Elk Island Redux

21 09 2012

Three rides in three weeks down the same country roads, but even though the route was the same, the rides certainly weren’t.

Elk Island National Park is just east of Edmonton and is a fairly popular destination for touring cyclists, but I couldn’t remember the last time I was there, so I figured a beautiful Sunday would be a great day to check it out.

Rollin’ down the Parkway.

One of the biggest attractions at Elk Island are the herds of plains and wood bison that call this place home. Over the last century, the park has been crucial in the survival of both species, and many modern populations can trace their lineage back to the Elk Island herds.

Part of a herd of plains bison.

The presence of North America’s largest land animal creates a few extra challenges for cyclists. For example, 4 weeks after this ride, I still haven’t been able to get all the buffalo poop off le Mercier’s tires. And then there’s the threat of hitting one – this actually happened to an acquaintance of mine and ended in broken bones. The other surprise were the oversize texas gates everywhere.

Texas gates are usually used where a road crosses a fence to keep cattle inside the fence. These buffalo size gates are huge!

The first gate I encountered I just rode over, which shook me up literally and figuratively. Hoping I hadn’t aggravated my much abused wheels, I walked over the next gates. Luckily, most of them had some sort of bike gutter on them.

Taking a break in a shady grove.

There are many trails in Elk Island, but this is the only paved one. The unpaved ones just aren’t roadbike friendly.

Astonin Lake.


Lunch break by the lake.

Land of the silver birch, home of the beaver, where still the mighty moose wanders at will. Blue lake and rocky shore, I will return once more…

As the sun was getting low, I turned back towards the park gate to head for home. As I crested a hill with the sun in my eyes, I came within a foot of hitting a lone male bison on the shoulder of the road that had somehow disappeared into the long shadows. I’d always wondered how someone could crash into such a large animal, but now it made perfect sense. The bison seemed unperturbed and I crossed the road to observe him from a safe distance.

You’d think it would be impossible to miss an animal this size when it’s directly ahead of you.

The following week, the ravingbikefiend had a plan: a fast ride out to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, which is just east of Elk Island, with a caveat that only steel framed bikes would be welcomed. I was stoked to push Mercier to the limit with a faster rider to keep up to, but the day had a number of false starts. As we were about to hit the freeway out of town, I could feel my bottom bracket loosening up. That wouldn’t make it 100km, so we headed back to EBC for some emergency repairs. Satisfied it would hold up, we hit the road again. By the time we got to Sherwood Park the group was already quite spread out, and A-bomb decided she was going to turn back as the pace was greater than either of us expected. I caught back up to a waiting Keith and David, and with a brisk tailwind we made it to the village in ridiculous time – my new bike computer recorded a top speed of 58km/h, though I still couldn’t keep up with the boys.

Keith on his Cooper and David on his Miele, in a rare moment when I wasn’t lagging far behind them.

Meta blogging at the village: taking pictures of taking pictures of taking pictures of bikes.

Fancy lug on the Campagnolo’d out Cooper.

The tailwind on the way there stuck around to become a brutal headwind on the way back, and with my upright riding position, I was at a greater disadvantage than my companions. I basically only saw them when they stopped to wait for me, or when Keith got a flat.

Unscheduled stop for roadside repairs.

Radial tire wire is Keith’s nemesis.

One of the nice things about traveling with awesome bike mechanics is that when somebody else gets a flat, I can just sit back and enjoy the beauty of a skillfully performed fix.

Between the wind and the much faster than expected companions, I had my ass handed to me that day. I like to think of myself as a fast, efficient rider, but I’ve still got a long way to go before I can keep up with the best.

The following weekend was the annual Tour de Perogy. Here is how it went from my perspective: I slept in, missed meeting up with everyone, but decided to head out anyway and caught up with the group at the halfway point. Not long after that, I got a flat (first one in thousands of km of epic rides this year!), which  meant an unscheduled break for everyone else, and lower tire pressure for me the rest of the day. At the Ukrainian Village, I gorged on wildberry sorbet after eating the tempeh in peanut sauce I’d brought for lunch.  On the way back, I offered to lead the way as I knew it well, and pulled the peleton most of the way. About halfway home, it started to rain. Le Mercier really hates rain. My white cotton travel shirt was permanently reverse skunk striped with road splashings. Overall it was still a good ride, but I didn’t take any pictures.

Three weeks, three metric centuries plus. As the weather gets colder, the days get shorter, and I get busier (I’ve got an exciting new job!), it’s going to be harder to find time to go on more big rides. Here’s hoping I can squeeze a few more in before winter.

Deep South Excursion

27 06 2012

E-ville is one of the most spread out, sprawled out cities in the world, covering more area than cities with 10 times its population. This place was built for cars first, people second, and beyond the central core that I inhabit with the rest of the green, radical and artistic types, there’s seas of suburbs. Before people started questioning the wisdom of infinite suburban sprawl, the city annexed large tracts of farmland for future ‘burbs, and in the outskirts, some of the agricultural land still remains. With friends, I’ve been taking rides out to explore this country side within the city limits. On this day, we headed south.

First stop: fuel. Loma House Vegetarian Express in Millwoods was a delightful surprise that was definitely worth the ride.

As I got my gear ready and pumped up my tires, my friend mentioned that she wanted to check out a yard sale at a nearby housing co-op on the way out. I wasn’t too excited about the idea, because if either of us bought something it would mean carrying it with us the whole ride. It was rather ironic that I was the one who ended up making a purchase – a pair of red sunglasses that couldn’t leave my face after I tried them on. With my new hipster-vision, we hit the road.

Deep South side, FTW!

My impression of the area was a little bit country & a little bit country club.

A little bit country, a little bit country club, whatever, le Mercier is a class act wherever it goes.

Every time I go down this way, I have to cycle further and further to escape the metastasizing suburbs. It’s sad to know that the land in this area is now worth too much to use it for agriculture, and that it won’t be long until the only semblance of countryside will be the privatopias and gated clubs where the rich play.

Amongst the new developments, we found a long abandoned homestead.

Loft no more.

Looking out from the farmhouse onto someone else’s idea of dream homes.

It looked as if the house & barn were nearly on the property line of a new development, as everything  had been bulldozed to within a couple meters of the house on one side, while the secondary poplar growth sheltered it from the other side. I suspect that this house was once completely hidden by the trees, which would explain why there was so little evidence of vandalism or graffiti in such an easily accessible abandoned building. I doubt it will last long once the bored children of the new residents find it.

Looking in. Recent residents include barn swallows and honey bees.

Luckily for us, the private clubs in the area aren’t used to cyclists crashing their digs, so we picnicked on some fairly exclusive real estate (not pictured) before starting on our return journey to the center of E-Ville.

Self portrait, with bicycle.

On returning from every excursion to the outskirts, the biggest issue always seems to be how to get across the bloody Anthony Henday freeway/ring road/exclusion zone. Things weren’t looking good as we approached the Terwillegar overpass. The whole thing (this is a major thoroughfare) was closed for paving, including the bridge, and the detour to the next overpass would have taken us miles and miles out of our way, and we didn’t have lights or that much time before sundown to be riding on unlit backroads. There was a construction worker manning the barricades, but it looked like the overpass was clear and still passable beyond that. We looked at each other and said “wanna just go for it?” We rode straight for the closed road and gave the worker a cutesy wave. He looked confused for a second, and then made a gesture that said “I’m averting my eyes and I didn’t see you.”

We encountered a crew at the top of the overpass and told them our sob story about trying to get home before dark. They seemed mildly sympathetic and gave us tacit permission to pass so long as we gave the workers & equipment a wide berth. We took off before they could give it a second thought and began riding & gallivanting down the middle of an empty freeway, woo-hoo!

Terwilliger Drive with no hands!

I must say, I’m running out of freeways and other major roads in this town that I haven’t ridden while they were car free, but it still never gets old for me.

After the joyride, we got lost in the twisty streets of T-town before finally finding a familiar bike path to take us home. Overall, it was an amazing day including good riding, good exploring and good company, and I can’t wait until the next long ride.

The last and biggest hill of the day.

Railway Museum Ride

11 06 2012

A couple of weekends ago, a few friends and I set out for the the city’s rural outskirts to check out the Alberta Railway Museum on opening day of 2012. While it’s technically within city limits (it actually sits beside the line), it’s in a part of town known as the “rural northeast” that is mostly farmland, and is far enough away that we rode more than 50km that day, though that included some backtracking because we couldn’t figure out how to cross the newly constructed Anthony Henday freeway.

Finally, a sign that we’re on the right track! Groans from the back of the pack ensued when the next sign, around the corner, informed us that it was still another 5km to go.

I love taking Le Mercier out on the paved country roads.

Uber-cool companion is also too cool for gears.

The last stretch: a gravel road along the tracks.

Not pictured: the part of the sign that said “All unattended children will be given a cup of coffee and a puppy.”

There were lots of things to be stoked about at the museum, but none got me so stoked as the rail bike. It looks like Porta-bike with a few extra stays and the brace for the third wheel on the other track. The wheels looked like regular steel bicycle wheels with the rail wheel welded to the outside.

There are many different types of train cars in various states of restoration that you can tour that are also used as museum exhibits. Others, like the one in the background that are beyond repair, slowly decay on overgrown tracks.

Rockin’ the cycling shoes (don’t worry, no cleats) in the Northern Alberta Railways caboose. This caboose had side bay windows instead of the more common “bird’s nest” lookout points because of the twistiness of the track that went up to Fort McMurray. Caboose lookouts were used to spot fires caused by sparks from the wheels.

Boxcar hoppin’

First class, 1920’s style.

The 1940’s passenger car was once fitted with a bike rack at the front. Alas, only the sign remains.

Heading out. The train museum was lots of fun, interesting and affordable. It’s completely volunteer run, and there’s lots of cool old people who know lots about trains. One of the better kept secrets in E-VIlle, I’d say.

Single speed on the wide, flat prairie.

Not wanting to ride the huge detour on the Manning Freeway we took on the way there, we tried to find another spot to cross the Henday. I knew I saw an overpass around here somewhere. Why don’t any of the roads lead to one?

We decided to chance a dead end and were rewarded with a freshly constructed overpass, no cars, and an incredible view.

Woo-hoo! We’re across the Henday! Who cares if we have to navigate a closed dirt road.

Looking less promising still.

There was a lot of earth moving going on.

I could have sworn there was a road where this massive hole in the ground is now.

But I could see the light – bike paths were near.

And where the hole in the ground turned back into street, a bike path also awaited to whisk us back into the urban core.

Road Bike Season

25 04 2012

All spring I have been watching the road and trail conditions, waiting for the last remnants of ice to disappear and for the city to sweep up all the gravel it’s laid down throughout the winter.

Notice that there's so much debris in the counter-flow bike lane that it obscures the markings. More notable is the awesome neighbour who pressure-washed clean the lane where it passed by his house. I sure appreciate not having to choose between no traction and oncoming traffic.

Road bike season started for me the day before my b-day when I realized that one of the stays on Marjory’s rack had snapped as I was loading it up, and I just couldn’t bear another day of chugging on the heavy Transend. I had been wanting a long ride on le Mercier for my birthday, so I thought I’d better break it out and give it a try. I’ve missed that bike: so swift, so light, yet handles so well I can trackstand forever and never have to take my feet off the pedals.

So, if you’ve been following my blog for a long time you may remember that last year, I got a flat tire for my birthday. This year, after a roll through a short but intense rainstorm, I wiped out. I was rolling through the leg (pronounced “ledge”) grounds (where it looked like it hadn’t rained) and hit several inches of pea gravel as I was navigating around the stupid traffic control arms they put up after 9/11 that they never open for cyclists, even though it’s a designated bike route. There was a peace officer in the little booth who saw me go down, but didn’t come out to check on me until I was ready to get back on my bike again, when he was a patronizing ass about it. I rode home slowly and carefully, avoiding jarring potholes, ordered a pizza, and spent the rest of the night taking it easy and icing my sore spots.

The next day the sun was shining, my body was hardly aching at all, and Mercier seemed no worse for wear, so I decided to try once again for an epic ride.

Keeping an easier pace than usual through the valley meant I was more prone to seeing little dirt side paths and wondering "what's down there?"

Le Mercier, after a roll through the grass.

Signs of previous visitors.

There's still a little ice on the river.

Obligatory awkward self-portrait with bicycle.


Finding myself famished in a far flung suburb after most places closed, onion rings and root beer was the best I could do for fuel while still keeping an eye on my bike.

After turning back towards home, a long, lighted, clear bike path was a welcome sight. Not pictured: more deer.

A Ride Through the Alley of Light

2 09 2011

Located between Jasper & 102 Ave, and 103 St & 104 St, local artists painted  an entire alley in an attempt to reclaim it as public space. Check it out before it returns to alley grime!

Mercier gets down to some YEG lovin'

An entire block of alley driving surface was covered in colorful patterns in three directions.

An invitation to look down.

I doubt this will last the winter, so I highly recommend having a look at this ambitious and stunning piece of public art soon!


Have Mercier!

4 05 2011

We were still in the depths of winter when an especially lovely Mercier was donated to EBC. With tubular tires and hard to find French components, it wasn’t a bike for your average rider, and the derailleur and derailleur hanger had been bent all the way into the back wheel. Its lithe lugged steel frame with cast dropouts called to me though, and I’d visit it every time I went into BikeWorks. I fixed up the bent derailleur enough that I could ride it around the shop (there was still several feet of snow outside), and even on the cramped shop floor, that bike wanted to fly, and I’ve never ridden a bike that felt so quick and fast. I was smitten with this bike, but considering how little money and how many bicycles I have, I couldn’t justify buying it.

One day, I was giving some folks a tour of EBC/BikeWorks, and when we entered the bike “showcase” area I noticed the Mercier was nowhere to be seen. I began to panic – “my” little French bike had been sold! I kept it cool and continued the tour, but I was holding back tears. After everyone else had left, I frantically looked around for some clue of what had happened to it, and found the bike hanging unassumingly in the bike room. Relief! I decided at that moment that I would somehow scrape enough together to buy it.

Le Mercier, taking a break from going fast.

Justifying it as an early birthday present, I finally brought her home, where she sat in my living room where I could admire her while waiting for winter to loosen its icy grip. When the roads finally did clear, I wasted no time taking her for speedy rides, wishing the puddles and gravel and potholes would go away faster. When I ride this bike, I feel like it’s pulling me along, not me pushing it.

Spring and Mercier!

As lovely as this bike is, there’s a couple of issues. First is the rear derailleur. I was able to bend the derailleur hanger back into shape (I love steel – it was, like, 30 degrees off) but the derailleur itself was also bent, and the lightweight aluminum wasn’t as forgiving, though with some help from the Raving Bike Fiend, we got it working. The metal is probably weak, though, so I should expect to have to replace it soon.

The other question about this bike is the tubular tires. I figured this would be a great way to learn something new, but from what I’ve read it seems like patching them is difficult, replacements are expensive (even with a shop discount), and the whole system seems much more prone to failure than the common clincher. I decided I’d just ride them and deal with that problem when it arose.

It was only my third ride on this bike when I got a flat. I was a long way from home, a long way from anything, and I ended up using my shoulder bag as a sling to carry the bike two miles through the river valley to a place I could catch a bus with a bike rack the rest of the way home.

Sad bike and rider wait for a bus on a cool spring evening.

As I waited for the bus, I pulled three sizable pieces of gravel out of the completely flat rear tire, while moisture on the front tire revealed that air was also slowly bubbling out of it. Two flat tubulars? What had I gotten myself into?

Mass transit saves the day.

So, now I either have to repair or replace both tubular tires. Hello steep learning curve! My other option is to replace the rims with ones that take conventional tires, and I’m so torn between the two options that I think I’ll do both. Those beautiful tubulars are part of the magic of this bike, and it will be difficult to find comparable clincher rims without spending an arm and a leg. The tubulars seem so delicate, though, and it’s important to me that I don’t end up stranded somewhere, especially after riding hard for a long distance, so I’m going to build up a second set of wheels for when I feel like a more robust ride. Stay tuned for more updates once the Mercier is roadworthy again, including some pictures of the components that made the raving bike fiend drool!