Single-track heaven

A visit to British Columbia, where mountain-biking fun is a priority

Photos: JORIS LAPERRE

Over the last few years, our passion for mountain biking has taken my wife and me to the four corners of the planet, and I've reported on our journeys here. All the while, though, I was acutely aware that we were tiptoeing around the elephant in the room: British Columbia (BC), Canada.

If California is the birthplace of mountain biking, then BC is arguably its spiritual home. With Whistler it has the world's biggest and baddest bike park, north-shore riding (think man-made obstacles such as skinny bridges and teeter totters) originated there and boasts some of the most iconic trails.

In August, we finally ticked BC off our list by joining the 12-day Sacred Rides "Ultimate BC" trip. Bleary-eyed after two long-haul flights and a four-hour drive west from Calgary, we reached our first port of call: Fernie. You know you've arrived in mountain biking heaven when the town, despite a population of a mere 5,000, has a dirt-jump park with pump track as its centrepiece and four fully stocked bike shops lining the main street.

And we quickly figured out why: you could easily spend a week or two in Fernie and not ride the same trail twice. Five hills overlook the town and each of these has a network of purpose-built and well-kept mountain-bike routes. Evidently a lot of money and volunteer work has gone into these trails. They are signposted, include options for all riding abilities, and most of them start on the edge of town, eliminating the need for shuttle vehicles.

Since we needed to test our climbing legs for the remainder of the trip, we skipped the downhill runs in Fernie Alpine Resort, the lift-accessed ski hill that transforms into a bike park during summer, and instead rode a selection of trails in the remaining areas.

Highlights included Slunt (as in, "a slog and a grunt"): a swooping descent through the forest with tight grin-inducing berms, groomed to near perfection, and the very aptly named "Lactic Ridge" to get to the Slunt trailhead. The riding on Castle Mountain was equally outstanding: panoramic views from the top of a rocky outcrop accessed by hike-a-bike, followed by a huge descent with a few hair-raising blind turns and some exposed ridges. The mountain biking around Fernie is simply world-class.

Mountain bikers will sometimes describe their day's ride as "epic", but that means different things to different people. The International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) actually maintains a (very short) list of what it considers "Epic Rides". One of the entries is the "Seven Summits" trail near Rossland, and that's where we headed after Fernie.

It's 100% single-track, 35km in distance, 1,200m in ascent, 2,000m in descent, with total duration somewhere between four to eight hours and -- obviously -- seven summits. The numbers are a decent-enough indication of the mission ahead, but they don't quite do the ride justice: this is one hell of an adventure. The seemingly never-ending string of switchbacks on the opening climb is relentless, but as you crest the first summit, the view opens up into a stunning alpine panorama. The downhill from there is long and wonderfully varied: rocky technical sections mixed up with plenty of banked turns. And then the pattern of elevation gains and drops, repeats, and repeats, and then repeats again.

Faces caked in dust, we rolled out of the forest after seven hours in the saddle, and there were high-fives all around, but the mood was also a little subdued as one of our group saw his trip prematurely ended by an injury sustained in an ill-fated tumble during the first descent. It was a timely reminder that mountain biking comes with plenty of rewards, but is not without its risks.

Vast swathes of dense rainforest, python-sized roots and loamy single-track carving its way through vibrant green moss: that is the image my mind conjures at the thought of BC mountain biking, an impression largely fuelled by the area's frequent coverage in the media. The trail network on Mount Macpherson near Revelstoke, our next destination, was a textbook example of that type of terrain. Flowy sections alternated with short, sharp up-downs, off-camber turns, and some man-made features. Overnight rain had rendered the chunky roots super slick, making it near impossible to clear every section without dabbing a foot, but that didn't stop us from trying. Our home trails couldn't be more different from this and I immensely enjoyed the very challenging riding there. My only gripe would be that the magazines fail to mention the favourable breeding conditions for mosquitoes in the forest. Still, I can't help but envy local riders with easy access to trails like these.

Grinding my smallest gear from the carpark up the punchy technical climb on the Keystone Standard Basin trail, I had no idea of the spectacular landscapes lying in wait once the terrain levelled out. Colourful meadows hemmed in by towering peaks and glaciers, an abundance of blazing wild flowers around us, this out-and-back ride delivered a feast for the eyes. Those who made the effort to go all the way to the turnaround point were rewarded with the breathtaking sight of a placid alpine lake, turned into a giant mirror by the absence of even the slightest ripple. The adjacent cabin with picnic table provided the perfect setting for a welcome rest before we tackled the return leg.

Returning from previous riding holidays, no matter how incredible, I've always been strangely buzzing with the anticipation of getting back to our own trails. This time not so: the riding in BC has simply blown my mind. We did an incredible amount of mountain biking, and yet we only visited a few spots, and we didn't even scratch the surface in any of them. The British Columbia section of TrailForks, a trail database compiled from rider contributions, contains over 7,000 (!) entries. No other area comes anywhere close. It's left me hungry for more riding of this kind.


Joris Laperre is a Belgian mountain biker based in Bangkok.

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