This year I turned 40. Happy birthday to me, eh! (Sorry, I’ve been in Canada, eh.) I got two wonderful presents from my wife – a two week mountain biking trip to Whistler Canada and a vasectomy. Maybe it was intended to be a package deal ("No, you can’t have one without the other, Dear!"), but I didn’t ask. This is the story of one those presents – the mountain biking at Whistler (the other story is best left untold, but I will say I still cringe at the thought of frozen peas).
Whistler is best known as a ski & snowboard resort and it is a fantastic place for a winter holiday that will only get better as the road from Vancouver is upgraded to 4 lanes (a $600 million project) and the resort is tarted up to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. Whistler has two ski mountains – Whistler and Blackcomb – which together provide dozens of runs and over 1,600 vertical metres for all levels of skiers. Work is underway to connect Whistler and Blackcomb mountains peak to peak with a gondola which will open in time for the Olympics and will certainly be another major drawcard for the area.
A few years back, Intrawest, who owns the resort, built downhill mountain bike runs on Whistler Mountain and converted one of the chairlifts to carry bikes and riders up the hill. This area – the Bike Park – with its jumps and berms and gnarly Downhill single track is what most people think of when they think of mountain biking at Whistler. With good reason too, the Bike Park is an amazing place, but as I discovered, there’s much more to riding Whistler than the Bike Park as the area is host to some of the most interesting and challenging cross country tracks you could ever imagine.
But first the Bike Park
I’m a Cross Country (XC) mountain bike rider of no particular distinction with only a few years experience under my belt and I’d never even sat on a Downhill (DH) bike until I collected one at the rental shop and started looking for my group lesson. I found Instructor Pat and the rest of the "You look like Level 3" students about an hour and a half after the lesson was scheduled to start and we all bundled onto the Fitzsimmons lift. Halfway up the hill it started bucketing down rain and by the time we reached the top I was freezing cold and dripping wet. So far, so good – the weather is part of riding and I would hate to think this lift-service stuff was going to be soft.
Instructor Pat gets us to ride around a bit at the "Intermediate Skills Centre" (a flat bit of the mountain with a few bits of wood lying on the ground) while he sits there and pretends not to be too interested in his group of noobies who are trying to pedal 20 kilogram motor-less Harley-Davidsons around in the mud and rain. After a few minutes Pat, calls us together to dispense a few useful instructions in the way that only a talented, disaffected young man can: "Keep your weight centred on the bike. Always look ahead. Use both brakes together. Lean the bike not your body." and so forth. Then he gets us to ride around and practise what we just learned. At this point, one of my noobie classmates, a middle aged lady who hasn’t stopped talking since we met in the rental queue an hour and a half ago and who is now struggling to keep the bike upright, blurts out "Which one is the brake? Oh! This one?? Oh, OK! How do I change gears? This button here?? You push it?! Really! Oh, OK!".
I have a love-hate relationship with group lessons. I rarely get grouped with people my skill level and I always seem to get an instructor who does whatever the heck he wants whether his students learn anything or not. European male ski instructors are the worst. I always book into the intermediate "technique" group, not the more advanced moguls group, and invariably the instructor gets the group together and asks "U vants to ski ze bumps zis mornink?" to which I always answer "Not me! I want to work on technique." and then the instructor replies "OK zen, ve go ski ze bumps, ya! Come viz me!" and he disappears down the mountain and I have a miserable time trying to keep up with Franz Fick-ears and the rest of his floundering flock. Flock that for a joke.
Anyway, after ten minutes with Pat another instructor turns up with three more students and our man Pat calls us all together and dutifully starts the lesson again: "Keep your weight centred on the bike. Always look ahead." blah blah blah. We ride around in the rain and mud some more, practising riding around in the rain and mud, while Pat chats with the other instructor about who slept where last night. The lady keeps babbling on about how she usually rides a bike with brakes on the other side or some such rubbish and I’m trying very hard to keep a sense of humour. It’s a good thing I was wearing a full-face helmet. It’s about midday now and I haven’t ridden down any-bloody-thing when Pat calls us together to show us how to ride around a corner "Keep your weight centred on the bike. Always look ahead. Use both brakes together. Lean the bike not your body" (you get the picture) and while he’s giving us the textbook example of how it’s done his bike slides right out from underneath him and he slaps the mud. I didn’t laugh (honest – it could happen to anyone right?) but the tumble seemed to give young Pat a much needed jolt and the next thing you know we’re off down the mountain. About bloody time!
We start off on an easy blue run called "B-line". I’m in position 3 in our gaggle of riders and the guy in front of me is holding me up and the instructor is getting further and further out of sight. We stop a few times for more tips and it takes a l-o-n-g time for Bumbling Babbles to catch up. At our third stop, Pats asks the other instructor to take Bumbling Babbles off by herself and he tells us we can change order if anyone is being held up. I ask the guy in front of me if it’s OK that I follow the instructor and he agrees and then we take off again.
Now we’re having fun! I’m riding as fast as I feel able to I’m starting to get the feel of the bike and the trails and enjoy this Downhill riding. Following closely behind a good instructor is a great way to ride (or ski, for that matter) as you don’t have to think about your line or your speed or the terrain; you just follow his wheel and concentrate on riding your bike. As it turned out, Pat was a very, very good bike rider (not much of a surprise really) but unlike Franz Fick-ears, he was also a bloody good instructor who was constantly slowing to my pace and yelling out tips and advice. This was quickly becoming a very enjoyable experience. We rode down some fairly gnarly single-track at speeds I would never have attempted on my own (in fact, I would probably not have ridden down them on my own) and it all worked out well.
The other unexpected benefit to riding behind young Pat was that he was a show-off and was always popping of rocks or tree roots and turning his bike in the air going into corners. It was an absolute treat to watch. I felt like I was the cameraman in one of those bike movies where they follow a rider doing amazing stuff. I felt so comfortable riding behind Pat that it took me 3 days riding by myself to get back to the speeds I was doing on my first ever run. At one stop I told Pat that he rides his bike like Michael Schumacher drives and F1 car. He said he didn’t know what that meant but he thought it must be a complement. It was, and what I meant was that he rotates his bike on the entry to the corner (in the air, no less!) thereby straightening the whole line through the corner. Doing this means that most of the turning is done before the corner and everything after that is exit. It’s a fast way through a corner and a treat to watch.
After a trip down B-line we went to the jump park where I totally failed to get my bike more than a few inches off the ground. "Dude, you grabbed the brakes while you were in the air." Pat told me. "Really? I was in the air?! Cool!!" I replied. I had no idea I grabbed the brakes, but I knew I wasn’t enjoying learning to jump so it was a relief to move on to the drop-off zone ("They’re going to the drop off?! Why don’t we just fry them up now and serve them with chips!!") With nagging thoughts about how this worked out for Nemo (thoughts not shared with the group, gentle reader), we were taught there are different schools of thought on how to ride drop-offs but we were going to work on "the lunge". The lunge is basically pushing the bike forward with your arms just as the front wheel gets to the edge. Turns out the lunge worked for me and I was dropping off like a champion. I felt like Neo in The Matrix after he is "taught" martial arts by the computer and he sits up and exclaims "I know Kung Fu!" Well, I felt like "I know drop-offs!" It was another very good lesson. (A few days later I tackled a considerably bigger drop-off and messed it up. Instead of the "lunge" I did the "Shit this is steeper than I thought, Freeze!" and landed on my front wheel right near the point of no return. I barely avoided a major Over-The-Bars endo. OK, maybe I know small drop-offs…)
That was about it for the 3 hour lesson. If you are new to DH I thoroughly recommend instruction from someone who knows what they’re doing. DH is sufficiently different to XC riding to warrant some advice rather than trying to figure it out for yourself. For example, it’s better to stand with the pedal under the centre of your foot, not under the ball of your foot like a regular bike. (BTW If the soles of your shoes aren’t flat – and mine weren’t – then your foot doesn’t sit flat on the pedal and you can slide around on the pedals and perhaps even slip off…)
The next 3 days of DH featured lots of Blue runs, my favourites were "Crank It Up" for the perfectly formed jumps and berms (where I finally felt like I was getting the hang of jumping after many attempts), and "Smoke & Mirrors" and "Devils’ Club" for their North Shore and technical elements. I never ventured up the Garbanzo lift to the top of the mountain, but I had plenty of fun and challenges riding the Blue’s.
If you’ve never been to Whistler and are a little apprehensive about whether you could ride the Bike Park, you should know that it is a very rider friendly mountain and you shouldn’t feel put-off going there because you can’t jump an office tower by popping off the gutter on your hard-tail. The Blue and Black runs have opt-outs where there is a big jump or difficult feature and you can generally get down the hill safely even if you find yourself on a trail that is beyond your abilities. The double blacks are different of course and you’re on your own there, but there are warning signs everywhere and the people who run the Bike Park go to great lengths to keep everything as safe as possible. I especially liked the way they put a big warning sign and a difficult feature at the entry of the track so you don’t get half way down the hill before you realise you’re on a trail you can’t ride.
I only had one fall in the Bike Park and that was on a bermed corner where I fixated on a rock sticking out from the berm face so much that I hit it ("Whoa! I better miss that nasty little rock! I'll go higher! No, I'll go lower!!"). I low-sided and there was no real damage done. I did, however, see the ambulance cart one guy away from who was in a world of pain. I could hear him screaming a hundred metres away from the lift chair. It made for a sombre ride up the mountain.
Which brings me to protection. I thoroughly recommend it. Lots of it. Everywhere. I’d wear a box if they had one (well, maybe not…). One mistake I made was using some shin pads that, while hard plastic, did not go all the way down to my shoes. At one point my left foot slipped off the pedal and all of my weight coming down on my right foot caused the pedal to swing around and crack me in the left shin just below my "Of course you can use these shin-pads for Downhill!" shin-pads. The little grip pegs on the pedal made nice round holes in my shin and I ended up with what the locals call a "shin burger". It hurt. That night I bought some proper DH shin pads.
Now to the Bikes. I rented a few different DH bikes and had the most fun riding a 7" Free-ride bike (The Shore) from a rental store called Fanatyk. This bike had a single crown and is lighter and more manoeuvrable than the full double-crown DH bike, which I found really helpful on the North Shore trails. I had the worst experience with the resort’s own rental shop (the one next to Guest Services), who not only made me and everyone else wait an hour to get a bike, but the bike had crap brakes, worn tyres and wouldn’t change gears. Give them a miss. Summit has a good reputation as a rental outlet (although I didn’t rent a bike from them) and the guy at the Cross Country Connection said his DH bikes are rented less often and tend to be in better condition, which makes sense because he’s not in the main village. If you rent from Fanatyk you can’t go far wrong, but book a bike the night before or get there early in the morning to avoid missing out.
Oh yeah, there are bears everywhere. Big, black bears. They mostly try and avoid people, but they can get a little edgy if you surprise one and they’re downright dangerous if you get between a mother and her cubs. One guy I spoke to said he hit one in the arse when it ran in front of him on the trail. He bounced off and kept going and he did not stop to find out what the bear thought of the incident.
The village also hosts a BMX track, Skate park, practise North Shore area and even a spot for the kids to ride around.
Here are a bunch of pics of the Bike Park. The next article will be on the Cross Country trails.