biking in the Canadian Rockies
a report from our roving rider, Simon
a 2and a half week holiday in the Canadian Rockies, followed by a
firther 4 weeks stay due to unfortunate circumstances, I felt I would
share my experiences of biking in Alberta.
there is nowhere near the biking scene of built trails, ski resorts
providing lift services, north-shore constructions in the trees etc
that is enjoyed over the Divide in BC, that's not to say there's nothing
going on in Alberta.
down the main street in any town will reveal a higher-than-average
number of bike shops, stocking a higher-than-UK-average number of
'big' (6"+) bikes.
Also a large number of locals going about their business on Specialized
Big Hits, Kona Stinkys, Norco 6s, etc. Drop into one of the shops,
and the ever-friendly locals will happily hire you a bike, lid etc,
and point you in the right direction for some good trails.
bikes in Alberta are actually good bikes. I'll post a little bike
review separately, but I've ridden Rocky Mountain ETSX-10s, Specialised
FSR Expert, Scott Genius MC-50, Kona Kula 29er, and a few others.
A far cry from the £99 Aldi special with a pedal missing (and
more travel from bearing play than the seized suspension gives) that
is often the UK offering.
the trail network is extensive, it's hard to get lost, for a few reasons:
1. The National Parks of Canada post signposts at most junctions showing
an accurate map, oriented correctly, with your current position marked.
2. There aren't that many trails. Unlike Britain's network of footpaths,
bridleways, BOATs, RUPPS, with a junction every 200m necessitating
getting the map out again, most of these trails go from A to B, and
maybe cross another trail every 5 miles or so.
3. The geography makes it easy to keep your sense of direction. The
Rockies consist of enormous mountains, with glaciated U-shaped valleys
running between them. The bottom of the valley is flat, and they usually
put the railway, highway, river, town etc down these. The mountains
themselves are too rocky and steep to ride. The not-too-steep strips
between the floor and the rocky bit is where you ride. If you ride
along the contour you're going one way, downhill is 90 degrees to
that, and uphill 90 degrees the other way - easy.
nice in the UK to ride on your own sometimes, and just enjoy the peace
and quiet of the countryside - for me it's a big part of the ride.
Not in Alberta. There's plenty of peace and quiet, but you need to
disrupt it as much as possible. I had to push through years of English-bred
quiet stoicism in order to whoop and holler like an audience member
on the Jerry Springer Show. Singing out loud to myself, be it Song
2 by Blur or Jerusalem (you can take the man out of England etc),
even a running commentary on my own progress.
The reason: the other trail users - the 4-legged ones. Bears are not
that common, and tend to shy away from human contact - if they know
you're coming. Their hearing isn't much better than ours, and how
many times have you snuck up on some walkers without them knowing
you're there? Do that to a mother grizzly and her cubs, and you'll
have more than a stiff letter in the Rambler's Weekly to worry about.
Elk look like deer from a distance, and close up too, except they're
about 6ft at the shoulder, and the antlers are about the same width
- they kill more people than the bears do - you want them to know
you're coming too.
I haven't seen any wildlife out riding, but it's safer to think that
his is because of my racket, not because I don't need to make a racket.
the wrong way round.
I'll say it again: They're the wrong way round.
Like the Stateside riders, they run the rear brake on the right here,
the same way round as your shifters, which makes sense, I suppose.
Except not to my brain, which knows damn well that it's the other
way round, no matter how much I chant 'Rear on the right, rear on
the right' to myself.
I have found 3 good ways to remind myself though - try them.
1. Steep, loose downhill. You're feathering both brakes to keep the
speed down, when your back wheel starts to skid. You ease off the
back brake to allow it to start rolling again and regain control.
Except you actually ease off the front brake, and the wheel's still
skidding. So you ease off more, and more, but actually you're just
releasing the one working brake, making the back wheel skid more and
more, and suddenly the back wheel overtakes the front in an impressive
tailwhip-with-both-wheels-on-the-ground manoeuvre, and you crash.
While sitting in the dust, you will be reminded: "Sh*t! the brakes
are the wrong way round!"
rock step. Dropping the front wheel over a foot or more of vertical
rock step, we all know you keep your weight back, feather the rear
brake and let the front roll over.
Not feather the front brake just as it loses traction, while letting
the bike roll unchecked so that the front wheel skids or tucks under
While sitting in the dust, you will be very much reminded: "Sh*t!
the brakes are the wrong way round!"
hop. Approach, pedals level, rolling at slow to medium pace. Push
down briskly on the front pedal, lean back slightly, pop the front
wheel onto the log. All good so far. Then you move your weight up
and forward, and firmly and sharply tap the front brake to cause the
rear end to unweight and come up under your tucking legs as you release
the brake and let the front wheel drop off the other side. Lovely.
If you firmly and sharply tap the rear brake as you're unweighting
it, however, it just skids straight into the log, as your weight carries
you stomach-first (or other soft bits-first) onto your stem.
While sitting in the dust, listening to your new Canadian riding buddies'
laughter, you will find it very hard to forget: "Sh*t! the brakes
are the wrong way round!"
riding tends to be natural, open pine forest with plenty of space
between the trees, lots of roots, a few rocks, and mainly pine-needle-strewn
singletrack ranging from 3 feet to 8 inches wide. it's fast and flowing
with interruptions for creek beds and fallen trees. The local riders
are good at building the traditional 'pile of logs' ramp to get over
these last, though the bigger ones tend to get chainsawed out of the
way - I've only had to dismount for a couple of these.
you can let your hair down, and just blast along as fast as you like.
There are other trail users, but it's notably less populous that UK
Bizarrely, the narrower trails are on the more open hillside meadows,
and the wider ones through the trees, but all have a flow and rhythm
it's rare to find in a natural trail, but natural these are.
two trails out of Jasper, the Wabaso Lake trail and the Saturday Night
Lake Loop (or 20-mile loop). You can hire bikes from Jasper Source
For Sports (some horrible low-end Giant thing), or the excellent Freewheel
Cycle, which will give you a Trek Fuel for $40/day, or a 'high-end
demo' for $50/day - these change, but I got a Stumpy FSR Expert -
Of the trails, I much preferred the Wabaso
Lake trail - it's perhaps the finest bit of track I've ever had
the pleasure of riding. 9 miles one way (can be ridden as an out-and-back
if you can't get a shuttle) of near-perfect swooping, flowing, not
very rooty singletrack. Some through the woods,
some on open
meadows, all well signed and marked.
are no big climbs or descents, other than the final loose and steep
drop into town. A few short sharp ups will have you reaching for the
lockout and granny ring, but overall it's a middle ring blast all
the way. If you can get shuttled out to the trail end to the south,
it's an overall height loss, so much more fun this way than t'other.
On this trail, of all of them, I found least trouble summoning bear-scaring
Night Lake Loop is a long, thin loop heading up the flank
of the mountain from town, so is pretty much 10 miles of climbing
followed by a 10 mile descent. The problem is the 4 miles or so in
the middle, which is the rootiest and most miserable section of track
I've ridden in a long time. Impossible to get a rhythm, largely uphill
so you can't get enough speed to skip over the top, no suspension
in the world will isolate you enough unless it's a motocross bike,
even the 29er I had wouldn't roll over it properly. Take your bug
spray too, as it's boggy through this section where you will be pushing
for at least some of the time. I rejoiced when I saw the short
boardwalk which meant I got to turn downhill at last.
is not steep at all, but is a beautiful, 5 miles or so roller-coaster
ride of smooth
swoopy singletrack that is over all too soon. Great fun, but I
still have nightmares about those roots.
what I could tell, there's not a lot of riding from Banff itself.
I only did one trail from here, but it was a monster - 48km of singletrack,
fire road, and fire trail - a lap of the closest mountain to town,
effectively. I hired from a shop in Banff called Snowtips-Bactrax.
Don't know if it was just me, but the guy behind the counter (from
Elephant & Castle!) seemed fairly disinterested and unfriendly
- certainly compared to the Canadians, anyway. They hire mid-range
Norco hardtails, and also Norco 6 full-suspension bikes. The spec
is not great on these, and they weigh a ton. I felt overbiked on the
trail I rode, I must admit.
The trail does a big loop around Mt. Rundle, on rooty singletrack
along the riverside to Canmore, over a mountain pass on a graded but
unsurfaced fire road, then downhill down a fire trail for 18km back
section varied greatly between enormous fun and a-bit-too-rooty-to-be-fun.
I was certainly glad of the full suspension here, a local write-up
states that this 14km is 'more challenging then people think', and
I'd have to agree, some tricky rocky stream bed crossings and off-camber
This spits you out at the Canmore Nordic Centre (more on that later),
where you weave through their trail system and hit the mountain climb
to the pass. This is where the weighty bike bit back hard, and I thumbed
a lift from a friendly pick-up driver. Turns out he's a biker too,
and I hooked up and rode with him a few days later. With the pass
past (and passed), the Goat Creek trail takes you back to Banff. This
is downhill, but not so downhill you don't have to do a bit of pedalling.
It's largely unchallenging fire trail, with some ace little bridges
over streams that have great ramps to get on and off.
Managed to get back to Banff in one piece, though some major carb
loading was required afterward, even with the cheating!
just outside the National Park, Canmore locals have a bit more leeway
to cut trails, and there is more of a network of trails here than
elsewhere. This is where the extended 4 weeks happened, so I got more
chance to explore here then elsewhere.
There are several places to hire from in Canmore: Sports Experts -
$45/day K2 Altitude (low-end but not too bad full-sus with Deore parts
and Manitou Trace forks); Canmore Nordic Centre, a short drive or
steep 20-minute walk from town - $45/day Rocky Mountain ETSX-10s,
some a bit battered, but generally well-maintained; Rebound Cycles
$70/day - Better ETSX-10s, Scott Genius MC-50s, Giant Anthems.
There are two main riding areas, the trail network around Canmore
Nordic Centre, and 'Benchlands', running SE-NW to the NE of town.
The Nordic Centre was set up for the Calgary Winter Olympics, and
consists of lots of cross-country ski trails. In the summer these
translate to roughly grassed-over doubletrack, but the locals have
been busy putting singletrack through the trees - very tight and windy,
but great fun - not dissimilar to some of the tighter stuff on the
Surrey Hills. There is one 'official' route (follow the orange markers),
but it is easy to lose this (as I did, losing my pickup saviour at
the same time), and end up on your own route. However, there's a million
trails through the trees, and while difficult to get utterly lost,
I ended up losing a lot of height and having a long and painful climb
back to drop the bike off afterwards. Definitely a good half-day to
day to be had here - the most similar to Welsh trail centre riding
I found out there.
fun is to be had on Benchlands though. The shops can point you the
way, but it's a network of walking trails plus a few more through
the trees, overlooking town.
I was told to climb up past Cougar
Creek (a massive dry river bed, with not a cougar in sight), head
off to the right on any trail, climb until I was tired then 'turn
downhill when you want to come home'.
I must admit to being dubious about this, having no local knowledge,
no map that would pass muster next to an OS job, and largely riding
on my own, but it really was that easy. A dozen or so different tracks
all spat me out at the same spot, and I never got lost once.
up with some local riders on one ride: "Can I ride with you guys?"
- "Sure bud!" and off we go.
After a few hills where I'm seeing spots in my efforts to keep up,
while they are having a conversation between them, I'm getting suspicious
that they may be a weeny bit fitter than yours truly.
When it gets to the point of embarrassing how much they are having
to stop and wait for me (not helped by me getting tired, making stupid
mistakes and stacking every third corner), I tell them to go on without
me. We get to chatting for a minute or two, and it turns out they
are a semi-pro team who spent the WHOLE of last summer touring Europe
racing XC, and are training to do the same this year!
Couldn't have told me that when I asked to ride with you, could you,
did show me some great trails though, and had great fun returning
to try to nail some of the steeper rock slabs ( descents
and traverses), and hit some of the North-Shore-lite that was hidden
in the trees (with the abandonment and care-free attitude to bike
breakage that can only come from riding a hire bike).
These trails are fast, smooth, flowing, enough natural drop-offs,
berms and kickers to keep a big grin plastered on your face, and,
when you break
out into the meadows, stunning 360° views of the mountains.
There's at least half a dozen options of uninterrupted downhill to
get back to town, and a great cafe with fabulous views 500m from the
trailhead - what more do you want?
Overall, there's some great biking there, but probably not worth heading
over just for a biking holiday.
It is, however, awesome country, and great for an outdoor holiday
of any level - 10-minute wheelchair friendly strolls from the car-park
and 5-star hotels, or 15-day backcountry treks and full-on mountaineering
if you prefer - and everything in between.
So, you can sell it as a great family holiday, and you get to go play
on some fantastic trails for a day here and there.
I know that's what I did. :-D
that's not mentioning the trekking, rock-climbing, skiing/boarding
(40 mins drive from Lake Louise), and generally great standard of
living that the Canadians have.
Now, where's that visa application form gone...