“We’re really proud of what we have here.” I believe it. I’m at the Valleé Bras-du-Nord trail centre speaking with its director Frédéric Asselin. The scene isn’t exactly what I expected when I sat down to chat about bike trails in Quebec. We’re sitting in a well-worn brewpub; blues and twangy country lazily emanate over the speakers (10:14am and our coffee cups are generously filled—10:14 am, not exactly beer o'clock). This is my first visit to Quebec—in fact, it’s the first visit for most of us on this trip, so everything is new to me: the place names, the noticeable abundance of snack shacks, the trail culture. I had no idea what to expect and I’m sufficiently blown away by Valleé Bras-du-Nord. Centred around a hotel and a brewpub, two dense trail networks give the sense of a true riding destination.
We’ve heard that the wider Quebec trail region has been evolving quickly over the last few years. Listening to Frédéric’s enthusiasm, organization and vision, the reason for the buzz is clear. Things are happening here.
Most of the people on this trip call Canada’s West Coast home and visiting Quebec is fresh territory. The exceptions? Georgia Astle and Forrest Riesco. Georgia, a Whistler local, was most recently in Quebec to race the 2016 UCI World Cup at Mont-Sainte-Anne, placing seventh in her category. Forrest is one of the fastest DH racers in Canada, and has raced all seven rounds of the World Cup circuit—Mont-Sainte-Anne included—while turning out amazing video edits. They each have a soft spot for the Mont-Sainte-Anne downhill course (and can describe it in painstakingly precise detail). But ask them to name a single trail network in the surrounding area, and they come up with a blank.
I guess that’s the trouble with meccas. If somewhere as well-known as Mont-Sainte-Anne starts to become lore, the trail areas that surround it can get overshadowed. The same idea applies to mountain biking in Canada, more generally.
Canada has some of the most diverse riding in the world, yet it’s easy to get stuck in our own little trail bubbles or opt to fixate on well-established networks, the pillars, the essentials. Must-do trails are must-dos for a reason, but with trail building efforts exponentially rising across the country, there’s a lot to see that would be easy to overlook. Full disclosure: this trip to Quebec is an MEC-led operation, and one of the reasons we’ve headed east from Vancouver is to rip a few Intense bikes
; the Recluse, Spider, and ACV (if we may be so bold to drop a few lightweight carbon fibre names). So there’s a degree of exploratory selfishness. But there’s also a good bout of investigative work going on here too.
What are we checking out? Well, for decades, MEC’s helped fund trail building grants to Canadian mountain bike groups everywhere from the North Shore in B.C. to kickstarting trails up north in the Yukon, and loads of trail networks from east to west. Since these trails are all across Canada, we rarely get a chance to see first-hand what gets developed, let alone what the trails are like. Reports come to us second-hand (or even third or fourth). So this is a chance to ride trails we had a small hand in making, and to see for ourselves what the buzz building in this region is about. But first, we need a guide…
Meet our guide, Gabriel. We could’ve easily used Trailforks
, but there’s a lot to be said for getting shown around by someone who knows the region on a deeply personal level. Born and raised in Quebec, Gabriel Gakwaya’s been riding out here for years (and spent time working for MEC and riding in B.C. along the way). There’s no better person to show us around. Having ridden extensively on either side of the country, Gabriel takes the role of showcasing his home region seriously. Quebec has historically produced XC trails, but the creation of steeper, more gravity-fed trails has spiked in the last couple of years. The night before our first day of riding, it’s clear that Gabriel seeks to drill that point home.
He’s thought everything through. Personalized Trailforks maps to set different riders up with different routes. Post-ride recommendations. Special access to some in-development trails. Interview hook-ups with trail directors. Gabriel isn’t a trail director here, but it’s clear he knows the main people involved in the riding community. He also knows the area like the back of his hand, and every local rider we talk to seems to have a different Gabriel tale.
More than that, though, you get a strong sense of pride, collective ownership, and an accountability to sell the vision of this place. He emphasizes how much has changed and how quickly the regions have expanded.Day One: Sentiers du Moulin
Sentiers du Moulin has been around for a while and is a pillar of the riding scene here. Its XC roots are, apparently, deep; rolling up, we see folks in spandex unloading sub-12kg XC bikes. The region’s been known here for stellar XC riding. Recently, though, things have developed into more.
LB-Cycle and LBC 2 are two trails that best demonstrate this shift. They were both created in areas that were previously considered “unbuildable” by builders and riders in the community, and they represent the changing trail character of the Quebec region. LB-Cycle, named for a group of friends that had been riding and building in the area (the LB is for Lac-Beauport), definitely has steeper lines and more technical features. It took 300-400 volunteer building hours, per trail, to bring the LB Cycle trails to life.
It was a slow build to this point. Sentiers du has been known as a snowshoeing and cross-country ski area since the 1990s and the first single track trail (Poule-à-ski, a play on pulaski) didn’t emerge until 2006. Ride Sentiers du Moulin and two adjectives come to mind: rocky and rooty. But what defines the area’s character makes it difficult as hell to build trails. When I meet Éric, one of the network’s coordinators, our “how’s it going” conversation quickly delves into a nuanced history lesson.
I knew there were unique hurdles to building here opposed to western Canada, but I didn’t quite all the complexities until I heard the whole story. To make bike trails happen, large-scale groups—often involving landowners, businesses, and mountain bikers—get established. In this area, the land was privately owned until the municipality bought it back for recreation. Biking, hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing all happen in this area. The ongoing success of Sentiers du Moulin is, in large part, a result of the surrounding municipality contributing funds to keep it protected. It’s also why granting and funding opportunities keep them going.
Despite funding and land-use complications, there’ve been huge gains and big plans are in store: a new center/area is set to be created in 2017, while a winter fat bike trail is in the works complete with snow-sculpted berms and features. That said, Sentiers du Moulin has also earned its success on its own terms, and LB-Cycle and LBC 2 have created a healthy dose of hype.
There’s no one trail network here that rises above all others to become the crown jewel. Even Mont-Sainte-Anne—despite housing a world-class DH course—is experiencing some growing pains. Instead, there’s something bigger going on.
If building a trail here is the collective effort of different stakeholders, then you could say the same for building Quebec as an overall MTB destination. While there’s a healthy degree of competition between different trail networks, there’s also solid collaboration. It’s as though each area recognizes that working with neighbouring networks boosts the credibility of the Q.C. bike scene, all while fuelling the tourism industry (a key economic driver in the province). Each area offers something unique, a slightly different experience, a specific character.
Highlights at Sentiers du Moulin are, of course, LB-Cycle and LBC 2. Forrest and Georgia describe them like Mont-Sainte-Anne in miniature form, capturing the spirit that makes the bigger race course great. A smaller group of us scope the more XC focussed trails. Éric joins us riding for a bit and you can tell he’s pleased to see us shredding and enjoying the place. Before we know it, the riding’s done for the day and Gabriel helps sort out refueling logistics. Food, beer, bed.Day Two: Vallée Bras-du-Nord
Perhaps predictably, the night before goes later than expected. Gabriel’s recommended beer stop didn’t disappoint (neither did the campfire). Add in an ambitious order of poutine and chicken courtesy of the legendary Quebec chain, St-Hubert, and day two starts later than expected. Strong coffee and a playlist with everything from Wu-Tang to Kenny G shakes us into gear. Today, we’re heading to Vallée Bras-du-Nord, an essential player in the Quebec trail scene. We chug the last drips of coffee, crack our knuckles, pack our bags.
It’s about an hour northeast of Quebec City in the small community of Saint-Raymond. I manage to meet with Frédéric, the director I introduced at the beginning of this story. The VBN office turns out to be an expansive centre with a brewpub, restaurant, info desk, and accommodations. Saint-Raymond is just one arm of the region, too; there’s also the Shannahan Sector.
Frédéric’s been with Vallée Bras-du-Nord for about 15 years, first as a trail builder and coordinator of the youth program, now as the director. He speaks casually yet strategically and carries himself with a certain measured assuredness and charm. As we chat about Vallée Bras-du-Nord, he navigates me through the complex structure and model that VBN is built around. Kicked off in 2002, it’s a solidarity co-op model with three kinds of memberships: workers (trail builders and other employees), landowners and tourism groups. Much like Sentiers du Moulin, Vallée Bras-du-Nord’s scale expands far beyond mountain biking.
After the lowdown on how these trails came together, we head to Shannahan to ride. Geographically, it’s in a realm similar to Sentiers du Moulin, but this place couldn’t feel more different. To everyone’s West Coast delight, maple syrup traps—elevated, small pipes running from trees to giant basins—hover over many of the approach trails. We detour to whoop through a few more moderate blue trails, and it’s all buttery, bermy, fast flow. Eventually, we link up with a shuttle to check out the area’s more progressive, gravity-driven terrain.
Frédéric explains that these outstanding trails are the work of the unique public outreach program. The first mountain bike trails were built quite recently, around 2008. There are influences and nods to the west coast or beyond, but it’s still a network that feels distinctly Quebec. Informed minds are behind it all, and the hands that actually help make plans happen also help distinguish the area further. At Vallée Bras-du-Nord, a program connects at-risk youth from the surrounding area to assist with trail building and maintenance, and it’s had some real success in the community.
The theme of collaboration runs deep, and the entire VBN co-operative leverages a progressive structure. The model’s been highly successful and MEC set up the region with multiple grants that helped them get further support. Ultimately, Frédéric explains, the idea is to develop the region as a destination that links to surrounding areas, Sentiers du Moulin and Mont-Sainte-Anne.
Our bikes handle everything with pace and grace, each in their own way. Georgia’s Spider weaves and bobs through tight singletrack and down techy rock gardens with spritely ease. Meanwhile, Gabriel’s burly ACV gives off a curious, almost mellow degree of pace and confidence. Excited debriefs follow after every shred.
The highlight of the area is, undoubtedly, Neilson—a delirious, flowy trail that beautifully descends along the Neilson River. At 10km, it’s long enough to lull you into a trail trance and involved enough to keep you focussed.
There’s a bustle to Vallée Bras-du-Nord; a bike shop, coffee shop, and visitor centre greet you in the parking lot. Trails are meticulously marked and the whole experience has a charm and allure that’s entirely its own. As daylight dwindles, we take a winding, short drive back to the Saint-Raymond sector and cultural hub of VBN: the Roquemont brew pub and hotel. With countless poutines, microbrews, and menu items to scope, Gabriel once again acts as our trusty guide. Sufficiently fed and tired, we retire far earlier than the night before. Day 3: Mont-Sainte-Anne
If legend exists in the Quebec mountain bike world, this is it. Notoriously technical and a fan favourite for well over 20 years, both Georgia and Forrest peg Mont-Sainte-Anne as one of their preferred courses to race. Maybe it suits their riding swagger (they’ve both placed well here) or maybe it’s a source of Canadian pride. Either way, with Georgia, Forrest and—at risk of generalizing—riders across Canada, Mont-Sainte-Anne is the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to Quebec mountain biking.
We’re here mid-week, so there’s a bit of a ghost town vibe to Mont-Sainte-Anne resort. That’s typical for this time of the week or the off-season, but it’s nonetheless an interesting contrast to the other areas we’ve recently visited. We pack in what we can in the morning. An eyebrow-raising run of the DH course is proposed on the Recluse; Forrest jumps the gate ramp to flat and then sends Steve Smith’s Drop. Lunch goes long under the gondola and the afternoon definitely skews more lifestyle than shred-style.
We rip the pump track, Forrest attempts (and succeeds) at clearing Gabriel’s bike as he rides out of a berm, and Georgia bombs a video interview four times in a row (she swears it was still funny the fourth time). After three full days, we pack up earlier than expected and decide to hit up Quebec City for the rest of the afternoon.
That’s the other thing that makes riding here an experience; from any of these areas, we’re just a short drive from historic Quebec City. The shift from berms and flow to 300+-year-old stone buildings and ringing church bells only takes 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the network you’re riding. You’re not just traveling for mountain biking, you’re traveling for something else.
With bikes and gear stashed, we spend the last few hours of daylight wandering the streets of Quebec in visitor-mode, passing steep walkways by the arresting Ramparts with multiple languages buzzing around us.
Exploring this place is new and exciting—I’m stoked we had the chance to meet locals, learn a bit about what goes into making this a riding destination, and get a hint of what might be coming for these areas. It’s a representation of how much potential there is for riding across Canada and gives a small sense of how quickly things can evolve in places that, until this trip, weren’t even on our mental trail map of places to ride.
One thing we all realized? When you’re traveling to ride bikes somewhere new, the allure of trails has the ability to make you feel, strangely, at home anywhere. Discovering these networks, hearing the stories, and visiting this city was powerful stuff, and surely, it’s going to bring most of us back. In short, ride your bike here.
Have a Canadian trail project or mountain bike organization and looking for funding? Apply to the MEC community investment program
.Sentiers du Moulin Trails Sentiers du Moulin mountain biking trailsVallée Bras-du-Nord Trails Vallée Bras-du-Nord mountain biking trailsMont-Sainte-Anne Trails Mont-Sainte-Anne mountain biking trails
Photos by: Sterling Lorence
Video by: Matt Dennison
Words by: Jonathan Johnson