Brian Shorter's advice comes only when necessary, perfectly timed and pinpoint accurate.
"Set up high," he copilot's from my back tire. A minute later: "Hard right at the bottom of this next section." His commands continue like this all the way down Nervous Shakedown, one of Smithers' steepest trails. They are the only reason I survive the roots and bottomless fall line without a crash.
The wild descent is the hardest riding photographer Ryan Creary and I have done along the Yellowhead Highway. We spent the previous six days on mostly smooth and fast trails. It's been a blast, but as we wind down our road trip across northern B.C. it's refreshing to arrive in the Coast Mountains and test ourselves in more technical terrain, something completely different than anything else we've seen.
Our first taste of the big trees and bigger mountains comes in Smithers. It's an outdoor epicenter: shadowed by the Coast Range, on one of the best salmon and steelhead fishing rivers in North America, with a ski hill right above town. Mountain biking was a natural fit.
Shorter grew up here. He helped build some of the early trails in the late 1990s: all skinnies and drops-style shuttle riding. By 2008 his body and the bike community were ready for something different and hungry for the money to build it. The club formed and they scored a bunch of grants. In three months Shorter lead a trailbuilding effort that transformed Smithers into a mountain-biking destination.
The majority of that first push was in the The Bluff area, a bunch of stacked loops that progressively get harder the higher you climb. There is machine-built, green flow at the bottom, nicely graded blue climbs and roller-coaster descents in the middle, and at the top an intricate technical climb leading to a view over town and, eventually, Nervous Shakedown. On our ride we also hit Back in Black and Soul Stripper.
"We built so many trails in such a short period of time we needed some kind of naming theme. AC/DC songs worked," Shorter shrugs.
He also had his hand in Smithers' destination trails spread around the hillside. Huckin'Eh and Pump Daddy are twin, immaculate, modern freeride lines with an easy shuttle. Piper Down starts from the ski hill and rambles through forest, gaps the wreckage of a Piper airplane and skids over long rock slabs before ending in a weaving section of berms that feels strangely like ski turns. Across the valley is an alpine epic over Cronin Pass. And we end our visit with Backdoor, a 5,000-foot descent from the top of the ski hill all the way down to Smithers.
It's a satisfying end to our stay in town. The next day we drive two hours west to Terrace. Despite plenty of mountains and an active outdoor crowd, Terrace feels like it's late to the northern mountain bike party.
"We've got lots of jank but not a lot of flow," Aleksa Havelaar tells us as we gear up to ride. "We're just getting more organized to get more funding and build our first real machine trail."
She's the trails manager for the local club and she's downplaying the quality of the riding. Like the bike scene, the trails in Terrace are a little rougher around the edges, but that's part of the charm.
Later, we connect with the regular Wednesday night shuttle ride at Copper Mountain. No one balks at a couple of outsiders chucking their bikes into the back of someone’s truck. It's not just us. There's a guy from Montana passing through, a local brand new to riding and a woman on a hardtail that looks to be from Walmart. We join about 15 others and pile into two pick ups, bounce up the access road to a half dozen trails that bomb straight back down through dark forest. We end our trip with the steepest blue trail I've ever ridden, my back tire biting my ass the whole way down.
But first Aleksa and her husband Fletcher Havelaar show us around Terrace Mountain, the town's other, more all-mountain, trail network. From the parking lot the access is straight up a tough, technical climb that punishes my road-wary legs. No gentle progression here. At the top we turn onto Downtube, my favorite trail from our entire trip. It follows a ridge of granite through the forest, mixing steep slabs and tacky dirt. It’s a perfect combo of interesting climbing, scenery and roller-coaster downs.
At one point another rider catches us. It’s only the third time we’ve seen someone else on the trails in a week of riding. We start chatting and within a minute our new friend Andy is offering to show us Maroon Mountain, a high-alpine adventure ride north of town. It’s the one style of riding we’ve missed on the trip and now we don’t have time to take him up on the offer. I fly home the next morning and Creary has a long drive back to Revelstoke. Our road trip is almost over.
“Where did you like the most?” Andy asks.
I run through a mental slide show of all the trails, the perfect berms, the airs, the scenery, the great people that showed us around. Everywhere we rode makes an appearance. “It was all good,” I conclude. "Well just make sure you tell everyone the riding sucks," he laughs. "Tell them they shouldn't come."
Smithers Trail: The Smithers Mountain Bike Association runs the trails and is the best source for beta.
Coffee: Use the public air pump while you wait for java at the al fresco Bugwood Bean.
Beer: The Smithers Brewing Co. is the better of the two breweries in town.
Food: For healthy, filling and delicious breakfast or lunch try the Two Sisters Cafe.
Bike Shop: McBike & Sport is the authority on all things outdoors, particularly biking.
Terrace Trail: The Terrace Off Road Cycling Association manages the trails.
Coffee: Aleksa Havelaar's White Goat Coffee is the freshest roast in town. Get a cup at Bert's Delicatessen.
Beer: You can sample most of the local brews and local grown food at Mumford's Beerhouse & Grill.
Food: The sandwiches at Bert's Delicatessen can fuel a couple rides.
Bike Shop: Wild Bike is the shop in town.