Que­bec Sin­gle­track Ex­pe­ri­ence

For any­one who’s never been to Que­bec City, moun­tain bik­ing may not be the first thing that comes to mind. It’s the old­est city in North Amer­ica, steeped in his­tory, with gor­geous OldWorld ar­chi­tec­ture on cob­bled streets that of­fer melt-in-your-mouth past

Pedal Magazine - - Contents - by Lisa Willemse

Be­fore we get into the race stages, there are a few things you need to know about the Que­bec Sin­gle­track Ex­pe­ri­ence (QSE). First, if you don’t speak French, don’t worry. Even the most unilin­gual An­glo will get all the in­for­ma­tion needed – the QSE staff are flu­ent in both lan­guages and, with rid­ers hail­ing from many dif­fer­ent coun­tries, Eng­lish tended to be the de­fault for many con­ver­sa­tions.

Sec­ond, as I dis­cov­ered, this event can be done with min­i­mal train­ing. The stages are not as long as those in some of the big Euro­pean events, and the long­est stage, at Mont-Ste-Anne, starts from the top of the moun­tain – thanks for that – so the day was abun­dantly, bliss­fully down­hill (mostly). That said, if you want to com­pete for the cov­eted “Que-biker” leader plates, you’ll need to be very fit.

Fi­nally, come pre­pared for fun. Laugh­ter flows freely, as does the beer (on some evenings, thanks to event spon­sor Boréale), and each stage in­tro­duces some­thing in­trin­si­cally Québé­cois, such as pou­tine, maple syrup shots or axe-throw­ing. Plus, the or­ga­niz­ers made the base camp truly more invit­ing than just a place for the day’s awards and to grab food and catch the daily shut­tle to each stage. It’s a set­ting in which to re­lax by a fire in an Adiron­dack chair, lis­ten to mu­sic, or get your morn­ing cap­puc­cino or post-race mas­sage. In short, the QSE is as much about form­ing friend­ships as it is about rid­ing, and both are found at a level that ri­vals any other.

Stage One – Val­cartier

Start­ing easy at the QSE is not re­ally an op­tion. Stage One may look tame on pa­per as one of the short­est stages, but it didn’t take long to fig­ure out why it’s short – it’s tech­ni­cal and twisty with some ex­cep­tion­ally steep pitches.

Val­cartier is a Cana­dian Armed Forces base boast­ing a solid net­work of run­ning trails, many of which cut across the wider tracks used for biathlon and cross-coun­try ski­ing. Even though they’re not pur­pose-built for knobby tires, the old-school rid­ing is sim­i­lar to that in my home­town near Ot­tawa-Gatineau, so the rocks and roots felt like old friends. But there were few sec­tions to re­lax on over the first 19 kilo­me­tres of the stage. The timed as­cent was re­lent­less and had me won­der­ing if I’d made a mis­take in sign­ing up. Thank­fully, Val­cartier’s choppy and nar­row down­hill sec­tions made every me­tre of climb­ing worth it.

Sadly, this is to be the swan song for Val­cartier as a QSE stage, as we were in­formed that it would be QSE’s fi­nal visit there. Be­cause it’s on an ac­tive mil­i­tary base, the area could be sub­ject to last-minute clo­sure, which doesn’t make it an ideal lo­ca­tion for a stage race. I’m very glad I was able to ride it and, judg­ing by the mood and com­ments at the fin­ish, most of the other rid­ers felt the same.

Stage Two – Saint-Ray­mond sec­tor, Val­lée Bras du Nord

Stage Two of­fered up plenty of un­du­lat­ing hills to get my legs in shape. Un­like the rocks and roots on the first day, Val­lée Bras du Nord–Saint-Ray­mond of­fered up some in­cred­i­ble flow, both up and down. Most was con­tained within some stun­ning pine forests that af­forded open views of the trail ahead, as well as a bit of respite from the sun and high hu­mid­ity that had tem­per­a­tures soar­ing to near 40°C.

It’s truly hard to choose a high­light of the day, how­ever there was one stand­out – a new trail, La Mon­tée de Julien, had opened that morn­ing just for the QSE. At ap­prox­i­mately four kilo­me­tres, it was part climb, part de­scent and a to­tal rip the en­tire way, and not just be­cause I was one of the first to ride it. True, it was mushy un­der the tires, as most new trails are, and that in it­self was a lot of fun, but once it firms up, it will be a wor­thy ad­di­tion to the ex­ist­ing Saint-Ray­mond net­work.

Such new trails are part of the legacy left by QSE. A not-for-profit, the or­ga­ni­za­tion has des­ig­nated a por­tion of its an­nual in­come gen­er­ated through spon­sor­ships and reg­is­tra­tion fees to­ward the cre­ation of new trails in the Que­bec area. Each year, the lo­cal net­works can ap­ply for one of five grants that are up for grabs. La Mon­tée de Julien, along with a new bridge, will add to the ex­pe­ri­ence at Saint-Ray­mond, mak­ing the re­gion an even greater mag­net for lo­cal and vis­it­ing rid­ers.

Stage Three – Mont-Ste-Anne

If there was one day of the QSE that had me in equal fits of ex­cite­ment and trep­i­da­tion, it was the stage at Mont-Ste-Anne. These fa­bled fern-lined trails have hosted the UCI World Cham­pi­onships twice (with the third tak­ing place in 2019) and have been an an­nual stop on the World Cup cir­cuit since 1991. The DH and XCO races took place over the week­end di­rectly after QSE ended, and I was very much look­ing for­ward to be­ing trail­side at that time. But first I got to stake my own claim on the moun­tain.

As the long­est stage, Mont-Ste-Anne fit­tingly of­fered the long­est day of both climb­ing and de­scend­ing. It was ab­so­lutely bril­liant. The or­ga­niz­ers did a fan­tas­tic job of pulling to­gether a mix of just about every kind of trail you can name: down­hill tracks (the cross-coun­try-friendly va­ri­ety), En­duro, gravel, rock gar­dens, root and bridge net­works, and smooth flowy trails. Even bet­ter, they were mixed to­gether in a way that was con­stantly chang­ing, some­how mak­ing the to­tal dis­tance seem much shorter. Favourites for me that de­manded full at­ten­tion and quick re­flexes were River­side Down and Longue-Rive, two old-school, rooty and mucky (thanks to some rain) sec­tions hug­ging both sides of a river.

I rode the last 15 kilo­me­tres of the 45-kilo­me­tre stage with a for­mer Que­becker now liv­ing in Texas. On the first two stages, she and I had been trad­ing po­si­tions; she would over­take me on flats and climbs and I would jump in front on tech­ni­cal sec­tions and des­cents. In­evitably, we’d con­nect sev­eral times dur­ing the day and, at the last food sta­tion, we de­cided to ride the re­main­ing dis­tance to­gether. As she put it, “We’re stronger to­gether.” And we were; I waited at the bot­tom and she waited at the top. We crossed the fin­ish line to­gether, ce­ment­ing a friend­ship and mem­ory I’ll have long after I’ve for­got­ten the de­tails of ev­ery­thing else.

Stage Four – E47 Lac De­lage

Just one val­ley east of Val­cartier lies the small town of Lac De­lage, which rings a lake of the same name. And while they may favour skis and ri­fles in Val­cartier, it’s all about the fat-tires at E47 Lac De­lage. This rel­a­tively new 21-kilo­me­tre trail net­work was promised as a “re­cov­ery day,” how­ever, ow­ing to a down­pour the night be­fore and rain that fell steadily for the first hour of the stage, there wasn’t much re­cov­ery on the mud-soaked trails, but it was a whole lot of fun.

I have never been a big fan of rid­ing in the wet, mostly due to my dis­dain for clean­ing my bike af­ter­wards rather than the trail con­di­tions them­selves. At Lac De­lage, how­ever, I for­got about the dreaded bike clean­ing at the end and re­ally – re­ally – en­joyed the rid­ing. Each stage of the QSE has a timed climb and timed de­scent and clas­si­fi­ca­tions for both. The des­ig­nated seg­ments for both at E47 were in­cred­i­ble – the de­scent down Ka­ma­su­trail was a su­perb com­bi­na­tion of tech­ni­cal fea­tures and flow, in­clud­ing a nar­row pass through a rock canyon, barely wide enough for 800mm bars. The climb, La Mon­tée de Lait, was also var­ied, with switch­backs, small bridges and some rock prob­lems, made all the more chal­leng­ing by the wa­ter and mud. Although we missed E47’s sig­na­ture trail, a dou­ble-black called Haute Valkyrie, I will put it and the rest of the re­gion on my must-do list for a re­turn trip.

Stage Five – Lac Beau­port

Stage Five was set in the beau­ti­ful re­gion of Lac Beau­port, sur­pris­ingly close to down­town Que­bec City. The trails around Lac Beau­port are largely off the map (i.e., Trail­forks), as they are si­t­u­ated on pri­vate prop­erty. A whop­ping 68 agree­ments were made with area landown­ers to al­low ac­cess. There’s some­thing ex­tra spe­cial about be­ing shown a net­work of trails known only to the lo­cals who built them – I’m the kid who’s been given not just one candy, but the whole damn store.

On the bus over, it was an­nounced that the stage would have a 10-kilo­me­tre chicken line, due to the hu­mid­ity and ag­gres­sive fi­nal sec­tion. Any­one who hit the 26-kilo­me­tre mark could take a short­cut and suf­fer a time penalty. I didn’t plan to use it, but you can never pre­dict what might hap­pen in moun­tain bik­ing, even more so in stage rac­ing.

My first mis­take was get­ting off course in the first five-kilo­me­tre sec­tion. I re­al­ized the er­ror quickly, but when try­ing to cor­rect it, I made an­other wrong turn. Pulling over af­forded a good chance for me to watch the top 20 or so rid­ers go­ing hard on the hill. The men’s lead be­longed to Mon­treal’s Marc-An­dre Daigle since Day One. The women’s Gen­eral Clas­si­fi­ca­tion race was closer, with Amer­i­can Emma Maara­nen hold­ing a slim lead over France’s Lau­rence Cham­pavier – un­til this point, when Cham­pavier as­sumed the lead.

I missed two more turns farther on, the re­sult of a mushy brain after five days in the sad­dle and an as­sump­tion that the fast way must be the cho­sen way. Fast was not the name of the game on these trails, ow­ing to slip­pery roots and some steep, hike-a-bike up­hills. Shortly after I got back on track, my Mont-Ste-Anne rid­ing part­ner, An­nick, caught me and we con­tin­ued to­gether. At ap­prox­i­mately the 22-kilo­me­tre mark, she broke her sad­dle. A DIY fix with zip-ties helped, but she still rode much of the next four kilo­me­tres out of her seat and we both gladly took the chicken line to the fin­ish.

Stage Six – Shan­na­han sec­tor, Val­lée Bras du Nord

More than any other stage, the Val­lée Bras du Nord-Shan­na­han sec­tor cre­ated the most buzz among the QSE rid­ers, as it was well-hyped as the sig­na­ture stage of the event.

Val­lée Bras du Nord-Shan­na­han sec­tor was con­ceived in 2002 as a co-op to sup­port out­door ac­tiv­i­ties in the area. The moun­tain-bike trails were ini­tially drafted with in­put from Ver­mont’s King­dom Trails, which re­mains its sis­ter des­ti­na­tion. One can cer­tainly see some sim­i­lar­i­ties in de­sign, es­pe­cially at Saint-Ray­mond. But Val­lée Bras du Nord-Shan­na­han (and the re­gion in gen­eral) is not a lesser sib­ling. Rid­ers from across the east – and farther away – now travel to Que­bec to bike these iconic trails, which top the must-do lists for any­one who sets a wheel down in eastern North Amer­ica.

From the start at the far end of a rumbly fire road, the stage soon spit rid­ers onto the fa­bled Neil­son trail, which hugs the edges of its name­sake river as it de­scends ap­prox­i­mately 300 me­tres into the val­ley. There’s so much to ap­pre­ci­ate about this trail, from the tech­ni­cal rocks and bridges to the oc­ca­sional wa­ter­falls to the in­ge­nu­ity of the trail’s de­sign. Photo stops oblig­a­tory!

But Neil­son isn’t the only trail Val­lée Bras du Nord-Shan­na­han has to of­fer, and we rode a to­tal of 44.5 kilo­me­tres of them, in­clud­ing new trails Petite Ourse and Chutes à Gilles, both of which have beau­ti­ful trail­side wa­ter­fall fea­tures.

My favourites of the day were the timed climb and de­scent trails: L’Aurore and Boréale. The last time I was here, I missed these two trails due to a mal­func­tion­ing drop­per, so this was a bit of re­demp­tion. The 4.1-kilo­me­tre climb, with its 115 switch­backs and 68 bridges, is a work of art, and the de­scent is more than two kilo­me­tres of pure joy. Other than fin­ish­ing the fi­nal stage, my 28th over­all de­scent time might stand as my per­sonal tri­umph for the race.

Stage Seven – Sen­tiers du Moulin

Blue skies greeted Stage Seven at Sen­tiers du Moulin, lo­cated near Lac Beau­port. The mood among rid­ers and vol­un­teers that morn­ing was de­cid­edly dif­fer­ent – there was a sense of sat­is­fac­tion and ex­cite­ment for the last ride, with far less ten­sion, es­pe­cially among the Gen­eral Clas­si­fi­ca­tion con­tenders, as only a ma­jor blowout could change the fi­nal stand­ings. All of it was tem­pered with fa­tigue, and, of course, a bit of sad­ness: more than one rider told me they rode slowly to en­joy the event as long as pos­si­ble.

Sen­tiers du Moulin of­fered up a course that de­manded full at­ten­tion through the full 19 kilo­me­tres and de­liv­ered max­i­mum re­ward for the ef­fort. Three of the top-10 trails in Que­bec can be found at Sen­tiers du Moulin, and we rode two of them: the ram­bling Raph climb and Su­per G, a fast En­duro-style de­scent com­plete with big banked turns, drops and a wooden roller perched atop a small cabin. The third, Léon, is a more ag­gres­sive En­duro line, one of sev­eral to be found at Sen­tiers du Moulin.

As you might ex­pect, there was a great deal of cel­e­bra­tion at the fin­ish, where each rider re­ceived a loud wel­come and a medal to of­fi­cially be­come a “Qué-biker.” For one fe­male rider, So­phie, the race was es­pe­cially sweet, as, at the fin­ish line, her boyfriend on bended knee greeted her with an en­gage­ment ring.

The day ended with awards, din­ner, a video re­cap of each stage, danc­ing and a good deal of con­tact-info-shar­ing among the cy­clists. The or­ga­niz­ers and vol­un­teers have done a stel­lar job of putting to­gether a stage race that of­fers a col­lec­tion of su­perb world-class sin­gle­track, how­ever it is much more than race – it truly is an ex­pe­ri­ence.

The Que­bec Sin­gle­track Ex­pe­ri­ence of­fers a unique blend of su­perb world-class sin­gle­track and an invit­ing base camp where laugh­ter flows freely.

QSE is as much about form­ing friend­ships as it is about rid­ing.

From fa­bled Mont-Ste-Anne, to in­cred­i­ble Val­lée Bras du Nord–Saint-Ray­mond, and amaz­ing Sen­tiers du Moulin, you’ll be smil­ingwhen of­fi­cially be­com­ing a “Qué-biker.”

Que­bec City and re­gion are home to a ver­i­ta­ble gold mine of truly sub­lime sin­gle­track that de­serves to be on every rider’s hit list.

Mis­sion ac­com­plished.

There are so many fab­u­lous trails it’s hard to pick a favourite, and new trails are part of the legacy left by QSE.

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