Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Banff doesn't change

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. 

The next morning, Leslie was going hiking at Lake Louise. It was again 80+ degrees and clear, so how could I resist? I asked her if she was going for a "long hike" and she said, "no, just a short one." Leslie's version of short is 13 miles with 4,200 feet of climbing that includes a dash of late-spring snow slogging. Just in case you were wondering.

But wow, Lake Louise. I'm not sure you could ask for a better bang for your mileage. It was worth it.

Climbing the Beehive.

Plain of the Six Glaciers. The trail climbs to the end of a valley, where we stopped and had lunch while listening to the thunder-booms of distant avalanches, and eyed overhanging seracs for evidence of calving.

PB&J bagel with a view.

Up there is the Continental Divide. Sadly, not part of any mountain bike route.

After we returned from the Plain of the Six Glaciers, we visited the Valley of the Ten Peaks. This place is unreal. It often feels like standing on a movie set in front of a massive blue screen — it just doesn't look like a landscape that actually exists. The scenery also doesn't translate well in photos taken under mid-day light. You should visit ... before it melts.

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. 


  1. nice pics! love banff and vancouver... amazing...
    unfortunately, we canadians are ruining a lot of it with tar sands and over priced housing.
    government up here, more concerned about making a quick buck than keep it beautiful.

    as for air canada, be sure to complain.

    they are narcissistic like in that they think they provide the best customer service in the world, really it sucks as an airline. yet, government keeps bailing it out like fools. Let it die and let new blood take it over.

  2. And my must-visit list grows by another stunning place! Thanks for sharing!

  3. I really would love to hang out with Leslie someday, but now I am too scared.

  4. I love Banff. Good luck and have fun on the Tour Divide. I hope to be there in a few years.

  5. Awesome pre-race adventures...good to keep the muscles moving. So excited to follow your race this year!

  6. I have read all your books and am so excited to follow your Tour Divide adventure again!! I cannot wait to read all about it!! You are gonna do awesome.

  7. What an awesome start to your next awesome adventure. As always I will be following you all the way. Stay safe. Have fun.

  8. I'm so excited to follow the Tour Divide this year now that I know you're back at it again. I enjoy reading about your bike adventures so much more than your running adventures. That's just my own personal preference. Have fun out there! Doug/MnBicycleCommuter

  9. Wow....just WOW! Be safe, and have a BLAST in your upcoming SUPER-ADVENTURE! I'll be following you the entire way like so many of your fans. Knock em-DEAD!

  10. Ah the Leslie easy hike/run phenomenon- I have experienced it! hoping at some point she and I will both be home at the same time and able to do it again:) Wish I could have met you when you were in Banff- you are truly inspiring to want to be adventurers like myself!


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