Saturday, August 22, 2020
Tuesday, August 18, 2020
Nuns and Pussycats and baseball. It sounds like the elevator pitch for a bad 70s cartoon. But for me, those are the key ingredients in the story of Bruxelles, Manitoba, my new favorite place for gravel riding.
My wife grew up in Morden, Manitoba, a small town south of Winnipeg. Baseball’s big in those parts. In fact, the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame, such as it is, resides in the Morden recreation complex. Every small--and I mean tiny--town in that part of the world used to have a soft ball team, often several, men’s and women’s, and if you didn’t play for one, you probably knew someone who did and even watched some games on warm summer nights.
For the last 25 years, I’ve visited Morden almost every summer, and during that time I’ve gone to my fair share of Manitoba ball games, and even played the odd pick up game myself. My wife and her sisters have lots of women’s softball stories about small town rivalries between the Morden Fighting Saints, Winkler Skylarks, and Altona Thresherwomen, but my favorite ones involve the legendary Bruxelles Pussycats.
Bruxelles (pronounced Brux-els), named, not surprisingly, after the much larger Belgian city which we know as Brussells, is located about 100 miles southwest of Winnipeg. It was founded in the 1890s by Belgian immigrants, and became known for its convent and school run by Ursuline nuns from the old country.
Every time we drove from Edmonton to Morden we passed the sign for the Bruxelles turn off. And every time, my wife would tell me not about the nuns but about the Pussycats and how for such a tiny place, Bruxelles somehow always fielded an impressive women’s team. (As far as I know, there were no actual nuns on the team, but they may have arranged for some divine assistance.) I loved the name, partly for the way it channelled the popular 70s comic book Josie and the Pussycats, and partly for the juxtaposition: Bruxelles sounds Euro and cosmopolitan; Pussycats are feminine but feisty.
But until about a week ago, I had never actually been to Bruxelles. What got me to go, in the end, wasn’t the nuns or the Pussycats; rather, it was the gravel. The last couple of times I drove through that area, I noticed that the gravel roads around the Bruxelles turnoff looked particularly intriguing--surprisingly hilly with narrow roads. Turns out there’s an annual gravel race there each April, the Bruxelles Spring Classic.
And I can see why. I drove out to the Bruxelles area one morning and rode a 40-km loop, stopping in the village at the mid-way point. The vistas were stunning, the roads rising and falling constantly. It was one of those magical mornings.
As for the village, I wasn’t expecting much, after having seen my share of sad little prairie towns. But Bruxelles wasn’t sad at all. It was charming. The convent is long gone (burnt down in 1954) but the church still stands and its expansive old-world Catholic grounds--cemetery, stations of the cross, tiny chapel, and grotto--are surprisingly well tended. I saw a general store, B and B, community hall, and a lovely little park (where I think the convent used to be).
But what I came for was the ball field, which is located in a lower field behind the church. I don’t know what I was expecting there. Some kind of Pussycats Hall of Fame monument? Plaques commemorating ladies’ soft ball success? Of course, there was nothing Pussycat-related at all. It was just a ball field that didn’t look to be used very much anymore.
I rode my bike around the grass field for a while, and that’s when I noticed it. The church spire looming over the trees past the outfield. Something about that seemed right for Bruxelles. Those Belgian founders knew how to pick their spots. Nuns and Pussycats and baseball.
Monday, July 27, 2020
Although the official Gravel Experience event The Range, in Claresholm, was cancelled due to COVID, a bunch of folks rode the routes anyway on Saturday--call it an unofficial pseudo-Range event. I did the shorter Rustler route, an 85 km spin, while most of the other cyclists I met were tackling the alternate Range route of about 120 km.
In either case, it was a swell day in Cowboy Country--perfect weather, glorious scenery, happy cyclists. I encountered about 40 gravel riders who had set out in several waves between 8 and 11 am.
The first 30 km or so from Claresholm is just a warm up act: your standard Alberta gravel roads, though with the bonus of the picturesque Porcupine Hills in the distance. The main attraction of The Rustler is the Burke Creek Ranch Road, a private access through some stunning scenery and challenging terrain on the edge of the Porcupines.
“Road” may be a generous designation for what is really a double track trail, for the most part, that features a lot of up and down. Hills, cows, hills. At one low point, an overflowing creek crossed over the road; I was pleased with myself for being able to pedal across until I realized that I got a double-soaker anyway. On the final big climb out of the valley, the incline reaches a preposterous 15% plus, the kind of sick slant us City Slickers aren’t much accustomed to. You know it’s steep when you can barely even walk your bike up the hill.
But the views in this ranch area are stellar. Hills, cows, hills forever. The Rustler is well worth doing just for this BCR stretch.
Some of the lower warm-up sections are swell too, especially where the gravel road snakes along the creek in a lovely coulee for a couple miles. The real weak link in this route, however, is the stretch along Highway 520, which is the only way to access Burke Creek Ranch from the Claresholm side. 520 is a wide gravel secondary highway, with just enough traffic to make it slightly annoying to be on. It offers some terrific views of sweeping ranch land, but I was happy to get off of it and back onto quieter, skinnier gravel roads.
If I were to come back to this area to ride more, I don’t think I’d start in Claresholm again (though I get why The Range event needs to do this, for logistical reasons.) Instead, I’d cut off as much of 520 as I could, park somewhere closer to the Burke Creek Ranch Road, and spend my time riding the higher gravel roads.
That’s where the cool cows hang, and where the real rustling happens.
Tuesday, July 7, 2020
At first, I really missed coffee shops.
I didn’t realize how much of my route planning was built around supply points--stores, gas stations, restaurants, cafes. In the old world, I’d slip a bank card in my pocket and just go, knowing that if I needed something, I could replenish supplies along the way, at a Circle K or Starbucks or Country Boyz.
But when everything closed, suddenly all options for re-supply vanished--and I mean everything. For a while there, you couldn’t even get a drive-thru coffee without a car around here. So, I decided I would just bring everything I might need with me--coffee included.
Sunday, June 7, 2020
Tuesday, May 19, 2020
Thursday, April 23, 2020
Wednesday, March 25, 2020
On Sunday, I went for an official 6-foot ride with Strava Jeff on the mostly clear pavement out by Woodbend. We drove out there in separate cars and made a careful point of keeping our distance the whole time. To be honest, other than the separate cars, it wasn’t that different from any other ride.
Monday, March 2, 2020
So much to love about Tucson, if you’re a cyclist. It’s got terrific cycling infrastructure: wide painted bike lanes on most arterial roads; two very cool residential bikeways that bisect the city north-south and east-west; some separated bike lanes in key parts of the city; and a beautiful paved trail system that loops around the city.