by Roger Varley
(Anyone who has participated in or attended a mountain bike race in the Uxbridge area over the last decade or so probably has Sean Ruppel to thank. Sean stepped right out of high school into the business that has been his passion for years. We pried him off his bike long enough to join us for a cup of coffee.)
Sean, it just so happens you were at council this morning. You had a pretty rough ride there.
Yes. It was even rougher in that they changed the schedule, so when I showed up I wasn't able to see everything (in Andy Luukkonen's deputation [see Council story]), but I had coffee with Andy afterwards and got the lowdown. Unfortunately, there are people within the town council that really want things to happen in Uxbridge, but some people are just afraid for them to happen because they're afraid of what it might do to their ability to get re-elected. It's obviously politics. We're just trying - myself, Andy from BodyFit and Erin Bennett (owner of Wood Newton) - to run some fun community events on Erin's property. We're working with the town to try and get a Special Event permit use for three events a year. Those events bring thousands of people to the area,they spend a lot of money in town, and we actually work with the event to make sure people are coming into town to buy lunch, stay over, do all that sort of thing. So for us to be jumping through so many hoops is certainly difficult. I find it funny that I run events all over Ontario and Canada and the place that we have the most difficulty with is my own community where I was born and raised.
You have run a number of cycling events down at the Durham Forest. How did you do that?
They're a private entity essentially. You can call it crown land managed by a conservation authority. So the authority has the right to refuse or not refuse. It's not up to the municipality. They don't have a call on what happens on that land. Of course, there's the Oak Ridges Moraine Act that legislates certain types of use. But (cycling events are) great for the town, it's great for the people who enjoy the event. There's so many loopholes and difficulties with regards to zoning, if we were to go and zone (Wood Newton) as a commercial property it would cost so much money it would take 20 years of running events to make the money back. It's not feasible. A Special Events permit can get around that. We provide full insurance from our governing body when we're using the land. So there's no litigious effect that would be felt by the municipality. Why the town continues to be reticent about having the events is somewhat understandable because their lawyers are scaring them of what have you. But most of the people at council have been very positive and we're looking forward to this year. Every year seems to be a new battle but we're moving forward this year.
Let's get down to some basics, Sean. You and your brother, Adam, run Chico Racing, right?
Yes. Chico Racing has been running mountain biking events since 1994. Twenty-one illustrious years.
Where does the name Chico come from?
Chico in Spanish means little boy and my brother being diminutive in stature was nicknamed Chico because he looked like a little boy on a bike. But he usually beat everybody, so it was kind of ironic. We ran a few fledgling events: the first one was in 1994, called the SuperFly and it was at Durham Forest and we ran on a shoe-string budget with no idea what we were doing. I still say to this day it was the most profitable events I have ever been involved with because we had zero overhead as a company. Two hundred and sixty people showed up and paid $15 a head and the forest charged us $100 and we probably turned around the easiest profit ever. Moving forward, we began investing in ourselves, in our infrastructure, so the costs to run events became bigger and when it becomes a full-time job you have to make more money. And then we started running 24-hour events in 1998. We run the largest in North America, called the 24 Hours of Summer Soltice and it’s a great kick-off to summer with over 2,000 participants every year. My brother and I ran the Ontario Cup series sccessfully for 12 seasons. And last year, my own company calld SuperFly Racing Inc. took over that entire series. I’m still as involved with Chico Racing as ever I was but Chico Racing has given up a lot of the events it used to run.
What’s the biggest event in terms of participants that you`ve run?
The biggest event I've ever run would be a series of 5,500 people per day in a series called Mud Hero. It's Canada's largest obstacle racing series in Canada. For 2014 most of our days are going to be filled up. It's hugely successful.
So do you run events across the country?
For mountain biking, we've always been in Ontario only, Ontario being the biggest market for mountain biking. In fact, larger than all the other provinces combined. Ontario has the best topography, the best population dynamics. Here, Mom, Dad and kids get involved. Places like the Durham Forest can cater to people in their 60s who want to start mountain biking. They can go into hard trail systems and, especially around Uxbridge, being the Trail Capital of Canada, they can find a trail for every type of rider. Roger, even you could do it. You can ride double track, single track, and then we do build more advanced stuff. So it's more conducive to people of all ages and abilities riding a bike. That`s why we’ve always stayed in Ontario.
You talk about riding on the trails. Isn’t it true that mountain bikes on trails cause a lot of damage?
The only truth to that would be, again, population dynamics. If you look at the recent studies they've had of the Walker Woods tract, mountain biking is over 10 times the next use. So, by volume of riders it might be true that they leave more of a mark. However, one of the worst marks left on any trail system - and the Toronto Region Conservation Authority has put a lot of work into this - is actually hikers with dogs off leash. Dogs will run around and try to scare up nesting ground birds and they don't keep themselves to the trail. The beauty of mountain bikers is you can predict where they're going to go and you know for sure they're always going to stay on trail. If you properly build a sustainable trail, they can be built with minimal erosion and built to last. I've been building trails under SuperFly for years. The Durham Bike Association has been building more sustainable trails. It might be true that trails of 20 years ago did not hold up well to mountain biking, but after understanding the erosive capabilities of a rain storm and that bikers might chew up the ground, we've incorporated different building techniques to virtually eliminate wear on a trail.
Do you race yourself, or just organize races?
I have people come up to me when they've seen me ride a bike and they look at me like I have a third eyeball and they're like: "Wow, I didn't know you ride a bike." And if they see me race they say: "I didn't know you were fast on a bike." My brother gets the same thing. He comes from being on the national team and i used to race more than I do now. But I'm still quite competitive and I can usually hang with the best of them in my age category.
If I'm not mistaken, mountain bike races have been in the last two summer Olympics . . .
In fact, it's been since Georgia in 1996.
I didn't realize it had been in the Olympics that long. What effect did the sport's inclusion have on the mountain biking business/community?
Well, it certainly has had a positive effect. Mountain biking, which I refer to as off-road riding, because around here there are no mountains . . .
Tell that to the people in Zephyr.
Yes, I've ridden those roads many, many times. But the term mountain biking often scares off people, whereas if you call it trail riding or off-road riding, it gets rid of the notion that this is hard-core stuff.
You talked about obstacle races. I've seen a lot of YouTube videos of mountain bikers racing down courses that have jump ramps and incredibly narrow beam to ride across and so on. Do you get into that stuff?
We want our longevity in the sport. We don't want to get into promoting aspects of cycling that are more and more dangerous. We'd would call that North Shore style riding. We're primarily cross-country racing, which means there are natural features - rocks and you're hopping over logs , going up and down steep hiils at speed, trees don't more when you hit them, so there is inherent risk, but we have a very low rate of accidents at our events and we want to keep it that way. So we haven't run downhill events fr many years. We focus primarily on the cross-country riding.
What age range do your events cater to?
For the Ontario Cup series, you can be nine years old and up. Nine all the way to 100 if someone's able to pedal. So, people like you, Roger. There's no upper cap. But we do have events where there is no lower age cap and sometimes we have people pushing a kid in a stroller. We have a free kids' race at the 24-hour event that gets over 200 kids signed up and the age range is effectively two years old up to 11 years old.
Sean, I've known you since your early high school days. How old were you when you started Chico with Adam?
I believe I was 18. It was Adam's project and I started tagging along.
I guess what I'm trying to get at is, did you know what you would be doing with your life when you left high school?
I'm still not sure. The entire thing evolved very slowly. It was a great summer job while I was at university. We would run an Ontario Cup race, a 24-hour race and an eight-hour race. Then I finished university in 2000 and just kept running the events. I was never in a hurry to grow up and the events grew as I grew and now that I'm an elder statesman of the sport, I'm sot of the go-to guy for mountain biking in Ontario. But we have to pay homage to Eric Orschel in town. He's been running events longer than we have. He ran the Uxbridge Ice Breaker probably from 1990 on. I've grown with this sport and it's the only real job I've ever known. Now I can't possibly see myself doing anything else. I was just at a fundraiser for a team that came out of Walker Wood-Glen Major tract. It's a World Cup-level racing team and I'm quite involved with them. They're one of biggest teams in the world and their name is 3 Rox Racing. I've been going to World Cup events since I was a teenager.
So you must be excited about the new store coming to town, Trailspin?
It's great for the community. Given all the trouble we've had running events in this area, we really hope that having a bike shop is going to lend more credence. Uxbridge is not only the Trail Capital but one could suggest it is also the mountain biking capital. If you realized how many people on a given weekend go to the Durham Forest and Walker Woods to bike ride you would be astonished. And you would realize that living in Uxbridge actually puts you in the bread basket of mountain biking in Ontario.
Sean, thank you.