Riding high on Vancouver Island

Cumberland and Mount Washington developments lead mountain biking boom in the hills and back country

The end of the road.

For some, it’s a vaguely ominous phrase that connotes things that are done, over with.

But for at least two Vancouver Island outposts being at the end of the road is a hopeful expression, symbolizing beginnings and excitement.

For the destination resort enclave of Mount Washington being at the end of the road also means being at the top of the hill

For the out-of-the-way sleepy village of Cumberland it means being at the start of the trail.

And for each it means being perched in an enviable position to consolidate the Comox Valley’s role as the Island’s go-to getaway for mountain biking.

Cumberland

No one gets to Cumberland by accident.

Despite its colourful heritage as a mining town, and quiet, energetic family-friendly reputation, it doesn’t have a signature mainstream attraction and it’s not on the way to anything.

Unless, of course, you happen to be a mountain biker.

Fifteen years of slowly chipping away at building trails and relationships resulted in the official launch earlier this year of Vancouver Island’s first authorized backwoods trail network.

Built and maintained by volunteers, the nearly 100-kilometre collection spiderwebs through a mix of public and private working forestland and is a precedent-setting model of co-operation between forest companies, local government and community volunteers. What they’ve managed to do is take what was an illicit labour of love by a handful of volunteers and transform it into an officially sanctioned community asset.

Cumberland trail“Everything done in Cumberland prior to this was illegal,” said Mike Manara. “Cumberland is a real good example of collaboration. It’s really a community initiative that I’m proud to be a part of.”

Manara is president and one of the driving forces of the United Riders of Cumberland, the small but hard-working volunteer group behind the creation of this mountain bike haven. It partnered with TimberWest, Hancock Forestry, the Comox Valley Regional District and the Village of Cumberland, to obtain the necessary legal protection for the activity in a manner that doesn’t infringe on forestry. In exchange, it got guaranteed continued access to build and use the trail system and support for a variety of community initiatives like trail mapping and information kiosks around town and online.

URoC also organizes and hosts a number of events, races and excursions.

As a result of these efforts, more than 60,000 visitors accessed the trail system last year, many of them staying in the local hostel, using the local bike store and patronizing Cumberland’s shops and restaurants.

One advantage Cumberland has on other mountain biking communities is the fact that its trails aren’t a long drive away from its core. On the contrary, for most of the village, the trail system is literally at its back door.

Manara has been carrying the mountain bike flag for a long time and said the sport has enjoyed a recent leap into the mainstream. At the event level, the number of participants has grown from 50 or 60 competitors to more than 200. Where many of the faces riding past were once familiar, he now sees large groups pedalling by with no one he knows.

He credits a shift away from the extreme; whereas mountain biking was mostly considered an activity for daredevil athletes, it now has become more family-friendly — often more like a brisk stroll along a path than a mad dash between the trees.

“There has been a real explosion,” he said. “It’s not seen as such a hardcore sport.”

Mount Washington

It is that same family-friendly shift being emphasized some 35 kilometres to the northwest on Vancouver Island’s premier ski hill.

After a three-year hiatus, Mount Washington is re-opening its summer bike park this month with an emphasis on family fun.

In his regular day job, Manara manages the mountain’s ski school. But for the past few months the extra-curricular skill set he has built with URoC is being put to good use by his bosses as he oversees the design of Mount Washington’s new bike trails.

An estimated $250,000 will be spent on the mountain this summer in order to transform its slopes into heaven for two-wheelers, with similar investments coming in future summers.

“The first phase has been focusing on sculpting a new bike park entrance to the Hawk Chair with a series of berms that will be fun for every skill level,” Manara said. “Additionally, our beginner trail Green Line, is being reworked and Back in Black has received a face lift.

“In phase two, we are connecting a number of trails into one new line which will create the first new intermediate run, Highway 19. Phase three will see the top sections of the mountain linked together in a new way.”

The project’s watchwords are “accessible, fun and inclusive.”

trail rider“If you look at the most successful bike parks, all they are building is green and blue trails because it is all about getting people into the sport,” he said. “We’ve got quite a big process happening, a three-year plan. We want to cater to everybody. The old bike park had a lot of high-end trails. We’ve put a real focus on blue square kind of fun trails. It’s only 10 to 20 per cent (of riders) after the big flow trails.”

The previous bike park had operated for more than 15 years. It is re-opening as part of the vision of the mountain’s new owners Pacific Group Resorts.

“The decision to reintroduce the bike park wasn’t taken lightly,” Don Sharpe, Mount Washington director of business operations said in a media release. “Our new owners are committed to a successful long-term plan for summer development, so they wanted to make sure that whatever we did was sustainable.”

Manara says the plan is to create a mountain biking atmosphere that directly compares to downhill resort skiing, with a mix of beginner, advanced and purely social activities. Like skiing, it can involve daredevils jumping off small cliffs, or kids drinking hot chocolate.

The resort’s bike park can complement places like Cumberland by offering a more structured, controlled environment, spectacular views, daily maintenance, alpine terrain not available elsewhere, and  a comfortable chairlift ride to the top.

“Cumberland is a back country experience almost. There’s a support system on the mountain,” Manara said. “Where we can differentiate is we are offering lift access, and using the lift to ride some iconic descents.”

Work is ongoing on the bike park, with four to six trails expected to be ready for the public in time for a July 15 opening.

Elsewhere

The attractions of Mount Washington and Cumberland are accentuated by the trails at nearby Forbidden Plateau and Hornby Island’s celebrated tracks a brief ferry ride away.

Campbell River, Mount Tzouhalem and Mount Prevost near Duncan, the Nanaimo Lakes area and the recreation lands near Greater Victoria’s Hartland dumpsite are some of the Island’s other mountain biking hot spots.

Manara sees a growing push from other communities to legitimize their mountain biking opportunities in a similar manner that can only add to the Island’s reputation as a mountain biking destination.

“The Cumberland model resonates with a lot of communities,” he said. “Vancouver Island is a pretty special place for mountain biking and that’s why some of the best athletes come from here.”

Follow me on Twitter @JohnMcKinleyBP

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