2017 Alberta Rockies 700
For the last ~10 years I have been competing as a licensed athlete in sanctioned road races and travelling for fondo style races. I began thinking about challenging the AR700 shortly after first learning about it in the fall of 2016 and became intrigued by this new style of racing and the personal challenge of completing it.
I have always enjoyed cycling and the process of training for major events, but I find it difficult to maintain focus and motivation without having a goal event or personal challenge in mind. Each fall I look forward to the coming year and plan out what I will be working towards. This started at the beginning of my cycling career when I targeted the World Masters games and competing in Canadian Nationals as a masters athlete. As I began thinking of plans for 2017 I found myself reading about a handful or bikepacking races that have cropped up in Western Canada in recent years. I was fascinated to read reports from participants in the Hurtin' Alberta 550, Kootenay Gravel Grinder 500, BC Epic, and the AR 700. I had never done any bikepacking or long distance endurance races, so I started thinking how fun it would be to do one of these races, someday.
As I read and thought about these races I realized that someday doesn't just happen, one has to make it happen. So, I signed up for the AR700 thinking it would be a good starting point. I have always wanted to explore and camp along the Forestry Trunk road, and what better way to start that exploration then undertaking a completely bonkers 700k race that navigates it's entire length!
In preparing for the AR700 I did not change my usual winter training routine, I stuck with 18 weeks of stationary trainer rides following a plan laid out from trainerroad.com. In the spring I did the local road races, which were mostly short, hard, fast races lasting only 1 hour. These are rides where I am riding at maximal and near maximal efforts. This is the opposite of the long, slow, steady style of riding that would be required for the AR700. But, I knew that increasing my 1 hour power would allow me to go for a very long time at slow pace. I did do a few practice rides, to test my bike and sleeping equipment, by riding South of Edmonton for up to 4 hours .
Coming in to the AR700 the longest bike ride I had completed was 7 hours (and that was 5 years ago). I was uncertain how my body would react, and I felt like my goal of completing the race in 3 days (before midnight on the third day) was going to be very challenging. My hope for the first day was to ride all the way to Exshaw, if I could do that then I was confident I could meet my goal. Little did I know that the first day was the easiest and I should have done more detailed planning for days two and three.
Day 1 Blairmore to Exshaw
- Total time: 15 hours (13.5 hr moving)
- Distance: 261 km
- Elevation: 3,100m
- Average power: 155 watts
- Total work: 6,500 kiloJoule
- Strava link: https://www.strava.com/activities/1074385521
I travelled to Blairmore with a friend from Edmonton, Rabih, who had also never done a long distance bike event. We stealth camped in town in the Miner's Path park. The plan for the morning was to grab breakfast and a take away sandwich for lunch at the Subway, but it did not open as early as was stated when I searched online. So it was off to 7-11 to grab food and water. We ran into a couple of racers who had the same idea and learned that they also did a stealth camp in the Miner’s Path park, but much more stealth as we did not see or hear them.
The start at the Rum Runner was the usual pre-race nerves at the start and after a few photos we were on our way up out of Blairmore.
Rabih and I settled in to a good pace with other racers around to chat with, on the first big downhill section of the road I pulled away and took the washboard and sweeping corners at my own pace, looked back and no one was there. I stopped and waited and waited much longer than I would expect, finally John and Dean came along and I knew something was up. They explained that Rabih had crashed when a bag he had lashed to his front fork moved into his wheel. My heart sank and I didn’t know what to do, they reassured me that Rabih was okay, a truck came along and I asked him to stop and give him a ride in to town. I was torn as there was not much I could do and it was only 17km into the day. So I pressed on alone, always thinking of Rabih and feeling so bad. A little further on I came across a payphone (at the Livingstone fire base, an oasis in the middle of the wilderness) and tried to call Rabih but I had no change and the phone was not setup for credit card payment.
So I carried on and slowly caught a few riders, chatted briefly with Katrina who informed me that we were just getting to the top of a long climb, this was my first glimpse of my failure to study the route and bring sufficient navigation aids. All I had was a little piece of paper that Rabih gave me which had the major turns written out, I had no other map or handlebar GPS navigator like most others. This would soon lead to me making a major navigation mistake.
As the day progressed I was feeling good and arrived at the Highwood house gas station an hour earlier than I had planned, Dean, Steve, Richard, Jamie, Darren, and Katrina were all there at the same time. After a short break and chat I headed out to climb the Highwood pass with Katrina not far behind. The pass went well and I was enjoying the scenery, listening to podcasts, and stopping to dunk a small towel in the creeks and putting it under my helmet to cool off. After descending the pass I took the corner in to Peter Lougheed park and looked for the signs to Boulton Creek store, only 8km away, but a hilly 8km. On arriving at the store I discovered how my lack of navigational preparation had led to a major error. For some reason I convinced myself that Boulton Creek store was on our route, it was not. When I took the turn off the highway, looking for the signs to Boulton Creek I had missed the signs pointing to Canmore (via the Smith Dorrien trail). My lack of preparation coupled with unfamiliarity of the area had taken me off course by over an hour. I was now well behind Dean, Katrina, Richard, riders I had been in front of just an hour earlier.
My mistake really affected me mentally, I was down on myself for adding time and distance to my day and it turned out I did this at the worst time because the Smith Dorrien trail is a really tough stretch of road and the hot dry conditions made it even more challenging. The road was a challenge because of the washboard, large gravel, and talcum powder like dust which swirled around into my lungs with every passing car. I focused on my riding and listened to more podcasts (thank you Malcolm Gladwell for making a second season of Revisionist History).
A bright spot came when I was riding head down and saw a phone lying on the road, I picked it up thinking one of the riders in front of me had dropped it, but then I wasn’t sure what to do, should I take it in to Canmore, and if I did where would I take it. I stood there for a while trying to figure out what to do then looked over and saw that I was next to a large parking lot and trailhead, so I decided I to the trailhead and leave it there with a note. As I walked across the parking lot I noticed a car stopped with two people looking through their car, so I approached them and said that I just found a phone and didn’t know what to do, they screamed with surprise as it was their phone and they couldn’t figure out how it ended up out on the road. It was really an incredible coincidence. Back to the road feeling like the closer I got to Canmore, the further I had to go. The next “highlight” was when I came across a small black bear walking on the opposite side of the road, I picked up my pace and went by the bear as quickly as I could hoping that it had no interest in cyclists.
Canmore came into view and suddenly my phone starting beeping with encouraging texts from friends and a voicemail from Rabih. I immediately pulled over to call him and apologize for not stopping and going back to him. But he just wanted to encourage me to keep going. He was already back in Calgary and feeling okay with just some road rash and a broken rear wheel. It was a relief to talk to him and know that he was okay.
I rolled in to the bike shop and was immediately greeted by Ryan Correy, Sarah, Megan Dunn, and the crew from Rebound Cycle who were providing support to the racers. I cleaned up, had a burger, and some help from the shop to fix a leak in my water bladder that happened on the bumpy Smith Dorrien road.
But, I could not ignore the consequence of my navigation mistake, Dean, Katrina, and Richard were getting ready to leave Canmore as I was arriving. They were planning on riding to Ghost Lake, where the route turns off highway 1A, I missed a chance to ride with them to this point and stuck with my plan to get to the municipal campground in Exshaw. After grabbing food I hit the road, this is when another detail that I had overlooked became apparent, in my practice rides I had not ridden at night having to rely on my headlight. I clumsily tried to attach my headlight to my helmet and discovered it was not going to work so moved it to my bars to find that my front bag obscured the light limiting its utility, in addition I had not brought a strong enough tail light and had an underpowered blinker that was not mounted to my bike, I clipped it to my jersey but it was not strong enough to rely on to provide a safe light on the narrow shoulders of 1A.
I made it to Exshaw on quiet roads and headed to the municipal campground, which turned out to be the home of the most mosquitos I have ever seen. I cleaned myself off as well as I could in the pit toilet outhouse (no running water) and then settled in to my bivy for a warm sleep, even at 11pm the air was still warm. Lying in my bivy I felt overwhelmed, that first day was an incredible effort and I was unsure how I would be able to get up and do it all over. Again, hindsight allows me to see how easy that first day was compared to what lay ahead.
Camping in Blairmore
Starting at the Rum Runner
Rabih and I just after the start
Looking down on Canmore
Sunny and hot on the Highwood pass
Day 2 Exshaw to Elk Creek Campground
- Total time: 15.5 hours (13 hr moving)
- Distance: 232 km
- Elevation: 3,000m
- Average power: 131 watts
- Total work: 5,500 kiloJoule
- Strava link: https://www.strava.com/activities/1077776090
My plan for the race was to complete it in three days, riding for 15 hours each day. As this was my first multi-day bikepacking trip, first race of this format, and furthest I had ever ridden in one day, I was not sure how my body would handle it so planned to have a full sleep each night and to get on the road by 6 or 7am. Another part of my plan was to have the ability to have warm food, so my kit included a vargo alchohol stove and a couple of dehydrated meals. This added about 1500 grams to my race kit but I believed it would be worth it especially for the second night when I would be 100km from any food.
On the morning of the second day I sparked up my stove to boil water for coffee and to rehydrate one of the meals, this is when I discovered yet another mistake. I had not packed a spoon. So, I had no way of eating my breakfast of beef macaroni. Dejected I drank my instant coffee and hit the road, trying to ignore the fact that I now carried a stove and additional food that, without a spoon, was just deadweight. I also puzzled over what Ryan Correy had said the night before, that the southern section of the ghost area, was the hardest part of the route. Based on how much of a challenge the little climbs on the (paved) highway were feeling I was not sure how the steep gravel climbs ahead would feel. The first couple of hours of the day were all on paved roads, allowing for a pretty good average pace. But once I hit the gravel north of Waiparous Village that pace quickly dropped and I struggled over the endless loose gravel climbs. I had never been through the Ghost area but had heard of it as a wild area full of partying campers. I did not see many people, but at one point I was alarmed by the sound of shots being fired as a group of people had set up a rifle range just off the road. I inched along taking more breaks, using more polysporin, and going noticeably slower than the day before. I carried on, and at some point I remember feeling "okay" I looked down at my bike computer to see that I had been riding for seven hours! When I arrived at the Red Deer River for lunch I was happy to see that I was still meeting my target times, despite the slow pace. After lunch there was a long section of climbing then a steady downhill for a number of kilometres, this was a nice break especially as I was about to start on a section of incredibly hard climbs. After many years of cycling in Alberta I am familiar with all the major (paved) climbs in the province, on this day I discovered that there are some incredible huge climbs that are largely unknown to cyclists. The stretch of rad from highway 584 to Elk Creek campground served up 1,000m of climbing in the span of 46km, including a category 2 climb which topped out at an elevation of 1,700m. As the evening progressed my left knee start to ache and then became a sharp stabbing pain. I decided to pull in at Elk Creek campground for a good rest rather than pushing on to Ram Falls. Elk Creek was where I had planned to stay and as I was still meeting the times I had planned out at home I was content to stop there. The campground was deserted and I enjoyed the simultaneous sunset and moonrise.
Sunrise over Highway 1A
Fog on the Ghost Reservoir
Lunch on the banks of the Red Deer River
Massive thunderstorm, looking east from the Clearwater river
Looking north from the top of this incredibly steep climb to the Cut Off creek area
Elk Creek sunset
Day 3 Elk Creek to Hinton
- Total time: 17.75 hours (14 hr moving)
- Distance: 254 km
- Elevation: 3,400m
- Average power: 128 watts
- Total work: 5,600 kiloJoule
- Strava link: https://www.strava.com/activities/1077776737
I got an earlier, chilly, start on Monday morning hoping to be in Nordegg by lunch, confident that the hardest parts of the route were behind me. Not surprisingly I was again proven naive and under prepared for the relentless climbing on the way to Nordegg. North of Elk Creek there are three river crossings, the Ram, North Ram, and North Saskatchewan, each of these involves a quick downhill followed by relentless steep climbing out of the valley. Making this even more challenging was the road maintenance, graters, fresh gravel, and water trucks, which made the gravel surface loose and slow. All this on top of growing knee pain, I could feel that I was favouring my knee and my right leg was doing 70% of the work, had me fantasizing about giving up in Nordegg. At my lowest point, and within cellular range, and on the edge of tears I called my wife, Tina, she picked up and as soon as she started talking I could feel her positive words lift my spirits. Later, back home, she was surpised to hear that at the moment of that call I was hoping she would offer to drive down to Nordegg to get me. I limped in to Nordegg looking forward to eating a burger and buying ibuprofen for my aching knee. The burger didn't happen, when I got to the hotel I waited for the hostess to tell me that they were still cooking breakfast and I would have to wait to order a burger, in my foggy state I left and headed to the gas station to get a quick meal of chips and coke, and to load up for the remaining 170km. The morning to Nordegg had taken a couple hours long than I had expected and I was fearful that I would not be able to make it to Hinton.
Recharged I was back on the road, as the advil started to work I was hopeful I could make it to Hinton. I walked a few of the steep climbs that afternoon and had two mechanicals (broken chain and a flat tire) that offered me rest stops. I could hear some thunder in the distance to my south and worried about the weather turning, but as I carried on North the clouds thinned and it stayed dry, I later learned that those to the south of me were not as lucky. My pace seemed to increase and once I reached Pembina forks I was moving really quickly, I did not know that there was a long section of hardpacked road that then became paved highway. I was soon 75km from Hinton flying along a highway with the wind at my back. Of course the pavement and speed were soon gone as I struggled over the final 50km of gravel between Robb and Hinton. This section was really difficult, large stones, on a loose surface, that seemed to drag on forever, interrupted only by the short descent to and the long painful climb at McLeod River. But, I was making good time and I would arrive in Hinton around 930pm, which was the target time I had planned on. The final 10km descent into Hinton was magical and I grew emotional thinking of what I had accomplished. Arriving at the visitor centre I was so happy to see that Katrina was there to cheer me in, it was really special to have Katrina and her husband see me finish.
Bananas and water left by AR700 angels
Flat tire at Brazeau river
At the finish in Hinton
The route for the AR700 follows the front range of the rockies, primarily using the Forestry Trunk Road. One deviation from the Forestry Trunk Road the route is going over the paved road over Highwood Pass. This allows for riders to use Canmore as a rest and refuel location. The only other town on the route is Nordegg which also offers options for camping, hotel, and food. The remainder of the route is relatively remote gravel roads with the occasional fishing lodge or gas station to buy snacks.