SUNDRE – A lifelong passion for cycling ultimately led a local man to finally embark on a cross-Canada excursion that he’d been dreaming about for the better part of the past decade.
Phil Meagher, a former Fort McMurray councillor who served that municipality for 26 years before relocating about two years ago to settle in Sundre for retirement alongside wife Sherri, got home in August after successfully checking the adventure off of his bucket list.
“I thought about it 10 years ago,” Meagher, who since moving to town joined the Sundre Bike n’ Ski Club and now volunteers as a coach, said when asked what motivated him to embark on such an ambitious and demanding journey.
“I wanted to pedal across the country just so I could experience our country to its fullest – the smells, the sights,” he told the Albertan, adding the naturally slower pace of a bicycle enables a traveller to absorb much more than motorists who by comparison zoom past.
Dream comes true despite delays
But it wasn’t until a few years ago that he more seriously started planning out the logistics involved in such a monumental undertaking. Yet despite wanting to pursue the trip for quite some time, life threw some curveballs that caused one delay after another.
“This plan was interrupted several times,” he said, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the first major hurdle that prompted him to postpone his retirement born out of a reluctance to leave former colleagues shorthanded.
“And then we had fires and floods the second time around,” he said.
So when this summer came around, Meagher was steadfast that this was finally the year, and he began his journey on June 15 after dipping his back tire into the Pacific Ocean at the Tsawwassen Ferry terminal in Vancouver.
The starting point was already a minor compromise from original plans to begin on Vancouver Island, but the rotating strike of ferry workers at the time prompted him to reconsider.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said, adding that postponing yet again wasn’t an option.
Overcoming Murphy's Law
Finally putting rubber to the road, Meagher’s first day quickly met with Murphy’s Law.
“I had seven flat tires on this trip; two were the first day,” he said.
While he feared the possibility that was a bad omen of even worse to come, he steeled his resolve and soldiered on without experiencing any further problems with flat tires until he reached Ontario, where he ended up with another four flats. Overall, he went through two pairs of tires.
“I wore out the first ones going through B.C.; they really took a beating,” he said.
By the time he reached Prince Edward Island, his bike needed a whole new drive chain, he said, adding even the pedals were wearing out.
“The bike I used, I probably put more miles (on it) than most people put on their bike in a lifetime,” he said.
That meant rigidly adhering to a maintenance routine to keep the bike clean and the chain well oiled, he said.
“That was a daily ritual,” he said.
Ensuring his bike was mechanically sound is a skill he developed early on when he discovered his love of bicycles.
“As a young child, I was always on my bike. We only had one bike for the whole family back then, but my mom used to call it my bike because I was the only one that really took care of it and used it a lot,” he said, expressing gratitude for an upbringing that granted him the lifelong knowledge and experience of changing tires and maintaining his bike.
A long road trip
Diligently taking daily notes of how far he was travelling, Meagher said he recorded a total of 7,356 kilometres.
“I kept track of my mileage every day,” he said. “I didn’t finish my ride in Halifax; I went over to Newfoundland and biked across Newfoundland.”
So while some people might assert that Canada is about 6,000 kms wide, he has a different perspective.
“If you go the whole way across Canada and you do the 900 kilometres in Newfoundland, that adds on quite a bit,” he said, adding he finished his trek on Aug. 10 by dipping into the Atlantic his front tire at a little cove called Quidi Vidi, which unlike the St. John’s harbour for huge ships is more accessible.
“I was spellbound by Newfoundland,” he said. “It gave me everything I could handle over those 900 kilometres, because there’s no flat road. It’s just downhill and uphill, but beautiful stuff.”
Couple of close calls
While the trip was something he had been floating around in his mind for a long time, providing him an additional motivational boost was the memory of his late sister Marjorie, who five years ago died in a bicycle collision on a road in New Brunswick. His thoughts regularly revolved around her as he rode across the country.
“It was kind of in memory of her,” he said.
Although he was fully committed, his other sisters were a bit worried about his decision to bike thousands of kilometres from coast to coast.
“They were rightfully concerned, because there were some close calls,” he said.
Recalling two particularly near misses, he said the highways were largely fine but that for example biking lanes in some smaller communities aren’t always protected or respected, with a motorist in one instance parking in and completely blocking the lane that forced him to go around. But he kept his head on a swivel and maintained a level of situational awareness that ensured his safety.
There was also an incident that led to a polite interaction with an Ontario Provincial Police officer who had to pull him back a distance after he inadvertently ended up on a major highway.
“I knew I couldn’t be on the 401, but I didn’t know about the 417,” said Meagher, adding he was initially riding along Highway 17, also the TransCanada Highway, which on the way into Ottawa eventually “morphed into 417.”
“The OPP, they had their lights on and everything,” he said, adding he had to put his bike in the officer’s cruiser before being escorted away.
“He was really nice about it,” he said.
A friendly nation
While the scenery along the way was largely spectacular – with the exception of some “questionable roads in Ontario” – what really made for a memorable time “was the friendliness of the people,” he said.
“Canada is full of very, very nice people,” he said, adding one farmer offered them some space on his property to set up their tent for the night, while others insisted he accept some food.
“We’re always told there’s bad guys all over the place,” he said. “But I feel like I was very blessed with tailwinds and very nice people as I went along.”
The final day was arguably the hardest, as he found himself pedaling into strong Atlantic headwinds along with rain. But that perhaps was a good way to finish, he said, adding the experience left him feeling a sense of accomplishment.
But unless a person is particularly passionate about cycling, he cautions against committing to such a trip. One must of course be in good physical shape, but that’s a secondary consideration, he said.
Steel will and moral support crucial
“It’s the mental stamina,” he said, referring to the long-term endurance of essentially following the same routine day in and day out.
“You need to be emotionally pretty sound to do this,” he said. “If you’re a little wavery, it would really break you.”
Doubts had even started to creep into his mind early on when he struggled to get through the Kootenay Pass in B.C.
“If I hadn’t told so many people I was doing this, I might have packed in there, but I didn’t want to disappoint anyone!” he said with a laugh.
So without the moral and logistical support of Sherri, who would have the campsite set up and be ready to hear about his day’s experiences, there might not have been a story to tell.
“It was good to have somebody to talk to at the end of the day,” he said. “It was just good having her there.”
While Meagher completed in the summer of 2022 portions of the immense Continental Divide trail that in part runs through Alberta – a trip that represented a three-day ride and some 375 kms – he had never before undertaken such a long journey.
Cycling good for mind, body and environment
Asked what he most enjoys about cycling, he cited an affinity for having an option that reduces his carbon footprint.
“I’m not naive to think that some of the parts of my bike don’t take smelters and things to build them,” he said. “But I don’t have to start it; it’s always ready to go.”
Boasting several styles for different situations such as regular paved roads, gravel trails, or mountainous terrain, he considers bikes a great way of getting around.
“That’s how I got around in Fort McMurray; I hardly ever used my truck. It was back and forth to work on my bike and everything was on my bike,” he said.
And so far, the couple seems to have no regrets on settling in Sundre.
“It’s got everything I want; the biking is great, we have cross-country skiing in the winter,” he said, adding they bought a house in town and built a garage where he can tinker on his bikes as well as a boat he’s building.
“We’re really happy here,” he said. “We’ve been here two years and we have no intention of moving.”