These secret trails through Toronto's woods and valleys are mountain biking heaven
"Isn't this kind of dangerous?" I asked Sam. "Flying down a hill on a bike, going down trails with tight turns, and jumps doesn't sound like a really safe idea to me..."
"If you think about it, everything we do has some sort of risk involved. We could have gotten t-boned by a truck while we drove here," Sam replied. "You don't get it. It's all part of the fun. Riding the hills and jumps, it makes you feel so alive. It's the best therapy out there."
Tucked away behind the Loblaws on Redway Road (a small road off of Laird, in Leaside) we found the trails that we were so eager to visit.
We parked on the far side of the lot, a long way from the store, but just a few metres away from the trails. I drove past this same parking lot everyday on the way to work, yet, I would have never guessed that this was also home to Toronto's best mountain biking trails.
I helped Sam get ready and as he rode into the forest, I began my trip down to the bottom of the trail.
The sun was shining and the trees swayed in the cool April breeze. The sound of the birds was occasionally broken by the sound of a bike whizzing by.
As I walked down the trail, I thought to myself that it was odd to see such a nice trail so quiet.
'How do they know where they are going? How do they not get lost on the trails?' I thought to myself. I made it to the bottom and found Sam leaning on his bike, smiling. "What a ride man! I’ve got to do it again. Wish I had the energy though…" he said with a grin.
As we walked back up to the top of the trail, I began to realize that my adventure in the world of urban mountain biking was only beginning.
On the way home, I couldn't stop thinking about the trails, the bikes and the idea of whizzing around trails that somehow found their place in the heart of the city.
"What got you into the sport?" I asked Quincey Orta, an avid mountain biker who works at The Cyclepath. "It’s hard to put a finger on it," said Quincey.
"I always rode bikes growing up. I just found mountain biking to be calming. You are in nature, there are no cars around, you get into this state where you feel like you are in a movie. It's this 'flow' I guess…"
"Let's say that I want to give it a shot. Where can I start?" I asked Quincey, teasing the idea of maybe, just maybe, giving it a try.
"Well, you want to have a bike that can handle these trails. Ideally, you’d want some sort of suspension too. Make sure you have a helmet and off you go! It's simple." said Quincey with a smile.
"What about, in terms of location, where are the trails in Toronto? I was up by Crothers Woods recently, but that's it." I asked.
'They all go up and down with the DVP, they run right along the whole valley. I am sure that there are some trails out in the west end too." said Quincey.
As we talked it became clear that as reckless as the sport seemed to me, an outsider, there are many safety precautions that riders take. Wearing a helmet is of course number one.
Some helmets even have advanced systems like ANGI. ANGI is a sensor that detects crashes or falls. If it detects that you got into a crash, it sends you a text and if you don’t reply to say you are OK, a 911 call including your exact location is made.
Many riders also wear a motorcycle-style jacket with special inlays that protect the spine and ribs in the case of a fall. Still, there is always a risk and the element of danger is ever-present.
Tragically, a few years ago, a young man died whilst riding on the Toronto trails. The bikers that I spoke to said that he probably wasn’t wearing a helmet and was riding recklessly.
"That accident brought the mountain biking community together." says Christian Biagini. "Before we were this unknown group that few people knew about. After the crash happened, the big questions began to be brought up. Whose fault is it? Which trails are part of the park? There are just so many questions and not many answers…"
City involvement in the mountain biking trails continues to be a hot topic among riders.
"Personally, I don't think the city shouldn't get involved." says Christian. "I think it should remain the way it is. They let us do our thing, we let them do theirs. What if they decide to monetize the whole thing? Then what? The trails that we ride freely, that are self maintained, become someone's money machine."
Other riders, like Quincey Orta, disagree. "I think that we could use the city's help. I think that if the city did things the right way, we could make things safer for everyone."
For the time being, the community thrives by using an app called TrailForks to map out routes and trails. "It's a bit like Strava, but it's catered to mountain bikers," said Quincey.
"It gives you the trail maps and people can post their own photos and update the condition. So, if I go out and see that it's muddy, I can update the status of the trail to say that it's not in good condition. Anyone can post the status or their pictures [of the trail]."
"Who maintains all of the trails?" I asked.
"I wish I knew," chuckled Quincey. "Some of the trails are maintained by the city, but most of them are supposed to be walking trails, not biking ones. In terms of who maintains the other 'rogue' trails, we like to call them 'trail-fairies.' I have no idea who they are."
"Some days, you just show up and see that a jump was fixed. I think it says a lot about the mountain biking community as a whole. Like, it's not that they are doing this for the clout or the money. It's just people wanting to help others. We are also pretty dependent on the weather. The trails are just compacted dirt, they can get washed away pretty easily if there is enough rain."
"I think that our [mountain biking] community, especially in Toronto, is probably the friendliest one out there." Says Quincey.
"If you have a flat [tire] out there, you can be sure that someone passing by is going to stop and help you out. A new tube costs like ten bucks, but you know that by helping someone, you are creating a better community and if you ever end up in their situation, you know that someone will help you too. What goes around comes around."
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