Gravel Guide Vancouver: Three Hot Loops
Recently, Barry headed to Vancouver, one of Canada’s largest and densest cities with the optimistic view that all cities have access to nature and some sort of gravel. Over three days he rode three routes that all had different vibes. If you are new to Vancouver gravel, start here.
For the last six years, my focus has been off-road riding. Whether that entails gravel riding, mountain biking, or bikepacking, I've been on the hunt for those untouched singletracks and dirt roads situated in remote locations. After dedicating my entire adult life and career to moving between Toronto, London, New York, and Tokyo, I was in need of a reset. I centered my attention on my bike and reconnected with the dirt, far removed from crowds, vehicles, and, most notably—the city.
This spring, my family and I traveled to Paris to visit some friends. Having spent a good amount of time in Paris over my life, I must admit I wasn't entirely enthusiastic about returning to one of the world's busiest cities. It felt as though I had moved past that kind of urban existence and I was concerned about missing my bikes and local trails. So, I decided to bring my gravel bike to France with a hunch that there must be some gravel tracks in or around the city, which could fulfill my desire for both shredding and nature. The experience turned out to be incredibly wonderful and made me reconsider whether I had been unjust to cities ever since I left them. Don’t all cities have access to nature and likely some form of mixed-terrain tracks as a result?
Following my time in Paris, I was eager to delve into Vancouver, a quick ferry ride away from our home on Vancouver Island. Despite having relocated to Vancouver Island around 4 years ago, my familiarity with the city of Vancouver remains quite limited. Naturally, I'm acquainted with its North Shore and its renowned mountain biking trails, but what about gravel paths? Frankly, I had no clue. Hence, I readied my bike for a three-day adventure and set off for Vancouver, carrying with me the hopeful belief that there must be some dirt waiting to be discovered.
This list is by no means exhaustive when it comes to gravel rides in Vancouver. In reality, these might appear to be the most obvious loops to locals familiar with the city. But, that's perfectly fine. This article and the routes presented are intended for those who are new to the city, or those contemplating whether to bring their bike to Vancouver.
Cycling in Vancouver
Even before I started riding around Vancouver, I assumed the roads and paths would be excellent. But it turned out to be even better than I expected. In fact, I think it has the best cycling infrastructure (that I've experienced) in North America. It feels like every part of the city is easy to reach by bike, with protected lanes and private roads for cycling use.
Getting from one place to another in Vancouver often means going over some decent sized bridges. The good thing is, these bridges have nice paths for bikes which makes it simple to go back and forth between the main part of the city and the North Shore. The only exception to this seems to be riding from downtown to the Tswassen ferry—but that's a whole topic that could be its own article.
Loop: Cypress Side Quest
The folks over at Love Machine Cycling (RWGPS) are the brains behind the creation of the Cypress Side Quest route. This ride is a mixed terrain rip that links up various gravel paths that traverse North Vancouver. Let's address the obvious right from the start: the North Shore is no joke, and this ride boasts a solid elevation gain featuring punchy, steep climbs. The North Shore has earned its reputation as one of the world's mountain biking capitals for a reason.
On the day of the ride, I woke up with the bright idea of taking on the loop in reverse. My plan was to ease into the ride, giving my legs a chance to warm up while maybe enjoying a coffee en route. Alas, this was a mistake. Looking at the elevation map, it's quite obvious that going clockwise on the route leads to some seriously steep climbs and hike-a-bikes.
Getting over the Lions Gate bridge from downtown was super fun with some fantastic views of the city and Stanley Park. Heading west, I was mostly riding on the road under the mountains and slightly intimidated by how large they seemed. Once I finally got into the dirt, the route packs in some pretty gnarly stuff. I decided to skip the last stage to Horseshoe Bay and instead turn back along Fern Trail. Fern Trail was the highlight of the day that made all the climbing and excessive chonk worth the while. Beautiful pristine gravel doubletrack with a ton of singletrack dumping off the sides. Being able to see the Vancouver skyline from the trail was surreal.
After another stretch of tarmac, hitting the Cleveland Dam and Capilano river was a treat before bombing back down into the city. The Cypress Side Quest is a tough ride but a great initiator into North Shore gravel.
Loop: Afterschool Special
Afterschool Special is another great route from Love Machine Cycling (RWGPS). I went into this one with low expectations… How good can any inner city park be? But after the previous day on the North Shore a park ride was exactly what the doctor ordered and how fast I was proven wrong on it being boring or lame. Afterschool Special starts with a quick loop in Stanley Park, through the hectic streets of downtown before hitting the pavement in the beautiful seaside community community of Kitsilano. As I rode this top section, the North Shore was on my right and locked in cloud and mist. Man, was I happy that I rode it the day before with some visibility. After a stretch of road, you hit Jericho beach that has a gravel path along its entirety. This little stretch was a lot of fun, just watch out for the rabbits that have overtaken the area.
Past Jericho, I entered Pacific Spirit Park, a wonderful 874 hectare inner city park that will make you feel lost in one of North America's largest cities. At one point I somehow got off the main line and ended up in some beautiful rolling trails that opened up into a grove of old growth Hemlock, Fir and Spruce trees. It made me wish I was a better photographer and I wanted to stay in the moment forever.
From the north end of the park to the south is one huge treat for any cyclist. You barely have to pedal as the elevation gently drops the entire way. As I reached the bottom of the park, I was worried that I would be climbing all the way back to downtown but was delighted to come across the Arbutus Greenway path. Another fantastic piece of Vancouver cycling infrastructure that stretches from South Vancouver to the Granville Street Bridge. I loved every second of this ride.
Loop: Seymour Valley
This loop was suggested to me by the one and only @gravelandpave and seems to be a staple in the Vancouver gravel scene—for good reason.
On my third day of riding in the city I finally woke up to a stunning day—the sun was shining over the bridge and the whole city felt alive. Getting to Seymour Valley was 20km of protected bike lanes from downtown. However, as I left the city roads and ducked into the forest, I was surprised to find... a road. No explanation will do it justice, but there's a 9 km stretch of tarmac heading up the valley that had me wishing for a road bike for the first time in many, many years. I eventually turned off the forest road onto a wonderful piece of loam-covered singletrack that connected to a service road that led to the Seymour Dam. En route, you pass through more singletrack through old growth forest with a salmon hatchery and eventually reach the dam that supplies much of Metro Vancouver’s water. The dam sports a few small bridges in front of it that are a perfect stop to take a few photos and get some calories in. After the dam, I flew down Spur 4 road that led to Fisherman's Trail and was hands down, one of the best rips I have ever had in the gravel. Don’t miss this ride.
Again, most Vancouverites will probably find this list of routes almost naive, but that's kind of the idea. If you are new to gravel in Vancouver these routes are a great start and will help you get familiar with the various off-road cycling zones in the city. I love what Love Machine Cycling is doing for the city by documenting these routes. I hope to discover similar sites popping up for other cities in the region.
From our side, we really hope to continue this series of introducing gravel lines in more cities around the world. Stay tuned.