Riding into retirement
Relax and ‘enjoy a few good bike rides’
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I had always thought that when I retired, I’d make up for missing out and go backpacking around the world.
While a lot of my high school pals went trekking across Europe and Asia after graduation, I went straight into the working world. After a five-year stint in retail management training, I went back to university and landed a career in journalism. But even while going to school, I pretty much worked full time.
Put it all together and by the time I had put down the line gauge and walked out the doors at 1355 Mountain Ave. in December of 2021, I had worked for the better part of 44 years.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining: to have been able to work that long is a darn miracle — and to have worked a good portion of that time at something you loved was a true blessing.
And it’s not like I hadn’t had the opportunity to see a lot of places on various holidays and work trips. But never for that extended period of time: just the usual one-, two-, or three-week vacations. And then, back to the grind.
So here I am: it’s early 2022, I have all the time in the world on my hands and I’m trying to decide where to go and what to do.
But with a global pandemic persisting and war breaking out in Eastern Europe, it hardly seemed like a good time to go traipsing around the globe.
So instead, I took some final advice from the boss.
On my final day at the Free Press, Editor Paul Samyn shook my hand, thanked me for my service and said something like “enjoy a few good bike rides.”
Now there’s a really good idea.
So I bought myself a quality rack, loaded the Cannondale Topstone on the back of my SUV and headed south. Since March 1, 2022 I have hit up a number of terrific spots in the western part of the USA and Canada in what I have been calling my great retirement rides. Here folks, is my report:
Land of Enchantment
New Mexico is about a 21-hour drive from Winnipeg and is the first primary destination on my itinerary. Best known for its diverse landscape, the state has an excellent array of cycling opportunities:
• The 27-km Santa Fe Rail Trail in the state capital follows the old Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway line. You can connect to it from a variety of other trails in town but most folks begin the ride at Railyard Park, a hub of entertainment, shopping, food and events. The trail winds through urban, suburban and rural terrain and once it has left the city, it runs along a rolling, red-dirt path in a countryside of yucca and green junipers.
If you make it to Santa Fe, be sure to visit the Farmers Market that is held every Saturday morning and Tuesday evening. The event serves more than 150 farmers and producers, promoting small farms and sustainable agriculture in Northern New Mexico. It’s also where you can sample a favourite local tasty treat: the bluecorn lavender donut.
• White Sands National Park is located in Alamogordo, about an hour outside of Las Cruces, the second-largest city in New Mexico behind Albuquerque. The 25-kilometre return trip bike ride from the visitors centre is truly a unique experience: nowhere else in the world can you ride a bike on a hard-packed road through the heart of an immense gypsum dunefield.
The park is surrounded on all sides by White Sands Missile Range as well as Holloman Air Force Base. Both these places were established as a reaction to Pearl Harbour and have been in use ever since.
• Las Cruces is considered by many to be the state’s cycling capital with a wide variety of road, dirt and mountain bike trails. The Monumental Loop that winds itself though the Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument has sparked a bike packing boom in the area. I rode a section of the loop along the Rio Grande River with one of its creators, Pablo Lopez, that only left me longing for a return visit.
• The Dragonfly Loop Trail, located about five kilometres outside of Silver City, which is in the southwest corner of New Mexico, is a moderate five-kilometre ride in the Gila National Forest. It is known for its amazing display of petroglyphs and breathtaking scenery. A local cyclist by the name of David Smith, who I connected with on my Strava app, guided me to the best stops on the trail and connected me to another trail that winds past the mostly abandoned Fort Bayard and the adjacent national cemetery.
Silver City is equal parts Old West heritage and a distinctive arts and entertainment community. The quirky town is also nestled against the 3.3-million acre Gila National Forest, where part of the annual Tour of the Gila is held.
The five-stage race is often used as a warmup event for big races in Europe. The men’s course requires a total climb of some 6,705 metres over the 540 kilometres while the women complete an equally hilly 408 kms with 5,182 metres of elevation. It’s not called the toughest race in America for nothing. Winnipeg’s Clara Hughes won the event in 2011.
Every year, world class cyclists migrate to Arizona to train for their next big race. With 300-plus days of sunshine and thousands of miles of cycle-friendly roads, the state is consistently ranked as a top destination for serious cyclists. But there is plenty of opportunity for the less serious rider, as well:
• Located in the southeast corner of the state, Sierra Vista — Spanish for mountain view — is surrounded by towering mountains and offers up a variety of routes, including a 90-km road ride that will take you to the historic town of Tombstone or an arduous 60-km gravel bike ride that climbs up the majestic Montezuma Pass in Coronado National Forest. It’s a doozy.
Not nearly as challenging, but equally adventurous in the 38-km Cochise Vista Trail that is a great way to see the town and gives you an opportunity to stop for snacks.
Sierra Vista neighbours the historic Fort Huachuca and like many military towns, it has an international vibe as soldiers travelled and married people from other countries with bases, and brought them back to the U.S. Because of this, there is a diverse food scene including a pair of very good German restaurants.
At the German Cafe, I enjoyed a tasty schnitzel for dinner followed by an amazing traditional chocolate cake — and on a bike ride pit stop, I had a delicious apple and maple struesel tart at the Angry German that was as good anything you’d find in a Munich bakery.
• It’s funny to the think that when I used to write about golf travel, there was no place I liked hitting the links more than Scottsdale. And now that I have laid down the sticks for unspoiled walks and relaxing rides, there is absolutely no place I’d rather roll on two wheels than the Arizona vacation mecca. The Scottsdale Greenbelt is a delightful 18-km paved recreational trail that will take you through and past numerous parks, golf courses and lakes. And then there is the McDowell Sonoran Preserve — the largest urban park in the United States that is 30,500 acres of permanently protected and sustainable desert habitat. There are numerous trailheads: my favourites being the Browns Ranch and Gateway access points.
After a good ride, be sure to visit the Sugar Bowl — the local ice cream parlour in Old Town Scottsdale that’s been serving up scoops of scrumptious ice cream treats since the 1950s.
• I’d be hard-pressed to imagine ever having had a more scenic ride than the Grand Canyon Greenway Trail. The 33-km return trip ride from the visitor’s centre to Hermit’s Rest Viewpoint straddles the south rim and offers incredible views of one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Most of the ride is along a paved multi-purpose path, but even the points where you are on the road, the ride is pleasurable and safe; the only traffic allowed on the road is the shuttle buses.
It’s a challenging test with several steep climbs and an elevation gain of 462 metres over the 33 kms.
Off the strip
Known mostly for the glitz and glamour of the Vegas Strip, Nevada is in fact a state full of amazing natural beauty: it has more mountain ranges than any other state the USA providing plenty of opportunity for outdoor adventure:
• The Historic Rail Trail in Boulder City is a mostly gravel pathway that hugs the hills on the southern shoreline of Lake Mead. It offers panoramic views of the gorgeous electric-blue manmade body of water and then passes through five railroad tunnels that were built to carry the necessary supplies to the Hoover Dam site. They say no trip to the area would be complete without a visit to the dam and the best route to get there is the Historic Rail Trail;
• Known for its towering red sandstone peaks and Native American petroglyphs, Red Rock is also a common off-The Strip activity in the area with many folks heading there for its scenic drive. The 21-km loop is also a destination cycling spot.
From the park entrance, you immediately begin a 7.5-kilometre climb that rises in elevation about 350 metres with a grade maxing out at 9.2 degrees. I’m not going to lie: it was a tough trip to the top and there was no shame in stopping for a rest or two — or five. The breath-stealing climb does offer some breathtaking views and of course that long and winding descent;
• In a state full of magnificent views, Lake Tahoe is the piece de resistance. While there is a 115-km bike trail that circumnavigates the entire lake — added to my bucket list — the Lake Tahoe East Shore Trail is a stunning five-kilometre paved path that is just perfect while enjoying a day trip to the area.
With too many picture pit stops to mention, the trail ends at Sand Harbor State Park where you MUST be sure to experience walking on the sandy shores of the lake with the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas in the background.
A trip to California in the fall is a great way to shorten the winter season back home and get in a few extra rides before the snow falls:
• Long known as a place to kick back and relax, Palm Springs is also a prime destination for active tourism. Hiking in nearby Joshua Tree National Park is idyllic and there are many interesting and educating bike routes in the Coachella Valley. The Earthquake Canyon Express ride with Big Wheel Tours is a geologic extravaganza. The 32-km route winds its way through the narrow walls of Box Canyon and descends through the heart of the San Andreas Fault zone. It finishes with spectacular views of the Salton Sea and the sprawling agriculture of the valley — notably the grape vineyards near Mecca.
For a post-ride refreshment, head to the Shields Date Farm in Indio. The historic roadside attraction has been serving up date shakes since 1924.
• After a two-day visit to Santa Barbara, it’s much easier to now understand why some of the world’s most famous folks make their homes there: the place is beautiful, folks. A 500-metre climb to Mountain Drive did not produce a Harry and Meghan or Oprah sighting, but it did take me past the former homes of George Michael, Gene Hackman and Steve Martin — and provide gorgeous and sweeping views of the valley and Pacific Ocean.
My 47-km ride with guide Sergio from local cycling CalCoast Adventures was at times gruelling but the climb was well worth the effort.
Interesting note about Santa Barbara: the place is so pretty, you can enjoy the sunrise and/or sunset from the main beach. It is the only place on the California coast that has a traverse mountain range, resulting in a south-facing coast.
It’s hard to beat the lushness of the landscape in the Pacific Northwest, and on a couple of trips to the region in 2022, I found a pair of bike rides that allowed me to breathe in the amazingly fresh air:
• Oregon was the first state in the US to develop a statewide Scenic Bikeway Program in 2009 and it now boasts 17 designated bicycle routes that showcase its natural beauty. On a spring trip to Eugene — a gem of a city by the way — I rode one of the routes, the Covered Bridges Scenic Bikeway.
Lane County has more remaining covered bridges than any county west of the Mississippi River and the 58-km ride that starts in the charming town of Cottage Grove crosses several of them as it winds around the picturesque Dorena Lake.
• I finally made it to Tofino last year and while many things about the town impressed me — the vibe, the food and the coffee to name just a few — there is a little known cycling route that has recently been completed and a must-ride for lovers of the many shades of green.
Completed in the spring of 2022, the 76-kilometre return bike ride from Tofino to Ucluelet weaves through the rain forest, crosses boardwalks over second-growth bogs and goes past some of the most beautiful beaches in Canada. Part of the route includes the 25 km multi-use trail called ʔapsčiik t̓ašii (pronounced: ups-cheek ta-shee and meaning going in the right direction on the trail) through Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
• Often when I travel and meet folks from other places in the world they ask me what is the one place in Canada they must visit. My answer is always the same: Banff. Yeah, yeah, it can be a little crowded at times, but if you visit in the spring or fall the scenery is much more interesting and there is far fewer people to block your views of it.
Also, there is a bike ride you can only do in those seasons: Parks Canada launched a pilot program in 2022 that restricts vehicle access along a 17-km section of the Bow Valley Parkway from May 1-June 25 and from Sept. 1-30. My late September ride from Banff, past Vermilion Lakes, and then along the parkway to Johnston Canyon was as pretty as it gets.
There have been many occasions in life where I didn’t get what I wanted, only to discover the alternative to be much better — in this instance, biking over backpacking.
Safe travels, folks.