The Challenge of Beginning in the Land of Mountain Bike Plenty

Learning to mountain bike in an area like southern Vancouver Island, an area with hundreds of trail systems, a vital and active mountain bike community, and the most temperate climate in Canada to encourage year-round, is not without its challenges. For an absolute beginner, the many trails in this area are mostly far out of reach. Luckily, my riding coach/man-chanic/sweetheart is also an expert on the local trails, and is happy to have someone listen to that expertise.

My absolute starting point, and the place we return to anytime I need some confidence building, is Royal Roads University. While the trails on campus are not technically approved for riding, there’s a complicit “I won’t tell if you don’t” agreement between the bike riders and the off-leash dog walkers who share the trails, and more than enough room for both.

The trails at Royal Roads have a lot to offer new riders – soft, loamy terrain, both double-track and single-track, a wide range of cross-country runs, and enough elevation gain and loss to test leg fitness and get the blood and adrenaline pumping. Royal Roads is where I learned that I’m uncomfortable in close  quarters, and also where I learned to over-come that, somewhat. It’s also where I’ve learned to hop small logs, the difference between wet and dry roots (dry roots fun; wet roots evil), and how fast I can go downhill and still turn before the bramble patch at the bottom. If you’ve never ridden off pavement before, Royal Roads is a great starter venue, and a very accessible spot for those short after-work runs.

For most local riders, the baseline ride area is one of the few fully sanctioned bike parks, Hartland. The Mount Work – Hartland regiona park is criss-crossed with a wide variety of all kinds of trails – big drops, creek crossings, fire road, rocky gnarly twisty bits, shady forest meanders, and even a technical training area. For me, unfortunately, Hartland is the only place I’ve had a major wipe-out – two of them. Yes, people will say that if I’m not wiping out I’m not pushing myself, but … I’m taking up a new sport in my 40’s. I don’t have anything to prove, and I have a whole lot to protect. In my beginner opinion, Hartland is too big a step up. Most of what’s considered the beginner area, a central fire road, is littered with baby-head rocks, and the remaining beginner trails are disjointed. There are wee bits of Hartland that I love riding, but it’s so limited that it hardly seems worth the effort of the rocky, crowded entrance. Then again, that may just be my bruised abdomen, leg and ego talking.

While the immediate local vicinity doesn’t offer a lot of beginner fare, it’s not a far drive to n00b mecca – Hornby Island. On my very first bike weekend road trip, and first meeting with the local women’s mountain bike club, I finally found that perfect balance of challenge and reward. A three hour drive, two short ferry rides, and suddenly an entire preserved island interior is available to arrive. Almost half of Hornby Island is parkland, and that parkland is ripe with an encouraging variety of trail.

What I really loved about the trails on Hornby was not that I could ride them now, but that they seemed like they’d be fun to ride someday. With the dense green underbrush, even the challenging runs seem somehow lower risk than the barren rockery of Hartland. I rode my first berms on Hornby Island, crossed my first bridges, challenged my fitness and my skills, and was rewarded with the most fun I’d had on a bike thus far.

I don’t intend to be a beginner forever, but better riding depends on gains in three key areas: fitness, skill, and confidence, all of which are gained in steady progression, not in sudden leaps. It’s time to move on from the bunny runs at Royal Roads, but not yet time for the black diamonds at Hartland. And so, I continue to look for trails like Hornby – gently progressing, and encouraging me to keep on riding.

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