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The Virgin Suicides

If you think Crankworx is intimidating as hell, don't despair — there's still a place for you at the high table of bike-love...

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There are two types of wheeling warrior in Whistler in the summer — the weekend variety, and the gladiator. More reason to stay away. Or so I thought, until a very fine Giant Reign rolled into my life and the doors of perception swung open.

“Hard-core performance on a serious diet. 6 inches of all mountain performance, featuring an all-new, lightweight ALUXX SL frameset and balanced Maestro Suspension design for efficient climbing and confidence-inspiring descending.”

Reading bike catalogues now is like logging on to eHarmony.com – a chance to analyze your personality in 29 easy steps, and discover your perfect match without years of gruelling trial and error, and blind dates gone wrong. Up until recently, signing on to a mountain bike affair required a dedicated lack of monogamy (a quiver of bikes in the garage and a maxed out credit card), or a deep and profound commitment to a really specific type of riding. Which kept the mountain bike park full of machismo, the trails full of granola, and girls, for the most part, on the sidelines.

With the advent of the all-mountain bike, lighter frames and improvements in suspension and braking technology, the Equivocator, the Dabbler, the Romantic, now has an option. A one-size-fits-all plaything, that comes up, and goes down, with equal versatility. The One.

Says Rob McSkimming, Whistler Blackcomb’s VP of Business Development, “For a while, we were seeing the best riders’ bikes were getting bigger and bigger, with more and more travel. Now, we’re starting to see the high-end freeriders choosing bikes that are lighter, with milder travel. The high end cross-country rider, too. It’s all actually converging.”

That convergence is opening up experiences like the Whistler Blackcomb Bike Park, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, to a host of newcomers. Kids. Women. Virgins. Peace-lovers. Flow-seekers. Even a late bloomer like me is getting a chance to be on the cutting edge of the new wave.

This week saw the opening of a new trail in the mountain bike park, Ninja Cougar. A blue level run, the trail has been nine months in the making, and was designed to provide a smooth line of turns and berms, some dirt, some wood, all flowing into singletrack that eventually links into Karate Monkey, another new blue trail. Ultimately, it’s the kind of ride that doesn’t require a lot of airtime or a lot of braking. It’s more flow-zone than gnar-bar.

Explains McSkimming, “It’s designed for where the riding style is going. And it’s the kind of trail that would ride really well on a lightweight, medium travel bike.”

The new trails being developed at the Bike Park, like Ninja Cougar, Crank it Up, Karate Monkey or Blue Velvet — another blue run under construction in the alpine to provide an intermediate option in the Garbanzo Zone — are part of this evolution towards opening the gates to a broader rider-base.

“The type of rider that will enjoy that experience is way wider than our trail target was previously,” says McSkimming.

That narrower trail target, explains McSkimming’s colleague Jeremy Roche, Manager of Summer Business Development and Crankworx, was driven to some degree by the passion and riding skills of the trail builders.

“One of the big factors that contributed to the success and growth of the bike park is that the park management and trail builders built trails that they wanted to ride when they put away their shovels and took the keys out of the tractors. And that has contributed to a base of core aggressive style trails.”

It also contributed to the estrangement of a huge potential market, keen bike-riders who had never set foot in the Park.

In 2006, an economic impact study was conducted by Western Canada Mountain Bike Tourism Association to measure the effect of mountain biking in the Sea to Sky corridor. The numbers made headlines. The trail systems of the North Shore, Squamish and Whistler (not including the Bike Park) generated $10.3 million from visiting riders in one summer alone, with Whistler accounting for almost two-thirds of the spending. Good news for local trail advocates.

But the report also offered what would be taken as a challenge at the Whistler Mountain Bike Park’s HQ: “there are two distinct groups of mountain bike riders in Whistler, one group who rode on the Whistler Valley trails and the other group being those who rode in the Whistler Bike Park. There appears to be very little cross-over between the two groups, as less than 10% of those who were interviewed in the valley had ridden, or were planning to ride, the bike park on that trip.”

While the Bike Park had succeeded in becoming a destination driver, creating $16.2 million in visitor spending by people who had come to Whistler specifically to experience the Park, it had not succeeded in enticing people who were already in Whistler, already on bicycles, and driven here partially in order to ride the cross-country trails, to check out the product.

The Whistler Mountain Bike Park was already the most visited facility of its kind in North America. But it was an obvious business decision to try and convert some of those trail riders into park visitors.

Enter the Sampler Pass. Says Roche, “With the Sampler, we created a product that makes the bike park experience easier to access. It’s almost a bit of a challenge to people. So, you don’t think the Whistler Mountain Bike Park is for you? You don’t think the bike that you ride on the trails in Pemberton, Squamish, Whistler, is good enough? Why not take three runs and get back to us on that.”

While the opportunity might have been an obvious one to exploit when the report came out several years ago, trail infrastructure isn’t hatched overnight. At $30,000 per kilometer of trail, there’s a lag between concept and completion.

Admits McSkimming, “The bikers are pushing things faster than any other part of the bike industry… The bike manufacturers are very quick to react. The experience providers, and I would count us amongst that, are much slower to adapt. It takes a long time to figure out what’s going on, how to build something, what permits you need. There’s a much greater demand for a certain rider experience, and there’s a gap. We have some of it, but we need more.”

That so many of Whistler Blackcomb’s senior people are keen bikers or mountain bike advocates has certainly helped the development of the product over the years.

Says McSkimming, “You see in other resorts that if the decision makers don’t have that connection or understanding to the culture, it’s really tough. Here, everyone is pretty outdoors oriented. Even if they’re not a big park rider, they still get it. At most resorts you can have the passionate rider, but if there isn’t someone to translate that into business sense for the business people, you’re going to have trouble getting the buy-in.”

McSkimming and Roche were both original members of one of Whistler’s hottest intellectual properties, Gravity Logic, a mountain bike park consulting and design firm founded two years ago. This summer, Gravity Logic spun off into an independent entity owned by its other three members, Dave Kelly, Tom Prochazka and Rob Cocquyt, who’ve been critical to the development of the bike park from the outset.

I run into Tom Pro at the top of Garbanzo Chair. I’m five runs into my first Bike Park experience, and eager to compare notes with my winter-brainmap of the upper mountain. I ignore the sign that says Experts Only, but almost crash-tackle Tom when I see him, asking for advice on the least suicidal way down of the black trail options on offer. He’s just back from consulting in the Ukraine and is heading over to check in on a trail building crew to see how they’re progressing.

He gives me a blow by blow account of the trails to follow back down to mid-station, as if he were giving a house-guest directions to the washroom. Pro’s a man as at ease in the bike park as he is in his own skin.

I tell him how much I liked Crank It Up — a flowy, fun blue trail recently built on the lower mountain with an endless series of rollers and friendly features that was designed to replicate the experience of A Line, the most popular trail on the mountain, but without the jumps.

Later, I’ll go back and ride it over and over, until I’m not braking almost to a stop before the rollers, until my body starts to coordinate a little better with the bike and the terrain, until I start to feel that coveted sense of flow.

A good mountain bike park, Pro believes, is a place that allows people to develop their skills. That approach, of safe progression, has long been Pro’s style, and is part of the key to Gravity Logic’s success. Part of their consulting often involves talking down a bunch of guys who want to build a bike park of huge gnarly jumps that are going to damage people.

Pro shrugs, “You can’t do that. You’ve got to develop trails that will develop the riders.” And with that, he waves me down.

Says Roche, “We’ve been wanting to reach out to the intermediate riders, the all-mountain bikers, for a number of years, but we didn’t want to oversell the experience if we only had two or three green or blue trails.”

Now that the park has a critical mass of blue trails, they have something to offer a whole new crowd. A place to develop skills. A place to make the transition from intermediate to advanced. A place not just for experts and the delusional. And the invitations have gone out – and are being picked up particularly by the all-mountain bike riders, youth, and women.

Andrea Kraft, a former national team downhiller, works in marketing for Sombrio and Sombrio Girl. The B.C.-based brand has had a dedicated women’s line of mountain bike clothing and accessories from its beginning a decade ago, and now their Girl Collection is the company’s fastest growing category.

“The women’s market is picking up momentum quickly,” she says. “Technology has shortened the learning curve from what used to be chundering down the hill on a hard tail with two inches of front suspension. The newest suspension platforms have a cushy five inches. That suspension helps to absorb technical features on the trail, making them less intimidating to try and ride. But even more than technology, I think it is the social part of biking that appeals to women. Women are social beings by nature. If you are living in B.C., specifically in the Sea to Sky Corridor, going for a bike ride is the new going for a coffee.”

The social context is something that the Whistler Mountain Bike Park has clued into with its Womens Night program, an attempt to eliminate the intimidation factor of the Park with competitively-priced packages, guides, après and a no boys allowed mantra.

Says McSkimming, “Kids and women are definitely new paths for us. The park started as pretty male, pretty young, pretty aggressive. And the appeal has really broadened out. It seems that some things like lift accessed mountain biking are just intrinsically attractive to a segment of male participants, like it’s in their DNA. Whereas for women, there does seem to need to be some kind of social context.”

While a post-ride wine and cheese session probably isn’t the selling point for many women joining a girl’s ride, it seems to serve as a type of code, a signal that a genuine effort is being made to cater to the yin, to create the kind of social, supportive environment that a lot of women, particularly at beginner and intermediate levels, appreciate when they’re tackling something new.

Says Kraft, “For women who’ve never ridden the park before, when you say the words ‘bike park’ they are instantly intimidated. I think they wrongly assume that they’ll be forced to ride off big drops and huge jumps.” Something a quick glance up at the Boneyard certainly reinforces. “But the bike park is a great place to build on your skill set. It’s all about progression there. In fact, I think it’s the best place to ride if you want to work on cornering, steeps, jumps and drops.”

The day after I lose my Bike Park virginity, I find myself on a five hour hike-a-bike up the Seton Ridge, figuring this must be karmic retribution for “cheating” all day the previous day, riding lifts instead of pedaling uphill.

But the sense of doing penance evaporates as soon as we hit the ridgeline and stop to soak up the endless alpine vistas, sucking back on the last trickles of water in our Camelbaks and sharing pieces of chocolate.

The extra mileage I have tucked under my belt from yesterday’s laps in the Park holds me together when we get into descend mode.

As does the chocolate. And the prospect of beer and chips, our roadside après, awaiting us back at the car.