Every year I go to Whistler expecting it to show signs of Moab Disorder. Moab of course used to be the center of the mountain biking universe. Then too many people went there and did that. The blase and inattentive locals did nothing to grow the culture, tapped-out riders started looking elsewhere, and what they found was Whistler, B.C.
That said, the Whistler scene this season is not what it has been. Crowds are noticeably thin, lift lines are short to nonexistent, and the locals are already complaining about the 2010 Winter Olympics The burning issue: Charging for parking. Pay parking is scheduled to hit Lots 1 through 3 next June, although 4 and 5 will remain free for the time being. Underground parking fees were “reconsidered” after a bitter town meeting recently but are expected to be re-instituted in time for the Games. Paid parking aside, locals face a near 20 percent boost in taxation over the next three years. I also heard that shop owners’ rent is doubling for the duration of the Games. That’s got to leave a bad taste for small businesses in the village.
There’s generally a sense that the bloom is off the rose, with lots of finger-pointing over growth, greed and Americanization. None of this would matter if the economy was still going gangbusters, but Canada, while not in the same tank as the U.S., nonetheless feels the ripple effects of our own recession. After years of constant hammering, sawing and cement trucking, Whistler is finally silent. The only remaining construction appears to be the Celebration Plaza in the village and paving of the main parking lots, which should have been done years ago anyway.
Still, Whistler is not suffering Moabic complacency. Even though some old trail favorites, like Babylon by Bike, are falling into neglect, the general network continues to expand. One reason lower Babylon is almost unrideable is a detour to the new See Colours and Puke, a twisty, rocky plunge of more than half a mile in elevation over a mile of trail whose name refers to what happens if you miss (and the original title of the Cheakamus Challenge). The drawback to See Colours is that it drops you on the opposite side of Tunnel Vision, which is a rollicking black-diamond run with structures and bridges back to Creekside that leaves far less pedaling to get you back to town. You can access both from the dirt Microwave Road, now nicely graded most of the way, up from Function Junction. But you have to choose one or the other going down.
I’ve been riding Whistler since the early 1990s and was amused to find in my bevy of maps one that contained “Mountain Bike Park (proposed Summer 1996).” Before the park, the only way you could ride Whistler Mountain itself was to climb fire roads, either by the sardonically named Whistler Highway (the world’s steepest fire road, an ugly ascent) or the back side up Microwave Road from Function Junction to the BC Rail Microwave Tower, and then Khyber Pass singletrack (a bunch of hike a bike in that one!). Oh, there was one other way: Hire a guide or go with a guided group by gondola to the top and ride down escorted. I did it once. It was 83 degrees in town and snowing at the top. I rode my Rockhopper hardtail with an elastomer fork. We took it mighty slow but had a marvelous time without having a clue what we were up to.
No one knew then what a hit the Park would be, transforming the entire sport into a wheeled version of downhill skiing. Although downhilling is not my cup of tea (no matter how much, at my age, I wish it were), there’s no question Whistler’s advances have been great for expanding the MTB aura and culture.
But there are two pitfalls with the Bike Park approach. The first is that a park ultimately is a fixed entity. Within the acreage alloted, there can be only so many trails with only so much diversity.
Second, a park potentially sucks interest and dedication away from Whistler’s rich trails network. Trails inevitably get less use, fall into disrepair and start to go away. New trails do not get built. The cross-country culture wanes.
On my cursory tour of trails I did see signs of disuse. For the first time I can remember since it was completed, I met no other riders on Comfortably Numb, named after the Pink Floyd song, and the worst ass-kicking a 16-mile trail will ever administer (its nickname locally is Uncomfortable Bum). The trail still seems in good shape, but the gravity set will never have the energy or patience to tackle this kind of ride.
The same held true for River Runs Through It, Whistler’s most popular trail, as well as my personal favorites, Shit Happens and Kill Me Thrill Me. While no singletrack rider in the States would consider the latter classic cross-country rides, they do represent classic Whistler XC. Which means they go up and down, over roots, rocks faces, chutes and ladders, and hardly ever let you coast. You take a licking till you’re barely ticking, but still emerge with a smile on your face.
Even so, hardly anyone was riding them. I saw more traffic on Lost Lake’s network of trails, which keeps getting more accessible for beginners while still offering some challenges. Especially encouraging were the DFX kiddie riders, entire clots of 5-to-8 year olds in full MTB gear learning the skillz. I even ran into a pack of DFX grrllzz. You have to congratulate Whistler-Blackcomb for conceiving stuff like this. They understand the future of the sport. (DFX stands for Downhill, Freeride and Cross Country.)
Canada seems to “get” the power of mountain biking as a cultural as well as commercial investment. Everywhere you go, trails networks are expanding and locals are promoting the sport. While Marin mainstays still bicker over access and segregate usage, as we do right here in King County for that matter, in B.C. it’s all comers welcome, everywhere. Whistler may be going through a hiccup with the Games and various municipal challenges. But so far at least, it is avoiding Moab Disorder.