Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Higher Calling


“There is nothing that improves a mountain view more than a nice bit of squiggly road going up it.”       --Max Leonard

Higher Calling: Road Cycling’s Obsession with the Mountains (2018) is the kind of wonderful book idea that I almost wish I had thought of myself: exploring the rich tradition and magic associated with ascending mountains on bicycles. Previous books have looked at cycling’s connection with particular peaks (think Peter Cossins’s Alpe d’Huez: The Story of Pro Cycling’s Greatest Climb or Jeremy Whittle’s Ventoux: Sacrifice and Suffering on the Giant of Provence) but British writer Max Leonard, author of the very fine Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France (2014), and one of the brains behind the Rough Stuff Fellowship Archives, aims much higher. His book offers an ambitious, entertaining, and surprisingly wide-ranging account of our fascination not just with riding up (and down) mountain roads but with mountains in general. 

Friday, October 29, 2021

Graminia Crackseal


I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t notice them myself, even though I’ve cycled along that road dozens of times and like to think of myself as having an observant eye. It was actually my dentist pal Joe who pointed them out one day on a road ride: swooshy lines of black tar all along the road surface of Graminia Road, southwest of Edmonton. 

This is a favorite route for Edmonton roadies: newish, well-kept pavement, fairly wide shoulder, and not a lot of car traffic. Any given summer Sunday, you’ll see dozens of cyclists chuffing along Graminia. I wonder how many of them have noticed what I failed to--the work, nay, the masterpiece, of a true crackseal artiste.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Cowspiracy at Cooking Lake-Blackfoot

Central Alleyway Trail, heading east

 It took me a while, but I finally figured out that the best time to take your gravel bike out to Cooking Lake-Blackfoot (CLB) is October. This provincial recreation area east of Edmonton and directly south of Elk Island has long featured plenty of intriguing roads and trails that, theoretically, should be of great interest to gravel cyclists. In particular, the east-west-running Central Alleyway Trail (CAT), essentially a gravel road that occasionally devolves into a dirt two-track in places, is, I would argue, one of the most scenic rides in this part of Alberta.

The problem, as any cyclist who’s been there will tell you, is the damn cows. CLB is also a grazing reserve, which means that during the summer, cows pretty much have the run of the place. On a July day, for instance, you’ll encounter cows in the fields, along the edges of the CAT, and often right in the middle of the road. Generally, cows flee at the sight or sound of cyclists, so that’s not the problem. Nor are the copious amounts of cow shit on the road really a problem, except for the most feces-averse among us. (Gotta keep your water bottle spout covered out there.)

Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Joyous Wheel

Happy is the cyclist.

James Arnold’s The Joyous Wheel (1940) is pretty much the perfect embodiment of the literature of the cycling-rambler tradition which was popular in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. Two-wheeled ramblers like the great "Kuklos" (W. Fitzwater Wray) and Edward Thomas traveled the countryside at a modest but steady pace, seeking out experiences in nature, stopping at points of interest (historical, literary, architectural), partaking of food and beverage at inns and taverns en route, and generally savouring the pleasures of English country life.

These ramblers, almost all of them British, cultivated a very particular aesthetic in their writings about cycle travel. The goal was neither speed nor distance but rather “experiences,” as Arnold says. “Happy is the cyclist who rides throughout the year, taking what comes his way in weather, choosing only his itinerary.” Stalwart, unflappable, optimistic, the rambler pedals on, seeking subtle contact with the rustic world.

Arnold’s slim book (133 pages, including his own exquisite black and white illustrations) recounts his cycling adventures during the 1930s in and around the landscape of the Cotswolds, west of London. A “seasoned Woldsman,” as he refers to himself, he rattles off the names of the villages he passes through on his rides--Shrewston, Tilshead, Wantage, Stow, Burford--like a kind of geographical rosary. Some of these place names sound totally made up: Wooton Fitzpayne, Buttermere, Abden Burf, Uphusband. And my favorite: Lord Hereford’s Knob. The weird poetry of these names isn’t lost on Arnold; in fact, he says that sometimes he altered his routes just for them. “These names lured me and did not let me down.”

Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Buddha of Westlock

You can see it from several kilometres away, the giant golden Buddha, towering above the fields of green south of Westlock, Alberta. If you didn’t know to expect it, I can see how you might be startled  at the sight. It doesn’t seem an obvious location for a 50-foot Buddha.

So what's the story? The big Buddha  resides on the grounds of the Tay Thien Monastery aka Westlock Meditation Centre, built in 2009 by the Edmonton Institute for Buddhist Studies. The grounds include a residence-type building, a retreat centre, small pond, Lotus Temple, and statue garden.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

We Were Young and Carefree


Laurent Fignon, the bespectacled, pony-tailed French champion, nicknamed “The Professor,” whose palmeres include two Tours (1983,1984), a Giro (1989), and a couple of classics, is probably best known now to a generation of cycling fans as the guy who lost the 1989 Tour de France by 8 seconds to Greg Lemond on the final day’s time trial.

I remember watching this on tv. Even to my 13-year-old eyes, it was obvious this was more than just a race; it was a clash of styles and cultures. Fignon, representing an old-school European approach vs. the American Lemond, using the latest technology (aerodynamic helmet and tri-bars), and a new strategy. Fignon had a significant lead of 50 seconds going into the time trial but Lemond gained 58 seconds that day and the rest is history, as they say. Fignon’s third Tour victory vanished and he became known forever as the guy who blew it, more so than the man who won two. 

Fignon’s 2009 autobiography We Were Young and Carefree (translated by William Fotheringham) is a surprisingly good read--I say “surprisingly” because most athlete memoirs are dreadful. In the realm of autobiography, there’s nothing more boring than a guarded athlete’s sanitized account of all the super-nice people he or she encountered en route to stardom. Autobiography needs conflict, tension, obstacles, attitude--something to provide some dramatic tension. In Fignon’s case, the thoroughly engaging tension in the book comes from the fact that he was kind of a dick--though I mean that in the best possible way.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Midnight Poem

Happy 25th Anniversary to my favorite cycling companion, Victoria Day! Here's to many more rides together.

Bicycles move

With the flow

Of the earth

Like a cloud

So quiet 

In the October sky

Like licking ice cream

From a cone

Like knowing you

Will always

Be there

             --Nikki Giovanni, "Bicycles"

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Viking Ribstones

I’m a big believer in having a destination on a gravel ride. It doesn’t have to be anything special--a country store, an onion-domed Orthodox church, a shaded picnic spot, a viewpoint. A plaque even. I’ll gladly ride to a random plaque and back.

On a recent foray, setting out from Kinsella, in east central Alberta, we settled on the Viking Ribstones, an historical site I’d read about online. Ribstones are big old rocks with shapes or lines (specifically lines that look kind of like an animal’s rib cage) carved into them a long time ago by Indigenous people. It’s thought that the carvings were a kind of offering to the spirit of Old Man Buffalo. Apparently nine different ribstone sites have been found in Alberta, but the one near Viking is one of the better preserved specimens.  

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Gooseberry Rambles

I recently spent a couple of days exploring some of the off-pavement options in the Neutral Hills in east-central Alberta, near Consort, and I can report that even though I only rode a fraction of it, this area has lots of potential for adventurous gravel cyclists.

We camped at Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park, about 15 km north of Consort, which turns out to be a great starting point for cycling. To the south and east, it’s your typical prairie gravel roads, all fine and well, but to the north and west things get interesting. The hilly terrain reminds me of another Alberta terminal moraine, the Porcupine Hills area near Claresholm--similar topography and similar “roads,” if that’s even the right word. The hills are bestrewn with totally bikeable tracks and trails, most of them private but some of them public.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Greatest: The Life and Times of Beryl Burton


Who is the greatest cyclist ever? Fausto Coppi? Eddy Merckx? Maybe Jacques Anquetil or Bernard Hinault? Respected British cycling journalist and biographer William Fotheringham makes the bold case that that mantle actually belongs to a lesser known name: British phenom Beryl Burton. In terms of span of career, number of titles captured, and absolute domination of her field, no one comes close to “BB,” explains Fotheringham.

These days Burton’s name isn’t widely known outside of Britain, but the career numbers she accumulated are astonishing--for any sport. From the mid 1950s to the 1980s, she won 90 domestic championships and 7 world titles; for 25 consecutive years she was the Best All Round female time trialist in Britain; her 100-mile record lasted 28 years and her 12-hour record an incredible 50 years. At her peak, she regularly beat some of the best British male cyclists in time trials--including eight-time Tour de France stage winner Barry Hoban. Her 1967 12-hour time-trial distance (277 miles) stood for two years before it was bested by a male cyclist.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Cost of a Gravel "Experience"


Credit: Cycling Tips

A few years ago, Val, Penn, and I did the Gran Fondo Whistler. It was, I thought at the time, an expensive ticket: $225 to participate in a one-day ride. But despite being a cheap bastard by nature, I was able to justify the cost on the grounds that for my cash I was getting a unique “experience:” in addition to the usual supports (aid and snack stations) a section of the highway we rode was closed to car traffic, enabling us to ride on a road that otherwise I probably would have avoided. And when we got to Whistler, there was a party waiting for us: barbeque, live music, and an atmosphere of general festivity. We had a good time. It was worth it, and I’d recommend the “experience.”

That ride is all pavement, of course, but I mention it here because, in the world of gravel riding, big ticket events promising a special “experience”--in some cases charging the same kind of fees as a premier event like the Whistler Gran Fondo--are beginning to pop up more and more in western Canada. But when I look closely at what some of these gravel events are offering in exchange for their fees, I find myself asking some questions about what exactly constitutes a rewarding gravel-event “experience.”

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Over the Hills


David Lambs Over the Hills: A Midlife Escape Across America by Bicycle (1996) is one of the better examples of the mid-life-crisis-bike-trip travel book that started to pop up in the 1980s and 90s and has become a subgenre all its own. 

Lamb was the same age I am now (54) when he found himself not in a crisis exactly, but feeling tiresomely reliable and responsible,” “normal to a fault,he says. He hadnt ridden a bike more than a few miles in decades, but he decided that a foolhardycycling adventure from Virginia to California might just be the ticket to reconnecting with some of his roguish youth and getting out of a rut. 

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Short Sleeves (and Other Dreams for 2021)


Late January is usually the time of year when I start scheming cycling plans for once the snow’s gone. As the days get incrementally longer, I find I can allow myself to begin dreaming of green fields and short sleeves--even if they’re still many months away.

This year, of course, any planning must take into account the COVID restrictions that are likely to be with us into the summer if not longer. In fact, with the prospect of variants in our midst, there’s every chance that the coming months will see lockdowns and movement restrictions unlike anything we’ve seen so far, at least here in Alberta. 

But I can still scheme, even if I have to accept that I may end up doing most of these rides by myself, if at all. Strange as it sounds, I get a lot of pleasure simply from the plan-making itself--regardless of whether any of them come to fruition. So here’s my list of wanna-do’s for 2021:

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

In the Trail of the Three Musketeers


I confess I’ve never read Alexandre Dumas’s beloved series of Musketeer books. I’ve known of them, of course, from when I was kid, having watched--numerous times--the 1973 movie version of The Three Musketeers featuring Michael York (D’Artagnan), Raquel Welch (Constance), and Charlton Heston (Cardinal Richelieu). The movie--as I remember it--was fun, a bit racy, full of adventure, romance, floppy hats, silly facial hair, and, of course, sword fights. Lots of sword fights. So I’m familiar with the general idea of the franchise, though I’m certainly no Musketeers nerd. At least I wasn’t until a few months ago.