Chasing Schultz: Travels With Sam and Pancho

WORDS BY
Pete Harrington
PHOTOS BY
Stirl and Rae Photo

Sam doesn’t race anymore. “I ended up having some back issues and a couple of surgeries,” he explains, as we work our way through breakfast in the Bavarian-themed town of Kimberley, BC. The diner’s half-open blinds split the sun’s rays, spilling light across heaped plates while we plan out the ride ahead, and talk Sam’s new, post-race career as a bike-adventurist. “I tried to get back to racing, but that wasn’t in the cards.” So what could he do? “Well, I could ride again, which was a relief,” he says in a typically Schultzian, understated sort of way, about his transition from Olympic-level mountain biker to professional Soul Rider. “I started piecing together some work and travelling in my van. It’s been hard building up a head of steam, but a heck of a lot of fun.” Not that shuttling between locations to find the next ride was a new experience for him. “I was always doing rides like this in the off-season,” he explains, as a waitress suddenly appears (Diner Rules: Never Approach, Always Appear) asking if we’d like more coffee – we’re good, thanks. “It was like withdrawing on the work I’d put in the bank while racing,” he continues after the waitress has bustled off to the next table, coffee pot in hand. “I was in great shape going into the off-season, so I took the opportunity to have some fun, and seek out new trails.”

Which is why we’re in Kimberley (‘A Good Place To Be’), a small, and for the most part, overlooked mountain town nestled in the southeast corner of British Columbia, bookended by the Purcell mountains to the north, and the Rocky Mountains to the south. Over the next four days, we’ll be chasing Sam with our camera, capturing him exploring, shredding and jumping his way across trails new and familiar, passing through Fernie and Whitefish, before landing in his hometown of Missoula.

The goal for today is to ride the Kimberley Mountain Park, home to a network of bermy, manicured trails that cut lines around the local ski hill. Once we arrive, Sam unloads from the van with a well-practised air, reassembling his Rocky Mountain in seconds while we take some time to check lenses, batteries and the endless bits and pieces that make up a photographer’s life in the field. Out on the trails, Sam finds his flow pretty quickly, and we squeeze off some easy shots as he channels through the trees, leaning hard into the turns, kicking up blooms of sepia-tinged dust before launching up and leaving the slowly fading spirals in his wake. Isn’t he meant to be a cross-country rider? “I love jumping man!” he exclaims when we’re back at his van, sharing the viewfinder and scrolling pictures. The last few catch Sam ripping down a rollercoaster section of regenerated trail, his bike forced almost horizontal in one of the wilder turns; face set in a gonna-drop-it grin that only our camera set to a fast shutter speed could have captured. Happy with the shots, he hauls his hammock out of the van. “Yep, that was a sweeeet trail,” he calls back over his shoulder, yomping through the undergrowth to find a couple of suitable trees. Later, he returns to the van to make coffee and leaf through a paperback in the setting sun.

3 am in Fernie is not pretty. Sam prepares coffee with the aid of a headlamp. If you need a headlamp to make coffee, something has gone terribly wrong. But today, we’ll need all the juice we can get for our ride to the Summit of the Three Sisters via the Heiko Trail, a route which boasts close to 3000ft of climbing in the first 3km alone.

At 2788m, the ‘Sisters is lofty. Sam though is feeling good and with the sun only an hour from rising we take to the bikes to begin our ascent, stopping regularly to hike-a-bike up human-made vertical stairs, passing waterfalls, rivers and dank caves that reach out with icy fingers, before emerging into flowering meadows that serve as foregrounds for the high alpine ahead. By the time we reach the top some three hours later, the mountains are turned orange by the rising sun, and we’re ready to shoot some stills.

The singletrack flows, and with Sam darting off to explore, we pick spots and shoot, capturing him through twisting, meadow-edged trails and loose turns that melt away, easing the bike outward as the wheels dance on the very edge of adhesion. The early start is all but forgotten, and we make great time, enjoying the descent back to the van after wrapping up the shoot with light in hand.

The following day we turn south and cross the tourist-heavy border at Roosville to pass through Eureka en route to our next ride destination of Whitefish, Montana.

But, we’re fried. The ascents, early starts and long drives are taking their toll – who knew riding every day was so hard? Which is why, when a sign for H.A Brewing passes us by, we almost roll the van making a turn in the middle of the road. Curled up in the back, Sam’s Mexican rescue dog, Pancho, sleeps on.

A pint of frosty pale ale and a wood-smoked pepperoni pizza later, we feel fresh enough to explore the Ten Lakes region with a drive out through the fire-ravaged area of Gibralter ridge, eventually reaching untouched green a ways out from signs of last year’s burn. Pancho bolts out of the van, swiftly followed by Sam, while we check out the angles and wait for their return on the edge of the cool sun-dappled trails beneath the trees.

Not long after, we hear the muted machine gun patter of Pancho ’s paws, and soon sight him in the lens leading Sam through the sweeping curve that lays to the right of our vantage point. A panting blur of white belts across the lens soundtracked by scrabbling tires and staccato shouts from the saddle to stay the dog’s enthusiasm. “Well, he’s feeling good today!” Sam shouts from a couple of switchbacks below, laughing to himself while riding back up through the trees with a now satisfied Pancho trotting by his side. After a short break, Sam heads back out, this time working the boards, launching off the timber ramps to drift amongst the hazy dust motes in the slowly dying light.

Pressed for time before he has to depart for a blind enduro in Thompson Falls, we pack up and head to Sam’s hometown of Missoula for the last stop on our trip, taking the opportunity to ride some of his favorite local trails while we have the chance. Arriving in the evening, we rush to catch the last rays with a blast up Mount Sentinel, where Sam takes off amongst the prairie; the evening light turning the ground a deep gold as he pushes a comfortable pace over the mountain’s lower shoulders.

After a quick beer back in town, it’s finally time to say goodbye. And like all goodbyes, it happens in a sudden, fumbling rush that for a while leaves us wondering what to do next. We’re going to miss sharing Sam and Pancho’s simple life on the road, even if our time together was only short. But as surely as this amiable, wildly talented ex-pro is stringing together a new career from one adventure to the next, we’re in no doubt that it won’t be long before we join them once again.

The trails go on.