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