The Big Bear Feeling

July 26 — 2017

The trail in Alberta that brought Sarah back to Earth.

// Photography by Nick Nault //

There’s a stark contrast between the emotions of burying oneself to make the start time for an EWS stage and riding solo along an undiscovered climbing trail to an unknown destination. I was midway through my race season when, battered and tired, I traveled home to see my family last summer. My sister Liesl lives with her husband and kids in a little town called Blairmore, Alberta. It’s not known as a mountain bike destination by any means and I’ve always considered the riding in the Crowsnest Pass to be quaint at best. She sent me up a trail called “Big Bear” that day in June 2016, describing it as a “really grindy climb”.  I headed up alone, chasing vertical ascent for training that day when a storm rolled in at pace. My heart rate danced around its limits and encouraged me to hurry and avoid being caught out as I crested the climb that my sister had so adeptly described. This was one of the most powerfully enlightening experiences of my lifetime on a bike. 

The Crowsnest Pass is a collection of a few little towns along the Crowsnest Highway in Alberta. You pass through it on the way to Fernie from Lethbridge or Calgary. It is the site of one of Canada’s worst natural disasters (in Frank) and shares a lot of the humble qualities you’d find in any rural community of Western Canada. The CNP communities are rooted in a history of mining industry and the locals here are hardworking, lovely small-town people. It does not feel like a place that should offer trails so painstakingly hand-carved into the small-ish mountains at the doorstep of British Columbia, but it absolutely does. This place is home to a small handful of folks who spend all of their spare time dreaming up and labouring over a developing biking mini-mecca. 

The Stones Throw Café is in the heart of Coleman. It’s owned and operated by mountain bikers and is a great place to get your act together before you head into the CNP side-country. 

// Photos by Nick Nault //

What are the ingredients of that hard-sought-after magical ride?  You know the one: we’ve all had those moments out there. Hell, Whistler has even built its booming mountain biking tourism economy out of selling the idea of the magic one feels on that perfect trail or perfect ride. But are these experiences exclusive to those riding in these exclusive mountain biking destinations? The Big Bear climb was punching me in the face with this insight as I grunted up its climb for the first time, my heart pumping with urgency and effort. The Crowsnest Mountain loomed in the distance from across the valley of Big Bear, and over the wind whipping through my sweaty jersey and the sound of laboured breathing, I experienced that feeling deeply.  I was a full 12-hour of drive from Whistler and I was experiencing someone’s backbreaking masterpiece firsthand, crossing ridgelines, grunting up and around switchbacks and brushing my hands over blooming alpine flowers.  That day, I knew that though I appreciated the fitness and the personal growth racing the EWS offered me, this is what mountain biking is really about. It’s just…that feeling.

When I took my long-time great friend Peter Matthews to Big Bear for the first time this summer, I was practically shaking from the excitement of sharing the trail with someone else for their first time. Poor guy didn’t get the chance to experience this beauty of a climb and descent without my constant reminders of how “sick this corner is” or “just wait till we get around this bend”, but I think he got the idea. When I reached out to Nick Nault to set up a time to take photos on Big Bear, he arranged a big ride with Fernie locals to check it out before the shoot. People’s reactions are all aligned – riding Big Bear is a special experience: a thing of beauty.

I wasn’t inspired to write about Big Bear in Coleman so that folks might hit up Trail Forks and put a dent in the prevailing Strava time. Big Bear reminded me of that thing that drives all of us to get out for a ride every day (or every other day, or once a week…or whatever!): we are all chasing the dragon of that feeling. The shaky, bonky legs, sweaty bra straps and helmet pads…the feeling of all of those details disappearing into oblivion as we crest the ridgeline or find that right gear on the climb ahead that initially looks impossible. It’s that fleeting, sacred feeling that unites us all as mountain bikers: the one that’ll keep me on my bike until I can’t ride any more.


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