Two decades of dirt 

Twenty highlights for the Whistler Mountain Bike Park's 20 seasons

click to flip through (16) PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY CLAIRE RYAN, PHOTOS COURTESY OF WHISTLER BLACKCOMB - Two decades of dirt Twenty highlights for the Whistler Mountain Bike Park's 20 seasons.
  • photo illustration by claire ryan, photos courtesy of whistler blackcomb
  • Two decades of dirt Twenty highlights for the Whistler Mountain Bike Park's 20 seasons.

It's a special time of year in Whistler. Freewheels are clicking. Shocks and linkages are flexing silently, with nary a squeak to be heard. Bushings are brushed. Brackets are greased. Rubber tires are fresh and blocky, the extrusion hairs (technically known as vent spews) still poking out of the knobs on your new tires.

When the Whistler Mountain Bike Park officially opens for the season on Friday, May 18, those bikes will be put through their paces, testing the limits of engineering and physics as they bomb down over 80 kilometres of trails—and counting.

This summer marks the park's 20th season, with the first riders ripping the Fitzsimmons Zone back in 1999.

There were attempts at commercial bike parks before then, including a few trails on Blackcomb Mountain, but in 1999, something was different. Bikes were changing, keeping up with advancements in technology, and the sport was becoming increasingly mainstream. A group of hardcore riders working for Whistler Blackcomb pitched a concept that took the best of everything in the bike world at that time—from North Shore stunts to Kamloops big airs—and literally created something new out of the dirt.

The new park was big, and it was challenging. Elevated in some places, airborne in others, and steep everywhere in between. And riders instantly fell in love with it.

You had to ride the gondola up to Olympic Station that first year, smiling at the sightseers that made the mistake of not waiting for the next one, as you dripped mud or sloughed off clouds of dust.

It was cheap, too—$19 for a sightseeing ticket and $3 extra to ride the park. Those $3 fees were all park managers had to work with in those days to build new trails, and they made the most of the money by investing in popular machine-built trails like A-Line and B-Line—helping define gravity-assisted mountain biking in the process.

It didn't take long for a new downhill culture to rise out of the dust like so many jumps and berms. Almost overnight, Mountain Square filled up with big bikes and riders decked out in full-face helmets and motocross gear.

The park continued to grow with new trails added every year. In 2006, the first major expansion into the Garbanzo Zone almost tripled the park's vertical. In 2016, the Peak Chair and Top of the World trail opened, adding over 1,000 more vertical feet of riding, bringing the total descent close to 5,000 feet. This year, it's slated to grow again by almost 20 per cent.

The previous 19 bike park seasons are packed with highlights, but a few of those milestones stick out more than others.

Here's Pique's list of the park's Top-20 moments to kick of its 20th season.

1. JOYRIDE'S FIRST SLOPESTYLE

The year was 2003, and the now-annual Whistler Summer Gravity Festival was taking place over a dusty July weekend. Event organizers Paddy Kaye and Chris Winter, founders and hosts of the Joyride series, had put together a completely new style of event called the Shimano Saint Slopestyle Expression Session, combining elements of bike park, big mountain and freeriding in the Boneyard zone at the base of the mountain.

The field for that first event featured some of the biggest freeriders from around B.C. at the time, such as Richie Schley, Wade Simmons and John Cowan, as well as a group of up-and-coming riders, including Thomas Vanderham and a 16-year-old Cam McCaul. The win and $2,000 first prize eventually went to Darren Berrecloth for landing a 360 spin and a superman.

Here's what Barrecloth said to Pique about his victory at the time: "This is the future right here.

"This is the next X Games event. The skaters, the BMX jumpers, they can't go this big, and the crowd was totally into it."

That prophecy never came to fruition, but it didn't matter: The world's first mountain bike slopestyle event was a hit with riders and spectators, and caught on like wildfire. These days, there's an established global Freeride Mountain Bike World Tour with 32 events on the calendar, including four invite-only Diamond-level contests.

The top events draw tens of thousands of spectators, plus hundreds of thousands more who tune in online. Fittingly, Whistler still hosts the biggest and most important events on the tour: Red Bull Joyride and the FMB World Tour championship.

This summer, Red Bull Joyride is moving back to Saturday, taking place on the evening of Aug. 18.

2. RED BULL BRINGS BACK JOYRIDES—AND BRANDON SEMENUK WINS IT FOR THE FIRST TIME

From 2004 to 2010, the biggest event at Crankworx was the mountain bike slopestyle. Held under a variety of names and sponsors since the first event in 2003, the arrival of Red Bull as title sponsor for 2011 took things to a whole other level. While courses have always been big and burly, the Red Bull Joyride course was designed by the riders themselves to raise the bar and hopefully give them enough airtime to land a few global firsts.

Whistler's own Brandon Semenuk, then just 20 years old, picked up the win and $25,000 with a flawless second run—overcoming a crash on his first attempt. Since then, Semenuk has won the event a record five times, establishing himself as the rider to beat on the world circuit.

3. Steve Smith wins the Canadian Open DH

While Nanaimo's Steve "Chainsaw" Smith was making a name for himself as a serious contender on the UCI World Cup downhill circuit, he always made a point of returning to B.C. to race at Crankworx. In 2011, he won the Canadian Open DH for the first time against a field of top World Cup racers.

"The Canadian Open Downhill is my favourite event at Kokanee Crankworx," he told Pinkbike at the time. "After getting a flat on the course last year I was ready to go hard this year. This track suits my style; it is rough and technical, and one of my favourite trails to ride." Smith went on to win the Canadian Open DH again in 2012 and 2013 (the year he also won the UCI World Cup overall title).

Always riding on the ragged edge, Smith was a crowd favourite who quickly attracted a local following. In recent years, fans would line the course wearing plaid and revving chainsaws in his honour.

Tragically, the mountain bike world lost Smith in 2016 to a brain injury he suffered in an enduro motorcycle crash in Nanaimo. Only 26 years old, he had already attained legendary status on the mountain biking scene.

The 2016 Crankworx Festival included a number of tributes to Chainsaw, including a new Steve Smith Memorial Award to celebrate the top junior racer through Crankworx.

4. FINN ILES WINS WHIP-OFF WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP

Crankworx famously jam-packs events into its schedule, with over a dozen events taking place over the multi-day festival. Some of the contests are annual affairs, like the slopestyle and Air Downhill on A-Line, but one reason the festival has emerged as the biggest of its kind is its willingness to experiment with new and different event formats.

One of the more unusual and successful experiments was the annual Whip-Off World Championship, which celebrates a standard trick in many riders' repertoires—the whip—that only a few can pull off with perfect style.

The Whip-Off is the brainchild of photographer Sven Martin, who hosted the first contest under the radar. It didn't take long for the word to get out and for organizers to add it to the Crankworx calendar.

In 2014, with 1,500 fans lining the Crabapple Hits, a 14-year-old Whistler rider named Finn Iles came out of nowhere to win the day against a field that included a cross-section of past and present pros. Although Finn was bound to turn heads eventually in his career, it was a great way to show off what the local kids who grow up riding in Whistler are capable of.

There was also a bit of controversy surrounding his entry. He was younger than the listed age cut-off, but local mountain bikers rallied around Iles and waged a campaign with the hashtag #LetFinnIn to pressure organizers to grant him a spot.

"It's been pretty exciting ... When I found out I was in I was so stoked," he told Pique at the time. "People were telling me that my whips were good enough to win, so I just tried to throw down as best I could and I ended up winning."

Unable to defend his Whip-Off title in 2015 due to injury, Iles stormed back in 2016 for his second victory.

5. THE RED BULL 5000 DOWN

Before taking over the Joyride slopestyle contest, Red Bull had sponsored a variety of events in the Whistler Mountain Bike Park. One of the most intense, years ahead of the Top of the World trail expansion was the Red Bull Exodus—a mass-start descent from the peak of Whistler Mountain to the bike-park base.

The first event was held in 2009, with French star Jerome Clementz edging Squamish's Shaums March by around two seconds. Whistler's Katrina Strand won the women's race, followed by Sylvie Allen and Kari Mancer.

Things got a lot more interesting in the second year. Renamed Red Bull 5000 Down, riders woke up to 30 centimetres of fresh snow and a mix of flurries and torrential rain.

Whistler's Tyler Morland made it through the course in 21 minutes and 49 seconds (21:49), about 12 seconds ahead of Curtis Keene. Tyler Allison, a junior at the time, managed to place fifth—one spot ahead of future World Cup champ Steve Smith.

To give you an idea of the conditions, times were about seven minutes slower than the previous day's seeding runs.

"It was tough," Morland told Pique, "but everybody who rode today is going to remember this event."

On the women's side, Squamish junior Lauren Rosser won the race in a lactic-acid burning 27:31, followed by local riders Brook Baker and Fanny Paquette.

6. THE ANNUAL A-LINE CHAINLESS RACE

The Whistler Mountain Bike Park's Phat Wednesday summer race series has been a massive success from almost Day 1. By the second year, over 400 riders turned up to a few of the more popular events.

Over the years, it became tradition to wear costumes—or almost nothing at all—in the year's final race down A-Line. To make things more interesting—and entertaining—some riders also removed their bike chains, creating a race-within-a-race that's all about flow and maintaining speed. Tandem, fully rigid, and even single-speed children's bikes began to show up at the start line as well.

The chainless trend caught on, and by 2014, there were 240 riders at the start gate sans drivetrain. That year, the event raised over $2,000 for cancer research in support of local junior pro, and leukemia survivor, Nick Geddes—who also won the men's race that year after a three-year battle with the disease.

Through the years, the A-Line Chainless Race has become a perfect example of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park's culture: high-spirited, high-flying and high-fiving with a touch of self-deprecating comedy thrown in. And why not? The bike park is nothing if not humbling.

The 2018 Phat Wednesday series gets underway for its 15th season on May 30 this year. Season passes are on sale at Eventbrite.ca, with only 150 guaranteed spots up for grabs at each race. As always, you'll need to be a Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association (WORCA) member to take part.

7. HECKLER'S ROCK

World Cup riders compete in dozens of different events on five continents, drawing huge congregations of the mountain bike faithful at every stop to cheer, ring cowbells, blow vuvuzelas, and egg on riders pushing the limits of their bodies and gear. Yet, despite the festive global atmosphere, riders generally agree that there was nothing quite as loud, funny, or brash as Heckler's Rock, a snippet of the Canadian Open DH course that became legendary over the years.

It was a technical bit of trail, with riders launching off a rugged ramp, flying about 10 metres through the air, touching down on a rock slab and making an immediate turn into an incredibly steep rock roll. It's one of those lines that requires all of your concentration and there are real consequences for messing up. It was the perfect place to put the world's craziest fan section.

The Heckler's Rock phenomenon started in 2009 when a small group of fans congregated on the rock to chirp riders as they made their way down the technical line. The trash talk was expert-level, with the beer-swilling superfans knowing just what to yell at riders to throw them off their games. Riders and racers heading up the chairlift were also fair game.

Hecklefest, as it became known, grew and grew until you could hear the noise from the top of Boneyard.

Fans chanted obscenities, revved chainsaws in support of Steve Smith, drank a lot of beer, and gave riders a hard time—all in good fun. Racers already out of contention would sometimes stop on the rock to shotgun a beer or join the party for a few seconds before hopping back on their bikes to head to the finish.

Unfortunately, the level of fan-sanity ramped up to a point where the safety of riders, fans and people riding the chair was jeopardized by flying beer cans. The course was rerouted in 2017 and Heckler's Rock passed into the annals of local history.

8. THE OPENING OF A-LINE

In the early 2000s, the bike park was still working hard to define itself and recruit riders into the relatively new sport of gravity-assisted mountain biking.

Then came A-Line, a machine-built trail created by Dave Kelly in 2001 that would become the gold standard for a new downhill experience. The trail featured every kind of huck you could imagine, from tables to hips, step-ups to step-downs, massive berms that begged to be railed at high speed, and a few obligatory drops. Counts vary, but the trail has over 80 features from top to bottom, and 17 years later is still one of the park's most popular descents.

If there was a king of A-Line, it would have to be American World Cup racer Brian Lopes, who has won the Air Downhill race on A-Line a record six years straight, spanning 2005 to 2010. The queen would be American Jill Kintner, who scored her fifth win last season.

"A-Line is a really great trail to ride, but when it comes to racing on it you need to be on point," Lopes told Pique back in 2008. "It's a very technical race and with the level of riders here, every mistake counts."

9. CRANK IT UP

For a decade, A-Line was the bike park's most popular trail. Then came Crank it Up, a unique trail that stretches over 4.5 km and took three years to build. Crank It Up boasts a lot of the features that made A-Line popular, but was designed in such a way to be just as fun for relative beginners as it is for seasoned experts.

Now it's one of the first trails that crews clear of snow and debris ahead of each season.

10. aDAM BILLINGHURST'S COOL MILLION

The Whistler Mountain Bike Park has always had more than its fair share of hardcore riders and fans, but one rider in particular redefined hardcore in 2013 when he completed a million vertical feet of riding—in just 58 days.

Adam Billinghurst only took two days off after opening day of that year, hitting the million-foot mark on July 15. In those weeks, Billinghurst covered over 3,700 km (including chairlift rides that were picked up by his GPS), while averaging around 18,000 feet of descent every single day—the equivalent of three-and-a-half top-to-bottom rides through the park or 15 rides on the Fitzsimmons Chair. He also went through six sets of tires.

On his biggest day, Billinghurst reached almost 34,000 feet of vertical.

"I feel good," he told Pique five years ago. "I don't want to say it was easy, but it was easier than I thought it was going to be. And I'm tired. And my hands hurt."

Nobody has tried to beat Billinghurst's record that we know of, but back then Billinghurst knew it was only a matter of time.

"It's definitely beatable," he said. "I know I could beat it, but life gets in the way sometimes. And I wanted to do runs that were fun, too. If I focused 100 per cent on riding the quickest way down the mountain, I could probably have gotten it done faster."

11. THE CRUD TO MUD

The bike park was originally conceived of as a way to keep Whistler's hardcore skiers entertained between winters.

In 2004, park organizers took advantage of the great late-season snowpack to host a new event called Crud 2 Mud. The idea was simple: Solo riders or relay teams would ski a giant slalom course from the Roundhouse to Olympic Station, and then switch over to their bikes to finish their descent to Whistler Village.

The fun was figuring out the logistics: Snowboarders were initially thought to have an advantage because of their soft boots, but some skiers got around that by wearing hard-shelled race boots all the way to the finish line—including over the original GLC Drop with minimal grip on their pedals.

The top athletes completed the entire course in just over eight minutes.

12. STACY KOHUT'S FOUR-WHEEL FREEDOM

The addition of machine-built trails to the bike park also opened the door for a whole new category of adaptive sports. Local Stacy Kohut, an alpine Paralympian, debuted his new four-wheeled DH bike in late 1999, and then started to compete on it the following year.

Kohut has since become a fixture at Crankworx and its preceding festivals, sometimes racing solo, sometimes joined by other riders in the small but hardcore four-wheeled riding community. He also races any Phat Wednesday race that features trails wide enough for his rig. While his times usually put him behind the pros, he's generally faster than the average rider.

Every time he hits the trails—usually around four times a week during the season—Kohut is a living, breathing reminder of why people ride bikes in the first place.

"That's why I'm here," he told Red Bull in 2016. "To have my fun, but also (to) entertain people with what I'm doing and to get them stoked on riding bikes, too."

13. THE GARBANZO ZONE

The bike park's popularity grew so quickly (a 500-per-cent increase in ridership in its first four seasons) that it only took a few years before the first major expansion was in the works. The Garbanzo Express opened to riders in June 2004 with just two challenging trails to get started with: No Joke and Original Sin.

More importantly, the expansion tripled the park's vertical to over 3,400 feet while also doubling lift capacity on a busy Saturday.

The Garbanzo Zone has expanded significantly since then, with the addition of instant classic trails like In Deep, Freight Train, Blue Velvet, Bear Cub, and others. And starting last year, the Garbanzo Zone also accessed a handful of new Creekside trails like the Dusty Downhill and a reworked BC's Trail.

The annual Garbanzo DH race, with its 3,400 vertical foot drop, takes place during Crankworx on Tuesday, Aug. 14.

14. TOP OF THE WORLD

You can't talk about bike-park expansions without mentioning Top of the World, a trail that is only open to a limited number of riders per day with an optional pass upgrade.

Starting at the top of the Peak Chair, Top of the World adds almost 1,500 feet of vertical to your descent, with an incredible 4.5-km trail that weaves through the alpine before descending Whistler's west flank. You can cut back into the Garbanzo Zone, or continue down one of the many public trails in the area (many of which are now maintained by Whistler Blackcomb).

With incredible views and a unique riding experience, Top of the World opened in August 2012 to rave reviews and soon began to sell out on a daily basis.

The trail has since been featured in a variety of events, including the Canadian Open Enduro race in Crankworx.

15. JILL KINTNER, THE QUEEN OF CRANKWORX

Of all the athletes that have passed through the bike park during Crankworx, none have dominated quite like American rider Jill Kintner. From 2004 to 2017, she has been on the Crankworx Whistler podium an incredible 27 times—including 23 wins.

More impressive than Kintner's results is her range. She has won everything from the Biker X, to the Air Downhill, to the Dual Slalom, to the Ultimate Pump Track Challenge.

According to Kintner's athlete bio on Crankworx.com, it's difficult to pick out a favourite moment.

"It's kind of all the little things that add up for me," she said. "I love being in the thick of it with event pressure, the coffee shop in the morning, tweaking on bikes, seeing my friends in one place, riding all day, and then relief after each event.

"Crankworx is the most hectic week with three practices a day, and it goes by so fast, so I enjoy the moments I can with people I meet throughout the process."

16. BRANDON SEMENUK FIVE-PEATS

Mountain bike slopestyle is one the hardest, most dangerous sports in the world. Even reaching the top echelon of the sport and earning an invite to compete at a Diamond-level FMB World Tour event is a rare feat.

To consistently rank amongst the best of the best is even more incredible, and takes a level of skill, dedication, and daring that only a handful of people in the entire world can lay claim to.

Whistler's own Brandon Semenuk has pretty much been "the guy to beat" even before he won Red Bull Joyride on his home turf in 2011. Since then, he has consistently out-ridden the rest of the field to claim four more Red Bull Joyride title, winning the sport's de facto world championship.

Semenuk picked up his fifth Joyride win last year with a score of 89.8—once again setting the bar with his technical riding. His winning run featured two corked 720s in opposite directions and a never-before-seen backflip one-footed can-can off the bottom drop.

"It's always awesome to take the win here," said Semenuk in Pique. "It never gets easier. This (Crankworx win) is just as important as all the others."

Semenuk followed up that win with another victory at the other most important event in the mountain bike world: the annual Red Bull Rampage in Utah's rugged backcountry.

As you can probably guess, Semenuk is kind of a big deal these days. His "One Shot" video with Teton Gravity Research has been watched over 4.5 million times on YouTube, while his own "Life Behind Bars" series on Red Bull regularly draws over 2 million views. Not bad for a kid who grew up doing the local Loonie races and practicing street tricks in the skatepark.

17. THANKSGIVING CHASSE AU TRESOR

This wasn't the biggest or craziest event to take place in the bike park, but it probably sums up the spirit of the local riding community as much as anything ever could.

Taking place on the park's usually wet and cold closing October weekend, the annual Chasse au Tresor is a team event where groups of two or four riders follow a list of clues to find checkpoints around the bike park.

The event even wrapped up with a Thanksgiving turkey dinner and bike movie night at the GLC—a social event that meant a lot to riders who were away from their families, and more than a little bummed that their bike-park season was coming to an end.

18. THE B-LINE BUFF

B-Line is one of the bike park's original trails, and one of the few built for beginner-level riders to progress their skills. It's always been fun and flowy, but after a decade, the park almost completely rebuilt the trail in 2010. Not only was the revamped trail a huge hit with beginner and intermediate riders, it also managed to be fun for experts, with a great flow and a few optional hits on the side to keep things interesting.

More than anything, it showed Whistler's evolving approach to trail design—making them as durable and safe as possible without reducing the fun factor.

19. WOMEN'S NIGHT

In the beginning, Whistler's bike park was a bit of a boys' club, with a few hardcore females keeping all the machismo in check by showing the guys what they were capable of.

Today, women are the bike park's fastest growing demographic, making up more than a quarter of riders.

It didn't happen by accident. Years ago, more clinics and camps for female riders were launched with female coaches, giving newcomers a safe and supportive way to dip their toes into the sport. Adding Women's Night in 2005 was a stroke of genius, pairing guided and coached sessions with an après party for participants. Women met other likeminded female riders, and the rest, as they say, is history.

20. THE CREEKSIDE ZONE EXPANSION

When Dusty's Downhill opened last year, it marked Creekside's first descent trail. This summer, work will continue on a selection of five new trails totalling over 15 km—increasing the trail network by roughly 20 per cent. Riders will also be able to access the park using the Creekside Gondola, spreading out riders a little more and making it easier to fit in more laps. There's also lots of free parking available, and a nice big patio at Dusty's to après.

The trails are still unnamed, but there will be a variety of new riding experiences by the end of this season.

It's a huge effort. The Whistler Mountain Bike Park's own crew is carving out a low-intermediate, machine-built trail while also collaborating with Gravity Logic on a low-footprint singletrack ride. Gravity Logic is also adding a hand-built singletrack option that can be accessed off Highway 86, while Joyride Bike Parks is contributing a machine-built intermediate freeride route to the mix.

That's in addition to Dusty's Descent and the revamped BC's Trail.

And this is just the beginning. Whistler Blackcomb is planning to expand the area to include a total of 56 km of new trails accessible from Top of the World and the Garbanzo Zone. That's a total increase of over 50 per cent when all is said and done.

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