680 km fire reroute: 2 days 18 hours 48 minutes. 6th place
Strava link: https://www.strava.com/activities/7646389888
This year I decided to try something different and use a bike with gears. This was my fifth time completing the Alberta Rockies 700. The first four times were on my single speed mountain bike and this time I put an 11-speed cassette on the back.
|Look at all that stuff on the back wheel! So complicated.|
Photo credit: Kristin Anderson
At the grand depart I was able to meet Majo, who was the first to challenge the GRAAB Gravel Across Alberta Challenge after my inaugural run. It was great to hear his impressions of that route!
|Majo and me|
Photo credit: Kristin Anderson
The AR700 started with a smooth cruise along the Legacy Trail. It’s about a 20km paved path that goes between Canmore and Banff. This felt like a road ride with the group separating into a couple of pelotons. I was careful not to push too hard with the geared bike. With the single speed (SS), I would have maxed out at a slower speed and ended up near the back of the pack, so gears were nice on this part.
|Glimpse of the Peloton on Legacy Trail|
The route then turned back toward Canmore on the Goat Creek Trail. It’s a double track that I’ve ridden many times on other races and rides like the Tour Divide. It was nice to have the easier gears to climb all the hills. I chatted to a few other riders like Colin where this was his first ever bikepacking event and Mike, the owner of Thief Bikepacking bags. I was using some of his product. Good stuff if you are in the market for bags! Colin had a background in off-road motorcycle racing like the Baja. He also participated in ice climbing and rock climbing.
The route continued on to the Spray Lakes and followed a short section of the High Rockies Trail along the water’s edge.
Then we were spit out on the dusty, relatively busy Smith Dorrien Road. Not my favorite stretch of road. I was feeling good and took the time with the easy riding to cram some food. I was trying to convince the organizer to avoid this whole stretch of road and follow the High Rockies single track instead but to no avail. At one point, I passed a touring couple with big saddlebags and a “Just Married” sign on the back. As I rolled by, I congratulated both of them and it was nice to see their smiles. I found out on social media after that they were on their way to Mexico.
|Dust abounds on the Smith Dorrien Road|
Thankfully the time on the Smith Dorrien Road seemed to pass quickly and we were on a short stretch of the High Rockies Trail. Such a fun, twisty, turny, flowy easy single track trail! I talked for a short while to Alistair who I met last year. He ended up having a strong ride finishing on the podium!
|Obligatory photo of the High Rockies Suspension Bridge|
The route then went into the Peter Lougheed parks and campgrounds following a complicated network of paved trails and roads. I went off route a couple of times due to the many choices of paths to take close to the track on my GPS. I stopped at the Boulton Creek store and chatted with some other riders including Majo and Theo who won the AR700, 700km version last year. We had a small thunderstorm roll by so we huddled under the eave of the store and snacked on junk food. I was off fairly quickly and went on the trails that led to the paved road of Highwood Pass.
I wondered where I was in the standings but was not too concerned. My goal for this race was to see how the geared bike felt and minimize stopped time. At this point I was only at about 20min of stopped time so I felt good about my ride. I also felt good because I was not pushing too hard. It made me wonder if I was not pushing hard enough. All of these thoughts are new to me because with a SS, the bike sets the pace. With gears, I had a choice as to how hard I could go and I had this nagging doubt that I could always go harder. One reason why the SS is more fun and mentally relaxing!
|The paved, gentle cruise of Highwood Pass|
As I rode, Majo pulled up to me and we leapfrogged all the way to the Highwood House store. On part of the descent, we had some interactions with some cows.
I wasn’t sure if I would make it to the store before it closed at 6pm so was happy I could get some snacks and cold drinks.
After Highwood House the route went back on the gravel and back uphill. It was continuing to follow the 500km route until it took a left turn toward Claresholm. Majo caught and passed me at one point and that was the last I saw him since he was doing the 500km race.
I took the 700km route left turn and it continued uphill over a pass and out of the foothills. Beautiful country!
|Climb up to the pass out of the foothills|
After the pass, the route steeply descended down some thick, loose gravel. It felt pretty unstable at times, and I had to stay alert so my front tire did not get taken away. It would have been rough to crash at these high speeds! After the steep descent, the slope flattened a bit, but it still was a fast cruise most of the way to Claresholm. I was able to tuck in my aerobars and stay in my top gear. I passed Ian on the gravel, then when we came to the paved road, he passed me. We turned back onto gravel as the sun set and I went ahead again. I cruised on the gravel as the sky went dark and the moon rose. As it peeked above the horizon it was full and a deep red colour. Amazing!
I had enough snacks to make it but knew I was running short on water. We were travelling through farmland so did not have the abundant mountain streams like earlier in the route. I debated about taking the detour off route into Claresholm. At the last turn to Claresholm, I checked my phone and saw a river/creek up ahead and decided to take the chance that I could filter the water. I rode to the bridge, parked my bike, and made my way down to the “river’s” edge. It was a still, brown liquid but deep so I filtered 2L into my hydration pack. My plan was to finish the leftover water in my water bottle and drink this “water” the next day. I would double down and in addition to filtering, add a couple of purification tablets to the 2L of mank.
With my water situation taken care of I started looking for a place to bivy. It was about 1am and I wanted to get about 3.5 to 4 hours of sleep. I didn’t feel tired but knew the sleep would do me good. I found a place in a ditch behind some low-lying bushes.
|Bivy spot for the night among the cow patties|
I slept pretty well. Some riders rolled by in the night and the morning but I wasn’t too concerned. If I placed well, that would be nice, but I was trying to just ride my own race. As I slept, I woke to cows breathing heavily over me and walking around. I was happy they were on the other side of the fence.
At 5am, I got up and started rolling. The route was making its way back into the foothills and mountains. It was beautiful country!
|On the way back to the mountains|
I followed the gravel up a long, steady hill and it was nice to be able to climb it all the way up with the geared bike. If I was on my SS, I would have had to walk the whole thing. I leapfrogged the Block brothers and another rider quickly passed all of us. I met up with Ian again at one point too as he passed me, and I passed him while he got some water at a stream.
I forgot my sheet with the distance between towns so was going on memory. I saw a highway up ahead and thought it was the road leading to Coleman, but I was sorely mistaken. While I thought Coleman was just up ahead, it was actually about 50km away. I was excited to get some fresh water and snack on some new food. The snacks I brought from home were becoming less and less appetizing and I was essentially force feeding myself. I found a stream where I was able to refill my hydration pack with better water and clean off my sweaty face and neck. That felt good!
I still had to traverse another pass along dusty gravel roads that were busy with RV traffic. It was reminiscent of the Smith Dorrien Road. This was a low point for me on the ride. It was hot and I was disheartened when I saw the sign that said it was 35km to Coleman. Up to that point I didn’t know how far away it was and the sign showed me I had a long way to go. I took a few stops at campgrounds to use the bathroom and empty my garbage to break up the monotony.
Eventually I made it to Coleman and it was a relieving sight. I had a gas station pizza sub and some fresh liquids. That pizza sub was the first non-snack food I had for the trip so far! I felt refreshed but I knew I would pay for eating and drinking so much. I tend to overdo it when I feel extra thirsty and hungry. Sure enough, as I left Coleman I felt lethargic and got a case of “pizza sub belly”. As long as I kept pedaling, I would work my way through it.
Up ahead was a route I had not taken before. It was a double track ATV trail that was steadily climbing uphill. It was a lot of fun to ride some more mountain bike-like trails. I much preferred the remote off-road stuff to the dusty gravel roads!! I saw a large coyote on the trail ahead, but it was big enough that it may have been a wolf. I thought it ran off into the trees but for the next few corners I kept seeing it just ahead. I wondered if it was leading me into a pack of its buddies. Thankfully, I did not turn into dog food.
|Nice double track after Coleman|
There were a few water crossings, and the trail was essentially a stream at some points, but I was enjoying it thoroughly! Then as the sun set, the trail got steeper and steeper, and rockier and rockier. With the geared bike I was able to climb much of the steep trail while I saw many footprints where others chose to walk. But I found the climb was continuing and getting rockier. I decided to start walking like the other riders to change things up and prevent burning out. It was tough to ride and mentally draining to pick a smooth line among the rocks. When you walk, you just walk over all of it and don’t have to think about it too much.
|With the nifty gears most of this was climbable|
|One of the rickety bridges|
|As it got darker, it got rockier|
I eventually got to the top of the rough, rocky climb and declared, “I’m never doing that again!” It was dark and now the decision was to descend in the dark. I wasn’t sure if it would be as rocky on the way down because if it was, I’d be walking down too! I decided to go for it and started the descent. There were some sections that I felt should be walked instead of ridden but for the most part, it was not too bad. I got to the end of the ATV trail and got back onto a gravel road.
Periodically I would see these cute little boreal toads along the trail shuffling along.
|Boreal toads eating their night insects|
I started a climb on the gravel road as it was approaching midnight. I saw lights up high in the distance and wondered what would be so high in the sky. I think it was a mine or something. I was feeling tired after that rocky ATV trail so decided to stop and sleep for a couple of hours. Usually in these 2-3 day races I would only sleep the first night and push to the end but wanted to try sleeping more. Whenever I pushed to the end without stopping for a good sleep, I would be nodding off so much it took a lot of the fun out of the ride.
I stopped on the side of the road out in the open to sleep in my bivy for a couple of hours. It is bear country, so I stopped my bike, pulled out my bivy and walked down the road about 30m to sleep. All my snacks were in my bike, so I wanted to stay away from it while I slept. I was putting my food wrappers in my pocket, so I also took off my shorts and left them on my bike too. I was passed by another rider while I slept for a couple of hours. It was great! I slept well and felt refreshed after I got up!
At about 2am I kept riding up and over a hill and started along the Elk River toward Elkford. It was cold when I got into that valley! I had to put on my puffy coat, gloves, and some toe warmers. After that, I was feeling okay. I rode through the early morning and waited for Elkford to appear. The sun rose and I heard crashing in the bushes a couple of times. Sounds that big were either moose, deer, elk, or bear.
When the trail turned onto some single track, I knew I was close since I did this part last year! Elkford came into view, and I rolled up to the gas station at about 6:30am. It was bustling with workers getting their lunches and snacks for the day. There were lots of catchy sayings like “working hard or hardly working” and “living the dream” being tossed around. They had some microwavable meals, so I had my first real breakfast the whole trip, potatoes, eggs and bacon bathed in hot sauce.
|Real food is good!! Note the bike in the window.|
I thanked the ladies working in the restaurant without calling them “princess” like the many workers passing through and was on my way satisfied.
Just as I left town, I ran into Neil. I have known Neil for several years in the bikepacking community through Bikepack Canada Summits and overnight trips but had never run into him in an event. He was doing the 500km route. It was nice to chat! We leapfrogged one another from this point all the way to the end.
The route gradually climbed up some single track and with the geared bike, it was nice to climb it all. I remember riding this at about the same time of day as last year and feeling really tired. But today I felt great! That 2 hour sleep was doing wonders for my alertness.
|View from the top of the Elkford single track|
After the single track I knew it was a fairly long stretch of undulating gravel roads along the Elk Valley that gradually climbed over Elk Pass.
|Elk Valley gravel|
At one point I started to feel tired and nod off. I stopped in a small field of daisies on the side of the road and took a 10 minute nap. After that I felt really good again. A while later at Tobermory Cabin I felt tired again so took another nap on the picnic table. I also filled up with water here from the stream.
|Snacking on chips close to Elk Pass|
|The start of GRAAB!|
Photo credit: Ethan Albrecht
After Elk Pass, I could see the end in sight! Skogan Pass was the last major pass to go! I descended the other side of the pass with Ethan and we marveled at some big bear tracks in the dried mud. Ethan was concerned about bears, but I tried to reassure him that there is not much to worry about if you respect them and give them their space.
|Big bear and slightly less big bear tracks|
We passed back through the center of the figure eight of the course as we travelled past the Boulton Creek store. I had enough food and water to continue on, so I did not stop. The route went along some paved roads, and I was feeling good to be almost done! I thought maybe I’d be done by midnight!
I turned onto highway 40 and chatted with a cycling tourist from Los Angeles. He had been touring the area on his Surly Long Haul Trucker with panniers front and back.
|There they are|
The route turned off the highway and went on a fun bit of single track toward Fortress Ski area and Kananaskis Village.
|Bridge leading to the single track|
|Some of the rockiness|
I had a lot of fun on this part! The trail flowed well and had some good viewpoints. I was glad it was more technical than a gravel road, so I did not have the chance to get sleepy.
|View as the single track passed the golf course|
There were nice, paved trails around Kananaskis Village. I started climbing Skogan Pass and was curious to see what the footing was like. The last time I was there was for an October training ride for the 2016 Tour Divide. It was snowy and the footing below felt uneven. This time I was happy to see the smooth surface. I could ride a lot of it and walk a lot of it at a quick pace compared to the nasty ATV hike-a-bike before Elkford.
|Pristine, smooth surface of Skogan Pass|
There was a lot of bear scat around, so I was yelling, “Hey bear,” every several minutes. I got to the top at sunset and then the descent was fast and smooth.
|Near the top!|
There were a lot of moths that would go up in front of me as I zipped down the other side. I continued to yell, “Hey bear,” a lot because there was tall, thick grass where a bear could easily hide. It was a long, fast descent. I stopped a couple of times to rest my hands from braking so hard.
When I got to the bottom, I thought I was almost finished, but I knew there was a single track trail coming up. I was hoping it would be a fast one. I was getting hungry and was trying to eat, but didn’t want any more of my food. It was getting harder to swallow without water. I almost heaved from eating a Hot Rod.
I tried to find the trail to the single track called Guy Lafleur. There was a rickety plywood bridge across a fast-moving stream.
|Ride it! Nope!!|
I hoped it was a fast, flowing singletrack but sadly, that wasn’t the case. It was a lot of short, steep climbs that I had to push my bike up. There were big roots so I couldn’t get any significant motion for much of the trail.
I saw 3 or 4 boreal toads that were cute that shuffled off the trail. One of them I had to take evasive action to avoid so I didn’t crush it.
|Save the toads!|
Eventually I came out in the Three Sisters Village and thought the single track was done! But then the track started going back up the mountainside to Highline Trail. Sadness! Again, the hope was that it was fast and flowy. Again, that was not the case. It was similar to Guy Lafleur except instead of roots it was rocks, so very slow going.
After an hour and a half of pushing my bike up steep climbs and riding some of it, there was a really fun downhill section that finished at Quarry Lake. Along the way, a tiny little mouse jumped out in front of me! This little mouse was just sending it around the berms. It really stood out among the lights and the white, dusty trail. I slowed down a bit to watch it go, then it went off into the trees. Keep shredding little mouse!
Those last two stretches of single track were relatively soul crushing when I thought I was almost done. Both locals familiar with the route and finishers thought it was a cruel addition when the town was in sight. Once I got past Quarry Lake onto the road, I was sooo happy the single track was finally over.
The route snaked through town on some of the nice, smooth pathways. Kristin, Evan, and Megan greeted me at 1:43 AM with Evan holding a “Congratulation!” sign he made. I was elated to be done!
Neil arrived about 15 minutes later and we complained together about the end. Misery loves company! That was a tough one! Kudos to everyone who made it!
|Neil and me with feelings of intense relief|
So you might be wondering what the verdict is between gears and SS! Well, each has advantages for different types of rides, but I’ll be using SS for my next bikepacking event. Gears were nice for the sustained downhills and technical climbs, but sitting all the time killed my butt.
I also find the simplicity of SS very relaxing and it makes the ride more fun. I don’t need to think about which gear to be in and wonder if I should go harder or easier. On a SS, it is what the bike is and there is no choice. It leaves more time to enjoy nature, the surroundings, and the riding itself. I’ll use gears on my fatbike and road bike, and put gears on the Unit X for tours and bikepack trips with other people, but when it comes down to riding for myself, SS for the win!!