Thursday, September 24, 2020

Urban Gravel

Is it possible to have a genuine gravel experience while riding in the city? This may seem a ridiculous question, but it’s one I set out to answer anyway this summer as a COVID-induced something-to-do project. Before you scoff at my premise, let me establish my terms.

By “genuine gravel experience” I mean that of 1) riding on roads that are primarily not pavement 2) where vehicle and pedestrian traffic is sporadic, if not scarce 3) where one experiences the peace and quiet of nature, away from heavy vehicle traffic 4) and where one occasionally feels the sense of adventure that comes with venturing into territory where bicycles rarely venture.

To be clear, I’m not talking about riding on gravel multi-use paths in the river valley or elsewhere. While many of those gravel paths do offer an experience in nature and, in some cases, a kind of adventure, they’re not roads and they tend to feature a steady stream of pedestrians (something you generally see only occasionally while gravel riding). So for the purposes of my experiment, they don’t count. No paths, no trails allowed.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Bruxelles Pussycats


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

The Rustler

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

Pandemic Plus

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

Cavell Road

I have a new crush. Her name is Edith. She lives far away, but she stands out. She’s quiet, but elegant; curvy yet skinny; smooth, tough, and more than a little dangerous. And she takes my breath away.

Yes, I’ve flipped out over the road up to Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park. (Cavell was a British nurse celebrated for her bravery during World War I; she was executed by the Germans. The peak named after her is one of the most prominent in the Jasper area.) Like the Highwood Pass in Kananaskis, Cavell Road is closed to car traffic until June 15 each year, meaning there’s usually a brief window around this time for cycling it when most of the snow is gone and before the cars return.

Last week Strava Jeff and I made the trek from Edmonton, in separate vehicles, there, up and down, and back in one long, glorious day. It’s one of a handful of magical rides in Alberta. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Rough Stuff Fellowship Archive

The Rough Stuff Fellowship, which claims to be the world’s oldest off-road cycling club, was founded in 1955 by Liverpudlian Bill Paul, who organized a gathering of around 40 cyclists interested in off-road adventures, especially those involving difficult ascents. Their aim was simple and glorious: ”exploring how far an ordinary bicycle and a can-do attitude can get you.” (I admit the name “Rough Stuff Fellowship” feels a tad cringy now; out of context it could pass as the name of a creepy Victorian S&M cult. Alas, in the 1950s, I don’t think it had the same double-entendrism.)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Solo Special

I miss riding with my friends. The conversation, the joking, the bullshitting--even riding silently together. I miss it all.

Alas, riding alone is how it’s going to be for a while. (I’m hopeful that the wide-openness of gravel will allow for two-person rides, but not everyone will be comfortable with that.) For the most part, my solo rides have been, well, okay. It’s something just to be out on the bike, moving through warm air again. But it’s not as much fun as riding with other humans.

My ride a few days ago, however, was an exception. I drove out to Strathcona County and explored some territory to the north and west of Elk Island Park. It was a warm, sunny day, not too breezy; the melt was on, with water coursing through the ditches and culverts, small torrents seeking out low ground. And part way through the ride something happened: I experienced some curious shift in how I saw the world from my saddle, and I actually enjoyed--for the first time in a long time--being alone out there.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Sunday 6-Footer

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

Tucson Postcard

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.

But more important than the infrastructure, Tucson has a cycling culture. Bikes are common as dirt and not just tolerated but appreciated, respected as a legitimate transportation option and a normal part of regular people’s lives. Bikes are embraced and celebrated as part of the culture of the city, part of its identity. I love how this particular E.T. inspired, lizardy-tandem-bicycle sculpture rises above the Rillito bike trail at Campbell Avenue. Most bikes ride below on the trail, but the elevated art work, visible from the avenue, captures the proud and ascendant spirit of Tucson’s cool cycling vibe.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Old Pueblo

The saguaro cactus, that iconic image of the Sonoran desert, doesn’t begin to produce flowers until it is over 70 years old, and it won’t grow its first arm until its 90s. Things bloom late around here.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Cycle Gleanings

Image result for william s. beekman

The student of nature has in the bicycle a very serviceable friend.

I’ve got a special bookshelf devoted to my favorite oddball classics of cycling literature. It includes copies of F.W Bockett’s Some Literary Landmarks for Pilgrims on Wheels, J.W. Allen’s Wheel Magic, and Charles Brooks’ A Thread of English Road, all works that no-one could call “great” books--they’re too weird and uneven--but that are nonetheless wonderful in some strange way. 

That’s where I’d love to someday put a copy of William S. Beekman’s Cycle Gleanings: or, Wheels and Wheeling for Business and Pleasure and the Study of Nature (1894). I say someday because it’s almost impossible to find extant copies of this book. I got to look at one of the seven existing copies listed in the worldcat via interlibrary loan, but good luck trying to acquire a copy for yourself. It’s rare and expensive (years ago I saw a copy online going for $700), which makes it even more of a gem, if you ask me.