Betty and Veronica at the top of Spray Lakes Road
Betty and Veronica at the top of Spray Lakes Road

I love running, but in the off-season I enjoy cross training. I cut my teeth in the world of endurance sports on a mountain bike, and still love to ride. Not only is it a way to get some big, low-impact miles in, but it’s a ton of fun. It’s fast, zippy, and demands focus. The sensations I get on a mountain bike are incredibly similar to trail running – a feeling of free-fall when descending, controlling your descent using natural features, floating along buff meandering flats, and the smooth steady rhythm that you adopt during climbs. The parallels between the two are many, which is why I enjoy both so much.

With my focus on running the past few years, cycling has become a less frequent pursuit, and I’m out of the loop on new bike technology. Recently however, I started to notice some beefed up mountain bikes rolling around Canmore. These “fat bikes” as they are termed, are pretty basic – think fully rigid hardtail with moon-buggy tires. These bikes are rapidly gaining in popularity because they are very solid winter bikes that can handle hard-packed snow and slush very well. They are also fun and pretty cool.

As with most often the case, the best (and worst) ideas in are often thought up over a few beers. In this case, it revolved around a birthday party, bike talk with my friends (not their real names) Betty and Veronica, the discovery that it is completely legal to ride a mountain bike on the Canmore Nordic Centre Ski trails during the winter, the fact that none of us had tried these bikes, and that a local shop was renting fat bikes. We were all free the next day – a Sunday, so we quickly made a plan to rent bikes, and then ride the ~50 KM loop around Mt. Rundle (think Canmore to Banff), anticipating a moderately long day of adventure.

Our first inkling of how epic this would be came at the rental shop, when the owner cautioned that it would take us 7 hours – not our planned 4-5. We were also advised that while most of the route would be rideable, there would be a long section near the end that would likely be a hike-a-bike. Despite this, we were committed and began our ride at noon (when the store opened on Sunday). The first few hours were great. The weather was warm, the sun shining, and the bikes floated nimbly over the packed snow. Riding on snow is deceptive. While you may feel fast, the stopwatch tells a different story, and as the hours crept by, I began to appreciate that this would take us a few hours longer than anticipated. While fine for Betty and I, I worried that this would certainly push Veronica (a fit and healthy recreational athlete not used to “big” adventures like this) past her comfort zone – hopefully more mental than physical. My guilt started building in advance. As the ride progressed, and the sun began to set, we reached the unbroken section of trail that we were warned of. Already 5 hours into the ride, we stopped to weigh our options, which were to forge ahead, pushing our bikes for 7 km, or to retreat to Banff and then ride the road back to Canmore (an extra 10+ km). Veronica was nervous, uncertain about her abilities, and entering new mental territory. She had never gone this long in a day. Betty and I convinced Veronica to push her bike, reassuring her that despite the pending challenge, we would support her if she needed it. She reluctantly committed herself to her plight and began a grueling hike-a bike. Redemption and sweet salvation greeted us hours later as we reached the trails of the Nordic Centre, and flew over the smoothly groomed corduroy, mere kilometers outside of town. I noticed a mood change in all of us, but especially Veronica, who in overcoming this final challenge, surprised herself in the process. I’m not saying that it was so cathartic that she will look to repeat this anytime soon, but that’s not the point. The point is that she carried past where her mind said stop, expanded her personal limits of what is possible one step at a time, and by the end of the ride, was already beginning to reminisce on the conquest with a certain fondness, and nostalgia.

Veronica enjoying the sublime challenges of pushing a heavy mountain bike
Veronica enjoying the sublime challenges of pushing a heavy mountain bike

The icing on the cake was when we returned the bikes to the shop – after-hours, in the dark, with our headlamps lighting the way. The store had closed hours earlier but the manager came in especially for us. Four freshly poured pints of local ale, and the surprising news that Betty and Veronica became the first women to ride the fat bikes around Rundle in the winter, and I, the second male, greeted us. In talking to Veronica days later, I learned that the self-doubt, fatigue, and nervousness she experienced during the adventure paled in comparison to the pride, and sense of accomplishment she felt in the days following. Public pride in discussing it around the workplace, private pride in knowing she pushed herself beyond her comfort zone, and finally, the knowledge that when she needed to dig deep, she found more in the reserve tank than she expected. I’ve been to that place many times, but it was a special experience for me to watch a friend, new to this type of adventure thrive under the challenge and redefine her reality in the process. Life is about continually pushing your limits – and not always in sport. To rest on our laurels, in my opinion, is like living in a cage. You accept artificial boundaries, which ultimately shape your thinking, and your reality. Pushing limits is not about being awesome in other people’s eyes, but about redefining your reality to allow you to be your best.

Surly - never...
Surly - never...(credit Liza Pye)

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