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Breezy Way to See Canada Is Behind Handlebars

May 18, 1986|MARY SPLETTER | Spletter is a Berkeley, Calif., free-lance writer.

BANFF, Canada — Forty-three miles to the next campground may not sound difficult, but on the first day of my bicycle trip it felt like a triathlon.

The fact that we were traveling through the Canadian Rockies--some of the most majestic alpine scenery in the world--didn't ease my apprehension about what to do with an 18-speed bike; until then I had only straddled an antiquated, rusty three-speed.

My husband, Jeff, and I decided to tackle the adventure as a way to learn if we wanted to buy bikes and start to see the world from behind handlebars.

We were enticed by the description of a six-day Canadian Rockies trip offered by Backroads Bicycle Touring of San Leandro, Calif. The trip is one of several thousand being offered this year by an estimated 150 tour groups and 500 bicycle clubs.

This one seemed perfect for us. It was described as "the vacation of a lifetime" on "one of the finest bicycling roads in the world" among "a veritable mountain wonderland." It was for "beginners, intermediate and advanced bikers." Our neighbors would be "elk, bear, bighorn sheep, mule deer and moose."

Just Pedal

A sag wagon would transport suitcases, tents and sleeping bags from campsite to campsite. All meals would be prepared.

All we would have to do was pedal.

Our 26-member group, ranging in age from 11 to 56, made up a rich assortment of storytelling around the evening campfire. We included a restaurant owner from Chicago, a woman rabbi from St. Louis, a mechanic from Albuquerque, plus a linguist, a banker, a pediatrician, a nutritionist, a gardener and a trio of engineers.

Even if we didn't produce an updated "Canterbury Tales" on our 180-mile journey, we could play a hard game of Trivial Pursuit.

We got acquainted with our rental bikes on a 10-mile jaunt from the Banff train station to our campsite at Two Jack Lake.

I felt amazingly uncomfortable with the high seat and low handlebars that seemed to put me in an ideal position for going head-over-heels the first time I applied one of two sets of brakes.

Working the gears seemed as difficult as trying to learn to drive a stick shift car. But with three hills to conquer before I reached camp, I soon became friends with my low "granny gears." They made all the difference in the world.

Food as Advertised

It seemed to take forever to reach the camp, but once there, we found the food as advertised. I felt as if I were on a cruise ship. Wine and cheese were already on the table. Dinner at 7 p.m. included more wine, barbecued steak and chicken, huge baked potatoes, corn-on-the-cob, heaping bowls of salad and piping-hot carrot cake. I decided I might enjoy biking after all.

The next day my enthusiasm for biking went up and down with the hills we rode toward Lake Louise. It was a love-hate relationship affected by the truly spectacular views of the Rockies and by the amount of pain my body was feeling.

At the end of the first 43 miles, even the food couldn't compensate for the soreness in my hands and the tenderness of my backside that made me feel I would never be able to sit down again.

At the end of the second day I glowed when I learned that one of our fellow bikers had lost her chain. "She can ride my bike tomorrow," I volunteered. I would be quite happy in the van. No such luck.

Backroads was prepared for everything, even a breakdown of a bike. I wondered if they could cope with the breakdown of a person. I definitely needed new parts.

The low point of the trip was still ahead. We were pedaling up and down some of the biggest hills we had seen when it started to rain, then hail. Hard kernels of hail bounced off our helmets as we pedaled faster than ever. Strong headwinds even robbed us of the enjoyment of what should have been easy downhill coasting.

On the Verge of Tears

Within a mere 10 miles our van was there to pick us up. On the verge of tears, I said to Jeff, "Let's look for a new sport. I can't believe I'm doing this to myself on a vacation." I continued with my litany of complaints: "We haven't even seen any wildlife."

But on the third day the most magnificent event happened: When I woke up I didn't hurt. Adding to my amazement was that it was sunny, much of the day's route was to be on downhill roads and that night we were scheduled to stay in a hotel. That meant a warm shower, a luxury.

It was one of the most enjoyable days of any vacation I've ever experienced. I was finally beginning to feel like a biker. I had paid my dues.

The mountain peaks were endless, the lakes truly unpolluted and turquoise, and the power of the waterfalls awesome. Even when pedaling uphill I could enjoy the beauty of the wild roadside heather, columbine and Indian paintbrush.

The next day's 43-mile leisurely ride into Mt. Kerkeslin campground left plenty of time to swim and relax at Honeymoon Lake Campground. I actually found myself saying after our stop, "It's only another 10 miles into camp." That night I still had enough energy left for a game of Frisbee.

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