2021 Alberta Rockies 700: Event Recap
In our latest event recap, Megan Dunn offers a unique perspective on the 2021 Alberta Rockies 700, during which she photographed the riders and followed their dots online. Read her reflection on what it means to be a part of such a race, even from the sidelines…
Words and photos by Megan Dunn (@evilmoosemegan)
The skies were still blue over the town of Canmore as the riders of the Alberta Rockies 700 set off early on Saturday morning. Spirits were high, nervous energy abounded, and jersey pockets and bike bags were bulging with as many bananas as they would hold.
It was the biggest starting field yet, with around 70 riders rolling out onto either the short 500-kilometre course or the full 700-kilometre version. Riders of both were about to experience a spectacular sampling of some of the best scenery the Canadian Rockies has to offer, as well as the full gamut of bikepacking experiences, including bears, wildfire smoke, heinous rocky hike-a-bike, slushy snow, and gas station burritos.
I’d missed the 7 a.m. start of the race downtown, opting to find a perch where I could watch the riders climbing the gravel up to their first pass. As I sat and watched the group power uphill, a layer of wildfire smoke from the BC fires slowly returned to the valley. By the time riders were streaming south down Spray Lakes Road, the smoke had well and truly settled in.
After a brief stint on singletrack and trail, the riders were soon back out onto Spray Lakes Road, heading south and getting covered with dust. I returned home to Canmore to watch the race from my computer screen. A tight three-way race quickly unfolded. Meaghan Hackinen was fresh from winning the BC Epic 1000. Kyle Messier and Theo Kelsey-Verdecchia were excited to finally be racing together in person, after years of BT700 rivalry in Ontario. But would the home-ground advantage help Kyle through to a win?
The dot watching was intense. Hundreds of kilometres in, our fingers were getting tired from hitting refresh. It was hard to get to sleep at night. Just one more refresh. Are the riders sleeping yet? Has someone stopped? Is anyone making a break for it? Or is that tracker just not updating? The three race leaders were pinging relatively reliably, but they were still so close together that you could never quite be sure who was where.
On Sunday evening, a few of us gathered to cheer on Dion Clark, the first finisher of the 500-kilometre race, who completed it in just over 36 hours… only to discover Clem Tixier at the finish line, already showered and changed after knocking out the route in under 33 hours! Dot watching is hard going when there are riders who never even signed up to be a dot. Both Dion and Clem had missed the mid-race wildfire re-route onto Spray Lakes Road and had ridden the original route up and over Skogan Pass to finish their ride. This gave them a bonus 400 metres of climbing, but also the bonus of a dust-free finish.
The AR500 riders arriving in Canmore on Monday had ridden the Spray Lakes Road reroute to get there and it showed. Lack of rain had turned the road into a dust bath, and the smoke was now so thick that the mountains had entirely disappeared in an eerie post-apocalyptic orange cloud.
But what was going on with the pointy end of the full-length race? Kyle had been mostly in the lead, with Meaghan keeping the pressure on from behind, while Theo had been sitting in third place, never too far away. On Monday morning though, that all changed.
One refresh later and suddenly Theo was in front. And then he was powering ahead. Flying down Spray Lakes Road, he was obviously making a break for it. And with no reception for the final 200 kilometres of the route, he had no idea how far the others were behind him or how fast they were chasing. From the screen at home, all we could see was that he was creating an insurmountable lead for himself. Unless something went wrong, the race was his, and the top three were more spread out than they’d been at any point earlier in the race.
Theo, Kyle, and Meaghan arrived in that order, all within about an hour of each other, stoked at the hard-fought race and coated in dust.
Just a few hours later, it was a different story as the rain rolled in. Jeff Hehn and Sarah Robbins were racing as a pair, and Sarah came in cold and shivering. A few hours later, a saturated Steve O’Shaughnessy arrived. He’d finished a yo-yo of the BC Epic a few weeks earlier and started his ride not feeling confident, but had powered through for a strong fifth-place finish. A group of dot-watching friends stood around in the rainy night to cheer him to the finish line. Later, he warmed up in the hotel room with Dean Anderson’s wife and son, waiting five more hours for Dean to arrive.
Dean rolled in on his single speed at 2:30 a.m., and his wife Kristin reported that his hands were so numb he could barely operate his bike, and his vision had blurred so that he couldn’t read road signs. Thankfully, he was able to get some sleep before continuing the rest of his mission to ride 751 kilometres in memory of the children whose unmarked graves were found at the cemetery of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, a mission that he completed the following morning.
Tuesday’s riders arrived covered in mud. The rain had stopped, but the sky was grey, and their gear was saturated from riding through snow and slush in Kananaskis.
Blue skies and a coating of fine grit were the themes of Wednesday’s arrivals. Sheldon McDonough finished his first bikepacking race, in the company of James Folsom of Portland, Oregon.
Trish Holt, the Lantern Rouge, arrived on Thursday evening, in the rain, with a broken seatpost clamp repaired with a stick and some tape. Tears of overwhelmed exhaustion turned to smiles of elation and relief, as a group of four of us welcomed her in.
This bikepacking community of ours is amazing. It’s welcoming and supportive. Riders who arrived converted instantly into dot watchers, checking the state of the field behind them. Many showered, changed, and waited for hours to bring a beer for the next rider behind them.
There’s great responsibility in being a dot watcher welcoming friends at the end of a long and tough race. What will they want at the finish line? Hot chocolate? Coffee? Coke? Beer? One guy turned up to meet his friend at the finish line bearing an array of home-cooked snacks in pyrex dishes, and we were both blown away and felt like we really needed to lift our game.
It’s also a privilege to share those moments with people, to cheer them on and celebrate their victory with them, and listen as they relive their ride. To hear them exclaim: “That’s a real bikepacker’s race!” or “I’m not riding my bike again for a long time” or “That singletrack outside Fernie was so fun and flowy!” or “I hated that section before Fernie SO MUCH,” and “This is an amazing community.”
And it really is an amazing thing to be part of, whether you’re riding or cheering from the sidelines. Thanks to organiser Jonathan Hayward for putting together another great event.
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