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THE CANDISC BIKE TOUR

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by Al Dixon, OCC member

AL’S NOTE: The following somewhat lengthy article represents one man’s experience and impressions of the CANDISC bike tour held every August in Garrison, North Dakota. It is a totally unsolicited, original piece and in no way represents all of what another person may experience or enjoy during the same tour, so please bear this in mind. Even though he had hoped for it, the author has received no compensation or promotional consideration from the CANDISC event organizers other than their promise that if he ever decides to come back, the wind will always be in his favour, every bit of highway along the route will be re-paved just for him and there’s absolutely no way it will rain during the entire week.

CYCLE TOURING – THE CONCEPT

If a person were ever interested getting started in bicycle touring in a safe and well-supported way, in my opinion the CANDISC bike tour would be more than worthy of their consideration. “CANDISC”, which is an acronym for “Cycling Around North Dakota In Sakakawea Country”, is a popular, well-organized event that starts and finishes in Garrison, North Dakota and has been held annually during the first week of August for well over 20 years now. Personally, I think it has a great appeal to a lot of us prairie-folk in that it’s relatively close to home, offers varied riding terrain on quiet stretches of highway and as an even greater bonus to any self-respecting Winnipegger – it’s cheap!

This tour brings together an eclectic group of cyclists ranging from the enthusiastic novice right up to those under the impression they’ll be getting their call to join the pro peloton in Europe any day now. Let’s just say then, it draws a pretty diverse group of riders but make no mistake, regardless of their age or motivation level, they all come for the same reason and that is to test their mettle against all of what rural North Dakota cycling has to offer.

There are a lot of different ways to experience cycle touring and sometimes it’s difficult to find the best way to get started given that one’s budget, level of experience or adventuresome spirit will all factor into the decision. Cycle tours can range from rugged, self-contained events where everything needed for survival is carried on the bike to the more sedate Gucci-type events where someone carries all of your belongings from destination to destination and each night you can rest your head on fine linens after a “grueling” 40 km day of riding through the vineyards of California. While each of these extreme examples of cycle touring have their dedicated followers, let’s be realistic in that both are probably out of reach for most people reading this article or for those thinking about giving cycle touring a try for the first time. I’d say that CANDISC falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes in that it’s semi-supported, challenging but safe, very accommodating and as social an event as you want it to be.

Semi-supported events differ from self-contained events in that most if not all logistics pertaining to the adventure are taken care of by the organizers so that as the participant, all you need to do is ride your bike. In a general way, self-contained events are the type whereby the individual plans and executes their own itinerary, carries everything they need for the trip including food, and travel at their own self-determined pace. The self-contained rider is often the free-spirited image that comes to mind when the expression “cycle tourist” is mentioned but please remember there are a lot of different ways to enjoy the activity and each one has it’s own appeal.

It is the purpose of this article then, to review just one type of cycle touring experience and that is the annual CANDISC tour. It should be noted that the following report is solely a reflection of my own general experiences and other opinions may differ based on the given individual. This article has been written in two parts or web entries and depending on the readers particular level of interest, may feel like reading as much or as little of it that interests them. The first section is devoted to entry-level cycle touring and the CANDISC tour in general while the second part is more devoted to the specifics of equipment and planning for a multi-day tour.

Whatever part(s) you are most interested in, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I have enjoyed writing and as a side note, writing these articles brought back a number of personal memories from past CANDISC events that I have enjoyed either by myself, as a family or with close friends.

CANDISC, THE EVENT

As previously mentioned, the event starts and finishes in Garrison, North Dakota and follows a loop-style route that explores a different region of the state and participants stay over in one of the different towns or communities visited along the route each day. Before attending CANDISC, I’d say I was the typical Winnipegger who only knew North Dakota by way of high school sports events, shopping trips to Grand Forks/Fargo or by attending an airshow in Minot, so I had never really experienced the small towns and communities like the ones the tour would visit each year.

I have to admit I’ve always loved small town America especially the midwest as in my opinion, cycle touring is a great way to experience this side of life. Now that being said, I love small town Canada too as in both of our great countries, the small towns and their citizens always give me hope for humanity when I see their work ethic, self-reliance and welcoming ways to someone as non-threatening as a guy like me when riding a bike. While I’m a city-guy at heart and don’t apologize for that, I think it’s important that we get out and re-connect with a simpler way of life once and awhile whether it’s with people or just enjoying nature by yourself, I think the bicycle is a great way to do that.

While it’s easy to think of North Dakota as pancake-flat farmland, be reminded that it’s geography is very diverse and each year’s route attempts to explore and promote this diversity. For example, the “theme” of the 2013 route was the “Tranquility Place Tour” and travelled a rather quiet route from Garrison as far north as the Turtle Mountains near the International Peace Garden on the Manitoba border. In other years, “themes” have explored such things as the history of the region (“Discover the Trail”, 2004, “Fort to Fort, Lake to Lake”, 2003), the North Dakota Badlands (“Back to the Badlands”, 2000), the great Missouri River watershed (“Return to the River”, 2001) and the Audubon wildlife refuges and migratory bird flyways common to the area, to name just a few. As a side note, I’ve completed the CANDISC a number of times since I began doing so in 1999 and while I hadn’t been back to participate since 2005, ironically the 2013 route was the same one that I’d followed during my inaugural ride (“International Tour”, 1999) so it brought back some fond memories!

Once the tour begins, there is no official start time each day so that as long as you get to that day’s destination before dark, you can take as much time as you like throughout the day. There are riders who leave super-early (often before sunrise) and sprint the whole distance arriving by mid-day, while there are others such as myself who choose to depart at a more safe and sensible hour following breakfast and are happy to arrive by early afternoon. Each day, everyone’s personal baggage is transported to the next town by cargo truck so as long as you have your stuff on board by the time it’s ready to leave, you’re good to go and can depart at your leisure. My goal each day was to be packed, eaten riding away by 7:30 a.m. and I was able to do that on all but one morning of the week so I thought I did OK in that department. Riding time can vary from 3 to 6 hours depending on the daily distance, road and weather conditions, sight-seeing opportunities and personal motivation level.

For the often directionally-challenged rider such as myself, another confidence-inspiring aspect of semi-supported tours is that each days route has been scouted and trip sheets outlining the particulars are provided to guide you. As well, mechanical support and well-appointed rest stops are a value-added part of the CANDISC program too. SAG support is also provided which means that if you should ever encounter a physical or mechanical problem during the course of the day and can’t continue to ride, in the name of safety, a vehicle will pick up and transport both you and your bike to a location further along the route or to the actual end point of the day if necessary. The SAG support while never instantaneous, is always patrolling the route and will arrive within a reasonable time frame if you need it, so don’t worry that you’ll ever be stranded alone out on the North Dakota prairie. Lastly, medical support is provided by an on-site physician and trained medical personnel ride along the route each day. Call me crazy, but it seems to me they’ve got all the bases covered here!

In terms of accommodations, CANDISC is essentially a tent-camping event but what’s also great about it is that the organizers allow for so many options that most if not all levels of camping comfort can be met. For example, some participants travel family-style with their own RV/tent trailer units in tow and those who eschew the tenting experience can arrange for their own motel accommodations along the way but in my opinion, one of the coolest new features is the “rent-a-tent” service. Specifically, a creative group of young entrepreneurs have offered to provide riders with a spacious, good-quality tent along with a sleeping mattress and lawn chair that they will transport, set up and take down each each day for their patrons. The same group also provide an electronics re-charging station for the entire tent village where a person can recharge their personal devices and stay connected to their world – whatever world that is. The options just described carry an extra fee for service, but for some if that’s the ticket they need to get themselves started and out there, who’s to say that’s not part of cycle touring?

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For those concerned about essentials such as washrooms/showers/meals, I think the CANDISC organizers have taken a very unique and accommodating approach to it. Firstly, the tour travels with is own set of Port-a-Potties that are strategically placed along the route each day and remain available for use in the tent village overnight. On-site, hot showers are also available at the traveling shower truck (“The Great North Dakota Watershed Trailer”) and both of these services are a handy compliment to those same facilities available at the host sites but are often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of users each day. It has been my experience that in most cases, the host site amenities are often more than adequate for the task and are usually high school locker rooms or facilities in the local community park. (Note to Self: still not a bad idea to travel with your own emergency roll of TP)

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FIGURE 2 – Traveling Port-a-Potties are Us!

Secondly, an optional meal package program exists where the participant can purchase a pass that allows them to enjoy either breakfast, supper or both meals each day for the entire week. If a person would rather bring along food or make their own arrangements that’s available too, so either way the food part of things is well-addressed. You need to remember that a bike tour is not the time to be going on a diet so getting enough quality calories in a day should be on your mind no matter how you plan to go about it. Whatever approach one takes to their personal food requirements, you need to respect your hosts and remember that North Dakota is prime beef country so if you don’t like meat, especially red meat, it’s unlikely there will be a lot of vegan/vegetarian/gluten free/low fat, dairy-free options out there, so plan accordingly.

The food served on the meal plan is provided by the host community at each days destination and is often a home cooked extravaganza prepared by a local volunteer group and served buffet-style in the most suitable venue the community has to offer. It’s important to remember that the CANDISC “peloton” is often larger than the entire population of the host community so it’s a pretty big day for them when the group arrives and they usually go all out to put on a show especially when it comes to food, drink and entertainment. The host communities do their best to serve a group this large and while they may lack experience having so many people in the same place all at once, it’s amazing what they can accomplish and they usually do!

Food and food choices are very much a personal thing and while it’s almost impossible to make everyone happy with the choices provided in a buffet-style meal, there will always be those who have nothing better to do than complain. So if you’re a complainer, please reconsider and do the best you can to change your ways as you’ll be a way better person for it in the long run. In my humble opinion, if you don’t want to take a chance on the meal plan because they might be serving something you don’t like or that you’re being served at 5:10 p.m. instead of 5:00 p.m. as advertised, then the solution is simple; don’t sign up for the food pass and take your chances at the local diners or fast food places. If nothing else, there’s probably a peanut butter sandwich out there waiting for you somewhere, so knock yourself out.

In terms of riding distance, any organized tour should be up front with the advertised distances one will cover during the course of the week and this should be an important consideration before signing up for it. We all have our comfort levels, so be sure to pick a tour that meets your abilities and expectations before you pay your hard-earned money and sign on the dotted line. The organizers have a duty to be reasonably accurate with the distances advertised on the daily trip sheets and they really do their best, but there’s nothing more spirit-breaking than finding out there are still 10 km more to go once you’ve reached what you thought was the end of the advertised day’s mileage because a distance miscalculation had been made.

CANDISC is a seven day event which is a pretty standard time frame for most organized cycle tours, so if this many days of continuous riding might be a bit much for your first touring experience, be careful as you may want to start out on a smaller scale with shorter overall distances as your goal (such as a weekend tour). On the other hand, a seven day challenge just might serve as the carrot you’ve been looking for so don’t be afraid to challenge yourself on something a bit longer such as this. How one trains for a seven day tour is very much a personal thing so do some planning and whatever you do, start a training program of some kind. Some training is better than no training as it will certainly increase your riding pleasure over the course of the week. While being confident that you can comfortably cover the advertised daily distances is important, it’s been my experience that it’s often better to focus on time in the saddle more so than worrying about obsessively covering miles in training – remember, a tour is supposed to be enjoyable and fun!

As a general guideline, 90-100 km/day is a realistic distance to cover for a novice or intermediate cycle tourist but again, everyone is different. On any tour, the daily distances should vary over the course of the week to allow for natural build up and recovery from the previous days efforts. For example, the longest day at CANDISC 2013 was mid-week at about 120 km while the last day was pretty short at around 50 km. There was a mixture of short and long days over the course of the week and it’s always a great incentive when the last day of any tour is rather short and ends with a celebratory event like it does at CANDISC. They serve a tremendous post-ride lunch at the city park and it’s a great way to say your goodbyes and exchange e-mail addresses with all the new friends made over the course of the week.

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FIGURE 3 – The End! Garrison City Park, CANDISC 2013
(That’s me on the left – does that watch I’m wearing make my butt look fat?)

Unless you’re a real bike geek, you need read no further as all that remains is a collection of pretty boring stuff pertaining to planning and equipment and is written from a personal perspective but if you like that kind of thing, I hope you enjoy reading it too.

In the meanwhile, if you think you might be ready to give cycle touring a try and the CANDISC event might hold an interest for you, mark it on your calendar and start planning for next summer! The CANDISC folks have an informative website (www.parkrec.nd.gov) and if you’d like to do even a bit more homework, a Google search of “CANDISC bike tour” will bring up a collection of reviews and/or commentaries such as this one. If you’re old-school enough to pick up the phone and actually want to talk to someone, they would be more than happy to take your call, so happy riding and thanks again for reading!

Note:  Part 2, a piece on the logistics of preparing for an event like this, will be posted shortly. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Al Dixon is a dedicated cycling enthusiast, Olympia Cycling Club member and retired school teacher. He’s been a part-time, seasonal employee at Olympia Cycle and Ski since 1991 and enjoys all types of activities including cycle touring and is always quick to point out that his personal style of riding is not about competition but more about enjoying the experience. He and his wonderful wife and favorite riding companion Debbie, have been avid participants at CANDISC on numerous occasions and while it is one of their favorite events, they have also enjoyed many other self-contained and fully supported cycling trips over the years. While a few of those trips would fall into the “epic” category not necessarily by design but by circumstance, most of them were just challenging fun and well within the ability of anyone reading this article. While Al would be the first to tell you he has more ambition than ability, it has never really stopped him from attempting those cycling events that many would say he has no business being a part of but has no plans to listen to them and ever stop. Al has never held a cycle racing license and doesn’t plan to get one.

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