The Upside of Going Downhill: Mountain Biking in Northern BC
I pour sweat. Not the glistening perspiration of a warm day—this is the shirt-soaking stuff. My legs and lungs protest as I push the pedals around and around, each revolution a struggle of brain versus body. Inside my head, an obsessive voice propels me endlessly forward as my out-of-shape body screams dissent.
Finally, I am at the top. It starts to snow. My riding partner and I sit silently beside our bikes, gulping water and air. Eventually, Steve points toward the trailhead and grins: “Off we go!”
There’s something inherently satisfying about mountain biking. Maybe it’s the surroundings—most trails are scenically situated on the sides of mountains, hills, and bluffs, weaving their way through forested landscapes. Or it could be the Zen-like feeling that goes along with self-propelled outdoors activity: when you work hard to get to the top of a hill, coming down feels so good. And of course, the descent itself is pretty appealing, too: hurtling down a trail on two wheels, trees whipping by at top speed is—well—thrilling!
In northern BC, everywhere you look, someone is out there building—and riding—a trail. The recently released video, Routes, by BlackSpruce Films, shot entirely in this region, features top-notch riding in places like Quesnel, Prince George, Fort St. James, and Smithers. (Check it out at pinkbike.com/news/Routes-movie-full-length.html.) Sure, riding in the North isn’t the same as riding at Vancouver’s North Shore, but chances are you’ll have the trails to yourself or, if you do see someone, they’ll happily show you around. And it’s awesome up here—there are long-distance cross-country trails in jaw-dropping landscapes, and terrifying downhill and machine-built trails to send you soaring. Check out this sample of regional mountain-biking opportunities for a taste of our northern trails.
Prince George Northern BC’s biggest city has an expert downhill site called Cranbrook Hill and two sanctioned biking areas—Pidherny and Otway. Pidherny Recreation Area is the best-developed site close to town. “There is an extensive cross-country trail network, as well as freeride and downhill trails ranging from beginner to expert,” says project manager Liam Baker.
Baker sees mountain biking as a means to create happy communities. “Prince George is eager to build off the strength of other northern mountain-biking communities,” he says, citing Williams Lake, Burns Lake and Smithers as examples. “These communities have set a great example by promoting and developing their trail networks, and Prince George has the resources and opportunities to do the same.” Baker’s enthusiasm is shared by many locals. “The existence of a sanctioned mountain-biking area within the city limits will allow for continued growth of the sport in the City,” he explains, adding, “The enthusiasm of the mountain-bike community makes trail development here easy.”
More info: Prince George Cycling Club: pgcyclingclub.ca.Ruckus Skis, Boards and Bikes: ruckuspg.ca, 250-564-3335
Vanderhoof The little town at the geographic centre of BC is still developing its biking scene. A local group called Rip’n the North Bike Club is fuelling the momentum. They built a bike park in town for riders to develop their skills. “The bike park is the heart of the mountain-bike scene in Vanderhoof,” says local rider Wade Fitzpatrick. “It has a great jump park, skills park, a fun and technical downhill, and some gnarly single-track.” There is also a longer downhill trail at Sinkut Mountain, about 20 minutes south of town. “This trail has everything to challenge the hard-core downhill rider.” Fitzpatrick says the scene in Vanderhoof is still in its grassroots stage and the room for growth is exciting. “With our rolling hills and variety of terrain, it won’t be long until we get some epic trails in place to challenge all levels.”
More info: Rip N the North Bike Park: 7th Street West, Vanderhoof. Omineca Sports: ominecasfs.ca, 1-866-567-9885
Fort St. James Fort St. James is best known for its national historic site, but the town’s surroundings are particularly suited to mountain biking—and a few residents know it. “When I first arrived here in February 2010, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the local scene,” says Andrew Chewter, who learned to ride in Prince George. “Boy, was I stoked to get out in late March and ride some trails! The rocky southern exposure really helps dry out many of the lower-elevation trails early, so we are riding most of our trails a month ahead of Prince George folks.”
Chewter describes the trail network in the area as mostly “technical single-track,” but says it’s diverse enough that riders can experience a variety of trails in a single day. “The main network is along the south side of Mount Pope, in a rocky and Douglas Fir-treed environment. Some of the lower trails get into loamier soil and we’ve been able to build up some berms.” He explains that while trail building is progressing, it’s a slow process. “We hope to have a new, fairly technical downhill trail from the upper elevations completed this summer. Our club is fairly small and the rider network is pretty diffuse, so projects can take a while to get done.” It may be a small group and it may take time, but the results they’re producing are big. Chewter neatly sums up the scene with three words: “Epic single-track!”
More info: Fort St. James Bike and Skateboard Association: fc.sd91.bc.ca/~jbarr/FOV1-00042062/
Burns Lake When Burns Lake was featured in Bike Magazine at the end of 2010, locals were happy but not surprised. “We’ve been ambitious from the beginning to make Burns Lake, as our vision statement says, ‘a world-class mountain-biking destination and a vibrant mountain-biking community,’” says Kevin Derksen, president of the Burns Lake Mountain Biking Association. Since 2005, he—with a solid group of volunteers—has worked tirelessly to make Burns Lake a mind-blowing mountain-biking destination. “We’re a group of people who have selflessly given our all to put this town firmly on the mountain-biking map. It’s easily the most successful group I’ve ever been part of.”
Burns Lake biking is mainly at Boer Mountain, where bikers choose from 20-plus trails and a bike park. “Ultimately, we’ve strived to make it the dream road-trip we all want to see when we go somewhere else—but it’s in our backyard,” he says. “We have beginner-to-advanced downhill and cross-country trails with enough length to satisfy any rider. We’ve got high-quality maps with great waypoints and directional signage on trails, with the coolest custom-made wood trailhead signs. We have amazing riding for every style, and every skill level, full stop.”
Derksen emphasizes the importance of community, saying the local bike shop is great and the vibe in town is very supportive of travelling bikers and local riders alike. “Our annual bike festival—Big Pig Bike Fest—is now in its fifth year, and we’ve been conducting Kids Camp for four years.” Training the next generation ensures the bike community will be around for a long time. “We’re always looking ahead, and more trail is definitely in the works.” Their next project? “Epic scenes of waterfalls and cliffside vistas dot the entire length—it will be a signature cross-country route!”
“We’re covering all the bases here, with a variety of trails and the amenities to make a person’s stay better. It’s one of the friendliest bike towns you’ll find.”
More info: Burns Lake Mountain Biking Association:burnslaketrails.ca Burnt Bikes: 250-692-7212
Smithers “We have a great cross-country network, fast-flowy single-track, technical downhill, machine-built trails with berms and tabletops, and back-country rides—all close to town,” says Katie von Gaza of the Smithers Mountain Biking Association (SMBA). “Mountain biking has had a presence in the valley since the early 1990s, but it was the quest for the development of a machine-built trail that led to the creation of the SMBA.” When the group formed in 2009, they followed through on the shared vision and built a trail to rival some of the best in the southern half of the province.
Pro mountain biker Eric Lawrenuk summed it up in a single sentence: “Smithers has the best trail in the world.” The four minutes of film shot in Smithers in the video Routes backs up Lawrenuk’s claim. The scene follows Wayne Goss and Eric Hillen as the two riders chase each other down Pump Daddy, an exquisitely built trail at the Ptarmigan Road site, just off the road to the ski hill. At its upper end, the trail features numerous jumps and beautiful berm corners. The result is a downhill trail with endless options for high-speed, “flowy” riding. Accessed by logging road, most riders shuttle from the parking area to the trailhead, but the uphill can be biked, too—it just takes time.
Closer to town is Smithers’ original mountain-biking area, The Bluff. Overlooking the rail tracks, the Bluff site is extremely accessible. On weekends it’s not uncommon to see several trucks parked at the trailhead. The Bluff has 19 trails, from relatively easy cross-country to steep, technical single-track punctuated by skinnies, ramps, jumps, drops, and other hand-built structures.
Like their Burns Lake neighbours, SMBA is focussed on community. “After three solid seasons of trail building,” says von Gaza, “we are going to take a break from the building and focus on doing some minor upgrades and finishing touches to our existing trails, while putting the majority of our effort into building the mountain-biking community in the valley.”
More info: Smithers Mountain Bike Association: smithersmountainbike.ca. C.O.B. Bike Shop: cobbikeshop.ca, 250-847-8977. McBike Smithers, mcbike.ca, 250-847-5009
Terrace At Terrace’s Copper Mountain, local bikers are constructing challenging technical routes down the slopes while climbers scale the crags nearby. So far, bikers have opened up about 20 trails. Closer to town are the Terrace Mountain trails—carefully constructed, well-developed bike and multi-use trails for intermediate to advanced riders. One loop is about eight kilometres—a solid ride that takes in a hefty climb and some technical downhill.
The Terrace biking scene is supported by the Terrace Off-Road Cycling Association (TORCA). The group organizes competitions, events, group rides—and they get out and build trails. Last year TORCA received a hefty grant from the provincial government to help them build the new Steinhoe Trail on Terrace Mountain.
More info: “Bicycling in Terrace” facebook group.McBike Terrace, mcbikeshop.com, 250-635-5225
Prince Rupert Exposed to the relentless rain of the North Coast, mountain-biking trails in Prince Rupert are hard to maintain. Between fast-growing foliage, vast tracts of squishy muskeg, and a discouragingly fast “rot rate” for any hand-built wooden structures, trails here come and go like the tides. But that doesn’t mean locals don’t ride! In a quiet corner on the way out of town are the remnants of some pretty impressive bike trails—the amusingly named Red Light District. Most of the structures have succumbed to the weather, but there are other places to ride, too. In town and on its outskirts there are numerous trails worth checking out. As “Buttons” Wilson says, “If you can ride the slippery roots here, you can ride anywhere!”
More info: The Outsider’s Guide to Prince Rupert by Matt J Simmons; or speak to the knowledgable staff at Cowpuccino’s in Cow Bay.
To track down northern BC’s biking trails, start with the contacts listed above. For mountain-biking events and races throughout the region, head to tools.bcweb.net/nwbcoutdoorevents, or pop into the local bike shop.