2019 Trip Recap: Canadian Rockies (Jasper to Banff)

As 2019 skids down a steep grade right into 2020, I’m using my winter break to finally get at least the first part of my 2019 Canadian Rockies trip summarized and posted. I like having these posts to refer back to for myself and others who may want to do a similar trip, but between the amount of pictures I take and the level of ADD I have, it’s a struggle to get these posted in a more timely manner.

As I plan for next year, the pattern of “hmm, well maybe next I can try ____”  is becoming quite clear. If you had told me just a few years ago that I would be embarking on solo self contained bike tours spanning thousands of miles, I would have laughed until I had side stitches (which wouldn’t take long, because I was not remotely in shape). I still remember when getting down the street to pick up a couple items at the store on the folding bike I kept in my car trunk was a triumph of logistics and braving the concrete wilderness – and I am here to cheer you on if you’re reading this and have any sort of goal of riding more and/or driving less. I honestly only bother posting my pictures and writing these posts because I am so grateful for others who inspired me along the way, and it is the most amazing thing to me when I hear from other people that they have been inspired by me to get out and do something on their bike. So I am here to tell you that if you have no athletic inclinations/ mechanical abilities/ real sense of direction and are terrified of igniting a camp stove, you can still do all of the things I am writing about, because I kid you not, that was me.

With that said, here goes:

 

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On July 5th of last year, I flew to Canada to meet my parents, who signed us up for the VBT Canadian Rockies Tour to celebrate my 30th birthday earlier this year. Given that this trip is only a week, I have a long bike-it list of places to see out west, and my job with a school district gives me an 8 week summer break, I flew out with my bike instead of using the provided VBT bike so that I could continue from Banff on my own solo self-contained venture afterwards (that will be part II).

The hardest (read: worst) part of bike touring to me is the planning and logistics beforehand. I went back and forth about shipping vs. flying with my bike, and due to timelines, the cost of international shipping, and the risk of my bike getting stuck in customs during the busy season in Edmonton, I ended up paying Delta $150 to fly with my bike (only a few weeks later, Delta changed their policy and no longer charges more than a regular bag for checking a bike. So it goes.) Flying with my bike was still half the cost of shipping it to Canada, plus the savings of not having to pay a shop for a build, and since international weight limit was (I think) 75 lbs, I was able to pad my bike with my tent, helmet, panniers, sleeping bag and other gear and therefore travel with just a carryon.

 

Unlike last summer where I assembled my bike in the airport and rode out of MSP, since my flight got in around midnight and I wasn’t traveling alone, we took a cab to the hotel and I assembled my bike there the next day after exploring Edmonton on foot.

 

 

If you can’t find one at your local bike shop, you can get one of these useful little tools here. It was all I needed to reinstall my handlebars, bottle cages, saddle/seatpost and SPD pedals, and unlike a multitool you can get some pretty good torque (which you’ll need for your pedals).

 

 

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Once I had reassembled my bike, I had a slight panic when I heard a weird clicking sound coming from my rear wheel and realized I needed to find a mechanic.. around 4pm on a Saturday. I hustled over to Red Bike and was relieved to find that I just needed new rear brake pads, which makes sense given the amount of death-grip-braking I did on this bike while riding the Appalachian Gravel Growler a month before… I guess I need to write a post about that trip too. Anyway, the folks at Red Bike were wonderful and if you find yourself in Edmonton, you should definitely check them out.

 

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I didn’t have as much time to explore Edmonton as I would have liked, but there are some great views and some enviable infrastructure including bike/pedestrian bridges and bike trails winding through parks along the river.

 

After the layover day in Edmonton, we loaded up on a VBT van for the transfer ride several hours west to Jasper National Park. It was overcast and misty, but the glimpses of mountains peeking out through the clouds still gave me chills.

 

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Our first afternoon, we had a short 11 mile ride up to a lake to test out our bikes (VBT provides guests with their choice of road bike, hybrid or e-bike for this particular trip) and get a feel for the area. I might have taken a slight detour on this gravel road to test out my freshly installed Rene Herse tubeless tires, but that’s just between me and Strava.

 

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Our first full day involved a trip to Maligne Lake; the official trip option was to get a van shuttle up and ride 33 miles down with a picnic lunch stop on the way, but not wanting to miss a second of riding in this incredible place, I and a few other guests opted to leave early that morning and pedal up instead of hitching a ride.

 

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We were rewarded by sightings of elk (sadly but not surprisingly, no caribou) and THIS BEAR CROSSING THE ROAD – I still have zero chill just thinking about it. It was so exciting and profoundly beautiful that I teared up as I stood there watching it (while my mother had a nervous breakdown behind me).

 

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The views climbing and on the descent were incredible and the car traffic was light. The clouds even parted later in the morning for glimpses of blue sky above soaring mountains.

 

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The rest of the trip did not disappoint. In fact, every day seemed to get more and more beautiful…

 

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I had been watching the weather for weeks leading up to the trip and had worried that the rain would continue into our trip week, but we really lucked out – the worst we got were clouds that only added drama to the mountains peeking out at us at every turn.

 

Despite being surrounded by these stunning peaks, the roads themselves were very reasonable grades, super smooth, and low traffic – at least compared to what I’m used to back in South Carolina. I didn’t really notice being at a higher elevation, but I was also riding relatively casually to better take in the scenery.

 

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For several of the days we got to ride to our next location down the road instead of being shuttled in the van or bus, but due to the length of the trip and the miles spanning between Jasper and Banff, we did have to take a shuttle in the middle of the trip. It makes total sense, but the part of me that likes drawing a line from A to B of where I’ve ridden was definitely disappointed.

 

 

However, you can’t *not* visit Lake Louise…

 

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… or Peyto Lake. The views are just incredible! The traffic and crowds surrounding them, not so much. At the same time, it’s easy to understand why they are so popular, and while solo travel is more my jam, I’ll admit that it was nice to not have to worry about logistics/passes/permits while checking these spots off my bucket list.

 

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The week passed by in a blur of incredible views, good food and steadily improving weather. Before we knew it, we were in Banff!

 

 

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On our last full day together as a group, I rode the trail from Banff to Canmore – despite being next to the highway, it was a pleasant ride with spectacular views of the mountains. We stopped at the Grizzly Paw Brewing Company and enjoyed a local outdoor craft fair before heading back into town for our farewell dinner.

 

… Except I had to sneak off for one extra little loop up to Lake Minnewanka. The miles are easy when the scenery is this level of gorgeous.

 

If you noticed our Jasper the Bear mascot hanging out in a few of these photos, I got the honor of riding around with him on our final day in Banff. Our group had a fun time passing Jasper around during the week, adding to his outfit and getting photos of his adventures. I don’t ride on tour with a handlebar buddy, but having Jasper around made me want to reconsider that.

 

Stay tuned for Part II, because the day after this last picture was taken, I ventured out on my own for a 1300 mile trek southward, and the real adventure began!

 

Legal stuff disclaimer: nothing mentioned in this post is sponsored or promotional, with the exception of the link to that allen wrench tool, which is an Amazon affiliate link. But again, support your local bike shop first if you can!

2019 Trip Recap: Canadian Rockies (Jasper to Banff)

Show me the money

I recently got my 2018 credit card summary and really wish I still had access to a 2010-2014 summary to compare these categories before/after selling my car. My ‘automotive’ column (between car payments, property taxes, insurance and repairs) used to be my main financial complaint, and I did sell my car before getting my first ‘real adult’ salaried job, so my overall budget is a lot different as well.

 

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I apparently bought gas for someone sometime in 2018, or spent money in a gas station. I can tell you, it’s absolutely wonderful to basically be able to cross off ‘automotive’ and ‘gasoline’ from a list of budget categories. I should probably make a separate category for bike spending, as that typically falls into the ‘merchandise’ category. Which is my main focus for 2019: I’ve never been a (successful) minimalist, but this year I’ll be experimenting with a few ideas I’ve been kicking around.

Some of my 2019 goals:

  1. Limit non-essential purchases to 19 items (non-essential defined as things I could easily avoid buying without significant impact to day to day life.. usually impulse buys like clothing and home decor). I’m keeping a list, so far I’m at 2 items..
  2. Paring down my commuting gear. “Gear” referenced here includes the random crap that accumulates at the bottom of my pannier that I forgot to take out and end up schlepping around until I can’t find one of my gloves and dump the whole thing out while mumbling profanities.
  3. Trying a minimalist setup for a bike tour. I have several trips in mind that could qualify, and I’ll probably start with a shorter trip. On my last few tours I’ve hauled along way more food and gear than I needed to, and now that I’m feeling more comfortable with bike touring I can probably tone down the urge to pack a lifetime supply of oatmeal packets for a week long trip.
  4. More zero waste snack options – speaking of food, I want to try some foods and recipes that don’t involve plastic packaging, such as granola bites in a reusable food pouch or a potato hash in an aluminum foil pocket. I enjoy bonk breakers, clif bars, and energy gels, but the plastic packaging irks me to the point that I want to try other options.

 

I don’t have a mileage goal for 2019 (last year I was aiming for 7k but only made it to about 5500); rather, I have a bike-it list for the year:

  1. NYC Five Boroughs Ride (if you’re reading this and want to sign up for a team, join ‘Velo Valets’ to help us get an earlier start time! TIA)
  2. This Appalachian Gravel Growler around Memorial Day
  3. Erie Canal in June
  4. Jasper to Banff with Vermont Bicycle Tours in July
  5. Calgary to Missoula to Yellowstone, solo and/or with friends

 

Here’s to budgeting for more fun and adventure in 2019! What are your goals, biking or otherwise?

Show me the money

Trippin’

Right after my joyful discovery of Limebike in Charlotte, I had the chance to try out a similar dockless bikeshare while passing through DC over thanksgiving:

Ofo was recommended by a friend, and they had a similar setup with $1 rides, 3 speeds and an easily operable app. I did really like the quickest of quick release seatposts the Ofo bikes offered. It’s the only adjustment you really need to make on these bikes, and that much easier when you can adjust it by lifting a simple lever.

I hadn’t flown through Reagan International before, but since we had a few hours to kill waiting for family to fly, I figured I could sneak in my daily ride with a mile around the National Mall. A quick trip on the Subway was all it took to escape the airport waiting area. There was even time to visit the Smithsonian Natural History Museum to boot!

Pro tip: If you can swing it on a Tuesday, the special butterfly exhibit is also free and you can take selfies with ginormous caterpillars.

One of the best parts of riding every day of 2017 was getting to ride in different locations. Although it was quick, a ride around the Mall was a fun, memorable and totally free way to spend day #325 of the year.

And guess what? If your city has Ofo and isn’t covered in a bomb cyclone, you can ride for free all of January!

Happy Travels!

Trippin’

Charlotte’s got a lot (of bikes)

If you follow my Instagram stories, you’ll know that there was a crazy girl in Charlotte NC this weekend raving about dockless bike shares into her phone to the bemused confusion of passers by.

Yeah… I nerded out pretty hard.

But you have to understand, I want so badly to support Bike shares. I want them to work. But I also have spent 3 years ignoring them because you have to know your way around a place enough to know where to find a station. And then walk from that station to your actual destination. And often, despite meticulous and careful planning, that conflicts with desire paths and feasibility of enticing unfamiliar users to take one for a test run.

Enter the concept of dockless Bike shares, where you literally can’t escape the siren song of a bike on every corner.

I was heading out of my hotel to meet a friend for lunch yesterday with the assumption I would just walk the half mile to the restaurant. But after passing 9 of these citrusy themed lime bikes in just 2 blocks, I surrendered to the promise of “free first ride”, downloaded the app and was rolling within seconds.

If you don’t see a bike immediately, the app has a map of nearby available bikes. To unlock a bike you just scan the QR code in the app and the rear wheel mechanism unlocks with a cheerful beep. After your first ride you can add a credit card and subsequent rides are just $1.

To end your ride, you just slide the red button down on the back brake until you hear another happy chirping tone.

The bikes have generator lights so you can ride them at night as well.

Apparently Furman in Greenville has a fleet of orange Spin bikes running on the same model, and personally I would love to see these downtown. I’m sure a lot of people would find it annoying to have bright clunky bikes on every corner, but it’s basically my personal dream come true.

Not to mention we also sighted a pub cycle last night, which is another magical invention combining the best of things in this world.

Also impressive: Charlotte’s cycling infrastructure, including the pedestrian/bike friendly trolley side path. I wish I’d had more time to explore or join one of the many community group rides!

This bit was new to me. The car traffic was quite light on the weekend, so I took the lane and turned instead of taking the time to figure this technique out.

Bikes + coffee = weekend made. Be sure to check out the Crispy Crepe if you get the chance 👌

And yeah, I know there are downsides to dockless bike shares. Despite the tracking devices the bikes could still be stolen, people could abuse the system, crotchety people will complain about the “perils” of one of the safest modes of transportation. But you know what? I finally tried a bike share. And it was the highlight of my weekend, despite the fact I was in Charlotte for a wedding (let’s not mention this to the bride). So don’t rain on my parade of green and yellow limebikes.

 

Charlotte’s got a lot (of bikes)

Bike to the eclipse

School is back in session as of this Tuesday(!) and in all the excitement, I had failed to make plans for the eclipse. Thankfully, I was hosting a warm showers guest this weekend who came to Greenville especially for the eclipse, and he helped me decide to ride about 30 miles to gain an extra 30 seconds of totality viewing, on the exact totality center line near Central, SC. I’m so glad that I did!

 

It was a dam good ride.

 

 

 

Even in 90+ degrees and long rolling hills, the promise of getting to the center line of totality kept me motivated.

 

 

I stopped several times along the way to peek at the disappearing sun through my glasses. It was fun to see everyone doing the same on the side of the road as I went through the countryside.

 

 

 

I arrived in Central and found Stephen (my warm showers guest) with just over 20 minutes to spare before totality. The light was noticeably different and shadows had a strange sharpened/blurry quality to them.

 

 

 

Through the shadow of a nearby tree, the crescent slivers were visible in the minutes before totality hit.

 

 

And then it was 2:38! The temperature dropped, the sky darkened, Venus came out, the clouds stayed out of our way, it was simply incredible… and iphone pictures do absolutely zero justice to the whole thing.

 

 

I did a weird laugh-cry the whole time and ruined any video we took. We got photos just afterward as the sun was coming back out and we were still dazed and lightheaded.

 

 

Did I mention Stephen came down from NYC and rode around 75 miles on Monday on a folding bike? Major kudos to this guy.

 

We were worried about the traffic on the way home, but it wasn’t too bad (though noticeably heavier than it typically would be). I was glad to have my Abus helmet with integrated light in addition to my regular rear light for some extra visibility on the road.

 

 

 

I had planned to ride the Forgione for this trip, but since I left from work at noon and was in a rush in the morning, I rode out on my Bianchi commuter instead.

Lesson learned once again: the night before, pump your tires, fill your bottles, charge your lights, lay out whatever clothes/accessories you need.. you’ll be ready to roll in the morning with no problem.

 

Bike to the eclipse

Steel is real (as is teal) 

I haven’t really mentioned the fact that I bought a custom built steel frame road bike earlier this year. Probably because I’ve been busy riding it.

 


 

It was a long time coming, as I bought the groupset for a steal online last summer. Then pondered what kind of frame I wanted and where I would buy it.

 

 

 

I wanted a road bike that would replace my 27 lb touring bike with something lighter, while still being durable and hardy enough for long distance riding and tours.
And of course, I wanted something pretty.

 

 

So a friend mentioned that there was a small outfit in Italy that did custom steel frames with Columbus Spirit Tubing, and I decided to give it a shot.

 

 

It’s an expensive gamble to do something like this online and across the ocean more or less on a whim, but when you don’t spend $9k a year on a car, you do have these luxuries.

 

Vincenzo did a beautiful job, and there were more details and options than I could have imagined. From the tapered head tube to the exact RA# paint colors to the placement of the cables, it was a treat to get to select each aspect of the bike.

 

 

One of my favorite details to select was the writing on the top tube. I selected “senza pareti”, which is Italian for “without walls”, after a particularly zen morning commute where I realized that I felt particularly connected and at one with the environment when on my bike, surrounded by cars where people are walled in and cut off from the world, stuck to the confines of doors and windows while on the open road.

 

 

The custom build process also forced me to learn more about bike mechanics and look up the pros/cons of each aspect of the bike. Most of my choices were focused on weight or aesthetics, but I did go with disc brakes because I’m a control freak about descending. Maybe about a few other things as well.

 

The finished built bike (with 11-speed Ultegra, mechanical disc brakes, some carbon fiber pieces like bars and seatpost, and Chris King wheels) weighs in around 20 lbs.  If you’re in Greenville, Carlo at Velo Valets is your guy for custom builds!

 

 

 

I changed out my beloved Selle Anatomica saddle for weight, but I’ll probably try one of their new lighter models before too long.

 

 

 

We’ve already explored roads and trails in 6 states and covered over 1,000 miles, and we’re just getting started!

Steel is real (as is teal) 

Riding the Natchez Trace

Once again, I did a bike tour and then took forever to post pictures and details (sorry Don!). I squeezed in an 8 day bike trip over my spring break this April and had to hit the ground running once school got back into session (IEP season, for anyone familiar with special education!).

The Natchez Trace is one of two National Parks in the US known as parkways, that runs 444 miles from Natchez, Mississippi to just south of Nashville, Tennessee. The two-lane parkway roughly follows the Old Natchez Trace, a north-south corridor packed with history, from prehistoric geology and animal migrations to Native American cultural sites to war of 1812 and Civil War battle history; Elvis and Oprah were also born in towns along the Trace. Many people opt to drive the length of the trace; compared to biking it that seems absolutely miserable to me. There are ample camping spots to hang a hammock, interesting historical and informational markers about every 5-10 miles, long stretches where you hardly see any cars, butterflies and wildflowers to keep you company, and an oxygen chamber of trees to keep you pedaling asthma free (which sadly can’t be said for my commute back home).

Want to ride the Natchez Trace? Follow these simple steps:

1. Ask your dad to do the ride with you, because your friends all have children or normal jobs, and your friendships will only survive up to 48 hours around each other with no shower, but family is forever.


(Besides, you inherited your love of breaking rules from somewhere.)

2. Plan your route, or at least request/download maps from this website, and then have your dad plan the route because if he figures out the mileage per day, he can’t blame you when his legs hurt by dinnertime.

3. (optional) Laminate the long and pretty awesome park map that comes in your information packet, because you’ll be looking at it every 5 miles to remember which historical marker is next (there are so many).

4. Figure out if you’re going North to South or vice versa, then change your mind fifteen times as you sort through the logistics of getting to/from Natchez/Nashville. We finally settled on a one way rental car from Greenville to Natchez and having a very wonderful person drive from Greenville to Nashville to pick us up. This put us going from mile 0 to mile 444, with lots of scenic vistas and rolling hills the last few days. In shoulder seasons you have more RV migration traffic, but there’s no way I’d do this in the summer (in April, our highs were around 90 every day).

5. Make sure you have road bikes, panniers, camping supplies, and comfy saddles. We brought our eno hammocks because we had them already; I had an eno rain tarp which we used the one night of our trip that it rained very lightly (we really lucked out on weather); the first two nights it was cold enough to skip the bug net but after that the lows were around 50-55 and I needed mine (mosquitos love me). Other camping items on our packing list were a compression sack sleeping bags, inflatable sleeping pads for insulation, a couple changes of clothes (washed clothes most nights), bike repair items, bandanas, stove, fuel, mess kit, and a ton of food. All of this fit into 2 waterproof ortlieb panniers and 2 water resistant axiom panniers, as well as 2 trunk bags on rear racks of our bikes. Front panniers help distribute the weight better, but we didn’t bother with front racks so we made just the rear racks work. I never weighed our equipment but if I had to guess, we were probably around 45-50 lbs of baggage per bike.

6. Make sure you’re comfortable putting in a lot of miles per day, and practice setting up camp; we averaged around 55-60 miles per day with some shorter and some longer days (shortest was 36, longest was 74). It’s possible to go inn to inn, but you’ll have to go off the trace to find lodging. Camping is easy and accessible (we stayed at Rocky Springs the night before we dropped off the car and after the first day of riding from Natchez, Jackson (hotel), Kosciusko, Witch Dance, Tupelo (hotel), Colbert Ferry, and Meriwether Lewis. All the campsites had restrooms with running water, grill areas and picnic tables. Unlike when driving an RV or car, we didn’t have to worry too much about finding an official spot with a parking space – as long as it had a picnic table and was reasonably close to the facilities, we just wheeled our bikes over and set up camp. Several campsites we had all to ourselves anyway, since there are a number that don’t have RV facilities and are intended to be biker/hiker sites.

7. After you ride, keeping making your bike-it list, but also make a plan. Don’t say someday. Go forth and ride!

Riding the Natchez Trace