It does. And it shouldn't.
Notwithstanding the heroic efforts of the Ottawa Mountain Biking Association, who have selflessly and persistently built some fantastic trails in Kanata Lakes, the Ottawa region is inexcusably devoid of good mountain biking. This despite having a world-class landscape with immense trail potential and a vibrant local cycling community.
I'm not making an uninformed claim. As a mountain biker since 1987, when I moved to Ottawa in 1994 one of the first things I did was explore the region's rides. Since then I've ridden pretty much every metre of rideable trail and road within 100 km of Almonte, where I live. Those were some epic days. Now I'm exploring further by motorbike, trying to find untapped potential.
Tragically, much of the good stuff I used to ride years ago has disappeared under the developers paving machine, been marked "no trespassing", been legislated out of access by the NCC, or succumbed to the fear of liability. Consider the following rides:
- Gatineau Park. Once the local riding mecca with many kilometers of epic technical singletrack, the NCC has incrementally banned riding from almost every interesting area except the #1 fireroad. Great... your only option is to weave around families pushing strollers, pets on 20' leashes, and groups walking five abreast. No one's happy with that situation, least of whom riders. Of course, the NCC justifies their actions as "protecting nature". I'm all for protecting nature too, which is why it baffles me that the NCC's "environmental" activity includes allowing rich people to build houses in the park, roads to be blasted into tourist sites, and pristine remote singletrack to be bulldozed and widened so strollers can navigate it (think trails north of Lac Phillippe). Don't get me started on the NCC's rock climbing restrictions!
- Kanata Lakes. The poorly conceived Terry Fox extension planned for this year will destroy a major chunk of a unique part of the Carp Ridge. We already lost half of Kanata Lakes to vinyl-clad houses, whose developers blasted the crap out of every feature that made the place desirable in the first place, so they could create byzantine tangles of suburban sprawl.
- Mt. Pakenham. This area had mega trail potential just a short drive from Ottawa. I used to ride cross country there. I and a few others saw potential for 50-100km of world-class mountain bike park. However, I was told by the Wilderness Tours owners that liability concerns have shut the area to riders, so now it sits unused in the summer.
- Calabogie Peaks. Same as Mt. Pakenham, except they did have a short period of officially sanctioned riding. Unfortunately, it's just that bit too far from Ottawa to make business sense, but why not allow volunteer trail makers do some work?
- Wilderness Tours. The Rafters to Rapids trail is nice, but the minimal trail development doesn't justify the $10 fee and the one-hour drive each way.
- Eastern Ontario trails system. Now this has potential, but it's a looooonnnnggg way from support even for motorized riders, and the trails aren't designed for mountain biking. Still, an impressive epic potential--if you don't mind 100km between food and water opportunities.
- Stoney Swamp. Nice riding in a pinch or for beginners, but flat and limited in potential compared to other areas. Nevertheless, much kudos to the City of Ottawa for letting us ride there without the kind of neurotic, self-serving restrictions that some other government organizations would impose.
That's pretty much it for local rides. Quebec has its ATV trails, Toronto area has the fantastic Uxbridge Forest and Hardwood Hills, and there's the forest in Peterborough. Lots of ATV trails throughout the province. But only three hours away is the Adirondacks with a huge trail network and no bugs. I'd prefer to spend my money at home--even better, to ride right from home.
The Ottawa area has the raw ingredients to become a truly world-class ride center on par with centres in Oregon, Washington State, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, France, the UK, British Columbia, Switzerland, Slovakia, and many other places. It would be a great way to bring tourist dollars into the region. Worried about liability? How come the snowmobilers and ATVers can figure it out, with thousands of km of their own trails in Ontario accessible for only $150 a year? They have a great model. Mountain bikers know how to build trails, we have the labour and equipment, and we have organizations like IMBA to provide expert guidance on access and technical issues.
We just need our local government agencies to open their minds and consider cycling an important part of urban and suburban planning. Without that support, it's hard to get private landowners to take it seriously either.
Update (Aug 25, 2014): This post certainly resonated with readers. I'm happy to report that in the years since posting, I've negotiated land access agreements with local landowners, roped in some volunteers, and built 8 km of flowy single track connecting Almonte to the Mill of Kintail. We are currently working on a new trail network in the area, provided we can get all the necessary approvals. It's been challenging to work with the various public agencies (much harder than working with private landowners!) but fortunately some of them have been highly supportive of our efforts.
Update (March 17, 2015): Almost five years after posting this rant, and it's encouraging to see some real progress in local trails: OMBA and the NCC are working together to increase summer and winter (fatbiking) access to Gatineau Park; OMBA volunteers have further refined the South March Highlands trail network and undertaken some new trail development projects in cooperation with the City of Ottawa; Mississippi Mills (which includes Almonte) has been tremendously supportive of local trail initiatives, and we are in the process of extending our Almonte Riverside Trail through the Mill of Kintail to Bennie's Corners, which will give a total of about 20km of local singletrack; local landowners are stepping up to engage in discussions about how to secure trail access across their property. While the region is still not the dense trail mecca of a Kingdom Trails, there are many positive developments that should result in more trails over the next few years, with many benefits to the communities that support these efforts.