Two years ago the Croken Classic was born. Due to city permit issues for cyclocross races being pulled due to weather we had a bunch of riders all amped up with nowhere to go. Earlier that year I had ridden a long out and back gravel route, Victoria Trail and figured it would be great in the fall. Great is not a word most would use to describe the 120km of suffering that occurred two years which is why there was no Croken Classic 2017. The suffering was still to fresh in everyone’s memories and there was still dirt and mud hiding in the bottom brackets and cable housing to even consider attempting another sufferfest like that again.
Cue 2018 and the memories had faded just enough to convince some folks that it would be a great idea to do another large fall gravel ride. In the last couple of years the gravel riding scene has blown up and there just happens to hundreds of kilometers of traffic free gravel roads south of our cabin at Pigeon Lake, Ab. Having done some gravel riding out this way, Greg and I figured that this area would be perfect for the Croken Classic as we would have a cabin as a base camp to stage and finish at as well as the option of a Croken Classic Lite route for folks wanting to dial down the suffering a bit (apparently not everyone wants to suffer all the time!)
The weeks leading up to the classic were filled with a mixed bag of weather with everything from full blown blizzards dumping over a foot of snow in the area to above seasonal temperatures, all the opposite of what was forecast. Given that this event was intended to be a go no matter the what the weather was, we were all a bit relieved that it hadn’t snowed the day before like the previous classic. The temperature ended up average 2 degrees throughout the ride which was great as there was little chance of overheating or running out of water.
We headed south from our cabin and past Pigeon Lake Provincial Campground (great place if you wanted to spend a weekend riding gravel.) This was the only planned paved section of the ride as it led us off the main stretch and onto the range roads very quickly.
Our pace started out pretty fast and furious as it always seems to when we get a certain group of folks together on bikes! The question is always, who will be able to sustain this pace for the day and if not, where do we blow up? The smart sensible thing would be to stick to a consistent pace and just enjoy the ride but as we are riding gravel in October in Alberta there is no point in attempting to be smart and sensible at this stage of the game.
This photo sums up the question that we get all the time, why bother riding gravel? The roads outside of the mountains in Alberta are notoriously boring. Straight roads through the prairies are not all that exciting for road riding and staring at canola fields gets pretty old pretty quickly. With the gravel roads you are guaranteed unique scenery as you wind through the country side, diving into and climbing out of areas with streams and lakes. Another huge perk of riding these roads are that there is virtually no traffic and when there is, the drivers always give you a huge berth. We saw three cars in the 100km of gravel that we rode, try doing that on paved roads around here! In fact, our car to bull moose ratio was a solid 3:1.
Check out those roads! There’s more elevation in 100km of those roads than any 160km paved loop around Edmonton!
Given that most of the fields are farmers fields in these areas there is usually a band of trees right up to the edge of the road which offers great protection from winds that pick up every afternoon.
When Greg and I were planning this route we were using a combination of Ride with GPS, Strava, and the back roads map books to figure out an ideal route with no pavement. This was labelled as a potential access route as it had been where the trains used to run through. We gambled on it as it had been labelled a road but when we got there there was a shiny, freshly installed fence blocking the access. At this stage there were no roads further east that wouldn’t require an additional 25km of riding in the wrong direction so we had to turn around and back track through the hamlet of Hoadley. From there we had to do a 15km stint on the main highway in the wind which was less than ideal as we all had gravel tires on with low pressure but what can you do!
As we had finished our stint on the highway we noticed, in the opposite direction, this large hill. Despite this being in the wrong direction, the weather deteriorating and our legs not doing so hot we decided we should go pound this hill out, just for fun. The hill had an average gradient of 10% and just under a km long. The best part of the hill was that the gravel was deep, deep enough that you couldn’t actually hold a straight line up it! After we climbed that hill we went back to the regular route and hopped back on the gravel.
Knob Hill road was the last main road we’d do before dropping into the Battle Lake area and it proved to be a good one. Rolling hill after roll hill punished the legs and emptying our matchbooks.
Along this road was where we had our first encounter with a vicious dog that wanted everything to do with biting us. We were rolling along at about 30kmh and out of nowhere comes a massive rottweiler with it’s owners screaming at it to stop. The dog chased us at an accelerated pace for about 600m before it ran out of steam. Had this been someone not as quick on the bike or caught by surprise this likely would have been a rough situation.
Nearing the end of our ride we drop into the Battle Lake area which is an amazing gravel road that skirts you alongside Battle Lake which is incredible scenic. You’d think you were in the mountains had you not just rode 80km of prairie gravel. Along this road we ran into a Road Grader that was smoothing the road out, unfortunately we saw him near where we exited the road and not at the start of it! Our second dog encounter happened here which, thanks to a heads up from my partner, Nina, we knew had the potential to go sideways. One of the ladies she was riding with was attacked one of two large pyrenean mastiffs. The dog didn’t manage to bite her but did mange to tear the backside of her assos tights clean open before they managed to get away from the dog. When we saw the two large dogs barreling towards us we mustered our last bit of energy to get up out of the saddle and sprint away from them. Dealing with dogs seems to be a large part of gravel riding and we’ve been discussing a method to protect ourselves against attacks like this in the future.
Once we got to the end of Battle Lake we headed back towards the lake to finish up our ride. A half dozen more gravel rollers ensured our legs were shot just in time for the glorious paved downhill run back to the cabin. It’s amazing how much energy you can find when you know there is a hot pizza and cold beer waiting for you!
The ride was a success across all fronts in that no bikes were harmed this year, no injuries and everyone got in an ample amount of suffering. The cooler temperatures were welcome although anything much below zero and you’d be reconsidering the ride, especially if there was any chance of a significant breeze.
Without a doubt there will be a 2019 edition of the Croken Classic at the same venue with a two new routes, a full classic, and a lite classic, to ensure that everyone can experience the gravel bliss located just an hour south of our city, Edmonton.
By the Numbers
- 964m elevation
- 26.4km/h average speed
- 65km/h maximum speed
- 4:15 moving time
- 4:50 elapsed time
- 1 Moose sighting
- 3 cars sighted
- 2 attempted dog attacks
- 1 dead end road requiring a detour
- 1 skunk on a pole
If you have any questions about the route, gravel riding in the area, or gravel riding in general, ask away in the comments!
Here is the route that we took, clicking on the photo will bring you to my strava file