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Jul 25, 2018

Canmore -> Elbow Lake -> Bragg Creek Underbiking

#Underbiking - To ride an inappropriate bike on a route (at least, that's what I think it means).

With a surprise activity free weekend available, and Nadia agreeing to do shuttle duties, a plan was hatched to ride a new-to-me route from Canmore to Elbow Lake campground, then from there out to Bragg Creek where I'd get picked up.

Little did I know how big a bite I bit off...

Day 1 Strava
Day 2 Strava 

My trusty Breezer Doppler Team "Gerollwagen" road bike and full Ortlieb bikepacking setup. Because I was going to be spending the night above 2000m, I brought more cold weather and rain gear than usual making my bike and kit around 60lbs total. I probably should have put those 54mm Schwalbe G-One Bite's on instead of the comparatively weenie WTB Riddler 42s - more on that later.

The trip started well enough with bright sunshine and beautiful views, but with a headwind that never really abated for the entire day. I was happy in one sense as the Smith-Dorien road was in pretty good shape with very little deep gravel, and not too much traffic to dust me out. 52 kilometres of continuous gravel ahead.

MOOSE! Actually, 2 moose. So rare to see them in the middle of the day. They didn't stick around to watch them for too long. What a treat.

While the gravel itself wasn't deep, the washboard (visible by the dark patches on the road) was present along the entirety of the Smith-Dorien Road forcing me to ride on the extreme right hand side of the road most of the time. Again, those views - wow! Sure did make battling the headwind easier as my mind would wander around the peaks in the distance.

Once the gravel was finished, the real climbing began. I was already feeling pretty merle'd (as in haggered) from fighting the gravel and wind, now it was headwind and part of the Highwood Pass climb to deal with. At the corner of the "Smitty-D" and Hwy #40 I came across this curious pack of goats. With so many young with them, I kept my distance, fearing one of them might get spooked and buck me off the road. 

I've ridden the Highwood Pass many times but never with camping gear onboard. The extra weight and stiff headwind made for some very slow going, including some walking, as my legs were feeling the days effort in a big way. Still ahead was the final (literal) 1.3km push up to the Elbow Lake Campground. That. Was. Hard. Just a few hundred metres up I decided to switch to my camp shoes as my riding shoes were making the push even more difficult.

Elbow Lake. Headwaters of the mighty Elbow River. The campground is just to the right in the trees and is really lovely. Being a backcountry site, the cooking areas are separated from the sleeping areas, bear bins for food and garbage are provided, and it had one of the nicest outhouses I've had the privilege of sitting in :)

Home for the night. By the time I got here, I was super blown and a little dizzy from the days effort, so priority #1 was to setup my tent and have a nap for an hour before doing much else. After nap bottle filling, dinner prepping, leg stretching, campground exploring, and relaxing into the evening was wonderfully peaceful. What a spot. Huge thanks to Lindsay ( for use of their reservation.
Morning vibes. Overnight temperatures were perfectly chilly and some rain overnight made the morning a little cool and damp. Thankfully I brought the aforementioned cool and wet weather gear. From speaking with friends, I knew the day ahead was going to be tough but I had no idea how tough it was going to be.

On my way across the top of Elbow Pass towards Tombstone campground and the Big Elbow trail. Equal parts walking and riding on the way there. It was around this point where I was wishing I brought a proper mountain bike. #Underbiking for the win! Spectacular scenery everywhere you look. And maybe the most honest road I have ever been on. To think that only a few decades ago you could drive a car right up to Elbow Lake,

Looking back towards Elbow Lake, with the Elbow River just below, "Gerollwagen" in all it's glory. This was not gravel grinding, I was now boulder bashing. Extremely slow going, my average speed over the first hour was only 8kph! At this point I was getting close to the beginning of the Big Elbow trail which is 21kms long and would take my out to Hwy #66.
Imagine riding a road bike over that stuff. I had hoped that once I got onto the Big Elbow trail that conditions would improve but to my chagrin the trail was equal parts fast and flowing and more boulder bashing. My tire choice was staring me in the face at this point with a couple of pinch flats as the icing on top. (...reminds self to get tubeless setup sorted asap...)  The floods of 2013 have completely transformed the trail and blow in out in many places. There has been a lot of work done to remediate it but it is definitely still a work in progress.
Some water crossing aren't as deep as others.

Pavement ahead. And more headwinds - ugh. And thunderstorms - double ugh. After almost 3 hrs my average speed was only 11kph! That was a grind. I was so stoked to have some smooth roads ahead but the relief was brief as strong headwinds and heavy rain made the 35kms into Bragg Creek brutal in it's own way.
All in all, this was a challenging route, probably best suited to a hardtail mountain bike with a lockout fork, but whatever - ride whatcha got, right? The bike and bags performed beautifully. Would I take a road bike across Elbow Pass again? Probably not with camping gear onboard, maybe yes unloaded and with bigger volume tires.

Thanks for reading.

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