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Strength In Trails – Mountain Biking Quebec

Quebec's Building Revival is Turning 'La Belle Province' Into A Mountain Biking Powerhouse

A trail name can say a lot. About who built it, the history and culture of its region, the pain and joy to come, or where it will take you. La Yable, a trail at Mont-Sainte-Anne in Quebec, tells more than most.

It starts off spooky: on a bench, thick with spruce trees blocking just about any light, the trail name is spelled in moose bones. The foreshadowing would be creepy if I knew what yable meant, but I don't yet. Instead I forget the sign and concentrate on chasing local Christian Marchand and photographer Ryan Creary toward the light, where the trail emerges from the gloom.

Ryan Stuart, Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec

One, two, three. We drop over the lip, down the slope and pick up speed ripping across a deep, in-cut section to the first banked corner. One after another we rail along the lip, fly out the bottom and pop off a couple tabletops. Another banked corner and we're whipping the other way. Small drop, tabletop, small drop, corner. Repeat. The spindly maples, beach and birch trees blend into a blur. The trail begs me to go faster. I oblige, hang on, sit back and focus on the wheel ahead. A couple turns later we roll out of La Yable onto a road, with Joker smiles on our faces.

"So, what does La Yable mean?" I ask as we spin toward our next adventure.

"It's Quebec slang," says Marchand, a smile shifting his salt-and-pepper goatee. "It comes from the devil, la diable. But in Quebec yable means good. Really good."

That trail was definitely yable. As was our entire week of mountain biking in Quebec.

As the word suggests, Canada's French-speaking province is unlike anywhere else. It's a little bit France, a little bit Canadian and only an hour by air from New York City. So, while visiting most of Canada is not that different than visiting a distant state, traveling in 'La Belle Provence' feels foreign.

But La Yable is not only a tip to Quebec's distinct culture, it's physical evidence of a renaissance in Quebec mountain biking. The newest trail at Mont-Sainte-Anne is one of dozens built last year around Quebec City. Since 2008, trail builders buffed out more than 100 miles of wicked new singletrack near the provincial capital, establishing three brand-new mountain biking areas in the process. And they're not even close to finished.

Mont-Sainte-Anne

Poutine Dreams

Living on the west coast of Canada, I struggle to get excited about anything east of the Rockies. So it surprised me–just as much as everyone I told–that I was going to fly to Quebec City to mountain bike. I knew Quebecers were passionate cyclists–they host World Cup road and mountain bike races every summer and thousands of recreational riders turn out for some of the biggest events. Plus, Francophones are fixtures of Canada's national ranks. I knew Mont-Sainte-Anne had a large trail network. But what else was there? I figured it was time to find out. Plus, I love poutine.

That's the first thing I order after Creary and I arrive in Quebec City. Quebec invented and perfected the heaping bowl of fries and fresh cheese curds smothered in gravy. Quebec's cuisine typically melds French and new world cooking with dishes like tartar, perfectly seasoned raw fish or beef. But it's poutine that fuels provincial pride. Over the next week I see it on every menu, at city fine-dining restaurants and truck stops alike, served straight up or topped with moose meat or duck.

I'm still digesting the gooey goodness the next morning when we roll into the gravel parking lot at Sentiers du Moulin. Thirty minutes north of downtown, this is the closest mountain biking to the city. It's also where the mountain biking revival began a decade ago. In 2006 Quebec City was a mountain biking wasteland. There were trails, but beyond Mont-Sainte-Anne, they were illegal or private.

"We started losing trails we had," says Éric Gagnon, a biologist and rider. "We started to realize we had to do something to guarantee the riding." He saw potential at Moulin. The busy cross-country ski and snowshoe area's two rounded summits sat unused most of the year. "I knew we needed money to build trails, so I wrote a proposal," he says. The community-run facility–eager to expand its season–jumped on board. Donations big and small, from the province, bike shops and private citizens, started pouring in. By the end of 2015, they had collected more than $500,000. A bike club formed, which now numbers 400, and its members chipped in building trail. At one recent trail building event, more than 75 people showed up to shape the dirt.

I'm getting this history lesson as I follow Gagnon up a climb called Ravage. It was the downhill run until they opened three new descents the month before we arrive. Now it's the climb and a good one, mixing tricky rocky and root bits, smooth and easy sections, banked uphill corners, steep pitches, then short flats that are just long enough to catch my breath. The variety keeps the climb fresh instead of a brainless grind.

An octopus junction marks the summit. We point the bikes down Leon, a rollicking ramble. Even though the trail just opened the weekend before, it feels and looks surprisingly established. Cobbles of stone link granite slab, making what would be a disjointed trials test into a rollercoaster ride. A protruding rock or amiable stump is now a small launch. Banks line every corner. It's smooth and playful–the first of many joyful descents to come.

At the bottom we head up another former downhill toward the summit and another new trail, LB Cycles. Built by the local mountain bike club, it plunges through the woods, rolling off near-vertical rock drops, weaving through boulder gardens and ending with a smooth gap that leaves me buzzing all the way to the aprés pub.

Philippe Carrier, Sentiers du Moulin, Quebec

After another poutine, Creary and I head back to the city to wander around Old Quebec. France established Quebec City in 1608, making it one of the oldest cities in North America. The narrow cobble streets and tall stone buildings along the Saint Lawrence River now represent a UNESCO World Heritage site. A big field near the towering Chateau Frontenac Hotel is where the British finally defeated the French to claim all of what would become Canada. It's a charming, history-rich and picturesque place to spend a few hours.

Quebec City

We leave it in the mist the next morning and head east to Mont-Sainte-Anne. This is where mountain biking began in Quebec, in 1984; MSA was one of the first ski resorts in the world to embrace the sport, and it's hosted a World Cup XC and DH race every year since 1990. But despite its early start, the money and momentum eventually waned to a maintenance project. The thin soil on the mountain eroded over time, leaving troughs of rocks and roots.  "It wasn't the kind of place you'd take your girlfriend to learn to mountain bike," is how one rider put it. Things changed about five years ago. With money from the resort, a dedicated trail crew set to work improving and expanding the province's largest network.

"This is my commute home," says Christian Marchand, leading us off the access road climb onto La Grisante, one of the downhill trails. "I catch the last gondola up and the trails go right to my backyard." Marchand, who looks a bit like a goateed Tommy Lee if the rocker had spent his life outdoors, manages the trail crew at MSA, and knows how to ride a bike. Creary and I can't keep up as he leads us down the mountain toward La Yable.

Tommy Paquet, St Raymond, Quebec

The riding here is technical. The wet roots and rocks smack of B.C., and it's more rugged and challenging than the trails at Sentiers du Moulin. La Yable started as an illegal trail. "The guy building it said all the trails here were not yable," explains Marchand. "He said, 'This one is going to be yable.'" He dug it out by hand for two years before Mont-Sainte-Anne adopted it and finished it in 2015. It's the first trail here with a machine-built feel and jumps. It's a style the mountain wants to continue playing with, particularly around the Mont-Sainte-Anne campground, where the bulk of the new building is happening.

I check it out the next day, chasing Marie-Hélène Prémont, the Olympic cross-country silver medalist, multi-World Cup winner and local celebrity, around the beginner and intermediate loops. She grew up and trained here. "Back then it was double track on the cross-country ski trails or downhill. There was nothing in between," she says. "The trails were old then. The riding has gotten so much better." She leads me on a rolling romp through the new, buff trails. The sandy soil, wide paths and pump track feel make it a blast, especially trying to keep up with Prémont.

Vallée Vision

St Raymond, Quebec

Nowhere embodies Quebec's renewed love affair with mountain biking more than Vallée Bras-du-Nord, an especially scenic area northwest of the city. Vallée started with a 50-mile hut-to-hut hiking route, rock climbs and a mellow river canoe in a wild valley a half-hour north of the town of Saint Raymond. Then Gilles Morneau came up to do an adventure race.

Silver up top, but otherwise far more youthful than his 1961 birth certificate would suggest, Morneau is the godfather of mountain biking in Quebec. A journalist, photographer and promoter of the sport, he's no slouch on two wheels, having won the former TransRockies stage race a couple times. "When I first came here I was blown away," he says. "The mountain bike potential was amazing."

He approached Vallée's director Frederic Asselin. "I wasn't a mountain biker," says Asselin, "so I hired Gilles to be the vision. I sent him out into the forest and he'd come back all excited about what he found."

Morneau had a lot to work with. Vallée Bras-du-Nord is like a chunk of B.C. dropped into Quebec. Towering granite walls rise out of a flat river valley. Waterfalls tumble off cliffs. The valley's Neilson River is world-famous with kayakers for its endless stream of paddle-able waterfalls. And in the fall the sea of deciduous trees turn it all red, yellow and orange.

We're early for the leaf show, but that doesn't alter the quality of the riding. Morneau leads us on a tour of the valley on a breezeway-smooth machine-built trail through a maple syrup plantation to Delaney Falls; up L'Aurore and down La Boréale, a fast and flowy climb and descent; through a waterfall Morneau discovered; and then to the main event: Neilson.

We grind up a logging road for 40 minutes to reach the trail. I fall in beside Morneau and quiz him about the quirks of Quebec's culture. For instance, the Catholic church dominates every town, yet no one gets married anymore. Most of the 20 people we ride with have kids and a partner, but not one has tied the knot. They all went to church as kids but now none of them does. Morneau tells me it's backlash to abuse scandals and the overbearing church. It's all news to me and I'm Canadian.

We reach the trailhead and dive into a giant slalom of banked turns leading downhill to the Neilson River. For the next couple miles we ride beside the river, either just inside the forest or on slabs of glacier- and water-polished granite, spray from numerous rapids adding to the ambience. Eventually the river tumbles into a canyon and the trail climbs an unlikely series of granite switchbacks, followed by more fast-and-flowy trail that leads to another streamside slickrock descent.

The riding is unique, varied and interesting. The best part? Morneau has plans to double its length to more than 20 miles. "Then we'd like to see it named an IMBA Epic," he says.

Economic Spark

The extension to Neilson is just the beginning of what's to come, and not just at Vallée. It's our last day in Quebec and Morneau, Creary and I are drinking beer and watching the sun set from Mont Laura above the town of Saint Raymond, after shuttling its bike-park-inspired trails all afternoon.

To build the trails at Vallée Bras-du-Nord, Asselin created a program that put local troubled youth to work. He figures it kept many kids out of jail and provided them skills to get other jobs. It also spread good will in nearby Saint Raymond. With a growing stream of mountain bikers driving through the depressed logging town to ride Neilson and the rest, businesses started asking how they could cash in. Many spruced up storefronts. A former truck stop reinvented itself as a microbrewery. Residents started buying bikes. Idle youth stopped drinking and started riding. So it was an easy sell when Asselin suggested a Kingdom Trails-esque co-op, where land owners on the outskirts of Saint Raymond let him piece together a trail network on their unused property. A couple years later the Saint Raymond network is all fun climbs and fast descents full of wall rides, banked corners and opportunities for air everywhere. The trailhead is the truck stop turned microbrewery.

Ryan Stuart, Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec

We’ll go there soon, but right now Morneau worries that despite all that they've built, the language barrier will keep a lot of people from coming here. To protect the French language, it's illegal for street and business signs to be in English. While many Quebecers speak excellent English, just as many don't speak any at all. But Creary and I, with our vocabulary of a 3-year-old, managed to muddle through the week without any issues.

Morneau cheers up when we start talking about the future. About Quebec City approving a new trail network, the first within city limits. About his plan to link Mont-Sainte-Anne and Vallée by trail. "There are just small sections missing," he says. About Sentier du Moulin, Vallée and Mont-Sainte-Anne's plans to continue building at least one new trail every year. About fat biking it all in winter. About the province kicking in money. About new bike clubs doubling in size every year.

The sport feels new here. There's an infectious excitement and energy. A willingness to try new things. Reinvent the old. Learn from others, but do it their own way. It's something the people of Quebec have been doing for generations. And if what they've built so far is a sign of what's to come, it's all going to be very, very yable.

Quebec Essentials

Vallée Bras du Nord Saint Raymond (45 minutes northwest of Quebec City)

Ride: Twenty miles of machine and hand built climbs and descents on two hills near the outskirts of Saint Raymond. $13 per day; valleebrasduenord.com

Stay: Roquemont Hotel, right at the trailhead it couldn't be more convenient. roquemont.com

Eat: Roquemont Resto-Pub, a truck stop turned microbrewery attached to the hotel. roquemont.com

Vallée Bras du Nord Shannahan (30 minutes north of Saint Raymond)

Ride: Adventure riding in a wilderness setting. About 50 miles of single track on 22 named trails. $13 per day: valleebrasduenord.com

Stay: Vallée Bras du Nord runs a campground with yurts at the trailhead (valleebrasdunord.com) or rent a cabin nearby like Chalet Villa Éco (villaeco.ca).

Eat: Bring your own.

Sentiers du Moulin (20 minutes northeast of Quebec City near Lac Beauport)

Ride: More than 20 miles of riding on a mix of all mountain and cross country trails. $10 per day; pages.ccapcable.com

Stay: Camp near the river at Sentiers du Moulin (pages.ccapcable.com) or day trip from Quebec City, where there's a huge range of hotels, including Hôtel 71 (hotel71.ca), in the heart of the old city.

Eat: Post ride refuel at Archibald Microbrasserie (archibaldmicrobrasserie.ca) a classic apres brew pub. In Quebec City avoid the overpriced restaurants around the Chateau Frontenac and eat closer to the river at Restaurant SSS (restaurantsss.com).

Mont-Sainte-Anne (40 minutes east of Quebec City)

Ride: 90 miles of trails in three zones: lift accessed downhill, pedal up all mountain and cross country around the base. from $10 per day; mont-sainte-anne.com

Stay: The Château Mont-Saint-Anne (chateaumontsainteanne.com) is a hotel right at the base of the ski area. Ride onto the newer trails right out of the forested sites of the Mont-Sainte-Anne Campground (mont-sainte-anne.com).

Eat: What Pub St-Bernard (restaurantstbernard.com) lacks in atmosphere it makes up for in hearty portions.