May 15, 2016 Features & Images » Feature Story

The dirt on mountain biking 

Expansion, exertion and 'epic' in Whistler

click to flip through (5) JUSTA JESKOVA PHOTO COURTESY WHISTLERBLACKCOMB - THE DIRT ON MOUNTAIN BIKING: Expansion, exertion and 'epic' in Whistler
  • Justa Jeskova photo courtesy WhistlerBlackcomb
  • THE DIRT ON MOUNTAIN BIKING: Expansion, exertion and 'epic' in Whistler

Tristan Merrick, you could say, is living the dream: for the Whistler Mountain Bike Park team member, the spectacular terrain with its rugged trails is his office. Having moved to Whistler from the Comox Valley 12 years ago, he fell in love with downhill mountain biking and has been at it ever since. With the 2016 season approaching, Merrick is, in a word, stoked.

"There is so much to explore at the bike park," says Merrick, who is also an action-sports announcer appearing in promotional videos for the bike park and companies like O'Neil. "You've got jump trails, tight technical trails, single-track trails — they bring that feel of riding something brand new every time. You can be in the middle of old-growth forest and have all this different terrain. I like the more natural, single-track trails, but you can find anything to suit your riding style.

"For me, the bike park is an outlet to go and test and push my limits. At the same time, it's a meeting spot: you're always going to run into somebody. That's the culture of mountain biking: it's so easy to meet new friends. It's a welcoming community."

It's also a community that has a lot to look forward to: the bike park opens on May 20 this year, and plans for a bigger and better park are in the works.

For nearly 20 years, riders from all over the world have been coming to the Whistler Mountain Bike Park for some of the best lift-accessed mountain biking on the planet. After adding access to additional terrain last summer via the Creekside Gondola, plans for the future development of Creekside Zone were recently unveiled as part of the $345-million Whistler Blackcomb Renaissance project.

Renaissance is a sweeping investment initiative in summer and winter enhancements to Whistler Blackcomb as a whole that includes plans to add more than 50 kilometres of new mountain biking trails in the Creekside Zone — effectively doubling the size of the current park.  (The two trails that currently exist in the Creekside Zone are Dusty's DH and BC's Trail. These trails will open for the season on June 18.)

The timing of the Creekside expansion is contingent on securing various approvals that are required for the implementation of the Whistler Blackcomb Renaissance project, says Rob McSkimming, vice-president of business development for Whistler Blackcomb. But the plan will help the resort keep up with the surge in interest in the adrenaline-inducing sport.

"We're pretty excited to get started and expand our network of trails at the south end of the resort," says McSkimming, noting the park had 160,000 visitors last year, "We've been growing pretty steadily over time. If you would have asked me 18 years ago if we'd be expanding to Creekside I wouldn't have thought so, but demand continues to grow."

In anticipation of the project moving forward the bike park team, in consultation with Gravity Logic and Ecosign Mountain Resort Planners, has developed an initial five-year build plan, which envisions a network of single-track and machine-built trails meandering through some of the most impressive old-growth forest on Whistler Mountain. Trails have been designed to consider access from the Creekside Gondola and Garbanzo/Upper Whistler Village Gondola, as well as the Peak Chair. While the terrain is generally steep, the plan proposes a mix of five to 10 per cent beginner, 60 to 70 per cent intermediate, and 20 to 35 per cent expert terrain.

In its first year, the Creekside expansion will focus on building trails that are accessible directly from the Creekside Gondola and from Garbanzo/Upper Whistler Village Gondola. This phase seeks to include more than 15 km with five trails total, a mix of advanced intermediate (blue) and advanced (black) technical and freeride trails.

The goal is to give this zone more diversity, while taking advantage of Creekside's parking and amenities. Meanwhile, the bike park crew is working on having the new section of Crank It Up built and ready by the end of June.

With so much growth, the Bike Park has ensured Whistler is a year-round destination with something for everyone. Even those who don't want to brave the dirt, rocks, and jumps of the downhill mountain biking scene can get into it by watching riders at the tail end of their laps at the base of the mountain.

"It has become a spectator sport, with people watching riders fly down the GLC drops," McSkimming says, referring to the trio of cliff drops to a dirt landing pad at the bottom of Whistler Mountain. 

Fit for the park

Vancouver native Katrina Strand, who now calls Whistler home, is a die-hard mountain biker. She spent 12 years travelling the globe as a professional mountain bike athlete and represented Canada at the Downhill World Championships. She's a brand ambassador for several different mountain bike companies, an instructor, and strength and conditioning coach specializing in high-performance conditioning. She feels fortunate to spend her days doing the sport she loves in such a gorgeous part of the world.

"It was years ago now when I picked up a mountain bike and thought 'OK, this is my No. 1 passion, and I'm going to do everything in my life that revolves around this so that I can be on my bike as much as possible, and get other people out on their bikes as much as possible.'

"What I love about it and what keeps me going is there's always a challenge," she says. "There's always room to grow, and it's not always from a technical stance but from a physical stance as well. I love exercise and the challenges you can be presented with on a mountain bike. I love the gravity part. But I also love being out there in the woods with your friends."

To be physically prepared for the season, Strand has a few tips. Ideally, people would have started training months ago; the focus should be on getting in shape for mountain biking, not using mountain biking to get in shape. However, it's never too late to get started.

Regular cardiovascular and strengthening exercises — such as squats, lunges, and pushups — are a given. But they're not enough. Strand suggests focusing on movements that will strengthen the core. Doing so will help to improve mobility and stability, which are both vital to staying safe and sharpening your skills on the mountain.

"A lot of foundational, core strength in conjunction with mobility is really key to creating balance through your body, which will make you a better bike rider," she says. "You'll be more prepared if you get injured or take a fall. Your arms push and pull off of your core, so without a strong core you're nothing."

An example of a great core exercise is a front plank. Strand also says that yoga is especially helpful in improving mobility, especially in the hips and shoulders.

Advice for newbies

Maybe you've seen riders zoom full-throttle off the GLC drops and thought, 'That is the sport for me!" The beauty of the bike park is that there's something for everyone, whether you're just starting out or you're a pro, whether you're in grade school or retired.

But for those who are new to the sport, take a few cues from the pros to make it a fun, safe adventure.

Merrick points to the Whistler Mountain Bike Park's YouTube channel, which has a series of videos covering every aspect of a day on the hill, from what to wear and how to load your bike on the gondola, to how to maintain proper posture on your bike.

"The videos tell you all you need to know even if you've never ridden a bike before," Merrick says.

Be sure you have all the proper safety gear: "You want to be fully protected up there," Merrick says. "It's dirt. Some dirt has more give that others, but dirt still hurts."

He suggests a full face helmet, goggles with a clear lens, gloves, a long-sleeved jersey, shorts, knee pads, and proper riding shoes—at the very least. Some people also wear shin pads, a chest protector, elbow pads, and even a neck brace. "It's better to wear more than not enough, especially for anyone who hasn't tried it before," Merrick says.

Consider booking a lesson, too. Experts can give you all sorts of tips and tricks. "Something as simple as proper hand placement on the brake lever can make a huge difference in terms of your posture," Merrick says. "Even a lesson for half a day can set you up for a successful future."

What's hot in gear this season?

As the bike park itself has evolved over the years, so has mountain-bike technology. Merrick has switched from having more than one bike — one for the bike park, one to rip around Lost Lake — to a single machine with downhill tires.

"Now you can have one bike that will do everything," he says. "You don't need to use multiple bikes; it's amazing. It's made life easier for me."

It's a shift that David Mayr, manager of Whistler Bike Co., says is catching on. "We're looking forward to seeing lots of variety in the mountain bike park as riders depend less on single purpose downhill-specific bikes and as the more versatile enduro category continues to expand...

"Specifically riders are stoked on products like the 180mm RockShox Lyrik fork — a long travel enduro fork suitable for park riding and beyond. 

"I'm also looking forward to the further entrenchment of carbon frame 27.5 wheel-size DH bikes, as represented by the Devinci Wilson," he says. "Other new technologies on the horizon are Boost — wider hubs to provide better strength and stability — and Shimano Di2 electronic shifting. This well-established road technology is starting to appear on mountain bikes."

Evolution Whistler's Jenine Schramm says that 29ers are making a comeback: "27.5 is the new standard wheel size, and many people are now testing out the 29ers and realizing they are even easier to ride than the 27.5s," she says. "Carbon bikes are also a new standard — a new, very expensive standard."

Helmet design is getting better all the time. "In the past few years, the trail helmets have stepped up in fit, protection, and style," Schramm says. "There is now great selection in trail helmets with more coverage on the back of the head and temple area, in rad colours. They are a bit pricier than what we were used to a few years ago, but worth it for the fit and protection.

Mayr notes that the IXS Xult full-face helmet was a big hit at Crankworx last year and is now available to the public. "It offers lighter weight and improved ventilation over previous generations of full-face helmets," he says. 

Other must-haves?

"7 iDP has you covered with their Tactic knee armour complete with Boa lacing system and lightweight custom foam construction," Mayr says. 

The selection of trail shorts has improved: Finally there is more than one short to choose from for men and women that are stretchy and the right length," Schramm says. "The TLD Skyline used to be the only go-to for a great-fitting, stretchy short, and there are now racks of lengths and colours to choose from."

Coastal Culture Sports' Ryan Brown suggests new Sombrio Smuggle Bib liners for him and Luxe liners for her, plus "new, fresh gloves of any kind. The ones from last season stink. And new Descent socks. They make you ride better."

And in an ideal world, everyone would have a RB Rocky Mountain Maiden Pro for the bike park, Brown says, a beast with a full carbon frame, four-bar Smoothlink suspension, oversized Enduro MAX-type bearings for longer life and higher load capacity, and integrated frame protection.

All 2016 Bike Park passes are on sale at early bird rates with bonus incentives until May 22. The 10 Day Pass, 5 Day Pass, Twilight Season Pass and new Top of the World pass include a bonus day to be used before June 24, with the Unlimited Pass providing a bonus Buddy Day and a bonus Top of the World Lap.


Inquiring minds:

Q&A with Tristan Merrick, action-sports announcer and Whistler Mountain Bike Park team member.

Your top Bike Park survival tip? "Pacing yourself. Knowing not to overdo it and when to call it a day. You may have just had an amazing lap through the bike park, but even though you're probably having a blast and want to keep doing laps — especially when the bike park is open open 10 hours a day — it can get a little hard to pry yourself away from there."

Had any nasty spills? "I've had everything from a fractured humerus to broken fingers to concussions to pretty serious bumps and bruises to tweaked ligaments — kind of everything across the board. But I would say the one I remember most is when I broke my left-hand pinkie finger six years ago. I clipped a tree just a little bit; it stung, but I didn't crash. The first thing that went through my head was 'That's going to hurt later on.' What I didn't know was that my pinkie finger was completely in the wrong direction; a bunch of the joints had dislocated, and I had broken it right in half. ...I was taking way too risky of a line."

Most overused phrase in mountain biking? "Epic. Everybody loves that word, and everything's epic nowadays. But what really is epic? That is my question."

Favourite post-ride snack? "Some days it's GLC for some extremely tasty food — a superfood salad or tuna tataki. But if budget isn't an issue, my favourite thing after riding all day is going to Sushi Village."

Bike Park etiquette advice? "It's not like the surfing world or maybe even skiing and snowboarding, where there's a huge unwritten list of things you do not do, otherwise — especially with surfing — you'll get beat up in the parking lot. That doesn't happen with mountain biking, thankfully. The biggest thing is if you're riding a new trail that's more advanced than your skill set; make sure you're well aware of people coming up behind you. It can get dangerous in a hurry, especially on trails with blind corners or landings. You can only stop so fast when you're on a surface that's not perfectly flat; the surface is made of rocks and roots and dust and mud. Be aware of not impeding other people around you."

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