Mountain biking is a big industry worldwide, and there's no question that Whistler deserves a lot of the credit.
Although Whistler Blackcomb was not the first resort-based company to let bikes up its lifts, it did invent the modern bike park experience with the Whistler Mountain Bike Park's machine-built trails, wood and dirt features and skills progression. Whistler Blackcomb even created a company called Gravity Logic to share its knowledge of trail design and trail-building with other resorts, which in 2008 spun off into a busy private company that has done work across North America, in Sweden, France, Norway, Scotland, Finland, Spain, Ukraine, Italy and Czech Republic.
Why share that knowledge? Because Whistler Blackcomb ultimately wants more riders out there, riding local mountains and looking forward to the day they can make the pilgrimage to Whistler and ride what's recognized as the best park of its kind in the world. Rather than an interesting side attraction for summer visitors, Whistler Blackcomb set out to create a whole new category for sport and recreation.
Judging by the Crankworx freeride mountain bike festival, July 15 to 24, it succeeded.
While there may be longer-running mountain bike events out there - the Sea Otter Classic in California turned 21 in the spring, for example - Crankworx has pushed the limits of freeriding further than any other festival. For example, Crankworx invented the freeride slopestyle format that the entire Freeride Mountain Bike World Tour is based on, arguably the most popular mountain bike event these days. Upwards of 20,000 spectators are expected to pack Whistler Village on July 23 for the next step in the slopestyle evolution, Red Bull Joyride, and at least that many - and possibly three times as many people - will be watching the event unfold online.
And Joyride is just a single event, one of a dozen other events taking place through the Crankworx festival. All the freeride bases are covered, with trick and slopestyle events, races of all descriptions, trials riding and even pump track racing.
The business of burliness
Crankworx is good for business. It fills hotel rooms, restaurants and stores, and draws media attention from around the globe. In fact, Crankworx has taken the title as Whistler's biggest festival, with high occupancy rates from start to finish.
For the last Saturday of the festival, which features the slopestyle event, resort occupancy was around 94 per cent in 2010 - easily the biggest night of the entire summer, including long weekends. It was also a record week for the Whistler Mountain Bike Park and for sightseeing on Whistler Blackcomb.
Some of that probably due to the weather, which was spectacular in 2010, but even in a wet year the Crankworx numbers are higher than average.
According to Louise Walker, manager of research at Tourism Whistler, overall occupancy was 76 per cent during the 2010 Crankworx (held in August to accommodate the World Cup schedule). Comparatively, the average occupancy for the entire month of July was 61 per cent and 64 per cent in August.
"So it really acts as a good driver of room nights, a great draw to Whistler," she said.
While 2010's Crankworx occupancy numbers were only slightly above 2009's, Walker said they are encouraged that the festival is continuing to grow.
Bookings so far for Crankworx 2011 are strong, but the fact that the event is in July this year, plus the poor weather forecast, is making for some slow bookings.
"The weather doesn't encourage people to book in advance because they all want to wait and see what it's like, and that affects our (advance bookings). We are pacing a little behind last year, but pickup is still going strong and there's obviously still time for room nights to get booked."
Darren Kinnaird, who took over management of Crankworx 2011 from Jeremy Roche, said there is going to be more emphasis this year on including the village in the festival with live music, broadcasts of race events on the mountain, more televisions for slopestyle spectators and new events like the Fat Tire Crit taking place in the village. The village will also have displays from sponsors, demo tents from bike companies, live shows by trials rider Ryan Leech, and the return of Trialsworx - a trials competition that includes a kids-only Kidsworx competition and a chance to learn from riders like Mill Bay's John Webster, who placed seventh in the world championships last year.
"We're always looking for new ways to combine sport and entertainment, and tie it to the village," explained Kinnaird of the decision to bring back the Fat Tire Crit - a race around an 800 metre loop at Whistler Olympic Plaza, followed by live performances by Kostaman and K'Naan. Other free shows during Crankworx include Current Swell and Hot Hot Heat, as well as a wide range of DJs and performers putting on shows at Kokanee Aftershock and the Red Bull Joyride Afterparty.
While the economy is still an issue, the level of sponsorship is up this year.
"Things are pretty solid," he said. "(Sponsors) are up a little bit from last year and we've got a few new sponsors involved, obviously including Red Bull and Jeep. The overall environment is pretty good, and it's definitely improved over the last two years."
As a publicly traded company, Whistler Blackcomb doesn't share all of its numbers or the results of the economic impact study they did in 2010. "But we were basically told, 'imagine bringing the Grey Cup to Whistler,'" said Kinnaird. "This is about three-quarters of the economic impact of that. (About) 138,000 people came to Crankworx last year and now we're the largest annual event in Whistler."
As for media coverage, Kinnaird said this would be the biggest year yet.
"I think this is by far the farthest reaching edition of Kokanee Crankworx, through our media partners and some of our sponsors and the programs they've put together," said Kinnaird. "In particular, look at what Red Bull has done with Joyride. They've got extensive online content, and big marketing campaigns in the Lower Mainland and through B.C.
"As for the online stuff, I think this is by far our biggest social marketing campaign, Michelle Leroux (director of public relations and social media for the festival) has pretty much killed it there...
"This will also be the biggest year for our webcasts. Freecaster (www.freecaster.tv) is a new partner, they do all the UCI World Cup events and it will be great to have those guys on board. We also have streaming on Pink Bike (www.pinkbike.com), and Red Bull TV (www.redbull.tv) is also carrying Joyride. Dose.ca is putting everything on their website, which is a big consumer-focused opportunity for us."
The Crankworx iPhone App has been available since July 8 and the Android App and mobile website were out this week.
As for the decision to make the live music component free this year - as opposed to the wristband system from recent years - Kinnaird said they wanted to make a splash in the village to draw people into the festival. The goal, he said, is to drive room nights. As for the parties, he said they're leaving it up to sponsors like Kokanee and Red Bull to create that atmosphere in the village. On the cultural side, Kinnaird also expects the Deep Summer Photo Challenge to sell out once again (if it hasn't already by press time).
The total economic impact on Whistler is hard to pin down, and varies from year to year. However, in 2006 the Western Canada Mountain Bike Tourism Association did a study that determined mountain biking generated $34.3 million in direct economic activity from June 4 to Sept. 17.
The Whistler Mountain Bike Park was credited for roughly half of that revenue, while Crankworx 2006 (the first was in 2004) was credited for bringing 55,000 people to the resort (less than half the 2010 total) and generating $11.5 million in spending over 10 days.
And Whistler is just one part of a growing provincial mountain bike industry, with destinations in Squamish, the North Shore, the Okanagan, the Kootenays, the Sunshine Coast, Vancouver Island and so on.
The Province of B.C. announced a new B.C. Mountain Bike Tourism Plan in 2010, recognizing the value of the industry while pledging $250,000 per year to promote B.C. as a leading mountain bike destination.
The changing two-wheel industry
As industries go, cycling is a growth industry around the world. The particulars change from year to year, but these days road riding is leading the popularity contest - just look at events like the RBC GranFondo, which will bring 6,500 riders from Vancouver to Whistler on Sept. 10.
BMX is also making a huge resurgence in popularity, boosted by the sport's inclusion in the Olympic schedule since 2008, and its prominence at events like the Summer X Games.
Commuter bikes of all descriptions are selling quite well as the price of gas reaches new heights and city planners are starting to overlay bicycle networks onto urban roadways.
But while mountain bike sales are down slightly - a result of people buying fewer bikes and spending less per bicycle - it's still a healthy industry. At one point in the 1980s, mountain bikes represented roughly 60 per cent of all sales in the U.S., although that number declined to around 22 per cent in 2010. Before the economic crisis of 2008, mountain bikes represented 25 to 30 per cent of the entire market. Given the number of things people use bikes for, that's a huge market share.
Exact bicycle sales numbers are hard to nail down, but a search on global sales turns up statistics like Shimano increasing sales of components by 46 per cent in the first half of 2010.
Over $6 billion in bikes have been sold in the U.S. each year over the last decade, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association of America, representing close to 20 million bikes.
The exception to growth was in 2009, a particularly bad year for the U.S. economy, with less than 15 million bikes sold - the fewest since the association started recording total bike sales in 1992. The rebound was significant - 19.8 million bikes in 2010 is the second-highest tally since just over 20 million bikes sold in 2000, and represents almost a 25 per cent increase over the previous year.
Further north, the Bicycle Trade Association of Canada said in February that bike sales by independent dealers - not chains like Sears or Canadian Tire - surpassed $250 million for the first time ever in 2010. Bikes in the 26-inch wheel category, which includes mountain bikes, were down 15.58 per cent in total dollar sales, but still rank second to road bikes and commuters. Comparatively, road bike sales were up 21.13 per cent, and youth and hybrid bikes also increased slightly.
But while sales of actual bikes may be down, that decline comes after years of sustained growth.
And in our part of the province, where every town has its own network of trails and the Whistler Mountain Bike Park is just a drive away, the popularity of mountain bikes has never really declined at all.
In Whistler, the Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association has broken its record for membership in all but one of the last 10 years, and in 2009 and 2010 finished with over 1,500 members for the first time. The Squamish Off-Road Cycling Association boasts 800 members, and is also growing year over year.
Mountain bike events are extremely popular, with the Test of Metal in Squamish selling out 800 spots in less than 20 minutes this year. The seven-day B.C. Bike Race also reliably sells out 450 spots.
Both events generate a lot of revenue for hosts. The Test of Metal alone raises roughly $1 million per year for the community, based on room nights, restaurants receipts, sales of bike parts, etc.
Mountain biking may have lost a little popularity overall, but that's certainly not the case in this part of the world. Take the economy out of the picture and it's as successful as ever.
Get into the game
While Crankworx may represent the biggest, newest and best of mountain biking, it's always been an inclusive event. Every component, with the exception of the Teva Best Trick Showdown and Red Bull Joyride for obvious reasons, is open to the general public. That's because in the end Crankworx isn't about showing the evolution of biking, it's about sharing it.
For more information on events and registration, visit www.crankworx.com.