Going the Distance

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Biking in Canadian Rockies

Check out the slideshow in the Related Links box below for more images of the Canadian Rockies.

The week before I fly from the taxi-exhaust humidity of the East Coast to the freshly laundered air of the Canadian Rockies, I stop at a friend's house to borrow some bicycle gear. He hands me a pair of padded gloves and asks, "You've read the itinerary, right?" On our outdoor trips it's usually this guy who's Mr. Prepared. Only he's not coming on this trip. I shrug. He persists. "How many miles a day are you riding?" "I don't know. Something like 50 to 60," I say, adding that I love mountain biking. Pause.

"Jason," he says. "Nobody mountain bikes that far. You must be road biking."

Road biking? Nah. I've never even been astride a road bike. It might be all the rage post-Lance Armstrong, with even great-grandmothers wearing those yellow wristbands, but it looks boring. Masochistic even. I click on the travel company's website to examine said itinerary. Hiking, rafting and...three days of road biking. I wince.

But I've left my chance for choices behind. I'll be traveling with Backroads, a travel company for the type of people who are too busy to make their own itineraries (or, apparently, read them). Its clients are mostly the doctor and lawyer types Waylon once sang about: Type As who haven't the time to research trails, lodges and equipment rentals for themselves. So Backroads does all the lifting for you. It's a simple formula: Pick a region (there's a choice of 37 countries), the activities (there are 228 itineraries), adult or family options, and the quality of accommodations (camping to luxury inns and hotels). The rest, from food to equipment, is taken care of.

For me, it's an experiment of sorts. This year I've done a bunch of barebones, hardcore trips that have taken me from the Amazon to Mongolia. Now I'm going to see what it feels like to have somebody pamper my bones after I've nearly broken them. The trip winds through the Canuckian grandeur of Banff and Jasper National Parks—home to several ski resorts, including Lake Louise, Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Marmot Basin—employing a mixture of foot-, pedal- and paddle-power. The accommodations are high end, such as the Relais & Chateau Post Hotel, replete with riverstone fireplaces in the bedrooms and the indulgent Temple Mountain Spa. The only thing I'll have to do without is my customary degree of personal autonomy. But when a deep-tissue massage is involved, I can become pretty darn accommodating.

So it's a week later that I'm wearing shiny bike shorts and meeting my steed, a light-as-air titanium number with tires no wider than nickels. I'm also checking out my competition—the other seven guests. Not that anybody's supposed to be competing, of course. Backroads is like camp for adults. Nonthreatening, hearty and happy—built on inclusiveness and an egalitarian slide rule of difficulty. Each day has a number of options to make activities harder or easier. But to hell with that. I'm sure somebody here has been training daily, pumping out bicycle miles to scream up the Canadian mountains. Who is it?

Well, there's the couple from California. Husband David has special biking shoes that clip into the pedals, but he seems awfully easygoing. There's the financial lawyer and his doctor wife from Connecticut. You can tell he's competitive. But after a few minutes of listening to her go on about their luggage, our dinner plans, the weather, it's clear that his wife hen-pecks him. Hard to concentrate on dominating when you're being dominated. My buddy Josh, a photographer, is also along—but he thought we were mountain biking, too. Lastly, there are two single women from the New York City area who are just too civil to be maniacs. I might, in fact, be the only one in the pack.

Our group sets off lazily, the mountain sun warming our exposed legs and arms. The sounds are of clicng gears and muted get-to-know-you conversations. Today calls for 52 miles, from the town of Banff northwest to Lake Louise Village, with Castle Mountain standing silent sentry to the East. We'll stop for lunch about halfway.

[pagebreak]

I've never been to this part of Canada. With nine million visitors a year, Banff isn't untouched, but it does have a clean, uncluttered feel. No billboards or tacky tourist shops up here. The Northern Rockies themselves are different from their southern siblings, less high and grandiose in scope. The mountains hunch their rounded, bare backs into the oversaturated blue sky like resting but wary bears, eyeing the horizon and upcoming winters. The ramrod straight pines don't reach the mountaintops; instead they crowd around the bases as expectant schoolchildren around a teacher.

The asphalt unspools quickly, almost effortlessly, under skinny tires and gyrating pedals. After a few steady uphills, Josh and I find ourselves on a steep, sinuous downhill. I charge it, pedaling wildly and lying as flat as possible over the bike's handlebars. The wind shears around my body, the trees speed into a blended green blur. Josh is right behind me. Rowdy endorphins flicker to life inside my body. A bad fall would be ugly—asphalt is hardly forgiving on bare skin—but leaning into the curves, using my hips to shift weight and riding that narrow, sometimes ragged, edge of control is nearly as exhilarating on a bike as it is on skis.

Much sooner than expected we reach the lunch spot, a campground hemmed in by tall, skinny pines. Lunch has been set up on a picnic table, and it's laden with fruit, hummus, cold meats, of whole-grain breads, fancy mustard, fruit juices, cashews...even a tablecloth and bouquet of flowers. For a man who's lived on stringy mutton, mystery meat in a can and even fire ants in recent travels, it's a shock to the system. A very happy shock. "That's why they call it Snackroads," quips one guest.

By the end of the second day, which we've spent hiking around the panoramic body of crystalline water that is famed Lake Louise, the group dynamic has gelled. Our two Canadian guides, Catherine, 30, and Jory, 27, are endlessly genial and organized. Cat is well-traveled and given to "gollies" and "super-dupers"—remnants of guiding family trips—but you can't help but forgive her unrelenting good cheer. Jory has cheerleader-blonde looks, but she's tougher than one might guess. What I find extraordinary is how well everybody listens to them—the two doctors, lawyer, financial planner and business owner show up when they're told, eat where they're told, even socialize on command. If this is a Type A group, they've given up their fangs for a pat on the back and endless snacks.

Our accommodations include several Fairmont properties—think lodges-go-luxe—and each night's food tends to the hearty and Canadian: Bison, beef and elk dishes pepper all the menus we see. "So much for losing weight," someone mumbles.

I rise on the third day—our biggest biking day, 65 miles—with a purpose. Our bright weather has turned, hinting at rain. Still, it's cool and fresh, perfect for a hard ride. I'm going to be a monster. I don't need a yellow rubber wrist thingy—I am Lance. Today's ride is mostly uphill. I don my mp3 player, tuning out my companions. Soon I'm well ahead of the rest of the group, clipping through the miles on two-lane roads as RVs lumber by. The first day I was struggling up hills in the easiest gear, but today I'm only using the middle range, powering up inclines with hellbent determination.

Thick clouds mow over the tops of the mountains, melding in color with never-melted snows on the highest peaks. A large bird follows me, hovering overhead. I flit by the occasional flash of silver waterfalls off the side of the road. I scan for bears, but see none. Still, I can feel the monster building inside. Legs pumping, pumping, faster. Click. Lower gear. More power. I'm miles in front now. It's not a competition, but it sure feels good. I was afraid this trip might kick my butt, but no. The body is capable.

A downhill. I'm hauling. Bursts of endorphin mortars are blasting through my body, and I'm pedaling harder, harder.

God, I actually like road biking.

[pagebreak]

I don't know how many times I've been driving a fast car on a steep mountain road and seen a convoy of men and women in impossibly bright outfits, forearms rested over curled handlebars, legs a slow blur in combat against the hill. I'd always thought, "Poor bastards. Now I'm one of them. It's not a masochistic slog, but simply another pace, a working of the body in nature, an opportunity to feel the road and bite of asphalt in an organic, body-in-the-wind way. Those riders have known something I've missed.

As I reach the lunch site, a misty rain has turned everything spiderweb gray, sticking its fingers between the ridges of the mountains. But I'm positively joyous, my body a fission-factory of endorphins. I zoom into the campground with a wet roostertail following my blade-thin tires.

My reward? Another groaning picnic table. I eat like someone who hasn't been fed in days.

That day may have taken our crew to extremes, but this morning we set out at a more leisurely pace to explore a glacier. The Columbia Icefield sits between Lake Louise and Jasper; six high glaciers sheathing 130 square miles of mountain in hard, rivulet-lined ice. These days it shrinks a bit each year, leaving behind a scrabble of hard, lunar-like rock. Under the eye of Kim, our charismatic glacier guide, we're outfitted in crampons and our warmest gear and led on an ice hike. Our first stop is at the edge of the glacier, where an interior river has carved a hollow beneath the ice. We clamber on wet hands and knees into a narrow burrow, discovering a cave just beyond, large enough to stand inside the blue-tinged ice. There's an otherworldliness about it, a vivid beauty, which marks everyone with expressions full of wonder. Climbing back out, we're led onto the ice itself to see the dangerous crevasses and mill wells into which the unsuspecting could easily fall. Our crampons bite into the ice as we leap over flowing streams of gin-clear water. There's something special, even calming, about the experience. Part of it must be the pure diversity of the Canadian Rockies, offering such vast extremes within such short distances.

Hours later we find ourselves aboard two rubber rafts on the Athabasca River, which is fed by the same chilly glacial waters. Dressed up in penguin-like wetsuits and rubber outerwear, our crew of 10 looks, in all honesty, grandly ridiculous. The raft trip is pleasant and relaxing, though not very turbulent, to my disappointment—until a masculine challenge goes out between the two boats near the trip's end. In a deep part of the river, all the guys take the plunge, jumping into the just-above-freezing water. The cold is an immediate, biting shock. I take—and lose—my breath. One wouldn't last very long in that river. We hastily fling ourselves back aboard after a very brisk few minutes.

On our last day, we load into a van and head to Maligne Lake. From here, we'll bike back to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge along the mostly downhill route. My need for speed is gone; it's just fun to check out the countryside. Josh and I are riding with Nancy, a quiet but game New Yorker, and we decide to go past the Fairmont and head into the town of Jasper. A cold beer is in order. Running into David, we turn him to our cause, and the group caravans down Main Street to the Jasper Brewing Company.

Propping the bikes on the street, we enter as a sweaty, thirsty mass. The talk is easy, and the beer goes down even easier. Though I can't imagine under what other circumstances our strange little group would even be a group, there's a beauty in that. Besides, the fMore power. I'm miles in front now. It's not a competition, but it sure feels good. I was afraid this trip might kick my butt, but no. The body is capable.

A downhill. I'm hauling. Bursts of endorphin mortars are blasting through my body, and I'm pedaling harder, harder.

God, I actually like road biking.

[pagebreak]

I don't know how many times I've been driving a fast car on a steep mountain road and seen a convoy of men and women in impossibly bright outfits, forearms rested over curled handlebars, legs a slow blur in combat against the hill. I'd always thought, "Poor bastards. Now I'm one of them. It's not a masochistic slog, but simply another pace, a working of the body in nature, an opportunity to feel the road and bite of asphalt in an organic, body-in-the-wind way. Those riders have known something I've missed.

As I reach the lunch site, a misty rain has turned everything spiderweb gray, sticking its fingers between the ridges of the mountains. But I'm positively joyous, my body a fission-factory of endorphins. I zoom into the campground with a wet roostertail following my blade-thin tires.

My reward? Another groaning picnic table. I eat like someone who hasn't been fed in days.

That day may have taken our crew to extremes, but this morning we set out at a more leisurely pace to explore a glacier. The Columbia Icefield sits between Lake Louise and Jasper; six high glaciers sheathing 130 square miles of mountain in hard, rivulet-lined ice. These days it shrinks a bit each year, leaving behind a scrabble of hard, lunar-like rock. Under the eye of Kim, our charismatic glacier guide, we're outfitted in crampons and our warmest gear and led on an ice hike. Our first stop is at the edge of the glacier, where an interior river has carved a hollow beneath the ice. We clamber on wet hands and knees into a narrow burrow, discovering a cave just beyond, large enough to stand inside the blue-tinged ice. There's an otherworldliness about it, a vivid beauty, which marks everyone with expressions full of wonder. Climbing back out, we're led onto the ice itself to see the dangerous crevasses and mill wells into which the unsuspecting could easily fall. Our crampons bite into the ice as we leap over flowing streams of gin-clear water. There's something special, even calming, about the experience. Part of it must be the pure diversity of the Canadian Rockies, offering such vast extremes within such short distances.

Hours later we find ourselves aboard two rubber rafts on the Athabasca River, which is fed by the same chilly glacial waters. Dressed up in penguin-like wetsuits and rubber outerwear, our crew of 10 looks, in all honesty, grandly ridiculous. The raft trip is pleasant and relaxing, though not very turbulent, to my disappointment—until a masculine challenge goes out between the two boats near the trip's end. In a deep part of the river, all the guys take the plunge, jumping into the just-above-freezing water. The cold is an immediate, biting shock. I take—and lose—my breath. One wouldn't last very long in that river. We hastily fling ourselves back aboard after a very brisk few minutes.

On our last day, we load into a van and head to Maligne Lake. From here, we'll bike back to the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge along the mostly downhill route. My need for speed is gone; it's just fun to check out the countryside. Josh and I are riding with Nancy, a quiet but game New Yorker, and we decide to go past the Fairmont and head into the town of Jasper. A cold beer is in order. Running into David, we turn him to our cause, and the group caravans down Main Street to the Jasper Brewing Company.

Propping the bikes on the street, we enter as a sweaty, thirsty mass. The talk is easy, and the beer goes down even easier. Though I can't imagine under what other circumstances our strange little group would even be a group, there's a beauty in that. Besides, the food is good. And the cycling rocks. Yes, even more than mountain biking.

THE DETAILS
Backroads' Canadian Rockies Multisport trip is available in several iterations: Premiere Inns, Casual Inns, and Camping, plus the same three options exclusively for families. (Family trips are designed to be flexible and offer itineraries tailored to children, with longer options for adults. Every family trip is accompanied by a Kid Coordinator, who helps plan their activities.)

Visit backroads.com or call 800-462-2848 for more information on these adventures, plus similar ones including the Yellowstone & Tetons Multisport, Colorado and Utah Rafting and Glacier National Park Multisport.

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he food is good. And the cycling rocks. Yes, even more than mountain biking.

THE DETAILS
Backroads' Canadian Rockies Multisport trip is available in several iterations: Premiere Inns, Casual Inns, and Camping, plus the same three options exclusively for families. (Family trips are designed to be flexible and offer itineraries tailored to children, with longer options for adults. Every family trip is accompanied by a Kid Coordinator, who helps plan their activities.)

Visit backroads.com or call 800-462-2848 for more information on these adventures, plus similar ones including the Yellowstone & Tetons Multisport, Colorado and Utah Rafting and Glacier National Park Multisport.

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