Eric Crowe looks down at the box of newspaper clippings sitting on the porch by his feet. Out of the medium-sized box spill numerous stories, photos and results from a mountain bike racing career that has spanned more than a decade. Crowe, 35, has been racing mountain bikes since he got turned on to the new off-road machines in 1984, after seeing some guys riding around Whistler's trails on their five-speed Marushi Sportsters.
"Man, I had no idea there was that much stuff," says Crowe as he leans his lanky frame back in his chair and surveys the spreading pile of mountain bike memorabilia. "There's no way I'm going to start going through all that."
Crowe says he thought his wife Michele had put it all in a scrapbook. She leans her head out the patio door. "That would be a good project for you, Eric."
"I guess it was my mom that put the scrapbook together," Crowe says with his typical wide grin.
It doesn't matter Croweman, the pile of newspaper clippings is nothing compared to the Pandora's Box a decade of fat tires has opened in Whistler. Actually the lid on old Pandora's Box has been blown right off — with unparalleled terrain, kilometres of spectacular trails, a population hooked on mountain bikes and growing legions of recreational racers — Whistler and the Sea to Sky corridor are set to break into the big leagues on the mountain bike scene.
It didn't happen overnight.
1975 — Northern California — a group of eccentric innovators with names like Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze and Tom Ritchey started rebuilding their trusty Schwinn Spitfires into machines designed for climbing up, then rocketing down, a steep fire road on the backside of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County. The road was quickly named Repack, due to the necessity of having to repack the rear brake cylinder with grease after the descent had burned most of it away.
Fisher, Ritchey and Breeze have all parlayed their love of the sturdy steeds with 26-inch wheels into international business empires, as the world has embraced the mountain bike with a vigour that has surprised even the pioneers.
In the late ’70s, a little north of Marin County, Larry Ruble of Vancouver got a look at a Koski Trailmaster and the Deep Cove Bike Shop was born. As mountain biking grew on the West Coast so too did the talent pool of bike builders and riders that has turned B.C.'s West Coast into a spawning ground for innovative mountain bike companies like The Bicycle Group, Rocky Mountain Bicycles, Kona, Brodie and Syncros — all world renowned in fat tire circles.
In 1976 there were no commercially sold mountain bikes in North America, but by 1983 there had been 200,000 purchased across the continent. Ten years later there were 32 million mountain bikes on the roads and trails of North America and mountain biking had grown to a $3 billion world-wide business.
As the mountain bike fever spreads across the continent faster than the deadly Ebola virus hit Zaire, and as the Moabs and Marins of North America get congested with riders, the eyes of the world are searching for more sweet singletrack. They're feasting on Whistler — ready to sit down to the 6,000 course meal of single and doubletrack this area has to offer.
Are we ready?
Geoff Breckner, owner of High Line Cycles in Pemberton, can remember the day in 1985 when the Can-Am championship was held on Whistler Mountain. The race was before John Tomac's time, but legendary rider Ned Overend was there, so was the Ross team and downhiller Joe Sloup. When the TV crew from CBC National News was looking for a gang of local mountain bikers to interview they locked their lenses on the Brown Fish Jumpers, the team of rowdy riders from Deep Cove.
"We used to ride all the time," says Breckner. "It would be like 2 a.m. and we would all be riding toward UBC and hit the trails there. It was whoever could keep up that made it to the end. If you got dropped you headed home."
The Deep Cove boys decided it might be fun to ride in Whistler, so they used to spin up from North Vancouver to hit the trails here. The major hang out point was Doris Burma's Summit Cycle, attached to the Delta Mountain Inn. From these rides came notable local mountain bike names, including that of Geoff "Lumpy" Leidal, who, despite a slightly erratic training schedule has been impressive on the NORBA circuit and finishes high in the pro category in most of the races he starts. The amiable Burma was the patron saint of Whistler mountain biking and many local riders bought their first mountain bikes in her little shop.
Burma also initiated the legacy of the Cheakamus Challenge mountain bike race from Brackendale to Whistler. The race started out as a road race dubbed See Colors and Puke because of the LSD and horrendous bonks that used to accompany many of the riders on the trip up Highway 99. The early pioneers of the Whistler riding scene include Donny Campbell, Charlie Doyle, Paul Rawlinson, Vincent Massey, Dale Douglas — who showed up at his first race on a one speed and beat everyone in his division — and Whistler's first and most recognizable rider… the unmistakable Rabbit. With his flowing beard and broad grin Rabbit can be seen on Highway 99 everyday, spinning to and from work — one of the few full-time bicycle commuters.
Breckner worked as a mechanic at Summit Cycle after moving up to Whistler in 1987 and has now relocated further north to Pemberton — an area he says is going to not only impress mountain bikers with its varied terrain and awesome riding, it will take some of the heat off Whistler's trails.
"It's pretty crowded now on the trails in Whistler," he says. "Having such awesome riding up here (in Pemberton) only makes riding in this part of the country better." Breackner says the riding season in Pemberton is three months longer than that in Whistler. "That's a big bonus."
When Margo Vaughan moved to Whistler in 1984 she brought her road bike along with her and soon realized the skinny tires were inadequate for commuting on the gravel roads and trails between her waitress jobs and home. So she marched into Summit Cycle and plunked down her hard-earned tip money on a Kuwahara Cyclone. That purchase started a two-wheel adventure that took Vaughan to many of B.C.'s mountain bike races in the late ’80s.
When she isn't working in her restaurant Vaughan still rides on the trails around Pemberton (another Whistler refugee). Vaughan says there are more bikes on the local trails than she has ever seen before — and the number of riders is still going up.
On Sunday, Vaughan and I were setting the course for the Loonie race we hosted. I had spun ahead on a particularly tough bit of singletrack to hang a piece of flagging tape. In my haste I left my bike on the trail. Above, on a steep, loose, root-infested section of singletrack I heard a grunt and a few short words: "Get the hell off the trail!" I quickly pull my bike aside and Vaughan chugs by, over roots, rocks and anything else in her way.
"It seems mountain biking brings out the aggressive side of you, Margo," I remarked sheepishly.
"Hey… when you're a woman involved in mountain biking, which no doubt has been a man's realm, you gotta get aggressive every now and then," she says. "It's nothing about the ratio of men and women, it's an aggressive sport."
Vaughan remembers a 1989 race at Apex Alpine outside Penticton, dubbed the Mountain Bike Championships of the Universe, and chuckles when she looks at a photo of the event — the men's expert race had about a dozen competitors lined up at the start — three of them were from Whistler.
Eric Crowe, one of the Team McConkey riders at the start tape, remembers that race well.
"I guess things have kind of changed," Crowe says. "In those days things were so low-key you could have a race and call it whatever the hell you wanted. The Mountain Bike Championships of the Universe sounds as good as anything… doesn't it?"
Times they are a changin'
"It's only two laps… it's only two laps," was the mantra as my heart threatened to jump out of my throat while I stood quivering in the start area with 60 other beginner mountain bike racers at the Kona Canada Cup cross country race. It was my first-ever real, organized mountain bike race and I was so excited I thought I was going to piss my lycra.
The gun went off and so did I, along with a whole bunch of other folks who looked much more prepared than me.
I settled into a comfortable rhythm for the climb up Blackcomb, washed some of the butterflies out of my stomach with a shot of water and got ready to race. There's not much to this racing, I thought, except everybody has nicer outfits than the guys I ride with. Speed down a short downhill and into the rocky singletrack of No Horses. I've been through here a hundred times and never had a problem, why should today be any different…
Something solid hits down low on my bike, but I carry on, desperate not to lose my safe spot in the middle of the pack. Somewhere up there is the leader, but back here with the sandbaggers it's fun. We're chatting, exchanging race philosophies and deciding who had the highest beer to water ratio the night before.
Crap, another climb. I drop the chain down to the granny gear and the chain just falls right off. Oh no, mechanical problems! The bane of the mountain bike racer's existence. In the unassisted sport of mountain bike racing, breakdowns have made the difference between a good show and a no show. As quickly as I put the chain back on it falls off, again and again and again and again…
Finally I stop, turn my bike over and do a quick inspection. A rock (probably placed in the middle of the trail by the race leader fearing my late sprint for the finish) has knocked two teeth off my granny ring. It's middle ring all the way, buddy. I grunt up the climbs, bounce ungracefully through the singletrack and carry my bike up the last, steep climb.
After making it through the first lap, I vocalize my problems to the legions of rabid fans along the start area.
"You don't need a middle ring," some blonde dude yells.
"What are you some kind of wimp!" hollers his buddy. I bear down and head up the first climb of the course for the second and last lap of what I am swearing is going to be my last mountain bike race — face it buddy, that pesky voice in my head says, you're a recreationalist through and through.
Perhaps that is the allure of the mountain bike. It allows anybody to get to unbelievable places by their own power. There's something Walt Whitmanish about the idea of taking yourself 50 kilometres through beautiful first growth cedar, raging rivers and along stunning waterfalls…
GRIND, GRIND, GRIND
Back to reality and to the race, pal, shouts the head voice. Something is really wrong with my bike now. I look down just in time to see the cable on my front derailleur pull out of its hanger. The derailleur drops the chain onto the useless granny gear where it hangs up on the front axle — the race is over.
One and a half laps into my mountain biking career I stand dejected over my trusty bike and curse it to the ends of the earth.
Oh, how I love to ride.
The starting gun goes off and like a shot the largest ever field of expert and pro mountain bike riders in a Canada Cup race — 110 in fact — take off on Blackcomb Mountain.
It's May 27, six years after a dozen or so riders lined up for the start at the Mountain Bike Championships of the Universe, riding and racing mountain bikes seems to have taken the universe by storm.
Nearly 900 riders entered the 1994 Cheakamus Challenge Fall Classic Mountain Bike Race, by far the largest field for a single point to point race in Canada. Hosted by local race promoter Grant Lamont, the Cheakamus has grown well beyond anyone's most colorful fantasy, in the days when Doris Burma organized a loose-knit race structure into an entity known as See Colors and Puke.
Recreational mountain bike racing is rising like a tempest and if Whistler is ready we can ride the wave.
The local mountain bike race calendar is full of high-calibre races. The Brodie Test of Metal is set to go at Alice Lake June 25, the Cactus Cup is scheduled to bring its travelling fat tire show to town July 28, complete with huge inflatable cacti. Blackcomb is hosting a Dual Eliminator Downhill in August, the Cheakamus Challenge is ready to test another 1,000 riders Sept. 30 and Geoff Breckner will put on his second annual Tour de Soo, a killer race from Whistler to Pemberton, in October.
Tack on to that the weekly Loonie race series, pioneered by Crowe and Rawlinson, and you have a recipe for some serious riding — even for the recreationalist.
Chris DeKerf, owner and founder of DeKerf Cycle Innovations of Vancouver, has built bikes for Rocky Mountain, Rek Tek, Toad and Thin Blue Line. He held an expert licence and raced competitively in 1990. He says the number of race licences issued is on the rise and so is the amount of money being poured into mountain bike race teams. Outdoor Gear Canada/Gary Fisher, Kona, DeKerf, Rocky Mountain, Norco, Cyclepath — all big names in the bike business and they were all at the Kona Canada Cup on Blackcomb en masse.
"Vancouver is internationally known as a mountain bike mecca as much or more than some of the cities in California," DeKerf says. "We have the terrain and some of the best bike companies are based on the West Coast. Why wouldn't this area become a hub for mountain bike events?"
DeKerf says it is interesting to see major sponsors like breweries start to come on board with mountain bike racing. A decade ago, if you were at a mountain bike race you could bet your Hite-Rite that it was sponsored by a bike company — not so any longer.
"Two years ago there would be 50-100 racers at an early season race, now the Canada Cup opener on Blackcomb has over 600, something's happening," DeKerf says.
But Whistler is a destination resort, so why shouldn't we start to cater to destination mountain bikers. Eric Wight runs Whistler Backroads. Wight has been hosting guided mountain bike tours on Whistler Mountain for as long as mountain bikes have been in the valley. He says this year the worm has really turned for Whistler when it comes time to talk about a reputation for mountain biking.
"We get calls from Germany asking about tours," Wight says. "They have been calling all winter. Whistler is not going to be big on the mountain bike scene. It's already huge."
Huge and getting huger
While Wight and other mountain bike tour operators are of the "let the riders come" variety there are those in Whistler who are starting to complain about the amount of riders on local trails. The reputations of master trail builders Vincent Massey and Dan "The Trail Man" Swanstrom are starting to spread far and wide and folks from all over are coming to sample the sweet nectar of the hundreds of kilometres of singletrack in the Whistler Valley.
If more riders come, the inevitable backlash is bound to happen. Al Gray is the newly-elected president of the Whistler Off Road Cycling Association. He says WORCA is trying to bolster its membership, currently around 30, in order to give a unified voice to mountain bikers in valley.
"We are trying to assemble a collective voice for the sport," Gray says. "There is a credible number of people who are out there riding, but there's no unified voice."
He says mountain bikers have to get smart in order to create a positive presence in the valley. That means saying hello to other riders on the trails, taking part in regular trail maintenance days to keep trails ecologically sound and co-existing with everyone else who uses trails — from hikers to horseback riders.
Gray says WORCA has joined the Bicycling Association of B.C. and has purchased liability insurance for Loonie races. He says the insurance is a necessary evolution of the previously loosely-organized Thursday night race series. "We have to get responsible, the sport is growing so fast and we have to grow with it," Gray says. "They're still fun races, how could they not be fun with a name like Loonie."
Mike "The Legend" Christie agrees with Gray. He says it is time to cook up a batch of new mountain bikers that have the same ingredients as guys and gals like Crowe, Rawlinson and Vaughan. As an exercise in education Christie has been leading very popular group rides every Monday night at the Whistler Bike Company.
"There's so many new riders out there that don't know much about trail etiquette and how to ride a trail," says Christie, whose most legendary mountain bike accomplishment may be his victory in the first-ever Loonie race years ago. He won the race after leader Dean Moffitt took a wrong turn… but that's another story. He's ready for a good season of racing after training hard all summer with Skinny Mick Peatfield.
"I've done a lot of riding in Rossland and Canmore and other areas like that, but none of those places have the diversity of terrain available here," Christie says. "We have got to appreciate it and protect it at the same time… because nobody is going to fool anybody, there are more riders coming."
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