Outdoor Adventures

The art of cycle touring


Thirty years ago, Alberto Rodriguez and his family made the choice to start travelling by bike. It was a decision that would transform how they explored their world—one which Rodriguez recommends for anybody.

“We wanted to travel in a different way that would allow us to be more in touch with our surroundings,” he explains. “That made a huge difference: the ability to go slow, stop and be approached by people and really get to know the place you’re in.

“It’s been a real family affair,” he adds.

When their son was four years old, Rodriguez and his wife took him on the Camino Portugués, from Lisbon to Santiago de Compostela, some 600 kilometres end to end. Other trips have taken them through Cuba, Scandinavia and western Canada.

For those who get out on the odd weekend for a couple of leisurely kilometres, that might seem like a stretch. But Rodriguez suggests starting small and building up, doing some research and perhaps joining an organization, such as the Edmonton Bicycle and Touring Club, where he’s been a member for more than 25 years.

From there, it’s just a matter of getting out the door and starting to ride. Alberta has some of the finest cycling anywhere, right on our doorstep. All it takes to get started is a little know-how and a push.

Ben Johnson got his first serious taste for the sport when he and some friends self-guided themselves through the French Alps, following the course of the Tour de France. After travelling and adventuring around the world, he landed in Alberta.

A millwright by trade, Johnson was restless, inspired more by the Alberta scenery than his chosen profession. That’s how Mountain Madness Tours began. Six years later, he now coordinates group trips on some of Alberta and BC’s best rides.

When asked his favourite route, he doesn’t hesitate.

“The granddaddy of them all: Jasper to Waterton,” he says. “You knock off three national parks, and the three highest passes in western Canada. And then you’ve just got all the wildlife, lakes, waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, ranchlands and rolling hills.”

Climbing mountain passes on a pedal bike might sound intimidating, but Johnson recalls one cyclist he met who proved that wrong. This man had recently trimmed down from 350 lbs to about 250 lbs. He was slowly working to overcome weight-related health issues, including arthritis and diabetes.

“When he made it to the top of Bow Summit, there were tears in his eyes,” Johnson says. “It was great to see.”

Motivation only takes you so far, of course. Whether you’re with a tour or self-guided, good preparation is invaluable. On roads and highways in the west, you can often be hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town or gas station. Weather can be unpredictable, and there’s gear, food, navigation and lodging to consider.

Going with a tour organizer like Mountain Madness or taking a support vehicle relieves a lot of the burden, but it is possible to self-support your adventure as well. For the latter, that opens up the world of panniers (or saddlebags), tenting gear, repair tools, food, clothing and general supplies to get you between Canada’s spread-out patches of civilization.

Packing for cycle touring is minimalism at its best: getting the lightest weight, highest benefit items into a couple of small bags. For repairs, at minimum you should have a bike multi-tool, a couple of tubes and some idea of how to use them, so you’re not stuck with a flat in the middle of nowhere, or struggling along with chafing brakes.

Tenters will want small tents, sleeping bags and between two-to-three days’ worth of food (including lots of snacks for fuel on the road) at a time. For that unpredictable weather, it’s always nice having rain gear and warm layers somewhere near the top of the panniers. The list of essentials will vary depending on where you’re going, for how long and how you’re supported.

Rodriguez recommends reading up on how others have approached long-distance cycling to get a sense of what works best for you, and to familiarize yourself with where you’re going. One of his favourite resources, which many cyclists follow, is crazyguyonabike.org, where cyclists share stories of their latest adventures in various parts of the world.

Now in his early 60s, Rodriguez is still churning out the kilometres on his bike. Last summer, he walked out the front door of his Edmonton home, saddled up and rode to Valdez, Alaska over the course of 37 days.

“It was an amazing opportunity to see the countryside,” Rodriguez says. “[Cycle touring] has totally changed my perspective … any time you arrive in a place with your bike and your panniers, it attracts people. They want to know where you’re going. I hear a lot of people saying, ‘oh, I wish I could do that.’

“I just say, go for it—just get on that bike and get going. You’ll never regret it.”

Edmonton cycling resources

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