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Feature - Growing pains

Downhill mountain biking; an evolution not without protest.

It all started in the Boot Pub. The idea of chalking up six downhill mountain bike rides between sunrise and sunset of a single day at locations from Vancouver’s North Shore to Pemberton. The riders – an elite team comprised of professional downhill racers from the region as well as young up-and-comers from the Squamish area.

As was covered in last week’s Pique feature From the Bar to the Car to the Gnar’, the epic one-day’s ride went off without a hitch, save a few trips to bike repair shops. The challenge took the riders from the worn bedrock trails of the North Shore, to the "friendly" dirt of the Squamish region, to the rocky alpine trails and an extreme technical course in Whistler, and finally to the steep silty trails of Pemberton. All rides were very technical, all were downhill and all were completed.

Yet as successful as this trip was, it is still a far cry from what some people consider to be true mountain biking, since 95 per cent of riding was downhill, rather than the traditional cross-country style. Professional downhill racer and organizer of the "epic one-day ride," Ted Tempany, says unfortunately old attitudes persist and can cause rifts in the mountain biking community.

"I don’t understand when people look at the evolution as a bad thing," he says. "There are people who put us down for not climbing up, but what they don’t realize is that mountain biking is something different to us. I know people who climb and couldn’t care less about the downhill and that’s great too."

The growing divisions within the mountain biking community are not surprising given that the two main disciplines, cross-country and downhill, have effectively evolved into separate sports. Claire Buchar competed in the last Bear Mountain Challenge, and says the two groups don’t really mesh.

"There’s mutual respect but you are looking at two different extremes between the sports," she says.

While both sports require fitness, strength and co-ordination, the sheer adrenaline of downhill racing brings its own requirements.

"You have to overcome fears to get things done on the trail," explains Buchar. "Obstacles or jumping are especially mental. You can’t hesitate."

Creativity is also something judges are looking for, especially in the new slopestyle mountain biking events where riders gain points for stunts and jumps, similar to half-pipe snowboard competitions. Then there’s four-cross, which is similar to boardercross, where four riders leave the start at the same time and pick their own line down a 45-second course. The racing is very aggressive as riders jockey for position down the course around berms and over jumps. An initial qualifier followed by a round-robin elimination format sees the fastest four fighting it out in the final.

Naturally this makes it an exciting spectator sport, and major sponsors are increasingly coming onboard. Supporters of the freestyle movement are also lobbying to get downhill and four-cross into the next Summer Olympics.

Cross-country mountain biking has already been included in two Summer Games. Those races typically last around two hours.

Tempany says the new freestyle approach mirrors what has been happening in other sports.

"It’s the same new technical slopestyle that we are seeing with freestyle skiers, BMX hopping, skateboarding, in snow parks with rail slides and gibbing, and even with snowmobiling, where the principles of motocross are being applied," he says.

"The activities are different but the same physics apply so it’s only natural that mountain biking is being influenced, especially as the bikes are getting better."

But are the bikes evolving quickly enough? Not according to former cycle courier and bike mechanic James Barrett of Katmandu Sports in Whistler. He says too many bike manufacturers are capitalizing on the downhill craze while still trying to cater to the cross-country market, which calls for light weight machines. The result: bikes that are dangerously ill equipped for the Sea to Sky terrain.

"It’s annoying to see a lot of bikes coming out of the United States especially, with six to eight inches of travel and a pair of cross country rims. Riders come to the resort on these Gucci carbon fibre or titanium cross-country bikes and try to keep up with the guy on the big 40-50 pound dually (dual suspension) and absolutely trash their bike because it’s just not made for it," explains Barrett.

"It’s like driving your Porsche off road. This is Hummer terrain."

Barrett says a lot of advertisements perpetuate the myth by showing cross-country bikes hucking off huge drops. He believes manufacturers should portray more responsible and realistic images of what their bikes can handle.

"Guys are riding stuff that 10 years ago they wouldn’t have even thought of riding, so the bikes have to be designed to accommodate this. Or at the least, stop letting heroes put across false messages."

If acceptance of downhill mountain biking by traditional riders and builders is still a work in progress, acceptance of some downhillers within the fraternity is also evolving.

Much of this summer race officials have been bombarded with protests surrounding North Shore rider Michelle Dumaresq, who has won several pro women’s downhill races. The problem: she used to be a man.

Claire Buchar placed third in the Bear Mountain race in June, and says it wasn’t a level playing field.

"It’s nothing personal but you can’t compare a man to a woman physically and even mentally," she emphasizes. "For gender testing she would come out a man because of DNA, and you can’t change that with surgery."

Buchar says she has been training hard for years to fulfill dreams of getting onto the national team, and doesn’t want to be pushed out by someone who shouldn’t really be in the same category.

Other women competitors, including racers from Whistler, organized a petition to remove Dumaresq from the pro women’s division.

However Dumaresq feels she has the right to race as there is no scientific proof that transgender people hold a physical or mental advantage. And last week the Canadian Cycling Association agreed with her, adding Dumaresq to the Canadian team going to Austria this month for the World Mountain Biking Championships.

"In men, 95 per cent of testosterone comes from the testes and the remainder is from the adrenal gland, but women produce more there," Dumaresq says.

"Testosterone is a performance-enhancing hormone and when you remove testes, you lose some strength and risk taking ability. Therefore genetic women actually have an advantage over me."

Since finishing the full surgery seven years ago, Dumaresq says she has lost around 30 per cent of her muscle mass and around four inches in height due to hormone changes. She is now five foot nine. She says her race times are on a par with other women in the World Cup level and if she wins, it is only because she trains hard and her job as a welder fabricator keeps her fit.

"I ride with the same aggressive bunch of guys that I knew before my operation. I would like to see my competitors take it up a notch, stop whining and take their hand off the brake. My goal is to see Canadian women in the top 10 of North American downhill racers because we should be there."

Dumaresq believes that to ban her from racing would be a double standard, since no one minded when she wasn’t winning.

Pierre Hutsebaut, executive director of the Canadian Cycling Association, said last week the issue was clear.

"She is legally a woman," he told Canadian Press.

"She is competing in the women category, she met the selection criteria, then she got selected to represent Canada."

Buchar and Whistler’s Sylvie Allen were also among the six women named to the Elite Women’s downhill team.

And there shouldn’t be any controversy in Austria as the Union Cycling International reportedly approved Dumaresq’s race license to compete in professional sport last March. Under Canadian law, Dumaresq has also been able to change her birth certificate to female.

Hutsebaut said as of last week the Canadian Cycling Association hadn’t received any official complaints from other team members regarding Dumaresq’s inclusion.

The world championships in Austria will continue the evolution of downhill mountain biking. While it hasn’t been an evolution without protest at the philosophical, mechanical and racing levels, there is no doubt it’s here to stay. Extreme technical mountain biking videos, such as the Kranked series, have fuelled the popularity of the sport to current and future generations and to both sexes.

"There’s a lot of nice clothes to wear, helmets to buy and really nice bikes to get on," says Barrett. "It’s like the hot rods of the ’70s and muscle cars. People are sitting there looking at each other’s bikes and going, ‘phoar!’"

All this translates into plenty of business for those involved in the bike trade. Team rider Manus Coyle estimates a 10 to 15 per cent annual growth in sales and customer base at Tantalus Bike Shop since he started working there in 1996. Barrett and fellow bike technician Rob Vasarins have also seen the market in an upward spiral and are banking on it continuing, having launched their own custom wheel building company, Devil’s Choice, for rims that can handle the pounding of downhill.

So if you are still in the old school frame of mind for mountain biking, visualize this scenario to bring you up to speed: A blue-sky day, a bunch of friends, a helicopter drop on the top of Goat Ridge at Britannia near Squamish, followed by six hours of riding down through 6,000 vertical feet. The trail is called Disneyland, and to the new breed of hardcore downhill riders, it’s the ultimate mountain bike playground.