How to cross Canada by bicycle

After attending the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival and hearing stories about people doing "ridiculous and incredible things," Kristen Flath decided she'd do one of her own: a cross-Canada bicycle tour.

In late spring 2015, she and a friend set out from Vancouver and, after 78 days of cycling and eight rest days, dipped their wheels in the Atlantic Ocean at L'anse au Claire, Labrador on Sept. 2.

Total kilometres: 7,310.

"I can't think of a better way to see the country," says the NAIT student engagement manager. Taking in the scenery a pedal stroke at a time comes with an unabating sense of accomplishment. "Every day you feel like you've done something amazing."

Though the 31-year-old is a dedicated cyclist, she believes anyone with the will can explore the diversity of the nation under their own power. Here's her advice for having a successful and incredible cross-country adventure.

Research before riding

Sometimes, great journeys begin with a spreadsheet. Flath charted daily destinations and distances (about 100 kilometres on average but ranging from 40 to 170), elevation, accommodations and more. She knew things would change en route but "You're not going to do this research on the road. You need to do it in advance."

The pair relied mostly on Steve Langston's book, Canada by Bicycle, which covers Vancouver to St. John's. Be prepared for surprises. Important supply stores can shut down and campsite names can change, Flath discovered. At times, "Steve kind of became our punching bag," she says.

Get good gear

Though she already had three bikes, Flath bought one designed for touring. It has a long, light frame, which flexes to absorb shock but can haul the 25 kilograms of gear she required. Good disc brakes ensure stopping under such loads and a wide gear range helped handle elevation. She invested in a comfortable saddle, puncture-resistant tires and a reliable pump.

Packing included only essentials: two sets of bike clothes, rain coat, warm jacket, one set of off-bike clothes, two pairs of socks, two of underwear. The pair split camping gear, including a tent, thin mattresses, cookware and a small burner. On the way through Alberta, they dropped off a laptop, clothes and a spare tire.

Take precautions

Since her adventure was a story she intended to live to tell, Flath played it safe by

  • knowing basic bike mechanics and how to change a flat. She regrets, however, not changing her worn-out chain somewhere around Manitoba to prevent damaging her drive train
  • never riding in fog, heavy rain or at night
  • making sure her insurance covered hitting anyone
  • subscribing to a roadside assistance program that serves cyclists
  • using chamois cream to prevent saddle sores. "We went through three tubes," says Flath

Eat and drink a lot

Hungry bodies can stall quickly during touring. "One day we ate a whole pie," says Flath. "It can get really bad really fast - and you can get 'h-angry!'" On the road, the pair would eat every couple of hours.

Meal planning can be challenging. Other than a jar of peanut butter (they emptied 15), the pair didn't cart food. Instead, they'd buy enough for a day, sending one person in to shop. "If there are two people, there's too much back and forth and it takes too long."

In contrast, "Water wasn't a big issue," says Flath. She'd fill two bike bottles (750 millilitres each) in the morning and refill at gas stations or even strangers' homes.

Stay for free

While food tends to eat up most of the journey's budget, sleeps can be cheap. Flath and her friend wild camped for parts of their trip, pulling off the road to seek out a nice secluded spot on Crown land, free of charge. Sites were plentiful: Crown land accounts for 89 per cent of the country.

For more civilized stays, the pair would pitch a tent on the property of a welcoming bike shop, or lean on, a worldwide network of people willing to offer a place to shower, a meal, or even a bed. The price: a promise to return the favour.

Partner up

Similar fitness isn't the basis of a good riding partnership. "You'll bike your way into it," says Flath, "whether you're fit or not." Instead, the fundamentals of good relationships apply: communication, respect, compassion.

"You're with someone so closely and you're always interacting with them" - even if that means silently trying to stay in sync while riding.

Most importantly, though, you need emotional support to see the beauty of the endeavour when that beauty isn't so clear. Wind, rain, aches and pains can obscure the view. You need someone with whom you can share the good times along with all the rest, says Flath, "and feed you pie when you need it."

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