The sound of the river’s churning froth drowns out the cyclical click of our rear hubs as we roll along its banks. Its red rust dyed waters polish the granite beneath and slap the mossy green banks. Our wheels bob over boulders and roots, chocolate milk water and pudding-like mud squirting out from under our tires. A verdant blanket enshrouds us, a forest full of ferns, unfamiliar trees, bushes, and plants so thick it’s a jungle. It’s warm and humid. Spotted lime green frogs leap out of the way sensing the vibration of our bodies pummeling along this path. The place feels tropical and the language is foreign. It could be the Amazon, Costa Rica, a far off French colony or some equatorial paradise. But it’s not that muggy, there's no life threatening bugs, reptiles or predators and the trail is far too manicured. The faint strip of the cocoa colored track is perfectly etched for mountain bikes. It flows, banks with berms, pops through corners and sturdy ladders elevate us above the bogs. For half of the year, this whole landscape is spindly, brown and hibernating. Right now, though, here in Vallée Bras-du-Nord, Quebec, the place is thriving.
Before this scene, things began in a parking lot hundreds of miles away in the short hours once work was done for the week. David Regnier-Bourque, Julien Boulais and I readied gear at Devinci’s headquarters in the small town of Chicoutimi. The large industrial building sits at a gateway to trails and winding country roads, a defining characteristic of the brand, the bikes and those who work there. From sales to welders, designers and builders—everyone rides. The bikes crafted here are simply products of the area’s wheeled pursuits. Getting out for a weekend trip to explore the province’s riding is simply part of the culture.
David recently picked up a 1994 Volkswagen Westfalia van and we made sure to stuff it with food, camping gear, beer and no shortage of socks and chamois as we hustled to get on the road. As the sun waned we began peeling southward from Chicoutimi on highway 175 through the rolling highway and uninterrupted wilderness. We passed through rainstorms, rainbows and sunbursts before dipping off the side of the road to utilize the onboard cooking setup and whip up some lakeside souper (supper). Julien’s been perfecting a meat and mushroom risotto recipe and got busy preparing the ingredients as dark rain clouds threatened our roadside dining. While the meal stewed we crushed beers and donated more than our fair share of blood to the local mosquito population. With bellies full we picked up and pushed on into the night, arriving at the Roquemont in Saint Raymond that evening.
Early the next morning Shawinigan fireman and trail destroyer Sam Vallee greeted us in the parking lot. After a sunrise meal consisting of coffee, orange juice and what Julien deemed a “breakfast hotdog”—a banana wrapped in Nutella-smothered bread—we loaded up and made our way to Vallée Bras-du-Nord. We passed through the quaint downtown of Saint Raymond and the road began twisting through classic Quebec countryside with lush green grass, old barns, homesteads, and cabins. The hills became higher and rose into mountains as the valley consumed us. Massive granite walls broke through the forest’s skin like a mini Yosemite as we rumbled along the dirt road and into the park’s trailhead where we readied to ride.
We’d only been pedaling a few miles up the road before we came upon a trail crew and their truck. Within a short exchange of language that I couldn’t understand we were soon piled in the Ford F250 and hitching a ride up to the start of the Neilson trail. At the entrance, we spotted pea-sized frogs popping through the grass as we prepared to tear into the dirt. It was hard not to ride like frogs, bounding off of the many root and rock bumps that lined the dirt path as we worked into the trail. The terrain became rougher and ladders carried us over lush green waterfalls while the obstacles grew taller and the river’s rushing sound amplified. The path carried us along the riverbank where we stopped to take it all in; the undulating route, the lush environment, the churning red-toned water and the bulging granite peaks. After bashing our bodies and bikes through the rest of the rough riverside section we rolled back to a packed parking lot. As we peeled off our sweaty gear and snapped open some Archibald brews, cracks of thunder echoed in the valley, and raindrops began tapping on the ground.
As rain pelted the ground two trail workers emerged from the woods, one on a two-wheel drive utility motorcycle laden with tools and the other on a chainsaw strapped ATV. In the shelter of their mobile trail-building trailer, we caught up with the two, Jerome Pelland and Junior Belleville of Sentiers Boreals, a local trail building company. Pelland has had his hands in the dirt as a professional trailer builder for nine years and has put his fair share of work into these trails. Neilson is one of the rubies of the 65 kilometers of singletrack in this area. It’s the brainchild of Pelland, mountain biking advocate and Vallée Bras-du-Nord Operations Director Mathieu Dupuis-Bourassa and a handful of others. Whether it’s through wielding a shovel or navigating politics the two have been pivotal in creating the massive web of purpose built trails in the area. “Right here we pride ourselves in the pure singletrack experience, a connection with the forest, with nature, following the river,” says Pelland. “There’s a connection you can have here that you will not find anywhere else.” The intimate, yet progressive trail here is the result of a lengthy permitting process combined with a careful approach to trail building. Generous government grants, donations, and proceeds from mountain bike trail permits have funded their efforts. It’s the dream architecture for legit trails anywhere, the results of which are blatantly evident once you spend a little time behind the handlebars.
As the rains hammered down we returned to the Roquemont, a retreat built around bikers. With the collaboration of seven people, this old accommodation has been transformed into a microbrewery, restaurant and hotel complete with pump track landscaping, a bike shop next door and trailhead access from the parking lot. Spurred by the growth of mountain biking and trail building in the area, the Roquemont and the town of Saint Raymond as a whole have embraced this outdoor crowd, beginning a transition from its logging and pasture past to a mountain biking and outdoor hub. Later that afternoon we see exactly why as the parking lot brimmed with riders of all types. Some headed out for rides, others rolled back in, groups rattled about their rides over food, others dropped bikes off at the shop and one by one riders washed their bikes at the free wash station.
That afternoon we joined the masses and made our way into the web of trails. Although more tame and traveled than the Shanahan zone, the routes in Saint Raymond did not disappoint. The dirt was tacky and buff and the lines were fast and smooth. The tracks skirted cornfields and cow pastures, weaved through a root-infested forest and railed through berms. Rock slabs and root holes occasionally interrupted the buff soil. We were able to let it loose on the flow trails and loft off the lips of the jump lines. You could ride all day long here, linking trail after trail together, without having to embark on a far-flung mission out of town. The place was chock full of real dirt, a rarity at times in the rock and root grounds of the glacial scraped northeast.
This steep and scoured land is also home to one of the nastiest downhill racecourses on the planet, at the nearby Mont Sainte Anne. As this World Cup event loomed, professional riders began trickling into the area. Mark Wallace, the up and coming ripper from Vancouver Island, joined us for some less serious trail time around Saint Raymond. Our bike posse grew and so did our exploration of singletrack.
Fueled by poutine, coffee and whatever else we could turn into pedal fuel we continued the back and forth between the trails of Shanahan and Saint Raymond. We rode in the dusk and dark swampy forest until we could barely see. We brushed by dew soaked grasses in the pale morning light. We rolled over granite boulders, peeled by moss-covered grounds and ranch pastures. We pedaled alongside rushing trailside waterfalls. We escaped the piercing mouths of mosquitoes, a lot. We ate trailside framboises (raspberries) and bleuets (blueberries). The midday heat and humidity led us to cool in the waters of the red and earthen toned Bras-du-Nord arm of the Sainte-Anne River as kayakers drifted by. Under clear skies, we camped by its shores and remained close to the trails, the simple escape from reality, spinning lap after lap around the hub of Quebec mountain biking.Two Wheel Tools
The trails in Saint Raymond and Vallee Bras du Nord have all types of terrain, from buffed out berms to nasty root and rock gardens. Our crew had a solid mix of bikes - all capable of crushing the trails. Here’s what we used:
- Devinci Django 29
- Devinci Marshall 27.5+
- Devinci Marshall 29er
- Devinci TroyNotable Trails
- There are trails to satisfy all riding types at Saint Raymond and Vallée Bras-du-Nord. These are the ones that we hit:Vallee Bras Du Nord
- Nielson, La Boreale, Cratere and Chute a GillesVallée Bras-du-Nord mountain biking trails Saint Raymond
- Pente Cote, La Jolie Jaelle, Chevalier V.R., La Monsieur Rolland, Coq Rond – Allez, Carburateur, Montee La Grosse Glen, Le Grand Eggen, LaVraie Montee Valais/Berne, Montee de berne, Mt Laura – La 9, and La Roche-MereSaint-Raymond mountain biking trails
Words and photos by Ben Gavelda.Check out all of Ben's images from the trip here.