Alberta Rockies 500

Early morning and Canmore was covered in mist. I biked downtown and joined the crew milling around in front of Rebound Cycle, taking the time to eye off my tires and chain dubiously as I drank my coffee. After cleaning my bike thoroughly the day before, I’d realized I was in dire need of a new chain – the links were so stretched out that they no longer sat properly in my narrow-wide chainring, and I was getting crunchy noises as I rode. And the tires were something like seven years old, and almost worn bald. But still, everything should be good for one more ride, right? Right?!

7 am rolled around, and with some final words from route-creator Jonathan, we hit the trail. The pack stuck together for an unofficial neutral start that was good for catching up for random chats. As we made our way out towards Dead Man’s Flats the mist gradually lifted, revealing a beautiful blue sky and snow-capped mountains. Also, a lot of mud. The constant rain of yesterday had mercifully stopped but had left its mark on our route. So much mud.

As I started riding up the paved road towards the Skogan Pass trailhead, I began to notice a weird rubbing noise. Odd. When I looked around my bags seemed fine. And that’s when there was a colossal bang, and my tire exploded, caught fire, and bounced away dramatically down the hill.

Ok, not quite. But my sidewall did blow out in a spectacular fashion (I later ran into other riders who told me they’d thought someone had let off a bear banger). I gave it a look over and decided there was no way it was worth trying to repair – it was ready to blow in a million other places, and the non-exploded tire wasn’t much better. I had a pair of new(ish) tires at home in Canmore that I’d been tossing up putting onto the bike anyway. Time to let go of the idea of holding onto the rest of the race, and to resign myself to everyone riding off over Skogan Pass without me. 

After a substantial amount of messing around, and a slightly desperate attempt to set up at least one of the tires tubeless… maybe once I get back on course and keep riding and pumping air in every 200m it will eventually seal? No, maybe not… I gave in and put my spare inner tube in the rear tire. I now had no spare tubes, no hope of getting an extra spare (or so I thought), filthy hands, sealant everywhere, and an hour and a half that I’d have to make up to catch back up to the pack. Time to get to work!

I started playing Blondie’s ‘One Way or Another’ and The Beatles ‘Get Back’, and began to chase. First, the hikers who had overtaken me as I messed around putting extra air in my “tubeless” tire, trying to convince it to stick. Then came a selection of Alberta Rockies riders, who were either taking it easy or had been struck by misfortune. And then, the snow began! Who put all of this snow here?! Up and up and up I rode, as snow fell on me from the trees and crunched beneath my wheels. Cresting Skogan Pass was almost anti-climactic, and then I was headed downhill through more snow and mud. Careful now, I thought to myself, crashing doesn’t win you any time. And the wrong sort of flat tire could put you out of the race. I mean ride… But with all this chasing, I now felt like I was racing.

It was somewhere on this descent that I managed to lose the safety on my bearspray somehow, as I brushed against undergrowth. Yes, this is the second Chekhov’s gun of the story.  

After climbing the paved road up to Kananaskis Village, I headed straight through onto the single track. Where I was pretty thankful for both my fresh tires and my years of mountain biking, as I blasted over muddy roots for kilometres. It’s a fun piece of singletrack, but only if you can keep the momentum going on a loaded bike. Along the way, I overtook Corrine from Alaska, and found a hat in a stream, that I had a suspicion belonged to Brian Kennelly (the hat, not the stream that is).

Hitting the Hwy 40 there was suddenly fast, fast, paved road. And cell reception! I made the most of it before it disappeared entirely, and checked Trackleaders. Oooh, a bunch more people were not too far ahead. But first, seeing as it was around midday, it seemed a good time to pull out my delicious ziplock bag full of sushi and devour it as I powered along. Then, people! I found Guy, then Greg… and then decided to pull into Fortress gas station, where lo and behold, I found Brian and reunited him with his hat.

Back on the road, I hit my first low point as I had to make my way through Kananaskis Lakes campgrounds. There were people everywhere, and I struggled to find a rhythm. I was also pretty aware that I’d been burning a lot of matches in my chase. Too many? Time would tell. I made the decision to back off a little and take it easy for a while. So at Boulton Creek when I serendipitously found TJ, it was an easy decision to join him for a picnic lunch.

Lunch over, it was time for Elk Pass. I braced myself, but it was over fairly quickly, with a dash of mud to keep things spicy, and wildflowers to amaze me. No bears. The descent was amazingly fun, and I was whooping and hollering until the bottom, where I ran into the Kennelly crew again (I didn’t double-check if that’s the name of his gang, but I’m making assumptions here). They must have overtaken me at Boulton. We ran together for a while, but then I set off on a mission to overtake more victims *cough* I mean riders.

Next up was Neil! I slowly snuck up on him, then we rode the rollers into Elkford together for an hour or so. Cell reception reappeared, and I could see that the guys from Saskatchewan were not far ahead, and the Kennelly gang was chasing us from behind. Time to power on. After some more overtaking and chats, I turned up the singletrack towards Elkford.

After a long singletrack meander into town I was feeling the need for some more downtime, and some decent food, and so my stop wasn’t very speedy. And really the pasta salad from the grocery store wasn’t exactly ‘decent food’, but it definitely had calories and filled me up. I stopped again at the mini-mart to refill water, then set off onto the singletrack towards Sparwood, back and forth-ing with Jeff from Vermont as we rode past ominously witchy green fizzing ponds, cattle standing all over the trail, and unexpectedly beautiful meadow singletrack.

It was in this section that I had to clamber through a few sections of fallen trees across the trail. And where I forgot to worry about the bear spray at my waist that still had no safety clip, after losing it on Skogan Pass. A stray branch pressed the trigger of the spray, and suddenly I was in the middle of a nest of fallen trees, with bear spray burning across my back and drifting out into a cloud surrounding me. I tried to move on as quickly as I could without either inhaling or accidentally flicking the trigger again. My back was burning, and the spray settled in a fine layer on everything, irritating my throat, lungs, nose. For the next few hours, everything I ate tasted of pepper and burning. For the rest of the race, I’d be feeling the warm burn of bear spray on my back.

The sun was dropping as I drew closer to Sparwood, and I struggled finding some of the singletrack connections as the last of the light disappeared from the sky. In the end, I rolled up to Tim Horton’s in Sparwood at 10.03 pm. I hadn’t even thought of the time, assuming I’d be arriving well after 10 pm, and so spent a moment kicking myself for not arriving a few minutes earlier, to catch Timmies before closing. Oh well. Alex had made it in time though, and we said hellos and goodbyes as he headed off on the 700km route. I refuelled again at Husky, not because I really needed more food, but just for the sake of a break (and who turns down a gas station sandwich?). But as I went to pack away the can of Starbucks “coffee” I’d bought, my tired hands failed me, and the thin aluminum punctured immediately on hitting the ground and started spraying sticky drink over everything. Great, the bears will love that, I thought, as I sculled down what was left in the can. 

Leaving Sparwood it was thoroughly night. I listened to a live recording of a My Morning Jacket concert, and Circuital played as the full moon rose over the hills, and it was magical. The moon shone back at me from roadside ponds, and a train noisily kept pace with my bike and I as we rolled along underneath the starry sky.

At midnight I ducked off for a quick kip at the Visitors Information Centre. Curled up on a picnic table, I only got a few minutes sleep but felt more awake as I set off again in the early morning hours. Nearly everyone else seemed to be stopped in Sparwood as I turned off the highway and onto the gravel of Allison Creek Road, with the exception of Neil – the only 500km rider who has followed me out of town, cheekily making a break for it – and some of the 700km riders who were forging on further south.

The night was long and the road was slow as I picked my way around muddy potholes, past campers still up drinking by their RVs at 2 am, and then just past trees, trees, and more trees. Climbing and climbing, I finally hit a pass, but my descent was still slow, as it was hard to pick out a clear line. I didn’t really want to be crashing or stopping to fix a pinch flat at 3.30am, bike covered in mud, eyes tired, trees full of potential bears and cougars. 

At 5 am I rolled into the campground on the 40 Forestry Trunk Road and curled up on a bed of pine needles by a picnic table. I’d had no cell reception since midnight or so, and probably wouldn’t have any again until I got within striking distance of Canmore. I had no idea if anyone was chasing me, or how close they might be, but I needed a nap. I fell fast asleep for 20 or 30 minutes and woke up feeling the bear spray burning across my back and side where I’d been lying. At least it felt warm? And it was a good distraction from sore knees and Achilles. I stayed curled up and dozing for another 20 minutes, then hit the road.

The valley that the 40 travels through is wide open at first. The land is flat with many wild camping opportunities: solo campers with tents or pop-up roof tents dominate, compared to the RVs along the Allison Creek road. The road was quiet at first, but with gradually more vehicles and more trees as I got further north. As I climbed the next big hill I felt slow, sluggish, not very awake. My legs didn’t want to go fast, but they kept turning. The kilometres ticked slowly by, like a school clock on a summer afternoon.

I was excited to reach the Highwood House store and find it open. The woman behind the counter seemed far less excited to see me. There were no other customers, but she didn’t seem to hold with people going into her store to purchase things. There were lots of signs everywhere letting me know what I could and couldn’t do. It’s that kind of store. I bought some things then sat outside on a picnic table, having myself a picnic. The store woman glared out resentfully at me. After finishing off my icecream and some chips, I happily left her to find something or someone else to glare at.

But now – oh Highwood Pass, why would you have a headwind? As if the slow 30km of climbing on tired legs wasn’t enough. The fact that it’s a paved road seems to add insult to injury too, because pavement is fast… right? My eyes were drooping, the wind was trying to blow me back down the hill, and I was hitting a low. Time for a roadside nap. I found a spot in the shade, far enough away from the road that people wouldn’t stop to check if I was roadkill, and fell asleep for a few minutes. It helped, and if I wasn’t overjoyed, I was at least re-energized, finding podcasts to listen to, and then music, and I kept climbing. The final kilometres stretched out into a possible infinity, but I made it to the top. Where I was surrounded by the hoards of people setting off to hike from Highwood Pass – them, all full of optimism and smelling of soap, me, a sleep-deprived, bear-sprayed, bloodshot-eyed lunatic.

The descent from the Pass was brilliant, but over too quickly. Onto the old ski trails to cut across to Kananaskis Lakes, I knew where I was going, and quickly rolled along the route to Boulton Creek store. I was just about to head downhill on the final trail to the store when I was confused by a truck parked in the middle of the trail. What’s he doing? I can’t tell. I couldn’t see anyone. I heard a double honk; it sounded to my tired brain like someone locking a vehicle. I’d been wondering if there were bears, but maybe that’s not it. I kept moving slowly, looking around, trying to work out what was going on. Then suddenly I saw movement in the bushes to my right and realized there were three grizzlies sitting in there having dinner. A mama and two large cubs, just three or four metres away.

I stopped. I didn’t want to be running away. I decided to get off my bike and walk away. Except I was tired, and after successfully getting off my bike, I manage to back into it and then drop it. Which made me lose my balance entirely, and so I fell down backwards on top of it. The bears looked over at me, standing on their rear legs and huffing. I gazed up at them and considered the fact that I was an uncoordinated idiot. I was too tired to be at all scared. The bears seem to be viewing me with the derision with which you’d regard an incredibly drunk stranger making a fool of themselves collapsing on the floor of your local bar. The man in the truck hopped out and told me not to panic, and to go back up the hill. I considered the fact that I wasn’t panicking. And that it would have been helpful if he’d actually yelled “Bear” instead of just honking his horn at me. And also the fact that it would be much easier to walk down the hill than up it at this point, seeing as I was already right next to the bears. I could nearly touch them! But I was feeling sheepish enough that walking away from him seemed like a fine idea. At the top of the hill, I found a campsite truck with an apologetic man who was supposed to have been on hand to stop me from going down the trail in the first place. Whoops.

I had already decided not to buy anything at Boulton store, and so just quickly refilled my water bottles and checked for wi-fi. Any wi-fi? No wi-fi. I kept going, and tried again at the Visitors Centre. Still no wi-fi. Oh well, Trackleaders and the general state of the world would continue to be a mystery. Stopping for a snack break before launching onto the High Rockies Trail, a Conservation Officer turned up and started ticketing a couple for an off-leash dog. I listened awkwardly to their protests that their dog was on-leash, and her retort that she has credible witnesses of it being off-leash. It was the unpleasant icing on my Kananaskis Lakes cake, and I was happy to escape onto the High Rockies singletrack, even if my body wasn’t.

I could sit, and my butt protested, or stand, and my legs protested. I tried to stand more, as my legs felt like they had more to give. But there were just constant punchy little uphills – I could ride them all, but they all required a grind. Again and again. But I was alone in the late afternoon on a beautiful trail, and I started to grab moments of enjoyment. The kilometres passed. It was beautiful. There was no-one to care if I was playing music in the peaceful forest, and so I started to blast music from my phone. Then somehow I was at Sawmill already. Time to hit the road!

I was happy to be able to spin faster and have stronger legs, but then I started to suffer from car-rage. Why, why, did cars insist on not slowing down?! They all threw up so much dust. I breathed the dust and tried not to seethe resentfully. Even cars that were in a queue of other cars, they all just sat on the speed limit and drove along in a dust cloud! I glared at them. A couple of cars slowed right down for me as they passed. There was no dust, and I grinned and waved at them. I hoped they realized how much I appreciated it. 

My water was all gone again, and I refilled in a roadside creek. It was a beautiful warm afternoon, and I was starting to speed up. I had finish-line fever. Past Engadine Lodge, and now it was nearly all downhill, and the traffic was diminishing. I powered along. Potholes? I didn’t mind the potholes, as long as I didn’t have to breathe dust. And at this rate, I should make it home by dark. 

I optimistically turned my phone on, but there was only a glimpse of reception, enough for me to get a pile of messages, but not to send anything. As I was drawing near Driftwood, a blue truck pulled up next – Sheldon and Kim! They knew what I was up to, and cheered me along, marvelling at the fact I’ve not really slept. The interaction was enough to boost my mood from good into wildly over-excitable, and from that point, it was on. 

I flew along the Driftwood singletrack, trying to be careful to stay in control, but blasting along as fast as I could. Over the dam wall, pedal, pedal, then flying along the rest of the High Rockies Trail. Music blaring, no other people, I stood on my pedals and hammered. At this point, I didn’t really want to sit anymore, and my legs seemed ok with giving it all. Up onto the Goat Creek Trail, I walked my bike up the final hill to the trailhead. Phone reception! Still no Trackleaders. Oh well, it didn’t matter at this point. I flew down the hill from the pass, probably faster than I should have, but having so much fun. 

Hitting Main Street, I sprinted to make it through an orange light. I didn’t want to wait! And then rolled into the finish line at the barracks, dirty, bear sprayed and sore, but happy, 37 hours and 15 minutes after leaving town. I enjoyed the sensation of sitting, finding out I’d won, and seeing that Robin B had been chasing me since leaving Sparwood that morning (he made it into Canmore a few hours later). Then, to eat all of the food, and finally, wash off that bear spray.

16 thoughts on “Alberta Rockies 500”

      1. Cheers Andy – pretty sure bikepacking gangs are the best gangs there are, it was great to meet you too (getting to meet and chat to everyone was definitely the best part of having a mechanical)

  1. Fabulous and unbelievable effort Megan, glad I ( one of the Saskatchewan guys) had a few km’s to chat with you!

  2. I loved reading this Megan! Oh my lord those bears! Soooo close!!!! A bit different to the foxes and cats of Yamma!

    1. Thanks Julie :) Totally different to the hazards out at Yamma. I still find it strange that Canadians find snakes and spiders more threatening than bears and cougars. Snakes won’t eat you! And you can usually ride a bike straight past them no worries!

  3. Great job and great write up, Megan! Fun to meet you out there. Because you had the mechanical early on, you basically got to meet everybody doing the race!! Hope to see you out on the trails again, sometime! Next time you will have to do the entire 700 route!

    1. Thanks Corrine! Great to meet you too. And I loved the fact I got to ride and chat to so many people thanks to the mechanical… although I don’t think I’ll try and make a habit of it! Look forward to seeing you out there somewhere, and yes, the 700 next year??

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