While cruising up Vancouver Island – probably on the way to Cumberland – it’s easy to race past some of the great riding that’s dotted about. The Hammerfest area near Coombs is one such place. The one time I actually had the presence of mind to stop and indulge was when I was on a cycle tour around the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island. Sure, towing a BOB trailer on a mountain bike with good rubber made it more reasonable to stop, but I really have been trying to get back since.
Myself and my touring buddy, Dave “The Rave” Roth, had started our day on Denman Island and made the mad dash to Errington from Denman Island – 65 km at a good clip – so Dave could phone-in a job interview and we could still get in a trail ride at the Hammerfest, something I did not think was going to be physically possibly as we hummed down the highway with fat BOB trailing us.
However, something peculiar happened once we arrived: We both got a second wind.
I’m sure that this was entirely due to the people who came out to ride with us at Hammerfest. We were greeted by Paul Connor and Roy Kregosky, two bright-eyed gentlemen who are old enough to probably know better, but seem better for doing it anyway.
Roy was a 66-year old and the way he moved up the climbs and around the trails you wouldn’t have guessed it. He has won the Test Of Metal race in his age category. He is part of a subgroup called the Van-sortium – a group of six riders of this age who all chipped in for a fifteen seat passenger van just so they could make big road trips to Moab, Durango, Oregon, or wherever they choose. They usually get away once in the spring and then twice in the fall, driving to the destination in one go, taking two hour shifts behind the wheel.
Paul is a dentist who probably rides his bike more than most anyone. On Sunday there is a regular social ride, on Wednesday nights there is a night ride (that happens 52 weeks a year whatever the weather), and on Friday there is usually a meaty all day ride. Then on Mondays and Thursdays he joins the local road cycling and triathlon clubs. It was only in the past few years he got into mountain biking but now the regularly scheduled group rides, the tight knit nature of the local riding community, and camaraderie of his riding companions has meant it has become an essential component of his life and will always remain that way he thinks.
We also met with Kebble Sheaff, the owner of Arrowsmith Bikes and also one of the main men behind the Hammerfest area of trails we were about to ride. He opened his shop in 1994 and around that time also decided to start up a local mountain bike event. At the time most mountain bike events, certainly on Vancouver Island, were weekend affairs that incorporated a downhill race, a cross-country race, maybe a trials or dual slalom event, music, and a bit of a party atmosphere – they were festivals rather than just races so someone came up with the name Hammerfest for this event. Kebble had been building a few trails in the area under Mount Arrowsmith, an area that didn’t really have a name at the time, but after the first Hammerfest was held, the area just organically took on the name too. In the intervening years Kebble has been a major player in the Arrowsmith Mountain Bike Club ever since, including its formation.
We were also joined by Tam Crawford and his seventeen year old son, Takoda. Both father and son started riding about three years ago; they go to downhill races together (Tam raced for a season but prefers to just let Takoda do the racing for the family now) and get out on the Hammerfest trails together a lot.
It’s fair to say we had great people to show us the trails and help reinvigorate us.
We climbed to the powerlines, taking in a snaking, skirting line of singletrack that never felt like we were climbing, except for the one or two spots that Roy and Paul would put the hammer down and scale the steepest sections as quick as rats up a drainpipe.
The view from the top afforded us views of almost all of our eight day long route up to this point. There was the Sea-to-Sky to the east, the massive stretch from Roberts Creek to Powell River (hidden by Texada Island but the rising steam from the pulp mill located it), and Hornby Island afloat in the Salish Sea. It was a good moment to reflect on our journey so far and understand why our legs felt as heavy as lead. But I didn’t feel tired anymore. I felt recharged and energized. Somehow I had started the day feeling drained and felt utterly pooped as I approached the trailhead, but from the moment we shook hands with all the riders I felt entirely different. Like a new man.
Which is good because “Jughead” trail was another highlight of the trip. Perfectly sculpted turns, almost natural rollers, and effortless flow; it was the kind of trail that has everyone, absolutely everyone, grinning and hollering like halfwitted schoolchildren who have just eaten their way through a giant bag of Skittles.
As I rode Jughead I thought I could profile the trail builder: late 20s, ex-downhiller with a BMX background, and who has at least one tattoo. However, it turns out that the man responsible for the most recent incarnation of this trail is a 60-year old lawyer.
Yeah, mind blown.
After our ride we shared a parking lot beer with the assembled riders but Paul and Roy were keen to keep going. They didn’t want to miss out on the Wednesday night ride so hustled their lights together, said farewell, and blasted back into the trails like two teenagers. I looked down at my odometer and it read 82 km. I should have felt tired but seeing the vigor of Paul and Roy made me want to join them for more laps and loops.
Instead, we showered and joined our host for the night, Hugh Fletcher, for dinner. Hugh has probably been responsible for getting and keeping more people on bikes than anyone, particularly himself, would be keen to count. On the face of it he says, “As a doctor, I like to promote healthy living.” But it obviously goes further than that.
He was responsible for getting a BMX track built in Nanaimo back in 1994, he helped get a school mountain bike program going (now they have 80 kids in the program, with teachers and parents falling over themselves to be involved), he was the local club president for ten years, put together the Island Cup which pulled together local communities into cooperating for a larger good, and he orchestrated the legendary Rowbottom Ramble (an epic distance race that had three enforced five-minute rest stops where racers where entertained by buxom girls serving tea and scones, a string quartet, amplified rock music, and girl guides handing out cookies and coke. The finish line was at a hot tub.)
Hugh says he just wanted to encourage participation, community, and accessibility. Judging from the things people have said about him I think he succeeded.
Reflecting on all the people we met that day (and everyone we met on that trip) it makes me wonder why we, as a mountain bike community, celebrate the celebrities. Professional athletes and the fast and brave riders are revered, while we overlook the people who really make mountain biking happen. The trail builders, the event organizers, the shop employees, the guides, the guys working on trail advocacy, the guys who turn up to every club meeting, who volunteer at events, drive their buddies when they are injured, the fathers and mothers who support their kids, and the people who take someone out for their first ride. These people actually make everything happen and I feel we have taken them for granted, everywhere, for too long.
Meeting these people – the real cogs that make mountain biking go around – was the real payoff for that cycle tour. Our bodies were tired but our spirits keep rising because we were invited to look into the heart of mountain biking. And, I thought, if Roy and Paul can keep going late into the night, then we could too.
Photos by Dan Barham & Andy Rogers/The Escape:WeAreUnion