How the orange bike came home

So here’s the continued story of Orange Bike. It’s been almost exactly a year since my little orange TransAM was stolen from a public bike rack on the DTES, and if there’s a moral here it’s that it’s always worth holding on to hope.

I never meant to buy this bike. I went out to Coquitlam to pick up a fork for the build I was working on, but the fork was still attached to a bike and the seller convinced me to take that as well for a few extra bucks. It didn’t look like anything much: a very beat up steel frame in a ludicrous shade of orange, attached to an assortment of worn out components and a really nice fork. Still, I figured I could stick one of my old forks on it, sell it, and probably come out well ahead. But when I got home I took the orange bike out for a ride, and even though barely anything on it worked properly (the chain was stretched, the cassette teeth ground down to nothing, the brakes sloppy and disparate) something clicked. Before I even got around the block I knew I wasn’t going to be selling this bike.

I cannibalized the build I’d just finished for replacement parts, and then the orange bike and I went on adventures. It became my go-to commuter, my urban playground bike, my after-work trail machine. I flew it to California and rode the dusty desert singletrack of Fort Ord and Toro Regional Park. It hung out by the ocean where the surf was breaking. It tipped me over the bars on Victoria rock rolls and held its own admirably on Hartland trails in the pouring rain.

Surf's up

It shouldn’t have been a high theft risk. The frame was chipped and dented, the decals peeling and discoloured; only the fork gave away that there was actually an awesome little chromoly trail machine hiding under that battered exterior. And it’s likely the fork that it was stolen for; I can’t imagine anyone bothering for the frame. But it did get stolen, and even though I somehow managed to find another 2011 TransAM – one in far better condition than the orange bike – it was never quite the same. I’ve missed that bike on every single ride it wasn’t there for.

Cut to eight weeks ago. On PinkBike, where I’d repeatedly thought that I should just kill the reward notice I posted and give up hope that the orange bike might ever come home, I got a message from someone who’d bought a battered but surprisingly good quality steel frame at the Vancouver flea market and was a bit suspicious about his good fortune. 10 months on, I did not want to allow myself to hope. I sent him the serial number and tried to put it out of my mind. Until the most surprising message of all came back: the number matched.

It took a while to meet up. Each time we didn’t manage to connect, I reminded myself that this was such a ridiculously long shot in the first place. Then today I got a text: he had a free day, did I want to meet at lunchtime for the handover? We spent a half hour dancing around each other at Starbucks because he had assumed he was looking for a guy. And then he gave me a black plastic garbage bag with a bike frame wrapped inside, and I gave him a Starbucks gift card because he refused to take the reward I’d offered but I knew he liked coffee, and the orange bike came home. Don’t ever lose faith in humanity; there are very, very good people out there.

There’s some rebuilding to do. But the little orange bike, the bike I loved the very most, is back where it belongs. Happy new year.

TransAM redux

Wake up

In October it began to rain. It rained and it rained and it rained, and beneath the water-drenched weight of the tombstone grey sky the whole city bowed down into sadness. A few short weeks before a very dear friend of ours made a choice, a choice I can’t even begin to imagine, to stop his cancer treatment and see where nature would take him. It took him down, fast. October knew. October mourned.

In the rain we went to see him in palliative care, and later at the hospice. With grey skies darkening the window, we talked to him about what he thought came next, about how much he meant to us, about the legacies he would leave, about silly little everyday things that we thought might brighten his day for a moment, or distract him from the fact that the moments he had left in the world were counting down fast, so fast. Later we steadied him, supported him, and at the very end we just held him. There were no words. The words had already been said. We left him that last night and walked out into a cold, hard, steady rain that beat down on us like the grief of the world made manifest.

In the morning the call came, and that was it. His life was done. The reality of loss. The hole in the world that opened up because he wasn’t there anymore, would never be there again.

On the day of his memorial the rain fell without cease. We gathered in the dark and the cold and remembered him in a space made light and bright and warm by candles, by love, by respect. And the people who had known him so well celebrated all the unique moments of his life, and gave voice to his last message to all of us: wake up. Wake up now, before it’s too late. Outside, the world mourned. It mourned a creative, kind, determined, fantastically ornery person. It mourned a father, partner, brother, son. It mourned my friend.

I first posted this a long time ago, but it’s resonated so deeply over the last little while. This is what I’m thinking about right now. This is what I think about when I think of what it means to be awake. These are words I try to live by.

“We take for granted our time on earth. Even when we don’t, we do. We spend our precious moments on trivialities, on contrivances, and we lose sight that far more precious than our dollars are our minutes. It’s good to honor the dead. It’s better to honor the living. It’s good to use words. It’s better to take actions. And really, there’s no time to waste.” – Steve Casimiro

Winthrop by bike

Winthrop, WA is one of the coolest places in the world. It doesn’t mean to be, but it is. We’ve had some amazing adventures there in recent times, and this summer we went back for an outing that was defined by some amazing biking.

We started out on the Sun Mountain trails, where I cheerfully rode over a small rise into the creek that was just a trickle last time we were there in September, only to find that summer conditions are a bit different.

Sun Mountain creek

Next up was Buck Mountain, a circuit that’s been on my wishlist for a long time. It lived up to all of my expectations, and then some.

Buck Mountain

This was truly the route of singletrack dreams. There’s something in me that’s always yearned for the sand and sagebrush, the big high skies that only open up over arid landscapes. Buck Mountain provided all of that in spades.

Buck Mountain singletrack

A long, long climb brought us to miles of laughing, dusty, perfect descent: narrow, winding singletrack, brakes barely required, dust beneath the wheels, a few little stumps and bumps to hop off here and there. Beneath scorching blue skies, it felt like some kind of biking heaven and I never, ever wanted it to stop.

End of Buck Mountain trail

Of course it eventually did, and we climbed back into the car and took ourselves home for a dusty, tired soak in the hot tub at the River’s Edge Resort (highly recommended). There was still time, on our last day, to take the bike back out to the Patterson Lake trails for a final rip in the sunshine. Winthrop, I’ll miss you.

Patterson Lake trail

Big Red Cats

Remember way, way back when my buddy and I won a catskiing day in Rossland? We went to Red Mountain and had a fantastic time, but fluctuations in the freezing level skunked the catskiing part of the trip. The next year, there was no snow. Fortunately Big Red Cats are awesome, and they gave us a raincheck to 2015/16. Some things, it turns out, are well worth waiting for.

Catskiing in the Monashees

B and I were the only people in the group with avvy training and gear, so we helped out with the morning drills for the rest of the group. Then we headed out into the Monashees for a day of skiing some of the lightest, coldest snow I’ve ever encountered.

The Big Red Cat coming back to get us

We were booked on an intermediate/advanced cat, and it was strange for me – so used to lagging behind my far more experienced and technically capable ski buddies – to find myself the strongest, fastest skier in the group. Our final run of the day was a grand finale on Mount Neptune, and with legs that still felt like they had miles in them after being shuttled around by the cat I was happy to charge right behind the guide through perfect Kootenay coldsmoke in the trees.

Monashee magic

An amazing day out, and getting so many powder runs in a single day really gave my untracked skiing a big boost that would hold through the rest of the season. If you’re ever in Rossland, I highly recommend giving Big Red Cats a go.

Day out with Big Red Cats

Considerable

It happened on Zoa, of all places. It happened there because we’d made the right call earlier in the day, knowing that conditions were considerable and there was more new snow on the ground than the forecast had called for, so we’d backed off on our plans to ski Thar. Instead we opted for the simple terrain on the other side of Falls Lake, the tried and trusted Zoa, a zone where the consequences would be small if something did go wrong. That call was good; not all of our calls this day would be.

Zoa lunch spot

We saw a little bit of cracking once we gained the ridge, but nothing that set off significant alarm bells. We dug a pit on the first aspect we planned to ski, and while we found obvious planar shears at the expected depths they didn’t let go easily. We were careful to take our first run on a low angle, shorter slope, but nothing moved and there were no other signs of instability. For our second run, we moved across to the longer slopes on the east side of the peak. Again we went carefully, one at a time, picking a consistent fall line with no obvious weak spots. Again, nothing moved. The snow was light, fast, fun.

Riding Zoa

Given how solid things seemed, we started our third run on a slightly steeper pitch. That was the first of two obvious mistakes that we made: letting the seeming stability of our first two runs lure us into forgetting that we were still out in considerable conditions. The second mistake was deciding that things seemed stable enough for us to ski the third run together, rather than continuing our one-at-a-time approach.

Photo credit: Sierra Laflamme

S went first, his board kicking up a big arc of powder. I followed him down, the turns fast and light and dreamy. I’m pretty sure I was smiling. Just ahead of me, S crested a small convexity that dropped onto the steepest part of the slope. And then he yelled “Avalanche!” and the world broke apart around us.

That moment is still seared into my memory. S disappearing over the convexity, the snowpack fracturing beneath my feet and sweeping him away with it. Somehow my brain processed that the fracture had happened on the convexity and I was at the very top of it; instinctively I cut hard, hard to my left toward a small stand of trees. Blocks of snow slid away below my skis. Then the ground solidified and I was off it, momentarily away from the chaos.

I took a deep breath and looked at my surroundings. My “safe” spot was less than reassuring; cracks were shooting out from beneath my skis, the entire snowpack around me completely unstable. Somewhere below me was S, but the trees were blocking my view and I couldn’t see where. The slide wasn’t big; the crown above me was about 30cm. But I was desperately conscious that if S was in the runout zone and the rest of the slope gave way, it could easily bury him.

I yelled and he called back that he was safe. I tiptoed away from the spot where I’d stopped, back onto the bed surface of the slide. From there I could see S, who’d managed to self-arrest with his board and was about 50m downslope with his airbag deployed. The slide, while relatively small at the crown and not deep, had pulled out the rest of the bowl below us and the surprisingly large debris field had funnelled through the gully at the foot of the bowl.

I sideslipped carefully down to safety, and S worked his way across the slide path to join me. We were both shaken, relieved, and already starting the analysis of how we’d triggered the slide. S began the process of deflating and repacking his airbag; he noted that the deployment might actually have done more harm than good, since the part of the slide he was caught in wasn’t that large and the inflated bag prevented him from being able to see what was happening upslope.

Zoa slide

The mistakes were so obvious with hindsight. We let the seeming stability of our first two runs lull us into a false sense of security, and then we stopped taking the precautions that should be essential in considerable conditions – safest line, one at a time. But we also made the right decision very early in the day, when we backed off on Thar in favour of a much safer, less consequential zone.

I’m not at all sorry we made those mistakes. I’ve been skiing in the backcountry for almost five years now; that was my first avalanche involvement. It would be too easy to believe that all of the previous days were the result of good choices, good assessment, knowledge and judgment; but if we’d stuck to lapping our first two lines on Zoa, we could have gone home believing that was the case on this day too. It’s good to be reminded that we’re human, we make mistakes, and that we can never, ever let our guard down. We’ll make better, more careful choices in the future as a result of making the wrong ones today.

Aftermath, Zoa

Journeyman, at last

Our group has this weird track record with the upper Callaghan. We’ve been out there three times now, and somehow have barely managed a downhill turn. The first time was the physics-defying Telemagique tour, which only went up; the second time we underestimated how long it would take to get to the lodge and had to turn around immediately after we arrived; most recently, a freezing level bounce had left everything below 3,000m completely unskiable. When we set out for Journeyman today, we weren’t hopeful – could we finally break the jinx that had taken us through 88km of pointless slogging?

Journeyman skin track

C and I took a cat bump to Callaghan Lake, then hot-footed it to the lodge as fast as we could. We were unable to resist the temptation to stop for a hot chocolate and a real bathroom (how can you not, when these things present themselves deep in the backcountry?) but we still had plenty of time to climb the additional 750 vertical metres behind the lodge to Journeyman peak.

Last time I visited the lodge I wasn’t skiing, but one sunny morning had given me a glimpse of the limitless terrain that surrounded it. As we climbed higher, I realised that the views from the valley floor had barely touched on the potential of this zone. Hidden, Callaghan, Ring, Solitude – towering peaks and endless fall line surrounded us in every direction.

Upper Callaghan peaks

We transitioned just below the true peak, and prepared for an epic run back to the valley. But to my surprise, when I pushed off the first roll my skis barely moved – it was as though I still had skins on. My first thought was that the curse of the Callaghan had struck again, and I’d suffered some epic wax crisis that was going to doom my downhill turns. But then I discovered a thin layer of ice on the base of my skis that was easily removed with a credit card, and the fun really began.

Journeyman Peak

We skied back down the north-west aspect we’d climbed, which gave us nearly 2km of skiing and 750m of vertical descent through smooth, silky alpine bowls and then through deep powder in steep trees. It was the run of the winter for sure, and we were laughing for joy as we tumbled out of the trees and back onto the valley floor.

Journeyman descent
It’s a long ways out from Journeyman to Alexander Falls, but at least the XC trails make it easy. And after finally breaking the curse of the Callaghan, we were grinning all the way.

Steel is real

Then there was this.

Orange bike

Sometimes you don’t even plan the perfect thing, and it happens anyway. I didn’t mean to buy an orange bike. I didn’t need another bike, no matter what colour it was. But the orange bike crossed my path, and this little chromoly machine turned out to be one of the best things I ever bought. It’s now my every day commuter, my after-work trail ripper, my vacation companion when lock-up circumstances or transport are too insecure for the Banshee. The urban playground continues to expand, and I love every moment I spend on this bike.

Somewhere waiting for you. Go!

We’re so stupidly blessed here. Really, it’s silly. This absolute abundance of riches, summer and winter. I used to spend my years saving up the time and money for a brief week or two’s access to the place I’ve been lucky enough to call home for a decade.

The North Shore alone has enough bike trails to keep any serious biker happy for a lifetime. But there’s so much more that it’s almost criminal not to go out and explore. This summer, with a new bike raring to go, that was one of my goals. And so explore we did.

Galbraith

Galbraith, Washington. Incredibly fun trails that were the perfect mix of fun, flowy, jumpy and technical. Favourites: Atomic Dog, U-Line, SST.

Cat Lake views

Section 57 bridge

Section 57 switchbacks

Cat Lake. Section 57 is my new favourite trail, one of the most diverse I’ve ever ridden both for the riding and the landscape. Steep switchbacks, lush microvalleys, small jumps, fast rolling terrain, steep descents, log rides and bridges – it has absolutely everything.

Lorax trailhead

Bear Mountain on a baking day. Lorax was clearly cut from the same incredibly fun cloth as Asian Adonis; Super Bear was a Half Nelson-style joyride through the woods.

Riding the Sunshine CoastSprockids woodworkSprockids, on the day when for no reason at all I decided to change direction, put my bike on a ferry, and go ride on the Sunshine Coast for a while. Excellent flowy fun lower down the mountain transitioned to very steep technical riding on the upper trails, along with a godawful push up an abandoned skidder road to reach the top of Mount Elphinstone. There was probably a better way, but it made me happy regardless.

Hartland

Vancouver Island’s Hartland in the pouring, pouring rain.

Ah, this place we live in. It’s the best.

Full body armour

I do most of my mountain biking with people who are far, far better than me. This means I’m continually pushing myself, but generally feel pretty inadequate when it comes to my own abilities. I’m too much of a weekend warrior, at least these days, to be able to put the time into closing the gap. Mostly I just try to be grateful that my riding buddies are patient types who don’t mind waiting when I have to take the long route around a gnarly descent or crazy stunt.

This summer, though, I started to become more aware of my own progress over the past couple of years. Trails – admittedly not the most difficult trails – that had once seemed hard had definitely become easier, and I’d begun cleaning sections that I’d previously had to walk. The Banshee stepped my game up a notch, proving that it is to some degree about the bike.

Nonetheless, when my riding buddy J proposed we ride CBC, I was unsure. I am not even close to being a double black rider; I’m only just getting comfortable on (easier) blacks, and still fall off skinnies and woodwork with tiresome regularity. CBC? Really? But there was also a lure of adventure and challenge that I couldn’t resist, and so on a bright sunny morning I found myself at the trailhead in body armour and a full face helmet, ready (or not) for the spills to come.

CBC skinnyish woodworkThe night before, I’d dreamed my way through strange realms on the bike: shadowy fantasylands filled with ghosts and caverns, a dark Narnia that I’d find myself revisiting in my sleep before every big bike challenge over the summer. I’ve grown to love it, because it means that the day ahead is about going far out of my comfort zone and into wild new territory.

CBC started off surprisingly reasonably, with armoured berms leading into awkward rocky descents and drops. J and I took one section at a time, pausing when we needed to. He was the best person I could have asked to tackle my first double black with: patient, analytical, and confident without being fearless. Watching him break the trickier lines down step-by-step was helpful for me when I reached spots where I initially balked.

James on CBC

To my surprise, I ended up riding about 90% of the trail. I skipped a couple of the crazier drops and ladders, but got more and more comfortable on the janky rocks and woodwork that made up much of the route. J blew my mind by taking one look at the mad rollercoaster leading to the Millenium Log and riding it clean on his first attempt. I was actually sorry when the trail ended and we spilled out onto Pinch Flat Alley, where we rattled down over the loose rocks and back into sunshine on Cypress Bowl Road.

CBC woodwork

I had fully expected to walk most of CBC, especially after a series of bad choices on my first visit to Cypress a week before that had resulted in my ass being thoroughly handed to me on an eroded skidmark of a black trail. Being able to ride so much of it, albeit a bit slowly and awkwardly, was a huge confidence booster. It was also great watching J push his own limits on some of the sections; his technical riding is infinitely far ahead of mine, and he’d go on to bigger and better things almost immediately, but the trail had plenty to challenge us both.