Cycle touring in BC’s Northwest

🕔Aug 04, 2010

We live in a breathtakingly beautiful part of the world and there are many ways to see it, whether as a destination or a journey. Every summer there are hundreds of people who travel this land by bicycle, utilizing our (for the most part) excellent highways. Mountains, lush greenery, roiling rivers and streams, large mammals chewing said greenery—all at an average of 20 kilometers per hour. This extended, mobile camping trip seems more like adventure than travel.

Self-supported cycle touring in the Northwest requires certain preparations to make sure the expedition goes smoothly and safely. Obviously, attempting to tour without being in bike shape is foolhardy. Bringing the right equipment will ensure you survive intact. Remember that being outdoors all day is not only what makes touring fun, but also the very thing that can make the trip a horrific ordeal. You’re at the mercy of the elements; a few key things can be done to meet their challenges.

Summer in BC includes a shockingly wide variation in weather conditions and temperatures. On the last tour I made, it rained every day from Hazelton to Radium Hot Springs. Conditions were so wet and cold that I bought a high-tech wool undershirt in Jasper and vowed that the next time I toured it would be with neoprene gloves. Still, I had just enough clothes to keep from being perpetually soaked and used a hand dryer in a public rest room to dry a jersey. After Radium it was roasting hot through the Kootenays and into the Okanagan. I no longer felt an all-around rot, but a chronic parchedness.

Vital fluids
It’s imperative to cycle with plenty of water. Some people prefer a hydration pack; I pack three 750 ml bottles with two on my bike frame. Never pass up an opportunity to refill your containers. When it’s really hot, I try to drink something with sugar and salt in it, like defizzed cola or a sport drink. If you’re dizzy and disoriented, it may not be just a sign of dehydration but of heat sickness. Fortunately, cycling creates a breeze that evaporates your sweat and helps to keep you cool. However, the slow climb of a long hill in the mid-day heat can put you in extreme duress. If you are absolutely sure that you can find water up the road, pour some of what you’re packing on your head, especially on the soft spot at the back. When a cyclist runs out of water, it’s tempting to drink out of a stream even with the threat of giardia. Research the symptoms so you can claim that you’re making an educated decision.

Even more common that dehydration is the terrible “bonk” of running out of food energy. It’s a wretched, jittery weakness, the kind of empty rush that forces you to eat weird things like a mustard packet. Eating regularly—perhaps every time you stop to rest—will prevent this, but it’s wise to always have some food with you. I carry an emergency energy bar and make sure to replace it immediately if needed.

There are a few other things to keep in mind to maintain the human machine that powers the two-wheel steed. There are many discomforts and even injuries that may result from a poorly adjusted bike. A lot of people pedal with their seat too low. You don’t want to hyperextend your knee, but you do want your leg to extend nearly straight for maximum power in each stroke. Knee problems can result from pedals that are set to make the rider pigeon-toed or splay-footed.

Protecting the rear
The saddle itself can bring about a myriad of aches and pains, and not just to your butt. Adjust the heck out of it fore and aft, up and down. It’s also a smart decision to wear cycling shorts with a chamois pad. I use a chamois cream (sometimes derided as ‘taint lube’) to prevent saddle sores. Not saddle-sore, which is what you may be for a while anyway, but saddle sores, which are like ghastly boils on your undercarriage. They hurt like hell and are impossible to ignore. Some say French cyclist Laurent Fignon lost a Tour de France because of nasty saddle sores. One preventative measure is to change out of your cycling shorts before you even set up camp for the night. Another is to keep clean. If you do get a bad saddle sore, keep it lubed (even petroleum jelly will do in a pinch) and take a day off.

Most of the care and upkeep of the bicycle is simple. Keep your drive train clean—the chain, the gear sprockets and the little wheels on the rear derailleur—and the chain oiled. I prefer to start my tours with a new or fairly new chain. It’s not only a dirty chain but also a stretched chain that will wear down the rest of the drive train.
You will get a flat tire at some point in your journey. Be aware that riding on wet roads increases the chances of getting a flat, as objects like rocks and glass shards stick to the wet rubber instead of spinning off. I always carry equipment to change and inflate a tube (spare tube, tire irons, frame pump) on all my bikes. The way to become comfortable with changing a tube is to practice. For those who are not inspired to rehearse, I can guarantee that the prospect of pushing a loaded bike several kilometers will inspire quick learning. Some touring cyclists also bring a spare tire. I never have, though my 2005 trip with Vancouver Island at its core featured two sidewall blowouts that necessitated hitchhiking with the bulging bike.

Tools to tote
Beyond the tube-changing equipment, a bike-specific multi-tool is essential. There are several companies that make a jackknife-style tool that has a few allen keys and a couple of screwdrivers that fold into the handle. Bring one! Some folks include a couple of spare spokes and tools to deal with a broken spoke, but these are not crucial. Save weight by just packing the basic tools.

A cell phone seems like a must for safe touring in the Northwest, but where there’s unfettered, uninterrupted nature there are also huge areas without service. In fact, some of the giant stretches with no amenities or even evidence of humanity demand extra supplies of food and water. Two gaps of note are Terrace-to-Prince Rupert and Prince George-to-McBride. Cyclists will be tempted to split the PG-McB stretch into a leg to the Purden Lake provincial campground followed by a long haul to McBride the next day. Be aware there’s no way to get food on this 200 km route except by foraging or desperately flagging down motorists and begging whatever’s left on the bottom of their Dorito bags.

There are plenty of items to bring on a self-sufficient trip, but just as important are the things NOT to bring. Cycling a loaded bike is, not surprisingly, more difficult than riding an unburdened one, so have the guts to cut out equipment and garments. It’s not unusual to haul 20+ kilos in panniers or a trailer. Believe me: you’ll feel every single kilo when the road tilts up. The night before I start a tour, I lay all my gear out on a tarp and remove one item. If you’re touring with panniers fore and two aft, distribute the weight 60/40 back and front. Too much weight on the front forks makes the steering twitchy. Keep the weight at the bottom of the bags. Those using handlebar bags should pack them very lightly.

When planning a long-range, self-supported bike trip, it’s helpful to think of it as an expedition. A mindfulness of possible obstacles and tribulations will minimize consternation and maximize the wonder and excitement of two-wheeled travel in this wild portion of the province.