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  • Mark Smith

Canadian Dirt Road Rhapsody

We live in a world of contrasts—a truth that shows its face in stark fashion when you get on a bike in a foreign land.

Here in France, and more particularly in northwestern Normandy where I do much of my riding, a birds-eye view displays a dense network of well-paved roads, nearly all of which, no matter how small, darkly bowered or twisting, provide transit to another road—an exit from what may have seemed a certain dead-end. There’s almost always a way out.

But this is not how it works in Canada, where I found myself recently to cycle with an old friend. In Canada there is no thick network. In fact it would be inaccurate to refer to what few roads do exist as a network. There are some roads, they tend to go straight, and they are long. That about sums it up.

The idea was to converge in Calgary and ride rented bikes from there to Golden, a couple hundred kilometers to the west, over the Rocky Mountains. The plan sounded adventurous to me and to others I told about it. Several times before leaving I went back to the map to consider our options. There were two: Either we could take Highway 1, known as the Trans-Canada Highway, a coast-to-coast four-lane thoroughfare that cuts as straight a path as possible across the continent, or there was Highway 1A, an older two-lane road that parallels Highway 1 a few miles north and that is nearly as straight.

0ne can easily fit a couple of bikes in a teepee of this size, lest prairie bandits lurk in the region. We rented a nearby three-bedroom airbnb just in case.

We took the latter, but called it quits after 80 kilometers. In the scenic town of Canmore we returned the bikes and sat down for a nice meal. We’d had enough highway riding with hurtling trucks and camping cars. Instead we continued by car to Golden, an old logging town with a big freight train switching yard. And it was there, on the dirt back roads that wind through the pine forest lining the Columbia River Valley, that I discovered what must be the best of Canadian cycling.

You need a good map to even find these dirt roads, but they are there—to access the properties of longtime locals or the vacation homes of Calgarians and more distant outsiders. They huddle high along the flanks of the Rockies, the Purcells, and the Bugaboo Mountains south of town, reaching like tendrils toward the peaks until there is no more reason to climb.

Will you need a mountain bike? On the contrary, these are the smoothest, best kept dirt roads I’ve ever seen, with only the slightest washboard effect on the sharpest turns, but otherwise as slick as any asphalt strip. And they too are long, not just the highways. Road tires will do.

One afternoon I started down such a road with my sister Sue for what was to be a quick look around her “neighborhood.” Long after she turned back, the raw beauty of this place led me off the dirt, down an overgrown farm road to a fence where I stood still and watched two deer trot across a field and disappear into the forest. Rarely have I felt so faintly the urge to return home.

Above: Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park, BC


Two stand-out eateries in the town of Canmore:

Things to do in and around Golden BC:

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