Icefields Parkway – the double traverse
This weekend trip has been in the planning for about 6 months. Not a lot of planning happens for sports 6 months in advance of the actual dates except for important things, signing up for races that tend to sell out, setting plans for biking across the entire continent of North America in 9 weeks, deciding to race the cyclocross season and starting to look for a bike… and planning the Icefields Parkway double traverse.
The plan was to ride the entire length of the Icefields parkway in a day, stay overnight at the other end, and then hop back on the bikes the next day and try to do the whole thing again. All total the distance for the weekend would be about 470 kilometers and the climbing would be around 12000 feet, split 5150-6850 between days 1 and 2. Neither day would break my personal records for single day total mileage nor elevation gained but placed back to back it was going to be a challenge. Scheduled at the end of my peaking for the season’s A race this would be a good way to put in some solid hours and good effort in time for the training effect of them to be absorbed in time for race day. It was also going to be an event unto itself, riding 235 kilometers through the mountains is no joke and then doing it all over again the second day made for a plan that was going to be fun. Three brave souls took the bait on this adventure, Ben Adam, Stefan Schreiber and myself. We would meet up overnight with some other friends staying in Jasper for a mountain biking weekend and they could shuttle some clean clothes and extra food for us to recharge and refresh at the halfway point of the adventure.
Saturday morning we set out at 8:25 am with blue skies and cruised up the beginning of the parkway towards Bow Summit, reaching the top with an average speed slightly below 30 kph, 1700 feet had already been gained and as it was still relatively early in the morning our slight headwind wasn’t much to be concerned with. After cresting the pass it was a straight shot down the north slopes of Bow Pass the wind had shifted and we enjoyed a tailwind down to Saskatchewan River crossing. The pass runs about 8% for the first 6 kilometers of descending and with the tailwind I was able to run my speedometer into the low eighties, 84 to be exact. No speed record yet. The tailwind continued along waterfowl lake and all the way down to the river, we averaged 45 kilometers per hour for the 35 kilometer descent. Continuing north our tailwind began to die down as we started the rolling climb towards Sunwapta Pass. The sky was blue and it was here that it really started to heat up. Climbing began well enough here as both Stefan and Ben escaped off ahead, the wind was picking up again as it flowed down the valley away from the glaciers like it normally does meaning that we were cruising straight into a headwind. Reaching the big bend Ben had gapped Stefan by 100m and both were beginning the climb as I was already about 800m back. Off up the second steeper pitch we turned briefly with the tailwind and I opted to pick up some speed to take into the hill. I must have shifted into my big ring here because 4 kilometers of 8% grade climbing later I looked down and noticed I had been running the big ring up the climb, all the lovely 53 teeth of it. A rather stupid mistake on my part but I still somehow managed to generate a climbing rhythm standing in my 53×23 ring and did ascend the hill. Ben and Stefan were literally lying in the ditch waiting for me, we were all pretty happy with having completed the challenge. Another 10 kilometers of riding through the rolling meadow up top to the visitor center and we took another break to recharge our water supplies while Stefan was fraternizing with the tourists.
The descent away from the glaciers meant that the wind was again to our advantage and probably stronger than normal due to the hot day. The descent past Tangle falls is rather exposed to the valley meaning the wind could really blow right on the road. Off down the hill I went, gunning to put that speedometer above 90 kph for the first time. I hardly pedaled into the hill and soon enough was cruising along at 80 kph with a huge smile on. The road straightened out for a stretch and I let things fly and picked up speed quickly maxing out at 94 kph before shooting into the corners. I got up out of my aerobars through a few corners as I didn’t know what was up ahead and slowed back down to a relatively slow and safe 80 kph or so before getting back on the aerobars and scooting out the bottom stretch of the hill regaining speed up to 85 again. The wind continued across the gravel flats and rolling descent all the way to the Poboktan Ranger station. The wind stopped being strictly amazing and started to play games with us for the final 60 kilometers. The generally rolling descent was fun, Stefan and Ben would escape me on the uphills and I would catch them on the downhills and then drag them across the flats. Long stretches were ridden in excess of 40 kph and soon enough we were in Jasper, before 4pm!
We soon enough learned that our friends expected our haggard arrival around 7pm and had surprised them all, we had anticipated an average speed of 30 kph but with the stronger than anticipated tailwind on our two descents of the day we had made up quite a bit of time. I rolled in with an average speed of 33.5 kph, Stefan and Ben being closer to 34 with their earlier arrivals at the tops of some hills. We ate a pre-dinner meal at the local bakery and then a double meal at dinner along with some excellent beers at the Jasper Brewing Company. The rain poured down outside while we sat indoors and tried to consume as many calories as we could instead of burning any more.
Sunday morning’s departure was at 8:00am sharp and while the rest of our friends were still asleep we cruised off to the south while the puddles from last night were drying out. The generally rolling descent to finish the day was a generally rolling ascent now and the balance of climbing to flats was tipped too far to Ben and Stefan’s advantage now. I couldn’t stay with them and needed to set my own pace. It was a frustrating one as I’d reel them in to within a few hundred meters on the flats, just in time to start another climb and then watch them slowly pull away. I was going to have to earn every kilometer of the climb. Again the early morning meant that the wind wasn’t really blowing that strong and as we cruised towards Sunwapta Pass. The views were spectacular and we passed a rather skinny looking black bear on the road. The guys waited for me near the Poboktan Ranger station and I stuck with them across the relative flats towards the base of the Tangle Falls climb. That was until Stefan decided he needed to freshen up his legs before the ascent and started a huge sprint leadout across the gravel flats by Beauty Creek. I was sure that effort would come back to kick him in the back of the head but it proved not to be so. I paused a the bottom of the climb to make sure that the other two got out of sight so I didn’t have to think about them and squeezed a bunch of water out of my camel back, I could refill up top and didn’t need to carry any extra weight. Off I went and the climb was quite enjoyable with the use of all of my gears. At about the halfway point a 10 passenger van was pulled off the road and the people were taking pictures down into the valley, when they saw me coming they all turned around and started taking pictures of me. “Allez Allez!” I had my own little cheering squad on the climb. Arriving to the Icefields Center Dad was on the side of the road, camera in hand to cheer and say hi and give us some food. Expecting him to meet us about 100 kilometers later at the top of Bow Pass, this was a welcome surprise.
We loaded up on water and ate an entire box of oreos between the four of us and because it was chilly and windy up top we got out of there relatively quickly. A quick ride across the alpine meadow got us nicely warmed up before diving off the side of the mountain down the descent. The first half of the hill towards the big corner wasn’t super fast with a side wind and then headwind and I got trapped behind a minivan and then had to pass an RV. After the corner though the wind was with us as we crossed the bridge and shot off to the south. Stefan came by me and I latched on his draft falling through it and overtaking Stefan and then basically at the same time Ben came by. We were three wide screaming down the hill at 82 kph.
The tailwind continued all the way to Saskatchewan river crossing and I towed the other two for a good portion of the trip down to the bridge. Average speed from the visitor Center to the Highway 11 turnoff: 41.3 kph! Our tailwind ended abruptly as we began the long approach to Bow Pass. I stuck with the guys for far more than I would have imagined possible on the long gentle climb. The day did finally start to get warm during this section just when the effort level was beginning to rise as well.
The final assault on the pass’s summit sent off the lead breakaway of Ben and Stefan into the distance with a lone man in the peloton (I am not the groupetto, if they attack then I didn’t get dropped they just broke away) and I managed well enough on the 8% climb 3-4 cogs down in the back. I’m quite obviously stronger this year than last when you stick me on a hill. If you measure fitness by teeth, I’ve got 6 teeth better form this year than I did last year at about this time when we crossed the Colorado Rockies and I took in more than a few climbs at 8%. In terms of strength that’s a whole 20%. The results of the Polka Dot Jersey points on our 4th categorized climb of the weekend were distributed just the same as every other climb:
Victory was celebrated at the top with a little feast from the cooler in the back of Dad’s car and I was getting excited for a bombing descent towards Lake Louise. With 40 kilometers of rolling descent to go we could probably do it in under an hour if we had it in us to keep the effort high, We’re nearly at 200 kilometers on the day and I’m setting out with hopes of cruising through that last hour in the 53×12. Can Ben stay in the draft? One group photo from the top and we’re off for a fun rolling descent. We had averaged more than 29 kph up the hill yesterday morning into the wind so it’s not unbelievably steep but it’s steep enough that having some mass is a huge advantage.
All told Day 2 would total about 20 minutes more riding than Day 1 (average speed 32.2 kph) but with a day of fatigue and a net gain of 1700 feet that was probably to be expected. The wind was probably more favorable both days than we should have anticipated and so if we were to try it again next weekend I’d probably still bet on riding around a 30 kph average speed and completing the ride in around 9 hours. It probably also helped that our group included some guys go quick on the uphills and give me motivation to climb the hills quickly and then someone (me) with more weight to push the big gears on the descents and provide a good draft for the climbers.
Complete photo gallery here