Fat Tires, Trails and Toonies 

How WORCA went from a rag-tag group of riders to one of the world's most important mountain bike clubs in 25 years

click to flip through (6) PHOTO COURTESY OF WHISTLER MUSEUM / WHISTLER QUESTION COLLECTION - Mike Edwards, left, challenges Dave Heisler for the lead during a WORCA Loonie Race in 1994.
  • Photo courtesy of Whistler Museum / Whistler Question Collection
  • Mike Edwards, left, challenges Dave Heisler for the lead during a WORCA Loonie Race in 1994.
 

It was the fall of 1989, and the wheels were already in motion for the Whistler Off Road Cycling Club when, as Grant Lamont remembers it, he got hauled into a meeting at Bob Eakins's place.

"They said, 'Oh, you want to get involved in the mountain bike club?'" Lamont recalled.

"I said, 'What's a bike club?'"

Perhaps the best answer to that question was evident on Sunday, June 15, at Dusty's, where hundreds came out to celebrate a quarter-century of WORCA's existence in the Whistler Valley. Or, maybe, it's each Thursday throughout the summer, when hundreds more ride (or race) together for two bucks apiece, then settle in to swap tales from the trails, catch up with old friends or make new ones at après.

In the 25 years since it was first founded, WORCA has grown into one of the most influential mountain bike groups in the world.

"Whether it's Toonie Rides, trail maintenance, youth camps — we get calls from clubs in Australia, from across North America," said WORCA president Jerome David. "They all want to know 'How did you do this?'"

The answer there isn't quite as simple, but it can be traced through the memories of all those who have had a hand in the club's evolution along the way — from its initial attempts to save a sport in its infancy, to building a membership base that's creeping towards 2,000 people.

PHOTO BY DAVID BUZZARD / WWW.DAVIDBUZZARD.COM - From left, some of WORCA's founders and earliest members Cathy Jewett, Grant Lamont, Charlie Doyle, Eric Wight and Eric Crowe — gather at Dusty's during the WORCA 25th anniversary party on Sunday, June 15.

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In classic Whistler fashion, WORCA was born over beers at The Boot Pub. Not all of them would consider themselves as founding members, but Eakins, Eric Wight, Vincent "Binty" Massey, Paul Rawlinson, Charlie Doyle, Richard Kelly, Cathy Jewett and Don Campbell were all there for that first gathering of the resort's mountain-bike minds.

"It wasn't really a remarkable meeting," said Doyle. "It's funny, you look back, and because the club has grown to where it is, you'd think it must have been forward-thinking or whatever. It didn't have that tone to it at the time. We just had to get things done."

There were precious few places to ride off-road in the valley at the time, and B.C. Parks had just put a big dent in the available terrain, moving ahead with plans to cut off two-wheeled access to the Singing Pass and Cheakamus Lake trails.

"We decided we'd better form a group to lobby government to keep at least one of those trails open," said Massey, "and we managed to keep the Cheakamus Lake Trail open. And that was the birth of WORCA."

It's worth remembering that, in the '80s, mountain biking was still very young — a fringe sport at best. So, many of those early days were spent on developing some key initiatives, like a code of ethics to ensure the behaviour of riders didn't lead to more restrictions in Garibaldi Provincial Park, or developing a wish list of future items for the municipality to consider.

As that was going on, trails started popping up around the resort, not necessarily through a group effort or any WORCA initiative, but through the work of a few individuals.

Lamont said Eakins was the one who brought those people together and began to add some legitimacy to the club.

"One of the first things that really put us on the map as an organization was Bob convincing Charlie and I to do a guidebook," said Lamont.

With some assistance from Tom Barratt, who was working for the municipality at the time, Lamont and Doyle put together a comprehensive list of local trails. The first Whistler Off Road Cycling Guide was published in 1990.

"Bob told us that if there's a map easement, and landowners don't protest against it over a five-year period, then it's grandfathered," said Lamont. "So we mapped everything, whether it was on private land, public land — we didn't give a shit."

Five years came and went after the guide was first printed, with Lamont and Doyle not hearing any complaints. In the years that followed, as development began to sprawl through the valley and the legality of some trails was challenged, Lamont credited Keith Bennett, then Whistler's manager of parks and recreation, with providing support to the biking community from municipal hall.

Most would credit guys like Dan Swanstrom (builder of Danimal, A River Runs Through It, Shit Happens and many, many more) and Chris Markle (Comfortably Numb, Kill Me Thrill Me) for cutting the majority of the trails that remain Whistler favourites.

"A lot of people think that the club did so much to build trail in the valley — I don't think it did much to build trail as it did encourage people to do it," said Lamont.

PHOTO COURTESY OF WHISTLER MUSEUM / WHISTLER QUESTION COLLECTION - The WORCA bike race season begins on May 2, 1996, with a race around the Lost Lake Trail.

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WORCA had become well established over its first year, but there still weren't a ton of people involved. So Rawlinson and Lamont started tossing around ideas about how to draw in members through an event — something like a bike race, but with a wider appeal.

"Rolo said: 'How do we make it so that people can't say no?'" recalled Lamont. "So I said, 'Well let's make it a Loonie (to enter), call it a Loonie Race,' and that's where the whole idea came from."

So in the summer of 1990, Lamont and Rawlinson pushed ahead with the first-ever Loonie Race, setting a course near Green Lake.

"There were maybe 20 of us at the first one," said Lamont.

Looking for ways to make the Loonie Races even more attractive than a $1 entry fee, it wasn't long before WORCA began approaching local businesses for some support. The Whistler Brewing Company had just set up in town, while The Grocery Store liked the Loonie concept as well, and both agreed to provide some post-race food and beverages.

"We put together that format and really started running with it," said Lamont. "And then the second race, we had probably about 40. The next one, we had 60. It just started growing.

"People started coming up from Squamish, coming from Pemberton, coming up from the city. But they had to buy a membership in order to participate. That was the whole goal."

By the mid-90s, it wasn't uncommon to see up to 200 bikers out for a Loonie. But some of the most memorable ones came in the years before then.

"My most outstanding memories of the early days of WORCA were the first Loonie Races," said Doyle. "In the early days, people were imagining crazy things to do."

Take, for example, the notorious Full Moon Loonie. A route was set up to the Cheakamus Lake campground, and each rider's camping gear was shuttled up to the finish for an overnight après on the lake.

"It was a full-on barbecue and camp-out up there," said Doyle. "Then we rode down the next day.

"That was a pretty bizarre one, with some crazy psychedelics and tequila involved."

For Lamont, some of the most notable ones were put on by Marvin Hirano, who was running Grinders Bike Shop at the time.

"He put on the best Loonies, I think," said Lamont. "He'd have 10 kegs up at the top of Microwave Road on this pad with a live surf band. Then people would be riding home downhill, hammered, with no lights. No one died, and that was amazing."

As the number of riders grew each Thursday night, Loonies became Toonies, more sponsors had to be attracted to cover the growing costs, and the whole series became more and more organized. But one thing that has remained a constant is the social atmosphere the races create.

"There aren't many community events where you get hundreds of people showing up who bring such a wide demographic together," said Jewett. "It's such an ideal way of creating a community spirit and pulling people together.

"You've got everybody from the kid in school, to realtors, to lifties, to whatever. Everybody's there, and everybody's on their bike."

With more Thursday rides came more and more members, and a need to achieve a greater organizational structure. That's where Al Grey, who took over as WORCA president in the mid-'90s, was a huge asset.

"He had been president of a rugby association in Vancouver, so he really knew... the mechanics of making an association large," said Doyle. "He was definitely the guy who brought it into the modern era, shall we say.

"We were pretty grassroots and kinda hokey. When Al took over, he brought it up into the stage it is now, and it was a relief to hand over the reins. That was a really good thing."

With Whistler's transient population, Loonies and Toonies have always provided a tremendous way for newcomers to become part of the community.

"People would come to town and they'd have a bike and say, 'How do I meet people?'" said Lamont. "They'd buy a WORCA membership for 15 bucks, and they'd have 300 new friends to ride with."

But riding amongst packs of hundreds on tough trails can be intimidating for some, and the less-intense Monday-night rides WORCA has been putting on for the past several years are growing in popularity, too.

"There are Monday rides now, the (bike park's Phat) Wednesday night races, and the Toonies," said Massey. "I would have never imagined it would be so big.

"It's all keeping the stoke alive. If you're someone who's just come to town and doing those rides... you'll wind up getting to know every great trail here by the end of one summer."

PHOTOS BY DAVID BUZZARD / WWW.DAVIDBUZZARD.COM - WORCA members celebrate the club's 25 years in the valley at Sunday's anniversary party.

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"The experience of my first-ever race was pretty neat," said Will Routley, thinking back on his first Loonie Ride. "I remember getting a flat close to the end, so I just ran to the finish.

"Then I won a prize at the dinner after, and I was instantly hooked. I was like, 'This is unbelievable.' You spend a buck, everyone's really positive and encouraging you to come back the next week because you're a kid, you get to go home with a draw prize. It was amazing."

Routley is one of hundreds of kids who grew up riding in WORCA races and events, and was inspired to get on their bike.

"That's pretty much where I learned how to race," said the 31-year-old, who has since gone on to a tremendous career in road cycling.

Brandon Semenuk and Jesse Melamed are just a couple of other riders similarly making a name for themselves worldwide who also have their name on the Geoff "Lumpy" Leidal Award — handed out annually to a junior rider exemplifying the club's values. They are prime examples of the club's strong tradition of supporting and encouraging young people to get riding.

"At the end of the day, we want to keep the sport growing and active," said Craig MacKenzie, WORCA's youth director.

The club has a number of different initiatives on that front. Some of it takes place in local schools — paying for coaches to lead the mountain bike race team at Whistler Secondary, or working with the Parent Advisory Council at Spring Creek to put on day camps during classroom hours.

But it's WORCA's Summer Dirt Camps that have been a driving force behind keeping kids involved in the sport.

In the early 2000s, there were youth camps being offered through the Whistler Mountain Bike Park or elsewhere, but the focus was mainly gravity-based riding.

"We were in a meeting and saying, 'This downhill stuff is OK, but kids have to learn to ride uphill, so let's put on these WORCA youth camps," said Lamont, recalling a discussion from more than a decade ago.

Greg McDonnell was the club's youth director back then. He and Lamont pulled the idea together, and brought in Sylvie Allen to run the program, which was offered at extremely affordable rates. A few dozen kids signed up that first year, but as word of the camps spread, the interest became far-reaching enough that they had to be restricted to local riders.

When MacKenzie took over as youth director five years ago, there were just shy of 200 kids participating in the camps. This year, that number will be much closer to 400.

And as the program keeps growing from year to year, MacKenzie said the ability level of Whistler's young riders continues to increase, too.

"Some kids are doing some pretty significant riding... at the upper end (of the camps), the kids are thrashing our coaches," laughed MacKenzie. "At the end of the summer, we have nine or 10 very tired people."

PHOTO COURTESY OF WHISTLER MUSEUM / WHISTLER QUESTION COLLECTION - Former WORCA president Al Grey, seen here at left.

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Plenty has changed over 25 years, much more than those few visionaries who gathered at The Boot could have ever imagined. Membership totals are roughly equal to 20 per cent of the town's population, WORCA's mandate has been amended to consider trail building, and partnerships that would have seemed impossible a quarter-century ago are very much a reality.

"That wish list that we gave to the municipality is now fully being fulfilled," said Massey, who pointed to the construction of the Sproatt alpine trail, with government money being put toward the project, as a major victory for the mountain bike community.

But some things have remained the same, too. B.C. Parks still isn't warm to the idea of expanding access for bikers in Garibaldi Provincial Park (and elsewhere) despite constant efforts from the riding community to have its concerns heard.

"We need to look at what our original focus was, because we're still seeing real resistance from Parks to accept mountain bikers, and we're losing ground in the access that we already have," said Jewett. "We need to make Parks understand... that we love where we ride and we all treat it with respect."

And WORCA is continuing to take other steps into the future. The club recently underwent a rebranding, having launched a new logo, website and newsletter design to mark its 25th anniversary after working with Cloud9 Marketing's Virginia-Rae Choquette. But with a growing membership and increased traffic on the trails come new challenges, said David.

"The scene is totally different (than 25 years ago), and there are pros and cons to all of that," said David. "Our little riding world has become, you could say, inundated with a lot more different styles, people and views. We're trying to manage all that."

Gone are the days where WORCA’s executive could quickly and casually gauge the sentiments of its members at a Toonie après. There are simply too many of them.

"Half the time, I don't even know 60 or 70 per cent of the people," said David. "Our community has grown, there are more and more new faces, and trying to connect with everybody... is one of the hardest parts for our board of directors to make sure we're on the right track."

And staying accountable to its members while staying within its mandates is something that David sees as critically important in the years to come.

"It's a community club; a community group," he said. "Over the years, we've had tons of opportunities for marketing or growth, or people wanting to give us stuff, but we've always kept (WORCA) for the community... because in the end, everyone who comes riding all the time are the people that live here.

"(Our members') passion and enthusiasm are huge. It just keeps going, and that's why we are where we're at, and I think that's reflected in the good times we have on a weekly basis."

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