Written by Seb Kemp
Photos by Nicolas Teichrob
The De Havilland chugs across the lake and we lift slowly off of the water. The noise from the engines would muffle any conversation, that is, if the incredible scenes didn’t already do so. Everyone present on the plane is glued to the window. So much to see of the immense land. Eyes scan upon the miniature scene then as a point of reference or relative scale comes into view it is all placed into perspective
Hearts almost burst as it is almost too beautiful to behold. So much land and space, so many hidden spots that may never be seen. It is a lot to take in. Seeing just the Sea-to-Sky corridor from this perspective gives an idea of how much there is to explore in this amazingly active and diverse province.
We exit the mouth of the Howe Sound and before us opens a wide expanse of water and so now that the views are more placid I take the moment to dip into the in-flight magazine and read a captivating history of a family of carny folks. I get to the part where the author was explaining how the economics of midway carnivals work when a sudden banking by the floatplane shakes me from my perusal and my starboard window becomes more akin to that of a glass bottom boat as my view is just of uninterrupted ocean. It takes me a moment to process why we are making such an erratic flight path but then the tiny (from this altitude anyway) black body of an orca whale breaches from its watery habitat and splashes down on the slate blue surface and buries itself back out of sight. We see other whales, less adventurous ones rolling in and out of view and a scattered collection of boats trying to get their passengers a better view, but we have the best, I think. After a few more circles we straighten up and continue west over the archipelago of the Gulf Islands before descending into Victoria. The little houses, streets and cars grow with brilliant speed before a few thuds on the seaplane's pontoons and we are back at ground (or sea if you want to be picky) level, and returned to a life back within the great expanse where the horizon is stunted and interrupted.
We jump out of the plane, figuratively speaking, and are hit by the chill wind. We shiver through a hot lunch on the waterfront then boot up for a super spin around the city on some sweet cruisers and town bikes. The inner hoodlum comes out in each of the crew and we soon become a bicycle gang; harassing traffic, whizzing through the streets skidding, hopping curbs and splashing puddles.
“Phillip's Brewery!” someone calls from the pack and the direction turns toward the hoppy haven. A quick party-keg purchase and we head to the windblown sea front. Big cups are gulped down and we hit the street again, burning beer and oxygen as we hook along the ocean towards town again. Riding city bikes has never been so much fun. Endorphins and skids get the hearts pumping and the buzz going.
This was day one of the road trip for photographer Nicolas Tiechrob and myself on the inaugural BC Bike Ride, organized by the creators of the BC Bike Race. After five years of running the BCBR, Dean Payne, Tom Skinner and Andreas Hestler finally feel like they have things under control enough to be able to offer a more casual approach to riding the amazing singletrack that is strung around the west coast of British Columbia. As opposed to the merely competitive approach, singletrack sniffers can join this crew on a more intimate—and less hurried—schedule as they road trip to Vancouver and back with stops in Squamish, Whistler, Pemberton, Victoria, Cowichan Bay, Cumberland, and Hornby Island.
With Crankworx overlapping the first two days of the road trip, Nic and myself belatedly joined the crew who had already been lucky enough to ride Pemberton, Squamish and Whistler. As I climbed into the sea plane and lifted off from Whistler I could feel the chaos and hangover of Crankworx being left behind on the dock. Lying ahead was the excitement of supreme singletrack to be shared with like-minded trail hounds and happy fellas.
The life-giving sunshine and vibrant illumination of early-morning blue skies and good light makes it feel great to be up this early. A quick six-block jaunt to a breakfast of eggs, bacon and potatoes will fuel the day's leg burn. Perhaps another coffee? Why not, the Americano in the Parkside Hotel was the best I’ve ever tasted.
We get out to the "Dump" but I don’t see any dump. I was expecting to ride a pretty rubbish area but it turned out not to be the case. The trails duck, dive and weave through beautiful, green British Columbian forest: green moss, orange stumps, red Arbutus, thigh-bone roots, hard-packed dirt and plenty of knuckle-like rocks. We climb to the top of "Who’s Your Daddy" and drop in, hollering and hooting. The fun continues and only once or twice do we get a view of the dumpsite that the trail zone takes its name from, but often we smell the emanating stench of the garbage.
We split up and rally around the trails before a narrow, twisting trail takes us back down and we exit at the car park where food and drink are waiting for us. Even more exciting is the arrival of three well-endowed young ladies who proceeded to pump up their floaters for an afternoon of easy drinking on the lake. Coincidentally, Canada does lakes better than anywhere else. Hidden amongst the dense forest, it allows its occupants some privacy. Logs hang just under the surface, giving swimmers a perch to hang on to while the water warms well in the wind-sheltered nook. We all want to stay, but we have more trails to explore today.
We drive to Cowichan Bay and meet local bike shop proprietor Robin Dutton who takes us on an evening ride that we later dub "The Descent Of One Thousand Climbs." This is not meant to be derogatory but simply a cheeky, lyrical analysis of how the fast descents sucker punch you with quick sharp climbs that have you dropping gears with thumbfulls of clink, clink—crunch.
We come across openings that roll all the way down to the bay below. Despite crosses of Christ on some of the rocks nearby, it feels as if this is the place that princesses are tossed over the side as sacrifices. Precarious outcrops give us views right down onto the lake and our residence below.
This area is comprised of all legal trails that have been around for years. A lot of building is done by a single retired man, Robin. He describes some of the building as having “interesting flow,” which makes me chuckle, but it’s not long until I see what he means. The trails do have flow, but you have to be on your toes at all times because the trail can unexpectedly go from fast, wide-open speedways to a jolting corner or a sudden climb. It's the kind of riding that makes you strong and always keeps you looking ahead.
More of the same and a dose of cheese.
The hot tub did a number on our legs last night and we feel more limber than yesterday’s riding would suggest. But just to make sure we are going for round two with Robin, the old whippet on Mount Tzouhalem. Last night it was only the brave and committed that went up against Robin's furiously paced, masochistic march but today we are bringing reinforcements.
The larger group thankfully helps tame the pace wonderfully and the pedal to the top of "Finale" is much more forgiving this time around. Again, on the way up, we comment on the number of trail entrances and trail exits we pass. The sheer amount of trail on this hill is intimidating and Robin explains it is a little bit more like the work of ADHD trail fairies that, rather than producing a cohesive symphony, has resulted in the trail equivalent of a wall of sound. Each trail is sublime on its own but the amount that criss-cross each other is mind boggling and it tends to disorient and confuse us out-of-towners. Later in the day, a small splinter group of us experience this when trying to get ourselves down the hill in time for an imminent hotel checkout without the knowledge of Robin who is leading a separate group. There are three of us in this group that rode the evening previous and we are pretty confident we can make our way out solo, but a few of the trails we drop in on actually turn out to be climbs or loops back to where we came from. Some simply lead to an ever-increasing number of left- and right-turn options. We try to follow our sense of direction, use a bit of intuition and a dose of luck, which brings us along some fantastic trail that sweeps and clambers over the rippled terrain. Eventually we find ourselves back on familiar trails, but even when we were ‘lost’ we were having a blast. The trails are pretty buff and fast-rolling, but amongst the speed and momentum are little tricky maneuvers that require both a surgeon's finesse and a wrestler's brute, which makes for quite the combo.
Lunch is spent in a delightful cheese shop where the choice of numerous cheeses from around the globe as well as locally-produced fromages has me licking my lips. I pick up a local cheese called 'You Boo Blue' and save it for later in the evening once we get to Cumberland.
Cumberland is a colorful little town also known as Dodge City. Bikers supposedly run the place, but the town has a vibrant yet calm, one-street-town feel to it. People smile warmly. The stores fronts are crafted in the Western saloon style and gaily painted. It’s the kind of place where dogs sleep on the sidewalks and the highlight of the day is when a free-spirited girl skips down the street in short denim cut-offs, smiling at all she passes—as if she's sent to bring cheer to all.
We check into the Riding Fool Hostel. Located right in the center of town it has everything we need and more. Innes and Helen run the joint and are friendly hosts who make sure bikers are well looked after. After a bit of a rest some people head out for their first taste of singletrack heaven whilst a few others rest in the evening sunlight with a few cool beers.
"Thirsty Beaver", "Teapot", "Crafty Butcher", "Space Nugget", "Black Hole". The names sound ridiculous, but the riding is supreme. An easy 10-kilometer forest road to the top is followed by a downhill worth 30 kilometers of climbing. At every group stop we are all bright eyed and high-fives abound. The trails are so good, the town so easy going—I feel like I could live a happy life here. The flowy, yet rooty trails urge you to keep the pedals turning, so the ride becomes a series of out-of-the-seat power sprint intervals—which give the legs a work out. They are the kind of trail that bring the best out of any rider, rather than punishing and relentlessly challenging them to submit. Anyone with a singletrack addiction has to check into the "Priory of Cumberland." It certainly won't cure you but it is the kind of place that accepts such junkies.
A lunch time massage soothes the lactic burn, a healthy lunch at Tarbell’s and a quick doze in the first story window of the Riding Fool Hostel gets me back to fighting fit and we head out for round two of the day on the Forbidden Plateau.
"Two Sheiks", "Cabin Fever", "Slither", "Geeko", "Transmission", "Bear Bait" take us to the Puntledge River and Nymph Falls to watch early salmon attempt a run. We crack a beer and stretch out on the warm, smooth rock next to the river and let the sound of the shallow falls abound. Then out of the corner of our eye we catch a glimpse of a black shape in amongst the white water. We focus and see another flash of ink blot black break free from the tossing turbulent water and powerfully attempt to wriggle up the fast moving water. After a short while, and only making a few meters headway the large salmon has spent all the energy for this attempt and is taken back down the river. Salmon only have the energy for twelve-second bursts and they really do try to push themselves up implausible bodies of water. I watch the same salmon try again and again and it leaves me in wonder that they have such drive and determination to achieve their goal. It reminds me of the competitive drive of some friends; something that I greatly admire but leaves me feeling tired just watching it.
5:30 a.m. and the alarm goes. I’m wide-awake but the bed is pulling at me so I don’t move. Instead I wait and listen to the sound of other rustling and the telltale sounds of the other late night, beer-fueled, dawn patrol wannabes. I’m easy either way. If we ride, then it’s going to be good. But if we don’t, then my body will appreciate the sleep. I don’t hear anything but I roll over to scan the room for activity. Situated in the arm chair, bolt-upright is Dre, smiling and silently questioning whether I’m ready to go with a finger-and-thumb-loop gesture. Does this man sleep sitting up? Has he slept? Is he just so excited that he was ready to go long before the alarm? Either way, I know it’s on.
Pale light fills the sky, but the beams aren’t blazing yet. It’s not 'til we near the top of the climb and turn due East that we see the golden shafts of light painting the islands and flushing the sea with deep, peach tones.
We get to the top of "Bear Buns", lower seats, wipe sweat and take a moment to take in the early sunlight through the trees before dropping into to singletrack hunter’s heaven. It's a perfect pumptrack where the wheels are always lent over or pumping root balls and hollows, natural jumps and berms. An unbelievable line to find, the trail builders know what they are doing here. The fun continues as we drop into "Martin’s Line" and "42nd Street/Off Broadway". Again, time has been spent finding the right line and letting the natural lay of the land do the work while the builder adds just a touch of man-made help where only absolutely necessary.
We get back to town before it is even awakes. Coffee first, then loading the van up before leaving. When will we see each other again Cumberland? I’m sure we will, but when? It might not be soon enough.
Everyone is excited about our final destination: Hornby Island. We have been told all week that if we liked the riding so far, then we will lose our mind with Hornby’s offerings. We first board an early ferry to Denman Island, where we will be staying later tonight, and then another ferry to Hornby Island for the riding.
I’m tired from days of relentless riding and the dawn patrol mission felt like the mountain biking equivalent of one last tequila shot after midnight. I’m crashing on the back seat of the truck and my heavy eyes are defeating the daylight. I even manage to sleep through a revving cement truck that is parked next to us but as soon as the ferry bumps into the dock I feel alive again. The air or the excitement of the island courses through me.
The riding is ideal for my week-long riding legs. Flowy, very buff and with no big strength maneuvers to make demands on the body, the trail is a charm. We climb gradually up Mount Geoffrey along precarious cliff edges with views west over lowland Denman Island and onwards to Mount Arrowsmith and the Beaufort Range until we reach the summit. After a short breather we descend onto "Four Dead Aliens", "Chris and Brad's", "Test-tube" and "No Horses" until we cruise "Jessy’s Trail" onto the island road and head in the direction of the bikini cyclists. We stop at a surprising oasis of fresh food and home-cooked eats where we slump into chairs and take in the mellow island vibe. We eat good food, which replenishes us, but the best is yet to come. We hear there is a beach nearby and we head that way but we hardly expect a beach that could rival any the Caribbean can offer. It's a wide, white-sand beach with long-weekend tanners draped across the their beach towels, lazing in the shallow, slack water and hopping on the sandstone shelves of rock. Sand dollars and sunfish lie on the bed of the long shallows. We lounge in the soup-warm water and have it lick the tiredness out of our muscles. But after not enough time we ride the quiet island loop road out till we turn onto the backroads forest lots of Strachan Road and climb the Summit Road.
The final descent of the week flows sublimely down to Thatch Pub where a dip in the ocean and a number of beer jugs has us feeling revived.
Back at the cottage, Greg MacDonald and Tom Skinner have been preparing a fine feast of salmon, steak, and salad but first the boyish behavior of beer-leeriness has us all dipping in the ocean and swimming in a fridge of brews. The sun falls, the food is floored and a beach fire is struck. Beers are then complimented by Crown Royale and things get livelier until we all fall dead to the world wherever we crumble until the bluest of skies and hammering headaches shake us awake. The riding is done but the journey isn’t and now we have a lazy day of ferry queues until we are all returned to our proper places and the week of riding is all memories, dirt on tires, and loam under the laces of our shoes.
Thanks to Mountain Biking BC (www.mountainbikingbc.ca) and (www.bcbikerace.com) for an incredible week of riding. One thing this trip has taught us all is that British Columbia is much more than its flagship mountain biking towns and that every little community somehow seems to have more trails than other towns of their size anywhere around the globe.