Six years ago, when I rolled into Banff three days before the start of the Tour Divide, I connected with two trail-angel types, Keith and Leslie. Although we were strangers at the time, they invited me into their home, fed me dinner, and then whisked me away on all the grand tours we could possibly squeeze into what amounted to a 48-hour period. Within about twenty minutes of my arrival, Keith drove me to an overlook where I believe Parks Canada filmed that
infuriating earworm cute "Sheep and Goat" video. He stretched his arm toward the kingdom, complete with a massive castle they call the Banff Springs Hotel, and characterized Banff as "paradise in a bubble." Regulations from the National Park and other policies strive to ensure this little village nestled in the Canadian Rockies never changes.
We've since become good friends, and we have a number of adventures behind us. For this reason, and also because Beat and Liehann just happened to be flying out on Friday night, I purchased a ticket to Calgary one week ahead of the Tour Divide start. I thought this would give me plenty of time for relaxing, visiting and meeting folks, tying up loose-end work, prepping my bike, and a couple of pre-race adventures, in that order. My flight out of SFO turned out to be something of a debacle. I've had relatively good luck with air travel and didn't see it coming, but Beat is cynical enough that he noticed a discrepancy on my ticket and prepped me for battle (it's one of those long boring air travel stories, but in a nutshell, I purchased an Air Canada ticket online that was actually handled by United, which has terrible bike policies and refused to put my bike on the plane even for their ridiculous $200 fee.) Well, it was a hiccup, but I made it here with a good amount of time to spare.
True to precedent, I awoke in this stunning paradise and was quickly whisked away on "low-key" adventures that have already involved 30 (!) miles of not-easy hiking, along with a couple of test spins on my bike.
One aspect of Banff that has been stunningly different this year is the weather. Snowline is considerably higher than it was in 2009, and it's been well above 80 degrees and sunny the entire time I've been here so far. I know that can change in a heartbeat and I should be grateful for any time I spend near the Continental Divide not shivering or wallowing in mud. But even California-acclimated, I'm roasting up here at this altitude, and sunburned my forehead despite best efforts not to do so. Also, four years in California hasn't made me immune to northern summer mania, where getting out on a nice day feels paramount to rest and food and oxygen.
My first day in town, I followed Leslie on an 11-mile jaunt up and around Sulphur Mountain. She just returned from hiking 600+ miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in California, and her hiking pace is fierce. Most of my training this spring has been either cycling or trail running, and Leslie's version of hiking feels harder than both. (Truly! It's not just taper anxiety phantom weakness, I swear.) I was a wheezy mess above 6,000 feet and fought to keep up, because I did not want to miss these views.
My friend and home-based bike mechanic Dave put my bike together for me, tuning it up to near-perfection (or the best I can get for a three-year-old bike with many miles and some neglect.) I took it out for an easy spin on the first ten miles of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, then back. Out of the gate, the route follows a nice gravel bike path along the Spray River. There were more rolling climbs and descents along this path than I remembered, and I actually had a little freak-out about this ("I thought this first section was flat. It's hard!") Then I laughed at myself, because it's not actually that hard. I'm just truly going into panic mode at this point, and fighting it with every ounce of distraction I can find.
Distractions, unfortunately, come with a bit of a price. In the evening, Keith and Leslie told me we were going out for a "stroll through town" to get ice cream, which was a trick because this "stroll" included a thousand-foot ascent of Tunnel Mountain.
Okay, it's true, I would have gone anyway. The views are pretty fantastic at 9:30 p.m., which is still before sunset at this latitude. Downtown is full of fun people-watching, and I haven't even run into any obvious Tour Divide cyclists yet.
I'm working up a blog post on info for this year's Tour Divide, which will remain at the top of this site while I'm away. It looks like there will be well over a hundred cyclists lining up at the start on Friday morning, and between 10 and 15 women. I'm becoming more nervous as the memories come flooding back, but mostly I'm excited. It's going to be a completely different experience, of that much I'm certain.