Operacion Muerto – 2014 Summer Challenge Ride Report
Graham and I pulled into Neepawa at around 9:30pm on Thursday, Aug 14. The sun had already set, making it clear that the dog days of summer were coming to a close. Our plan was to find somewhere to camp in town and hit the road by 9am the next morning.
This was my first summer challenge, and Graham’s second, having completed last year’s inaugural ride. From the moment I saw the route, I knew this was something I wanted to do. I declared my intention to ride almost immediately, and spent the next few months planning and testing gear, but mostly just day dreamed about how much fun it’d be to ramble through Riding Mountain National Park with some good friends and spend the nights under the stars.
The cool thing about this ride is that it can be as hard or easy as you decide to make it. Graham and I were clearly on the same page here – we’d take an extra day, ride easy but long, get a lot of sleep, and eat well. This wasn’t going to be one of those rides where you kill yourself just to prove you can do it (not that there is anything wrong with that). This was about being happy to stop 30km into the ride so we could jump in a cool stream. To kick back in the shade and pass around a bit of bourbon. To sleep in, and take longer routes if it meant seeing something cool or interesting.
On that note, lets get into it. We were the only campers in the tenting area of the campground. In the quiet hours of the evening, we toasted to a successful and fun ride over some Rouge oatmeal stouts and called it a night by midnight.
Friday, August 15: 180KM
One of the great things about sleeping in a tent is that it’s so easy to wake up early. There is something about waking up with the sun that just feels right when camping.
We were up and tearing down our camp by 8:00am. The camp warden came by to say hello and let us leave the truck at the campground for free. We wolfed down some PB and J sandwiches and hit the road by 9:02am – only 2 minutes behind schedule.
Our plan was to ride the Trans Canada Trail (TCT) all the way to Rossburn, then head due North another 10KM or so to the Deep Lake Ranger Station, and an additional 3KM to the Deep Lake campground.
The TCT was a dream. For the first 100KM or so, we were treated to well maintained, hard packed and fast-rolling double track. There were no bugs, only millions of dragon flies swarming around us, which we were both pretty happy for. I actually counted how many flies landed on me that day, and only got to two.
About 30KM in we came to the first of several old railway bridges. I asked if it was too soon to stop for a swim and some bourbon. Graham didn’t even have to answer, he was already half way down to the creek to take a dip.
The temperatures were steadily climbing all morning and were approaching the mid-30s Celcius. The creek offered a refreshing haven from the heat. Small fish swam around our feet, and I felt a few nibble at the ends of my toes. That creek set the tone for the rest of the weekend.
We continued on for several hours, passing through a dozen different brightly coloured crops, small groves of oak trees, and a few sections of wild, untamed prairie growth. I was amazed by the beauty of the landscape. We felt like tourists in our own home, stopping to take pictures every 20 or 30 minutes at times.
We made several stops in small towns along the way, like the Clanwilliam general store for blue freezies and Cokes, and Sandy Lake for our first dinner. The TCT runs directly through towns like this on a regular basis. We spotted The Barking Moose and it seemed like the natural decision, with it’s bright red painted exterior and small crowd of people out on the deck. If you’re looking for a place to eat, I’d definitely suggest this place. I had a croissant with scrambled eggs, cheese and salsa, as well as a home-made power bar, full of nuts, seeds, dried fruit and some coconut. We shot the breeze with a few locals that took an interest in our ride and left feeling full and refreshed.
Shortly after Sandy Lake, we hit Elphinstone, where the TCT turned into a bit of a quagmire. We decided to jump ship and hit the gravel roads. After a few navigational errors which required some field-crossings to course-correct (riding through crops with panniers is no easy feat), we rolled into Rossburn at about 8:45pm. The annual country music festival, Duke Fest, was in full swing at the campground. Not really feeling in the mood to drown in Coors Lite, pickup trucks and Taylor Swift, we decided to make our plans for the night over some pizza and beer. The only place open was a chinese restaurant that also happened to serve pizza. Perfect.
The owner was a friendly woman who gave us fresh baking while we waited. She then regaled us with stories of how her youngest daughter, the youngest of six, had fallen off the bandwagon so to speak because she started to drink beer. How could this have happened to her? All the others turned out so well, she said. It sounded like this was quite the tragedy to her. Graham and I exchanged awkward looks across the table.
“So… do you..serve beer here?” Asked Graham hopefully and awkwardly.
Her look turned sour. Needless to say, we were out of luck.
After finishing a few slices of greasy, forgettable pizza, we decided to soldier on another 20KM to the Deep Lake ranger station, and then camp at the campground 3KM further down the road. It was pitch black outside by now, which made the undulating gravel hills impossible to see. All of a sudden we’d be climbing for five minutes straight, trying desperately not to get off and push, and a moment later be screaming down a twisty loose road, unable to see past the beam of our headlights. It was hard, exhausting, and exhilarating. We pulled into camp by midnight. The mosquitoes were out in force for the first time. Within minutes, we were passed out.
Saturday, August 16: 132KM
I guess Friday took its toll, since Graham and I didn’t wake up until 10am. By that time, Ian, Dallas and Pete had already left Rossburn and passed us as we slept. Like I said, we were take’n ‘er easy.
I took a bath of sorts in Deep Lake, which was warm and refreshing. A couple of small hand-bag dogs provided the morning entertainment over coffee as they relentlessly chased each other around our bikes. By 11am, we were back on the road.
With some pretty sore legs and taints, we hit the gravel roads heading South East. I should note, on my map I didn’t see that the trail which leads to Deep Lake actually connects to the Central Trail, which Ian and his compatriots rode. Instead, we zig-zagged South of the park toward the Baldy Lake trail entrance, hoping that the gravel roads would be quick and we’d catch up to Ian and the gang.
The ride there took us over endless rolling gravel hills. We both agreed – these were the nicest gravel roads we had ever seen, let alone ridden. I could feel the sting in my legs and ass from Friday’s long day in the saddle, but as the day wore on and we rode through beautiful valleys and over the hills I soon forgot.
I should note: neither Graham or I elected to wear traditional cycling clothing, including chamois/bib shorts. Instead, we both opted for naturally comfortable saddles (Brooks B17 Special) combined with shorts/underwear made from materials that keep you dry and comfortable. I wore merino wool underwear and synthetic, loose fitting shorts. I have nothing against bib shorts typically, but the last thing I want pressed to my skin over three hot days in the saddle is a sponge soaked in ass sweat. If you haven’t experienced the pleasure of riding a B17 Special saddle, I implore you to try it. I had no chafing, no need for chamois cream, no irritation, nothing. Sure I’m a little sore now after riding so long, but I was never in bad shape during the ride.
Up top I wore very thin merino wool t-shirts, which I could feel moderating my body temperature by way of evaporative cooling. It was great. Not once did I wish I had worn my typical kit. As an added bonus, I could sweat for hours and within a couple minutes of stopping I’d be dry and my clothes didn’t stink. Wool is just the best.
The second half of the day was spent in the park. Our goal was to hit Clear Lake by sundown. The Baldy Lake trail was a dream – super smooth and took us through prairie meadows in full bloom. At first we stopped every few minutes to soak in the purple, yellow and orange flowers that seemed to cover every open inch of land.
Ten KM later we hit the Central Trail. This trail was ok at first, but the closer we rode to the bison enclosure, the worse it got. It was full of large gopher holes which were covered by the freshly mowed grass. It was like riding through a minefield. Every 30 seconds…BANG! We both wished for full suspension bikes, or at least a suspension seat-post. Anything to take the edge off the incessant perineum pounding.
After 20KM we reached the bison enclosure entrance and looked for the trail Paul Krahn referenced in his ride report, which was supposed to skirt the enclosure as bikes are not allowed to ride through. Something about bisons being faster than bikes, or some such nonsense. We didn’t see anything that resembled a trail. We also didn’t look longer than about, well, two seconds honestly, because we both knew that we absolutely HAD to take our chances riding through. I mean common, bison! How cool is that!
We rode over the cattle grates into the bison enclosure. It felt like Jurassic Park – we nervously looked around for a herd of two-ton animals ready to trample us. But as we rode on…there was nothing. No herd, not even a lone bison, nothing. Half an hour later we rode up to the exit feeling pretty disappointed. Then, looking over my shoulder one last time, there they were! Two bison were hanging out along the fence, and were quickly joined by five more, who galloped down the road right where we had ridden not 30 seconds earlier. Bison – so cool!
Not much else to say about this day, except that we rode into Clear Lake and were totally caught off guard by what a spectacle it was. I had no clue it was so developed and popular. It was teeming with people and it was clear the campgrounds would be full. We rode down the main strip looking for somewhere to eat.
“I want a burger, french fries, chocolate milk, a beer and a side of pasta”, Graham said.
“Totally. I want a huge burrito, a plate of fries, and a beer”, I replied. Riding bikes all day makes you very, very hungry.
Moments later, we arrive at a restaurant and see a pile of bikes leaning against a tree. What are the chances. We ride 300KM and pull into the same restaurant as Ian, Dallas and Pete, who had just sat down. As a bonus, the restaurant happened to serve exactly what Graham and I were both craving earlier. We spent the next hour catching up and sharing stories of the ride, while eating, eating, eating, and eating some more.
We decided to split a hotel for the night. The only place available was a 200 square foot proverbial pile of crap. Paint was falling off the wall and all over the floor. There was a used hairbrush on the ground. But it was warm and didn’t have bed bugs (I checked, three times. It was that kind of place.). It’s amazing how small a room you can fit five guys and five bikes in when you’re tired.
Sunday, August 17: 110KM
My parents arrived in Clear Lake at 8:30am as my Dad was going to join Graham and I for the last leg of the trip. We rolled out of town by 9:00am and passed a kids triathlon as we made our way to Highway 19. People looked at us and our touring setups like we were aliens. How anyone can think a touring bike is weirder than aero helmets and sleeveless jerseys is beyond me.
Highway 19 is supposed to be predominantly downhill as you head East, but is sure didn’t feel like it. Riding to the Reeves Ravine trailhead felt like it took forever. I’m pretty sure we didn’t get above 15KM/H for most of it.
Once we hit the single track though, we were all injected with a new sense of energy and excitement. Within a few KM, we were at the top of the Bald Hill trail.
We ripped down the escarpment at full tilt, descending over 500 meters in no time. Every so often I’d stop to wait up and could hear Graham laughing through the trees as he cooked each corner.
Riding the trails with panniers and all your gear weighing you down was actually a ton of fun. We spent the next hour carving through the trees and bombing along the edge of the escarpment. There were more than a few close calls as a pannier would clip a tree, or a series of tight, banked switchbacks would catch us off guard, but it was all good fun. I will definitely be back to ride these trails in the future.
And just like that, we were spit out at the East Gate. Only 50km to Neepawa now. It was a sad feeling honestly. We were tired, but not quite ready to call it a weekend yet. For the next few hours, we slipped into our own respective paces and counted off the mile roads. The last few miles were deep, sandy dirt roads, making us really work for it in the end. All along, a thunderstorm rumbled away to the West.
We pulled into the Neepawa campground 7 hours and 45 minutes after we left. My Mom was there with fresh cinnamon buns and towels for the camp showers. It was the perfect ending to a perfect weekend. Within about 20 minutes of arriving, the storm hit Neepawa and the rain started falling as we pulled out of the parking lot.
I remember saying to Graham at one point that regardless of what next year’s summer challenge is, I’d love to ride this route again just for the fun of it. The combination of the stunning scenery, great riding conditions, and perfect balance of demanding physical exertion and plain ol’ fun made this the best cycling experience I’ve ever had.
General stats, numbers, and facts
- Total distance ridden: 420KM
- Riding time: 23 hours, 48 minutes
- Total time: three days, two nights
- Rivendell Atlantis / touring bike
- 2.1” WTB Nano 29er tires. These were perfect in my opinion. They rolled fast on the gravel, but I’d let out some pressure on the single track and rough sections of the TCT and they’d soak it right up.
- 2×10 setup. My lowest gearing was a 30×36. I used it. A lot. A 28×36 or even 26 front ring would have been nice.
- Dynamo hub/light, with a homemade (Thanks Dad!) charging system to keep my iPhone, GPS and batteries fully charged
- Two Ortlieb Roller Plus front panniers, filled with food, air mattress, cooking supplies, tools, and clothes. I brought clean clothes for each day. I didn’t use them all, but had them in the event of rain.
- Front basket with Sackville bag. This was overkill, but I wanted to be able to access my camera and food while riding without having to stop and open a bag. It added weight, but who cares, it was useful. I plan to replace it with a Swift Industries Ozette bag shortly.
- Carradice Camper Longflap with Bagman Expedition mount. I had a tent, rain jacket, small emergency-blanket style sleeping bag (rolls up to the size of a grapefruit, weighs nothing, and kept me warm), water filtration system, and two 1L water bags.
- I brought three freeze-dried dinners from MEC to eat for dinner, and oatmeal for breakfast. I didn’t eat any of that. There is enough food available on the road, which tastes a lot better too. We had an early dinner in Sandy Lake on Friday, then pizza in Rossburn, and burritos in Clear Lake. I ate fruit and nuts for breakfast. In the end, I could have left my stove, pot, and half my food at home, cutting my total packed weight in half probably.
- I carried 4.5L of water at all times, and many times I drank it all. It was very hot. We refilled in Bethany, Rossburn, Deep Lake (filtered water from lake), Rossman campground, and Clear Lake.
- The Clanwilliam general store is great. Friendly people, lots of food to choose from.
- The Barking Moose in Sandy Lake is awesome. Stop there if you can.