Three Days Pedaling Canada’s Golden Triangle And Living To Tell About It
Monday, June 7, 2010
Think you got what it takes to do the three-day trek through Canada’s Golden Triangle? Maybe, just make sure to double bike-short it, things are about to get a little bumpy.
By Jon Wick
Last week, I embarked on a new chapter in my life: bike touring. More appropriately, epic bike touring. I spent three days pedaling through the beautiful Canadian Rockies along the Golden Triangle Route.
The Golden Triangle is a popular cycling route, connecting Lake Louise in Alberta with the namesake city of Golden, and Radium Hot Springs in British Colombia. Pedaling 100 km (60 mi.) each day, crossing the Continental Divide twice, with three different national parks unfurling around each bend in the road, is reason enough to don the spandex, chamois butter your personals, and get behind the handlebars for a few hours. Bicycling mountain terrain that gruelingly spectacular, and you’ll deserve margaritas at the end of the day.
For this trip, I was a bogey, a Klingon, basically a puppy that followed the crowd. I received little more information than an e-mail asking if I was free for the weekend, and a follow-up packing list. All I was supposed to do was prepare for a trip lasting a week, and get to my brother’s house in Calgary by Friday afternoon; didn’t know where we were biking, how long, with whom, etc . . . I dig the prep part of any trip, the anticipation, the running in circles, the uncertainty. Putting this much faith in people I didn’t know was new to me, and maybe the way I go from now on.
I’m a first-year roadie, making the leap from the mountain single tracks to the open road with some trepidation. Too many Gear Heads, tights, and people in full racing kits judging my rusty ’86 Schwinn Caliente. So this year, to reward myself for not getting killed during my past year rambling through Asia, I bought a new bike, a bike jersey, and yes, bike shorts. It became official, I’m a roadie — with my spandex-clad balls out there for everyone to see.
I met the group at a roadside breakfast. Fueled on Humpty Juice (the bill actually said “Humpty juice” rather than what it actually was: orange juice) and something akin to moose sausage, we headed out into the sleet for the first leg of the trip, through Banff National Park, Lake Louise, and over the Kicking Horse Pass to the small town of Golden.
Biking is often an exercise in layering your clothes. This day was to be the epitome of that skill. For the majority of the day, the mountains were socked in by low clouds, the rain was sparse, but the intermittent hail pinging off my helmet left me deaf for miles. My light jacket started on me, then off, eventually back on again. Many of the 60+ miles were adventureless: mostly just staring at the tire in front of me until we reached the top of the pass and Yoho National Park. From there my legs took a break on the ensuing drawn out downhill. To my right was a yawning valley below; my first quality view of the snow-capped, craggy peaks of the Canadian Rockies. At 40 miles an hour, with an endless postcard panoramic stretching before me, I couldn’t help but hoot and holler through each of the seven miles of descent. That moment alone could have made the trip.
But it didn’t. As we pulled into the parking lot of our motel, there stood our support van. Alongside was a circle of chairs, a bucket of beer on ice, and a freshly blended pitcher of berry margaritas glistening in the newfound sunshine. My crew of three dove right in to our “recovery drinks.” Soon, with the bikers accounted for, we headed over to the local pub. It offered a magical combination of mediocre barbecue ribs, a few surprisingly good renditions of Cat Stevens from a guitar player, and enough Long Island Ice Tea pitchers to make our asses ache no longer.
On the walk home from the pub, we met up with a gal we were riding with exiting a mini-mart with far too many sugary treats. She greeted us with a warm, deer-in-headlights stare. In our own inebriated state, this was a perfectly normal.
“Hey guys, what’s happening?” she asked.
Suddenly, one hand sprung up from her side to the lit-up ESSO gas station sign. Before we could even form a reply in our mouths, she bent over and puked with more power and authority than I’ve ever seen, even by cranky customs agents. Bits of her burger swam in a mixture of Rye and Cider, drowning the small purple flowers lining the bed. Three full-body convulsions saw the finish of her “gardening.”
She composed herself, straightened up and wheeled around to face us. “Gulp, So, ah . . . tomorrow’s gonna be a kick-ass ride, eh?” I think she was serious.
* * *
Ping. The microwave pierced the quiet morning, letting us know our breakfast of cinnamon buns were warm. Today we were to leave Golden, heading southeast along highway 95, to the city of Radium Hot Springs at the entrance to Kootnay National Park. Last night’s reconnaissance told me not to expect any mountain passes, but rolling hills; enough to keep you on your pedals all day without any of the significant rests that going down mountain passes allows.
I loaded up on Hammer Gel, Jelly Belly Sport Beans, and peered out through the polyester shades hiding our motel window. It was our estimated departure time and there wasn’t a soul to be found in the parking lot. I should have known.
Bike trip 101, Lesson #1: Instruct all participants in the spiritually necessity of praying against headwinds. Perhaps the gas station flower gods were punishing us, but a headwind ripping up the valley was incessant. Wordlessly, we formed a draft line in the first few miles, handing the tiresome job of breaking the wind to the lead rider while the rest of us followed closely to the rear wheel of the rider in front. When the lead rider ran out of gas, they dropped to the back, fell in line, and recovered in the pull of the draft. We fell into a symphony of drafting, like a spoke-tired train chugging down the tracks. A short lunch break to refuel was all we needed before resuming the charge.
The line continued, head down, staring at the wheel in front of you, hammering the pedals. If you fell too far behind, it was seconds before the headwind would make you its bitch. Kilometer 65, our group of eight riders fell to six. At kilometer 80, down to three.
Roughly around kilometer 90, I began to feel the onset of bonk: a phenomenon in which your body starts to shut down. You have used up all your energy stores without replenishing them, you are dehydrated before realizing it, and your body decides that it is done biking for the day. Looking back, from the moment we lined up, my primary focus was keeping speed so as not to fall off the pace. I tried catching up on my nutrition by gulping down water, but nothing but headache was a result. I choked down energy gels and bars, but it was no use. My legs were lead, my lungs scorched, my mind irreversibly faded.
I hammered the pedals with every ounce of energy I had. Each stroke I pushed seemed to be half of what the two in front of me were doing. At kilometer 95, I fell off the draft, completely spent, empty. There was less than 10 kilometers to cruise on in to Radium Hot Springs. For a novice rider, I had successfully completed 212 kilometers, roughly 12o miles of biking in two days all under my own power, a win and quite an accomplishment for me. Yet, laboring up even the smallest of inclines at this point and this thought gave no comfort. Bike trip 101, Lesson #2: bonking is your own damn fault.
* * *
A chill night of pizza and ice cream, combined with the longest day of riding yet to come, allowed everyone an early start. The end was near and our butts loved the sound of that. I double bike-shorted up, and headed off in the cool, beautiful morning. Just outside of Radium is one of the most picturesque cliff settings I’ve ever seen. The road through Kootnay National Park begins with a steep incline cutting between magnificent roadside cliffs. The morning sun caught the different minerals exposed along the nearby walls, almost glittering as we rode by. The foreshadowing was evident.
When we popped out of the canyon and got to the pass, we were greeted with a million-dollar view. This was the Canadian Rockies. The sky yawned over the striated snow-capped peaks. Layer upon layer of rock sent glaciers and streams into view. Our concrete ribbon of road wound back and forth, clinging to the mountain’s side until it hit the valley floor. From the saddle of your bike, you have an unobstructed panorama before you, sans bug splatters and frustrating Sunday drivers. It is a far more intimate way of seeing a place: total immersion, rather than watching it, television-like, through your car windows.
The previous kilometers, the hangover, bonk, ass chaffing and soreness, all were washed away with the beauty that surrounded us on the last day. This is what it is all about. In the shadows of spectacular beauty, and with new found friends, the remaining 70 kilometers passed without thought.
Back at our cars we popped champagne bottles marking yet another successful year along Canada’s Golden Triangle — my first, but surely not last. One of the riders pulled up and we offered him a paper cup of bubbly. He took the cup and, in quintessential Canadian understatement, he summed up the entire trip for me.
“Not a bad day to ride, eh?”
Not bad, indeed.
*To see more photos from the recent trip, visit my flickr page here.