I couldn't help but to notice
the dichotomy between the line of cars entering America from Canada, and Canada from the States. Well, there wasn't really one at all on the southbound side, but the wait at the gate was more than half an hour for those of us headed north. I was spending my July 4th on the road, headed to our neighbors up north to spend the week exploring the various trail networks that surround Quebec City. When the Canadian Customs agent asked me why there were two bikes on the back of my car, but only one person inside, I gave pause before telling her I wasn't really sure what I was going to be getting myself into, so I had a spare bike just in case things go wrong; an admittedly very "first world problems preparedness" approach. She cracked a smile and welcomed me to Canada.
There are a few things that stand out when you arrive in Canada's largest province. First, the road signs are decidedly useless to anyone outside of the Quebecois, a handful of Ontarians, and of course, actual
French people. Fortunately, the people here are remarkably friendly and are more than accommodating to uninformed 'Mericans such as myself, which was another thing that stood out. Additionally, while the hills don't rise to quite the same height as those found throughout Quebec's west coast cousins in Alberta and British Columbia, or even those south of the border in places like New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York, it is a beautiful, ancient landscape whose glacial origins are abundantly clear as you scan the horizon. Closer to the city, architecture that dates as far back as the 17th century which, along with the fortified wall that surrounds Old Quebec, explains the UNESCO World Heritage designation. There's also a clean, manicured impression that seems to come naturally to Quebec. Maybe it has something to do with the precipitous population dropoff as you venture further north into the province and there are less people available to make a mess of things, but it's clear that this is a part of the world that takes pride in its presentation.
As the last cradle of French culture remaining in North America, Quebec has a distinctively European feel to it despite being just a couple of hours north of the American border. Throughout the entire province, though especially in the capital city itself, there's an idiosyncratic aesthetic that sets the region apart from the rest of Canada. One of the oldest cities in all of North America, Quebec combines an old world beauty with an active local contingent, and a forward thinking approach to tourism that makes for one of the most comprehensive adventure destinations in the country. The city of 750,000 hosts up to 5,000,000 visitors annually, making tourism, of which 30,000 jobs are directly linked to, an important economic driver for the region. Mountain biking, as it turns out, is poised to play a major role for the area moving forward.
My week in Quebec would be spent exploring three regions that surround Quebec City: the Saint Raymond sector of the Vallee Bras du Nord network, Sentiers du Moulin in Lac Beauport, and Mont-Sainte-Anne. Together, the three networks have formed an alliance in part with Quebec City tourism called the Quebec Destination Velo de Montagne
, or in English, the Quebec Mountain Bike Destination
. Joining me on my adventure would be Ontario natives turned BC locals, Will Cadham and Mark Taylor, who together make up half of the Free Radicals group of van life pinners. Also along for the ride was Northman Insurance's, Nick Van Egmond, a regular among the east coast enduro race scene, and my Canadian translator for the trip. We had the good fortune to stay at the home of NS Bikes factory rider, Franck Kirscher and his wife Sylvie for the first portion of our trip. This would prove to be not only an incredibly generous gesture on their part, but very convenient for us as they were just north of Quebec City in the town of Sainte-Catherine-de-la-Jacques-Cartier, just 15 minutes from the Saint Raymond trail head and 30 from Sentiers du Moulin.
Vallee Bras du Nord: The Saint Raymond Sector
While the Vallee Bras du Nord has been receiving some well-earned media attention over the last couple of years, it's been the Shannahan sector and particularly the Neilson trail that has been getting most of the love. That makes perfect sense too, as that may very well be one of the best trails anywhere on the planet. But the Saint Raymond network of Valle Bras du Nord is ready to shine after years of hard work and scores of volunteers have helped to develop a truly progressive set of gravity fed trails that are 30 minutes closer to Quebec City than its northerly sibling. The vast majority of the trails found here are on private property with the exception of a section towards the summit by the Chapel Mt-Laura, and trails found on the ski resort property, which is actually owned by the town. There's even a section called “Swiss Mountain”, which features over 10 km of (incredibly fun) singletrack on a single parcel of private property. Tommy Paquet spent two years on the board of directors for the Vallee Bras du Nord, and is one of Saint Raymond's primary trail builders and ambassadors. He's also one of the landowners whose own property houses a large chunk of the trails found here. "I was born and raised 2 km down this road in Saint Raymond."
he tells me during a break from riding. We're sprawled across his backyard drinking water and listening intently as Tommy shares a bit of local trail history with us. "That’s where I grew up. I have been building trails for about 10 years. When I was a kid, I used to use all of these trails for motocross. That’s how I became familiar with the area. Afterwards, when I had to ask for permissions from the landowners, they all knew who I was. Fortunately, I wasn’t a bad kid which made it easier for them to allow me to use their trails."
The aluminum factory machine operator by trade has seen this place evolve from a network of motocross come social mountain biking trails, into a growing network that truly has something for every type of rider. "In 2005 we invited the guys from Valle Bras du Nord to start building some trails here. They actually spent some time at the Kingdom Trails down in Vermont and were inspired by what they had done, so they figured they could do the same here and began to build some XC mountain bike trails. The town of Saint Raymond injected some money into the trails as well, and as a result, the residents or taxpayers are free to use the trails however they please. It really encouraged people in the area to go and use the trails, and that in turn has really helped a lot of area businesses to grow."
The over 26 km of trail here utilize a modest amount of vertical, man-made and natural features, and offer up beautiful views of a staggered landscape of hills, rivers and quaint towns in the distance. Much of the manpower behind several build days has actually come from a surprising and innovative source as Tommy explains. "We have a really cool social reintegration program for at-risk youth here as well. We get them out on the trails helping with building and maintaining. 85% of them come back after the program to continue to help with the trails. It’s been really good for the community. I think it has probably saved several lives since the program began."
Sentiers du Moulin
"We got bored with the kinds of trails we had in the area for so many years,"
Alex Roy says between bites during a lunch break from riding. "We wanted to put some stuff in that was similar to what you might find in BC."
He is explaining the layout of Sentiers du Moulin, a network of primarily advanced trails just a few minutes north of Quebec City, located in Lac Beauport. Alex is a part of the contingent of trail builders and riders in the area known as LB Cycle, who are largely responsible for the cultivation and development of trails in and around Lac Beauport. "It’s funny, because we were told by SDM that there was a section of the mountain that was too steep for them to build nordic or hiking trails on but that if we wanted to, we could use it for whatever we’d like. I was like, 'Wow, this is the best part of the mountain!' It’s steep and has these cool slick rocks. It reminded me of North Vancouver. Last summer, we built LBC-1. Lots of people came from all over the place to ride the trail and they loved it. Earlier this spring SDM asked us if we could build another trail, so we went and built LBC-2."
The trails that Alex and company are responsible for have proved a hit among both the local contingent and virtually everyone who has made the trip to the region to ride. So much so, that the Quebec City tourism council has deemed Sentiers du Moulin an appropriate landing spot for some serious financial assistance. Alex Lemerise, the managing director at SDM, is with us and is understandably excited about the support they're receiving from Quebec City. "Because we’re 20 minutes from Quebec City,"
Alex says. "The office of tourism told us that they want to include mountain biking as a primary focus for their efforts over the next few years. They gave us $200,000 that we used to build 15 km of new trails. This is a place with lots of very active people. On the roads you’ll see people running and riding road bikes, but yeah we have a pretty big mountain bike community here as well. There’s a lot of XC skiing here in the winter, but over the last 3 years, some guys in the area have been interested in using the mountain to build mountain bike trails. It just makes sense to have these trails built on our property.""All of the trails on SDM are public,"
Alex continues. "But we’d like to start getting permissions from private landowners to begin developing trails on private properties, similar to how it works down in East Burke (Vermont). I think that the people in our town (Lac Beauport) have seen now that we can build some really good trails, and the city wants to be known as a cycling destination. Long-term, we’d like for it to be a lot like what the Kingdom Trails Association is for East Burke."
The East Burke comparison is an interesting one, in part because as far the big pictures goes, Quebec City and its surrounding areas have a massive population compared to the sparsely occupied hometown of the Kingdom Trails. Additionally, while there is the Burke Mountain bike park, the vast majority of the Kingdom Trails are smooth, flowy and roller coaster fast, while much of the trails that surround Quebec City are steep, deep and quite a bit more technical. Still, riders from both Quebec and Vermont trade places often, and do in fact seem to enjoy a plebeian relationship. While the miles found in East Burke aren't quite available in any of the singular regions that make up this triumvirate, it's a combination that in time could very well rival any riding destination found elsewhere in North America."We have this great alliance with Mont-Sainte-Anne and Valle Bras du Nord as well,"
Alex Roy tells me as we wrap up our lunch and get ready to do some more riding. "And we want to continue to develop that over the next few years. It would be great to attract people from other parts of North America and even Europe. What we have is really fun, but we want people to come spend many days here, and so we just need to keep building trails. We need to put some progressive style trails in, with some small features for young riders. We have a hard mountain with a tough climb that you have to go up in order to ride down some of these trails. We’re pooling some significant financial and volunteer resources along with the other two locations to make the alliance valuable to Quebec City and the surrounding areas. The trails here are not like ones found in BC with huge mountains. We have smaller mountains with lots of rocks, so we have really technical trails. Even our 'easy trails' are not very easy. We know what we have and who we are, and we embrace it."
The final leg of our Quebec adventure brought us to the home of one of the World Cup's most endearing and revered stops for what will be 26 years in a row in 2016, Mont-Sainte-Anne. Of the three regions that make up the Quebec Mountain Bike Destination
alliance, MSA is furthest from the city, but it's the only opportunity for riders to enjoy a true mountain
experience, with over 2,000 vertical feet of elevation relief. MSA claims to have 115 km of XC trails, and offers 25 km of downhill terrain across 9 different trails. Unfortunately for us, the lifts are closed and have been all season due to late snows and heavy rains throughout the spring and summer. Fortunately for anyone willing to do some pedaling, the XC trails are readily available near the base of the resort, including those used for the World Cup race, and it's only 20 minutes up a gravel service road to get to some new "enduro" oriented trails that are properly fun, and certainly illustrate this place's potential.
Surprising as it is given the notoriety and long-standing tenure of the World Cup here, Mont-Sainte-Anne seems to be in the greatest state of flux among the Quebec City alliance, and it's not for a lack of trying on the part of the riders. Despite pumping however many thousands of dollars over the past couple of decades into the UCI in order to continually host the World Cup, the resort itself has been slow to develop its own mountain bike community at the local level. Patrice Dorion first began working on trails here when the World Cup first visited the region as an event volunteer. By 1996 he was on the downhill course trail crew, before eventually taking over trail operations for the mountain in 2008. It was after the 2011 season when Patrice, understandably frustrated with the state of affairs at MSA, decided to take a break from banging his head against the proverbial wall and head west to BC for a taste of the trails and lifestyle offered there.
His time in British Columbia helped to sharpen his own trail building skills, but more importantly, it showed him just how profound the effect a well organized and supported trail system can have on its respective community. "Right now I own a trail building company, and am in my second year of running the business."
he says. "I ran the MSA trails from 2008-2011, and moved out to Whistler after that for a few years. Now I'm back home and we’re able to bring some of that BC style to the east coast here."
That "BC style" is abundantly clear on trails like Yable, which feature plenty of lumber, some perfectly built berms, and a handful of opportunities to get sendy. But Patrice, who's currently working on the World Cup downhill and XC courses as well as the GAAP Enduro course, can't help but feel like in spite of the rather obvious potential here, the mountain itself seems to be dragging its feet with regards to its bike-specific operations. "For me, I’d like to see MSA function as the gravity heavy part of the Quebec trail alliance. There are so many good places to ride, but we have the biggest mountain here, and I think we should use it for downhill and enduro trails primarily. It’s not there yet, so we just need to push harder for more and more downhill stuff. We have lots of really nice trails, but MSA won’t always put those on the map because they might not be comfortable with the features on that trail. They want control of the mountain and the risks involved with being on it. Some accidents have happened and I think that has scared them a bit. Hopefully this kind of attention helps with that."
Merci Beaucoup, Quebec.
It's funny to hear people from all three riding areas discuss how much work they have ahead of them, when as far as I can tell, they already have what might be one of the two or three best places to ride anywhere in the eastern half of North America. That, along with the proximity to the culturally stunning, and beautifully built capital city of Quebec, makes for one hell of a compelling argument to spend a lot of time here. Any of the three regions that make up the Quebec Destination Velo de Montagne
could easily put their respective heads down, and continue to promote themselves independently of one another. But fortunately for the rest of us, and for the region as well, they've come together in a singular fashion that benefits everyone. "Mont-Sainte-Anne has had this potential for years,"
Patrice notes. "And I think that the alliance will finally help make it a reality. There’s definitely interest from the city in bringing more riders up to the mountain, which is really important. This group of riders between here, Sentiers du Moulin, and Vallee Bras du Nord want to work together to have guys like you come into town and showcase the area."
Alex Roy agrees. "We have a newer cycling culture here in Quebec than they have out in BC. You still see a ton of spandex here. But it’s growing. You see more and more big bikes every day. For people who aren’t too far from Quebec, I think it’s already a destination. For people from western Canada, I think it’s just a couple of years away, but it’ll happen. We have Sentiers du Moulin, Vallee Bras du Nord, and Mont-Sainte-Anne. All of these places are putting a ton of effort into building really good trails."
Tommy Paquet's optimism is clear as we gear up in his backyard to have a go at the "Swiss Mountain" portion of Saint Raymond. "The more visible we become,"
he says. "The more it pushes other trail networks to get better. We just need to keep pushing and pushing so we’re able to stand out. It’s about more than mountain biking as well, since there’s so much to do here. That helps push us ahead of so many other areas. It makes us a complete destination. Find somewhere in North America where you have this much to do in such a compact area. We have huge plans that extend beyond 2020. In a perfect world, Quebec City would act as the main draw for the region. My hope is to then to link the city to Mont-Sainte-Anne, MSA to Sentiers du Moulin, and from there to Valle Bras du Nord. One trail to connect us all. I’m sure one day that will happen."Sentiers du Moulin mountain biking trailsVBN Secteur Saint-Raymond mountain biking trailsMont-Sainte-Anne XC Park mountain biking trails
EB&D Travel Information:
For more information regarding the Quebec Destination Velo de Montagne, click here.
For more information regarding Vallee Bras du Nord, click here.
For more information regarding Sentiers du Moulin, click here.
For more information regarding Pat Dorion's work with the GAAP Enduro, click here.
Special thank you to Cafe Noisette for the delicious coffee and snacks!
Thank you to the Northman Insurance Group and its ambassadors; Nick Van Egmond, Mark Taylor and William Coldcastle for making this trip possible. Check them out, they provide insurance for athletes, travelers and other people who revel in adventure.
Looking for a place to stay with you and your pals? The Chalet Montmorency offers riders discounts up to 58% off in the summer. They just want people to come hang and ride at Mont-Sainte-Anne!