‘My Advice? Don’t Pack Your Fear – You’ll Need the Space for Your Shammy Butter’
As He Prepares to Join the Grand Depart of the 2017 ‘Alberta Rockies 700’ Ride, Banff Lodging Co.’s Jeff O’Leary, In High Spirits and Ready to Get On the Road, Explains Just What’s Involved in Bike-Packing 700 Kilometres Across the Rockies’ Front Range.
Riding solo from a starting point of Coleman in Southwest Alberta – close to Frank’s Slide – alongside the rugged front range of the Rockies to the town of Hinton to the North; beating steep climbs, dealing with limited sleep, relentless terrain, and with only limited supplies packed tightly to your bike frame, may not exactly be everyone’s idea of a good time.
But, for Jeff O’Leary – husband, dedicated Dad to two young boys, and a Sales Manager by day – it’s a draw that’s seen him commit to joining 23 fellow riders on the starting line of the challenging Alberta Rockies 700, to begin his target route duration of four days [Jeff departed from Coleman the morning of Saturday July 8, 7:00am].
With his bike carefully packed up (complete with emergency bags of Skittles, hours of pre-downloaded Ted Talks podcasts, and a Satellite phone to call home), and with some pre-route experience on his side, we caught up with Jeff just 36 hours before the Grand Depart of his inaugural Trans-Rockies race.
Here, Jeff reveals his pre-race training regime, what’s on his must-pack list, how he’ll pass the time during long days on the saddle, and what he’s expecting to deal with along the way.
Q: Jeff tell us, when did you decide you were going to take on the Alberta Rockies 700?
A: Around a year and a half ago. Neil [a friend and colleague] and I were considering doing the race in 2016.
We registered to join the Grand Depart that year, but logistically, it proved tricky to arrange our point-to-point pick-ups. We looked at how we would get to Hinton [the Alberta Rockies 700 reverses the starting point of the route between Coleman and Hinton each year], and we thought we would box our bikes up and ride a Brewster bus from Banff to Jasper and then bike onto Hinton, but we still didn’t have a pick-up at the finish line in Coleman – so we decided to do our own little tour!
Q: Your own version of the route?
A: Yes, it was an almost-circle version of the route. We started in Banff and went through into Coleman and then came back up. It was a three-night loop, and we rode approx. 500 kilometres.
Q: So that was your warm-up?
A: You could say that, yes! After doing that, and getting a taste of the route, I decided that I was in for the 2017 Alberta Rockies 700.
Q: Tell us about the actual race Jeff, is this a ride that cyclists will gather for at the same time each year?
A: Yes. So, I’ll be involved in the Grand Depart of the route on July 8, but the route is well-known and people will ride it, bike-packing, year-round.
Q: And what are the rules of the race?
A: The Alberta Rockies 700 is very similar to other rides such as the Tour Divide [which departs from Banff to the border of Mexico every June], in that it is fully self-supported. You’re on your own, and cannot accept any outside help – it’s just what you can find or buy along the way.
Q: And explain to us, for those who don’t know, what exactly is bike-packing? What’s involved?
A: Well bike-touring has been around forever, and although bike-packing is a new term, it’s not a new sport. Basically, people would define it as bike-touring, but you’re not on pavement. You’re looking for either single track MTB trails, gravel roads, or forestry roads. Out of the 720 kilometres on this route, there might be 100 of those which will be on pavement.
Q: And the gear you’ll need?
A: In terms of equipment, most people will be riding mountain bikes, a lot of people with a rigid fork [with no suspension on the back or front], with bags placed straight up the bike. You’ll typically have a bag in your triangle frame [the weight in the wrong place will impact the ability to steer the bike] and then you’ll pack along the front of your handlebars. Most people won’t have a backpack . If you’re riding for 16 hours a day, you don’t want to be carrying the weight; it’s best for all the weight to be along the frame.
Q: And you’ll be camping along the way?
A: Yeah, there are lots of campsites and I have my tent packed up, with my sleeping bag liner [the sleeping bag adds too much bulk and unnecessary weight].
Q: Can you explain the reason why races such as this are popular, and continue to gain momentum?
A: The Tour Divide has definitely brought a lot of attention to self-supported races and bike-packing. The well-known documentary, ‘Ride the Divide’ [a 2010 film produced by Mike Dion, featuring the up-close-and-personal journeys of die-hard riders taking on the gruelling 4418 kilometre Tour Divide], inspired a lot of people to ride that route. A lot of interest in this sport stems from that documentary, I think.
Q: So Jeff, will you be making the documentary for the Alberta Rockies 700?
A: No, definitely not! I think I’ll be too busy suffering! [Smiles].
Q: You’re hoping to finish the route in four days, is that an ambitious target?
A: No, that would put me somewhere near the back I think [Jeff actually went on to complete the route in 8th place]. There are people that will ride a full twenty hours, sleep for two, and then go again for another twenty. I just don’t think I can do that. The fastest rider last year completed in just under two days, and might have stopped for three hours along the way. There are some super-human people out there, and I’m just kind of average, slash below average. [Smiles again].
Q: How do you prepare for rides like this? You had your ‘dry run’ last year, but what does it take to get ready for a route like this?
A: For me, with a wife and two small kids, I don’t do the length of rides that I would like to do, that’s just not an option for my family life. I do the occasional overnight ride, but most of my rides are one hour, two hours. There is a benefit of having long rides as part of your training, but there is also the chance of injuring yourself. I like to work on doing many shorter rides – and really, a lot of it is mental. Your body is telling you stop, but it’s about keeping going and pushing through.
Q: And how will you pass the time during those solo days on the saddle?
A: I have lots of podcasts downloaded! I’m hoping to broaden my podcast repertoire on the route. Right now, I listen to lots of football specific ones, The Guardian, a few about biking, but I’ve downloaded Ted Talks and BBC podcasts, ones about finance… I’ll have a lot of time!
Q: Is the goal to reach the finish line, or is the race time important?
It depends. Some people will go there with the goal of winning it, but I want to tour with a good pace, but not killing myself to get to the finish line in the quickest time. I want to enjoy myself along the way. If I come to a spot that’s 500 metres off the road but it’s a nice viewpoint, I will stop and take photos. Others will hammer the road the whole time, but that’s not the way I’ll approach it.
Q: Is this going to be the biggest challenge you’ve taken on your bike so far?
A: In cycling, yes it is. Definitely.
Q: And how are you feeling, as you near closer to that start line?
A: I’m excited, maybe a little bit nervous, but I know what to expect with cycling the first 400 kilometres. I know the road conditions, the elevation gain I’ll need to work with, spots where I can fill up with water, things like that. I’ve just never done four consecutive days on my bike before.
Q: Is it addictive? Will we see you on the Tour Divide line next year?
A: No, it’s just not possible with a family, I just can’t take the time away. But it can get addictive. I joke all the time with Neil that when I’m 50, and the kids are grown up and don’t want to hang out with me anymore, I’ll go and do the Divide [Jeff is currently 41].
Q: And what advice, wise words or tricks of the trade, do you have for anyone interested in joining a self-supported ride such as Alberta Rockies 700?
A: There are lots of forums and Facebook pages you can join, to get the know-how on how to prepare for a multi-day ride, there’s a great community online to connect with. Obviously you need the right type of bike, and gear. You can go pretty simple with equipment though; it can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Just taking a dry bag and strapping it to your handlebars at a cost of $20, and that will work just fine. But, it is the small things that make such a difference while you’re out there, and will make you so much more comfortable – such as shammy butter. I had saddle soars on one ride and couldn’t sit on the seat, I was hovering over it constantly and so uncomfortable. From that day, the shammy butter is always in my pack.
Q: So, you’re hoping to reach the Hinton finish line on Tuesday?
A: All being well, and not coming across any issues with my bike, I’ll be in Hinton Tuesday evening. I know I’m capable of doing it, but you do have these dark moments. There are times your mood gets pretty low. Between heat, dehydration, and not having enough calories in your system, you can start to feel pretty bad. But with a little bit of experience, you realize you are going to start feeling better again. You have some skittles and a glass of water and your mood will improve. That’s why they say, never scratch at night [‘scratch’ is the term given to describe leaving a bike-packing race without making the finish line], get a good night’s rest and make the decision in the morning.
Q: Any final words for us Jeff, as you get ready for the route?
A: It’s hugely mental, as I said. It’s the ability to endure suffering; to be anxious, lonely, out of your comfort zone. Anyone can pedal, and I think a lot of people can do this ride; you can always go further. I always like the saying, ‘don’t pack your fears’. I like that, and I’m standing by it.
Jeff successfully completed the Alberta Rockies 700 on Tuesday July 11, at 20:21 MST, completing 738.4 km at a route average speed of 8.7kph.