Thursday, July 2, 2015

Bleriot Bike Ferry

A ferry crossing is an essential part of any good bike tour, according to one of my hardy touring partners, Val Garou. He argues that there’s something about shifting from bike to boat to bike that adds an extra dimension to a trip—even if that boat portion only lasts for a few minutes.

Short cable-ferry trips across the Red Deer River have long been a part of getting around in the Badlands of central Alberta. At one time there were a dozen ferries on that river, but now there are just two left: Bleriot and Finnegan. We took our bikes aboard both.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Report #2: Gopher Town

Torrington, Alberta, a hamlet located about 160 km northeast of Calgary, is one of the sadder places we visited on our recent rural adventure. Like a lot of tiny rural communities on the prairies, Torrington has seen better days. Many of the buildings are empty or in a state of severe neglect. The hamlet is not a ghost town—yet—but it does feel like it’s dying. The day we were there the streets were deserted, the cashier of town’s only store (Pizza and More, Eh?) wasn’t exactly welcoming, and, despite a few quaint touches such as colorfully painted fire hydrants, the place just generally gave off a depressing vibe.

But Torrington does have one thing going for it: the World Famous Torrington Gopher Hole Museum. Now “museum” is a generous term for this establishment. It’s really a shack containing about two dozen small dioramas of dead, stuffed gophers dressed up in clothes and staged in a variety of humorous, if not bizarre, human endeavours. A pool hall, church, firehall, curling rink, etc. In some cases, the stuffed gophers have been even been given little speech bubbles for comic effect. The dioramas are kitschy, goofy, often hilarious, and, in some cases, just weird. There’s even one freakily postmodern scene involving a gopher-taxidermist.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Rural Alberta Adventure Report #1: Donut Mill

All great Alberta adventures include a stop at the Donut Mill.

Albertans know that any trip between Edmonton and Calgary on highway 2 must pass through this legendary institution on Red Deer’s Gasoline Alley on the south edge of the city. The Mill produces some of the finest and freshest donut creations in the west. For many people and families, including my own, it would be inconceivable to drive through Red Deer without stopping in for some treats from the Donut Mill’s case of goodies.

So when the Dusty Musette touring crew was scheming our recent Rural Alberta Adventure route, it made perfect sense for us to kick off our trip from the Mill. We needed a genuine Alberta landmark for our jumping off point, preferably one that could quickly get us onto the gravel roads we were after.  Throw in the possibility of Bismarks and Boston Cremes, and we knew we had our departure point.

Friday, June 12, 2015

In Praise of Crap Bikes

Let’s hear it for the crap bike! The Supercycle! The Infinity! The clunky Schwinn, the rusty Nishiki, the rattly Norco!

These bikes are, for the most part, total horseshit, manufactured out of cheap, heavy materials and bottom end components, then slapped together by department store workers who know nothing about bicycles. In car culture, you’d   call them “beaters”—old, dented, scratched rides that get you from A to B, most of the time, and roll with the understanding that you won’t be spending much money or time on maintenance. When they expire, you just go on kijiji and find a new one.

Yet every cyclist needs a crap bike in the garage. (And the fact that you can store your crap bike in the garage, as opposed to in your house, is just one of the many virtues of the crap bike.)  Crap bikes, for all their undeniable crappiness, are essential. Flashy, expensive, nice bikes are fun to ride, sure, but crap bikes make the cycling world go ‘round.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Preview: Rural Alberta Adventure

Ten days, 900 km of mostly gravel roads, a southeast squiggle from Red Deer to Medicine Hat, through the Alberta Badlands and around Special Area No. 2 (I know, it sounds like Alberta’s version of Roswell’s Area 51 but it’s actually just an ominously named rural municipality)—that’s the trip Val, Penn, and I will undertake in a little over a week from now.

We’ve been scheming a gravel cycling adventure for some time now, eager to test out what it would be like to tour on dusty back roads. Our very own province of Alberta boasts gravel galore, so why not start close to home? But not too close to home. 

We’ll start in Red Deer, at the Donut Mill, no less—the acknowledged omphalos of Alberta. Our route will take us across prairie and Badlands, through a series of small towns, and across some remote town-less stretches, into a land without espresso. We will follow the Red Deer River for much of the first part of the journey before dipping down along the Saskatchewan border to the Hat.

Here are a few things I’m looking forward to on our rural Alberta adventure:

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pit Stops: World's Best Climbing Tree

Trees can be a cyclist’s best buds, in so many ways. They provide shade along the roadway, they tell you which way the wind is blowing and how much, and they can even block a nasty headwind. Just the other day, in fact, battling a stiff southeast clipper on the way back from Alberta Beach, we lucked into some roadside groves of aspen trees that provided the perfect wind guard. The effect was remarkable, if short-lived.

(For mountain bikers, the cyclist-tree relationship is a little more complicated, I think. Trees create many of the best trails and provide essential technical features but they can also hurt you and wreck your bike. For road cyclists, however, trees are almost always wholly a good thing.)

And that’s not even counting the aesthetic benefits of trees. They’re beautiful, at any time of year, constantly changing, sometimes smell great, and, I would argue, have a soothing, therapeutic effect on anyone in their immediate presence. If you’re in need of a pit stop on a bike ride, pulling off under a tree is always a splendid idea.

This particular tree in Edmonton’s west end is actually too close to my house to serve as mid-ride pit stop. But I ride past it almost every day, and even after thousands of passes, it can still take my breath away on a spring day, like today, when the blossoms are in full explosion. When my kids were little, my wife and I would walk them down to this pocket park and the boys would clamber all over the low branches. It’s a perfect starter tree—accessible, smooth-barked, with horizontal spots for hanging out. It came to be known as the World’s Best Climbing Tree. We don’t visit the WBCT as often as we once did, but a few weeks back we stopped by, and our teenage boys got right up into the branches, just as they did in those long ago days.

Some trees have a certain magic about them, an old power that fosters relaxation, reflection, imagination, and even regeneration. The WBCT is one of those trees, and as I sit here under its branches writing this, I can feel its ancient energy reminding me that everything grows, blossoms, and eventually sheds its leaves. 

With that counsel from a good friend, I hop back on my bike and continue riding.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Porcelain Sprocket

What is it with all the toilets?

Riding my bike, I see all manner of trash and treasure along the roadsides, especially at this time of year, but in the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed something really strange: an alarming number of discarded toilets in the ditch.

The one above I spied beside a remote country road south of Edmonton. At first, when I rode by it, I mistook the toilet for a rogue snow drift, which had miraculously resisted the spring melt. But it was too white for spring snow, so I stopped, got off my bike, and took a closer look. The crapper had broken into several chunks, and the parts were scattered in a kind of porecelain splash pattern. On closer inspection, I concluded that this main bowl section may well have been sitting in the ditch for a while, possibly a few years.