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Hyper focus is always the mark of great riding: that sacred rhythm that makes all but the relevant sensations disappear. When your pupils tighten as you map the lodgepole pines on the curves ahead, and memorize where to bend your knee and dip your bike; when taste, smell and even hearing disappear into tunnel vision. In this state, you can hammer, pump, and weave for endless miles—past secret lakes, under snowy peaks—singularly fixated on the gold lace that’s pulling you forward. Only when you reach a canyon that cuts the mountainside 800-feet deep do you stop, wet your lips, take in the flavor of all the trail you just chewed, and realize how tasty it is.
The first time I rode in Golden, British Columbia, some 17 years ago, it was an afterthought. I’d moved to this quiet, little mill town at the confluence of the Kicking Horse and Columbia Rivers after university, to ski. Kicking Horse Mountain Resort was then only a few years old, and was blowing people’s minds. In European fashion, it rose (and still does) some 5,600 feet up from town to overlook the Rocky Mountain Trench, and provided some of the most ludicrously steep and burly lift-accessed ski terrain on the continent.
After a winter that stitched my soul to that mountain, I decided to stay in Golden for the summer. But the peaks were so imposing I couldn’t imagine what the riding would be like. When I asked a friend, he gave me a one-word answer: “drastic.” That’s not a common adjective in mountain biking, but all these years later it’s still a perfect one for Golden. The valley bottom disappears so sharply up the stark wall of mountains on either side that it almost feels like a 90-degree bend. And while the lowlands around town offer an abundance of smooth, flowing XC trail with nary a root or rock to slow you, once you get above a certain elevation, the difference is indeed drastic.
I learned this the first time I ever rode Mount 7. While Golden is exceedingly welcoming lower down, up high, it is simultaneously one of steepest and most rugged places to ride a bike in the world. Throughout the late ’90s and early 2000s, this pointed promontory at the corner of the Canadian Rockies and Purcell Mountains played host to Red Bull’s Psychosis race, dropping 4,000 feet from a paragliding launch to the Columbia River in one cruel, unrelenting go. The start of the course, dubbed Dead Dog, is a 520-vertical- foot, 35-degree hole-shot that runs as straight as a ruler, and fades even modern brakes about halfway down. The trail still runs today, and is bafflingly open to the public.
Then, like passing through a portal, the bottom of this same mountain also hosts a nebulous network of XC trail called the Mountain Shadows, which sprawls and climbs up punchy tech with swooping descents through rollercoaster-like gullies. This is the theme in Golden: gnarly up high, mellow down low. And in between these two disparate styles of trail—which, in Golden, seem equatorially divided—is a town learning how to be a mountain bike destination. With a population of 3,700 set two-and-a-half hours east of Calgary, Alberta, railway and forestry historically supported the humble settlement. But for just over two decades, young adventure-seekers and tourism have been redefining the place. Today, Golden offers a refreshingly unusual mix of mountain-town bougie-ness and rural industrialism. Half the town is still taken up by the mill, train yards and diesel garages, while the other is being taken over by patios, bike shops, trendy food trucks, and taco joints.
But somehow it all works without getting watered down. Roughness is baked into Golden’s DNA, and celebrated; not just in the town’s blue-collar roots, but also in its riding character. This is a place that insists on preserving its heritage. Rather than overwrite its history, the Golden Cycling Club has instead chosen to bridge the gap, building epic (some might even say drastic) climbing trails on each side of the valley. Nowadays you can ride to absolutely every trail in town, from town, on singletrack, without the need to drive.
On Mount 7, the Schacher rises 4,000 feet over the 10 miles, accessing classic, barreling tracks like Dead Dog, Bris and B12—the latter an intimidatingly steep, loose, and tight trough that overlooks the Kicking Horse River from a couple thousand feet above it. Jump back over the Columbia, and CBT Mainline meanders uphill for 6.5 miles through the CBT network before delivering riders to the perennial Moonrakers system. Once at the top, another 38 miles of Colorado-style buff singletrack stretches along an elongated bench in a gladed evergreen forest, with the fang-like peaks of the Purcells erupting from the treeline above.
Roughness is baked into Golden’s DNA, and celebrated; not just in the town’s blue-collar roots, but also in its riding character.
While Golden does have modern flow trails—like The Mighty Quinn, Premature Excavation, and Hymenoptera—the bulk of the riding is no different than it was 25 years ago. And that’s a good thing. As tastes begin to go back in time, and riders seek out the big, rough, and raw, it’s making this growing little burg an increasingly popular mainstay for Eastern B.C. and Alberta. But there’s an equal amount of refined stuff, too.
The valley serves as a kind of mirror: The Moonrakers offer a smoother version of the Mountain Shadows, and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort Bike Park provides a gondola-accessed gravity experience that’s not as raucous or committing as Mount 7. Still, Kicking Horse is not a usual bike park.Instead of brown-pow flow in temperate, dense forest, you’re in wide-open high country, carving amongst heather and boulders, looking out past glaciers and a sea of summits. Rock is the dominant feature here, as well as shale, and that’s what you’re among when you step out of the Golden Eagle Express gondola.
Some of the more unique features include two alpine shale chutes—something I’ve never seen at any other resort. Once in the bowl, you’re made to choose between the bullet-straight Northern Lights, the meandering Dragon Chaser (which has an adjoining climb trail for extra laps), or the Rock Garden. Mid-mountain, you can wrestle with stage fright as you challenge the two enormous rock rolls right below the gondola (Rock ’n Roll), or ride the wire on the precision-demanding Stick Rock, which is entirely rock slab and skinnies… with jumps. Classic DH singletrack starts to flow from her, as the rock zone transitions to dirt on Pioneer, a chunky trail made famous by many DH races over the years, including Crankworx. Meanwhile, the lower mountain is where you’ll find the best jumps, on lines like Swamp Donkey, Buffalo Jump, or the actual dirt jumps. And if you’re there on the right day, you can get shown-up by 7-year-olds sending 25-foot tables (thank you, Kasper Treadway).
With the sun setting around 11:30 pm at the height of summer, there are only a few hours of darkness to keep you off your bike in Golden. Just be sure to bring your bug spray, and know that if you get a flat you might be on your own (local rule). With 128 trails over four full networks, plus a massive bike park, you might only hit a handful of the classics over 72 hours, but that’s the great thing about great riding—you’re only focused on what’s right in front of you.
How to do Golden Right
- Check out the Rockwater Grill and Bar for riverside pub eats, and the adjacent Reposados Tacos for lunch and dinnertime. The Wolf’s Den is the best burger joint in town, while Eleven22 hits a more upscale vibe in a funky, retrofitted Victorian home. Catch the Columbia River Catering food truck where it’s parked, too.
- Kicking Horse Lodging has you covered if you want anything from a condo to a mansion up at the resort. Down in town, the Prestige Inn is your go-to hotel, while The Cedar House (just south of town) offers a forest retreat vibe. If you want to camp, book at the Golden Municipal Campground, or the Golden Adventure Eco Ranch (five minutes south of town).
- Hit up Cedar Lake, halfway between the bike park and town, or the Confluence Park right in town, just before the airport.
- Double Black is the spot up at the bike park, for sitting or to go, and Bluebird Café has you covered down in Golden.
- Check out the Summer Kicks live concert series for free weekly shows all summer long, or watch the bill at the Rockwater Grill and Bar to see who’s playing.
Photos: Bruno Long