It was 5.40 am and only just light when we arrived in the Cross Iron Mills carpark for the start of the inaugural Hurt’n Albert’n. The carpark already had a cluster of riders gathered in it, and I got my bike together with a whole two minutes to spare. Group photos, hugs and goodbyes, then we headed off for a neutral rolling start along the pavement at 6.05 am. I was mostly in a sleepy daze at this point. There were lots of awesome looking bikepacking folks riding around me. I didn’t know any of them, felt like it would be good to get to know them, but was too tired to make it happen.
We rolled along easily, and I ended up chatting to Jackie and Jeff. Jeff’s fat bike tires were at 30psi. Jackie also hadn’t ridden any of the roads before, but like me had tried to Google Streetview a little to get some idea what they were like.
And then it was gravel time. Ryan, Chris W, Justin and Adam peeled off in front, I sat behind them but didn’t try to keep up. Soon enough I couldn’t see anyone. The guys had disappeared off in front, and the rest of the pack had disappeared behind. Mist hung around, everything was covered in dew, and the shadows were long.
Having to navigate kept things interesting early on. Some of the route choices seemed weird when I looked at the map beforehand, but once I was riding I didn’t care, because having to constantly watch what I was doing kept me occupied.
I didn’t really have a plan, other than trying to ride the whole thing as fast as I could, without hurting myself. I figured I’d keep stops short, and I probably wouldn’t sleep for long – but I’d brought along my bivy and mat, and was definitely thinking I’d use them. Never having ridden any of the roads before, and not knowing what the winds would be like, it was hard to have any idea how long this thing would take me.
There were so many birds in the early section; I saw a few hawks, I think a falcon too, and lots of water birds. I wished my friend Miles was there, he’d know what all these birds were. I spotted crops of canola, wheat, clover, and maybe barley and oats, and felt guilty for not knowing what everything was. I was a terrible farmgirl, I should remember these things. Then there were sunflowers growing alongside the road! And a John Deere tractor that looked alarmingly like a spider, or a creature from a post-apocalyptic future where robots ruled the world and kept humans firmly indentured in slavery. Whatever, in my day tractors looked like tractors.
I rolled through Rockyford without stopping – I didn’t need anything yet. But I waved at a man sitting on his porch with his yappy dog.
The roads varied. Sometimes hardpack clay, great for riding (as long as they’re dry). Others were covered in rocks – gravel I guess, but big gravel that you had to pick a line through. Sometimes, especially later on, there were smaller roads with ‘impassable when wet’ type signs, with huge wheel ruts and quagmires of standing mud.
(Disclaimer: All the road photos I have, I was riding one-handed, so they were only taken when I had a fairly friendly road that was pretty flat. May not be indicative of the rest of the route)
The route started to enter into the Badlands, which were beautiful, and not bad at all. It was almost a shock to hit the area near Wayne and Rosedale. Suddenly there were cars on the road again! I’d gone hours without having a single car drive past me, and suddenly they were all over the place. I stopped in Rosedale to fill up my water, and grab a chocolate milk and Sea Salt Caramel Haagen Dazs (the best icecream ever). I chugged my chocolate milk then hit the road, eating my icecream with one hand. The inevitable happened and I lost a chunk of the chocolate shell on my icecream. Woe!
SCENE: Megan cycles along the road, riding her bike and eating an icecream. She is happy. CLOSE UP of the icecream as the last piece of chocolate shell on it slowly slides off. SLOW MOTION shot from ground level as we see the chocolate land and bounce on the road before settling, as Megan rides away. CUT TO Megan as she glances down at her icecream to eat some more. She double takes and realisation finally dawns as she throws her face towards the heavens and screams “NOOOOOO!”
The main thing of note that happened between Rosedale and Drumheller was my stomach turned bad. Angry and bloated, it wouldn’t let me ride in the drops, and I had to make a couple of emergency roadside stops. I blamed the salami wrap I had brought from home. It had been kind of warm and didn’t feel good to eat. I told my legs that they had no excuse to slow down just because my stomach wasn’t feeling great, and tried to keep my pace up. There was a light wind from the south, and I muttered a little when I had to ride into it without being able to drop into my aero bars.
But it didn’t take too much longer to get to Drumheller. Suddenly I was on the Hwy 9, and the descent on smooth asphalt was fast and easy kilometres. It’s a bit of a shock to re-enter civilisation after hours of peace and quiet and no-one but cows to talk to. (SIDE NOTE – Speaking of cows, there are an awful lot of red Angus in Alberta. Australia has far more black Angus) I rode past the splash park in Drumheller and was looking at it wistfully (oh so nice and cool, looks fun, would be nice to get wet, but also wet shoes and pants are not great and can lead to chaffing, but ah, it looks nice and cool) when I noticed my family there waving at me. I slowed down and waved back, and we yelled hellos. I headed on to the Husky. I’d thought about riding off route to Tim Horton’s, but decided I could manage on service station food.
I ditched the rest of the salami wraps I had with me – I no longer trusted them. My stomach was still angry, and I grabbed a freezie, a green smoothie drink, a protein drink, 1.5L cold water, a sandwich, and a little bag of M&Ms. I got the nice service station people to cut the top of my freezie, shoved the smoothie drink in my back pocket, and stored everything else away. It was pretty warm at this point, and I knew there was a climb up ahead. With my water bottles all topped up with lovely ice cold water, I drank as much as I could then tipped the rest of the bottle over my head and neck – glorious!
I set off eating my freezie. It was also glorious. Alex and Finn had parked by the side of the road just a little further ahead on the route, and they cheered me on and we said our final goodbyes. I kept riding.
At this point, I didn’t really have much idea what was going on, as the phone I was using wasn’t that great – the battery dies quickly and it has really poor reception. So when I tried to check trackleaders in town it just wouldn’t load, so I gave in and stopped trying. I knew the four guys were in front of me as I was headed into Drumheller, but I had no idea that I’d gotten ahead of them with my quick stop.
So I was kind of surprised when two guys came racing up to me as I headed up the hill out of town. And it was only after chatting to them as they rode by that I realised that I had been the lead, and I was now in third place. Huh. Having them to chase in the distance made the long west-ward road towards Beiseker a little more interesting. Uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill. Looking back I couldn’t see anyone. Looking ahead I could see the guys, sometimes close, sometimes further. Sometimes silhouetted on the top of a hill. I put some music on and churned out the kilometres. My stomach gradually started to feel better, so I stopped to eat half a sandwich. Hmm, maybe not that much better. Riding past a farmhouse, a woman came out to cheer with a drink in hand. The rampant enthusiasm in her cheering suggested that maybe it wasn’t her first drink of the evening.
When I rolled into Beiseker Centex the guys were having another sit-down meal (don’t they know it’s a race? :P) and waved me over. So after going for a quick shop in the store I went and chatted to them, found out they were Chris and Adam. Chris was having back issues, and probably going to rest. They let me know that Justin and Jackie had scratched, so had a few others. And sure enough, Justin and Terri showed up at the Centex. I washed the bugs off my arm (I looked like the hood of a car – thankfully they weren’t biting me before dying in my sunscreen). I decided to grab some more food (including the nanaimo bar that was the perfect breakfast the next morning), chatted a bit, then headed off to chase after Adam.
The lead switched back and forth as we rode west, chatting occasionally, but mostly riding on our own. Adam stopped a few times to chat to his legions of fans. He put on his lights, and then I put mine on. Then I stopped to add some more layers. And then at one point I just started to pull ahead. There were some fantastic muddy sections between Beiseker and Water Valley, and I was thankful for good lights as I tried to negotiate them in the dark. This section was largely a long west run, and it was glorious as the stars came out overhead, the gibbous moon hung in the sky to the south, and the lightning of a huge storm cell flashed away in the sky to the north. Spectacular sheet lightning and fork lightning were amazing to watch, but far enough away that I couldn’t hear the thunder.
(Night photo stolen from @flixlee on Instagram)
Far enough away that is, until we hit the edge of the storm cell (I was ahead at this point, but I think Adam was still pretty close behind, I remember seeing his lights… although later on, I’m pretty sure I was hallucinating seeing them). The calm and peaceful night was suddenly filled with a ferocious north wind blasting through the trees. Leaves and twigs were flying everywhere, and I leaned my bike into the crosswind. Then the route turned north, and I was riding into a headwind. The lightning looked a little closer, but I still couldn’t hear any thunder – it was definitely good incentive to pick up my pace a little, I figured the storm was unlikely to be moving westward, so all I had to do was get far enough west and it would go away.
Which actually worked out. Well, at least the wind eventually died down, and I was back to the calm, still night. Nothing was happening, barely a breeze, and my world was reduced to the patch of road in front of me. Sometimes I’d turn my headlight on, and just outside of Water Valley I saw my very first skunk – scampering along the side of the road (and thankfully not going anywhere near me).
In Water Valley I’d decided I just wanted to get in a couple of micro-naps. I’d gotten so far that it seemed pointless to try and get a proper sleep. So after refilling my bottles at the church, I just put on all my clothes, set a 20-minute timer and curled up on the ground for a nap. When it went off I got up, had some more food, then another 20-minute nap. And after that, I felt much more awake, and good to keep going – also quite cold, so that was a good motivation to move on. It was 3.38am and I felt as rested as I had done after our 5 hours of fitful sleep on the Kootenay Gravel Grinder.
I was shivering violently for the first 10 minutes or so after leaving Water Valley, but gradually warmed up. I didn’t see Adam at all, but looking at Trackleaders after the fact, it looks like he rolled into town while I was having my second nap. I was moving slowly, but still moving. I wasn’t feeling super tired, but definitely not very alert and strong either. Because we were on gravel I could tell by the lack of tire marks that there was no-one ahead of me, but I had no idea how far behind Adam was, or if anyone else was coming up from behind. So, it was a slow climb in the dark, into the Waiparous area. I’d look behind me occasionally to check that it was downhill that way, and I wasn’t just being particularly feeble. There were more and more trees around me – I’d never been in this area before, and it was hard to tell what it looked like. I assumed any bears would see my lights, and so wouldn’t try and eat me, I was too tired to bother with bear yells.
As I was glancing back to confirm I was going uphill, I finally started to notice some pink on the horizon. Dawn! Hurrah! I got to turn my lights off somewhere near the high point of the route, at about 450km. My vague route notes suggested it was mostly downhill from here, at least for a while. They lied, and I cursed pre-race Megan. There was another climb almost straight after the descent. “It’s ok” I told myself “I love climbing”.
I’d made a note that there was supposed to be water in the Waiparous campground. The first pump I found was rusted away, but the second seemed ok. I pumped and pumped it, but gave up after 20 or so pumps. Maybe it would work eventually, but I was feeling incredibly self-conscious about being a noisy jerk next to all the people asleep in their tents (at least, they probably had been asleep until some random bikepacker rocked up and tried to get the water pump to work). I still had 1.5L or so of water after filling up in Water Valley. It should be fine.
I wondered if Adam had overtaken me while I was messing around with water pumps. I tried to read the gravel roads – nope, don’t think I can see his tracks. There was some fast sealed road as I cruised into Waiparous Village, and had a rest stop – sunscreen, chamois balm, food, and seeing if my phone had any cell reception (nope). The main part of my breakfast was half a nanaimo bar. It was wonderful, and I finally felt energised again. I hadn’t been eating much sugar so far, so the blood sugar kick was pretty effective. I settled down into my drops and tried to churn out the kilometres.
I was doing ok until I hit the hill of doom. It starts at around 495km, and it’s probably no worse than other hills on the route (or is it?), but covered with gravel, few good lines, and on tired legs, it seemed unnecessarily evil. Plus I kept looking behind me to see if Adam was coming. “For sure,” I thought, “he’ll be able to see me stuck on the side of this hill from miles away.” The descent was equally gravelly and slightly hair-raising, but I was too tired to bother braking much, which was probably a good thing.
After that, there were a series of rolling gravel hills, and I tried my phone again. Service! I sent a message to Alex requesting a beer, and a burrito the size of my head, at the finish line. And then I realised he’d sent me a message telling me my Spot had stopped working. “But I’m checking it regularly, it’s probably ok now… I wonder why it isn’t getting a signal?”
But when I checked it, I found it had been off for hours – I’d forgotten to check it, and the problem wasn’t lack of signal, it was flat batteries. I quickly tried to swap to my spare batteries. Still wouldn’t turn on. Gah. Tried my spare USB battery pack. It wouldn’t power it either! “Maybe it’s broken?”
I was a little sad – I had a great crew of folks watching from home and cheering me on, and I know how much fun it isn’t when someone’s Spot goes dead (also potentially anxiety-inducing). Oh well, not much I could do about it now, I may as well just finish the race. Adam was probably going to catch me while I was wasting time messing around.
I could smell the finish line now and was determined to get there as quickly as possible. I pushed as hard as I could up every hill, because when you’re silhouetted on the top of those things you’re visible from kilometres back, and I knew if Adam caught sight of me he’d try and chase me down. But whenever I looked back I could never see him. My legs felt good, and I finished my Nanaimo bar then rationed out a Snickers over the last hour. I was pushing along easily, counting down the kilometres. And then I was at the finish. And I lay down in the grass and drank a beer and ate my burrito, and hung out and waited to cheer Adam over the finish line. And everything was fantastic, and life was good.
Thanks to Justin and Trevor for putting together such an awesome route, and a great event. It was super fun, and I really enjoyed it – highly recommended, go race it next year! Just remember to get a Nanaimo bar at the Beiseker Centex!