It's September 26, and the northern tip of the Appalachian Mountains is sweltering. Pushing 93-degrees Fahrenheit with 100-percent humidity, it feels more like Tennessee or Georgia than it does New Brunswick, some 1,350 miles north in a near identical landscape. The distinguishing maple trees still have a strong inner glow of electric green while shades of auburn tinge their outer canopy. The forest is desperately trying to fall asleep before winter, but Atlantic hurricanes are preventing this, pushing hot, damp air up the East Coast.
Photographer Bruno Long and I pant like dying hamsters as we follow 47-year-old Brian McKeown over the packed, black soils of Best Bitter, onto Wilson's Loop, Bunkerama and then Boldenweiser in the Marysville Place (MVP) trail network outside the capital city of Fredericton. The humidity feels like being bundled in Saran Wrap. It isn't the ass-kicking we were expecting, having traveled from the temperate wilds of British Columbia to a quiet and rolling province where a nascent riding culture is supposedly only now taking shape.
"I thought you guys were fit?" McKeown taunts us, spinning effortlessly over the smattering of loose stones and thin roots. "We are," Long answers. "You're just ridiculous."
McKeown, it turns out, is the 2012 Canadian masters class cross-country champion. For Long, who was born and raised in New Brunswick but never rode his home province before leaving, everything's a revelation. Gone west for 20 years, he's come back to rediscover his native soil as a mountain biker, and everything feels new.
The New Old Town
As we pedal downtown, handsome stone and brick buildings from the 18th century line the banks of the Saint John River, many of them repurposed factories and British military barracks. The first colonials here were French, called Acadians. The British burned down their capital, Fort Nashwaak, in 1759 and expelled them during the Seven Years' War. British Loyalists came north during the American Revolution and built Fredericton in its place, now home to just under 60,000 people.
"You don't look old enough to have a 19-year-old daughter," Long tells McKeown, whose sinew and muscles pop like a superhero's through his race-tight spandex.
"That's what cycling will do for you," the father of two quips, saying his daughter plays basketball at University of New Brunswick, Long's alma mater.
"It was like right out of 'Van Wilder' when I went to UNB," Long says with a sinister laugh. "I don't know how any of us graduated."
Lined with pubs and breweries, Fredericton is a famous student party town. Just what a father wants to hear. McKeown leads us back to his sports store on Westmorland Street with a furrowed brow. The Radical Edge's cycling-focused second store, where we rally to, is seven years old now, and thriving.
"I didn't know any of this riding was here," Long says as we go for lunch at Graystone Brewing, a block over, where tattooed waitresses serve thick-bearded young men in plaid and give evidence to other recent cultural shifts.
"Ten years ago, things really started to ramp up with a lot of trailbuilding specific for mountain biking," McKeown explains. "Especially in the MVP zone. Back 20 years ago, things were probably at a low for us in the area. Social media played a large part in being the thread that connects us all."
River Valley Cycling, the local club, is up to 350 members, and fat biking is more popular even than Nordic skiing. For McKeown, who's also enjoying the city's evolution, things are better than ever. We watch him down a Ridgeback IPA with impressive gusto—the calories no doubt disappearing into a perpetual deficit.
At daybreak, we drive 30 miles northeast to the 2,000-person hamlet of Minto. The village survived the Great Depression through an open policy on coal mining. Today it's surrounded by strange ridgelines of tailings. In between the bizarre features, surreal green and blue ponds vibrantly glow like nuclear waste. The colors actually stem from algae, and beavers swim happily in it.
McKeown steers us through twisted spindles of birch grown into a strange and deformed jungle. The wet air and yellowing leaves smell like malt, and it feels like we're in a Salvador Dalí painting. Tabula Rasa connects us to Scotia Banks—a series of punchy corners that dive sharply in and out of the pump-track-like trail. McKeown carves masterfully with his fixed seatpost all the way up. On a brief break, he admits to Long he doesn't get the appeal of the West. He views it as too far from family, busy and expensive. In British Columbia, the average home price is $503,100. In New Brunswick, it's $174,000, and generations of relatives are often only walking distance apart.
Back in Fredericton that night, the city's modest skyline shimmers off the river. At a pub next to it, dark brews pile onto a table facing two six-foot-six-inch twins named Chris and Tim Beatty. The brothers—with identical haircuts—shared a frat house with Long in university and remain dear to him. They're both married now, work in IT and also ride bikes. The tech and tourism industries are strong in Fredericton, they tell me. While the rest of the Maritimes are economically depressed, this city's unemployment rate is better than the national average. But the conversation soon veers into deviant reminiscences of earlier days. "So who did that poop, anyway?" Chris darts at Long.
Down by the Sea
The Canadian Highlands crumble into falling brown bluffs at the seaside village of Alma. The Bay of Fundy has the highest tide in the world at 50 feet. The hoodoos along its Atlantic shoreline are striking. It's the same landscape the Acadians crossed when they fled south to the then-French colony of Louisiane, which later became America's Cajuns. Here in Alma, stubborn fragments of the first colonial language still remain on signs and in family names. Quebec may be Canada's only Francophone province, but New Brunswick is its only officially bilingual one. At the edge of Fundy National Park, lobster fishermen bark at each other in mixed tongues, and Parks Canada employees gab in both languages. Mark Mahoney is one of them, supervising the construction and upgrade of 38 miles of multi-purpose trail that, impressively, now includes riding.
"This is probably the nicest pumptrack I've ever seen!" Long tells him while watching crews pack the last bit of the newly installed amenity at the Chignecto Campground. Sam Piché, a BMX-track builder from Quebec, offers to demo it, and Long breaks into near-perfect French to coordinate photos—a secret language I've never heard him use.
After the pumptrack session, Sussex rider John McNair joins Mahoney to shepherd us into the campground's trails. Mahoney smashes along in his Parks Canada uniform and skate helmet, superfanning over the Enduro World Series whenever we stop and talk. The two main lines we follow are White Tail and Tippen, weaving at low grades through a coniferous forest laced in incandescent moss and trippy mushrooms. The federally sanctioned braids drop lengthily down to the sea before we pedal up for an hour on pavement and doubletrack. Being multi-purpose, it's more about flow than technicality. The trails have very little camber, but trace an incomparable ocean vista.
"What I really want is A-Line," Mahoney says later at dinner, referencing Whistler's most famous trail. We imbibe in deep dirt talk, and he points out the Holy Whale Brewery, a church-turned-pub where the Parks Canada staff party is happening that night. In true East Coast spirit, we drop in and make many new friends. Long trades brotherly barbs with the locals like a longshoreman, and I can almost hear a buried Wisconsin-esque Maritime accent emerge.
The Big Smoke
The city of Saint John's stern brick facade feels imposingly industrial, with Canada's largest oil refinery dominating it. But with more than 60,000 people, it also has a metropolitan bustle that's energizing. Rockwood Park walls in its northwest corner, designed in the mid-19th century by Calvert Vaux, who also drew up New York City's Central Park. We follow the practiced wheel of a steel singlespeed into it, over grippy inner-city rock slabs.
Geoff Slater, a 48-year-old professional artist, perfectly times each stroke through pedal-strike treachery on Simon Says, Pumptrack Powerline, Rockpile Road and Bunny Rampage. Each links through pristine lakes, connecting remarkably modern trail that could be out of a western mountain town.
"I get my best ideas out on the trails," he tells us, referencing his signature painting style, which uses just one connected line—like the nebula of a trail map—to portray anything from flowers to landscape. After riding, he takes us to the adjacent and Disneyesque town of St. Andrews, where he's an artist-in-residence at Kingsbrae Garden. His paintings would look at home next to a Van Gogh or Signac, but Slater insists he's not impressionist, he's part of the mountain bike movement.
"The most creative people are bikers," he insists. "People used to have board meetings at golf courses, now they do it on bikes."
Long recounts his own artistic ascendancy: a drunk crash on his townie bike that gave him the premonition to stick with mountain bike photography right when he thought he should quit. "All of the sudden people were saying they'd never seen photos like mine," he remembers.
"Oh, we hated this town," Long tells me, passing by old high-school basketball rivalries en route to Grand Falls, his 5,000-person hometown. "These are all potato fields," he adds. "Every fall we'd get a week off school to go pick potatoes. We called it potato week." I burst into laughter, and he explains McCain Foods is one of the biggest employers in the province, next to Irving Oil—a New Brunswick company that's also quietly the sixth largest landowner in the U.S.
It's dark as we cruise down Chapel Street to a big house where a silver-haired man paces outside. We park, and Rino throws his arms around his son, speaking French at him a mile a minute. Long answers back in English, but neither misses a beat. It's like listening to Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Inside, Long's mom, Beatrice, gives him a hug and kiss on the cheek, taking our stinky laundry. "Everything in here is synthetic!" she comments. Rino gives me an immediate tour of the house, showing off everything from a plain white mug he's had for 30 years to their 1960s dryer.
"Did you know Ron Turcotte is from here?" he asks me. "I don't know who that is," I answer apologetically. "Come on," he says, "he rode Secretariat!"
The retired couple's living room is full of photos of family. Long's siblings also moved west. At 38, he's the only one left without kids; his globe-trotting exploits having taken priority. He hasn't been back in five years, but is still close. His older sister, Julie, sadly passed away from cancer a year earlier in Edmonton, Alberta, and everyone came together.
"So you're heading to Campbellton tomorrow?" Beatrice asks, interrupting my gaze around the museum-like room. She gave Long the idea to come home after seeing an article that rated Sugarloaf Bike Park as the best in the East. "Campbellton's where Bruno was born, you know," she winks.
The Sweet Spot
Sugarloaf Bike Park's hardwood forest rises subtly above the 7,000-person city of Campbellton at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Restigouche Rivers. It's finally cold out, and the fall colors drape the soft-black hills like a woolen sweater. We pass Atholville, which Long jokes is full of "Athols," while he begrudgingly stops to take a portrait at his childhood house. His dad also coaxed him into a similar portrait with his vintage Diamondback hardtail the night before.
Up at the bike park, it's closing weekend. Its trails are built to exacting standards by Gravity Logic—the same crew that built Whistler's. Riders have come from 200 miles away for Sugarloaf's 507 vertical feet. At $25 a day, it makes riding DH an everyperson sport. Families and people of modest means are all around, and it just feels right. Patroller Justin Aubie welcomes us while festivities rage. They include an Acadian folk band playing the spoons and teaching traditional step dancing.
Eventually, Aubie passes us off to Chris Phillips, a clean-cut 29-year-old local with a flooring company who handles all the mountain's social media. Josh Carrier stands floppily beside him in stark contrast, wearing an old cardigan, beat-up Carhartt pants, skate shoes with holes in them and construction gloves. He's been awake for 24 hours, partying with a woman from Las Vegas he met online.
"Have you guys known each other for a long time?" I ask the curious duo. "Best friends since grade 2!" Phillips announces proudly. They're also the two main members of North Shore Shredder, their own club, named for the North Shore of New Brunswick.
They lead us first down Sugar Daddy, a blue jump line that milks the outer flank of the area at surprising length. The dirt is perfect: packed with moisture and held together by a deciduous root system and ancient smooth rock—there's not so much as a brake bump. Supa Sweet is a similarly well-calibrated line following the opposite side of the mountain. Phillips greases each table while Carrier bounces along like an Oompa Loompa behind, narrowly gripping his old Specialized Big Hit Grom—a kids' bike with 24-inch wheels. His full-face helmet's chin strap flaps undone in the wind, connected to his bike park pass. Long and I hold our breath, watching him on the lofty black jump line, L'Acadienne, but he nails it.
"Is that bike going to hold up?" Long asks, listening to it bottom out over and again.
"Oh yah," Carrier answers. "This one's good, eh. My last one was pretty bad though. I hit a jump once and I lost my front wheel midair. I did not do well, boy!"
Deciding not to cross the bridge to go party in Pointe-à-la-Croix, Quebec, that night, we show up early the next morning to find Phillips right on time with Carrier, who still hasn't slept, and now wears a red cape that says "superhero."
"I bought this cape at the fair off a drunk carney," he says, smoking a series of cigarillos. Phillips doesn't miss a beat throughout, cheerfully chatting and ending each sentence with 'there'—a regional nuance carried over from the French Canadian tendency to end each thought with 'là.' Carrier presents Long with a photo book of pictures his mom took. "See, she really likes flowers. She's a pretty good photographer, eh!" Long nods agreeably.
We follow the locals into the steeper runs now; technical and scary in places. They burn vertical fast, and Carrier rides shirtless in his cape by midday, terrifying us. We cross back along one of the low-angle ski runs, and he stands up at full speed for several hundred feet with his seat pinched between his legs and arms outstretched—like on the bow of the Titanic.
"Holy shit, dude!" Long says pulling up beside him. "What the hell was that?"
"That's my trick," Carrier says. "One day I'm going to ride the park in a straightjacket!"
We've never seen anything like it—or met anyone like these two.
As the sun crashes into the western horizon hours later, the bellied laughs and gobsmacking riding sullenly come to an end. We load up for the 3,000-mile trip back to British Columbia wide-eyed and humbled.
"I can't believe this was only three hours away from home this whole time," Long says, forgetting for a brief moment where exactly that is.