On the edge of darkness: Mountain biking Vancouver’s North Shore

By Justin Walker Photos Margus Riga/Brendon Purdy 15 August 2023
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Vancouver’s North Shore is the birthplace of Freeride MTB. In the distant past, our Editor’s dream came true, and he got to ride “The Shore”.

Like every other mountain biker on the planet, for me, riding the trails of Vancouver’s North Shore always seemed like a dream. Visions of the crazy ladders, bridges and drop-offs that litter the densely forested slopes of “The Shore” – and of the riders who made the area’s three mountains famous, such as Wade Simmons and Dan Cowan – lent it a sense of being a faraway, untouchable fairyland of mountain biking, and one that I’d have to be content to experience through Vimeo or YouTube. Then, I got lucky…

As we all know, luck is a fickle thing… much like the reality of riding the North Shore, as I was to discover. Riding with me would be ex-Olympian Andreas Hestler and Wade Simmons himself, so this experience was on a far more epic scale than my idea of just “going for a ride”.

When I first met Wade at Rocky Mountain Bikes’ HQ in northern Vancouver and said I was here “for a factory tour, and a bit of a ride”, his response was: “Do you wanna do a tour, or do you wanna ride?” I must’ve missed the emphasis on “ride” and it’s meaning to the man known the Godfather of Freeride mountain biking.

At this point (in hindsight) I should have also asked if I wanted to put myself on the mental and physical edge for a few hours, negotiating by far the most challenging trails I had ever ridden, before returning (hopefully, in one piece) to drag myself around the amazing Rocky Mountain Bikes factory.

Ex-Olympian Andreas Hestler is all smiles at the beginning of a North Shore ride. Brendon Purdy

I was 20kg over my riding weight and had done minimal riding over the past couple of years due to several lower-leg injuries. Yet here I was, about to embark on my first ride on a 29er (at that time, the first-generation Rocky Mountain Instinct), replete with brakes set up North American style (as in, reverse to how we run them in Oz). I had been asked by the mechanic regarding brake setup but had not listened properly and just said “they’d be okay”. Something I would very much regret. In short, I was incredibly, exceptionally, unprepared for what was coming. I should have piked out, right there and then, but of course I didn’t. What a fool…

A Shore thing

Vancouver’s North Shore is held in near-mythical regard by the world’s mountain bikers. This area includes three mountains – Fromme, Cypress and Seymour – and myriad trails, ranging from expert black diamond-rated, to accessible green-rated trails.

The North Shore’s steep, forested slopes, deep ravines, fallen trees, and rocky outcrops that include some impressively high drop-offs meant, in the early days, trail builders had to innovate. The result is a trail type – and to an extent, a riding style – that has become synonymous with “The Shore”.

Trails in the area include hand-built (and narrow) timber bridges, fallen logs utilised as ravine and creek overpasses, and timber “ladders” (off the ground) that take riders on a twisting ride high above the forest floor. Add in natural obstacles such as said boulder drop-offs and an endless supply of slippery tree roots and fallen timber, and you have highly technical trails that are a considerable challenge. It’s here that Wade cut his teeth, on the way to becoming one of the world’s best riders.

It’s easy to see how riding in this region would up your skill level to world-class – and why it is used by Rocky Mountain when developing its bikes. Just a 20-minute drive from the Rocky Mountain factory and another 10 minutes getting bikes and gear sorted saw us plunge instantly into a darkly shadowed, steep and sharply undulating trail.

It was, I found out, one of Wade’s favourites; for me, it was one of the scariest. I announced my “intermediate” riding skills pretty much in the first five minutes when one of the riders in front of me stopped suddenly, causing me to grab the brakes, and thanks to the levers being reversed and me grabbing an unintentional huge handful of front brake, over I went. Andreas was behind me and asked if I was okay – which wouldn’t be the last time he asked that question – and, besides a mouthful of dirt and grass, I was.

That was pretty much the trend of the day: the Instinct I was riding was bullet-fast, albeit probably too fast for my skillset to keep up with. The Instinct was simply brilliant, with its manoeuvrability and forgiving handling keeping me (mostly) upright; tall drop-offs and quick descents and climbs were easily nailed – I just had to hang on.

Living history

During our ride Wade and Andreas stopped often, both so I could catch up and to show me some of the original bridges and log crossings that had been built back in the early days of trail building. Some of them seemed ludicrously high but, having seen a raft of videos on riders such as Wade and other North Shore guns, I knew they were rideable. Just not by me.

A small amount of climbing up rock-strewn sections tempered the mad downhill pace on occasion, which was further slowed with a bit of hike-a-bike as we scrambled over huge logs or jumped across creek beds to link up with other trails on our way down the mountain.

Negotiating big timber, narrow, rooty trails and slippery trials is all part of the fun and challenge of riding the North Shore.

For me, the three-hour ride was spent in a near-constant state of fear, boosted by a huge adrenalin rush midway as we tackled the most beautifully flowing, loam-padded piece of singletrack I have ever ridden. Here, I couldn’t stop grinning; the Instinct was fantastically quick, and I was getting my head around the reversed brake levers as I swooped around huge tree ferns, rolled semi-smoothly over bloody steep – and large – boulders, and managed to be only 10 seconds behind the group at the end of that section.

For a brief, madly exultant moment, a thought passed through my mind: Was I actually taking the first steps to becoming a Shore rider already? Well, as it turned out…

The final act

Our last trail section was a step up from the previous flowing lines, although not quite as daunting as the first third of the ride. But, I was still just hanging on for most of the time, relying on the bike and some luck, with one slightly scary crash my only down-point – until, that is, the end.

I am sure Wade and Andreas have seen some pretty amusing crashes during their respective competitive careers, and as Rocky Mountain ambassadors, but I doubt they’ve seen a head-over-handlebars crash executed with quite as much finesse as mine at the end of a ride. I had been racing – fast – to catch up with the group and could just see the light at the end of the trail as I rode through the last section of dark forest.

They don’t call riding in BC’s rainforests “entering the Green Room” for nothing…

Exiting the shadows, and before my eyes could adjust, the trail turned sharply to the right to avoid a one-metre drop onto the footpath where the others were waiting. I went straight over the edge and nailed the brakes Oz-style, with plenty of unfortunate emphasis on what was actually the front brake. I pitched myself, with my still-attached bike, over on my head. Even more impressive was how I managed to land in a crumpled heap right at Wade‘’’s feet. The guys were concerned about me… but I was more concerned about the bike I had just tried to bury in solid concrete. Never have the words “What a ride!” been more apt.

The ultimate North Shore memory

As I rolled down the tarred road to our shuttle vehicles, my mind was going even faster than the bike and I had on the trails, trying to make sense of what had been one of the most full-on frightening, but also incredibly exciting, experiences of my life. I had ridden well above my skill level, crashed more in three hours than in the previous three years, picked up a heap of bruises, some impressive scratches, a cranking headache and one huge gouge on my shin. This gouge later produced a large scar that is still prominent on my shin today, years later (and acts as an ever-present reminder to always think twice before saying “yes”). Relief and elation don‘t even begin to describe how I felt at the end.

The hand-tooled coffee machine at the Rocky Mountain Bikes HQ was a very welcome sight at ride’s end.

When I lobbed at the Air Canada check-in desk at Vancouver Airport later that day (after hobbling through the factory tour and inhaling a couple of post-ride coffee at Rocky HQ) I must have looked a sorry sight; a still-bewildered expression and bruises and scratches on my arms, legs, and across my face.

The check-in attendant asked what happened, and I only had to utter “I just rode the North Shore with Wade Simmons” for her to laugh, smile knowingly, and then deliver an unexpected but never more welcome bonus to an epic day: a Business Class upgrade…