Crankworx: A sacred gathering of the two-wheeled kind 

Whistler's festival whips mountain bike culture beyond its traditional boundaries

click to flip through (7) PHOTO BY CLINT TRAJAN COURTESY OF CRANKWORX - Crankworx a sacred gathering of the two-wheeled kind
  • photo by clint trajan courtesy of crankworx
  • Crankworx a sacred gathering of the two-wheeled kind

As Crankworx heads into its 11th year, Pique asked trail builder, filmmaker, WORCA Youth Camp and Whistler High School coach, prolific mountain bike magazine contributor, editor of IKAM fanzine and all around cyclemaniac Seb Kemp to reflect on the festival. He found that the event is more than just the sum of its parts. It has transcended the idea of a competition to become a culture, and a place where the future of the sport can be glimpsed.

Crankworx is the biggest and best mountain bike event. This is true because it brings together a wider and more-engaged audience than any other multi-discipline mountain bike event. Crankworx distills the essential elements of Whistler — a shared love of the outdoors and a nearly single-minded obsession for activity and creativity — and makes it more easily digestible for a wider audience.

But the impact of the event now goes beyond our town's geographical boundaries. Ultimately, after 10 years, Crankworx forges where the next 10 years of mountain biking might be heading.

PHOTO BY BRYN SCOTT COURTESY OF CRANKWORX - Crankworx a sacred gathering of the two-wheeled kind

Influence wielder

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck, right? Sure, but there might be more to that duck than meets the eye. Maybe that duck likes to paint, drink mojitos and take long walks on the beach.

Whistler's Crankworx event looks, moves and sounds like an energy drink-fuelled, billboard-wearing, Disneyland-slash-halftime-show for adrenalin hedonists, brightly clad gravity mountain bike riders and accompanying GenerationY ravers. However, it, and the host town, have got far more going for them than many people realize.

People who come during this 10-day period in August see the giant inflatable beer cans, the blinking big screens, the big stunts, the queues, the parties and the din of thousands of revellers, errr...revelling, but the party atmosphere and stunts that might dominate the view belie the truth of the event, for Crankworx has become one of the most important influencers on the culture of mountain biking.

Crankworx was initiated as a way to promote Whistler and the bike park as a mountain-bike destination, but over time the organizers have expanded their mandate to evolve and grow the sport, bring non-endemic brands to the community fold, listening, then speaking up as the voice of the mountain bike community.

And because of this it has become a muse for the global fraternity of mountain bikers.

PHOTO BY SEAN ST DENIS COURTESY OF CRANKWORX - Crankworx a sacred gathering of the two-wheeled kind

THE GAME

There are so many sides to the Rubik's cube that is Crankworx: You can come to race. You can come to party. You can come to ride. You can come to see some of the new sparkly stuff on display. You can come enjoy the work of some of the world's best mountain-bike photographers. And you can meet all your mountain bike heroes.

You can mix them together into a whirlwind cocktail of lunacy and bedlam, or you can pick and choose depending on your tastes and desires. The 10-day, battery-acid bonanza, super-mega-monster-fun-fun-fest is more than just watching the world's most talented hyperactive kids doing dirt gymnastics in the slopestyle comp, or watching the bonkers ground speed of the world's fastest human blow darts — instead it's about feeling a part of the action, joining in the fun, getting amongst it, and experiencing it first hand.

There's a fantastic inclusivity that energizes the whole festival, all of it revolving around the act of riding a bike.

However, the bike is just the conduit for something more, not the essence of it.

It's a time for coming together as a disjointed community of biking nerds and leaving feeling better about our fascination.

The ability for people from all over the world to visit Whistler during the Crankworx festival and to experience a level of acceptability and credibility that is not seen anywhere else in mountain biking is what fosters radical memories and sows the seeds of inspiration and transformation for other communities around the globe.

PHOTO BY CHAD CHOMLACK / TOURISM WHISTLER - Crankworx a sacred gathering of the two-wheeled kind

THE UMBRELLA

Each year the big C gets bigger, with more distractions and attractions to capture the imagination of a wider audience. What started out as a handful of events and sideshows have turned into a treasury of carousels, roller coasters, and freak-show spectacles.

For many years the event has been about the pros, the racers and the crown-jewel slopestyle competition that's held on the penultimate day of festivities.

As the Crankworx propaganda machine once put it, the Joyride slopestyle comp is "a war for freeride glory in the only Coliseum qualified for such prestige... off-road electricity hardwired to the soul of mountain biking's next generation of backflippin', tailwhippin', 720 huckin' superstars." Wow, big words, but it's true.

The slopestyle comp is huge. Last year 25,000 people gathered in the Boneyard and over 90,000 people tuned in live to watch the event unfold via the magic of the Internet.

For the competitors of this event careers are kick started, heroes are made, and legends fortify their place in the annals of mountain bike history. Every year the world's biggest single mountain bike event (in terms of attendance and prize purse, and the opinion of almost anyone with a pulse and no axe to grind) gets better and better. The course gets refined so the athletes can go big for a crowd that gets more educated and excited. The sponsors roll in and the big screens multiply. This event is a big deal, make no mistake about that.

Except for the invite-only Joyride spectacle, almost every event is open for anyone to try. There's a smorgasbord of events which every man, woman or child can enter, and each year around 1,200 people do.

There's the Garbanzo downhill, a monstrous marathon of a course from the top of the top of the Garbanzo lift to the Skier's Plaza; the Fox Air DH race course, which winds and jumps its way down the iconic A-Line trail; there's cross-country races and the Fat Tire Criterium for those with levers for legs; there's the Dual Speed and Style or Ultimate Pump Track Challenge for those riders with more skills than changes of socks; the Canadian Open Enduro for mountain bike riders; and the Canadian Open DH for riders in a rush to meet their maker or chase champagne dreams. There's even a cheese-rolling championship for anyone with a thing for bruised dairy products, or a need to see the inside of an ambulance.

You can pitch yourself up against the clock, or the judge, but what's unique is that amateurs and pros alike will all compete on the exact same courses. So, you can race your buddies and your nemeses, or see where you stand against the world's best, and the only barrier to admission is the entry fee, unlike some of the events that are held by the sport's governing bodies, which often result in a reduced engagement of participants and almost zero chance that anyone outside of the results sheet gives a damn about what happened.

Many riders come to race at Crankworx and it may be their only race for the whole year. You could argue that this is because there are interesting and appropriate race formats to choose from, decent prize money, and they are always extremely well organized (a surprising rarity for mountain biking events).

Crankworx is about being a part of the action — but even if you can't partake you can be there as a new chapter in mountain biking history is written (so says Big Bad Brad Ewan, the man with a baritone megaphone for a mouth and a proclivity for hyperbole).

To sit on the sidelines and watch some action is to feel included in the revelry. In fact, over the years, as the fans have honed their super powers for cheerleading they have been cast as leading characters in their own right.

Just take a look at the hordes of excited race fans on Heckler's Rock during the Canadian Open DH race on the last Sunday of Crankworx, or the dangerous antics of the crowds during the Official Whip Off World Championships. These people aren't bystanders or observers, but are the event makers and have had as much impact on the contests as any of the titleholders ever have.

PHOTO BY SEAN ST DENIS COURTESY OF CRANKWORX - Crankworx a sacred gathering of the two-wheeled kind

Not all about the bike

Crankworx is — surprisingly for a sport-centric event — actually very much about expression and originality. The Deep Summer Photo Challenge, when introduced in 2009, shifted Crankworx from being just about the athletic prowess of dudes and jocks to being about creativity and artistic therapy.

These days the impact of the Deep Summer contest is still felt, but it has to fight for bandwidth alongside the vast amount of media output and personal social media that erupts from within Crankworx and engages a broader audience, those that couldn't be at the festival but are still impacted by it.

And in this day and age of instantaneous digital communication — of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram — the super fans, the athletes and kids behind the barriers all hustle to tell the story, or their story, of Crankworx, often battling for elbow room alongside the over 350 amassed media pros who travel from afar to be able to beam back their reports far and wide (and who generated ad-equivalency public relations value of $11,207,490 last year alone).

Crankworx happens in a little mountain town but it impacts a global audience, and not just mountain bikers. National TV, radio and newspaper networks report on Crankworx, putting the action into the living rooms of millions of more viewers.

PHOTO BY CHAD CHOMLACK / TOURISM WHISTLER - Crankworx a sacred gathering of the two-wheeled kind

THE NEW JACKS AND GREENHORNS

Whistler, as a major summertime attraction beyond the little world of mountain bikes, attracts hordes from all over the world, and many more domestic visitors come just to see what all the fuss is about during Crankworx.

Last year 131,000 people visited Whistler throughout the festival, making it the busiest 10-day period for the resort in 2013.

The terrific buzz that is created by all the hyped-up mountain bikers who are in attendance may feed the buzz that even non-bikers experience.

Many visitors probably wonder what they have walked into when they arrive during Crankworx. They see huge crowds of garishly clad gladiators wheeling around contraptions that have more in common with motorcycles than with the bicycle they have at home.

The loud music booming from the stage and the roaring vocals of the events' commentators must be startling. The gazebos and tents throughout the village touting goods and services they don't recognize must be intriguing and mystifying. Then, as they make their way closer to the action they are greeted with the bizarre, slopestyle course that snakes its way down the mountainside. Huge walls, scoops, and elevated platforms are dotted throughout a field of dirt sculptures, gaily painted with names of companies they may recognize, but then many more they may not.

Perhaps some are drawn to the festivity, caught in the spell of the collective effervescence. Maybe some join in; maybe some stand by, wonderstruck by the bizarre congregation they've stumbled upon in the mountains. Maybe some become fascinated enough about mountain biking to give it a try one day, maybe some just come for the giveaways, either way there's an impact had by Crankworx upon an audience beyond the endemic one.

The organizers know this to be true, so do the companies that come here to present and represent, and so too the many figureheads of mountain biking. In 2010 (last statistics available) the event generated $22.9 million of net economic activity in British Columbia, with $11.3 million having occurred in Whistler alone.

The campaign for the hearts, minds, and wallets of the public is contested here at Crankworx. Not so much at a race in the isolated hills. Not quite at a convention. And maybe not always on the pages of a magazine. It is here the short arm of mountain biking can stretch itself to embrace all its lost lambs and nurture an excitement for potential new bikers. The battle is fought and won where people can come together and celebrate. Crankworx is mountain biking located sensibly where it should be — in the mountains — but with one eye firmly on the wider world.

Crankworx attracts a growing number of industry exhibitors, companies keen to show off their wares to the public, including allowing everyone a chance to get their grubby paws on product. This is a great opportunity for companies to showcase their goods to the thousands of riders, press, and non-riders that descend on the village from all over the globe. Every year more and more companies are using this event to show off new product before the usual intercontinental trade-show rollout at EuroBike and Interbike. This isn't a show but instead huge fleets of brand-new-for-next-year bikes are presented for everyone to huck to flat. Bikes and product are handled, ridden, rallied and muddied, not looked at from afar like fake idols of conspicuous consumption, signifiers of imagined truths, which can't hold up to the reality of riding, out on the trails, in the hills, in the forest. And this happens in August, little more than halfway through the calendar year and well before the product will be available in retail shops, making Christmas wish lists seem longer and further off.

The mountain-bike industry calendar has long been bookended by Sea Otter in April and Interbike in September, but despite being long-standing events (23 and 32 years, respectively) these institutions have become increasingly unfastened from the progressive nature of mountain biking. Both take place far from where mountain biking actually takes place (Laguna Seca Raceway and Las Vegas), making Crankworx seem considerably more relevant, and truly one of the most forward-thinking and exciting mountain bike destinations.

More than a few business meetings take place on the chairlift, and the lift lines also become a place for the industry leaders to meet and mingle with real life mountain bikers. Whistler's Crankworx is where trends are identified by the influencers who'll be repackaging it for a global audience in the near future.

PHOTO BY SCOTT ROBARTS COURTESY OF CRANKWORX - Crankworx a sacred gathering of the two-wheeled kind

TEN YEARS DOWN, MORE TO COME

Crankworx has been a game-changer, in terms of the event's scope, the stories that have been written throughout its history and the athletes who have made their names on the competitive stage. But, now having turned 10, Crankworx is likely to see the next generation of local athletes and young shredders make their mark. These will be the kids who grew up with Crankworx (watching from the bleachers or taking part in their first event or race, perhaps) being a significant element in their milieu. Young freeride phenoms, for example, like Finn Finestone and Jackson Goldstone are both as old as Crankworx, they don't know any other life than one where Whistler Bike Park rules the land and Crankworx crowns kings. They've aged alongside Crankworx, they've watched freeride mountain biking evolve in front of their eyes and they've watched the progressive performances of their heroes, firsthand.

What does this do to a child's concept of what is acceptable and how does this help them challenge their own potential? Growing up in Whistler in the past 10 years might be the equivalent of raising a child rink side as hockey's greatest play. It's likely that the future of radical, breakout performances are in their (and other Generation Bike Park shredders) hands and the world is watching to see what happens next.

This year's event sees an even bigger focus on future demographics with the expansion of Kidsworx and addition of Familyworx, a series of family-friendly activities and demos, as well as a lineup of kids races, which will provide the perfect platform for young athletes to compete in the same environment as the pros and give them a taste of Crankworx from the inside. The speed to which future generations of Crankworx champions are being incubated just accelerated a great deal.

On the face of it Crankworx is all about the events, spectacles, competitions, the giveaways, the demo fleets and parties. But really, once you look past the pretty face and ample cleavage of Crankworx you get down to the real beauty of it: that it's a chance to be surrounded by inspiring, animating experiences. The spirit of Crankworx isn't just found between the tape, on the course, or on the jumbo-tron. Even if you aren't a participant of Crankworx, you still partake in it. It can be found in the individual stories of each person present (or perhaps watching from afar, daydreaming and wishing).

It's about each of those people asking, in their own way, why bikes mean anything to them, how bikes brought them here, and where are bikes taking them. Crankworx provides a sketchpad for people to interpret their own narrative, and it also contributes to the narrative of mountain-biking's story way beyond the 10-day festival.

Whistler is the barometer; Crankworx is the compass for where mountain biking could go.

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