Monday, June 15, 2009

A Perfect Ride Up Highwood Pass

...Except for the blown spoke halfway up.

The most excellent day really started the night before. We drove out to Canmore for the night – crazy Alberta thunderstorm most of the way—and had dinner at the Crazy Weed Kitchen. Someone had suggested it to Nicole, so that was the plan.

“So where is this place?”
“Let’s see, I’ve got the address ri..”
“Wait, don’t tell me, I know where it is. Let’s see if my memory is right.”

When I lived in Field, we’d come into Banff and Canmore all the time, and Crazy Weed was one of those great little hole-in-the-wall places with food that blew your mind. I was sure that it was on Main street next to the Bear’s Paw Brewery… we drove past slowly…

“There! That’s where it… was. Crap. What did you say the address is?”

Well, we did find the new building (It’s now next to the tracks at the west end of Railway Ave) and had the best meal we’ve had in a long time. The consensus among our friends is that with the boom over the past five or so years, service in Calgary has been horrible. So the combination of great food and great service has been rare, at best. Or, we’ve found that maybe the appetizer was good, the main not so much, or the presentation is good, but the food is over-complicated but falls flat, and we’re left feeling like we paid too much.

Crazy Weed was phenomenal. From the complimentary flatbread and red-pepper dip, to the mussels, to our mains, to the wine, through dessert, the food was fabulous. Unique without being pretentious or over-thought, we could taste the high quality of the ingredients, and the perfect preparation. And the view! The skies had cleared, and the large windows offered a fantastic view of the mountains. We will definitely be going back.

The next day, we met Kim and Dan, Steve and Heather at The Summit Café for a great breakfast, sitting outside on the patio. I highly recommend the Maple Latte! Fuel tanks full, we caravanned into K-Country (Kananaskis for you non-Albertans) to meet up with Kaely at the end of the road. That’s right- the End Of The Road. From December 1 to June 15th every year, a section of Highway 40—Highwood Pass—is closed to motorized vehicles, making it the Perfect Ride, if you get the weather. Last Saturday, it snowed, so was probably un-rideable, but we had Perfect Weather!

About an hour after leaving the café, we were at the gate. As we crested the last rise before the gate, it was obvious we weren’t the only ones hoping to ride the traffic-free highway. Judging by the number of vehicles parked on the side (and how many people we saw), there were easily 200 cyclists. And everything from mountain bikes, tandems, parents hauling chariots, to “sponsored”, fully spandexed, full carbon-fiber riding serious cyclist. The variety was expected, the volume was almost . Though there were so many out enjoying the weather and the view, it certainly did not feel crowded once we got going.

We took our time. Our group was somewhat varied: two every-day commuters, an Ironman who hasn’t ridden much this year, a Marathoner, a Ride-to-Conquer-Cancer participant, and two evening-and-weekend triathletes. Ironically, the smoker was by far the strongest rider—but he also commutes by bike daily. We rode hard in places, easier in others, a few of us looped back once or twice, and we all took a lot of breaks on the way up.

Minor Disaster

I was having fun with my bike computer – probably not super-accurate, but it was fun to see how fast I could go on the two downhills we faced on the way up. I hit 61 km/h – but it was starting to feel a little wobbly, so I backed off. Good thing, too. As the uphill began in earnest, just as I dropped to my bottom gear for a long slog, PTWAANGG….CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK.

I looked down, twisting out of my pedals as I lurched to a stop—broken spoke. It sheared off right near the rim. As everyone pulled up around me, I worked it free from the hub, wondering what I’d do next. Steve, the self-made bike mechanic, rambled on about spoke wrenches and trying to true the now-wobbly wheel, and how Clydesdales like us need more spokes than I was riding (love you, dude), Kaely cut to the point—yeah, we could try and fix it, but we could also royally f*** it up. Best thing to do would be to unhook the back brake (that was rubbing against the crooked wheel), and either keep going, or turn back.

After a few experimental meters, there was no way I was NOT going to make it to the top – not on a day like this, on a ride like this, with great friends like this. I was less worried about the climb, more worried about the descent. No speed records for me.

According to “Done In A Day – Calgary, The 10 Premier Road Rides” – the guidebook I’d picked up at MEC earlier in the week, the final pitch to the Pass would be rated a Category 1 ascent, and I have no doubt it’s true. Dan was ahead of me coming up to it, so I pushed a little to get on his back wheel, and just stayed on it for the whole final grind. Despite the cool breeze (there was snow just off the road at this point), the hot sun and effort had sweat and sunscreen pouring into my eyes. I didn’t dare stop, I had to stay on Dan’s wheel!

Just when you’re starting to wonder if it will ever end, you see the festival that is the summit. On either side of the road, two signs that both say: "HIGHWOOD PASS 2210 m 7250 ft" and what first registers as an accident – cyclists and bikes lying on the road, bikes everywhere. Dozens of people milling about. It’s no accident—we’ve made it!!

Slowly, the rest of the group pulled in, and we spent a good half an hour lounging around, snacking, sunbathing, and talking to other victorious cyclists (some of whom were there for the second time that day, having climbed the opposite side, coasted down to where we were parked, then climbed back up). Such a great feeling!

The Descent

I headed down first, because I knew I’d want to go slow. My back brake was still disconnected, so I was riding the front the whole way, sitting up in the saddle to offer as much area to the wind as possible, instead of riding low and aerodynamic. Still, I slowly built my way up to about 55, without feeling too unsteady. At one point, though, I passed Nicole, and she yelled at me to “slow down!! Your back wheel is wobbling!!”

Of course coming down was a lot faster than going up! We stopped a few times, and after the first of the two minor hills we had to climb, Kaely crowed: “Dude, I just passed two sponsored guys on that last hill!”

“What were they wearing?”
“Matching jerseys with (name of a local bike shop) all over them!”
“You know you can buy those, right?”
“Ha! That’s so lame!!”

I don’t know if any of you readers wear shop jerseys, but I kind of agree that it’s pretty funny when someone wearing a jersey like that gets passed by some dude on a cyclocross bike (with knobby tires) wearing a plain t-shirt and baggy shorts. But who am I to talk? I’ve got all the gear, and buddy was passing me, too.

Just after that, we were flying down the hill again, when I spotted two riders on the side of the road, standing next to their bikes, staring at what turned out to be a very flat tire. I slowed down, turned around, and cranked back up the hill to check it out. They were about 5-6 km from the gate, heading up the hill, and had nothing to fix the flat!

Well, maybe it was the sprung spoke, or the beautiful weather, or the recollection of the half-dozen flats I’ve suffered (at least one of which I was similarly unprepared for), I pulled off my backpack, fished out my gear, and started pulling the back wheel off the bike. The sheepish rider was very, very thankful, as I showed him my tire levers, how to take the tire off and the tube out. I pulled out my pump, and tried to find the leak to see if it could be repaired, but it turned out to be more than one pinch flat—not worth patching. I had no less than three spare tubes on me, so I wasn’t going to miss one. I made them promise to go and pick up some spare tubes, tire levers, at least one pump, maybe a patch kit, and suggested a floor pump with a pressure gauge would also be a good investment, since pinch flats are usually due to a lack of tire pressure. Most bike shops have courses showing you how to fix a flat—and YouTube has some pretty instructional stuff, too.

I’ve learned all those lessons the hard way—it’s much better to have an extra spare to help someone in need!! I have to say too, that most of they cyclists who passed us while we chatted and fixed the tire, slowed down “Got everything you need?” “Everything okay?”.

What a great sport, a great day, and a great ride. The ice cream at the gas station just capped it off!

Pictures are coming—that’s a whole other story of the sneaky camera that didn’t make it up the hill because it was hiding. Fortunately, Kaely brought a camera, so I just have to get the pics from him. I'll post them when I get them...