Ride Report – Smoky Lake 2011

By Willi

Saturday April 30th was the scheduled date for the Alberta Randonneurs Smoky Lake 300 brevet. Three Edmonton Riders showed up for the start at the St Albert Safeway: Joel Paschke (with whom I rode the Warburg 200 some three weeks ago), Phil Haswell (also on the Warburg 200), and myself.

When I left my house at 05:00 to drive to St Albert, the roads were wet from an overnight sprinkle, and I had to use the windshield wipers intermittently while driving. I was wondering: Have I made the correct decision in not installing my fenders? I had bet that the forecast 30% probability of precipitation would not materialize, but already it was looking like a poor decision.

By now, I had two brevets under my belt in 2011, and the clothing particulars for challenging spring conditions had stabilized: On Top: long sleeved polyester, Ice Breaker Merino long sleeved, and cycling jacket. On Legs: cycling shorts plus tights with wind/rain proof fronts. On Feet: wool socks, cycling shoes, and two sets of shoe covers. On Hands: Cycling gloves, and fleece mitts. On Head: Polyester skull cap under helmet I had taken the helmet rain cover off for the same reason that I left my fenders behind.

Since this was to be a 300 km brevet, I had already installed my front wheel with built-in generator hub, as well as head- and tail-lights. After the route-finding fiascos of the Camrose 200, I also made certain not to forget my GPS, and stocked it with fresh batteries! Also, my computer had been repaired (corroded contacts on the computer handlebar mount), so this would be a fully instrumented ride.

When we mustered shortly before 06:00, it did not take us long to prepare to depart, and after quick good mornings, we were off at 05:55.

On the climb out of St Albert, Joel and I quickly left Phil behind he had already told us to not worry about waiting for him, and that he actually preferred to ride solo rather than feel like he was holding people back.

The 5 km to the Villeneuve highway turn-off did not take long, although we began to feel, already, the tell-tale signs of the northwest winds which were forecast. However, they were not forecast to become substantial until later in the day, so we did not pay them much attention. When we turned west, the pedaling became very easy. We rode two-up and easily kept up a pace of 32, 33 km/hr. Oh this riding was easy .. Just enjoy it Live in the moment And dont dwell on what the return route might dish out. Perhaps the favourable trailing winds, pushing us so easily forward, would wane by the afternoon when they would become adverse and to our disadvantage.

We turned north towards Gibbons, and into the wind. Now as our speed decreased, Joel and I began to work together, and traded the work, into the wind, about every kilometer. With this cooperation, we maintained a pace of 25 km/hr, with neither of us working too hard. We reached the first Control in Gibbons (42 km, 07:30), got our cards signed, and I had a banana and chocolate milk. We took time for a few quick pictures, and wondered aloud about how Phil might be making out all by himself into this wind.

After Gibbons, we again headed east, with the wind, and continued to make good time. We continued to survey the weather, and it looked like the numerous storm cells hovering around may in fact deliver some interesting challenges. After 13 km to the east, we reached the large containment dikes of the Agrium fertilizer plant, and once again the route took us to the north. Back to tag-team echelon-riding to beat into the wind, but only for a short time. A light shower along this stretch resulted in Joel getting a mouthful of grit when following me thanks to there being no fenders on my bike! Sorry Joel.

The route turned eastward once again, and we now had a 50 km straight shot to the east, with the wind. We now made good time. While crusing along, I turned to Joel and said: Wind? What wind? Its amazing how quiet the ride can be when riding WITH the wind, and how loud it can be when riding AGAINST it.

The shoulder was rough on most of Highway 45 to Andrew, and I found myself riding just in-board of the white line. The newly installed mirror on the end of my handlebar worked well to warn me of traffic approaching from the rear. After about 15 km of this eastward shot, the pedaling suddenly became more difficult, and we found our speed decreasing down to 25 km/hr. Joel said: Are we going uphill, or has the wind changed on us? The road was still flat, so it must have been the wind. We switched back to work-share mode, with Joel pulling very strongly, and me taking turns but not pedaling as quickly or efficiently. I was beginning to feel tired, and some kilometers before Andrew, made the decision to back off on my effort. I let Joel go, and he beat me to Andrew and the second Control (114 km, 10:21).

We decided not to search out the worlds largest Mallard in Andrew, (what is it with these prairie Ukrainian towns? Always the worlds largest something or other: Sausage, Perogy, Pysanka Easter Egg?), opting instead to stop at the first available gas station to get cards signed and have a snack. I was actually looking forward to WonTon soup at the Chinese restaurant which is Vandermeers favourite brevet haunt. However, Joel had shared a soft-goal of a sub 14-hour finish, so we ate quickly, and got back on our bikes.

We had another 15 km of easy southwest pedaling on great pavement (finally the evidence of some decent pork-barreling in Premier Stelmachs home riding!). Again, I began to feel stretched in keeping up with Joels pace. I just tried to stay on his wheel and hang on ..

We knew that when the route turned north, we would really be facing some solid work ( Now its time to eat some SH*T. , as they say on the HTC Columbia professional cycling team). Joel and I resorted back to work-share mode, once again trading off every other kilometer. I knew that we had a major descent down into the North Saskatchewan River valley on this leg, and was not looking forward to the climb back out, into the wind. The wind was coming at an angle from the front-left quarter (from the northwest), and we rode in echelon style again to gain some protection from the wind when riding behind.

Just as we began the descent, it began to rain, and the wind was swirling so as to make the descent slow and less than satisfying (I recalled that it was on this descent three years ago that I lost my pump and had to retrace steps to retrieve it). As usual Joel left me behind on the climb up the other side of the valley, and was kind enough to slow-up at the top for me to catch him. We continued working together, until Joel spotted nice prairie scenes that he wanted to photograph. He told me to continue on, that he would catch back up once he had finished.

I continued on my own, solo, to which I am well accustomed. Eventually, after what he later shared was surprisingly difficult solo riding, Joel caught up with me, and on another extended climb, left me behind again. We were now on a series of rollers, up and down, with Joel staying just ahead, yet only just out of reach. I felt like he was playing Tease Willi, and I just resigned myself to pedaling steadily until reaching the turn-off at Highway 28, where we turned fully to the west, and where I had resigned to take a break, before heading full-on into the wind. I spotted a communications tower far ahead, and thought that was likely the height of land to which we must climb before reaching the turn-off. Ever so slowly, I gained on the tower, and sure enough, once it was fully in sight, I could see cars crossing the highway at the anticipated intersection as well.

The map said there was a Control at the Billis Lake Natural Area 3 kilometers to the west, and Joel and I decided to head there for our break. The Natural Area was never found, but we did come across a nice field/meadow to the side of the road, where the sun was shining, and where the Natural Area should have been (165 km, 13:08). We pulled off, walked our bikes into the stubble field, and had a good sit-down in the tallish grass. It was nice and warm, and a short nap was tempting. However, we settled only for a snack, a short rest, and some mental preparation for what we knew would become a long, hard push to the west we were facing about a 90 kilometer stretch that was west, or southwest, where the wind would be our constant (unwelcome) companion.

We began the westward push, and it didnt take me long to find the sweet-spot out of the wind, just to the left and only slightly behind Joel. We traded leads, and worked hard all the way to the Smoky Lake Control (185 km, 14:04). There, we had another good break, sitting at the picnic tables behind the gas station/food store near the highway. It was downright hot up against the building, out of the wind, and I decided to take my hat off from underneath my helmet. More food, more chocolate milk, a few pictures, and we were off again.

There was a climb out of Smoky Lake, but before reaching it, a large pick-up truck Pilot Car came up to us from behind and asked that we cross the road and ride on the opposite shoulder, as there was a LARGE rig coming up behind us. We turned to see a 24-foot wide monster inching up the road towards us. We crossed over as requested, and it felt eerily dangerous riding against oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the highway. I decided to pull off, and we waited until the monster passed us, then re-crossed to the proper side and recommenced the ride in law-abiding fashion.

I was cold now, and regretted having taken off my hat, but was in no mood to stop. We pushed on, again in work-sharing tandem, and it became evident that we were both getting very tired. At Waskatenau, we stopped at the service station, had a quick sit down, then continued. The wind was cold now, and the riding was getting harder. We were glad for a slight shift of the roads orientation to the south-west, and got a minor break from the wind although it was still adverse, it was not quite as severe as heading directly west. Each time the road bent to true west, we braced ourselves for harder work.

Just before Radway, we got pelted with small hailstones those little devils really hurt on the ears! At Radway, Joel was not feeling great, and we had another break at the service station. From there, we had another push to the southwest for about 15 km, and at Egremont, finally got a stretch of prolonged southbound road the first break from the wind in over 75 km. The pedaling finally got somewhat easier, and although I resisted to push too hard, I started to pull away from Joel. We kept each other well in sight until Redwater, where the road again turned straight west, and we began pulling into the wind again. This was a real low point for Joel, and we both just kept at it until we finally got another southbound stretch 10 kilometers from Gibbons. I was looking forward to this southbound stretch, as it would be with the wind, but then thought that I also remembered that there was a valley descent, and climb back up, on this stretch as well. Sure enough, halfway to Gibbons, we were flying downhill, with the wind, only to have to grunt back up the other side again.

Just before Gibbons, we turned west again, into the wind, and the big climb into Bon Accord. This climb is infamous among Tour de lAlberta riders, as it is the penultimate challenge on that route. It is not overly long, nor overly steep, but makes you sit up and notice, and because it occurs late in the ride, mental discipline is required to gain the top without stopping. Once over this climb, we were in Bon Accord, and stopped yet again for a break at the gas station there. Joel took on some food, but I did not (mistake !), thinking about the ice cream I would have in Morinville, the final Control before the finish.

We left Bon Accord, had another hard push to the west for about 5 km, a quick run to the south for 2 km, then the final 10 km approach to Morinville, fully into the wind. Joel seemed to be gaining strength, even as I was beginning to feel very tired. I could no longer effectively take my turns at the front, and told Joel I needed to stop to take a gel to get me in to Morinville. We pulled over, I opened my pack to find a PowerGel, and found chocolate instead parfait !! With the cold air temp, the chocolate was nice and crispy, just the way I like it, and I savoured each bite as I washed it down with cold water. Replenished, we got back on to continue the final piece of hard work, and finally reached Morinville, the last Control before the finish (287 km, 19:46).

I was delighted to find that the Shell food store stocked Hagan Dazs ice cream bars, and didnt mind paying the $5 for a well-earned treat. After getting cards signed, we sat outside in the sun and enjoyed one last respite before the cruise home.

The final run of 18 km down Highway 2 from Morinville to St Albert was a highlight easy, fast pedaling to finish the ride. I didnt push hard, kept Joel in sight in my mirror, and together we finally reached the finish at 20:39. Total Time: 14 hours, 44 minutes.

I noticed immediately that Phils car was no longer in the parking lot, and we both thought that Phil likely cut his day short and returned to St Albert without finishing the route (this was later confirmed by Phil).

So, now I had a 200, a 250 (by mistake), and a 300 under my belt in 2003. The first half of the qualifying series was in the bag. Now, I hoped for good health and favourable weather to be able to complete the 400 and 600 in weeks following.

Joel turned out to be a very strong rider, and compatible with my approach and ability. I will gladly ride with him again any time I can. Thanks Joel for getting me around this course!

Smoky Lake 300 is a great route for early season riding. The challenge that may not necessarily be evident when considering the terrain, is almost always compensated for by the usual spring winds on the prairies!