In Jasper and Banff, cycling is gaining momentum. Here’s why mountain towns want you to explore them by bike

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Ever since the ‘incident’ – which involved an e-bike with a dead battery, a very steep gravel road and a swooping glove of magpies – my partner Keilie hasn’t been the most enthusiastic of cyclists.

So, I wasn’t surprised by his lukewarm response when I revealed that I had planned a bike trip for us in the Alberta Rockies.

“It’s hard to be enthusiastic about doing something that I don’t like,” she said.

I knew it was a gamble, bordering on potential disaster. But I love cycling as a form of travel and wanted Keilie to feel the same – it can transform even a familiar destination into an entirely new landscape.

That’s exactly what Jasper and Banff National Parks are banking on with their new cycling initiatives. In response to increased tourism (before the pandemic, the two parks attracted a combined total of 6.5 million visitors annually) and overflowing parking lots, both destinations are encouraging people to BYOB: Bring Your Own Bike.

And thanks to a new pilot project, 17 miles of the scenic Bow Valley Parkway — a secondary highway that connects Banff to Lake Louise — is closed to vehicles for most of May, June and September. In Banff, you can even drop off your vehicle at free bike valet downtownthen head to Lupothe new Italian restaurant in town, to enjoy a “Bicicletta”, a bicycle-themed cocktail made with Campari.

The new initiatives, however, are not designed to appeal to hardcore mountain bikers or road cyclists. They’re meant to appeal to the rest of us, who would be just as happy to see the region’s iconic glacial lakes and peaks from the comfort of our cars.

A scenic view of Morant's Curve on the Bow Valley Parkway.

Getting tourists to cycle tour isn’t a particularly new concept, until you consider it’s not the flat streets of Amsterdam. If a grizzly chases you uphill (which happened to a cyclist near Radium, BC, in 2017), you could be real dead meat.

Or at least that’s what Keilie, an Australian, seems to think. I spend most of our three hour drive from Edmonton convincing her that we are more likely to be attacked by a shark in Queensland. But my breath is wasted.

“The elk are calving right now. If you see any, pedal past them as fast as you can,” staff at the Jasper Adventure Center tells us when we pick up our Pedego e-bikes. “I had one chasing me the other day.”

I can feel Keilie’s gaze before I see it.

“Elk?” she hisses. “Now I have to worry about the bears and elk?”

I dare not mention the aggressive Canadian geese.

For most visitors, close encounters with wildlife are one of cycling’s selling points. Moving at a slower pace lets you see what could easily be missed from a car window. As we daisy-chain around the Jasper Lakes, we spot coyotes, deer and, yes, elk with their young.

In truth, the real obstacle to getting visitors on bikes isn’t the hills or the animals – it’s the regulations.

A cyclist rides along Lake Minnewanka, a large glacial lake near the site of the town of Banff.

Partly due to hiker-cyclist conflicts among trail users, bicycling was once restricted throughout the Parks Canada system. In Banff, for example, activity was only permitted on 190 kilometers of the park’s 1,600 kilometers of trails in 2005. Recent policy revisions have brought that number closer to 500 kilometers today.

Changes are also underway for e-bikes. Three years ago, Jasper began allowing e-bikes on all of its multi-use trails, while in Banff, 15 of its 30 bike paths are now e-bike friendly – a change that only went into effect in December 2021.

“Skiing has been around for hundreds of years, but mountain biking has only been around since the 70s, so it’s a relatively young sport by comparison,” says Elissa Cummings, owner of Journey Bike Guides, which started his company in 2019 to get more people cycling.

“People are always nervous about getting on the trails,” she says. “There are a lot of opportunities for the growth of the sport.”

In Banff, Clare McCann also witnessed this transformation. The owner of bikescape – the first guiding company licensed to offer mountain bike tours in the park, starting in 2021 – they are a member of the Bow Valley Mountain Bike Alliance, a cycling advocacy organization that works closely with Parks Canada to plan trails and prevent conflicts between trail users. When it comes to e-bikes, she says, perceptions are changing: there’s a better understanding that pedal-assist technology is making cycling more accessible to people of all skill levels.

“I just want people to pedal,” McCann tells us. “I want them to stay on a bike for life and have a big smile on their face.”

Writer Jessica Wynne Lockhart (right) and her partner, Keilie (left), at the top of Tunnel Mountain in Banff.

We head to the top of Teddy Bear’s Picnic, an easy single-track cross-country trail that descends the Tunnel Mountain bench. With McCann’s calls of “yee-haw!” reverberating through the trees, we twist and turn downward. Glancing behind me, I can see that Keilie’s grimace from the previous days has been replaced by a huge grin.

However, when the morning of our last ride arrives, I am nervous. The 58 kilometer trip from Banff to Lake Louise could very well determine whether Keilie allows me to plan a vacation again.

With bear spray in our bag, we set off from the township. After about 30 minutes of cycling along a bike path, we reach the Bow Valley Parkway, where we relish weaving in the middle of the relatively flat road, backed by snow-capped mountains. We’re not the only ones loving the car-free zone; deer graze along the road and we watch a black bear enjoy the mid-morning sun.

When it’s finally time to get back in the car and drive off, everything seems to be flying way too fast. From the passenger seat, Keilie tells me she’s considering buying a bike. Life, she eventually agrees, is a lot more fun on two wheels.

Writer Jessica Wynne Lockhart traveled as a guest of Jasper Tourism, Tourism in Banff and Lake Louise and Alberta Travelwho neither reviewed nor approved this article.

Three tips for a bike trip in Banff and Jasper

Plan your visit: This year the Bow Valley Parkway Cycling Experience – a pilot project in which 17 kilometers of the scenic route are closed to cars – ran from May 1 to June 25 and will be back from September 1 to 30. It takes about four hours to bike from Banff to Lake Louise, and you can take a Roaming Transportation bus ride back.

Book a visit: In Jasper, Travel bike guides offers private guided mountain bike tours starting at $129. In Banff, bikescapeGuided electric mountain bike tours start from $134.

Rent an electric bike: Cruiser e-bikes are available for hire from SunDog Tours in Jasper, from $50 for two hours. In Banff, Bactrax Snowtips outfit you with everything for the drive to Lake Louise; e-bike rentals are $72 for the day.

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