Calgary, to be specific, a place where I cultivated and nourished a love of downhill/freeride mountain biking.
Compared to Whistler the vertical drop in Calgary is definitely lacking. But vert-endowed paradises like Golden and Fernie are do-able weekend trips and within Calgary, when we weren’t out urban assaulting, we had a playground known as Canada Olympic Park.
C.O.P. may be a molehill, but back in 2000 it was a molehill whose manager’s motto seemed to be, "why not?"
A downhill course and weekly loonie races? A dual slalom bikercross? A big-air jump park? Trials park and Northshore-style stunts in the trees? If the mountain bikers were keen, and would lend a shovel, C.O.P. was willing.
We also had Pinkbike.com, a Calgary-based online hub run by Radek Burkat and Mike Blarowski, a couple of day job-holding mountain bike enthusiasts whose infectious joie de bicyclette attracted other riders like honeybees to the hive.
Today Pinkbike is an international phenomenon but back then it was a local-knowledge sort of thing, sponsor of the weekly downhill races and source of cool shirts and stickers that everyone wore with pride. Through Pinkbike pretty much everyone on dual suspension or hucking machines knew everyone else. We had a scene.
C.O.P.’s "why not" attitude extended through the winter of 2000/01 when Pinkbike started hosting snow races. On Sunday evenings after the ski hill had closed the Calgary mountain bikers converged on the facility for bikercross races through the snowboard park.
It was ridiculous. Bundled up riders pointing their rigs down an icy slope lit up by floodlights. Glorious wipeouts were inevitable. It was the most fun thing ever.
The enthusiasm for the snow races that year spawned the first Frozen Foot Festival, one of those beautiful flukes life throws your way every once in awhile.
The fest took place on a cold, clear Sunday night in January 2001. There were five events: big air on the snowboard tabletops, a distance jump, a speed run clocked with radar courtesy of the Calgary police’s mountain bike squad, a bunny hop contest and a tricycle race on the C.O.P. lodge patio.
Pinkbike expected a crowd of Sunday night core enthusiasts but the response went far beyond. Riders came from Canmore, Fernie, Golden and Invermere and non-riding fans lined the jump area and the speed course.
It was an amazing night, glazed by the glee of unexpected über-success.
"What could be more Canadian than this," I remember thinking, surrounded by innovation, heart, toques, smiles, beer, and dudes in puffy jackets under hockey jerseys hucking their bikes off giant mounds of snow.
It wasn’t just me that was blown away and buzz spread quickly thanks to Radek’s online video.
That year also saw Pinkbike’s online readership grow exponentially and freeride/downhill mountain biking in general progress at a jaw-dropping rate.
Ambitious plans were drawn up for Frozen Foot II using the success of the first as a jumping off point. As the January 2002 event neared notable pros such as Shaums March, Dustin Adams and Mike Kinrade’s crew from Nelson were confirming their attendance.
But the expansion of sights brought challenges inherent to staging a large-scale event. The for-the-love-of-the-ride Pinkbike crew was unprepared for a zero-hour announcement that C.O.P. would not cover their insurance needs. With the threat of cancellation looming, Mike Blarowski took a two-minute spot at the end of a local TV sports show to promote the event, inserting a disguised plea for funds to cover the newly hiked costs. Thinking back, I can’t remember the exact amount they needed. No more than the price of a night in a sky-box at an NHL game. In any case, money they didn’t have.
It’s too bad one other thing they didn’t have was a Quebecois corporate titan on their non-existent board of directors. A strategically-placed panel exulting brand Canada would have been more than welcome in the finish area of the Frozen Foot bikercross. A fine use of federal sponsorship funds, if you ask me. Calgarians have never actually organized a vote to turn Alberta into an independent state, but let’s just say the federal Liberals could use all the help they can scrape up out there. Grassroots event endorsement is a good start. Would have been nice to have a little milk from the sponsorship program’s cash cow squirted that way.
But as the Gomery inquiry uncovers more and more indigestion-inducing same-old-stories as part of your complete Canadian news breakfast, it becomes very clear that there were some major inhibitors for that ever happening. For one: Pinkbike’s head cheese being a twenty-something, Polish immigrant engineer who lived to mountain bike, rather than a white-haired gent with a name ending in accent aigu.
Incidentally the insurance money did come through and Frozen Foot II got the go-ahead but the whole thing was cancelled due to raging blizzards and -40 C weather.
How Canadian is that.