Whistler now mountain bike mecca Forget about the boards, bikes are now front and centre By Paul Andrew As winter abruptly gives way to unseasonably strong, albeit sporadic, spring sunshine, cyclists are moving en mass onto the roads and into the wilderness. And in Whistler, there seems to be enough terrain and on- and off-road bike clubs to satisfy almost all of the recreational, advanced and professional riders. Add to that the Whistler Summer Sessions this August, which is a variation of last year’s International Bike Festival in Whistler, and it’s safe to say the Whistler Valley is coming of age as a centre for cycling in British Columbia. Established clubs such as the Whistler Off Road Cycling Association and the Whistler Cycling Club will be complemented this season by a less competitive but highly social mountain bike ride called Come Ride With Us, which takes place on Monday evenings. And of course the Loonie Races continue a Thursday evening tradition of community competition utilizing Whistler’s healthy network of single-track trails. But with the growing popularity of mountain biking comes the need for proper instruction. And in a sport once dominated by men, the evolution of the sport and the high technology of the bikes, women have come on board and are making headlines world-wide for their cycling prowess. Whistler is part of that now as the home base for Spokeswomen, which is in its fourth year and has expanded its operations to include race instruction this season. Founded by consultant and private contractor Angel Meharg, who co-ordinates the course, and co-directed by lead instructor Sally Carmichael, the "designed for women by women" mountain bike camps have this year added former Olympian and U.S. Cycling Team member Peg Hill. The programs these women are promoting are all Canadian Cycling Association approved, but have their own social aspect in addition to the technical training required to compete among other women racers, or to simply ride almost any trail with confidence and advanced ability. "I believe we are the only camp in B.C. that is specific to women," Carmichael said. "There are other camps that have women’s programs in their curriculum, but Spokeswomen is unique in its approach to women riders only." Hill, who has been involved in several programs during her career, said Spokeswomen’s direction is indeed different. Hill has been a course conductor for seven years and will help expand Spokeswomen to Kelowna, where its wineries and lakes will be a pleasant distraction to the intermediate to advanced single-track trails. She will also take the two-day camp to the border-town of Rossland, where U.S. and B.C. residents are expected to enrol in the 24-women camp, which boasts one instructor for every six riders. "I’ve seen a lot of camps and this is the best by far," Hill said. "There’s a special chemistry with the all women’s groups. It’s supportive and fun. But the high quality of the camps with the lunches and dinners added really makes it different." Spokeswomen follows a Whistler tradition by adding apres and evening gatherings. The way Spokeswomen began is also unique. Meharg said a self-expression and leadership program she took in 1996 challenged her to begin a project in her own community. Spokeswomen was the result of that program. Carmichael came on board the same year and the two are now co-directors. Meharg co-ordinates the camps because she admits to being a neophyte mountain biker. "Actually, mountain biking terrifies me," Meharg chuckled. "I mean it’s thrilling, that’s for sure. I’m not a strong rider and you don’t have to be really good at it to enjoy it. So we ran a camp in 1996 which had 17 enrolled. Then another in ’97 and now we are doing five camps in Whistler this summer, plus the two-day race camps." In fact, Spokewomen has 12 camps this summer. They began May 28 and end Aug. 13. Carmichael, who placed third in the Canadian Mountain Bike Series last year, said Spokeswomen operates in Vancouver, Seattle and Toronto in addition to the other B.C. locations, which has added to its popularity. A website and 10,000 brochures this year has also helped spread the good word. Chalet-style lodging is available in Whistler for the out of town riders. "We’ve also received exposure in the U.S. and B.C. outdoor magazines, and we’ve done our own advertising. It’s expensive but it’s worth it. We’re ready to take that risk based on the success we’ve had in the past. And our instructors are all professional NCCP (National Coaching Certification Program) riders, so we pay them well. And yes, it includes men instructors as well as women instructors, because we know everybody looks up to the guys for what they can do." The women-only concept is partially a result of the 400 per cent increase in female participation at Whistler’s Loonie races since 1995 — and of course North Vancouver’s star mountain biker Alison Sydor, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist and now the No. 1 ranked female in the world. "We’ll be working with Whistler Mountain this year too," Carmichael added, "in its Mountain Zone at the Olympic Station. So we’ll participate in their programs and they’ll participate in ours."