Words by Felix Burke
Like a relentless metronome and a to-do list that never ends; Work, school, errands, and whatever other tasks I have often make me feel like I’m stuck in a hamster wheel. Yes, these are things that have to be done, but as I get busier in life, I also realize that I need to reserve some time to do what I love - the things that keep the kid in me stoked! No surprise here, I love riding bikes. The feeling of covering ground fast, seeing new places, and going on a spontaneous adventure, means that I can get a much-needed escape from the hamster wheel to nowhere and get lost without starting much further than my front doorstep.
A good start to any adventure is with pizza and maps.
Quinn and I, both students at the University of Victoria and full-time bike racers, do our best to fly by the seat of our pants and battle against conventional schedules and normalcies. But as hard as we try, we still have to hand in assignments and play by the rules. When Scott suggested this rather epic ride, with his experience in balancing a full-time job and going on amazing adventures, it didn't take much convincing to get us on board.
Chain lube and tire pressure, the classic last-minute preparation.
With hundreds of kilometres of trail stretching north of the city, the ride Scott suggested was destined to be filled with wrong turns, epic bonks, and (hopefully) second winds. These are the things we live for! So, despite the heavy grey clouds casting gloomy shadows over Victoria, we loaded the bikes, grabbed some snacks and set out for the hills.
Scott: "I was really excited for the potential of this ride. The idea of leaving the city and getting to a point on a map that I've only driven to was exciting, but I had no idea what it would look like along the way."
If you're going to meet anywhere, it may as well have sumptuous coffee.
The plan was to follow Victoria's intricate network of bike paths to the edge of the city and connect with the Sooke Wilderness Trail to head north. From there we’d meet the "Cowichan Valley Trail" to bring us further north to the shores of Shawnigan Lake. Once at our turnaround point, the Kinsol Trestle, we would head to the coast and board a small ferry to bring us across the Saanich Inlet to Brentwood Bay. From there we would cruise the country roads back into town and re-enter our normal day to day with a healthy fill of exciting memories after 140km of southern Vancouver Island's finest riding.
...but we all know what caffeine intake leads to.
With cold temperatures, wind and rain, the weather wasn’t overly inspiring. But while most of the city chose to spend the day huddled in their blankets, we followed Victoria's bike path labyrinth while weaving in out of neighbourhoods and along industrial parks until we got to the edge of the city.
Quinn: "It was raining hard enough that I think it had all of us second guessing what we were heading out to do, but no one was ready to admit it. We rode through downtown and onto the ‘E and N rail-trail’ which is home to some of my favourite graffiti."
A little respite from the rain on our way out of the city.
As we left the city, the world got greener and we began to feel smaller. The roads narrowed, the houses became sparse, and sooner than we expected it was just us, the trail, and the torrential rain.
Into the hills we ride
This first section of the Sooke Wilderness Trail had all of our adventure taste-buds firing. This ribbon of fine gravel took us through a sea of green and a tall trees until we were faced with the trail pointing its way directly uphill, disappearing into the fog far above us.
Follow the trail, deep into a world of giants
The climb over the top of the Malahat summit was steep and unforgiving. In some sections we had to fight for every metre, grinding the chain over the chainrings and pushing hard on the pedals. It was here where our thoughts went blank and our focus narrowed on heavy breathing and our immense discomfort. The sweet escape.
The summit was a relief, and with the climb behind us and a descent to look forward to, the three of us laughed at the ridiculousness of our situation and edged forward. Maybe part of it was that we were three mountain bikers on gravel bikes and felt a little silly, but I think the majority of it was that we were too tired to think properly. All that was in our minds is that it was time to shred down instead of suffering up.
There is only one way to get through the mountains, and that is to grind.
Scott: "I was surprised with how dialled a lot of the Sooke Wilderness Trail and Cowichan Valley trail were. Each section was a bit different, and fun to ride for what it brought to the variety of the ride. Riding the downhills were surprisingly fun in a 1980's mountain bike kind of way - haha!"
Quinn: "The descent into Shawnigan was really rad as we were all seeing how sideways we could get on the gravel switch backs!"
Gravel bike shredding. It's real and it's rad!
What’s the optimal granular size for gravel? The answer is whatever we were riding here.
The descent from the Malahat brought us into the Cowichan Valley, where we welcomed the flatter terrain, using it to our advantage to cover distance quickly. We rode through a tunnel of trees and along the banks of Shawnigan Lake until we reached our furthest point from home, the Kinsol Trestle. Built in 1944, it is one of the tallest railway trestles in the world at 44m high. A worthy objective for the day's mission.
The Kinsol Trestle was the northernmost point of our route.
Leaving the Kinsol Trestle behind, we turned on a forestry road named “Koksilah Road”, a name that made the three of us chuckle in our bonked-state. The plan was fuel up on the in-house roasted coffee and pastries at the Drumroaster Cafe in Cobble Hill, as we were soaked to the bone with dwindling spirits.
Quinn: "For the thirty or so minutes before the Drumroaster stop I was really wishing we were there already. I was getting in serious need of a sandwich and coffee, and to be honest, a break!"
Through a tunnel of trees on the Cowichan Valley trail
We’d been battered by the rain since the beginning and the humidity was now working its way into my camera lens. As we left the café in Cobble Hill, I’d worried I had done some permanent damage to the lens but knew I couldn’t do anything about it until we got back. At this point, I wasn’t even sure that we were making it home in one piece.
The warm drinks and food at Drumroaster Café were well deserved and did their part in bringing us back to life (kind of). As we sat there watching the rain from the inside out, it finally came time to ride and all that lay ahead was pedalling into the downpour.
Quinn: "When it was time to get going again, we walked outside to some serious rain. It was not the moral boost I was looking for."
Scott: " Walking out the door of the coffee shop to hammering rain was not how I wanted to take on the rest of the day. We settled into the wetness and I opened my eyes to the details that make this area so special. The colours, the unique farmhouses and farm animals, all which seemed totally unfazed by the weather"
"It was pretty cool to have the horses let us pet them, and then one nibbled on my facial hair. Weird, but I'll take it.” - Self-proclaimed horse whisperer, Scott Pilecki.
From the café in Cobble Hill, the plan was to ride to Mill Bay and catch a ferry across the inlet, rather than riding back over the Malahat pass. However, after a long day of battling the elements that had left us exhausted, we missed a crucial turn and wound up lost.
Scott: "We checked the map again and realized the mess we were in. Shit! It was about 5:30pm, raining, and if we wanted to go to Mill Bay to complete our route there was a chance we’d miss the last sailing. It was too big of a gamble, so with fading light we made the call to put our heads down and head up the Malahat.”
The Cowichan valley is a full of twisty roads surrounded by unique scenery
The descent back down the Malahat, a notoriously dangerous section of the Trans-Canada highway on Vancouver Island, was made especially sketchy by the rain and the fleeting light. Hyper aware of the roadside debris and unpredictable driving from cars to our left, our eyes were wide behind our glasses but our lips were closed tight. It was intense, and as soon as we’d made it down the pass we collectively agreed that now was the time, if any, to have a drink. Luckily for us, Quinn had been carrying 4 Hey Y'alls, a B.C. hard iced tea drink, in his pack for the entire ride. He was just waiting for the right moment to share them with us, and this was it.
Quinn: "Before the ride I thought it would be fun to shotgun some Hey Y’alls when the moment was right. I threw a few in my pack before we left and, after surviving the Malahat, I knew this was it. A quick shotgun, made possible by the OneUp EDC tool, and it was time to make the push for the final 15km home."
With a little bit of liquid courage flowing through our veins we pedalled the last 15km together, swapping stories from the day, laughing at what had happened. They were the kind of laughs where you don’t even know if it’s funny, but you’re so tired that it’s all you can do. The laughter kept the discomfort in our heavy legs away, and as we rolled by the familiar landmarks and usual scenery, it was obvious that nothing had really changed here, but for us everything was different. In just 12 hours, we’d had more new experiences than a week of what running the hamster wheel can offer. We’d climbed mountains, defied the weather, and overcame stressful situations. Scott even had his facial hair munched on by a horse!
To us, rolling through familiar neighbourhoods was a welcomed return to our normal day to day. The ride we’d accomplished had left its mark and was exactly what we all needed. Today’s the perfect example of why bikes are the ultimate tool for the modern adventure.
Scott herds the Rocky Mountain athletes. He is a connoisseur of most things fine and is a black hole of conversation. Scott was riding a large Rocky Mountain Solo flaunting a Topo Design handlebar bag and conveniently carrying his OneUp Components 100cc pump and tool. The rain and cold were no match for Scott's Revelation jacket and merino wool Desperado Henley jersey.
Quinn is a hardman of bike racing, a lover of Whole Foods and tequila, and a proudly known as “The Dog Whisperer”. Quinn's Solo was equipped with OneUp Components EDC tool and pump, and he chose to run Maxxis Ravagers 650b rather than a more standard 700c wheel. His insulating 7mesh mission jersey, Oro shell, and thick skin kept him warm the entire ride.
A sushi-holic with roots in both BC and Quebec, Felix is a strange animal with XC fitness and DH prowess. Felix's used his dropper post equipped Solo to get as sideways as possible on the gravel corners and kept the grit out of his bum with some 7mesh MK3 bibs and Farside shorts. He stayed warm thanks to his Corsa jacket and Cypress vest.
The Long Way
Sam Schultz has driven south every winter for the past 11 years, leaving Montana’s snow-covered landscape behind to coach mountain biking and road riding in Tucson, Arizona. In those 11 years, he’s switched it up his plan a few times and detoured over to sunny California to ride, but the Sonoran Desert has a certain allure that has always drawn him back. Sam’s road trip always has an end game; to get back on the bike, push his own limits, and get a jump start on the riding season. He’ll be the first one to tell you he loves a good road trip, and that the best ones are filled with deviations, stops, and adventures along the way.
The whole life “van life” movement has really taken off, but it’s nothing new. The entire idea of it is centered around freedom; go where you want, when you want, with the only limitation being the need for a road surface to drive on. Riding a bike is not all that different. They’re an amazing tool for adventure and instill a strong sense of personal satisfaction and excitement. However, on a bicycle there’s no need to stop when the road ends. Sam’s bikes are a natural extension of his van, and he uses them to further explore his current location and bring on a unique perspective to his journey.
“I would say the more time I can have to get from point A to point B the better. Just stop and you have your garage full of bikes, your dresser, your changing room, your kitchen, your bed--everything you need. The best times on a road trip are the days the van doesn’t move at all” – Sam Schultz
Sam grew up racing mountain bikes. He entered his first race at 13 and was ranked at a national level, earning him a spot on the US Cycling U23 development team. After several years of competing internationally against the best in the world, it was announced that he was chosen to represent his country at the 2012 London Olympics. Sam placed 15th on the day, a result that he’s incredibly proud of. The Olympic Games weren’t Sam’s exit from racing, but it wasn’t long after that he began suffering from multiple back injuries that required multiple surgeries. One of the surgeries resulted in a spinal infection, and the other left him with rods and screws fusing his L4 and L5 vertebrae together. For a year before surgery, and a year after each surgery, it was non-stop physical therapy and rehabilitation. He was determined to return to racing.
“For me, it’s always been that if I put in the work, I see the result. That’s how my whole bike racing career was, and I feel very lucky that it was like that.” – Sam Schultz
Sam came to the realization that with his plaguing back injury, being a racer wasn’t going to be his future career. Like most people when their entire world is turned upside down, he felt a bit lost. The solution didn’t come to him overnight, but he took the time to try and figure out what it was that actually makes him happy. Sam loves to travel, meet interesting people, and he loves to ride his bike.
“The only thing I have found that compares to doing something yourself, is sharing it with someone else. Most people learn that in kindergarten, but that has been a pretty big epiphany for me.” – Sam Schultz
Sam’s been camping out and travelling with a van for his entire life. From road tripping with his parents’ minivan in high school for racing, to exploring the US with a quiver of bikes and his dog, Pancho. Right now, Sam’s biggest priority is to embrace his adventure, put the van in “park”, and get out for a ride beyond where the road ends.
Sam Schultz' Never-ending Road Trip
From Olympic cross-country racing to a life on the road, Sam Schultz lives for riding mountain bikes. He’s grown up chasing the top spot on the podium and was always driven by the excitement of fierce competition.
Nowadays, Sam’s working hard to launch a youth mountain bike league in Montana, coaching cycling clinics in Arizona, and driving his van around the US with his dog, Pancho, seated in shotgun. Sam’s never-ending road trip has given him a whole new perspective on mountain biking and life.
Where did you grow up, and where do you live now?
SS: I grew up in Missoula, Montana and I still call it home. Like a lot of kids, I couldn’t wait to move away when I graduated high school. It didn't take long to come to draw me back and realize that I am pretty dang lucky to have grown up here.
What first got you into riding?
SS: My uncle got my brother and I hooked on riding. Growing up with a sweet trail network out the back door, we were naturally drawn to explore our backyard. Uncle Chuck was an avid mountain biker who showed us what was possible on mountain bikes, so it didn’t take long for me to become obsessed with riding and talking to my parents about taking me to my first race (at my uncle's suggestion).
What was your path to the Olympics? Was racing part of your upbringing?
SS: I entered my first race was when I was 13, and as soon as I finished all I could think about was the next one. It wasn't long until my brother got into it and pretty soon my Dad was racing too. My parents were incredibly supportive; loading up the minivan with bikes and camping gear and traveling all over Montana and eventually the country. In my last year as a junior, I set a goal to make the world championship team and I squeaked my way onto the squad. The following year I was invited to join a U23 development program that USA Cycling had founded, and that program gave me the opportunity to compete on the World Cup circuit. After several years of international competition, I had progressed enough to score my first pro contract. It was a dream come true. I didn't really believe that the Olympics would be a possibility until I was named to the team leading up to the 2008 Games. I didn't make that team, but I knew I had a shot for 2012.
So, you ended up at the 2012 London Olympics. Was it what you expected?
SS: It was amazing to have the opportunity to represent my country on the biggest sporting stage out there. I underestimated the feeling of having what felt like my entire community cheering me on. I was super nervous, and the whole experience was out of this world. I finished 15th on the day - a result I was very proud of. The biggest downside to competing in the mountain bike race was that it happened to be on the last day of the Olympics. I had to miss out on some epic parties that week, but the closing ceremony was truly something special.
What have you been doing at the Cycling House in Tucson?
SS: I work both as a ride guide and a camp director for the Cycling House. I've been working for them on and off for the last 11 years. A high school bike racing buddy, and still one of my best friends, started the company 2 years before I got involved. We run all-inclusive cycling getaways out of a big house in the desert with delicious food, lots of shared hangout space, and great groups of people. They also run trips in Montana and all over the world now. We work like dogs, but we do so alongside great friends and with very interesting clientele. We get to spend a lot of time with our clients--and with bikes as a common connection between people who often times have polar opposite backgrounds, mutual respect, interesting conversation, and new friendships are usually the result.
Tell us about your goal of getting a High School Mountain Bike League going in Montana.
SS: Ever since I stopped pursing racing as a result of some back issues and a couple of ensuing surgeries, I’ve given myself a lot of time living in what I call, “temporary-semi-retirement”. Retired life is great, but I've also been seeking out the next project that will push me to be less self-serving and spread my passion for cycling.
All signs pointed towards a project with the NICA (National Interscholastic Cycling Association) high school and middle school mountain bike racing movement. NICA exists in 22 states across the US now and it is flourishing. Montana doesn't have a league yet, and I see this as an amazing opportunity to make mountain biking more accessible to kids in my home state. I think about how lucky I was to get introduced to mountain biking at a young age, and how much I learned from mountain biking. I would have been through the moon if we had a program like NICA when I was growing up, and I couldn't be more excited to be working on making it happen.
How did you meet your dog, Pancho?
SS: Exactly a year ago, I set off on a little motorcycle trip into Mexico. I had two weeks off and I wanted to see some new country, explore cool roads, and of course eat delicious tacos. Towards the end of my trip I rode past a burning dump--black smoke billowing out along a beautiful coastline. I was fascinated and had to pull in for a closer look.
The first thing I saw through the smoke was a puppy peering out of a water jug. I couldn’t think of much to do at that time other than bring some food and water to the pup, but even after I got back to Tucson, I couldn’t stop thinking about that dog. I drove back down in my van a couple days later and what I thought was one puppy turned out to be four--three black and brown puppies, and one scrawny little white one. I was chasing these puppies around through broken glass in a burning dump at sunset and I couldn’t catch them.
It was getting dark quick, so I started going after the smaller, white one. He fell asleep on a pile of trash while I was chasing him, and I scooped him up. He weighed less than 5 pounds, smelled like rotten fish, and was covered in fleas and ticks. I felt guilty after taking him away from his siblings, so I left the van door open to give him the chance to run free. He sat there staring at me. The whole story is pretty long (with getting him across the border and all that). You might have to buy me a beer to hear the rest...
You’ve told us before that your exit from the racing world was not an easy one. What was that like and how have you balanced your competitive drive?
SS: My exit from the racing world was pretty long and drawn out. I went through two pretty serious back surgeries; one that resulted in a spinal infection, and one that left me with rods and screws fusing my L4 and L5 vertebrae together. For a year before surgery, and a year after each surgery, I did physical therapy exercises more obsessively than I’ve done anything in my life. I had the blinders on and I wanted to get back to racing. I guess it’s that stupid, competitive drive I have. I think a rationale person would have thrown in the towel quite a bit sooner. For me, it’s always been that if I put in the work, I see the result. That’s how my whole bike racing career was, and I feel very lucky that it was like that.
I never tested well with VO2 max and lactate threshold. My hematocrit was so low bloodwork always flagged me as anemic. According to the lab, I should be slow, but I stuck with it, had fun, worked hard and the rest is history. Making the decision to exit from racing is probably been one of the hardest, but also the best things I’ve ever done. It was a chance for me to change my perspective completely. I lived in this bubble where I was obsessed with what I was doing, and racing was my whole world. Then I got out of racing, and it’s hard to even find the results.
How have you continued to keep riding as part of your lifestyle? Why?
SS: After finally coming to the realization that being a racer wasn’t going to work due to my plaguing back injury, I didn’t really know what to do. I thought it would be cool to put together an ambassador gig, but there are a ton of challenges trying to sell yourself from that angle as well. I pieced together a couple of low end deals, but nothing big enough to really make it worth doing anything that I didn’t actually want to do. It was a blessing in disguise, because it forced me to put effort into doing my own thing and really becoming that authentic story I was trying to sell. I started doing what I wanted to do and then some sponsor relationships have grown and it’s a cool gig.
Tell me about your pace in the van?
SS: Almost always, I would say the more time I can have to get from point A to point B the better. There are so many things to see along the way, and the van makes it easy. Just stop and you have your garage full of bikes, your dresser, your changing room, your kitchen, your bed--everything you need. The best times on a road trip are the days the van doesn’t move at all. If I stop, park the van, and just get to hang out. That’s the key. Nowhere to be and all day to get there. That’s a good way to be in the van.
What guides you as an evolving athlete?
SS: Endurance athletes that get to a high level of their sport usually don’t really get there without being pretty damn selfish. You have to take care of yourself, and it’s a lot about you to get to that high level. You end up making a lot of sacrifices, and it becomes difficult to what’s best for you with what others are expecting. I’m trying to work on being a little less selfish, because I have trained my whole life to perform at a high level. I say, “a little”, because I know I have a long way to go.
I’ve also really been taking my time to try and figure out what actually makes me happy. If I can get some riding in with interesting people and find some time for myself where I’m able to relax, I’m generally in a good spot. I still really like to push myself physically, and I feel really lucky to be able to do it even after my struggles with injuries. The only thing I have found that compares to doing something yourself, is sharing it with someone else. Most people learn that in kindergarten, but that has been a pretty big epiphany for me.
What advice would you give other people who are thinking about ditching the traditional life and hitting the road?
SS: A lot of people get in over their head trying to keep up with what other people are doing. Everything comes with sacrifices; the grass is always greener. I think being able to truly own what you’re doing at the moment is the best advice I could give.
I certainly don’t have it all figured out. I’m 32, I don’t really have a career right now, and sometimes I’m like “shit, what am I even doing?” but then I realize that I get to ride where I want to ride, work when I want to work, and piece it all together the way I want to. For me, as long as I’m learning I feel like it’s all worthwhile. I don’t think I’ll live the full “life on the road” forever – I kind of hope not – but I’m not going to regret the time I have spent doing it, that’s for sure.
Sam Schultz is splitting his time between riding the Solo, Instinct, and Element this season. He has his sights set on a couple races like BC Bike Race and the Downieville Classic but is mostly looking forward to road trips in his van that lead to amazing rides, and of course with Pancho by his side.