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.

An Ode to the High Level Bridge

26 01 2011

Of the 17 bike accessible spans across the North Saskatchewan River, one is known to cyclists in Edmonton simply as “The Bridge.” Forty six meters (155 feet) above the river with a deck 777m (almost half a mile) long (not including approaches), the High Level Bridge is the only one that crosses the top of the river valley, sparing its users the long trudge up and down the only significant hills in E-Ville, hills that also split the city in half.

Traffic rolls through the bridge, disappearing into a blur of long exposure.

I love the bridge because living near it opens up the entire city to me and my bike, but it looms ominous like the bridge at Sleepy Hollow. No matter which way you go, the south approach is a descent with a series of turns at the bottom, weaving around girders with no room for error, and no matter the season, traction is always an issue, with the turns either getting iced up, or sandy or gravelly. Two people (one cyclist and one rollerblader) have been killed in the last decade in accidents on the south approaches, and countless more have been injured (including a friend who was thrown off her bike and slid halfway down the icy hill on her backside, yesterday). I ride the bridge twice a day on average, and have had too many close calls to count (though with freezing rain today, I can expect more). It’s the coldest and often most dangerous part of my ride.

Bare concrete, I've missed you so!

Darker still is the other place in our collective conscious The Bridge resides in. Talking about it is taboo, but the issue is too familiar to those who walk or cycle the bridge every day. I’ve never been able to find statistics of how many people have jumped off the bridge, but I know people who have, and most everyone from around here knows someone… And every now and then a new memorial pops up, or missing posters go up and down, or a high profile missing persons case suddenly goes into the collective memory hole… This is the subject of the locally produced short film “The High Level Bridge,” which is currently screening at the Sundance Film Festival. To me, (unfortunately), it wasn’t the filmakers’ stories that were extraordinary, it was extraordinary that they broke the taboo by talking about it.

Here it is (for a limited time only):

If my life were a cartoon, the bridge would be a character, a friend, but a dark practical joker that I knew too well to completely let my guard down around. (and like a troubled friend, sometimes you have to call their mom, er 311 if things start getting really dangerous). What can I say, the bridge is an important part of my life, and like the film points out, it has made an impression on our collective psyche. But you don’t get that level of intimacy by driving through it. There are no headless horsemen here, still it’s only after safely crossing the bridge that I can get comfortably on my way.

River Valley Art Gallery

15 10 2010

Yesterday, I found that some art had popped up along one of my favorite trails in the valley. With no camera to document it, I was forced (riding in the river valley on a beautiful fall day – what a hardship) to return today.

Marjory does just fine on this path, thank you.

Along a gravel path, somebody (or bodies) put up a bunch of art that delightfully surprises anyone traveling over the crest of a ridge. I never would have found this spot had I not been traveling by bike.

To whomever did this, it makes me so happy to find such spontaneous awesomeness can still sprout forth from this gray burg. Thank you so much, it made my day, two days in a row.

Cartoon faces overlook the trail.

A bird hides in the trees.

Portrait on Reader's Digest.

I love how this art incorporates its environment.

With the reflection of its surroundings, this piece becomes pure magic.

Have I mentioned how much I love fall riding? No leaves in the valley means more sun as the temperature starts to drop as well as more wildlife sightings. While I was checking out the art today, I saw a pileated woodpecker and two downy woodpeckers, just pecking at trees & dislodging big chunks of bark. Every beautiful day from now until winter is a gift. When the winter comes, I don’t want to have any regrets about fairer days wasted and every cross town commute is another opportunity for a lovely river valley jaunt.

It was one of those match my bike to my outfit kind of days. Come winter they'll be few & far between.

Return to Secret Beach

19 07 2010

Everyone, especially cyclists, ought to have their own personal cartography, a map of those important little places that you can only find by exploring or experience. For me, a place I call Secret Beach is an inviting little refuge when I want to go a little out of my way after a hot day at the sweatshop. I never would’ve found this place if I didn’t ride a bike.

A shady refuge on a hot day.

The “beach,” which is particularly kind to bare feet, is a large silt deposit along the river that formed the last time it flooded (I think it was 2005) , and has been slowly eroding away ever since. There are a few other people that use it as well, including some who regularly clean up garbage & debris, in and out of the water.

Someone has taken it upon themselves to dig some stairs into the steep enbankment above Secret Beach.

There is an underlying secret in this story, something that people often find shocking, and I am going to share it with you: I swim in the North Saskatchewan River, fairly often over the past few years, and I have suffered no effects other than relaxation, cooling down on a hot day, exercise, and plain old fun.

Cooling river.

Of course, anyone who would dare swim in the North Saskatchewan should know a little about Edmonton’s sewer system. In most of the city, there are two sewers: a storm sewer for runoff from rain that feeds directly into the river, and a septic sewer that takes household sewage to the Goldbar water treatment plant. In the oldest parts of the city, there is only one sewer that takes the runoff and the sewage to the water treatment plant, but if these combined sewers are over capacity, it overflows directly into the river. Unfortunately, there is far more density over these sewers now than they were initially designed for, and the net effect is that raw sewage goes into the river almost any time it rains. Therefore, I do not swim after a rainstorm (and don’t wash clothes or take showers when it’s raining because I live in one of those old neighborhoods).

Edit: When I wrote this post, I didn’t think that I needed to include warnings about the current, but after someone was swept away upriver last weekend, I just wanted to remind everyone that the North Saskatchewan has an extremely strong current and that you shouldn’t enter it if you’re not a strong swimmer, and even then be extremely cautious. Back in Edmonton’s early days when people more regularly swam in the river, drownings were common.

The pictures above were all taken last week. It’s been raining a lot this week, and when I decided that it was again time for an after work river valley sojourn, I headed back down the way of Secret Beach even though I knew a swim was not an option.

My bike is in the same place as the picture above, but the water is a full 10 feet higher, and the beach is now secreted under the river.

When the water subsides, perhaps my secret beach will be swept downstream to be someone else’s little getaway, or maybe it will be waiting for me to wade in up to my waist and start swimming upstream but getting nowhere again. In the meantime, there’s miles of river valley trails to explore and rediscover.

In the spirit of the Let’s Go Ride a Bike Summer Games final event, I took the longest route through the valley with the most hills (this is like two events in one – taking the long way home on a greenway).

The bike path cuts through a rare grove of old growth.

There are a lot of nasty hills along this route, and I’m proud to say that I did not have to dismount once to climb any of them: 8 speed internally geared hub, for the win!

Any route that involves going under the High Level bridge, instead of over it, can safely be called the hard way.

After pausing under the bridge, I headed back up the hill for the final time on the switchback bike path below the university. I’ve always wondered why they built that trail on such an insane grade –  it’s so steep I even have reservations about riding down it, but, out of breath and in my next to lowest gear, I proved I was stronger than I thought I was when I made it up without stopping!

Mud, Mudslides, and Quiet Moments

13 05 2010

Everyday, I ride my bike crosstown, north side to south side, through central Edmonton. Many days, I opt for the scenic route, through the river valley, where I can pretend that I’m not in the middle of a city amongst countless strangers, cars and concrete, but in the countryside surrounded by trees and birds, where nature isn’t under siege by humanity.

Depending on how you frame it, it's possible to forget it's a five minute ride to downtown.

My bike gives me access to the little secret gems and hideaways invisible to those who choose the road, and the option of going out-of-bounds, where there’s enough time & space to reflect, to breath, to just be, without the pressure of being under someone else’s gaze (magpies excepted). These are the places in time and space where I remember that I’m not a mouse jockey or a mechanic or an activist, but just a tiny spark in this gorgeous, complicated organism called earth. Nothing else makes me feel more centered or sane.

This used to be a fun trail until a massive crack opened up in the middle and part of it fell into the river, causing the city to try to obstruct the access points with huge piles of dirt. Now it's an even funner trail.

Work is What Happens In Between Bike Rides

3 05 2010

Hello spring!

A blue sky, a strong, warm wind, skin that hasn't seen the sun since 2009, bright stripey socks, red stubby riding gloves, bike shorts, a swift steed and a million dollar view. What else could a girl want?

Pausing at a bend in the path.

Sunshine after an April shower.

Goose over Walterdale.

Marjory in the pines (though I think they're actually spruce, but pines sounds better).

And at long last, a thoroughly soaking rain.

Return to the Valley

19 02 2010

Hills and ice are a combination I try to avoid at all costs, and as a result, I very rarely ride through the river valley in the winter, even though in the summer I credit my regular river valley detours for maintaining my sanity. This week it was warm enough, light enough and not quite melted-and-refrozen enough to tempt me to head down the hill into the river valley wilds. The bike paths were mostly snow covered, and the only icy patches were in the few places that caught the full day’s sun and the brutally glazed wooden pedestrian bridges.

The snow packed trails that snaked down near the river were a perfect match for my studded tire, and felt more forgiving than their loose gravel covered summer counterparts. There’s a place I often go in the summer after a long day in the sweatshop that I call “Secret Beach.” I decided to check out but found it was fairly nondescript underneath 2 feet of snow.

I left Ol' Nelli up the hill above Secret Beach.

View across the river from Secret Beach. Note the set of tracks that go out onto the river but don't come back. I hope they made it to the other side.

This tree is huge by E-ville standards. And everything does look this blue around dusk in the winter at this latitude.

As the trail follows the river around the bend, it becomes steeper and more exposed (hence, icy). This part of the trail was closed last summer “due to erosion,” and I don’t think it was ever officially reopened (I suspect it was random citizens who removed the signs). I won’t lie here, even on the driest summer days parts of this path genuinely scare me. But the giant trees, lush micro-climate, exciting twists and turns, lack of people and the exhilarating ride along the side of a crumbling cliff are so worth it.  I remember bringing a group of friends riding here a couple of summers ago, and some of them still talk about the time they nearly fell off a cliff into the river…

To the left, a 30 foot drop onto the river bed.

This is where I face my fear. My brain knows that my studded tires have far more traction than my cheap boots, but my body would not budge. It didn’t help that I stopped to take pictures, therefore negating any forward momentum, and allowing more time for fear to build. My brain eventually won this battle, and I cycled up the cliff as I had dozens of times before in fairer weather and on fairer bikes.

I’ve been getting over a cold this week, and am still wheezing and coughing a lot, so I wasn’t really feeling like taking a big hill to get out of the valley. The solution: the Edmonton, Yukon & Pacific Railroad, now known as the trail down Mill Creek Ravine. I could chugga chugga outta the valley on a grade so gentle it doesn’t feel like riding uphill on a shady, and thus snowy not icy, trail, and *only* end up riding an extra 40 blocks out of my way. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

The ravine darkened eerily, and by the time I rode under Whyte Ave, I could feel a fine precipitation in the air but couldn’t tell in the darkness if it was rain, sleet, snow or just fog.

The camera flash illuminates the precipitation but does not help with the liquid/solid question.

The combination of mystery precipitation and the last traces of daylight create a moody air. This photo was taken in the same spot as the photo above.

By the time I got out of the ravine, my bike and I were covered in a layer of fine white ice crystals. The fog was thick and inviting and made everything strangely beautiful, but I felt compelled to deal with more pressing matters, like food and rest for my still recovering body.

Streetlights highlight rare Edmonton fog.

Bridge Over Frozen Waters

8 01 2010
winter biking in the city

Ol' Nelli, my winter bike, doin' it's thing.