Taking on the hills of Vancouver’s North Shore can be intimidating for mountain bike amateurs, even with a guide like Darren Butler along for the ride. I try to focus on Butler’s instructions as I commit my full-suspension Rocky Mountain Altitude into a descent down a lush tunnel of hemlock and cedar trees in the Seymour Demonstration Forest, above the emerald grid of North Vancouver.
Butler, the owner and guide of North Vancouver outfitter Endless Biking (endlessbiking.com; 604-985-2519), is calmly guiding me through the downhill. His soft, but firm commands like, “let the bike roll through the rough stuff” and, “absorb the bumps with your arms and legs,” carry me over terrain I haven’t attempted since weekends at Ontario’s Niagara Escarpment.
But even Butler’s deft instructions can’t prevent me from colliding with a round boulder that, I’m convinced, will launch me over the handlebars, or at least stop an error-free series of turns that is actually starting to resemble “flow.”
But then an amazing thing happens. My bike somehow absorbs the impact and climbs right over it, instantly responding to my erratic attempts to line it up with the cedar-plank bridge just up ahead. After Butler and I cross it, I ask him if he just saw what happened—that thing where his rental bike turned into a mountain goat.
“Now you see the value of a $5,000 investment in your ride,” he quips back. “It’s another world when you’re riding a sub-30-pound full Fox suspension, Shimano XTR loaded model. As far as I know, you can’t rent bikes like this anywhere else.” Except for here, where you need them most.
This Mecca outfits its pilgrims. Or, rather, Endless Biking’s sponsors do. “We have an agreement with our sponsors that lets people try the goods,” says Kelli Sherbinin, Butler’s partner in business, and in life. “We want you to feel what it’s like to ride what pro riders really ride.” They have the terrain already, so it seems like skimping on the bikes would be treason to humanity’s collective adrenalin gland.
Beyond our three-hour tour through the demonstration forest, lay the twin freaks of Cypress Mountain and Mount Fromme, towering across the Burrard Inlet north of Vancouver. If mountain bike imagery on YouTube, biking DVDs or the covers of magazines has left you gobsmacked, chances are it was shot in the famed North Shore.
The region’s proximity to the big, year-round access, and a vocal scene that dates back to the early 1980s, means an entrenched culture of technical one-upmanship, but also incredible stewardship by athletes of their playground.
“We’ve long known that biking in ecologically sensitive areas can destroy habitat,” says Butler, after we clear a skinny plank bridge. “Bikers are environmental stewards. They don’t want to expedite the problem.”
He speaks about the early days when crafty bikers built over recovering second-growth forests, only to discover conservation gave them carte blanche to add to the terrain—effectively tricking out Mother Nature with skinnies, ladders, teeter-totters and bridges.
“We use the cedar from the fallen forest here to preserve it,” adds Butler. “The cedar wood contains oils resistant to rot, so the work will stand the test of time.”
Of course, this was quickly discouraged back in the day (a.k.a. the mid 1990s) by lawsuit-fearing politicos and freaked-out hikers who objected to sharing their trails with goateed mud monsters on 40-pound metal steeds.
But the mountain bikers won most naysayers over with engineering—most of their woodwork is multiuse—and kindness (Butler greets every hiker we pass with a cheery hello).
As a result, the North Shore has gone legit with more than 100,000 visits annually. Sherbinin is an instructor at Capilano University’s pioneering mountain bike certification programs.
The lore of the North Shore has inspired plank-assisted mountain bike terrain parks from Cleveland to Colombia.
After an afternoon of confidence-building descents and potential face plants averted by advanced two-wheeled technology, I inquire about the price of my very own North Shore-worthy machine. Butler fields the question without hesitation.
“You can have the one you’re riding at the end of the season for a portion of the $5,000 it costs new,” he says, with his light blonde scruff turning upwards into a smile. “But you’ll have to put your name on a waiting list. It’s a common request at the end of a day out here.”
Canada’s Best Urban Beaches
Going to the beach is a classic summertime activity, but you don’t have to leave the city to find one. Watch fireworks at English Bay Beach in Vancouver, catch an outdoor movie at Sugar Beach in Toronto or sunbathe at Montreal's Clock Tower Beach located right in the city's historic Old Port.