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Mountain biking in the Canadian Rockies

Here's a report from our roving rider, Simon

Introduction

After 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.

While 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.

Walking 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.

Hire 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.

Navigation

While 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.

Other issues

It's 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.

Brakes

They're 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!"

2. Steep 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 on landing.
While sitting in the dust, you will be very much reminded: "Sh*t! the brakes are the wrong way round!"

3. Log 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!"

So, to the riding.

Albertan 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.

In general, 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 riding.
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.

Jasper

I rode 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 - fantastic bike!


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.

There 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 whooping noises!

The Saturday 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.

The downhill 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.

Banff

From 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 to Banff.


The first 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 rooty corners.


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!

Canmore

Being 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.

The real 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.

I hooked 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, guys?!

They 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

Oh, and 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...

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