled as I rode past a jogging figure…was that…? Hit the brakes hard and circled back to find my friend Neil, out of breath from jogging into town to catch me at the finish line! So great! I’d last seen a glimpse of him as I rolled into Sparwood at midnight on day 1, just as he was leaving to ride a few more hours late into that first night.

I congratulated him on his strong ride and pedaled off, crossing the Bow River and then onto a busy mid-summer Main St in Canmore. Two blocks. The finish line of the old RCMP barracks came into sight, just as I recognized my parked car and watched my wife emerge with a smile and a willingness to endure a sweaty hug.

AR500 - 54
10:30 PM Monday August 19th.

Afterthoughts

It’s February 2020 as I finish writing this. As with the BC Epic, this ride was an awesome experience I’m grateful to have been part of. I was pretty happy to have finished in 3 days and having the route start and end in my hometown was sweet.

Some miscellaneous bits…

The Trackleaders site is pretty cool to replay the whole race. Hit the Play button in the “Replay Route” box at the bottom left of the map and watch the fun! And watch me lazing about in the mornings until around 9:30… http://trackleaders.com/abrockies19

I spent waaayyyyy less time “training” compared to the BC Epic – very little gym time in 2019, and aside from my Whitefish-Canmore ride in July I hadn’t really ridden a whole lot prior to the race.  The knee pain on Day 2 and on the High Rockies trail section slowed me down and likely could have been mitigated with more strength training and stretching throughout the year.

Technology: I used the Ride With GPS app on my phone instead of a separate GPS unit. With my older Iphone 5 phone in airplane mode, the battery life was good. The app works great; I didn’t use any of the cuing features, as I knew the route pretty well. I have a $20 battery pack from Costco for charging up phone and lights. Plenty of juice to charge my Iphone at least 4 or 5 times.

Bike: I rode my 2019 Salsa Fargo for this race. It’s a comfortable and capable bike and the drop bars provide lots of options for moving hands around and alleviating any hand & shoulder issues. I don’t love the drops on singletrack, felt a bit too far forward so I might explore some other bars with a less severe downward drop angle than the Woodchipper bars. Love the Selle Anatomica saddle, no issues with saddle sores or undercarriage discomfort!

Bags & such: The XL frame bag is cavernous and great for heavier stuff; having just my 1 kg tent and water bottles up front made for decent handling. Instead of my Green Guru saddle bag, I opted for a 10L drybag (clothing & sleeping  bag) lashed to a rear rack. This kept weight a bit lower down on the bike, with none of the (minimal) sway of my saddle bag. The rack and dry bag option is maybe a bit heavier than a saddle bag, but I found it way easier to pack and unpack the dry bag off the bike vs. the non-removable saddle bag.

Food: Have dialed in my food choices to a variety of sweet and salty: few Clif bars & Kind bars, some fruit bars, corn & flax chips, cheezies, jerky, meat sticks, tortillas, bag of granola, a hunk of cheddar, tuna packets, a few nut butters, wine gums and an avocado. And I brought a lot home – need to work on this, as the extra weight was significant. Pro tip: opening the packaging of a few bars, bags of nuts, etc. made it much easier to grab snacks while riding and minimizing stopping to open packaging or, worse, crashing while trying to deal with a stubborn wrapper while riding.

Water was fairly easy to come by on the 500 route; I had my Sawyer mini filter but never used it, opting for purification tabs instead. I carried 2.5 L of water , 1 L on the downtube and 2 750 ml bottles mounted on the forks (1 with water, 1 with Nuun electrolyte tabs).

Thx to Jonathan for organizing a great event! Look forward to perhaps tackling the 700km route in 2020.

3 thoughts on “the alberta rockies 500

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