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Cyclists find physical distance heaven at Hardwood

Barrie couple will miss the Wednesday Night Races; 'We come as a family and trade off parenting duties so we both have a chance to ride. And the wider trails are perfect for going for a walk with the stroller'

This summer, local mountain bike riders are missing one of their favourite weekly events – the popular Wednesday Night Bike Race series – which has taken place at Hardwood Ski and Bike in Oro-Medonte for the past 25 years.

“This is the first time we’ve had to cancel,” said Arienne Strong, program manager at Hardwood, which is located north of Barrie on Old Barrie Road. “Cancellation of this event is especially tough because the series is like having a family reunion every week – kids, families, competitive team members – everyone comes together for the races. It’s exciting and fun and something we all look forward to so much.”

The decision to cancel this year’s series, which involves an average of 180 riders at each of the events held over the 18-week season, was made in May as a result of COVID-19 restrictions and an announcement by Cycling Canada and the Ontario Cycling Association to cancel all events up until August 2020.

This summer, Hardwood Ski and Bike was also set to host the Ragnar Ontario Trail Run and the Canadian Mountain Bike Championships, now both cancelled.

“The Canadian championships is a huge event,” said Strong. “Top riders from all across the country would have been here for a week training and competing.”

But Strong says it’s the Wednesday Night Race Series that has really made an impact on Hardwood’s day-to-day operation.

“There is such a variety of riders who come out every week – from families with toddlers on push bikes, to highly competitive Team Hardwood riders," said Strong.

Ian and Tamara Hopkins of Barrie are two of those who are missing the weekly events.

“We’ve been riding here for the past 11 years,“ said Hopkins. “It’s such a friendly environment and there’s something for everyone. The routes are always well-marked and there’s definitely terrain suitable for new riders as well as the technical trails for experienced riders.”

With Wednesday Night Races cancelled, the Hopkins have discovered a new way to enjoy the trails, now with their five-month-old son Jasper in tow.

“We come as a family and trade off parenting duties so we both have a chance to ride,” said Ian. “And the wider trails are perfect for going for a walk with the stroller.”

The couple also sees their visits to Hardwood as an orientation for their future bike-riding son.

“For sure, we will introduce mountain biking to Jasper,” she said.

“This is a family-friendly spot and right now, (with the pandemic), it is especially ideal. For social distancing, this is the place to come. Even when it seems busy, you don’t run into lots of people on the trail; it’s nice,” added Tamara.

Strong has noticed that people seem to be especially enjoying the outdoor space at Hardwood right now.

“On Sunday we had 190 people here. People from the city are trying to get out of the city, so we’re getting many new riders, which is fantastic," said Strong.

In spite of the challenges, Strong says there are still lots of opportunities for those wanting to get outside and ride, improve skills or take up a new outdoor sport.

In addition to being open seven days a week for casual riders, Hardwood offers private and semi-private lessons and will soon be announcing dates for adult Learn to Ride and Learn to Ride Better clinics.

Kids, aged six to 13 years, can join Hardwood’s 'Radical Riders', a five-week learn-to-mountain bike program, or sign up for Hardwood’s day-camp program, which runs on a weekly basis beginning July 6.

In all programs, small groups will be maintained. “The lovely thing about mountain biking,” says Strong, “is that for the most part, everything can be done at the two-metre distance.”

Bike rentals are also available.

“Our rental bikes are new this year,” explained Strong. “They are cleaned with disinfectant after each rental and we also rotate helmets so they are not used every day.”

For those interested in upgrading, there are also high performance bikes to try out.

Strong admits the decision to cancel events this summer has been tough. “We really can’t consider any events that involve large gatherings – the race series typically has over 150 people gathered in a starting pen, so it’s just not viable.”

Still, Strong and the staff team at Hardwood are optimistic.

“We are hopeful that there will be an uptake in the casual rider and that the increased interest in mountain biking as a fun weekend activity will continue.”

Strong encourages people to visit. “We’re here, we’re open seven days a week, we have lots of space, safe trails, lessons, picnic tables, and even amazing poutine (from Mike’s Big Mouth Sandwiches food truck).”