Every trip has a moment. The one event that becomes the cover image when remembering the ride, weekend or month. From an eight-day road trip across northern British Columbia in September, it's a single air off a roll, so natural, smooth and effortless.
At home I don't jump much. But after warming up on perfect tabletops and immaculate berms for six days in a row, in seven different communities along B.C.'s Yellowhead Highway, I'm finally getting the hang of it. I'm feeling as dialed on a bike as I've ever felt when photographer Ryan Creary and I roll into the town of Smithers and hook up with Heiko Krause. The 16-year old skips school to show us around while another local, Brian Shorter, drives shuttles. They're just two more super friendly, passionate and energized mountain bikers on a road trip full of them.
It's on the first trail of the day, Pump Daddy, that I experience that moment. I'm riding as hard as I can chasing Krause when we hit a series of tabletops. The last is more natural feeling, a simple roll with a drop away landing in a gully. When I play it back in my mind I pop off, float through the air, bike tweaked just a little, earth falling away. Whatever it looked like, it felt perfect, effortless.
Thinking back on it now, there were more dramatic moments that could define the road trip—a Whistler-like bike park all to ourselves, urban mountain biking in Prince George, tight switchbacks in the snow, northern forests splashed with fall's reds and yellows, huge rock slabs, a gap jump over a crashed plane, pinning it in loamy dirt and so many perfect berms—but for me it's that simple air that I'll remember. Probably forever.
I think it stands out because its simple joy is so fitting for the growth in riding in the north. From the Alberta border in the east to the Coast Range in the west, there's an infectious enthusiasm and optimism for mountain biking along the Yellowhead. In the last five years just about every town along the highway invested in a mountain bike trail network to the tune of several million dollars combined. For the most part the trails are machine-built, flowy goodness built from raw forest into networks focused on not only attracting tourists but also enriching the local community.
"The societies that build the trails are not just creating a tourism asset," says Joel McKay, the CEO of Northern Development Initiative Trust, one of the major trailbuilding funding groups. "Across the north, smaller towns especially are struggling to remain vibrant as the industries that built them recede or consolidate. Mountain bike trails are an amenity that helps them attract and retain professionals for a relatively small investment. Building trails is changing the reputation of the north."
I live in southern B.C. When I used to think about the northern half of the province, it was as a place people went to make a lot of money working in mining, forestry or oil and gas, not because they wanted to live there. I found the opposite. Everyone we met in Valemount, McBride, Prince George, Vanderhoof, Burns Lake, Smithers and Terrace think they live in the greatest place on earth. The growth in mountain biking is just making their towns even better. After spending a few hours on the trail with them, hearing about their town and their giant, empty backyards full of wildlife, mountains, lakes and endless trails, it was impossible to argue.
I also came away stunned at what a perfect mountain biking roadtrip the Yellowhead Highway has become. Yeah, it is far away, a solid 12-hour drive from the U.S. border. But it easily loops into roadtrips in southern B.C. and is on the way to Alaska. Three routes connect the southern part of the province to the Yellowhead. From Kamloops you could be in Valemount, at the eastern end of the Yellowhead, in four hours, breaking up the drive with a ride along the way. Whistler's more like seven hours from Prince George, but there are several trail networks between the two. But the coolest route would be to drive up through the interior and then take the ferry from Prince Rupert, at the highway's Pacific end, to Vancouver Island or Alaska. It's also easy to fly through Vancouver to Terrace, Smithers or Prince George and rent a car.
How ever you get there it's worth the effort. Over the next five weeks we'll bring you stories from our trip, the best mountain biking vacation of my life. In the meantime just know we never drove more than two hours without stopping to ride. The trails ranged from bike park to cross-country, old-school downhills to flowy perfection, rocky to loamy and everything in between. There's a ton of camping and lots of it is free. Perfect swimming lakes are everywhere. The fishing is epic. And it's quiet. In more than a week of riding we only ran into a handful of other people on the trails.
But maybe the best reason to go is the people. In my experience, residents of small towns, especially remote ones in northern Canada, are really friendly. If you've got a bike along the Yellowhead that goes double. The enthusiasm for mountain biking is raging across the region. The stoke is high. The vision even greater. They've got money to build and room to grow. Mountain biking along the Yellowhead Highway is just getting started and it's already amazing.