When it comes to mountain biking in Canada, February is the bottom of the barrel. It’s been months since the last sighting of a dirt trail and according to a rodent (Ground Hog Day) we are sentenced to at least six more weeks of this crap. Typically this is the time of year when fantasies of exposed skin and sweet single track, a mere thousand kilometres to the south, keep you up at night. That was then and this is now and ever since fat bikes became an option, none of the above applies. Don’t get me wrong I don’t want winter to last forever but with a half dozen groomed trail networks available on any given day to play on, we’re in no hurry. So, yes, the mid-winter bike trip is still a go but instead of dirt we set out (I know it sounds weird) in search of winter.
Last summer we had the pleasure of exploring the mountain biking opportunities in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. What we found was amazing riding and a local passion for creating more of it. Combine that dedication with Quebecer’s love for winter and there have to be fat bike trails in them hills…..
Ahhh the thrill of driving eight hours into uncertainty. You plan your trip weeks in advance then bite your nails as mother nature toys with you. It’s been a crazy winter in some ways, plenty of snow, stretches of -30C intermitted with spring-like temperatures and rain. If there is one thing that will take fat biking from sweet to crap is soft mushy trails, and right now as we head east the weather forecast is looking sketchy.Plein Air Sutton
Typically a mid-February visit to Sutton would include skis strapped to the roof, not bicycles. The Plein Air Sutton organization jumped head first into mountain bike trail development over the past few years. Under the supervision of determined leadership and an equally passionate group of volunteers, Sutton is a mountain biking destination to keep an eye on. Once a rider, always a rider and I would expect nothing less when it comes to the winter season. Seeing a SnowDog and a fleet of rentals in front of the office confirm my expectations. Unfortunately, the weather does not cooperate feeling more like April than February, the mushy trail conditions turned our smiles upside down. Try we did, managing to smash some soft snow berms and leaving a five-inch zigzagging trench in the trail, luckily that SnowDog will erase all signs of our intrusion before things freeze up.Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook
A summer favourite, the trails at Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook are supported by a strong local cycling community so I would be surprised if the area’s winter offerings would be anything less than awesome. Looks like another SnowDog roams the forest here, buffing the trails into a winter playground. As luck would have it the annual La Creature fat biking festivities are on the agenda at the park today with guided tours, a cross-country race in the morning and a dual slalom event in the afternoon. Overnight the weather turned to perfection, temperatures dropped, blue skies and sunshine provided the backdrop for an awesome day of fat biking.Mont-Bellevue - Sherbrooke
With views of Sherbrooke below, Mont-Bellevue offers the kind of inner-city adventure playground that makes all who visit envious. If you have had the pleasure to ride here in the summer you are well aware of the fun factor and winter just carries on that tradition. Flowy single-track, berms, jumps and a few spots left el natural to challenge our skill and studded tires. Behind every snow packed trail, there is a person, or a few, with a driving passion to spend late cold nights grooming the trails for our enjoyment. From what we heard the Mont-Bellevue groomer seems to be a legend in the making. I didn’t catch his name but will call him Big Red in reference to the old school Honda three-wheeler, which he turned into a two-wheel motorized fat bike which is the tool of choice for trail grooming missions. If you spot him, a fist pump and a thank you is in order.Parc national du Mont-Orford
So far on this trip, we have enjoyed the trails in the company of a few. A stark contrast to the buzz of activity as we arrive at Parc national du Mont-Orford; cross-country skiers, snowshoers, fat bikers, families with kids of all ages in tow, the cafeteria echoes with the chatter of fun, you can almost inhale the energy. The park is in the second season of a fat biking pilot project and the activity is a hit. The rental fleet of bikes is most of the time reserved in advance, and the phone calls and inquiries just keep on coming. The energy around the lodge quickly dissipates as you dive into the forest. There is a short machine groomed loop for beginners but the main loop is old school, packed down by snowshoers and I must say in as good shape as any machine groomed trail I have experienced. No city views here just a backcountry vibe and the odd glimpses of Mont-Orford in the distance. Bromont
With warm temperatures and rain threatening our last day, we waste no time hitting the trails in Bromont. First, it’s Mont Oak a compact system of a beautifully groomed single track. With flow, berms and jump lines, you are only limited by your leg’s willingness to propel you upward for another lap. Next, we head uphill. The trails bordering the Bromont ski resort are by no means a secret but you will benefit from some local knowledge. We climb in search of views, enjoy first tracks in some fresh powder and let it rip top to bottom.
Not done yet, a quick lunch and we end the day at a near pump track, a fantastic day on the bike that rivals anything that summer can throw at you.
All of the above-mentioned trail networks are within an hour and a bit driving time of each other. Taking advantage of the area’s already established winter tourism infrastructure developed around skiing, accommodations and activities abound. Pick a central location as your base and explore for days. I will admit, I was not an early fat bike convert, this being only my second season aboard the big tire cycle but I am sold now and already looking forward to next winter’s fat bike road trip adventure.Notes From The Road
Bike trips are about biking but there is life beyond the trail so here is the nitty-gritty. We spent the first two nights in Sutton at the cozy Auberge des Appalaches Inn. All you need under one roof, comfortable rooms, a lodge-like common area with couches and a fireplace, in-house restaurant so popular with guest and locals that if you don’t reserve you’ll be out of luck, and even a bar with local brews on tap. On the go or on a budget, a pizza at Le 54 Pizzeria Rôtisserie is delicious as are the after ride pints at A L’Abordage.
Night’s three and four were at the Grand Times Hotel Sherbrook, a stunning urban display of concrete, steel and glass with spectacular sunset views of Mont Orford in the distance. Long day on the trail means food on the go, some nearby Thai food from Thaizone hit the spot. Breakfast is included and they let us bring the bikes up to our room. Sherbrook looks like a cool town, wish we had more time to check it out. If you require a guide to show you around Parc national du Mont-Orford we had the pleasure of spending the afternoon with Sébastien and Samuel Perron from local guiding service EPIQ.
Last day, Bromont, lunch was at West Shefford, tasty burger and a fine pint. For the dinner and tonight’s accommodations, Hôtel Château-Bromont, always a pleasure. So close to the ski slope you can almost hear the swoosh; if it wasn’t for the rain we would be sooo tempted to hit the slopes for some night skiing.
Special thanks to RSD Bikes
and Tourisme Eastern Townships
for the assistance in making this adventure happen.