As I pull into the small gravel parking lot that marks the trailhead of Waterloo Region’s famed Hydrocut, I note that Brent Ellis and Joanne Beattie have already arrived. Local cycling legend Andy Cox has yet to appear.

Brent’s in the midst of unloading his bike from his van. As I pull my own van into the spot beside him, I give his rig a once-over. Carbon frame, Fox forks, rear suspension, dropper post. Sexy kit. Jo’s already on her bike – a gorgeous carbon hardtail with race pedigree – ready to roll. I see only the two vans in the parking lot, so ask Jo where she’s parked. ‘I biked here,’ she replies. ‘From Uptown.’ O jeez, I think to myself, still recovering from the burger, fries, and pint I’ve enjoyed at Harmony Lunch with Nick Benninger less than an hour before. I’m in for a rough afternoon.

I grab my bike from the back of my van and pray that Brent and Jo don’t think my prized Chromag hardtail reflects my abilities on the trails. For while I used to be able to rip pretty good, parenthood and ‘research’ for work (especially TOQUE’s food issue, released a few months back) have transformed me into something less than the lean, mean cycling machine I like to think I once was.

The sound of a third vehicle pulling in has me forget about the pain I’m about to endure. It’s Andy and his dog, Duke. Andy Cox. Of King Street Cycles and, before that, Vancouver’s North Shore. Andy’s Wednesday night rides are legendary, as are all the other events he and his shop put together. The one thing they have in common? ‘They usually end at Ethel’s,’ he notes with a laugh. Decked out in plaid Race Face gear and riding a slick Rocky Mountain full susser, Andy certainly looks – and rides – like a dude who can shred.

And so here we are. Three serious mountain bikers and me. On a Monday afternoon in November. About to navigate the Hydrocut – a system of twenty-eight unique mountain bike trails that span thirty kilometres.

Considered by many to be among the best in Ontario. And right here in our own backyard. The reason these three have met me here? To show me the work they’ve put into helping to build this trail system. Bit by bit. With picks and shovels and heavier machinery, too. And sweat equity. Lots of it. As members of the Waterloo Cycling Club (WCC) Trails Committee, Brent, Jo and Andy – and a handful of others – are the folks who work tirelessly to build and maintain the Hydrocut’s extraordinary trail system. As Brent notes: ‘We usually organize four trail maintenance days each year – two in the Spring and two in the Fall. We’ve had as many as sixty volunteers out with us at one time.’ Impressive numbers, no doubt. With more on the way.

While we cruise down the first bit of singletrack, I ask Brent about the Hydrocut’s popularity. ‘We had over 38,000 visits to these trails last year,’ he tells me over the sound of buzzing freewheels, ‘and we expect over 40,000 this year.’ Staggering. When I ask how he could possibly know these figures, he answers succinctly: ‘Electronic trail counters.’ Very cool. And certainly a far cry from the primitive trail system that, as high school students in the mid ‘90s, my brother and I would ride with abandon. Trails that, back then, were accessible to us only if we cut across farmers’ fields to a well-hidden (and mostly overgrown) trailhead marked merely by the hydro lines above.

‘This place has definitely changed a lot since those early days,’ Andy says as our group pauses to study an engineered dirt berm (with irrigation system) the committee recently built. ‘The whole area was all but shut down in 2001 when the Region noticed a bunch of unauthorized mountain bike stunts and trails on several private parcels of land. Since then,’ he continues, ‘the WCC has worked hard to build a solid partnership with the Region that has allowed mountain bikers back here.’ Brent adds: ‘In 2009, we finally managed to sign a stewardship agreement with the Region. Essentially, it stipulates that the WCC will build and maintain the Hydrocut in accordance with International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) guidelines.’ Hydrocut is code, here, for the whole system of trails like the one we’re on. Each with its own name – ‘Adam’s Run’; ‘Kamikaze’; ‘Mountain Goat Loop’; ‘Godzilla’ – and difficulty rating. (Detailed trail maps are available for purchase at King Street Cycles in Waterloo.)

As we hop on our bikes and begin to grind up a steep bit of singletrack, Jo notes:  ‘The Hydrocut is designed to be enjoyed by riders of all ages and skill levels – offering something for everyone. Still,’ she adds, ‘there are a whole bunch of trails and features that are designed for experienced riders.’ And, I think to myself, fit ones too. I shift into my lowest gear and drop further behind the group. I curse at the heavy Blundstones I decided to wear and feel my massive winter jacket beginning to suffocate me. And, just when I think I’m going to fall away onto the side of the trail, we crest the hill. Completely spent – and with a taste of lunch in the back of my throat – I wheeze out a question (anything to stop the biking for a little bit): ‘So how do you support all the work you do here?’ Thankfully, Brent’s more than happy to chat.

‘We sell branded clothing and cycling apparel, as well as our own Hydrocut beer [by Kitchener’s TWB Brewing] and coffee [by local craft coffee roaster, Contrabean].’ He continues: ‘And we’re always happy to talk sponsorship opportunities with regional businesses.’ A quick perusal of the Hydrocut’s website – – reveals a healthy list of businesses already on board. Waterloo Honda. Taco Farm. Adventure Guide. Devinci Cycles. Communitech. And more. I fantasize about how good a TOQUE logo would look on the site – and on the billboards close to The Hydrocut’s two trailheads. But not for long. The sound of Jo dropping in to ‘Kamikaze’ – a downhill with sweeping berms and a substantial jump – jars me back to reality.

And we’re off again. Jo, Andy, and Brent in front – and me holding on for dear life. When we arrive at the end of the trail, I am elated – and done in. While I anticipate the rest of the day and beyond, I console myself with the words of Khalil Gibran: ‘Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls’ .