The BC Bike Race, a multi-day mountain bike stage race now entering its eighth year, has always had strong ties to the North Shore but rarely found a way to include the local trails in the circuit.
In 2009 there was a full stage and 2010 had a short prologue in North Vancouver but other than that the race has headed to other West Coast locales despite the fact that the two founders, Dean Payne and Andreas Hestler, along with many other key organizers, call the North Shore home.
One reason why the famous North Vancouver trails have not been used is because they were a little too unrefined, technical and challenging for a mass race involving riders of varying skill levels - from weekend warriors to world champions - from all over the world, said Hestler, himself an expert mountain biker who competed in the 1996 Summer Olympics and has raced every BC Bike Race.
"They're coming on a pilgrimage to the Lower Mainland of B.C. to ride the best trails in the world so we want them to have the best experience possible," he said. "We don't want to kill them.
And we certainly don't want to kill them on the first day."
Things have changed, however, in the last few years, said Hestler. Mark Wood of the North Shore Mountain Bike Association has spearheaded the Trail Adoption Program that has seen local organizations and companies get involved in trail maintenance and construction, aiding the Association's trained builders. That effort has cleaned up a number of trails so that they are ready for mass consumption rather than niche insanity.
It's the evolution of the trails over the last five years under the stewardship of the NSMBA that has allowed the BC Bike Race to return to the North Shore, said Hestler. This year North Vancouver will get things started on Sunday with approximately 600 riders set to begin a seven-day adventure that will also take them to Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast, finishing up in Squamish and Whistler.
The highlight of the North Van stage will be Expresso, an old trail on Mount Fromme that has had major work done on it recently by famed builder Todd "Digger" Fiander.
"It's the only trail my wife will ride on Fromme," said Hestler with a laugh. "It's what we call the new style - pump and flow."
The course will hit many other North Vancouver classics and race organizers are thrilled that they'll get to show off some of their favourite trails, said Hestler.
"It's a lot of pride to us to show our backyard - we like to spit and polish for a show 'n' shine," he said, adding that the Lower Mainland in general and the North Shore in particular has a prominent place in the history of the sport of mountain biking.
"(The sport) is only 35 years old (and) a lot of it has come out of Canada - this particular part of Canada," said Hestler. "So yeah, everyone is pretty excited about a bit of bragging, a bit of showing off.. .. The reason the North Shore and the Lower Mainland is famous is because we started earlier, we have more mature trail networks in the small area around us than anyone else in the world. Other people are building but we have to stand out for our place in the history of mountain biking and say, 'Hey, this is where a lot of mountain biking has gotten its energy and direction from. It's right out of North Vancouver, out of Whistler, out of the Lower Mainland of B.C."
History lessons aside, the BC Bike Race is still all about the single-track trails that are set to host this year's riders, said Hestler. He'll once again act as an inside man, competing in the race alongside the riders who have come from around the world to tackle the challenge. It's Hestler's job to make sure that the chosen route lives up to, and hopefully blows away, the expectations of the riders.
"The course is everything," he said.
"That's our product. The people coming here are coming to ride. You've got to have bathrooms and you've got to have transportation and you've got to have food, but people are coming here for riding, so it's got to be good."
Race organizers seem to have been getting it right so far. This is race No. 8 and each year the limited spots on the starting line sell out quickly.
"We really can't believe we made it to year eight," said Hestler, adding that it wasn't great timing to start up a relatively expensive adventure race during a global recession.
"First World problems: here we are putting on a leisure trend sport, basically," he said with a laugh. "Oh my God, we made it to year eight? That's crazy. How did we get here?" Fat tire fans interested in getting a look at the North Vancouver stage are being directed to a couple of cheer zones, one at End of the Line General Store and another at the top of Mountain Highway near the water tower.
The race will begin Sunday at 8 a.m. at Argyle secondary with the top riders expected to complete the approximately 35-kilometre circuit in a little more than two hours.
Argyle will also play host to a kids' race and farmers' market on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For complete event details visit bcbikerace.com.