Opinion » The Outsider

Downhill is dead. Long live downhill.



I'll never forget the first day I rode the Whistler Bike Park. It was spring 2009 and my first summer in pre-Olympic Whistler. While winters were already ingrained into my lifestyle, I had yet to live in B.C. year-round, opting instead to travel south to work as a ski instructor, or travelling. But I'd heard enough praise for mountain biking in what I'd previously considered just another ski town. It was time to try it out for myself.

I'll equally never forget my first downhill bike: a bright white Devinci Wilson 4, tricked out with air suspension, anodized red wheels and a freewheel hub that buzzed liked a chainsaw. I bought it used off a sponsored female BC Cup downhill racer, so it had some scars, but it had also been beautifully maintained.

I took to the bike park trails with fervour, the 20 centimetres of travel giving me unqualified confidence. I wasn't new to mountain biking, I'd raced cross country, hardtail bikes as a teenager on sandy trails back in Queensland. The geometry of my Wilson was impervious to almost anything I was brave enough to throw at it; steep rock faces, rough, root-filled trails, even the infamous GLC drop (back when it was an actual drop and an endless source of crash-and-burn entertainment for adjacent patio dwellers). Downhill—along with its not-so estranged cousin freeride—was experiencing a Golden Age, as documented in my favourite mountain bike movie of all time: The Collective's Seasons.

But I wasn't riding bike park exclusively. Having prioritized mountain biking as my principle summer sport, I also invested in a cross-country bike in order to explore the valley and join the weekly toonie races. I spent plenty of time trying to convince my bike park buddies to make the investment in a second bike and spend more time out on the softer, less-beaten-up trails.

Nowadays, I feel like the ratio of park riders to non-park riders has inverted. Enduro bikes came along with their capable, do-everything-pretty-good geometry along with larger wheel sizes and dropper posts. Those new to the sport didn't need the bike park to enter the sport anymore. Former park regulars gravitated to pedal-access trails, happy to avoid another seasons pass purchase. While before I was campaigning for friends to ride outside the park, I now have to cajole buddies into riding inside it.

There's a few reasons why I still love riding the bike park, listed here in no particular order.

The Twilight Pass. The greatest ever upgrade to bike park access was Extended Play; keeping the lifts spinning in high summer until 8 p.m. For nine to five workers this was already a godsend, but to now have a discounted pass for 4:30 p.m. (and later) uploads and running Extended Play from opening day in mid-May? That's a no-brainer.

Creekside. Some of the chief complaints from bike-park leavers were lineups, braking bumps and riding the same trails all the time. And fair enough. Those are some tough challenges for the world's busiest bike park to overcome. But with the Creekside expansion now hitting its stride, a World Cup track in the works, no line ups at the Creekside Gondola and all the free parking in the world, it's never been easier to skirt the circus that is summertime Whistler Village.

Running a DH Bike. Call me old fashioned, but I believe downhill is best ridden on a downhill bike. Yes, a long-travel enduro bike will ride park trails just fine and will work for most people, but ride park enough and you'll begin to notice the rapid wear on your carbon frame, suspension, brakes and wheels. Some riders adapt their bikes to the park with coil spring suspension, a second set of stronger wheels etc., but at the end of the day there's nothing better than launching full speed into a rock garden and knowing your bike's gonna take it like a champ.

Jumping. Not everyone enjoys flying through the air on their bikes, and that's OK. But if your chief complaint about jumping is that you don't get enough practice, bike park is for you. If you still can't whip to save your life or still struggle to clear the jumps on A-Line, consider taking a bike park clinic. A few pointers and skill progression drills might be all you need to get going.

The Fall. Hero dirt. Fewer crowds.Trails getting their last makeover before getting put to bed for the winter. If you're not riding now, what the hell are you doing?

After almost a decade of riding the Whistler Bike Park, despite some contentious trail building/modification decisions (ie: dumbing it down for the masses, Dude, where's my Freight Train container step-up etc.) I can honestly say this was the best summer of park riding I've had. Ever. There's never been a better time to rekindle your passion with downhill riding. And if you're relatively new to the sport, get in there for a season or two at least to build up your descent skills and boost your confidence with riding at higher speeds.

This weekend marks the Whistler Bike Park's last hurrah for another seven months. See you at the Fitz.

Vince Shuley doesn't only ride park. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email vince@vinceshuley.com or Instagram @whis_vince