As I pedal into the town of Legal, 50 minutes north of Edmonton, my carb-starved body is waging a campaign to convince my brain that the doughnut, loaded with sugar and starch, is nature’s perfect food. Find one, it silently commands. No – find a dozen. It’s noon, the mid-July sun is imposing a mild blush through my SPF 30, and after 50 kilometres of riding I’ve burned through not only my breakfast of toast and raisin bran, but also my emergency reserves: a single granola bar, ravenously consumed 10 kilometres back. Thankfully, there’s a way station coming up fast. I drop my bike alongside the curb and join 30 or so of my fellow riders refuelling around two tables laden with fruit, chips and Gatorade. No doughnuts. Instead, there’s sucre à la crème, and as I let the crumbly French-Canadian candy melt in my mouth, my brain bumps cheap pastry off the pedestal. Before heading back to my bike to get on with the last 50 clicks, I grab another piece. You can’t find this stuff in just any old small town.
In a way, sucre à la crème is the whole point of the Tour de l’Alberta, a fully supported ride held annually by the Edmonton Bicycle and Touring Club (EBTC) since 1995, to coincide with the Tour de France. Fourteen years after that first local Tour, EBTC’s objective for the event hasn’t changed, either, even if interest has grown from its inaugural 20 riders to 500-plus today. For unlike the 3,500-km European sprint, the local Tour remains a leisurely voyage of discovery. Nobody wears a number and nobody’s watching the clock, which leaves plenty of time for getting acquainted with some of the province’s often overlooked francophone culture. French may be spoken by barely two per cent of the Alberta population, but here in the wide-open pastoral landscape of north-central Alberta, where settlers began arriving from the east in the mid-1800s, the French connection persists in strong accents, century-old churches, bilingual street signs and, if you’re lucky, sucre à la crème. And there may be no better pace to enjoy it all than by a leisurely pedal.
But let’s go back to the beginning, to Morinville Community High School, where I started off two hours ago. Nearly 200 cyclists had already left at 8 a.m. for the Tour’s 160-km option – 60K more than the 300 other cyclists and I were destined for as we gathered at the start-line in the school parking lot at 9 a.m. Another group was milling about in anticipation of the 50K loop’s noon start (this year also features a 20K ride as well as a nice 3K spin for the kids). And while some of my fellow riders managed last-minute stretches on sinewy legs and made final equipment checks of their sleek road bikes, I sat astride my decade-old mountain bike wondering whether I was really ready for this. I am no athlete. Yes, I’m active, thin for 15 years post-high school and familiar with long-distance cycling. Ten years ago I cycled Scotland and Ireland, rollercoaster terrain drawing into question the fabled efficiency of self-propelled, two-wheeled transportation. And seven years later I repeated the exercise on a smaller scale, closer to home, tackling the stunning Jasper–Banff highway and covering nearly 300 mountainous kilometres over four days. But since then, if I’m not commuting, I’m not biking. Call it an estrangement of sorts – and one the Tour, which I’d recently discovered, could rectify. Still, I’d committed in haste, leaving only three weeks to train, enough to get comfortable with 60 or 70 km at most. I sought reassurance from Jason Demers, EBTC member and Tour coordinator.
“You’ll do fine,” he said soothingly, “because it’s not a race. You’re meant to take your time. And besides,” he added, “this is the flattest course you’ll probably ever encounter.” I hoped he was right as, signalled by a warbling blast from an air horn, the Tour began. Moments later, I was pedalling shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the pack to the main street, where a few curious townsfolk had gathered to cheer us onward. More of Demers’s advice rang in my ears: “Just stay hydrated, keep eating at every rest stop and you’ll do fine.” Most important: his reminder that I had five long hours to complete the course. “Just pace yourself.” As the pelaton thinned, flashy road bikes streaking ahead, I realized I was among recreational riders as uncertain and eager as I was. A couple on a tandem bike negotiated a comfortable pace; a teenager in flip-flops wobbled on a squeaky mountain bike even older than mine; a senior in spandex shorts and a colourful cycling jersey hunched toward her handlebars to cut the light headwind. I’ll be fine, I thought. And as the first of the trip’s attractions came into view, my nerves settled, my heart calmed and my legs fell into a smooth rhythm.
Morinville’s St. Jean Baptiste Roman Catholic church, which I passed five minutes into the Tour, set the tone for the day. While lacking the gothic grandeur of Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral, the jewel of this town of 6,500 stands after 101 years as not only an extraordinary example of early prairie architecture, but as the reason why many of these northern Alberta communities exist at all. Of those of European descent, the fur traders arrived here first, a couple of centuries back, trapping for the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies. But after that, in the mid-19th century, came the French-Canadian missionaries, who brought not only a new brand of civility to the frontier but settlers, some of whom were willing to forego the urban francophone community beginning to gather in Edmonton – today among the biggest west of Quebec – in exchange for premium farmland. Churches such as St. Jean soon served as both places of worship and social hubs for otherwise isolated communities.
A two-lane highway leads westward out of town and immediately into Alberta’s agrarian heartland. Mostly, this is canola country, and given unusually favourable conditions – the much-needed moisture of recent rainfall – the fields are in bloom weeks early. I passed a century-old farmhouse, two storeys tall and stark white against a pungent, butter-yellow field. Despite growing up in this area and having driven roads like these dozens of times with my family, I was sightseeing. “To do this route on a bike is completely different than doing it by car,” Demers had enthused earlier. “You’re going at a slower pace, you get to see more, smell the fields – you’re just more connected with nature.”
Without stopping in Morinville, we turned north at Rivière Qui Barre and headed for the first roadside pit stop, 25 km into the route. And it’s here that the true nature of EBTC revealed itself as I rolled in and dismounted, land legs shaky, and headed to the crowd in front of what was, essentially, a cyclist’s buffet. For EBTC is, at its heart, a social club, and regardless of the ride (the club runs a dozen or so annually across the province), hanging out at rest stops beyond the point of “fuelling up” is a big part of what it’s all about. “Any time you go on an overnight trip, the number-one rule is that you are to gain weight,” Demers had told me. So I refilled my water bottles and made my way along the tables, grabbing enough chips, trail mix and fruit, which volunteers were steadily slicing, to get me through the next leg. At the end of the table, a woman filled little paper cups with sour, gummy candies. I couldn’t resist. “I haven’t had these in years,” I said. She dropped a few more into my cup and sent me on my way.
There is, admittedly, a certain subtleness to the scenery in this part of Alberta, and the ride over the mercifully flat and virtually traffic-free highway into Legal passed pleasantly but quietly. There’s nothing as obvious as, say, an ancient stone house or a vineyard drooping with ripe merlot grapes – which Tour de France racers might routinely whip past – to indicate a distinct region. The culture here is relatively low-key, and that could be one explanation for what Adriana Davies, executive director of the Heritage Community Foundation, sees in regard to the province’s francophone heritage. “Most people don’t realize it,” she told me, “but the francophone tradition in Alberta is indeed very strong.” In fact, by partnering with cultural societies across the province, the charitable trust helps communities preserve the stories and traditions of their heritage and share them. http://Www.albertasource.ca, for example, the Foundation’s online encyclopedia, hosts both Alberta and Edmonton’s francophone heritage websites. Though in comparison to Quebecois culture, Alberta’s francophone community has “its own unique, western identity,” Davies believes. “It evolved around the fur trade and missions,” but, in keeping with prairie tradition, “it was also about the land,” she notes. “In terms of communities, they’ve grown up on their own … and they’re incredibly proud of their identity.”
To prove its uniqueness, Legal, where nearly 20 per cent of the 1,200 residents are bilingual, displays its heritage in 33 billboard-sized murals throughout town. Some are along the main street, which I’m now cruising down on the way through town – with most of them depicting local founding families whose personal stories have had an impact on the development of the province. The de Champlains, for example, who have farmed here since the turn of the last century, helped to establish the local agricultural economy that persists today. And there’s another mural for the family of Alexandre Lavoie, who, in 1941, successfully lobbied the federal government to make its documents available in French as well as English.
Involved in the mural project since its start-up in 1997, Ernest Chauvet, coordinator at the region’s Centralta Tourism Society, sees these murals as meeting points for the anglophone and francophone cultures. “Part of the [motivation] here is to show that Canada is the [result of a] cooperative effort of those two nations,” says Chauvet, referring to our British and French founders. The hot politics of separatism may have cooled, but barely 15 years have passed since just 50.6 per cent of Quebecers voted to remain Canadian. “There’s healing here,” says Chauvet of the murals. “In a way, [their point is] to develop a mutual respect.”
After savouring my second much-needed sucre à la crème at this most recent stop in Legal, I hit the Tour’s first hill, a bump made as mountainous as the French Alps by the lactic acid pooling in my legs. A tail wind picks up and the sun’s glare incites me to grab the sunglasses stashed in my handlebar bag. The pack has thinned so much that at times I feel convinced I’m riding alone. An EBTC van passes carrying a bike and a tired rider – the only such sight I’ll see all day.
Twenty-five kilometres more and I hit another rest stop and feast on granola bars and PB&J sandwiches before turning south for the home stretch. That’s about when it hits me. Luckily, “it” isn’t the dreaded and dangerous “wall,” when, tank drained, the body exhausts even its built-in energy sources. (The snack stations have prevented that.) Past my 60-km comfort zone, I’m simply wearing out. I’m about to pass a Ukrainian Orthodox church in the community of Fedora, so I stop and rest and snap a few photos before heading off toward the Scottish enclave of Bon Accord, where I turn west for the last leg of the circuit. Despite riding straight into the wind, the same wind that graciously ushered me out of Legal, I’m buoyed by the sight of the steeple of St. Jean’s cathedral just a few kilometres ahead. It’s my Eiffel Tower; this stretch of highway, my Champs-Élysées; Morinville, my Paris of the prairie. I pick up the pace.
But the point of this journey, unlike its French model, isn’t to arrive. An hour later, as I cross the finish line into the parking lot, only my wife, Leah, raises a cheer for me. Five hours have passed, just over four of them spent riding. I dismount and she takes my bike, telling me I look tired but happy. “But everyone who has come in looks happy,” she adds.
As I catch my breath, I realize that I am. In fact, the only thing that would make the moment better would be finding out the next place to get another shot of that sucre à la crème. If today was any indication, it won’t be more than a bike-ride away.
• Tours Morinville, Alberta, hosts this year’s Tour de l’Alberta on July 26. Cycling enthusiasts can sign up for one of five races of varying lengths and difficulties. 780-716-3235; http://www.tourdalberta.ca
• Gear Well-tuned bike and sturdy helmet; patch kit for quick tire repairs; working head and tail lights; lightweight cycling shorts and shoes; first-aid kit and waterproof container for maps. For a more comprehensive list, see Mountain Equipment Co-op’s website gear, mec.ca
• Additional Intel The annual Fête au Village in Legal, Alberta, celebrates the French-Canadian culture of Alberta’s pioneers. July 25 and 26. http://www.town.legal.ab.ca
• Critical Reading Nathalie Kermoal’s Alberta’s Francophones, a sepia-tinted, photographic history of the francophone presence in Alberta (Les Editions Gid, 2005; $34.95).
• On -Screen For a behind-the-scenes look at the gruelling-yet-rewarding experience of cycling the countryside on the Tour de France: Hell on Wheels (2004), directed by Pepe Danquart.