Whistler village is surrounded by hundreds of kilometres of XC trails that range from smooth rolled gravel that the little’uns can tackle to some of the most challenging and technical single track you could imagine. For every trail that is on a map, there are probably two or three that aren’t. You could ride around all day in the Lost Lake area alone on fantastic little single tracks and never get bored.
The XC trails aren’t anywhere near as well promoted as the Bike Park, but that’s not because they’re any less interesting or challenging - it’s because Intrawest doesn’t make any money out of the cross country riders.
I spent three days on the XC trails and came away exhausted and thoroughly humbled. I thought I’d struggle in the Bike Park but have an easier go of it on the XC trails, but it was the other way around. The XC trails are a never ending tangle of roots, rocks and ruts that demand 100% concentration, effort and commitment.
My first ride was on what I thought would be a nice easy Blue trail called "Cut Yer Bars". It wasn't as easy as I thought. I was constantly being stopped and popped off the bike on some gnarly root or rock and I just couldn't get any rhythm. This went on for a frustrating thirty minutes or so until I realised I simply had to ride faster to keep momentum over the ceaseless stream of wheel-stopping obstacles. Nowhere is the maxim "Momentum is your friend" more applicable than a Whistler single-track! Once I started riding faster I found I could more easily carry obstacles and keep moving forward and even get some kind of rhythm going. However two new problems emerged. First, I was getting knackered; and second I was arriving at the scene of an obstacle faster than I could figure out what ought to happen next! It felt like I was driving at night down a twisty unlit road with only my parking lights on.
The Whistler XC trails are not like the well-worn, leaf-less, easily identifiable single-tracks of Mt Coot-tha. They’re more like a vaguely agreed route through the untamed New Guinea highlands once used by some long extinct tribe (who probably became extinct because they wandered off one of their nebulous trails and were never seen again). In fact, I think to ride Whistler single track quickly you’re meant to use what Jung called the collective unconscious – the "reservoir of the experiences of our species". Or as Obi-Won said, "Use the force, Luke!" Anyway, you have to try and get to some kind of Zen-like one-ness with the trail or you’ll just struggle. Of course, it would really help to know the trails. At one point on a "A River Runs Through It" I had to get off and walk around for a few minutes trying to find where the trail went. Then when I thought I’d found it, I rode for a few more minutes thinking "I’m sure I’ve ridden this before. Perhaps in the other direction...". So then I’m riding along looking over my shoulder to see if the trail looked familiar the other way and you can guess how that little stunt turned out.
On the plus side, the trails are fantastically challenging and it's a real buzz to successfully ride a tricky looking piece of North Shore or a gnarly root-strewn descent. I'm sure a couple of weeks riding these trails would improve your skills enormously, not to meention your fitness! Also, the British Columbia scenery is breathtakingly beautiful - checkout the river crossing on "A River Runs Through It" as an example (I walked the crossing, BTW) - and it's a treat to meet people from all over the world who hold a common interest in mountain biking.
Oh yeah, there are bears everywhere. Mostly Black Bears, but if you get far enough out on the trails there are Grizzly’s. And there are Cougars. Grizzly’s and Cougars are big animals that will, and do from time to time, eat people. They’re potentially much more dangerous than Black Bears. I didn’t see any Bears or Cougars while riding XC, but I did learn to eat a power bar in three bites while holding my bike with the other hand and nervously turning in circles. Oh yeah, if ever you’re chatting with an American and they tell you that Australia is the most dangerous place on Earth because it has 7 of the 10 deadliest snakes on the planet (thanks to Animal Plant, this seems to be something that every American knows), look them in the eye and politely tell them that Australia does not have a single animal that will run you down and knock you off your mountain bike while you're riding as fast as you can trying to escape, and then eat you alive. (Don't forget to say "Have a Nice Ride!")
I tried a few different bikes on the XC trails and had the best experience on a Norco Fluid 2.0. The almost 6 inches of suspension really helped absorb some of the nastier hits and the thing was light and responsive enough for my limited abilities. I really enjoyed riding it. I also rode a Specialized Enduro something-or-another that was more of a free-ride bike (dual crown) but it was still light enough to be responsive on the trails. The biggest drawback with this bike was that the suspension was way too stiff and the shocks were hardly working at all. The guy at the rental store asked me how much I weighed and when I said "97 kilos" he stared off into space for a long few seconds while twitching his fingers and rocking from one foot to the other before he pumped up the suspension. I suspect his multiplication by 2.2 (if that’s what he was even doing) was flawed and I’m sure the bike would have performed much better with correct suspension pressures.
For more info on XC at Whistler checkout Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association, the group that maintains the XC trails and builds all those amazing North Shore features (http://www.worca.com/).
Here are some pics of the XC trails and some other Whistler pics thrown in for good measure. Take a close look at the picture of the entry to A River Runs Through It. You'll see the narrow ramp appears to be aiming at the tree. If you look closely at the right side of the tree you'll see scuff marks. The ramp actually is aiming at the tree. So not only do you have to ride a 12" wide plank over a 2 foot dropoff, you have to turn right while you're in the air or you'll bite a tree. If you manage to do this and land it, you better not smack that nasty tree root in the middle of the track or you'll be in another undesirable state of consciousness. "Use the Force, Luke...".