Island time is well known to residents of Hornby Island, B.C. It means slowing down long enough to enjoy the eagles, the ocean and the enormous cedars. It's also time well spent ripping it up on the mountain-bike trails. Loops and swerves are strung together in a convoluted network. Bikers meet at intersections, deciding on new paths. Hornby Island makes for some of Canada's sweetest mountain-biking, mixed in with countless other ways to while away the time.
Hornby Island is northwest of Vancouver in the Strait of Georgia, sandwiched between mainland B.C. and Vancouver Island. It takes about five hours -- up to nine hours on a busy summer day -- and three ferries to arrive at Hornby's shores. Its mild climate, wildlife and spectacular ocean views lure many artists and naturalists. In summer, with cottaging Vancouverites around, the island's population rises to 5,000, while in winter it dwindles to about 750. But biking is an option year-round.
About 20 years ago, without the distraction of cable TV, a group of islanders started creating a mountain-bike haven. Tig Cross, raised on Hornby, is one of the forefathers.
"Hornby is unique from the rest of B.C. riding in that there's few rocks and roots," Cross says. "A thin coat of dirt lays over conglomerate rock, and we get less rain too. This makes for smooth, fast riding."
Without extensive erosion, some 20-year trails haven't been maintained at all, other than other thanthe occasional branch clipping. And compared to North Vancouver's infamous insane downhills, Hornby riding is tame.
Today, there are 26 trails tracking 80 kilometres. It's a mix of wide gravel roads and narrow, dirt single-track trails. Most of the trails are long enough to provide a 10-minute ride before it's necessary to switch onto a new trail. Four Dead Aliens, Furry Creek and Washing Machine are all considered easy, fast, twisty, single-track trails.
For the traditional cross-country rider, My Way is the longest continuous trail -- 45 minutes uphill, or if you prefer the other way, a fast 20-minute downhill.
The most picturesque is Cliff Trail, which follows the west side of the island along a cliff's edge overlooking neighbouring Denman Island. Straight down 304 metres you can see eagles flying between the tops of gigantic cedar and fir trees.
If you want to increase the adrenaline rush, No Horses includes a series of fast switchbacks that turn the bike on its side; it's like riding the sides of a bowl. Spasm Chasm lies on top of an old creek and is full of ruts and dips that are fun to hop through.
Your Mom was built by a younger generation of riders and has elevated boardwalks, stunts and jumps, while Hot Rails follows steeper terrain.
For 12 years, Hornby was home to a premier riding festival: BikeFest. There were bands, parties and lots of riding. Sadly, it's gone, says Cross, one of the organizers. However, legacies linger. Some of Canada's best riders, such as Olympian Andreas Hestler, Geoff Kabush and Kiara Bissaro, started racing at BikeFest, and Hornby was the site of the first dual slalom race, in 1992. The dual slalom is now a standard at many international and national bike races.
Cross ran the island's bike shop from 1991 to 2001. Originally called the Squash and Cycle, after a farmer who sold enough squash to start a store, it's the place to rent a mountain bike or pick up some spare tire tubes. But as Cross suggests, "You don't want to spend the entire day riding, there's too much else to do on Hornby."
The epicentre of the island is the co-op grocery store. On a busy Saturday morning, locals sit on cedar stumps in the courtyard, sip java and maybe listen to some local musicians. Within the courtyard, there's a smattering of artists' shops and VIRIZO café (named after the island's postal code). At the gas station, you can buy a high-calorie peanut butter ball with nuts dipped in chocolate. Decadent. But energy providing.
If you want to get away from the hubbub, you can hike through the lush, green, oversized ferns that give way to the bluffs at Helliwell Park. Or try one of several beaches -- Little and Big Tribunes. Little Tribune is clothing-optional. You can kayak around the inlets, listen to some summer-love music or visit the animal farm. All the action happens in the summer, but that also means longer travel time as Vancouverites scramble to catch the ferries.
If you go
Hornby Island is three ferry rides from Vancouver. By car from Vancouver, take the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo.
Once you're on Vancouver Island, drive about an hour north on the new Island Highway. On the left-hand side is the exit for the ferry that goes to Denman Island, and on to Hornby Island.
Leaving Hornby can be a bit troublesome. The last ferry leaves at 6 p.m., which is either a curse to an appointment-driven urbanite or a blessing to a mountain biker with a night-light.
Hornby Island: Visit the Web site at
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