We’re losing light. Faster, faster. Dust clouds roiling around my ankles, can’t see, keep going. No one willing to stop and pull out their headlamp and kill the last shreds of night vision pushed to its limits. The body and bike reacting to unseen rocks and deep pits of dusty turns, riding by braille in the failing dusk. Lights through the trees, sounds of laughter echoing from below. We burst from the forest into the warm glow of a streetlight – thieves in the night stealing one last lap from the day that should never have been ours. For a few minutes we were alone on the trails, other riders with a better sense of when to call it a day already sitting back with a cold beer at the Lion’s Head Pub. We’d only been in Castlegar for a few hours, but the quick evening lap set the pace for the next 7 days.
As we drove up the Crowsnest Highway to Castlegar with regular trip leaders Darren Butler and Kelli Sherbinin of Endless Biking and Martin Littlejohn of Mountain Biking BC, I had gotten to know this year’s Bikes and Beer Tour winner a bit better. Anthony Bousetta is a French transplant that was drawn to BC by what he saw in mountain bike videos growing up. He would re-watch downhill racers railing a corner in a film over and over again, dissecting the minutiae of their technique to perfect his own. “I don’t think it made me faster, but I loved it” he laughed. As he wore down his rewind button over the years, one place kept popping up in the videos: Squamish, Whistler, Kamloops, Nelson, Vancouver – everything that inspired him to ride seemed to be coming from British Columbia. He finally decided to uproot his life and chase the mountain bike dream in BC.
I had met Anthony a few times before as we crisscrossed paths working at enduro races through BC’s interior, so I had some idea what my legs were in for. Nicknamed Pocket-Pie Man for the ludicrous number of pocket-pies that fuel his rides, Anthony seems to be perpetually driven to go faster, further, harder. This trip was a warm up for a challenge he was taking on when he returned to Vancouver. The infamous Triple Crown involves riding all three North Shore Mountains in a single day, and is held as an accomplishment of high regard for any rider. Anthony is planning the Double Triple Crown – riding all three mountains twice in a single non-stop push, undoubtedly fueled by a few dozen pocket pies. Anthony and his plus-one, Blaise Ratcliffe, were both extremely skilled and fit riders, so I suspected this trip was going leave my legs screaming for respite before the end.
The storm that pelted the coast slowly backed off as the Kootenays rose around us, darkening that first evening ride with unsettled skies. The next morning the weather held for our first full day on the trip and we drove up to the Merry Creek trail system. From the very first bridge on the climb trail to the very last jump of the day, you could tell this was a town rife with folks who knew how to handle a saw. Come for the trails, stay for the details: every piece of woodwork was beautifully milled beams and planks, either crafted onsite using downed timber or down at the town’s mill and hauled up onto location. Climbing the mountain, it was difficult not to stop at every bridge and admire the handiwork that had gone into the rope railings or the custom metal brackets bolted to cliff faces or the artisanal chainsaw work.
A quick blue warm-up lap up Merry Go Round and down Hail Merry, and we set off on the newly completed route to the summit. A two-way trail, Mr. Green Jeans climbs beautifully up into the lichen-clad subalpine forests above Castlegar, and gives intermediate riders the opportunity to experience a moderate climb with a casual descent back out. We decided against retracing our steps and dropped into Captain Kangaroo instead. The trail keeps an excellent natural feel to it, picking its way through deep loamy trees and technical rock gardens back down to the rest of the trail network. Out the bottom and we were on to Crazy Merry to check out some of the big features that we’d caught teasing glimpses of through the trees on our morning warm-up lap. More amazing woodwork was on show right out of the gate on Crazy Merry as two timber step-ups lead riders into a long chain of fast berms, doubles, hips, and amazing rock features back to the parking lot. Unfortunately our plan to ride every trail in the network in a day was shelved by a long session on the step-ups and our tight schedule. We packed up, waved goodbye and motored on towards Cranbrook.
After an informative tour through the restaurant’s brewery (IPAs are best enjoyed fresh fresh fresh!) we sat down to an amazing meal at The Heid Out overseen by the eponymous Heidi Romich herself. If one makes only a single stop in Cranbrook, it would be a disservice to oneself not to make it at The Heid Out/Fisher Brewing. With a worldly menu that combines recipes cultivated from international traditional family recipes and Red Seal chefs, the food here is good enough to bring on bitter disappointment when the stomach is too full to eat any more. Over dinner, we chatted with the Executive Director of Tourism, Kristy Jahn-Smith. “We’re starting to understand what the return on a fraction of the investment that goes into traditional team sports can bring a community” she tells us, explaining that compared to say, an ice rink, the economic benefits of that money going into trail networks can be incredibly high. “We’re seeing a demand for trail networks – there’s a huge opportunity there.” With regard to mountain biking, Cranbrook is in a development phase. “We’re looking around at what other towns have done and are trying to figure out ‘What makes us different, what sets us apart?’”. One thing the town has realized it has in spades is accessibility – the trails already in place around town are the perfect network for progression from beginners to advanced intermediate riders. An extensive network of smooth, low angle climbing and descending trails is interspersed with featured, natural trails that provide enough opportunities for new riders to push their skills in an encouraging way while still providing lots of fun for more seasoned riders.
The next day, Ryan and Gemma Hamilton of the Wild Horse Cycling Club took us on a tour of the Cranbrook Community Forest. North of the highway, the trial network forms a series of nested and interconnected loops draped over a long, low ridgeline. We climbed Chewbacca Rocka until we broke from the open trees into rolling meadows with incredible views of the Rockies to the east. These northern trails provide more than enough terrain for a moderately new rider to feel like they’ve covered some serious distance without ever getting too deep into the wilderness. We dropped back down to the freeway and crossed to the southern trail network, heading to one of the local favorites: Green Chicken. From rolling grassy fields to steep rock rolls and snappy berms, the trail perfectly suited the niche the town had identified. With only half a day to explore, we had to be satisfied with just scratching the surface of Cranbrook’s trails and headed off down the highway to Kimberley for afternoon turns.
We met Jesse Berg of the Kimberley Trail Society at the Bootleg Mountain trail system to show us around. Winding out way up their new climb trail, it’s easy to see how much work has been put into these trails in recent years. “It’s only been in developing in earnest in the past four years” he tells us, though with almost a dozen interconnected trails, the network feels like a much more established zone. The highest trail, Snow Mexican, takes riders on a 900m descent from sub-alpine, technical fall-line rock faces and catch berms down into high speed machine-built jumps and berms once the gradient eases off. The lower trails are thick with jumps, interweaving lines, high speed berms and fun rollers. The builders here definitely had the word “playful” held in their minds through development. We finished the afternoon on Pinch and Roll, a rehabilitated legacy trail which challenges riders to link up an endless chain of sniper doubles that keep your tires off the ground as much as on it. Far too soon, the afternoon waned and we grudgingly loaded back into the Endless Biking van and drove off into the night for Invermere.
We woke in Invermere to find that the brooding clouds that had been peeking shiftily at us over the mountains for the past few days had rallied and had come crowding in overnight. We met local legends Lorraine Blancher and TJ Neault in the Mt Swansea parking lot and headed up the climb trail towards dark clouds. Just as we hit the newly refurbished upper half of the climb trail, the skies opened up and we experienced one of Invermere’s rare summer rain storms. As the heavy drops pelted down, Lorraine explained the plan for the climb trail – many of the older, steep sections are in the process of being re-routed, making the fairly challenging climb into something far more enjoyable. Meandering through lichen-encrusted forests, the new sections were easy to spot, with perfect gradient and modern sustainable construction between short, punchy climbs, it was evident how much work had gone into almost 7 km of trail that climbed to the lower summit of Swansea. Taking in what we imagined to be an amazing view beyond the rain clouds, we quickly kitted up and dropped into South Park for 5 km of high-speed berms, jumps and rollers in a muddy giggle-fest back down the mountain. Just before the car, we side-stepped into Meat Grinder, a trail which nobody that had been down it before was willing to give us any beta on. “Just drop in and ride it.” Darren said, grinning. Only a good hundred meters long, the trail ricochets down a narrow canyon, made that much more treacherous in the wet – sharp walls lean in to snag and chew up any inattentive rider, making the trail’s name seem very real. After a quick lunch in the sunshine to dry out our bones and gear, we packed into TJ’s truck for a quick shuttle-lap to finish off the day – climbing the final push of the climb trail to the false summit again, we veered off onto Upper Dirty Monkey and careened down steep muddy chutes until the mountain leveled off some and the trail gave way to massive berms and jumps and a few buttery road-gaps to boot. Back at the Endless van, we peeled off wet gear and raised a beer to the rain gods that saw fit to hold back for the last half of the day. With no travel that evening, we happily nestled into an evening of delicious cuisine slung by the infamous Ullr Bar in downtown Invermere, and local brews from Arrowhead Brewing.
The next morning we headed to Radium for breakfast with Kent Kebe. Through his work at Radium Tourism, Kent has seen a surge in mountain biking interest from tourists in town. “People asking about mountain biking is almost as frequent as people asking about hiking” he tells me over my plate of waffles. People driving through all these small towns chasing the bigger, more famous mountain biking destinations are starting to stop in and ask about the riding in corners they might not have heard about before in order to avoid the crowds. This is bringing attention to oft overlooked parts of the province, but it’s also a cultural shift in mountain biking that connects riders with the deeper exploratory roots of the sport. After breakfast we headed east for a foray in Nipika Mountain Resort. Nestled on the edge of Kootenay National Park, the resort boasts a dense network of rolling trails along the Kootenay and Cross rivers. With waterfalls and stunning views bursting through every gap in the trees, you should plan to take three times longer than you normally would for any given distance to allow for the frequency of stops and magnitude of awe. Our need for beautiful river scenery satisfied, we loaded into the van and rolled onwards towards Kelowna, leaving the solitude of Nipika for the bustle of the city.
The chain of small towns we’d been exploring made us feel a bit out of place in Kelowna, so we had a quick parking lot bakery picnic and pedaled off into Rose Valley to escape into the wilderness. As we ascended Daze of Roses, or “99 Switchbacks” as a local in the parking lot called it, views over Okanagan Lake opened up, revealing towering thunderheads rising across the lake. At the summit we stopped to relax in the sunshine as thunder rolled across the valley, a grey veil of rain obscuring the other side of town and our riding destination for later that afternoon. We dropped into City On The Edge Of Forever, a trail that cascades down the steep mountainside, testing your ability to navigate flat 180 degree switchbacks full of loose pebbles. Midway down, the trail loops through an amazing feature: a natural stone arch the can just be ridden under if you duck low. Pedaling back through the trails along Rose Valley Lake, we were treated to a fun sequence of rock rolls, berms and g-out dips through dry gullies. With the looming rainstorm drawing close, we ran for shelter in a taco shop downtown and let the midday storm pass over. With bellies full of pico de gallo and mole poblano, we headed for the brightening eastern shores of Okanagan lake to check out the Gillard riding area. Starting down Sloam from the top of the mountain, we were instantly at home: wet roots below and lush green leaves above from the morning’s storm made it feel more like Coast riding than the dust bowl riders are usually treated to midsummer in the interior. The bushes closed in and we lost ourselves in the tunnel of green: deep loam cushioned off-camber root corners, letting the bike drift and recover with a life of its own. Exploding out the bottom like so many cannon-balls, we pedaled over to Dr. No and were treated to one of the most interesting trails of the trip. Leading down through a series of rock bluffs and lush canyons, the trail makes incredible use of unique microterrain – threading down slot canyons barely wide enough to fit a bike and working its way down rocky ledges, it works its way down through what seems like un-rideable terrain. With a little more juice still left in our legs, we shuttled back up to Oblivion for a last sunset lap. The trail offers beautiful views as it weaves down through an old burn, the new wildflowers offering stark contrast to the black snags left standing by the inferno. As blue hour closed in, we coasted out to the van to watch alpenglow fade to dusk with a cold beer in hand, then headed to BNA Brewing Co. & Eatery downtown to put our feet up and reflect on the day’s stunning terrain.
The next morning, we packed up and headed out to Merritt, our final stop on the trip. When we arrived, the storm system that had been shadowing us the entire trip set up camp across the valley and grumbled distant thunder at us. A quick lap of Coutlee Plateau featured beautiful rolling trails weaving through grassland meadows and pine forests. Descending off the plateau to the northeast, we dropped into Burn and Windy Canyon. Though the descent is short, the trail contains an amazing variety of terrain: terrifyingly fast grassland singletrack drops into tight gully berms, which drops further into a deep rock-walled slot canyon. Out of the canyon, more tight and fast gully berms lead out to the final grassland flats back to parking area. We checked into our hotel and set out to meet Travis, owner of Breathe Bikes for an evening pedal up the lower part of Iron Mountain. The relaxing pedal up Too Much Info, the mountain’s lower climb trail, took us through seas of bright lichen and moss. Weaving back and forth across the mountain, the trail gives you an opportunity to check out sections of many of the lower trails as you crisscross the network. From the top, we descended down Ridge, a trail packed to the brim with fun rock rolls, berms, jumps, and sinuous sidehill. Showing up at Empty Keg Brew House just prior to closing, we frantically rushed inside hoping to snag one quick pint. However, we opened the doors on a relaxed and full house, Brewmaster Kyle Hall smiling behind the counter at our hurry. “We’ll close when people are done” he said, welcoming us to order pizza and stay as long as we pleased. Vancouver, this is not.
The next morning, nursing our “as long as we pleased” hangovers, we dragged ourselves into the van and Travis shuttled us up for our final lap of the trip from the top of Iron Mountain. Slamming some electrolytes, we shook ourselves awake and checked out the map. Anthony grinned, seeing the chain of red and orange double-diamond trails that worked their way from summit almost to the very base of the mountain. As things get steeper, Anthony gets happier, and I have yet to witness that formula approaching any theoretical limit - falling out of an airplane with his bike might be quickest path to Nirvana for the Frenchman. Dropping into Upper Revival, the mountain shows its character almost immediately – steep rock faces and technical wood work greased by overnight rain tried desperately to make you question your life choices. Continuing down through Mid Revival, Cowshit ‘N Sticks, and The Tyrant, we were provided a constant supply of jumps, steep chutes and cliffs that some sadist ran the trail down. The trails wound down precipitous gullies that leave you unsure if you could actually stop if you felt so inclined. With brakes whimpering in submission, we made our way down the steeps, our bodies leaving the last remnants of the evening’s debauchery in a wake of deep, damp loam and tumbling pebbles. In the parking lot of the old visitor center where the trails spit out, we took in the location. Looking back up at the unassuming mountain, I would have never guessed it would hide some of the best steep riding I’ve ever done. The visitor center’s iconic red roof was always a landmark that I drove by on the freeway or saw briefly as I pulled off in Merritt for the requisite stop-over at the Kekuli Café for bannock on my way to other destinations. Had I known what gems this town and others on the trip held, I would have made it a destination instead of a waypoint on a longer drive.
Driving back along the Coquihala Highway to Vancouver, the thunderheads that had been circling us the entire trip finally closed in. Deafening rain and hail pelted the van as we dozed, trickles of Kootenay dust and loam washed from the bikes running down the windows. After eight days of riding, we had filled in many of the gaps this trip had left in its wake while bouncing through better-known locations. These corners of the map feed a core aspect of mountain biking: adventure. Going somewhere that everyone knows, everyone has ridden, and you’ve heard about a thousand times can be a great experience, but the true virtue of these vehicles is how they let you explore the world with an efficiency and style not otherwise possible. Stop over at that little path you see working its way into the woods and go explore. Ride at night. Pull into a random town and ask what trails they’ve got. Take the path less ridden and maybe, like the steeps in Merritt, you’ll find some beasts in the mist. Here be monsters.