Sunday, August 19, 2012

Oh right... THIS is Why I Don't Highway Ride... aka "Bus Jam and Bear Jam and Camper Van... Oh My!"

Son-of-a-you-know-what, what exactly am I doing out here?  Day 2, in spite of its physical challenges was very enjoyable.  Today had lots and lots of wonderful moments, but I find myself forced to swear, once again, off of highway riding.  After Australia, I swore never again.  Brent has always maintained that the Alberta shoulders are way better than the Australian ones, and he has been proven right, but that does not explain the traffic on the Alberta highways.  

Today was "only" about 95km.  It's really interesting how a person's definition of "long" or "hard" or "steep" can inch its way, imperceptibly, forward until you find yourself "meh"ing things off that should, by rights, scare the beejeebers out of you.  110km including Sunwapta Pass... GAH!!!  But hey, only 95km, and the worst of it was 5km of 4.2% grade uphill, and 7km of 4.5% grade.  Now that's an easy day for you.  

Or... it should have been.  It's the traffic.  Oh my... the traffic.  That's the killer for me every single time.  It killed me in Australia, and it killed me today on the Icefields Parkway.  Thankfully, not literally, although it was not for lack of trying.  

First of all, there was the final push up to Bow Summit (that was the 7km / 4.5% grade section).  I could have ridden that one (unlike Sunwapta Pass) with occasional breaks, but I chose not to.  About 6km of the 7km uphill has a passing lane on the uphill side, which uses up enough of the road to leave the shoulder virtually non-existent.  I was riding, steadily, up that long sucker, when I got caught in a bus jam.  We were on the inside of a turn, which meant that the Greyhound-sized Winnebago that was in the right-lane didn't see us until it was pretty much on top of us, and blocked in by the other Greyhound-sized Winnebagos and other campers that were passing it on the left.  It flew past me with maybe 8" to spare between it and my bicycle.  I admit I yelled out in terror, but at least I didn't bail off the bike into the rocks and trees that were my next stop off the road.  I rode for a short time after that, but as my "near miss" sunk into me, I got scared enough that I got off the bike and pushed up most of the rest of the hill so that I could keep a close eye on the traffic behind me and easily bail off the side if I had to.  I guess a steep hill up with a narrow shoulder is my nemesis... the steep hill with a sufficient shoulder... sure, I could ride that.  But take away my shoulder and I'm done.  Done, I tell you.  

Once I reached the top of Bow Summit, I was on again.  Good to ride.  Bow Summit to Lake Louise is mostly downhill, and, as has been established, I am a "downhill demon".  I still touch the brakes now and then when I get going a little beyond the comfort zone, but that is happening less and less.  

My next terror was the bear jam.  Actually, it was more of an annoyance than an actual terror.  We got to a section of highway (yes, yes, tourists, I must remind you it is a HIGHWAY) where there were about 30 vehicles parked on the side of the HIGHWAY with people wandering all over, most of them trying to fire off the perfect photo of the little black bear nibbling on a tree in the ditch.  The traffic was virtually stopped on the road, as opposed to the cars on the side of the road which were completely stopped, so the cars had to brake suddenly, and some of them decided to cut in front of me to join the bear jam, while others decided to eschew the bear jam (probably shaking their heads, as I was, at the folks stopped who are willing to risk any danger to themselves, the people around them, and the bear in the ditch, to fire off that perfect photograph).  As we joined the traffic wending its way slowly through the bear jam, a parked car from the bear jam decided that, just as it was beside me, was the perfect time to re-join the flow on the road (naturally, without looking).  Good grief people.

The clincher for me, though, was in the final stretch of our ride... about 15km from the end, when the road was open, the sun was shining, we were mostly coasting downhill, and there was absolutely no... and I mean NO... reason for a camper to be on the shoulder as it passed a couple of cyclists, when one did just that.  There was plenty of room in the lane... and plenty of room in the open oncoming lane for that matter, to give us a wide berth as they passed, but no... they came over onto the shoulder to "buzz" us as they passed.  The highway is no place for a cyclist.  At least not THIS cyclist.  

I find myself... AGAIN... swearing off of highway riding (sorry Brent).  However... tomorrow isn't a highway ride... it's Bow Valley Parkway (speed limit 40) from Lake Louise to Banff.  Will I ride it?  Only me and my obnoxious saddle sore know.  Oh no... don't get me started about the saddle sore.


Sunwapta Pass = Sun-kicked-my-ass.  110km today and the unbelievable hill from hell.  I couldn't do it.  I had to get off part way up the pass and push my bike up for... oh... probably close to 2km.  Part of my problem, though, was that the shoulder was super narrow and I was moving so slowly that if I wobbled around at all I could fall into traffic, so I felt safer pushing rather than riding.  More than half of my companions pushed at least part of the way as well.  It was a long and tough day, but I'm super happy to report that the shoulders have, for the most part, been great, and the traffic, for the most part, has been very very cycle-conscious and considerate.  I appear to have almost lost my fear of speed on a bicycle... my top speed coming down the other side of Sun-kicked-my-ass was... ahem... 67 KM PER HOUR!!!  I rocked that downhill!!  Rampart Creek Hostel is very nice, but I am cursed by technology.  Athabasca Falls had power but no internet, and Rampart has internet but no power.  *sigh*  I must wait another day to share all of my important thoughts with the world.   The special moment of the day was when the very large grizzly ran across the highway a ways in front of us... maybe about 30m or so.  The motorcyclists in front of us had to brake for it, but we just got to see it unfold right in front of us.  It was really spectacular (but I was happy when it was gone).  

Ben is an amazing support driver.  He leapfrogs the group, keeping an eye on the slowest folks *ahem* but also setting up several breaks and meal stops along the road on the way.  At the end of the break, we will ride off while Ben packs all of our food and such away, and then he'll proceed on past us to the next checkpoint.  I wave, and Ben gives a quick flash of the brake lights.  Every single time we would pull in for a rest stop, he'd give me a cheezy word of encouragement about how awesome I was doing... but the cheese is completely irrelevant.  Those words of encouragement are worth their weight in gold and really did help me keep going on the times when I considered not.  

And Brent.  My goodness, Brent is an amazing companion.  I think it's pretty clear that I enjoy his company... but no matter how slow or scared I am, he sticks with me.  Just being his wonderful Brenty self.  Brent, I love you completely.  

Some Lessons Take More than Once

What AM I doing here?  What was I thinking?  Wasn't it just a little over a year ago that I emphatically swore off of highway riding?  And here I am, just finished the "warm up" day of the ride from Jasper to Banff on the Icefields Parkway.

Maybe Brent is right.  Maybe I'm a bicycle fanatic.  Or maybe I'm just too cheap to work at a bridal show for free.  What?

See, the thing is, I know this guy who runs a shuttle bus service from Edmonton out to the mountains.  And this guy, we will call him Ben Johnson, booked himself to be at the Edmonton Bridal Show for the second year in a row for 2012.  Which begs the question of why does a guy who runs a shuttle bus service from Edmonton out to the mountains bother booking himself into a bridal show, but that is a story that only Ben himself can tell.  Suffice it to say, Ben booked himself into the Edmonton Bridal Show, and then my guess is that Ben himself wondered why on earth he booked himself in to a bridal show because... ooops... he "accidentally" double-booked himself and was scheduled to do an awesome tour of mountain madness on the exact same weekend of the bridal show.  

So, Ben sent out a plea to folks he knows asking for volunteers to work the bridal show for him (I didn't fail to notice that he didn't send out any pleas for someone to take over his tour of mountain madness instead) in exchange for some kind of a deal on a future trip.  Well, to know Ben is to know that you can't receive a plea from Ben without stepping up to whatever you're being asked for.  That's just how it works.  To know Ben is to love Ben.  That is not negotiable.  So, my hand shot up in the air to work the bridal show.  A bridal show.  Is there any WORSE possible way to spend a Saturday?  I can't think of what it might be.  And then I had to think of what I might ask Ben in return, and after careful consideration, I asked him for a deal on a cycle tour... the Icefields Parkway.  Largely because Brent wants to do cycle touring and I want Brent to have what Brent wants.

So, back into the saddle I get... not that I ever left, because I love cycling... I just don't love being out there on the highways with the (fast) motorized vehicles.  It is unlikely that we'll encounter a lot of transport trucks or logging trucks on the Icefields Parkway... my two least favorite things.  The biggest terror of the Icefields Parkway is retirement-aged tourists who have rented their first-ever Canadream land-yacht motorhome.  

Like with the Golden Triangle, I did a fair amount of training for this one.  We rode from Edmonton to Devon and back a couple of times, but my best training was my "Six Killer Hills" events with the Edmonton Outdoor Club (if you think Edmonton is flat, you just haven't looked hard enough).  The day to start the trip arrived, and oddly enough, I wasn't filled with dread; I was actually rather excited and happy.

Along with six other riders from the Edmonton Outdoor Club, Brent and I set out with Ben on a Friday morning at 7:00.  We loaded our bikes, gear and luggage into his van and trailer and headed out of town.  I made everyone watch "Letters to Mark" (which I call "the Doug and Brent movie") to "inspire" us.  Everyone was inspired.  We stopped in Hinton for lunch.  Everyone was lunched.  Ben dropped us off just east of the Jasper Park Lodge and we started riding.  Day 1 was a relatively easy 40km from Jasper Park Lodge to Athabasca Falls Hostel.  Really only one hill to speak of.  My training buddy Colleen didn't even start hating me at that hill... maybe a mild dislike, but certainly not a hate.   The traffic was very considerate (even the Canadream motorhomes) and the shoulders were wide and clear.  The weather was warm... maybe a little too warm, but I'm too smart to complain about that.

We reached the hostel more than a full hour before it even opened, so we walked across the highway and went to check out the Athabasca Falls.   We had a marvelous potluck dinner with Colleen's award-winning lasagna and Brent's home made strawberry pie and Bear Flag wine (which I bought because it had a picture of a bear and a picture on a bus on the label).  Day one did not suck.  But Day 2 is niggling a little in my brain... 109km with the biggest climb of the trip... Sunwapta Pass.