A chain reactionThe growing popularity of mountain biking has helped swell the ranks of Ontario cycling enthusiasts
By BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun
Cycling encourages a gathering of the eclectic -- not to mention, a lot of folks with mud in their eye and hair ... and ears ... and nose ... and up their shorts. It's a detergent commercial waiting to happen and it has a little something for everyone. That kid climbing a park bench on his bike could just as likely be our next Olympic hero as some candy-store stickup artist practising his getaway routine. In the world of teens and 20-somethings, cycling has become urbane chic.
Bicycling has changed from the days when all it involved was peddling very fast on level ground.
There still are dedicated road racing enthusiasts -- an estimated 3,000 in Ontario. But Steve Merker, executive director of the Ontario Cycling Association estimates that about two-thirds of its membership (about 6,000 cyclists) now participate in mountain biking on either a recreational or competitive basis.
"Mountain biking has a bit more sex appeal for kids," Merker said. "It is more exciting with the jumps than just riding down a road. It's pure fun, darting in and out of trees."
Parents are drawn to it because it gets their kids off the road instead of on it.
"It's easier to teach and parents can take their kids to a closed environment if they're a little leery about sending little Johnny out on the roads with cars and trucks," Merker said.
There are now more than 30 sites with trails within a two-hour drive of the GTA. The sport got a big boost when it debuted at the Atlanta Olympics with Canada's Alison Sydor winning a silver medal. She also has been a three-time world champion.
"It provided the sport with legitimacy," Merker said. "When kids see Sydor winning medals it gives them a role model.
"We had a similar effect last year with the world road racing championships. They were in Hamilton and we've seen a 25% increase in the number of road racers this year. When you get a big event like that, or the Olympics, it gets people intrigued."
A website, www.canadatrails.ca provides maps of mountain bike trails, their difficulty and whether there is any charge to use them. It also provides a ranking system provided by people who have actually cycled the trails. Very handy.
Trails can also be found in many conservation areas.
"The general rule of thumb is if you don't know -- don't go there." advises Mike Badyk, technical editor for Canadian Cyclist Magazine. "If you're on the Bruce Trail and it goes on private property you're not allowed to ride there; if you're on the Bruce Trail and it goes on to a conservation area, you're allowed to ride there."
Like many other devotees, Badyk originally got into mountain biking because he enjoyed nature.
"It was a great way to look at the scenery," he said. "I was a hiker. I'm 47 now and I've been mountain biking for 20 years because I found it was a great way to get into places and enjoy nature."
Turns out he did get a little more than picture post-card scenery.
"The vast majority of mountain bikers are 18 to 35, male, and white, if I can be blunt," Badyk said. "Then, I found a lady mountain biker. I married her because they are very rare."
In recent years mountain biking has sprouted its own off-shoots.
"A lot of the younger kids are doing BMX or free-riding," Badyk said, "which involves jumps and difficult obstacles.
"A lot of kids don't seem to be into the racing part of it."
Another emerging sport for the 18-25 age group is adventure racing, which basically is triathlon on a mountain bike. It involves swimming, biking and running.
Still, two-thirds of the Ontario Cycling Associations' 100 clubs concentrate on mountain biking, Merker said. In Ontario, the OCA estimates there are 4,000 active racers, each of whom will spend an average of $4,000 a year for things ranging from equipment, racing licences or accommodation for races.
"That's $16 million being spent in Ontario in the industry, so it's not an insignificant amount," Merker said.
The attraction to mountain biking is, for most, purely physical. Although unlike Badyk, Merker stopped short of actually marrying the sport.
"It has a lot of similar attractions as downhill skiing; you're outside, you're in nature, there's physical exertion but you're usually with friends so there's a great social element," Merker said. "In today's world where so many people are tied to computers and offices I think people just enjoy it because it gives them an opportunity to get out."
The big attraction to biking is that it doesn't have to be expensive.
"You don't have to spend a lot of money but if you want to drop ten grand there'll be someone out there who's happy to take it," Badyk said.
A decent entry-level mountain bike costs between $500 to $800. Not bad when you consider that, with care, it will last for several summers. Add another $200 to $400 for equipment and licensing.
One caution: "I see parents all the time and their kids have helmets and they don't. We call people who don't wear them, organ donors," Badyk said. "I've broken a couple (helmets) myself ... you're riding on rough ground; maybe you hit a branch. Things happen."
The cost of a helmet doesn't have to be prohibitive.
"The $20 helmet has to pass the same CSA standards as the $2,000 helmet so there's no excuse not to wear one," Badyk said.
Bikers can be a curious breed. The road cyclists have been around a lot longer and are the establishment of the sport. They're often serious-minded, capable of getting into heated discussions over such things as vitamins and the merits of going to bed early.
Notes Merker, "they tend sometimes to be a little finicky and cliquish."
Mountain bikers tend to be "the tree-hugging, granola-bar types," Merker said. "A lot are in it for a social aspect and don't mind sitting around afterward with a beer."
All of which, as executive director, makes for a delicate balancing act.
"They're a different breed and there's a rivalry," he admits. "I ride 25 kilometres to work a couple days a week and I have road wheels on my mountain bike. That way," he says of his membership, "everybody will be happy."
And, he's only half joking.
HAPPY TRAILS FOR YOU ...
HARDWOOD HILLS MOUNTAIN BIKE CENTRE
- 36 km of double track and 45 km of single track. It offers rentals, lessons, clinics, weekly races, camps and a cafe.
NEAREST TOWN: Oro Station
LODGING: Onsite B&B. Camping.
GETTING THERE: Highway 400 to Exit 111 (Forbes Rd) past Barrie. Follow signs to Hardwood Hills.
GANARASKA FOREST TRAILS
- Hundreds of miles of dirt roads and single track.
FEES: Adult $10/day, $50/year; youths (6-16) $5 (2003 rates)
NEAREST TOWN: Bowmanville.
GETTING THERE: Hwy 35/115 north of Bowmanville to Regional Road 9. Drive past Kirby and turn left on Cold Springs Camp Road and go 4 km north to the centre.
MOUNTSBERG CONSERVATION AREA TRAILS
- 16 km of easy trail operated by Halton Region Conservation Authority
ACCESS FEE: About $4/adult.
NEAREST TOWN: Milton
GETTING THERE: The park is a few km west of Campbellville.
TERRA COTTA TRAILS
- A 15-km network of trails. Lots of technical sections and some intermediate, has single track, double track and roads.
ACCESS FEE: $5 per vehicle.
NEAREST TOWN: Terra Cotta.
POINTS OF INTEREST: 408 acres on the Bruce Trail
GETTING THERE: About 2 km north of the Village of Terra Cotta on Winston Churchill Blvd.
BRANT TRACT TRAILS
- 10 km for all ranges of ability. Lots of single track, some double track, and some roads.
ACCESS FEE: No charge.
NEAREST TOWN: Paisley.
GETTING THERE: 6 km south of Paisley on Brant Concession 12, then 1 km east of Bruce County Road 3.
CANADATRAILS.CA PROVIDES A COMPREHENSIVE LIST OF TRAILS