Tour of Alberta: Motorcycle Diaries A brief snapshot of pro cycling culture from the back of a Photomoto
PHOTOS AND STORY BY BOB COVEY
“IS that dude…peeing?”
The Tour of Alberta’s whirlwind visit to Jasper National Park wrapped up September 5 and while the spectacle of Canada’s biggest professional cycling event left many lasting impressions, there’s one vision I can’t get out of my head: that of a lycra-clad rider answering nature’s call…without stopping his bike!With his teammate providing two-wheeled stability and, presumably, moral support, this flexible fellow was somehow able to relieve himself while negotiating the bladder-bumping ruts and rocks on Highway 93A, at 30 km/hr. “That was impressive,” I said to my motorcycle driver, John Colyer, who scooted his BMW R1200GS around the peloton with daring grace.I learned a lot about professional cycling during the 45 minutes or so that I cruised along with the racers as one part of a two-man photomoto team. I got an idea of the insane pace at which the peloton moves; I learned a bit about the strategies employed by the racing teams to give their strongest riders a chance to win; and I got a taste of cycling culture—the etiquette and the behind-the-scenes efforts involved in a sport in which athletes compete against each other but who also ride together.
“Here they come, hold on!”John is shouting to me over the wind to me as we descend the first hill of Stage Four, the picturesque slope adjacent to Beckers’ Chalets. I’m trying to get “the shot,” attempting to frame the lead riders while capturing the sparkling Athabasca River over their shoulder and Pyramid Mountain in the background. As such, I’ve asked John to slow down the bike, but I can tell he’s uncomfortable as the peloton approaches.“They’re going to be on us, we gotta go,” he says. Sure enough, just as I’m turning my body to face forward there are riders all around us. One athlete has been “drafting” us—using our slipstream to reduce the wind resistance he has to pedal against—and when he bursts around us in an explosion of speed, I’m caught off guard.“That was insane,” I mutter as Colyer feeds gas to the engine to keep ahead of the pack.
The pace of the group never ceases to surprise me. Even as they climb up the steep Portal Creek hill, my camera’s autofocus can barely track them as they charge. At one point we stop so I can frame a scene at Leitch Lake, where Jasper’s Wild Current Outfitters are cheering from a canoe. Well ahead of the group, I take the time to tighten a polarizing filter onto my lens. Suddenly I’m caught off guard as the swell of bright jerseys flows into view. First come the course marshals on motorcycles, then the primary TV broadcaster motos, then the pack of more than 100 riders, then the support vehicles, race officials and fellow photomotos. They all whiz by me in less than 15 seconds, mere inches from where I depress the shutter.As the peloton soars past, in its wake is a familiar, yet out-of-place, reverberation. It sounds like the hubbub at the back of the Legion during the first concert of the winter, when all the locals who haven’t seen each other in five months are catching up, to the consternation of those who are actually there to hear the artist. I realize that the cyclists are talking amongst each other—and not just talking, but gabbing. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but I remember overhearing fellow photographer and pro cycling aficionado, Jasperite Jeff Bartlett, interview team Jelly Belly rider Fred Rodriguez about the debate that took place during the previous day’s stage: the riders were considering stopping the race because of cold. Rodriguez confirmed that it was discussed at length, but they decided to tough it out. What struck me was not that such a topic would be broached, but that it would be possible for 120 riders to converse so thoughtfully while barrelling down the highway at 60 km/hr. “It’s like a Sunday ride for them at that point of the race,” explained cycling enthusiast Laurie Schnieder, from Michigan. “Until they start the breakaways, they’re barely breaking a sweat.”
Ah yes, the breakaways; another concept I didn’t understand until I was watching the Tour from the back of John’s motorcycle, and then later on the JumboTron at Marmot Basin. As we photographed the peloton making their way through the feed zone near Horseshoe Lake, John, whose earpiece told him how the leaderboard was stacking up, informed me that the lead cyclists were in fact three kilometres ahead. I was shocked. “You mean these guys aren’t in the lead?” I yelled rhetorically, as I snapped off a dozen shots backdropped by Mount Kerkeslin. “Well then, let’s get up there!”
If I thought I’d be photographing the winners by racing ahead of the peloton for a glimpse of the leaders after 50 km, I was as mistaken as the breakaway cyclists themselves who hoped they could hold their position all day. As a fisherman, I understood the concept of the peloton “reeling in” the breakaways, but I’d never imagined it quite so dramatically as what unfolded on the highways of Jasper National Park. The peloton, with dozens of riders able to trade the burden of pushing the headwind, and being comprised of several teams of riders working together, is much more efficient than a small group of cyclists trying to go at it alone. It took all three laps around 93/93A to catch the breakaway, but by the time they started up the Marmot Basin Road, the peloton had reeled in the leaders.“Logan Owen is going to be caught,” the announcers called out as the peloton absorbed the breakaway which had led all day (Owen ended up crossing the finish 52nd).
For all of its inevitable breakaway dream-crushing, the peloton is also an empathetic organism, I learned. When a rider crashed in the feed zone area, a result of the chaos of support vehicles and personnel all vying for the best spot on the pavement, the rest of the peloton waited until the fallen rider had righted himself before proceeding earnestly. When an athlete ran out of fluids, I saw another cyclist from a competing team give him his bottle (never mind that the spent bottles were tossed directly into the woods). And while it’s not unusual for teammates to help one another urinate en route, as mentioned, more commonly, when a few riders determine they can’t hold it any longer, the whole peloton will pull over.
JOHN COLYER PILOTED HIS PHOTOMOTO WITH DARING GRACE
The Tour of Alberta in Jasper was a success on many levels: the international stage it granted this community and the park; the coordinated efforts of agencies, organizations and individuals involved; and the festivities surrounding the start and finish lines during two incredible days of hosting 120 of the world’s best athletes—no matter what a few missed sales might mean. For me, however, what I’ll remember most fondly is what I could glean about cycling culture; namely, that even though they’re competitors, pro cyclists not only have each other’s backs, but each other’s bladders, too.