Cycling Across Canada: Calgary – Icefields Park – Yellowhead Highway

Isobel Duxfield, an adventurous soul, has been pedaling her bicycle across continents for about 7 months now. From the rugged terrain of south-east Turkey to the picturesque landscapes of Europe, the winding roads of the UK, and now the vast expanse of Canada, her journey has been nothing short of extraordinary.

Isobel’s fascination with cycling began during her time pursuing a Master’s degree in Gender Studies at Cambridge University. Observing the gendered dynamics within local cycling communities sparked her curiosity, leading her to delve into the world of women’s cycling clubs for her thesis.

After spending years advocating for sustainable mobility with Polis in Brussels, Isobel decided it was time to experience firsthand what she had been writing about. With nothing but four panniers and a heart full of curiosity, she embarked on her cycling odyssey.

Isobel has been documenting the Canadian leg of her trip and will be sharing it with us, to share with you! It contains stories of the people she’s met along the way and the communities striving to promote active travel across Canada. Through her words and experiences, she hopes to inspire others to embark on their own cycling adventures, where they too can become a part of the landscape they traverse.

In this first article she shares her experiences traveling from Calgary, through Icefields Parkway and the Yellowhead Highway.

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Calgary’s cycling revolution and the people behind it

At first glance, Calgary is dominated by the combustion engine. Huge SUVs thunder along the wide boulevards, flyovers cut through the urban environment and cheap parking is advertised everywhere. Yet, beneath this the city boasts a vibrant, and growing, cycling community.

More bums on saddles!

I arrived in Calgary at the beginning of my cycling tour which would take me across the Rockies and to Vancouver. Arriving on a sunny Saturday, I was privy to Calgary’s cycling culture at its best. Families, couples, clubs and solo adventurers; gravel bikes, e-bikes, road bikes and tandems, everybody was out, and there appeared to be no stereotypical cyclist.   

This was not what I had expected. Having previously spent time in North American cities, where riding a bike felt like playing with fire, I had braced myself for a tough tour. Instead what I found was a city which was embracing cycling in all its forms. From fresh cycling lanes to new bike clubs, and community based bike collectives, there is a hive of activity around pedal power.

”We are seeing more year-round cycling and use of active transportation by Calgarians,” says Rob Crooks, a representative for Bike Calgary, a local advocacy group, as well as a ‘cyclist in residence’ for a not for profit Organization called Youth en Route which provides cycling education in Calgary’s high schools.

“This is due to a number of factors including an increase in people coming to Calgary to live (from other provinces & internationally), some municipal policy changes including lowering of some residential roads from 50 to 40 km/hour, environmental awareness and improvements in cycling infrastructure.”

I met Crooks at Bow Cycle, a friendly bike shop, situated along the riverside, where I was just in time to see the newly established e-bike cycling club. Led by Crooks, the club welcomes anybody riding an e-bike, guiding them along some of Calgary’s best bike trails.

It was incredible to witness such an eclectic mix of members, which one would not usually find participating in a club ride; from older riders to children to parents- everybody was there.

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Training for young people & fostering diversity

However, changing cultures and providing opportunities for cycling is not just about building bike lanes. 

This is where community focused projects, such as Two Wheel View, come in. 

The Organization, established by the founders in their garage in St. Paul Minnesota, after a two year bike trip around the world, places children and young adults at the heart of their work, using the bike to provide hands-on skills, inspire confidence and develop community connections. In fact, their extensive youth engagement and community action programs are quite unlike any cycling collective I have ever come across. 

“There is a need for supportive youth programming that provides youth with knowledge and support to achieve their goals- whether that is employment, finishing school or gaining more confidence and overcoming social anxiety. The bike is an interesting tool for this because it can be pretty approachable, helps young people access other services and schools etc,”
Laura Istead
Executive Director

For example, their Earn-A-Bike initiative is an after school program for youth in Grades 7-12 (youth aged 12-17)  which, over the space of 10 weeks, enables children to learn how to maintain and fix a bicycle.

”It is about changing mindsets at a young age, which we are able to do through generous donations of bikes which we receive through our wide networks across the city,” one employee told me when I visited. 

Alongside this, the organisation runs GAP, a project aimed at older adolescents to provide hands-on mechanic training as well as extensive employability skills. 

This is testament to the rapidly changing active travel employment landscape. e-bike technologies, shared mobility, and micro-delivery platforms have expanded and developed rapidly, creating new jobs across the cycling sector. Indeed, Bow Cycles has opened a dedicated e-bike shop, joining a growing number of such stores across Calgary. 

As cycling continues to grow in popularity, the ways in which this innovative program links active travel and employment opportunities, even providing mock interviews and money management training, has important lessons for other cities. 

This holistic approach means many more young people are able to comprehend the opportunities available in the sector and are armed with the skills and qualifications required. 

Two wheel View also seeks to tackle cycling’s gender imbalance by equipping more women and non-binary individuals with competencies and confidence to maintain their bikes. Through Gender Equity Mechanics (GEM), every month, the organisation provides a safe space for improving practical skills, as well as fostering a diverse cycling community.  

The Organization has grown rapidly.

“While Covid definitely atrophied us in a number of ways, the Covid bike boom did bring more people to bicycles which helped our so... When I started in 2010 we had three full time staff and a couple of very part time facilitators. We now have close to 30 staff when our employment program crew is in session.”
Laura Istead
Executive Director
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Cycle tourism in Alberta

It is not just urban cycling which is changing rapidly in Calgary, long-distance pedal power is also increasingly popular in the surrounding area- which attracts increasing numbers of cycle tourers and mountain bike enthusiasts each year.

Across the region there have been substantial changes, aiming to promote active transportation and transit, with measures such as summer road closures in the nearby Banff National park.

For local riders, such as Crooks, this is an active means of not just decarbonising leisure, but connecting communities and populations.

”Touring has given me a much better understanding of other regions and cultures in Canada,” he asserts.

Room for improvement

Despite dramatic improvements, there are still wide ranging challenges for active travel in Calgary.

Like most of North America – Calgary has a strong car culture and there are continued accidents,” laments Crooks.

“Political support is very fragile and while we have developed a wonderful pathway and commuting system here, continued growth is slow.” Isted echoes his fears.

“I think infrastructure is part of it. Fear of weather/lack of access to winter riding gear too. Parental fear around safety also keeps youth from exploring more of their city by bicycle,” she says.

However, Crooks and isted like others I met, are hopeful that positive change will continue in the coming years.

There is more that can be done to keep people safe on bikes which would create greater confidence for cycling, but it’s come a long way since I started working at Two Wheeled View 13 years ago,” concludes Isted.

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From Alberta to British Columbia: early season cycle touring across the Rockies

As part of my journey from Calgary to Vancouver, I crossed through some of Alberta and British Columbia’s most stunning landscapes.

A private viewing

It was the end of April, a limbo time for tourism in the Rockies, when the skiers no longer pour into Banff, but precarious weather keeps the summer hikers, climbers (and sane cycle tourers) at bay. This made it an ideal time to explore the stunning cycle touring routes Canada’s stunning mountain range has to offer. 

Heading from Calgary to Canmore (battling against vicious headwinds), snaking into Banff and Lake Louise, before turning up towards the Icefields Parkway and over to Jasper and Mount Robson, I was passed by a few other tourists in camper vans, who honked encouraging, but I had the roads virtually to myself. 

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Cycling infrastructure: not just confined to a narrow hard shoulder!

The infrastructure set up for cyclists was far more extensive than I had been prepared for. I had heard rumours of separate cycle paths, but had resolved not to get my hopes up, for fear of disappointment- which often occurs when seeking out new cycling routes.

Calgary boasts extensive cycle lanes, making it a nice place to cycle- despite the roaring traffic. A stunning cycle path hugs the Bow river, and by hitting this, leaving the city is a dream, barely touching a road. 

From Canmore to Banff, cyclists enjoy a separate cycle path, The Legacy Trail, which sits adjacent to the highway (but not too close) taking in the beautiful valley. From here to Lake Louise, it is a cycle route which then migrates onto the 1A highway (a sleepy forested road at this time of year).

Admittedly, after this, the separated cycling infrastructure disappears; nonetheless, the wide hard shoulder lining the Icefields Parkway and Yellowhead Pass are more than adequate for a cycle tourer laden with baggage.

Somewhere to rest your head

While taking on this tour in April meant quieter roads, it did make finding accommodation slightly tougher. With campgrounds not open until the start of May, I was confined to hostels and Couchsurfing. 

The Icefields Parkway contains numerous hostels, which have basic, but very comfortable beds, cooking facilities- and sometimes even a sauna! However, advanced booking is definitely advisable as beds are snapped up quickly.

I also used Couchsurfing and Warmshowers. For those unfamiliar with these sites, the basic premise is a “host” can list their home as a potential location for travellers to stay, with “guests” (or surfers as Couchsurfing terms them) then able to request to stay. While Couchsurfing is open to all, Warmshowers is reserved for those travelling by bicycle, and has grown over the last decade to now boast over 100,000 users worldwide.

Along the way I used these often, receiving incredible kindness from many individuals who hosted me in spare rooms or on couches- I even stayed in one person’s bookstore! 

Across British Columbia there are hundreds of wonderful individuals who open their home, providing valuable support to cyclists from across the world, sharing shelter, food and wonderful conversation.

Many of my friends and family have often expressed their anxieties about using such platforms, such an intimate experience with a stranger. However, to me, placing trust in others is part and parcel of the cycle touring experience- particularly when pedalling solo. On a bicycle one is perhaps at their most vulnerable; to traffic, to wildlife, to theft or attack; yet, to me, platforms like Warmshowers provide a constant reminder that such danger is usually trumped by incredible kindness and generosity.

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Icefields parkway- the most beautiful road in the world?

While my route was not the most direct avenue to Vancouver from Calgary, it was perhaps the most attractive.

I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the beauty of the Icefields parkway. Having cycled in many areas of Europe and Turkey, the parkway took my breath away, like no other landscape has ever done.

The moment I entered the 160km road, my jaw dropped. Colossal, snow capped mountains loom over from both side, their jagged edges sparkling in the sunshine. 

Cycling on the parkway at this time of year demands the ability to cope with the cold and strong winds. The mornings were sub-zero, and flurries of snow rained down on several occasions, as I pedalled furiously into the headwinds.

Nevertheless, the views were worth any slight discomfort, and I found myself constantly craning my neck to take in the landscape, which changed at every turn, as new mountains, lakes and rivers came into view.

An accessible tour?

The low temperatures and closure of campsites may have complicated the route, nonetheless, it is an accessible route for anybody seeking to get into touring. Navigation is straightforward, there are few steep uphills, and there are no ‘wilderness’ sections- making it easy to reach out for assistance if necessary. It is however not a tour for those seeking separated cycling infrastructure across the entire journey (as one may find on a EuroVelo route), and confidence cycling alongside traffic is essential.

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Pedalling the Yellowhead Highway

It may be considered one of the most scenic drives, but by bike, Canada’s Yellowhead Highway is spectacular.

To a Brit, accustomed to small winding country roads, the idea of cycling down a highway sounded terrifying. It conjured visions of huge freeways with streams of traffic thundering past. So when I was advised to follow the Yellowhead Highway down from Jasper, through Valemount to Kamloops, I was sceptical.

I need not have worried- it was a wonderful route, and- for those looking for a very accessible touring route- a relatively easy ride, taking in some of the best landscape and wildlife British Columbia has to offer.

This section took three (long) days traversing approximately 440km. I departed Jasper in heavy snow, making my way to the base of Mount Robson, a stunning peak which towers above the valley. Critically, this is the only place to load up with water and food after Jasper, and after 80km, the break was definitely welcome! In fact, places to stop are few and far between along the entire route, a significant change (and challenge) for somebody accustomed to cycling in Europe. 

A few hours later I reached Valemount- a sleepy (but welcoming) town situated next to Swift Creek, where the valley widens out as you head south. The town is in fact infamous amongst mountain bikers who travel far and wide to visit its sprawling mountain bike park, which boasts a maze of well constructed downhill cycling paths.

Having again stocked up on supplies, I continued on south. The highway gradually descends, following the river down through the pine tree lined valley. As I lost elevation the temperature began to increase significantly, and the snow began to disappear. Where for the past few days I had wrapped myself in several sweaters and thick gloves, I was now in shorts and a t-shift; it finally felt like springtime!

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What is the traffic like?

At this time of year, Yellowhead Highway is a relatively calm and safe road for cyclists. Admittedly, there is a volume of traffic and some of the trucks which passed me by were scarily large. It does therefore demand a certain amount of vigilance, ensuring not to swerve away from the hard shoulder and into the traffic lane- which at some points is difficult on downhill sections. 

Nonetheless, the hard shoulder is generously wide, and I found truck drivers to be incredibly accommodating, retaining a wide berth as they passed. 

Arriving in Kamloops, one is met with a network of cycle lanes which follow the river and separate cyclists and pedestrians from the traffic. However, it was complicated navigating off the highway- and I did end up dragging my pannier laden bike through a hedge, which attracted some laughs from bemused drivers. However, as I then whizzed past them as they sat in Friday evening traffic, it was me who had the last laugh. 

Beware of the bears!

This route is also a wonderful opportunity to view a lot of exciting wildlife. Along the way I saw moose, elk, otters and even a bear, which stood just 3 metres from me at the side of the road. Later in the year, this is also an ideal location to view salmon spawning, as they swim up in their millions, filling the river.

How accessible is this route?

With no navigation skills required and relatively few steep ascents or descents, this route is extremely accessible for novice cycle tourers. While camping equipment is advised, it is possible to find accommodation in the various lodges along the way, thus significantly reducing the weight of baggage. However, the volume of traffic, particularly the number of trucks in certain sections, mean it is perhaps unsuitable for young children.

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We will be releasing more of her journey, here on our blog, but if you’d like to follow Isobel on her journey directly, follow her here.

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