Mountain biking on Vancouver’s North Shore

Known simply as the ‘Shore’, Vancouver’s fabled North Shore is a magnet for mountain bikers and has established itself worldwide as a gnarly destination. Its international fanbase will argue the vast terrain provides an unforgettable insight into the closest thing to flying on two wheels.

Resident Rick Loader visited more than 10 years ago and liked what he found criss-crossing Cypress Mountain, Mt Fromme and Mt Seymour so much, he had to move there. An assault course of rock-strewn trails, gap jumps, spines and logs, the shore is not for the faint-hearted.

It’s just so steep here. It scares [people],” Loader says. “You need a certain amount of balls.” Mountain biking also requires huge focus as riders reach high speeds in the tree-flanked runs. Adrenaline and exertion make for a heady combination.
“It’s a ridiculous test of physical fatigue and mental tenacity. You get into a flow or a cocoon. It definitely gives you a high,” Loader says.

Fellow Shore mountain biker and ex-pro Kenny Maude readily agrees: “It’s almost spiritual in a lot of ways. You have to put yourself in a certain mindset.””

Roots, boulders, steps and super steep lines are challenges enough, but the rain is what sorts the men from the boys, and Maude’s eyes light up at the mention of moisture. The real riders on the Shore are the guys who will get out there in the mud and when it’s at its gnarliest,” he says.

He glances at the permanent calluses on his hands as he describes the elements of hardened bikers. The key attribute is the ability to take the demanding punishment the Shore dishes out. “We’re durable. We know how to fall,” Maude says. “We are still here because we know how to crash. We will go there [on the trails], going ‘one of us is probably going to crash once tonight’.”

The first trails were built in the late 1980s and local legend Todd Fiander, known as Digger, was instrumental in transforming the old-growth forest into a mountain biking haven. Possibly the builders of some of the sickest trails on the planet, Digger and other founders have established a style of trail building that took off around the world.

The mountain bike trails were kept a secret from outsiders for a long time. However, local mountain bike shops now sell route maps.

Loader enthuses about the amount of effort that goes into constructing the trails and cites instances of 100 people turning up to working bees. They include those from all walks of life – lawyers, bike techs, young children, teenagers and 50-year-olds, all pitching in to improve their playground. “It’s not just a bunch of punk kids chucking a lot of timber around in the wood,” Loader says.

Mountain biking is evident in the community, with neighbourhood centres offering programmes and teams riding in all the North Shore schools. Bikers are a common sight on the Shore’s streets, pedalling their weary way home after taking on a trail. Some bear smiles – others, tattered clothing or skin.

Loader takes mountain biking classes in which participants, range from 4 to 60 years old, and there is an average gender mix of 60% male to 40% female. He describes with obvious pleasure the pride he feels watching people overcome their fear and achieve their goals.

I decide to conquer mine and take my bike into the heart of the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, which is apparently popular with hikers and film crews. It’s easy to see why, as I watch riders decked out in leg, arm and back protectors while they hurtle through the mountain’s nether regions.

The riders resemble armadillos on fast-forward as they bomb off rocks and fly over impossibly narrow spine structures. Most of their bikes have full suspension with up to 22cm of travel in the front and rear shocks to absorb the crazy drops and tabletops that punctuate each trail.

Vastly inexperienced, for me the exhilaration is incredible as I fly through the steep embankments dodging shifting shale rock and accelerating into corners. Elation heightens then swiftly releases as I clutch too hard at the hydraulic brakes. My front tyres lock and I somersault over my handlebars. The sensation is similar to having my shoulders run through a cheese grater and I rise to find a small piece of Shore stone embedded in my shoulder as a keepsake.

Limping sorrowfully down the mountain, I encounter a daredevil female padded to the nines and she stops long enough to impart some cheerful advice. “Don’t worry mate – if you aren’t bleeding, you aren’t having fun.”

A glance at the red stream steadily flowing down my shoulder assures me that I am having an absolute ball and I manage to squeeze out a smile.

Back at one of the Shore’s main bike stores, where his work and his passion co-exist, Maude describes his favourite way to end a ride. It involves manoeuvring his way through dense scrub to find a hidden treasure: a 20m gap jump built by Digger, the whereabouts of which have been released to a select few. He hits it, soars and emerges back on trail – his fix satiated.

Maude’s story attracts a group of co-workers, who listen enviously. One asks me how my biking is coming along. I rather proudly roll up my sleeve to display my shoulder wound and receive murmurs of admiration from the circle of mountain biking men. One winks at me and says what every mountain biking girl needs to hear: “Scars on chicks are sexy.””