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Blue Belle’s last freeride

A history of mountain biking, from the cross ditches on Franz’s run to the sidewalks of Moscow



The first real live mountain bike I had seen outside of a magazine. The bike looked really tough, fat tires, chunky frame and just the thing to fly through the rocks or blast through the mud. It was the early '80s on the stairs at McConkey's shop at Creekside. When they came up with the phrase "early adopter" they were thinking of Finn Saarinen so it was no surprise to see him on a mountain bike. Finn, the eminent salesman, gave me the full pitch: sealed hub bearings, 21 gears, hell this thing went uphill as fast as the Red Chair. And those sealed bearings, you could ride it all day on Long Beach and wash it off in the ocean when you were done. The bike you had dreamed to own when you were a kid. This thing thrived on bad treatment.

I had to have one and within a week my new blue Nishiki was delivered. We became immediate friends. I reveled in what this bike could do, the stability, gliding through the forest, it was fabulous, a bike I had dreamed of without knowing such things were possible.

The blood sweat and beers shared with a bike should really earn them a name but for some reason I never have been able to tag a name to a bike, but this blue Nishiki should have had one, gladiator-ish or Columbus the great discoverer.... It was the beginning of a great adventure.

I worked at the time on top of Whistler Mountain, so I dragged that blue buxom beauty up the mountain and tried to ride it downhill, using the lifts to get it back to the top. Going downhill was exciting - no suspension and caliper brakes, I got pretty good at going over the handlebars but landing on my feet.

It wasn't long before I got a call from Georges Tanguay, the manager at McConkey's shop. "Allo Rojay, I want to try some real mountain biking, ride up the lifts with the bike and take the bike down some ski trails. We could rent some bikes and maybe sell a few more and give people something to do around here in the summer," he said in his silky French accent.

I recounted my early trials with the challenges of the drainage cross ditches, the inadequate brakes. But I said: "Hell yes Georges, come on up, it's tough but maybe we can find something."

We headed off from the top of the Red Chair in the direction of Franz's. Once on the pitch it took every bit of skill I had to even stay near the bike. Brake fade was losing the battle with gravity and by the time I hit the third cross ditch there was another flying lesson... over the front. Somehow I landed on my feet and broke into an essential sprint, the kind used in escapes from bears. I sprinted downhill as the bike wind-milled in the air, touching down just enough to get more air on the next bounce.

In search of something a little less adventurous we eventually found a road that led down the Blue Chair to an abandoned mine near the Singing Pass trail. We rode down there enough times without killing ourselves we can now say it was the beginning of lift-serviced downhill mountain biking on Whistler.

My blue buxom beauty had more adventures in store for me, riding through the forested valley floor in Yosemite, full moon, no lights - exciting, adventurous and crazy, especially when you see the number of bears that frequent that place.

Somehow the love affair I have with a bike makes it impossible to part with it, and so it was with the Nishiki. By 1991 she was past her prime but I took her to Tremblant. While out with some locals helping me discover the offerings of a Laurentian hardwood forest, I was caught fraternizing with what turned out to be senior employees of the resort we were trying to buy at the time. "He is getting inside information!"

I was on a plane back to Whistler two days later, the trusty steed placed in solitary confinement in the upstairs storage of a friendly hotel. Eventually my sentence was served and I was allowed to return and rescue my bike - and partake in the joy of discovery: the magnificent colours of the hardwoods in fall.

Bikes were quickly evolving with front suspension and cantilever brakes but I stuck with my beauty. I was too busy to focus much on riding. There was a day, however, in early October when I followed a friend through the rolling hills ablaze with colours and the air, a little crisp, a forewarning of things to come. The trail, weaving back and forth on a cliff, overlooked a lake with spectacular vistas. We went around a corner and there lying on the ground, half covered in leaves, was a hunter with his gun trained on whatever moved on the trail. Me, hunting season, time to put the bike away.

The next summer I bought a bike with front suspension. Wow, what a difference. And cantilever brakes! But for some reason I never really fell in love with that bike. It always felt like cold hard steel. In spite of the front shocks it just felt impersonal, like it didn't care about me, the guiding engine in its life.

Blue Belle was packed up and moved to Northwest New Jersey of all places, where what serves as mountains for a huge population provided some place to coast amongst the forested lake country. The steep hills were enough to blow the cobwebs off her and in doing so she attracted the attention of several locals who liked the idea and took up riding with me on my jaunts.

It seemed like no time and the adventure was destined for the high peaks of Colorado. Relegated to hanging on the wall in the garage like an old trophy moose, Blue Belle was overweight and out of date, and with everything over 9,000 feet she was just no match for the fully suspended lightweight steeds that charged the trails made by mules and miners more than a hundred years before.

Hanging forlornly on the wall, little did Blue Belle know she was about to embark on the next great adventure of her life. I had taken a contract in Russia, to build a resort, a candidate for the 2014 Olympics. In Moscow I met Vladimir Potanin, the idea and money behind the resort and the bid. Designed by Paul Mathews and his team at Ecosign right here in Whistler, the resort is a two hour flight south of Moscow. It's about the same distance from the Black Sea as Squamish is to Whistler. The detailed planning, design coordination and engineering to the "Russian standard" would all happen in Moscow. My role would take place in Moscow and Krasnaya Polyana, the Whistler of the Sochi bid.

Moscow is a huge city; the largest in Europe. The population is unknown but estimated north of 12 million. The subway carries over 10 million riders daily. It's an extraordinary system with amazing artwork illustrating many reminders of the battles fought to keep the enemy at bay during World War II. Fabulous mosaics adorn the high vaulted ceilings; scenes of men and women in the fields harvesting crops, others with scenes of men and women fighting in those same fields when the Germans came as close to the centre of Moscow as Brandywine Falls is to Whistler.

In spite of the beauty of the art in the subway, for me it was an intimidating place. Huge steel doors can close off the entrances to the platforms, built very deep below the city. It's all part of a cold war defense system. All the signage is in the Cyrillic Russian language. For a guy who has lived nearly all of his life in the mountains, I was constantly lost, on the wrong line going the wrong way. In spite of best efforts to find my way on the system I was intimidated and vowed to travel above ground and discover Moscow by another method, my faithful Blue Belle.

Amongst insane traffic, where Lamborghinis languish with Ladas, the drag racing between lights on the ring roads sounds like a Formula 1 race. Pedestrians are considered... disposable.

Relegated to weekend jaunts when I wasn't suited up for the office (another first), I could cruise to the Kremlin in 15 minutes, or to museums, markets, wherever. On wide sidewalks with really high curbs I was safely separated from the would be oligarchs in the Moscow 500. I could ride the wrong way down one-way streets, flit through scary back, alleys ready to sprint at any moment. Above ground Moscow was my oyster.

After a year my contract was revised to one week a month, and I packed all that I had accumulated to travel home.

But what about Blue Belle? She would be left as a gift. A cultural icon whose life began in Whistler would be donated to the youth of Russia. On a beautiful Sunday in May she took her last freeride to the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin was unavailable to accept the gift so there in the sunlight I stripped her of the non-essentials, and some memories. I took one last look and walked away... to new adventures, for both of us.