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Touring the best trails in Nova Scotia with Andrew L’Esperance

Norco rider returns home for oceanside slabs and Atlantic Canada dirt

Photo by: Andrew L'Esperance

When the 2020 race calendar changed, Andrew L’Esperance found himself with more time riding at home in Nova Scotia than he’d had in years. For the Norco Factory Racing cross country athlete, the extra trail time was a welcome return.

“Getting to ride with friends at home in Nova Scotia is so important to me,” says L’Esperance. “These are the people that inspired me, supported me and helped launch this journey in professional mountain biking that I am on.”

But it’s not just a return to the familiar for L’Esperance. The trails back East are evolving. To the point, according to L’Esperance, that they rival anything in Canada.

“There is a lot of potential here with solid vertical to work with, amazing natural terrain and quite a central location to the entire province,” L’Esperance says of his home province. “It is hard to deny the fact that my measuring stick for trail is the trails I get to ride in B.C., and I rode some stuff there this fall that was on par if not better than quality B.C. mountain bike trail.

That rosy assessment is echoed by Haley Smith. Partners in life and on Norco Factory Team, Smith was impressed by the riding when she joined L’Esperance in Nova Scotia in the fall.

“The riding in Nova Scotia is incredibly varied. In and around Halifax, it’s more undulating with a lot of striking exposed granite and gnarly terrain,” says Smith. “In the ‘valley,’ you can get some big elevation with softer dirt and lots of roots. Within an hour’s drive, you can get a lot of different terrain in, from massive granite rock slabs, to Ontario-style speed and flow, to more loamy descending.”

Creating a community movement

For both Norco riders, who have experience on trails around the world to compare, it is as much the community element of mountain biking in N.S. that stands out as the trails.

“The riding community is friendly, welcoming, and less intimidating than in some other places I’ve ridden,” says Smith. “There are some seriously skilled riders out there, and they’re just as likely to have a friendly chat with you trailside as all the beginners (that is to say, very likely!).”

And the riding community in Nova Scotia, and Atlantic Canada more generally, is growing rapidly. If Canadian mountain biker’s were asked which of their country’s coasts is best known for trails, the East Coast might not be the first answer. But that could be changing.

This is no accident, says Terry Tomlin, a pioneer and vocal advocate of mountain biking in Atlantic Canada. The growth can be attributed to a huge community effort, as well as the region’s natural appeal. As Tomlin says, “Atlantic Canada combines amazing riding with incredible lifestyle opportunities.”

“There has been an explosion of trail development in Atlantic Canada in the past three years. Trying to ride them all is akin to playing ‘whack-a-mole’ with a mtb – as quick as you can ride one network another pops up!” says Tomlin. “Traditionally many of these gems have been known only to locals and could be difficult to work into a vacation without knowing the lay of the land. Fortunately organizations like MTB Atlantic now offer a trip guide that identifies the most popular trail networks and, more importantly for visitors, provides itinerary options on and off the bike so one can easily plan a mtb trip that the whole family can enjoy.”

More than mountain biking

While the riding is a growing part of that tourism draw, Tomlin says it is “the ability to combine riding with lifestyle and quality of life in Atlantic Canada” that makes the region so appealing as a destination.

“Atlantic Canada, with it’s lack of traffic, low population density and arguably shorter driving distances (Newfoundland and Labrador excluded) delivers many recreational and lifestyle gems in a nice, tight package,” argues Tomlin. “Where else could you enjoy world class surfing at dawn, go mountain biking in the afternoon and then enjoy oceanfront dining in one of North America’s oldest cities all with less than 30 minutes of driving?”

And it’s not just Nova Scotia. MTB Atlantic offers local guides for all the regions. Head to Charlottetown to mix trails at Brookvale and Bonshaw with Anne of Green Gables dinner theater or a harbour cruise. “In St. John’s,” Tomlin teases, “the most popular technical trail network literally finishes on the Quidi Vidi waterfront where one can watch seafood being landed before savouring a meal at the award winning Mallard Cottage.”

While Smith appreciated the variety of riding in N.S., two areas stood out. “I loved riding the new stuff at Macintosh Run just outside the city,” says Smith, adding “and I had a wicked time at Wentworth.”

L’Esperance’s lists of favourites was, understandably, longer. For the full lowdown on mountain biking in Nova Scotia, read the interview with the Canadian cross country World Cup racer below.

Nova Scotia
Andrew L’Esperance inches from the ocean in Nova Scotia. Photo courtesy of the athlete.

Interview: Riding Nova Scotia with Andrew L’Esperance

Canadian MTB: If you only had two sentences to do it, how would you describe the N.S. riding scene – trails and community – to someone that’s never visited?

Andrew L’Esperance: The mountain biking in Nova Scotia is a unique experience full of variety, bursting with potential with a tight knit, welcoming and expanding community of riders at the core.

You’ve ridden and raced bikes across Canada and around the world. How would you describe N.S. riding? What makes it stand out, or what is something you’ll find there you won’t really find anywhere else?

Currently, I would describe the riding in Nova Scotia as quickly evolving with solid base of quality and a huge amount of potential. Over the past 5 years there has been an increase in efforts by community organizations to establish riding spots and build trails. This has been so awesome to see and every time I return to the province there is new places and new trails to check out.

One of the most unique places to ride, 20 min. from downtown Halifax, is McIntosh Run. The trails are built by linking together huge slabs of granite. Think Moab but the rock is a different color. I think another key part of N.S. riding to me is the coastal riding. It really resonates with me as I have a huge connection to the ocean but also love bikes. Any trail with ocean views, or one that literally takes you along the coast is a good one in my books. Also, the terrain varies quite a bit from place to place. In Halifax there is a lot of rock and the trails tend to be a little more technical, whereas an hour away in a car in the Valley, there is more dirt, roots and different kinds of trails arise form those changes in terrain.

You learned to ride in N.S., but now spend most of your year away. How have you seen the riding change over the years when you’re back visiting?

I think the riding has changed a lot recently with more focused trail building efforts in new locations. When I was coming up you wouldn’t be able to find anything that you would describe as a “flow” trail. Now there is machine built trails like that popping up all over, both descents and climbing trails. I have seen a bit of a change in the types of bikes people are riding with a little bit more gravity focused trail bike being more common. This is partly because of places like Keppoch or Wentworth building trails that have the vertical and are building trails to suit these bikes, and of course, it is a ton of fun!

You can still find the original slow-tech type of riding that I grew up with, but now the options for different kinds of riding are expanding. I think another major change is also the accessibility of the trails with smoother, less technical trails being built. This is awesome for our sport and it will allow more people to get into it and experience mountain biking. Plus, for those that have been around for a while, you just send these trails faster to increase the challenge and it is a blast.

What’s the most exciting new development – trail, trail center, or community development – that stands out from your most recent trip back?

Honestly, I think the most exciting area for me that is developing is in the Wentworth Valley. This is an original mountain biking spot, I grew up racing here in the early days, the original race course on the hostel side (opposite to the Ski Hill side) is still there and still as fun (and tough!) as ever.

There is a lot of potential here with solid vertical to work with, amazing natural terrain and quite a central location to the entire province. It is hard to deny the fact that my measuring stick for trail is the trails I get to ride in B.C., and I rode some stuff in N.S. this fall that was on par if not better than quality B.C. MTB trail. It was so much fun to ride these trails with friends this fall and I cannot wait to see how this location evolves and others throughout NS and all the Atlantic provinces

Do you have a favorite trail or riding area?

I have so many favorite trails in N.S. and I honestly cannot pick one. I love them all for different reasons. The essential riding areas to check out, in my opinion would be McIntosh Run in Halifax, any of the trails in the Valley near Wolfville and Kentville and then both sides of the Wentworth Valley.

What do you look forward to most when you know you’re heading back to N.S. to ride?

When I am heading back to ride in N.S. I love getting to check out new trails and most of all getting to ride with friends. Getting to ride with friends at home in Nova Scotia is so important to me! These are the people that inspired me, supported me and helped launch this journey in professional mountain biking that I am on.