Two-Wheel Travel:

🕔Mar 27, 2008

They loom more than seven hundred kilometres to the east: the Rockies. Pass after pass, climb after climb, jutting into my dreams.
I’ve been looking at the elevation profiles for over a year in Paul Wood’s Cycling British Columbia and on-line, preparing myself for the longest, hardest cycling tour of my life. This summer, on a retrofitted old frame, I will roll my fourth tour of BC, this time from Hazelton to Osoyoos via the Jasper-to-Lake-Louise Icefield Parkway and the Kootenays before returning North. The route includes what is for me the final Highway 16 frontier: Prince George to Jasper.
You see the cycling tourists on the road from April to late September: spandex-clad cyclists powering bikes laden with bulging bags fore and aft, or towing a fat little trailer. They are bronzed by the sun and, if not lean, at least solid. You zoom past them in your car, swinging wide to buzz the rumble strip, thinking, “This is their vacation? It looks a lot like work!”
And it most certainly is. I have suffered more on a bike while touring than while racing, struggling uphill for three straight hours in 30-degree heat on my last trip, for instance. So what’s the appeal of such a strenuous journey?
The shoulder of the road is where one maintains a balance of speed and immersion in one’s setting. Northwest BC, taken at an average of 23 kilometers an hour, is a miasma of smells, a patchwork of differing temperatures, and a symphony of sounds. You’re not separated from your environment, and you move through it at a rate that allows you to experience its variations and splendour. Forests of trees—both green and red—hem you in or stretch away along curvaceous hills. Rivers escort you and lakes beckon. At one point you notice that a bird is racing you. Then you camp. Life is simplified: as simple as the pavement, the wheels, and the legpower to haul the bike, its rider, and twenty-five or so personal objects across the middle of the province.
Not that the shoulders themselves are always kind. Smithers, for instance, has lousy shoulders whether you’re heading east or west. The outside rumble strips keep you far from the traffic, while the broken glass, bungee cords and other roadside detritus keep you alert. Also, you have the tendency to sneak up on animals, so be careful not to startle a moose (or bear!). Otherwise, most of northwest BC’s shoulders—once they’ve been swept of the winter’s gravel—are excellent.
Highway 16 is hilly, but not mountainous (although I state this without having biked to Jasper yet). Hungry Hill and Six Mile Hill are the major ascents, with many shorter lumps between Prince George and Prince Rupert. In 2002 my twin 14-year-old nephews and I cycled to Osoyoos and back, through the Cariboo and Okanagan, and we agreed that Hungry Hill is tolerable because you can always see the top—a mandatory rest stop. But then again, we also gorged on my father’s famous fudge before we tackled it. At its lumpiest, the Yellowhead is like a roller coaster: daily you’ll tackle a series of tough 500-metre to two-kilometre hills, where you climb and cruise…climb and cruise. Most noticeably, you’ll descend into and climb out of practically every town along this 750 km route.
Although the long, uninterrupted stretches of wilderness hold the major appeal of the George to Rupert route, its lack of settlements necessitates carrying adequate water and food. The longest barren stretch is between Terrace and Prince Rupert, though for hydration you can usually just tip your head back and fill up on rain. In all seriousness, the only time I rode this 145 km route, it poured so hard for so long that I had to drain my ears at the local Tim Hortons. (Speaking of Timmy’s, feel free to load up on road goodies when you have the chance: you can indulge in donuts all you want on a vacation like this!)
Since self-supported bicycle touring is an extended camping trip on wheels, finding a nice patch of grass is of utmost value. There are a few provincial campgrounds and many private sites along the Yellowhead, although the Burns Lake municipal ground is the only one I know of that’s free. I’ve stayed there on three different occasions and always felt safe. Campsites range from ten to fifteen dollars and need to have bathroom/shower facilities and a picnic table to be worthy of your patronage.
Of course, a cycling tourist is very conspicuous, and although you may not always be the centre of attention at rest stops and campgrounds, you’ll certainly receive many comments and questions. I’ve noticed that often the people who engage me in conversation are slightly disappointed that I’m a local and not from Ireland, Germany or at least the USA. Generous, good-hearted folks may offer a cold beverage from their cooler. Other bike geeks will get out of their vehicles and be almost apologetic about driving a car as they scrutinize your gear and growing quadriceps.
I’m a bicycle advocate in general. I can’t think of a more efficient and exhilarating Rob-Sturney transportation-delivery system. The summer bike tour is rewarding and even relaxing (despite the exertion!), and it’s the best way of experiencing a lush ribbon’s worth of British Columbia.