The numbers are still being crunched, but Whistler Mountain Bike Park manager Brian Finestone is confident that this season will likely be a record breaker in terms of rider numbers.
"I would say it's unprecedented," he said. "The numbers aren't fully in yet, but it definitely set records. I can't remember having such great weather every weekend, all summer long. And there's always a rockslide or an accident or something on the highway that closes the highway and shuts us down a little, but we made it all the way through with no problems. Folks came and they rode, and it was great."
The number of total pass sales was up over last year, but the biggest growth came from three-day and six-day passes, as well as the new "twilight" passes that are good for extended play periods through the summer.
"We had a lot of good feedback from guys in construction or that are working nine to five and can't get to the park. They wanted to ride extended play all summer long, and a lot of people bought it — it didn't affect regular pass numbers, so we reached a group of people that didn't have that option in the past," said Finestone.
The park saw a lot of growth in other areas as well. Women's Wednesdays were a lot bigger than last year, and the park's DFX youth camps also grew significantly. "Then there's the fact that we basically grew beyond our capacity in the Phat Wednesday series, so we added more volunteers and number plates to accommodate that higher interest level. We added the Phat Weekend series in the fall. All things showed the level of dedication of our local riders in getting out to events," Finestone said.
The warm, dry weather was a double-edged sword for the park, though. While it likely increased rider numbers, it also meant more wear and tear on the trails. Bike Park crews did what they could to stay ahead of it.
"It was really about the fine balance of moisture management," said Finestone. "This year we had so little (water) that we brought out our own. Crews got creative using our snowmaking installations and some really long hoses, and we have a couple of new tricks as well. We bought a water cube for the back of our little 4x4 UTV to take it to the trails and deliver the water as we did maintenance chunk by chunk. Without those systems we would have been in some dire straits."
Despite the dry weather and fire hazard, crews also managed to open a lot of new trail this year. Most significantly, crews completed a lower section of Blue Velvet in the Garbanzo Zone, linking it up to Super Fantastic and Crank It Up. "That was a three or four-year endeavour to get that far, and there's still another section to go in next season. It's a big project, but it's going really well," said Finestone. "The Top of the World trail was originally supposed to be a three-year project, but this year we decided to finish building the whole thing so we managed to get it done in two."
Top of the World starts in the high alpine of Whistler Mountain and is accessible using the Peak Chair for an added fee. They also capped the number of riders at 100 per day to reduce wear and tear on the trail.
"We did sell out on a number of days and the trail was immensely popular," said Finestone. "We had several thousand visits on it."
Rather than follow the trail down Highway 86 to the rest of the bike park, Finestone said Whistler Blackcomb took note of the number of riders heading out of bounds onto a trail that leads into the Khyber area and devoted some resources to maintaining that trail as well.
"We recognized that it's not just park riders doing the Top of the World experience and some were taking advantage of the access to other trails," said Finestone. "We didn't want the (Top of the World) legacy to be a trail that was in worse condition than before, so we made some efforts there to make sure the trail was able to withstand the additional traffic."
The lower part of the mountain also saw a lot of new trails and connectors, the most significant being a new section of Upper Smoke and Mirrors near mid-station that was popular.
"Those are the kinds of pet projects we like to sneak in because there's a relatively quick turnaround and instant results," said Finestone. "The trails do change a lot if they're allowed to erode naturally with traffic. Some are flowy trails and we try to keep that flow on Schleyer, on Dirt Merchant, on A-Line, on B-Line on Crank It Up. Then there are the more gnarly, technical trails — we try to keep them that way, but also make sure they're safe and enjoyable to ride."
There was also a lot of work on the Lower Whistler Downhill racecourse, giving riders more line options in the steeper and rockier sections of the trail.
Plans for next year are still in development, and will depend on the approval of Whistler Blackcomb's environmental planners. The most significant would be an expansion into the Creekside area, which would involve putting hooks on gondola cabins to carry bikes.
"We have to look at things like the cost of operating the lift, the distance and length of the trails, how many years it would take to build and all the other pros and cons, and see what makes the most sense in terms of rider impact and financially," said Finestone. "What will happen when we open up that base area, and what would it cost?"
Other plans include continuing to expand in the Garbanzo area, developing more trails in the Emerald Express area, adding more trails from the top of the gondola station to the Garbanzo zone and general maintenance of the trails. The maintenance for next year actually starts this fall, with crews waiting for the rain this weekend before heading in and maintaining the machine-built trails that the park will want to open first next season.
To wrap the 2012 season, Finestone thanked everybody who came out and rode or volunteered at events. He's also noticed a few trends that he'd like to see continue.
"The sport is definitely growing, and one thing we're seeing is more kids, more families," he said.
"We're seeing young parents with kids doing handoffs so they can take turns riding, which is something we only saw in the winter before this year. We're also seeing more families out there riding together, and that's just great to see. It's one of those things that really has us looking forward to hosting another fun season of bike park events next year."
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