report from the Banff National Park Bike Fest

Reported by Cuylar Conly.

Banff National park Bike-Fest is the marquee stage race in western Canada, second only to BC Super-week.  The race covers 296.5 km in five stages throughout Banff National park.  The prestigious race continues to attract the most talented professional and elite cyclists from across Canada.  I have contested this race with several teams and it is my pleasure to participate this year as part of Saskatchewan’s first ever Trade Team.   In its inaugural year Team intended to legitimize its program at the elite National Level.

Team is a grassroots movement designed to harvest the young cycling talent of Saskatchewan and prepare them for extensive National and International competitions. To field an elite team at Banff Bike-fest requires a roster of 5 to 7 men.  Team Boss Barret Kropf drew on local veterans as well as fresh talent to build a 100% Sask-made men’s team.  The new talent includes Alyosha (yosh) Boldt transitioning from triathlon to cycling, and Barret Dunbar who uses his big cross country skiing engine to make quads quake on the local race circuit.  Among the veterans are Brad Kerr ex-PRO turned firefighter, Cuylar Conly and Chris McGarity each with extensive North American race experience now returning to Saskatchewan to complete University Degrees.  Rounding out the six man team is the Saskatchewan-to-Gatineau transplant Nathan Underwood, repatriated for this special occasion.  With a strong but untested team Banff Bike fest would be trial by fire for Team

Stage 1 – 1.5 km individual hill climb

Although labeled a hill climb, the winners will complete the parcours in approximately two and a half minutes.  This is not one for the light-weights and favours great strength paired with un-parralled acceleration.  It should come as no surprise that those who are feared for their sprint where also favoured this day.

With any prologue it is important to give your maximum performance; the small time gaps produced on the first stage could become important in the final shake-down of the race.  One by one the racers sprinted up this hill and no one from would hold anything back.  You can learn a lot about yourself in three minutes.

As I am balanced at the start line I remember to breathe.  Breathe in.  Breathe out, breath in. Breath out. Five, four, three, two breath in, one breathe out, GO!  I’m flying, I love flying.  The intensity of the effort seems to warp space and time as 1.3 km pass in an instant and the final 200 m last for an eternity of blinding gravitational hell.  Gasping for breath I cross the line.  I know I wasn’t the fastest, in-fact I predict that I will finish mid to top third but damn that felt good.  My sensations are the best I have had all year.

Kris Dahl of Team H & R Block won the prologue with a time of 2:31.  Expectedly I finished in 24th 19 seconds in arrears.  Our team’s top finisher was Nathan Underwood in a time of 2:48, good for 22nd.  Curiously it was noted that all of Team finished within a 5 second cluster. This lead Barrett Dunbar to remark, “Gee, do you think we train together too much?”  Nevertheless a team of compatible strength bodes well.

Stage 2 – 81 km 1A Sprint Road Race

They call this race a sprint for a reason.  At only 81 km this is one of the fastest road races you can find.  The current record for the elite men is 1 hour and 31 minutes requiring an average speed of 53 km/hr.  Despite the rolling terrain the speed is just too high for a successful breakaway; ironically it is such attempts to breakaway that maintain the blistering pace.  The result is a fast and aggressive stage on narrow roads which typically ends in a crowded uphill bunch finish.

The strategy was simple myself and Alyosha would look for an early breakaway “just in case…”.  While if you were not for the breakaway you would just sit in, stay safe and conserve.  Chris McGarity has the fastest kick for any of us and in the closing kilometers Barret and I would attempt to position him.  Nathan Underwood was to conserve all energy for the Individual Time trial the next day and Brad Kerr would assist.

After considerable delays due to black bears on the race course. The race began with a neutral procession out of the town of Lake Louise.  After the pace car pulled off the speed tripled now pushing 60 km/hr.  Many racers made attempts to escape the peloton.  After following several doomed breakaways it became apparent that this race would end in bunch sprint and I became content to sit in.  The attacks continued and the pace remained high.  Kris Dahl was in the leader’s jersey and so his H & R Block team set about maintaining momentum the front.  Good, we let them burn.

With 20 km to go there was a changing of the guard at the head of the peloton.  Team Rundel Mountain lined up for a seven man pursuit taking control of the lead-out for the rest of the race.  From this point on Rundel mountain had absolute control and burned out one man at a time all the way to the finish, where Sean Crooks stormed the line before all others.  With a lead-out like that they deserved to win and the only excuse you have is, ‘why didn’t we do that.’

Regrettably did not factor into the finale.  We all finished safely within the peloton.  Our greatest success was that those targeting tomorrows Time Trial felt as if they had hardly broke a sweat.  Once again I was very pleased with my sensations, even chasing back on from a flat tire had felt trivial.  Unfortunately that was the last time I would feel good all week.  While the others took R & R by the pool or played a light hearted game of soccer I experienced an exponential increase of some rather nasty symptoms.

At about 6 o’clock that evening I had a full on upper airway infection.  I went straight to the store for the appropriate care package including ginger tea, cough syrup, throat lozenges, and salt water.  Despite my best efforts to minimize the symptoms I knew that tomorrow my race was about to get very, very hard.

Stage 3a 21 km Individual Time Trial

Upon waking on the morning of the Time Trial I knew that I was in no condition to contest such a race.  Indeed my continued participation in the Banff bike fest was becoming uncertain.  I resigned myself to race for the time cut (115% of the winner’s time) in the hope that my chest infection would subside in time for the evening’s criterium race.  In the race for last place I would be joined as well by Chris McGarity.  He had his sights set solely on a strong criterium performance and choose to conserve his energy in the time trial rather than race all out.

The rest of team was prepared to lay everything out in this race.  The time trial is one of the greatest opportunities to create separations in the General Classification.  At 21 km and large undulating elevation change this course always reveals the overall contenders.  Years of training go into every time trial performance and every detail counts.  The preparations have been made and the equipment is dialed in.  On race day focus can be the defining factor in a good or bad race… unless the equipment fails.

The team is warming up before the race.  Some chat and stay light hearted others prefer to listen to music and get ‘in the zone’.  As the start times approach everyone prefers to find their own space and the team disperses for individual warm ups on the road.  Ten minutes before his start time Nathan Underwood whips back into the team camp looking pale and agitated.  He is using a team disk-wheel and his shifting is atrocious.  Having failed all standard trouble shoots we realise the source of the problems is the 9-speed cassette which will obviously never work with his 10-speed shifters.  WTF! No one on our team even uses 9-speed and to this day the origins of that cassette remain mysterious.  Between the two of us we kept one level head and in record time the 9-speed was gone and replaced with the appropriate 10-speed cassette.  Now focus, and get to the start line.  Crisis Averted.

Kris Dahl of H & R Block was once again victorious against the clock finishing in a time of 26:47 riding at an average speed of 47 km/hr.  My race was pretty miserable despite electing to ride a slow pace (+ 5:37 off Dahl’s time) the race of truth was much laboured while unable to breath.  Still I held out hope that I my symptoms may subside over the next ten hours.   The rest of the team performed admirably between + 3:24 to + 3:32, with the exception of Nathan Underwood who rode a marvellous race to finish in 10th only + 1:31 off Kris Dahl.  The time trial made for clear demonstrations of strength leaving H & R block a well-established lead.  The importance of Time Trials in stage racing cannot be ignored, but two stages remain and the Queen stage on Tunnel Mountain would not be taken lightly.

Stage 3b 50 km Criterium

Day three at Banff Bike fest was a scheduled double stage day.  We had raced an individual time trial in the morning and would race once more in downtown Banff at dusk.  After the Time Trial the team recovered by down town coffee-shopping, or with some light soccer in the park.  Unfortunately for me my chest cold was getting worse and not better.  At our lunch meeting I voiced my concerns about finishing the race and this would become my only goal.

That evening the criterium was held in down town Banff on a 1 km rectangular circuit.  The race course was pancake flat with wide 90 degree corners.  There was literally nothing to hold back the charging peloton.  Even the afternoon rain had subsided leaving freshly dried, oil free pavement.  Tonight’s race would be an absolute breakneck event.  Our speed was astonishing!  The Elite Men’s field completed the 50 lap race in a time of 51:49, pushing an average speed of 58.9 km/hr!

The pace was driven by an unrelenting stream of attacks however at this pace no one could escape the peloton for more than a few seconds.  The racing was fast and aggressive.  Fortunately with experience you realize that riding a criterium is more weighted on skill and intuition than a capability to ride at 58 km/hr.  The race was so smooth that “sitting-in” was almost relaxing at times.  In particular it was Nathan Underwood’s goal to expend as little energy as possible, which he accomplished with great poise.

Chris McGarity on the other hand pushed himself right into the dog fight.  He was well positioned in the scrum at the front of the race, waiting to capitalize on any hesitation from the field.  The hesitation never came and in the closing 10 laps team Louis Garneau wrestled control of the peloton away from Rundle Mountain to launch their man Noah Bloom to the finish line just ahead of the charging field sprint.

I was at this time overcome by my symptoms.  Unable to race at the level demanded of me, I was forced to abandon.  The rest of team all finished without incident in the peloton.  Recovery is the hidden contest behind stage racing, and the team does it right with beef, pasta and chocolate milk.  Bike racing to a large extent is decided by attrition and tomorrow on Tunnel Mountain there will be war.

Stage 4 – 143 km Tunnel Mountain Road Race

The Queen stage at Banff Bike Fest comes on the final day of the race.  This 143 km epic traverses the Tunnel Mountain Pass 11 times.  The climb can be broken in to three legs.  From 3 km to 5 km is the first pitch where the pace is often hopelessly exuberant.  Then from 6 km to 9 km is a long false flat along an exposed ridge.  Then between 9 km and 10 km are two steep pitches in rapid succession, over 143 km this is the breaking point for many racers.  From the Peak of Tunnel Mountain the race literally dive bombs into town, the decent is so steep that you feel as if you are downhill skiing.  At the base is a high speed hairpin requiring nerves of steel, followed by another technical chicane and a 500 m drag to the finish.

After the ITT H & R block was clearly commanding this race, with Kris Dahl in the lead they had controlled the peloton since day one.  Now with the longest and hardest stage before us, we simply saw them with targets on their back.  Nathan Underwood had come to Banff with only one stage in mind.  He had held back on every stage while maintaining a strong GC position ( only + 1:48).  Team entered the Queen stage with quiet confidence, nothing was out of reach.  Our intent this day was that none should make it to the finish without expressly earning that right.

We were not alone in our assessment; Team Louis Garneau also had a man within striking distance on GC and the pressure was on from the gun.  Alyosha and Barret were attentive in the opening lap and featured amongst the opening attacks.  Each found his way into a very large group forming ahead of the main peloton.  With over a dozen riders this was more than a break-away, such a group was neither taken lightly by the peloton nor was there effective collaboration.  Doomed to fail, there was continued aggression followed by descent amongst the escapees.  Dave Gerth of Team Louis Garneau was the sole rider to survive this massive attack and he would build a lead of 4 minutes over the next60 km.

The fatigued H & R Block team was on the defensive, forced to ride tempo or risk letting a lone escapee walk away with their prize.  The green squares made a valiant chase to keep Dave Gerth on an acceptable leash but as they tired and the climbing pace slowed three teams stoked the fires.  Team Louis Garneau, Team Rundel Mountain and Team all preferred to keep the pace hard on the climbs, and so the race found its rhythm.  H&R block chased on the flats and the gradual slopes, then on the steeper sections the three aforementioned teams pressed on to keep the pace hard.  The violence was yet to come.

With six laps ( 78 km ) remaining  Dave Gerth remained several minutes ahead becoming visibly exhausted.  In the peloton just over half the field remained though there had been no attacks.  Now on the first steep pitch Nathan dropped an atom bomb.  Nathan attacked with ferocity on the lower slopes of the climb, catching all the GC contenders off guard.  Only two riders held onto his pace, Trevor Gunderson from Pedal Head Road Works, Dan Wood of Edmonton Road and Track Club.  In one lap the trio crossed to Dave Gerth.  With Underwood driving the pace the gap began to grow once more.

It did not take long for the peloton to realize this threat.  On the next time up the mountain there was yet another searing attack.  This time the attack was driven by Rundle Mountain Cycling Club and a second chasing group was formed.   The chase group consisted of  Gord Jewett (RMCC), Chris McGarity (, Sean Bunnin (Top Gear – ROAD) Mike Rothengater (Garneau Evolution), and Aaron Schooler the lieutenant of H&R Block and best placed GC rider in the break.   Bunnin and Jewett were trying to cross the gap to the leaders while Schooler and Rothengater were trying to defend for their team leaders still in the peloton.  Chris McGarity was looking for a free ride across to help Underwood in the break.

The peloton was rapidly falling behind the chasing group of six.  It was in no one’s better interest for the chase group to remain intact and as they closed within a minute of the leaders Schooler, Jewett, and Bunin attempted to dislodge one another.  Chris McGarity valiantly clung to their pace for as long as he could.  Alas it proved too much for him as well as Rothengater.  Schooler, Jewett and Bunnin crossed the gap to the leaders. In the meantime Gunderson had lost contact with the leaders and would finish well behind on the day. With a little over 3 laps to go the leaders were Gerth, Underwood, Bunnin, Wood, Jewett, and Schooler.  The remnants of the chase group now pursued in vain, while the peloton was all but lost.  Chris McGarity having wasted himself across the mountain side abandoned.  Chapeau.

In the lead group Underwood was no longer the best placed GC rider he was trailing Schooler by 31 seconds.  Significant energy had been expended on his part already but his will to fight was not dampened.  Nathan kept on the offensive while Aaron sensing this threat turned to diplomacy.  Knowing he could not single handedly keep the reins on Nathan, Aaron enlisted the help of Sean Bunnin.  In exchange for pulling in attacks Schooler agreed to provide a lead-out in the finale as well as a portion of cash prizes.  Bunnin was agreeable and Nathan’s attacks were thus wasted.  The combined efforts of Bunnin and Schooler meant the lead six would be finishing together.

True to his word Schooler came charging down the final straight with Bunin in his slipstream.  Sean’s deal was fruitless as Gord Jewett was fastest to the line.  Underwood made an impressive effort for the win as well crossing the line in third.  The remnants of the chasing group trickled in one by one and the peloton had finished 6 minutes down.  The carnage on the Tunnel Mountain pass had resulted in a complete shake down of the General Classification.  Schooler had moved from 5th to 1st, Underwood climbed from 10th to 2nd (just 31 seconds behind),  Jewett and Gerth moved up from 27th and 29th to 3rd and 4th respectively, and Bunnin had vaulted from 48th to 7th.

Cycling is the hardest sport in the world and Banff Bike fest has again proven to be one of the most unpredictable and exciting stage races in Canada.  Team may not have won but they did prove that you can’t call a race on paper statistics.  And with a pool of junior talent sitting just behind the curtains there will be more surprises from this team in the future.

The athletes would like to thank Kenda, Fluid, Ryder’s Eyewear and

Cuylar Conly

2 thoughts on “ report from the Banff National Park Bike Fest

  1. CanDan says:

    It’s Shawn.

  2. Cool report – well written and exciting. Good job Cuylar!

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