Mountain biking it aint what it used to be.
Once upon a time, a mountain bike was pretty much a regular bike with fat tires and flat handlebars. Most riders wore helmets, because of the risk of spills, and a typical ensemble of shorts, sneakers and a T-shirt. Then came the advent of suspension in the late 1980s, and its all been downhill ever since.
The sport has undergone such a rapid evolution in the past 10 years that anyone unaware of this could feel they had stumbled upon another planet when walking near Whistler gondola in summer. The area teems with armour-clad riders with full-face helmets mounted on dual suspension steeds boasting up to 10 inches of travel. Visually it can be confusing: a motocross meet without engines, where the pull of gravity provides the power.
The growing popularity of this new downhill sport has provided a happy marriage between bike manufacturers and ski resorts such as Whistler-Blackcomb. Ski lifts can bring in money in the off-season from bikers seeking a lift to the top. And with new on-mountain bike terrain parks and trails being opened up, more people want to buy bikes and join the sport.
The old school of mountain biking, commonly known as cross-country riding, is still around. That is, biking uphill and downhill or earning your turns, to use skier speak. However with many of the new popular mountain bikes weighing up to 50 pounds, the designs are all about stability on the downhills, landing big jumps and getting big air, rather than puffing your way to the top.
One of the local downhill fraternity is mountain bike pro racer veteran Ted Tempany from Squamish. To many locals he is Big Red Ted, the main bartender at Whistlers Boot Pub throughout the ski season. But come summer, he swaps bar life for the mountain bike trails of the Sea to Sky corridor and the North American racing circuit. Tempany says he enjoys all aspects of mountain biking, including cross-country, but his main passion is the downhill.
"When I moved here in 92 everyone was on hard tail bikes (without rear-wheel suspension) but with the new bikes, brakes, progressive shocks and really good designs, everything that was imagined is starting to come into play," he explains.
"At the recent B.C. Cup race in Mission the downhill racers were double the number of cross country riders. Its getting more and more popular and the younger riders are especially impressing me, knocking the others out of the park."
According to Tempany, the mountainous terrain of B.C. is the ideal place to try out these new dual suspension machines.
"The Sea to Sky Corridor has the best dirt in the country, probably the world" he remarks casually as he refills my drink. "You should write a story on it."
A story about mountain bike downhillers? To "old schoolers" like myself, mountain biking is about exploring new places while getting some scenery, exercise and hopefully some fast downhill action along the way. But to downhill racers, its about having enough aggression and guts to descend through the gnarliest terrain, including drops up to 40 feet, log bridges and man-made teeter-totters. In this environment, the dirt is key.
"Squamish has the friendliest dirt around because the trails still have topsoil and there are so many of them," Tempany explains. "In comparison, the North Shore is almost down to bedrock in places. Whistlers rocky alpine environment makes it the boniest place and Pemberton can get silty but right after rain its heaven. Some of the best riding around."
This bar-room conversation like many before it plants the seed for an epic outdoor adventure: The Sea to Sky one-day epic ride. The challenge is to see if six downhill rides at these four locations the North Shore, Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton could be chalked up between sunrise and sunset of a single day.
Tempany chooses his team from Squamishs impressive pool of top downhill racers: Shaums March, a professional downhill racer originally from the States but now based in Squamish after marrying Canadian ski racer Aleisha Cline. Joining March and Tempany are three local high schoolers, 14-year-old Kyle Ritchie, 16-year-old Daryl LeDuke, and 2001 Under 17 Canadian national downhill champion, Travis Penrose. Each of their parents gave them a day off school to tackle the challenge.
First stop: Vancouvers North Shore, famed for putting B.C on the map for hardcore downhill mountain biking.
7 a.m. Lazy Bay Café, base of Mount Seymour
On first impression, it seems that big hair and big bikes are the trademarks of the current high school generation of mountain bike riders.
After a quick shuttle to the top and squeezing their hair under helmets, the group disappears into the forest on the Mushroom Trail that leads to Boogie Man. Thirty minutes later they reappear at the café, exhilarated after their ride. This trail receives among the highest traffic volumes in Vancouver because its an easy shuttle and doesnt get much snow cover in winter. However the group says work on the trail has made it a "sweet" ride. First time riders could expect to walk at least 30 per cent of the trail or risk flying over the handlebars with the numerous rocks, roots, steep bridges and drops you have to get over.
8:30 a.m. Grouse Mountain
No parking nearby means a warm up of pushing the bikes up hill. If thats not enough to get your blood pumping, dropping more than 14 vertical feet into The Crater should do the trick. After that its time for more up hill walking to the start of Ladies Only, a veritable "Grouse Mountain classic." However Ladies isnt kind to the group, with one crashing and Tempany losing a bolt and walking out. We head to the nearest bike shop. Apparently this is typical stuff.
"My bike has cost around $7,000 to put together and usually something breaks when you ride," says LeDuke.
"I couldnt afford this sport without the help from my mum and dad, and the local bike shop," adds Ritchie, while Penrose nods in agreement.
March puts it into perspective.
"Mountain biking is an addictive sport. You want to get your wheel redone, get new tires and better brakes and that stuff keeps coming slowly," he explains. "So yeah its expensive but if you love it you just make it work."
March knows about getting young people involved in mountain biking, having started up a business of training camps and clinics across the US and Canada. His high-end business, Mad March Racing, also occasionally takes groups on adventure rides to Jamaica and Hawaii. And thats in addition to clocking up more than 78,000 km each year in his van participating in the NORBA and World Cup downhill racing circuits. He says the downside is spending only four months a year with his wife, who is also busy training.
"We have a ridiculous phone plan but when we get old we can slow down. Were just too busy right now," he laughs.
Teds bike is fixed and we are on our way again.
11 a.m. Cypress Mountain
The next trail on our hit list is Sex Boy, complete with a six-foot boulder drop and rocks scattered about below. Sadly no one knows the story behind this trail name and no one wants to go first. Peer pressure takes over and one by one they disappear over the drop. Penrose slides out at the bottom.
"That was wicked!"
We assume the huge "Danger: bears in area" warning sign marking the entrance to the trail has been there for a while. Still, its a fast ride to the bottom.
3 p.m. Cat Lake ride, Squamish
We arrive at Tantalus Bike Shop in Squamish and the pace slows down a little. The crew are adjusting their bikes and yarning to the shop staff. This is obviously a regular hangout. I meet Peanut, who is reputedly one of the best bike mechanics in the corridor, and staff member Matt McNulty who explains the naming of bike trails.
"The Icy Hole of Death for example was being built during winter in the Alice Lake/Highlands area when one of the builders fell through this big frozen puddle into the water, and the Labour of Love trail, well thats pretty self explanatory."
For the record, the Hole of Death victim didnt die but just got very wet.
In keeping with his hectic schedule, March leaves the group in Squamish. He has to pack and start driving to California to compete in his next mountain bike race. His replacement, Manus Coyle, is another experienced rider of the Sea to Sky corridor. Like March, he is capitalizing on the growth in mountain biking as a sport, with the launch this season of his own company, Tantalus Tours and Technical Camps, run out of the bike shop. He says Squamish is increasingly becoming a hotbed for riding.
"Most people used to blast through Squamish on their way to Whistler but now they stay in town for a couple of days and want to ride," he says.
"They could buy a guidebook and try to find the trails on their own but by spending a day with me they will see all the highlights, plus we can shuttle them."
Coyle says he used to take people out for just dinner and beers, but now wants to make a business out of it. Bike clinics are another feature he wants to establish locally, as is already happening in Whistler and to a lesser degree, among school children in Squamish.
"The Test of Metal (mountain bike race) has quite an influence on the town, going through all the neighbourhoods, and everybody is riding a bike now," he enthuses. "The scene here is just incredible and the kids coming into the shop are happy, healthy kids doing something they love."
We shuttle to Cat Lake, also known as Endor Trail, because the fast downhill ride apparently feels like the speeder chase on Planet Endor in the movie, Return of the Jedi. Its the fastest downhill yet. The group verdict is "very smooth and flowing." Some people want to run it again, and there are a number of other side trails that look intriguing. But theres a lot more distance to cover so we start driving.
Coyle expands on the tradition of trail building in the Sea to Sky.
"Both legitimate and renegade trail building is going on, with some people applying for a permit and others just going ahead and building one anyway," he explains.
"The risk you take is that a logging company might decide to log there, but even if it gets mowed down, at least you had a hoot and holler on it for a couple of years."
How many trails would he estimate are in the corridor? Coyle shrugs his shoulders and says trails are being built all the time and there is no way to keep track of it.
"There would be thousands of trails in the Squamish to Pemberton area alone. The sport has just attracted so many people."
6:30 p.m. Alpine Meadows, Whistler
One such trail is Mad Flow, constructed by Whistler locals "Alexis and Davey." Tucked away behind houses in Alpine, its the ultimate secret playground. Its also the kind of trail that makes your heart race and eyes bulge just looking at it, with huge ramp jumps, towering teeter-totters and white-knuckle aerials. Not to be attempted by those without vast experience and a medical plan. Tempany cant wait to hit it.
"I love riding a trail for the first time!"
But is he scared?
"Yeah, I wont lie," he says. "But its the unknown and the learning that I love."
After a couple of false starts and encouragement from the others, 14-year-old Ritchie swaps the fear factor for addiction and doesnt want to leave. Coyle falls off one of the jumps and breaks his bike. Time to find another bike shop.
8:30 p.m. Pemberton
As darkness approaches we reach our final destination. Clouds of descending, ravenous mosquitoes bring a new urgency to the gearing up process. These insects are as big as freight trains. I take notes inside the sealed truck and watch the bugs batter themselves against the glass trying to get in.
The trail Bob Gnarly is the last on the hit list, and the group emerges at the bottom some 20 minutes later.
Most people would have had enough riding by now, but we call in at the Pemberton Bike Park for one last session. Kyle Bubbs bought the property three ago and despite not being a regular mountain bike rider, he decided to keep the facility going. In line with Squamish and Whistler, there are plans to run scheduled clinics at this Pemberton facility.
"My manager and roommate, Ryan Bowland, is the one behind the annual Pemberton Bike Park Revival Bike Jam & Fundraiser we host here and he is now looking into clinics," explains Bubbs.
"With turnouts of 100 competitors and up to 700 observers at the event, there is obviously huge interest in the sport in this area and undoubtedly a demand for coaching."
He says specific clinic operations are still being worked out, to avoid problems such as parents using the park as a daycare centre and liability issues.
The sun finally sets on the epic one-day ride and its time to load the bikes for the last time. Mission accomplished.
"That was one of the best days riding ever," declares LeDuke.
Everyone agrees. However this successful trip is a far cry from what some people consider to be true mountain biking, since 95 per cent of riding was all downhill.
In next weeks feature, we investigate the controversies shaping the evolution of the sport of mountain biking in the Sea to Sky Corridor, with issues ranging from how and where bikes are ridden, to sexual politics in the professional racing fraternity.