Cyclo-therapy: 'Bear spray? Elk attacks? Wildlife conflicts for UK cyclists rarely involve anything more than wayward sheep'

  • @susborne

If cycling for you means fat tyres and front forks with more bounce than a beach ball, you probably ditched this column years ago, so fixated am I on the road. But, guess what, I've been mountain biking! And it was scary, although I was lucky enough not to be eaten by a bear.

I'll explain. My brother, Patrick, and I had been in Alberta in the Canadian Rockies for a wedding and, with an afternoon to kill in the town of Banff, we rented a pair of hardtails (the ones with suspension at the front but not the back).

Banff has just launched a network of trails up on Tunnel Mountain, which looms over the town. The nice man in the shop packed us off with a map, which carried a recommendation not to wear headphones because "ears are important for avoiding wildlife conflicts". Oh yeah, and "carry bear spray". And "exercise caution around elk as they can be aggressive if startled".

Bear spray? Elk attacks? Wildlife conflicts for British cyclists rarely involve anything more menacing than wayward sheep. But as we set off on the first of about 20 miles of trails that dip and wind through forest on the vertiginous banks of the Bow River, it became clear that it was balls – not grizzly repellent – that we lacked.

We started by following the yellow trail, which seemed straightforward enough, although it took a while to get used to the rocks and exposed roots, as well as the wrong-way-round brakes (left is front over there). Then, we thought we'd take on the black run. It was all I could do not to go flying head over bars as I inched my bike down slopes with gradients never encountered on the road.

I've always looked down my evenly tanned nose at mountain bikers, who I imagine pour scorn on poncy roadies with their spotless Lycra and shaved legs (not mine, I should add) but I can now totally see the thrill of careering along winding tracks as the trees flash past.

Still, as we reached the end of the black run unscathed, two cyclists zipped past in tight formation on the road down to Banff, their sleek upper bodies still in the setting sun. Ooh, I thought, that looks nice. or see