Words: Guest Author | Photography: Daniel Sharp | Date:
Film: Droptree Productions
Alex Stieda should have been a tour guide. Sure, he was the first North American bicycle racer to don the yellow jersey at the Tour de France but at this current moment, on our way back to Jasper, Alberta from his hometown of Edmonton, he is in full-on tour-guide mode.
The four-hour drive from Edmonton is not new to us. Earlier in the day we made the journey from the small, middle-of-nowhere town of Jasper to collect our Rapha Continental compatriots, as well as Stieda, and make the trek back. Our journey began on the West Coast, then up through the desolation that is the middle of Canada. Beautiful desolation, but desolation nonetheless. As we made our way through Vancouver and Kamloops, the mountains started to take shape. They started as grassy, soft-looking hills off to our left. Every once in a while, a sharp crack would pop up through the greenery, evidence of the hard rock beneath. Slowly but surely those cracks gave way to mountains that eventually towered over our van as day progressed well into night and we eventually arrived in the town of Jasper.
In the early morning hours we head out on the same road to Edmonton. The fog cover that blankets the whole of the countryside is enough to prevent us from seeing anything beyond the occasional cliff peaking out through the mist. Black and blue looking lakes slide out from under the damp covering, as we squint our eyes and search the road and its shoulder for the wildlife that numerous signs tell us are everywhere. The way back, however, is another story entirely. The light of day lifts the clouds and the road to Jasper has become an entirely different experience.
The sunshine is golden as it starts to creep behind the mountains. The windows are open to let in the sweet mountain air and everyone in the van has their faces pressed up to the glass. All the while Alex Stieda, who is sitting up front in the passenger seat, is telling stories. There is a break in the cycling talk as he points out the lake to our right. The shores of the lake run right up to the edge of the road, which makes it hard to see the scene that he is describing. Apparently, some of these lakes empty out in the winter. The glaciers freeze and the flow of water comes to a halt, leaving these full lakes dry and devoid of all water. This fact is compounded by a story of a nearby town (there are towns nearby?) that decided for whatever reason that they no longer wanted the water back in the summer and attempted to plug up the meeting point of glacial run-off and the lake using whatever they had nearby to do it. Mattresses, bed frames, old cars, anything that would, or could, be used was piled into the hole to prevent the lake from filling once again. It didn’t work.
Intermingled with comments about the scenery — ‘the name of the peak jutting out from behind the two in front of us’, ‘how a winter alpine adventure had taken place at the top of that ridge over there’ — our timid bike racing questions start to pop up. Each and every one of them is addressed with the same enthusiasm that he has for our beautiful surrounds. His days with the Junior Track program in Vancouver, all the way up to his professional career with the prestigious 7-11 racing team and his role in helping catapult the team to the biggest bike racing stage of all, the Tour de France. But for now these stories are a little ways off, as we are just starting to get to know our tour guide — Alex Stieda.
This is to be our first day of riding. The transfer has been complete, everyone has been picked up from the airport and we have gathered in the small town of Jasper. Which, now that the light has come up, reveals a surprising number of tourists that have flocked here to the edge of the world, or at least to the edge of the wild. As we meander our way through town on the hunt for breakfast, it is apparent that this is where people come to find out what it means to be this far north. They stand in the middle of the square and alternate, first staring up at the large trees, then turning slightly to gaze at the misty mountains across the train tracks opposite the square.
Before the ride has even begun, it appears that Alex has outclassed us again. He is already dressed, from cleat to cap, and waiting next to his bike before most of us are out of bed. This might be a slight exaggeration but he takes it all in stride and leads our ragtag band of misfits to a coffee shop that is willing and eager to fill us with pastries.
Because of the lack of roads in this particular region of Canada, today’s three climbs will also serve as the three descents that we will face. There are a few twists and turns on the connecting roads, but generally this will be an up, turn around and come back down kind of a deal. In the winter, when the heavy snows are at their worst, these roads turn into ski training routes for the most hardcore. But now, in June, with spring on the horizon, they make serene routes to climb. The only thing that we are on the lookout for as we roll through turns are the famous black bears.
There is a lot of chatter on the road out of Jasper as this Continental is a great chance for us to catch up. In fact, it’s the real reason why we seek out these crazy places to ride, so that we can experience them with each other. But now, as it turns out Rich Bravo has a clicking sound that will not go away and at the same time will not let him shift into an easier gear. As we turn onto what will be the first of three climbs, a short break is required to make all of our lives, especially Rich’s, a bit easier.
Pretty easy and makes for a great warm up. It’s a chance to shake out the legs and test the fortitude of the other riders. Some looking around is well advised. Until this point, Alex Stieda has agreed to head out into the wilderness with a group of strangers, people that he has never spent a minute with on the bike. With a wary eye he makes his way up to the parking lot at the top of the climb.
We marvel at the both the amount of clothing that we have brought — in June, no less — and the size of the mosquitoes at the top of this climb. You can feel their weight as they land on your legs and arms and what is even more incredible is that our Leg Warmers seem to have absolutely no effect on them, whatsoever. In any case, it is a silent urging to keep moving. Within moments we are back down to the where we started, and now that the blood is churning we move on in our hunt for the next climb a few short kilometers away.
Climb Two – Marmot Basin Ski Resort
Whereas the first climb was a covered and wooded trip to a parking lot, this one starts to hint at the potential of riding in the region. We pass through closed gates and make a sweeping right turn to reveal a sheer rock face that opens up and offers a spectacular view of the valley. This signifies that it’s time to up the pace. Why do those things always happen so close together? Maybe it’s the excitement in the legs directly mirroring the quality of vantage?
The road twists a bit but generally stays wide, open and entirely devoid of traffic. It is a pleasant reminder that we are in the middle of nowhere. The steepness jumps up quickly as we close the distance to the resort, but an added bonus quickly appears and I remember the wicked grin Alex wore earlier in the day when he said it: “Gravel!” It doesn’t take much to get us going this time and Steve Francisco is off hooting and hollering and hammering on the pedals like there is no tomorrow. A certain ride that he was on in Maryland springs to mind and I am surprised by his vigor for this slightly sketchy road surface.
Then, just as quickly as it appeared, it turns to mush and we hear the shouts from our compatriots behind us signaling that this joyful romp in the mud is over. Hi-fives are doled out. Wheelies are attempted and then we are on our way back down. But it is on this descent that the first real revelation of the true depth of Alex’s talent on the bike is revealed when it takes all of three turns for him to completely disappear from view. This man can drop like a stone.
His legs turn into a fury of pedaling. Not even the two segments of road that are in disrepair, soft, wet, sandy swatches of road that have been cut from the pavement, are any match for how fast he is going. We put on our jackets, hats and gloves (and my personal favorite the Winter Collar) for the descent and as we round the bottom corner heading towards the next climb, a light rain starts. It is the kind of rain that you can smell before it actually happens. One that causes you to look around at the leaves, and your jacket for the growing specks that can only signify one thing – rain.
Climb Three – Mt. Edith Cavell
It comes in bursts as we unlock the gate (Alex picked up the key from the train station in town earlier) and start our ascent. The first few patterns are a welcome respite to the warm clothes that we have bundled ourselves into and we remind each other of every adage we can muster – ‘it’s easier to remove clothing than it is to warm yourself after you’ve got cold’, or ‘you start warm you stay warm’ things that we recycle to each other to make ourselves feel better about the fact that it is 50 degrees and raining in the middle of June.
Finally, Steve Francisco has had enough. Enough of the banter, enough of the rain or enough of us slowly needling him about his burgeoning racing career with CalGiant. He takes off. This meticulously maintained road is anything and everything that you could hope for in smooth tarmac and our bikes respond well to the steepness of the grade. Before we know it, we have turned ourselves into a rolling mass of spraying wheels and dripping clothing.
Awaiting us at the top is another parking lot, however this time the gravity of the surroundings quickly eclipse any cement structure. As we exit the woods, the walls of the surrounding mountains jut up so fiercely that it is easy to see why the road does not pass over these hills and connect with a small mountain town on the other side. There is nowhere to go but up.
The rain has not let up and we quickly regroup enough to pat each other on our backs and start the chilly descent down.
There is one more quick stop on our way back towards Jasper where the road crosses a waterfall and we are able to peer into where the water has worn away the rock and replaced it with more water. Alex takes a minute to explain the rest of the route to us (it is only one more turn) and the definition of a ‘Lobstick’ (a spruce pine with its branches cut off and used as a marker, a traditional Cree Indian route marker) and the simple fact that for the next 30 to 40 kilometers, we will have a tailwind. A fact that no matter how false it turns out to be still causes us all to cheer.
His optimistic prediction turns out to be incorrect and we curse the relentless wind and rain. Alex takes turns at the front in an effort to get us back in a timely fashion and as we approach Jasper, Francisco has once again had enough. The smell of home is too much and he is propelled into another furious rage of attacks. At first Alex, Greg and Hahn go with him until, finally, he is the lone rider pedaling his way back into the wild, wonderful town and the promise of hot showers and cold beer.
On the last stretch of road – the one road in and the one road out – we regroup and curse Franny and his great levels of fitness. We look bleary eyed at each other and make a comment about another crazy ride in another strange land (even if we didn’t see a bear). Like the subtle hints that the great Grizzly and Black Bears of the region exist – the signs warning against them, their remnants on the side of the road or just the general talk in town – so do we start to build a better picture of who and what this Alex Stieda character is all about. After a day in the saddle we’ve learned that we cannot only get each other from one place to another without incident, but we can have a damn good time doing so. We will never be Alex’s equals in terms of accomplishments, but we can just as easily share some great rides and stories together, and this feeling of camaraderie is mutually beneficial.
We are also getting closer to the heart of the matter. Alex Stieda loves to talk, we love to listen and he has some great Tour de France stories to tell.
WORDS: Rich Bravo
Structure and repetition play a central role in the cyclist’s life. From training schedules to pre-race rituals we’re creatures of habit, which is one of the reasons why travel – for many of us – is a welcome but rarely tapped charm. It throws us out of our comfort zones and favors those predisposed to spontaneity and adaptability – especially when traveling to foreign lands.
After spending much of the previous day being pelted by Alberta’s frigid rain, it was a relief to wake up Friday to a blindingly sunny morning, replete with a strong wind coming out of the South – the tailwinds that Steida had been promising us were finally making themselves apparent.
We click-clacked into the hotel’s dining area, where a buffet-style breakfast was waiting for us that would make Bob’s Big Boy blush, and where Don Cherry kept an eye on things from his framed perch behind the bar. (A native of Quebec later told me that there may be Canadians who don’t know who the Prime Minister is, but everybody knows Don Cherry. I think he’s involved with hockey in some capacity.)
The hotel’s laundry facilities closed before we finished dinner the previous night, so after a last-minute flurry of dryer activity we finally threw our legs over our saddles and headed north on the shoulder of the Yellowhead Highway. As our legs warmed up and we shook out the last of the soreness from Thursday’s ride, we stowed away our jackets and got down to business, taking full advantage of the tailwind. As soon as we got into our rhythm, tapping out a nice cadence – and Hahn was just starting to delve into an exegesis on how the euro was trading – we had our first close encounter with Canada’s wildlife.
Elk are ubiquitous in Canada. Well, elk droppings are ubiquitous in Canada, so one must assume that the elk, too, must be present in healthy numbers. But as we rounded a turn we were all surprised to fly past a family of a much more rarely sighted animal: mountain goats. They were standing between the highway shoulder and a rock face and didn’t seem particularly impressed, or perturbed, by our presence. After gawking at the spectacle for a while we waited for the traffic to abate and took upon the task getting the mountain goats across to the other side of the highway where they wouldn’t be hit by one of the trucks flying down the road – an endeavor that wouldn’t have seemed out of place accompanied by some Benny Hill music.
Once the mountain goats were safe we quickly got back into our routine, the familiar place that cyclists go when it’s time to turn out some miles: there is a flat road, a strong tailwind and a couple hours ahead of you so the chatter dies down and that special alchemy takes place that turns our legs into metronomes. We allow our consciousness to drift and road instinct takes over our minds. Oh, and I should also mention that if you ever ride with Alex Stieda, he will mess with you at times like this.
The sound of metal scraping pavement pierced the calm and Stieda – who was sitting on my wheel – yelled out. Like any loyal pack-fill bike racer I just kept pedaling and pulled ahead a bit before looking back to see if I had in fact taken out the first North American to win the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. Stieda was coasting along with a big grin on his face, holding an empty beer can in one hand. He had picked it up at the side of the road during the goat-corralling episode. Then he chose his mark (me), waited for the right moment and pulled up to my wheel and dragged the can on the ground. Hilarious, right? Everyone else certainly thought so.
So perhaps relishing the routine of cycling and allowing that repetition to give us an escape from the vicissitudes of our everyday lives is something just us amateurs embrace and relish. The pros, whose job is to spend innumerable hours in the saddle every week, must begin to seek solace from the monotony. With shenanigans.
We finished the ride at the top of the only climb of the day, which was also the parking lot for the Miette Hot Springs. The water flowing from the mountains is naturally 129F, but the pool in the lodge is maintained at a more comfortable 104F. There is also a cold pool that is 45F but after spending an entire day in freezing rain, most of us just stuck to the warm water.
Alberta, Canada – Maps