The Far East: Newfoundland’s MTB Community Was Forged Through Resilience

Photos: Wayne Parsons

Resiliency is a word that can be defined as toughness. And while most mountain bikers can be characterized as resilient, the riders in the Canadian province of Newfoundland could be the toughest of them all. 

It’s said that the weather shapes the people. Nowhere is that truer than in Newfoundland. The climate is harsh with doses of moderately pleasant weather in the summer. Wait five minutes, it will probably change. Jutting out close to the middle of the North Atlantic, Newfoundland gets hammered by brisk Arctic fronts that often mix with tropical storms from the Gulf of Mexico. Rain rarely falls straight down, with regular hurricane-force winds. Snow is measured in feet, not inches. Lucky visitors can experience all four seasons in a day.

The uniqueness of Newfoundland’s landscape would best be described as a combination of Ireland, the Cornish coast, and the Faroe Islands. A province so rich in history, it rivals anything else in North America. This is the spot where over a thousand years ago, Norse Vikings first landed and set up a small fishing community. European explorers came here to fish in the late fifteenth century and decided to stay. It has one of the oldest cities in North America, the capital St. John’s, where today, remnants of the past rest along with modern, diverse cultures, and a rich arts scene.

Newfoundlanders by nature have to be resilient to live, let alone, thrive. Assumptions would hold that the combination of unpredictable weather and sporadic economic downturns would result in a miserable lot. In spite of their hardships, Newfoundlanders are anything but miserable. Instead, they’re warm and inviting; always eager to lend a hand and offer a piece of what they own. Literally.

It is widely accepted here that strangers are welcomed into people’s homes, both in times of need and just for a visit. The challenging weather conditions have shaped locals to be as quick to call you on your bullshit as they are open to accept you as a friend. If you visit, bring your sense of humor and let your guard down. Mind the big city attitude, as they’ll be quick to point it out.

These innate traits that mostly all Newfoundlanders share, is never more evident than in its mountain biking community. Mountain bike destinations in Canada, for most, start and end in British Columbia. Yet, riders shouldn’t overlook the strength of the mountain bike scene on the opposite side of the continent, in places like Newfoundland. Newfoundland’s bicycle community is tiny when compared to the west coast, but it could be argued that it is relatively stronger. 

The catalyst that spearheaded the growth in the riding scene could be pointed mostly to one man. That man is Chris Jerrett. He has been working behind the scenes for as long as there have been mountain bikes. Owner of Freeride Mountain Sports, Chris has been pushing other riders and promoting the scene in Newfoundland going back thirty years.

“We don’t just sell bikes, we support the cycling community and are constantly working to expand the cycling infrastructure around St. John’s for everyone to enjoy,” reads their website.

Chris’ take would be far more humble, as he cites the need for involvement in order to allow his bike shop to survive. There is more to the story. Chris wanted trails to ride; he wanted others to have trails to ride. So, he decided to start building trails, sponsoring riders, and organizing races.

Jerrett in action.

His need for a mountain bike trail network helped spawn a new crop of riders. While a few of these riders became employees, some of them became customers, and many became friends. Chris always reminded new customers about a new trail building project, sliding in a reminder that without trails, you don’t have anywhere to ride.

Trail development — and difficult ones at that — consequently helped develop local talent. Two-time national downhill champion Matt Beer is one rider who took advantage of the rugged Newfoundland trails as a part of his training. Matt’s speed was earned on non-lift-accessed trails, unlike other top riders who were able to develop skills in places like Whistler. Matt’s double win was a victory for the whole province of Newfoundland, especially for Chris, who had a direct impact on Matt’s success.

Other riders, who were introduced to the sport through Chris’ bike shop, came of age in the Canadian cycling industry. From industry insiders to professional racers, they all worked for, or were a part of Chris’ bike shop in one form or another. If you happen to be standing in a lift line at Whistler with a mountain biker from Newfoundland, it’s almost a guarantee that person knows Chris. I’ve known him for over a quarter century. I remember him as an ex-punk rock vocalist, skateboarder-turned-mountain biker who always reminded people how terrible roadies were. While that punk attitude has waned a little, it still lurks under the surface.

I was born and raised in Newfoundland, but really didn’t cut my teeth in the cycling industry until I moved to BC in the late nineties. When I came back and witnessed the growth and camaraderie in the house that Chris helped build, it was a humbling experience. While attending a trail day in the second week of December, volunteers in excess of fifty-strong showed up, all of whom were happily moving rock and digging in near freezing conditions. This happens every Sunday, rain or shine. The only thing stopping people is when the ground freezes. Assuming that most of the volunteers work full time jobs, that leaves them with just one day a week to ride. Many spend their other day off building trails. How many of us can say that we are that dedicated? 

These numbers are proportionately large, compared to other, larger mountain bike communities. In my own experience on countless dig days in BC, which hold much bigger mountain bike populations, the number of people who show up for volunteer work can be minimal.

“Yeah, there are a lot of people here today, but we usually do get a lot if we’re cutting in a new line,” says Chris.Everyone knows Sunday is build day.”

Newfoundlanders appreciate every trail day, as riders know that you have to put a little in to get something out, if you want mountain biking to flourish. Riders here have a short season, without a lot of trails or support from landowners, so they give back the best way they know. Watching the builders work was a lesson in efficiency, as they seem to know time is of the essence.

Chris gave us more detail and insight to the history of mountain biking in Newfoundland and how he helped develop the scene.

“My earliest trails were built for cross-country races and I did not fully understand the impact of the trails and how the race scene could grow. I did not really look at the growth of the sport and connect it to the trails. The trend in the nineties was cross-country riding and these trails were raw – no real design or plan, just basic cuts in the woods on private land with a verbal agreement with the landowner.”

“By the late nineties, I opened my shop, Freeride, and once it was up and running, I realized, to grow the sport we have to have places to ride. By 2005, we had a downhill race series with six races per season on five different tracks. The hill was only 600 feet high, so it was the best of two runs that took the win. I saw the impact of the racing at the shop as sales grew, and finally fully realized the true growth of the sport and business side of things was the construction of trails.”

Then, it kept growing.

“By 2010, we had a mix style trail zone in the east end. The trails border on the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the small village of Quidi Vidi on the other. The place was becoming popular. Many of the build days it was just me that showed up. Work was slow. The love of the art form of trail building is what kept me going.”

But, ten years later, the community has caught on. Residents realize the impact and importance of building.

“Jump to 2020 and we now build once a week with an average of thirty people showing up. We have a strong organization with AMBA (Avalon Mountain Bike Association). The trails are always getting better as I now have more time for design, and for me this is the best part. Planning where the trail will go and how it will flow, scouring the woods looking for control points is the art of the design.”

The Newfoundland mountain bike community doesn’t have it easy, as they get little support or recognition from outside agencies for the talent that is bred here. While many trail builders have scratched in illegal lines, we know that mountain biking is a viable tourism draw. However, in Newfoundland, trail advocacy and accomplishment can feel like it’s twenty years behind the times, compared to more popular places like British Columbia. It’s not for a lack of effort, as the Avalon Mountain Bike Association’s small crew of volunteers are constantly fighting for scraps.

Every rider and trail builder here works for themselves and for the greater good of the riding community. Nobody wants, or expects, a pat on the back. There is no bragging about what they’ve accomplished. There is a quiet humility – something we can all learn from. That’s part of the charm. Newfoundland mountain bikers know what they have and they’re fiercely proud. They built it, they own it, they fight for it. Their hard work is one hundred percent driving the industry here. Maybe the best part is, they don’t push the outside world away. They love sharing their hard work with anyone who decides to visit. 

Chris Jerrett’s shop saw a resurgence, as many did, when Covid hit. He expanded his floor space to over double the original footprint. He has more high-end bikes than any shop in Eastern Canada. That growth didn’t just appear out of nowhere; it’s the cumulation of almost thirty years of hard work building the mountain biking scene in Newfoundland.

The mountain bike community here, like Jerrett, is unapologetically ‘Newfoundland’ to its core – caring, humble, and undoubtedly resilient.

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