Caileigh Koppang’s inaugural mountain bike ride did not go according to plan.
Koppang splits her time between Whistler and North Vancouver and, like many of us, had plenty of free time on her hands during the COVID-19 pandemic. With most indoor activities still shuttered at the time, she longed to join her friends on the trails of Mount Seymour. The only problem? Her old bike wasn’t suited for anything gnarlier than a tame dirt road.
She went anyway, and the results were… less than ideal.
“I went off a small drop and the forks literally fell apart, sending me over the handlebars and I face-planted,” Koppang recalled of her first foray into the wild in 2021. “I got up and laughed so hard at the sight of the bike laying there in pieces.”
Finding her passion
The very next day, Koppang’s family took her to buy a proper vehicle in Whistler. It was nothing too fancy: a used downhill rental bike from FanatykCo. But it was a game-changer, and she was hooked.
As of this writing, Koppang has five podium finishes in as many races during her nascent career. She’s just 14 years old, but possesses a level of independence well beyond her youth.
Not everyone picks up a new sport as a preteen and takes to it like a fish to water, but that is the case for Koppang. Undeterred by the difficulty in finding other girls her age, she has trained diligently to build her skill set. Koppang’s family members noticed she had a knack for downhill mountain biking and encouraged her to sign up for a BC Cup race last year.
Despite her lack of experience, Koppang finished third.
“Caileigh is naturally athletic and has the drive to stay active,” said her mother, Ashleigh. “She is very dedicated to the sport and rode Seymour daily all winter just to stay active and practice. Caileigh will go off into the mountains solo to continuously challenge herself and improve her skills without any guidance or coaching.”
That’s not to say young Koppang hasn’t been supported in her endeavours. She credits both parents for taking her to contests and venues, as well as her friends for riding alongside.
“I love the sport for a lot of reasons,” Koppang said. “It gets me outdoors and keeps me active. Why I focus on downhill is because I love the speed and adrenaline, and the constant, unpredictable change the trails provide.”
Koppang is part of an oncoming wave of young female talent in the Sea to Sky corridor. Others like Cami Bragg and Mhairi Smart have been making noise on the competitive scene for a while, and she’s wasted no time in joining them. Koppang finished first and third in the opening two Phat Wednesdays races of the year and no doubt hopes to keep up her torrid pace.
Making her own path
Moreover, Koppang is proud to be a girl in a historically male-dominated sport. It isn’t always easy, but she takes it in stride with a positive attitude and enjoys making a difference.
“It’s super cool to share the podium with other female athletes,” she said. “It’s definitely a difficult sport to integrate into, but I’m trying to make my own path to get there.”
Whistler has played a crucial role in forging that path. Koppang’s family has owned a home here since the 1980s—unsurprisingly, she grew up skiing and enjoying the outdoors. Nowadays, she enjoys the Sea to Sky in a different way—a way that Mount Seymour can’t necessarily replicate.
“Riding in Whistler brings that big-mountain feel!” Koppang explained. “There is so much more terrain to explore. Having the lifts to take you up the mountain versus shuttling up in a car allows you to get so much more riding in a day.
“Being that Whistler is a world-class destination resort, you get the opportunity to meet so many people from all over the place and it is so much more interesting than shuttling up in my mom’s car. Whistler has a definite vibe and I feel at home when I’m here. Riding at Whistler makes me feel like I’m part of something.”
Though she derives motivation from most any downhill racer, the late Stevie Smith is one of Koppang’s more important idols. His historic achievements sharpen her focus to win, while his underdog career trajectory of starting from the bottom and overcoming much en route to the top is an inspiration.
Look for this surging newcomer to continue making her mark at BC Cup and Crankworx races throughout the season.