Here are a few tips for cycling across The Prairies in Canada. I crossed The Prairies in September 2012, so this is an up-to-date resource for all touring cyclists.

If you know anyone crossing or considering crossing Canada by bicycle, and they’re cycling through The Prairies on Highway 1 (the Trans-Canada Highway), please direct them here.

I will update this post as necessary.

1) The Road

Highway 1 through Alberta and Saskatchewan is safe, with a wide paved shoulder for the most part (dropping to 3-feet of room right of the white line for a few kilometers west of Medicine Hat). It is still cyclable, but it can be a little scary.

Highway 1 through Manitoba is generally safe, but around Winnipeg and east of

Highway shoulder around Winnipeg

the city it is not paved.

As of September 2012, the TransCanada Highway in Manitoba has been improved and I reckon 90 per cent of the shoulders in Manitoba are wide and paved. I’ve cycled between Medicine Hat and Winnipeg so far.

However, around Winnipeg the situation is still bad, and not suitable for cyclists. Specifically, all though Saskatchewan and up to Brandon, Manitoba, you will find paved shoulders. From Brandon to Winnipeg the shoulder is intermittent.

My good friend and keen cyclist Camille tells me that more than half of Highway 1 is not paved east of Winnipeg to the Ontario border. The portion closer to Winnipeg has been upgraded to paved shoulders but the rest is mostly gravel shoulders. He said Manitoba is in the slow process of upgrading its major highways in order to increase the speed limits to 110kph, from 100kph; this means paved shoulders and rumble strips eventually.

Paved shoulder all the way through Saskatchewan

A note on routes. A few years ago Highway 16 north of Highway 1 was considered a safer route for cyclists. However, this information is now out of date. The deadly stretch of road around Virden now has wide paved shoulders. It’s a good ride up to Brandon.

It’s a bad idea to try the smaller highways. The roads around Highway 1 are locally used and most have not been updated to feature paved shoulders. Many are stone or sand track. Drivers are not looking out for cyclists and they are driving fast.

Trying to “dodge” Highway 1 may put you on a smaller, more dangerous road with no paved shoulder.

Don’t bother – Highway 1 is your best bet.

So be aware and consider cycling through Minnesota and Michigan for this part of the trip (beautiful flat roads and lovely scenery).

If you are going to cycle through Manitoba, consider the width of your tire very carefully. I had chubby tires because my bike was heavy, and thicker tires can stand up in the gravel shoulder at the side of the road. Thin tires won’t; you’ll fall over and get stuck.

Until Highway 1 is completely paved, you will have to make the choice between the road and the gravel shoulder.

Choose the gravel shoulder.

The 3ft shoulder around Piapot

2) Don’t ever consider cycling to the left of the white line on highway 1, ie, on the road with the other traffic. Cars and trucks are moving fast, and because the lanes are narrow, drivers don’t have a lot of time to see you and move out of your way. You cannot expect traffic to react to a cyclist in time, it’s possible they’ll clip you and you’ll fall.

3) When you’re on the paved shoulder, keep as far to the right as you possibly can.

Don’t be tempted to ride two-abreast, even when the shoulder is 8ft across.

Highway 1 is used by huge trucks that create powerful wind disturbances as they pass. If a crosswind is blowing at you from the right it could push you over into the traffic.

Highway 1 is also used by trucks with “oversize loads”. These can be anything from half-built houses to wind turbines to tractors. The load will hang over the side of the truck at both sides. If you’re cycling near the road, the load could strike you even if the truck is still in the lane.

Drivers travel long distances on Highway 1. Generally they will be tired, bored, distracted, irritable or hallucinating from lack of sleep. Either way, if they start to swerve about, you want to be at the furthest point from them to give them time to correct their vehicle.

I’ve seen truck drivers “talking” to each other via CB radio. They line up their trucks next to each other, and I watch as the one in the right lane drifts over onto the rumble strip. They are not concentrating.

The day before I cycled out of Winnipeg Highway 1 was closed because a truck driver smashed their truck into a bridge at 2:30am. The driver was charged with “imprudent driving”.

A final reason for not cycling near the road is that if you hear the rumble strips you still have time to dive or turn the bike into the grass at the side of the road. You’d probably need superhuman agility to do this but you get the idea.

4) Watch out for bumps, holes and bits of metal. Stuff falls off trucks, litter gets blown onto the side of the road and holes appear when the road freezes. Keep an eye out on the road in front of you so you don’t have to swerve suddenly.

At almost every point where a smaller road joins Highway 1 there are small stones scattered on the shoulder. Keep an eye out for them.

5) In summer it’ll be hot, there isn’t a lot of shade, and it’s a long distance between towns. Make sure you have suncream and water. 

6) Don’t be tempted to cycle at night. The crazy, no-sleep truck drivers start at 4-6pm and drive until the morning. Make sure you’re way off the road by then.

6) Enjoy it. Highway 1 runs through a beautiful stretch of Canada. Relax, stretch your legs and look forward to the day’s cycling.