Hardwood Ski and Bike welcomes hundreds of local mountain bikers every Wednesday night for their popular, long-running weekly racing series.
Some race as a way to enjoy the fresh air, some race to stay active and some race for a chance to represent their country on the international stage.
The weekly races run for 18 weeks beginning in May and wrap up with a season finale at the end of August. The races have been going on at Hardwood since 1993.
Don Gain began racing at Hardwood in 2003. At the time, he had little knowledge or experience in mountain biking.
“When I moved up to Simcoe County, I found Hardwood Hills and it was like ‘This is the best place on Earth',” said the Ottawa native.
As a nature lover and outdoor enthusiast, Gain found satisfaction in racing through the forest but what he fell in love with was beyond the setting.
“I just love what it’s all about: The community, personal growth both physically and mentally and even sometimes emotionally, the challenge of it all is fantastic," said Gain, who is also a coach of young racers at Hardwood.
Gain is now ranked at the expert level and he tries not to miss many Wednesday nights.
“It’s just a wonderful way to spend a Wednesday night with a bunch of like-minded people who like to go have fun on their bikes.”
It’s also a great stress reliever, he noted.
“But honestly what it’s about at the end of the day, at my age, is I’m out having fun instead of sitting at home having a beer," said the 50-year-old.
The racing series helps push cyclists, Gain said.
“When you’re racing, you push yourself so much farther than you would if you were just riding your bike recreationally," he said.
“Racing is a lot different than riding. It’s like playing shinny hockey opposed to playing in a league and playing on a team," he said.
As a coach, Gain has had an opportunity to work with some talented young riders such as 24-year-old Peter Disera and his brother, Quinton, who is 20.
The two local riders started racing at Hardwood in 2007. They both now compete internationally.
Quinton won Nationals last month, which was hosted at Hardwood, and has placed in the top five at the Under-23 World Cup.
Peter is the current Elite National Champion for Canada and has high hopes of representing Canada at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The two brothers, who live in Oro-Medonte, credit their success and passion for cycling to having Hardwood in their backyard.
"Before Hardwood, we only had biked recreationally, but never in the form of a race,” Quinton said. “A buddy of mine invited us out to one of the weekly Wednesday night races, so we went out as a family to do that.”
They were immediately hooked.
"They have a points system where you can win different prizes and we realized after a few races in, that we were in contention for some of the prizes and that’s when we decided to start racing full time," Peter recalls of those humble beginnings.
Both Quinton and Peter train year-round and cycling is now their full-time job, but when they first joined the weekly racing series their goals were much different."
"When we started we just wanted to join for fun and do something to get involved with the community," Quinton said.
"The biggest thing with Hardwood was the social aspect and to be able to have fun with friends and have a whole community with you as you grow with cycling," he added.
As Quinton and Peter's skill levels grew, they never outgrew Hardwood and the weekly series.
“It was always a great racing experience,” said Peter. “We used those Wednesday night races as intensity sessions or we would use it to test equipment, strategies or situations in a setting where it wouldn’t matter if it all went sideways, and it’s nice to do those races alongside your buddies as it’s less mentally challenging."
"Hardwood taught me the fun-based skills that benefited me later on in my career," he added.
The brothers agree that Hardwood contributed to their global cycling success, and also concur it's a good place for cyclists to get started.
"They really just facilitate the learning process. At that age, you’re just starting to learn how to bike, and they teach you all the basics," Quinton said.
Hardwood, they say, isn't necessarily a place that expects to produce high-level racers, but strives to be a place that inspires them.
"You don’t develop an Olympic athlete at Hardwood,” said Peter. “They facilitate life-long sporting passion and that translates to athletes who are capable of going the rest of the way.”
"They open your eyes to what it takes to be an Olympic athlete and from there you graduate out of the program knowing how to put in the work and build the foundation for your career," he added.