I have to admit I had reservations from the get-go about doing the Hurtin’ Albertin 550. A look at the route revealed long stretches of wide open prairie. Being a mountain dweller, my experience with these has always been novelty that quickly waned into listless ennui, and that’s when passing over them at 110 kph in a car!
I find the view of a straight, flat line to the horizon one of the more daunting ones on a bike; maybe even as intimidating as one that climbs steadily to the horizon.
Highwood Pass (AR 700)
Choose your medicine!
But, it fit nicely into my calendar and would be another new experience. I’d met and liked the 2 organizers, Justin and Trevor; so I booked it. I then cemented my decision by booking accommodations at Beiseker municipal campsite, the Grand Depart and mid-point site, and ordering a custom event cap! After that I bothered to notice that only 3 of 14 starters had completed the route last year. That was an omen I probably should have paid more attention to. Encouragingly though, I did notice several of those who had scratched last year were registering again this year.
I drove out to Canmore on Thursday and topped off my lovely mountain drive with a short ride above Canmore on the Montaine Traverse trail Friday morning.
Montaine traverse, Canmore.
I rolled into the pleasant little town of Beiseker to find the municipal campsite all set up for us and several riders camped there already. I visited with new and known riders and families while setting up camp and then the bike. After everything was ready I went to a nearby restaurant and ordered a lasagna dinner. It was after nine when I returned to camp and had a couple beers while more riders rolled in. Off to bed around 10 pm.
The Grand Depart was set for 6 AM Saturday and everyone appeared in time for a few pictures before we rolled out.
The forecasted temperature of 14 C was a bit off as it was only 6 C when we left. Suitably brisk for the peleton roll out to the gravel road. The field spread out and I rode a ways with Tom then on my own. I stopped at about 50kms in Crossfield, as I’d misread the battery level on my Garmin. What I thought said full actually was empty so I swapped in new batteries and grabbed a snack. As I was doing this, 4 riders came by so I went in pursuit. I came up on Jeff, Neil, and Felix, and our positions jockeyed back and forth to the next resupply point in Water Valley at about 116kms. This stretch was my favourite of the route.
Rider: Felix Lee
There was fleeting discussion amongst us on the way about lunch plans. I stated I was going to hit Papa Luigi’s Pizza which is what I did, arriving just behind Felix who went on past Luigi’s. Just as I ordered and checked my phone, Jeff, Neil, Rick and James all rolled in and joined me. We had a fun time over lunch. The temperature had risen and the cool cafe and cold drinks were welcomed. We were all treated royally by the girls of this family business. They washed and filled our huge collection of water bottles, responded quickly to our many requests, and were quite curious about our ride. The food was all good, and service was beyond all expectations. Highly recommended if you’re ever in Water Valley.
As the 5 of us were rolling out, Penny, Guy, and Joanna rolled in, and received the same 5 star hospitality we’d enjoyed.
As we rode on, Rick, Jeff, Neil, Felix and I seemed to yo-yo back and forth for most of the afternoon. On a long climb we encountered Justin Chadwick who was motoring backwards on the route, and offered all of us a much welcomed cold drink.
*Me. Coming up to Justin and his cooler of Coke. Thanks!
Somewhere around there I began to suffer. Nothing big or threatening, but like a bonk one sometimes encounters nearing the end of a marathon run. I seemed to lack energy and with it the motivation to keep up the pace, especially on the climbs. Not good, as I’d a ways to go to reach the height of land. I pulled over for a short off bike rest and forced down a Powerbar and a leftover 1/2 chicken wrap. My appetite had suffered all day as last night’s lasagna seemed to have put me off.
I’d planned to go offroute at 200kms for supper at the Ghost service station and after the long lunch break, I now hoped to get there by 7 pm. With the slowed pace I was now maintaining, that goal became 8 pm, and then while walking up part of another hill, I realised I’d be lucky to get there before it closed at 9 pm.
I finally reached the point where I’d have to go offroute to Ghost Station at 8:45 and as it was 3+ kms to the store decided not to risk heading there only to reach it as it closed. My plan now came to snack on bars and go a few more hours before calling it a night. I lay down on the side of the road for a 10 minute rest, when Rick, Jeff and Felix rolled up. We briefly discussed our plans for the evening. It seemed no one planned on going as far as we’d originally planned. A little ways further on, as I was descending a long hill I lost a lens off my shades. I had to stop abruptly and shine my lights around to locate it. Then I noticed headlights shining around at the base of the hill.
Jeff and Rick had found a nice grassy flat spot in the ditch and were setting out their bivys. Looked good to me. Only 210 or so kms, but my energy needed recharging. There was a brief conversation about getting going in the morning and reaching Beiseker noonish before carrying on. Pretty sure I was asleep by 11pm.
I heard voices and awoke to see Jeff heading out, all stowed away and on his bike. It was 3 am. I wished him happy trails and lay back down only to awake again at 4 to see Rick also heading out.
I dozed for awhile, had some oatmeal, packed up and was on the road by 5 am. Light was slow to come and when the Sun finally rose on the horizon, it was red through the smoke that had apparently moved in from B.C.
Having missed resupply at Ghost Station, I needed to utilize the water cache Justin and Trevor had placed knowing there was no other source for the 130km stretch between there and Beiseker. I had noted this important waypoint, even put a screenshot of its description on my phone.
Strangely though, perhaps a sign of my low energy, in my confidence I relied on my belief this cache was at kilometer 230. I came to a bridge I thought might be it but realized it had concrete and not steel barriers. I rode on following wheel tracks and watching likely turns expecting to find it. I purposely had been avoiding looking at distance travelled on the computer, as I’d found on previous trips this can become both an obsession and a source of constant disappointment. I still believe that, although I now realize exceptions need to be made. Having travelled what I thought was too far without coming across the cache, I checked my distance. 235 kms – I thought I’d gone past it by 5 kms. Only then I checked my notes which told me my error: the cache was at 218 kms, not 230 kms. Way too far to go back. I now had only my 2 litres of reserve water to cover the next 100kms.
There wasn’t much variety in either the scenery or the road surface. There was a nice section I believe was South of Water Valley that wound around a few lakes and a couple of dry-season-only 4×4 paths. The closer we got to Beiseker the more the terrain flattened out. This led to one mind-numbing 22km straight stretch with a freshly graded surface that was soft and slow. Cyclists may be unique in that they prefer the hard packed washboard roads where one can pick out the fast rolling lines.
I reached Beiseker just before 1 pm. Lots of riders were there including Jeff, Rick, and Neil.
I had mixed feelings. I was glad to reach Beiseker with lots of time to make good inroads into the remaining 230 kms and finish it off tomorrow. But I had not rebounded energy wise after my night’s rest, and probably failed to properly hydrate the whole way. I was looking forward to the interesting scenery and terrain around Drumheller, but I also knew I’d have to travel over much more terrain similar to the soft boring 22 km straight stretch I’d found so tedious. I wasn’t sure I could raise the energy or motivation to face that. I also was informed that many riders had scratched already including most of the frontrunners. Jeff suffered knee problems and had scratched here. Alex was apparently heading home from Ghost Station.
I spoke with my very supportive spouse, Shealagh, back home and told her of my dilemma. I confessed to her that the fun really ran out over the last 100 or so kms and I couldn’t really look forward to it returning over the next stretch. But I decided to eat up, shower, rest a little and then see if I wanted to resume and ride through the late afternoon and evening. I didn’t have a real reason to quit. No mechanical issues, no ride stopping physical issues, just no motivation. I was there when the first finisher came in. Dean Anderson seemed to take forever to cover the last 40 kms, and he declared it was “the worst 40 kms in my life!”. That was more than enough for me. Decision made – I scratched.
*1st place finisher, Dean Anderson and kids. Congratulations!
As the afternoon and evening wore on more finishers came in, but more scratches happened too. Tom DeVries came in that evening, meaning the 1st two finishers rode single-speeds. Animals! Out of the riders I’d been with, only Neil Sheppard carried on and finished the next afternoon. I really admired his tenacity. But by then I had no regrets.
The experience has given me insight into the type of event classified as a “gravel grinder”. If I do this event again, or ones like it, I will do so having a better idea of what to expect.
*Trevor rescues Ryan, who had the lead when things went awry.
Hats off to Trevor and Justin for all their work developing, promoting, and hosting this event. I truly appreciated their hospitality, conversation, and efforts to make this event enjoyable for all riders, successful or not. All in all it proved to be a great, if challenging, race and this year saw 7 finishers altogether.
Thanks too to Cafe Roubaix Bicycle Studio, Cochrane AB, for sponsoring the breakfast burritos. Yum! And Wild Rose Brewery, Calgary, for supplying the great brews, they hit many right spots.
Thanks also to Porcelain Rocket in Calgary for making the great commemorative cycle caps. My new favorite.
*Some pictures borrowed from Hurt’n Albert’n 550 Facebook page.