False Start!

Friday 10th July, 2018. Calgary

A bit of a frantic day, packing and doing last minute adjustments to a strange rear-brake problem. The brake caliper wouldn’t adjust so that the rear wheel would spin freely without moving washers from one side of the brake attachment to the other. A case of mechanical ineptitude on my part, I suspect.

Packing consisted of filling my heavy Black Diamond duffel bag, my Porcelain Rocket front-basket bag and my handlebar bag. The PR bag was supposed to replace the handlebar bag but I didn’t have room. I hoped everything that didn’t fit in the bags could be squeezed into the trailer (lock, pump, shoes, …) when on the bike. My food bag would be strapped on top.

But, I had a room booked in Banff (exorbitant) for Friday night and Bev had to be at Calgary airport for six on Saturday morning to go away for a long weekend so I didn’t have time to do a better job. As it was, we didn’t drive out of Calgary until after 8:00 pm. 

We arrived in Banff about 10:30 pm (after a quick visit with friends in Canmore), unloaded everything to the room – the hotel were OK with keeping the bike in the room – and Bev set off back to Calgary. I started setting up my GPS. Not very well; I couldn’t figure out how to load the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) track onto the device.

Went to sleep about 3:00 am (until 6:00 am, but I dozed a bit after that). Stress factor fairly high!

Saturday 11th August, 2018. Banff – Spray Lakes West Campground.

Forced down some breakfast at the hotel; nerves seem to have stolen my appetite. Then packed the trailer: a full Black Diamond duffel (approx. 100 litres), with a food bag strapped on top. A total of around 65 pounds, including the trailer! The front load was probably 25 pounds. Ridiculous.

Starting off from Banff

I wobbled off down Banff Avenue, across the Bow River and up to the Banff Springs for the mandatory ‘start-of-trail’ photo. (The ‘new’ GDMBR starts in Jasper and follows the Forestry Trunk Road almost to Calgary before heading back west to Banff, but the traditional start, and the start of the annual race, is from one of the Banff Springs Hotel parking lots.)

Banff Springs Hotel
The Banff Springs Hotel

The trails, Spray River initially and then Goat Creek. were familiar from previous rides. My first ever mountain trail ride was down this route (in the opposite direction) about 30 years ago. But this time was very different, fully laden. Slow going. Hard going. Part of it, I know, is being out of shape (overweight, off the couch and a few days before my 66th birthday) but the heavy load and the difficult trailer handling don’t help. 

Goat Creek Trail
Goat Creek

There was a tree across the trail, which presented a new problem. I had to detach the trailer from the bike and lift both over the tree separately. The trailer has to be lined up fairly precisely with the hitch in order to re-connect them. A little time-consuming.

I turned right on to the High Rockies Trail (HRT), new to me and relatively new to the GDMBR. Lots of thunder and light rain; combined with the smoke from forest fires in British Columbia to the west, it was almost dark at 5:00 pm. I took a wrong turn (I mistook the correct route for a steep stream bed) and followed a narrow, spongy path for a few hundred metres. I looked at the GPS app (Locus Pro, really excellent) on my phone and found out I was off-route. Surprisingly, the little track I was on was marked and I could see where I was relative to the HRT so it was a simple matter of retracing my steps (literally, more pushing than riding now) and muscling up the steep ‘stream bed.’ 

I arrived at Spray Lakes West CG at around 8:00 pm. There were a couple of sites in the overflow camping area so I thought I would be there. But the camp hostess thought for a while, then suggested I went to join two groups of cyclists at Site 1; it was closer to water and bearproof food lockers. That was a very nice outcome.

One of the groups of cyclists was a couple of families out from Calgary for the weekend. The other group was a Dutch couple who were heading ‘to Mexico.’ It was a bit late, and windy, to cook so I had some cheese and crackers and snuggled into my sleeping bag.

Time for some serious reflection: this is not quite working out as I’d hoped. If the trailer was easy to handle (like my two-wheeled trailer), it would make more sense. But, if it is as hard to handle as a bike laden with panniers, then there is little advantage, and some disadvantages, to pulling a trailer. Notably, one extra wheel to pull through the gravel, the weight of the trailer itself, and an extra wheel subject to punctures from ‘goatheads’ in Arizona and cactus thorns in Mexico. If I get that far. My bike wheels are running tubeless, with sealant in them, and should provide fairly good protection from punctures. I couldn’t find a tubeless-ready 20″ rim for my trailer wheel so many punctures will be inevitable.

The trailer is steel, with quite significant flex. I had anticipated this to be an advantage: pseudo-suspension. But, with the heavy load, probably more than it is designed for, it is not laterally very stiff. On the highway down from Jasper, there was strong wobble at about 35 kmh. I have a bit more load now and the wobble kicks in earlier. Not that I expect to be spending much time at speed. Another issue I noticed on the trail that hadn’t been evident on the Icefields Parkway is that cresting a steep hill, or going over a bit of a drop, the rear wheel can rub against the sling-bag suspended from the trailer frame and I’m sure it will do damage to the bag in time.

This trailer, a Farfarer, is beautifully build by frame-builder Josh Frances (of Frances Cycles) in Santa Cruz, California. Two people I know and respect in these matters consider the Farfarer to be the best available but I must be trying to do too much with it. 

I’ll see how tomorrow goes but, while I’m still close to home base, it might be advantageous to head back to Calgary for a few days and reconfigure my packing. And my objectives. I’ll ride to one of the campgrounds in the Kananaskis Valley (K-Country, as we call it locally) and hang out for a day until Bev can bring my truck out on a rescue mission on Tuesday midday.

I didn’t seem to write down details of the ride from the GPS. From what I can remember, the distance was about 30 km (or 20 miles, since I’ll be in the US before too long, and my Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) maps are in miles – although a concession is made to the civilized world with distances in SI units off to the side), with ascent of about 700 m and elapsed time of 8:00 hours. I don’t keep a record of how much I push and how much I ride but as time progresses and as my strength increases, there will be more riding and less pushing. However, when I’m pedaling along in bottom gear and making a paltry 5 or 6 kmh, it is good to get off the bike and use different muscles even if it’s only at 4 kmh. Hey, I’m an old guy out for a weekend ride in the countryside!

For perspective, Lael Wilcox, on her first day of the GDMBR race, rode 183 miles on the first day before getting into her sleeping bag from 1:00 am to 3:00am. Then right back at it. She is an inspiration to all, especially female, endurance bikepackers.

Sunday 12th August, 2018. Spray CG to a few km past Mount Engadine Lodge.

It was a bit crowded around the picnic table for breakfast. I forced down some granola, not feeling hungry. I moved at a fairly relaxed pace, getting ready for the day.

I had already decided to head back to Calgary, from wherever I camped in Kananaskis Country, for a re-organisation but Bev couldn’t pick me up until Tuesday so it didn’t really matter whether I took one or two days to get to a pickup point.

I talked to the camp host about the route down the west side of the lake. He didn’t know that it could still be ridden (the Calgary group at my site had set off in that direction a couple of hours earlier, and some friends had ridden it a few weeks ago). The road was no longer maintained and Parks didn’t want it used; my new Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) map of the GDMBR showed it as closed to bicycles.

Bike at Spray Lakes West CG
Everyone is back on the road so I have the camp site to myself to repack.

The recommended route was across the dam to the other side of the lake and then follow the Smith-Dorrien to Kananaskis. It’s a dusty gravel road with some traffic. I tried a new single-track route that parallels the Smith-Dorrien, between the road and the lake, but it was a bit nerve-wracking with the trailer so I escaped up to the road as soon a practical.

While on this track, I met a couple from New Zealand. They had started out from Banff the previous afternoon but were hit by a strong thunderstorm after 5km and camped up for the night (luckily, a little further along, all I felt was light rain). They were riding light, bike-packing, with Surly ECRs (his was 29+ and hers 27.5+, with 3″ wide tyres tubeless) and Rohloff gears. We chatted for a while, about gear mainly. They have some keen bike-packing friends in NZ who gave them advice about what to pack along with them.

Pushing the bike and trailer up to the Smith-Dorrien, I dropped the bike! It was either that or going with it.

Lots of soft gravel didn’t make for easy riding. Fortunately, some of the recent moisture reduced the dust raised by passing vehicles. Four cyclists from the Chicago area, also bike-packing, passed me. They turned in at the Mount Engadine Lodge entrance – I thought they were looking for somewhere to sleep but I expected that the Lodge (somewhat upmarket) would probably be full – and expensive.

Smoke haze and clouds
Smoke and cloud reduced the usually vibrant colours

It would be after dark before I could get to a sanctioned campground at the pace I was going so, at around 5:00pm, when I saw a reasonably discreet place to spend the nice, I pulled off and set up camp. 

I heard voices as the Chicago group rode by. By the time I reached the road to let them know of the good camping spot, three were gone. The fourth, struggling a little, was approaching. I let him know there was somewhere to stay if they wanted, he asked if I was OK and I answered “Yes, I’m good.”

Ten minutes later, I heard voices calling my name. Peter and Dusty had come back to check on me (the message that I was safe and fine hadn’t quite made it through to them). They made sure I had everything I needed. That was really nice of them and I was very appreciative. Peter had mentioned earlier that it looked like the trailer was ‘driving’ my bike and I was continually fighting it; now he told me that they had noticed that my tracks in the dust were weaving. All this to-ing and fro-ing can’t be very efficient. It’s probably a great trailer with half the weight in it. I’m also finding that having everything in one bag, under the food, makes digging stuff out quite a chore. 

Freeze-dried spaghetti and bolognese sauce for dinner. My appetite wasn’t great but I managed to get through it.

The SpotX, for all its idiosyncrasies, is very useful. I can get messages to Bev and receive replies. I let her know that I’ll need a pick up on Tuesday.

Distance: 27.7 km, ascent 366m, moving average 6.9kph.

Monday 13th August, 2018. On to Lower Lakes Campground.

I had a good rest. I woke at 4:00, popped another sleeping pill, and woke fairly late. But I don’t have a long day ahead. Only half a litre of water so no breakfast. I did a bit of bike maintenance: the chain had tightened so I fixed that. I also reset the rear brakes, correcting a problem I’d had earlier. The wheel is running smoothly again.

The weekend is over and the gravel trucks were out, adding dust to the smoke haze. Fortunately, they were only working for a few km and it was nice to get past them.

More gravel

I stopped at a creek to replenish my water supplies. And have a Snickers bar. Not much elevations gain today, more dropping down towards the Kananaskis valley. The air was a bit clearer today with occasional patches of blue sky.

A little bit of blue sky...

At the end of the Smith-Dorrien, I turned onto Kananaskis Lake Trail and tarmac. Some thankfully short but steep sections required pushing. Boulton Creek Trading Post had hot dogs and ice-cream but no camping space. They could tell me that there was room at Lower Lakes CG, not too far away.

Three more Divide cyclists (Belgians) arrived, two very lightly loaded and the third pulling a ToutTerrain Mule trailer with most of the gear. The Mule is a single wheel trailer that, like mine, attaches to the seat post. It is a bit heavier, with suspension, but looks more rigid. I have heard good things about this trailer. 

Found a campsite, snacked for dinner after a couple of late afternoon hot-dogs, and had a restful night. 

Distance 34.7km, ascent 281m, moving average 9.1kph.

And now…

Bev picked me up on Tuesday around noon and I beat an ignominious retreat to Calgary. Over the last week, I have been very stressed about the trip. I’m not able to eat much and have lost about 8 pounds in the last couple of weeks. I have re-packed, with panniers, and will try them out tomorrow before heading back to the Kananaskis to continue. I don’t know how far I will get; I’m trying to approach the ride one day at a time. I am no longer thinking in terms of completing the GDMBR, just doing some late summer riding down the GDMBR.

I anticipate feeling better once I’m back riding (and pushing). My load should be around 20 pounds lighter.

Air quality, adversely affected by the 550 forest fires burning in British Columbia, is a concern. In Calgary, there have been days when the air quality has been the highest recorded, rating 10+ on a scale that goes up to 10. Mountain bike races have been cancelled, people are staying indoors. There are fires in the States, too. It seems to be the new summer normal.


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