August 12, 2008

Things I Learned/Recommend

First off, let's look at a few stats for the trip:
Trip 62 days = 4 days off, 58 riding days
Total distance = 6980 km (4337 miles)
Average distance/day = 120 km/day (75 miles/day)
Total elevation gain = 38430 meters (126000 feet)
Average elevation gain/day = 663 meters/day (2207 feet/day)
Number of flats = 1

Ok, if you've been thinking of biking across Canada, my recommendation is DON'T. After having done it, I just don't think it's safe because of poor road conditions. And probably will get worse before it gets better. I'd recommend riding from Vancouver to Calgary, skip the plains and get to Toronto where you can bike all the way to Halifax. The scenery and people of the middle provinces are wonderful, but your life is worth more. If you do cross Canada, ride defensively, don't hesitate to ride into the gravel on the shoulder and give the trucks the road.

For the bike, wider tires are better (but a little slower). The roads are in terrible condition and there also are huge winter thaw cracks in the asphalt. Plus, if you end up in the gravel on the shoulder, wider tires will help you keep your balance. My Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires did great, 7000-km and still going. The only flat I had was from a construction stable in Calgary. I liked the wider MTB handlebars instead of drop bars. Even though I use panniers, I'd recommend a BOB Trailer. Everything is just easier with a BOB, like wind resistance and packing.

Every Canadian we met was warm and friendly. The number one question was "Why, are you doing this for charity?" They didn't seem to understand biking across Canada for fun. And when you say you started in Vancouver, they will automatically assume you're Canadian and live in Vancouver. If you tell them you are from anywhere else, they will assume you rode from there.

Climbing the mountain passes in British Columbia is hard but not that hard. Manitoba is flatter than Saskatchewan. Ontario is hilly but with lots of peaceful farm roads. The bike lanes and routes in Quebec make it a bike riders dream province. The winds generally blow west to east, but not always.

A few foods we found unique to Canada: ketchup potato chips; poutine (french fries covered with cheese and gravy) and donair (shaved beef with a bed of onions and tomato on a pita).

Okay, Here's a few equipment thoughts. I loved my alcohol stove but would recommend a multi-fuel stove that can use gasoline. I carried a laptop and was able to find Wifi internet access every 3 or 4 days but would highly recommend Pocketmail for email because pay phones are still everywhere in Canada (Pocketmail is cheap, lightweight and easy to use). Don't forget to pack DEET and get at least a head net for the mosquitoes and black flies. Make sure you have good rain gear. And in this age of digital photography, take more photos. You can always delete the ones you don't want. Plus, keep a journal because you will never remember all the little things that made the trip so good.

If you go, try and find a partner or two to ride with. Campgrounds are not cheap but most charge by the site, not the person. We paid about $25/night at both provincial parks and private RV parks which is a lot more manageable if split two or three ways. Compared to the American Midwest, prices, especially food prices, are high. Sometimes almost double. So budget accordingly.

Plan on days off but not just off the bike, totally off. Pick some place remote where there is nothing to do except rest and relax. Touring cities like Montreal and Quebec on foot or hiking in the mountains around Banff is not a day off for your physical recovery.

But I think the most valuable lessons I learned were more of an internal nature. Many factors like the constant rain really put my inner mind outside of it's comfort zone. When you are having difficulty and riding a bike, the only person you can talk to is yourself. And you do it a lot. Sometimes my inner conversations would get pretty bleak but at other times I was able to accept reality for what it was and be happy to be able to 'live' it.

It was a good trip but I'm glad it's over. On to the next adventure.