Whistler bike park? No problem. 8th Avenue bike route? Splat. Sigh.
Twelve hours later. Subsequently the deepest part of the gouge infected, and an unpleasant round of antibiotics and painkillers ensued.
It feels like summer is drawing to a close, even though there’s still warmth in the midday sun and the skies are clear and blue. All of September’s anniversaries are rolling around, making me remember that I wasn’t always as lucky as this, that the days used to be duller and greyer and I did too. There have been too many reminders lately that life is short, that there will never be time enough to do it all.
And so in these golden days at the end of summer I go out into the beautiful places with my bike, looking for light, looking for speed, always trying to go higher and faster and further out. Seeing how far above it all or how deep into the wilderness I can pedal; finding descents so fast and flowing that everything disappears into a wild, grinning joyride and there’s nothing else to think about, at least for a little while.
Everything has been about ski season for me in recent years. Summer was a fun distraction, pleasant conditions in which to pass the time while waiting for the snow to fly. Toward the end the wait would become unbearable, an endless ticking of the clock as the seasons continued their slow march toward winter.
This year, it hasn’t been like that. It’s been an absolute joyride of a summer, packed full of smiles and adrenaline and unadulterated delight. I still can’t wait for the snow to fly, but I’m also fine with passing the time until it’s ready. It’s all been about the transition from road biking to mountain biking.
The problem, for me, is that road riding was at a place where the rewards I was looking for just weren’t there anymore. I’ve never been interested in being the fastest rider in a pack, or being able to slot smoothly into a peloton. I’m built for endurance, not speed, so chasing top times is always going to be an exercise in frustration. I ride a bike to see beautiful places, not to stare at the butt of the person in front of me in a paceline. Which left me with distance as the goal and that was fine for a while, until it wasn’t.
I’d reached a point where I was very comfortable picking a pace where I could ride 200km+ in a day, and ride long distances multiple days in a row. After that, it stopped being about as much about fitness and became about managing the discomfort of being on a road bike for the length of time required to go further. And that kind of challenge doesn’t excite me. I know that I’m perfectly capable of enduring discomfort; for me, the important thing is challenging myself in ways where I can’t be confident or sure that I will succeed.
And this is where mountain biking is so ridiculously perfect. I’m a terrible mountain biker. This has been my first really sustained season after three years of very patchy riding, and yet I’m still a very solid begintermediate (except on jumps, which feel like the most natural thing in the world.) Especially around here, where there’s really no such thing as easy riding, every single trail is a challenge. And on every one I’m totally engaged, thrilled, grinning like a maniac even when I’m so terrified of what I’m in the middle of doing that it’s hard to breathe.
Finally I have something to do in the summer that fuels whatever need it is I have that only skiing’s ever filled before. And now everything is perfect. I’m still yearning for snow, still missing that monochromatic world where the cover of white changes everything and you can breathe it in and fly, fly, fly over the surface of the earth. But while I wait, I’m happy. Because I’ve started to fly on a bike, too.
Somehow we’re already into the dog days of summer. Darkness is falling faster in the evenings, and there’s a whisper of coolness in the air that is just beginning to hint at the promise of winter to come. So this weekend we packed up the car, picked up our friends R and C, and headed to Sun Peaks for an extended break from everything.
It was a wonderful trip, even though the weather forgot that it still had a few days of summer left and turned abruptly grey and cold. We visited mountain lakes, saw hundreds of tiny frogs, lay in a hot tub and watched shooting stars fall, wandered through wildflowers in alpine meadows, took a late night walk into the deepest darkness we could find to see the Milky Way, and recited Shakespeare and Yeats back and forth on wilderness trails to keep the bears at bay.
And then, of course, there was the riding.
On the first evening I didn’t have much time before dark, so I headed onto the XC trails for a rapid climb up Blue Grouse and En Garde, through the trees and past clearcuts and into a blackened zone where lightning had struck and burned. At the top I paused for a moment to soak it all in, this new place. Traces of music carried up on the breeze from the village, and the last rays of light flared through a scatter of clouds behind the mountains. The rip back down on steep doubletrack was fast and fun and very muddy.
This was enough to get me pretty excited for a longer ride on day two. This time I took the Pack Horse trail all the way to the top of Mount Morrissey, a nice sustained climb that zigzagged back and forth across the ski runs. I reached the summit under gathering clouds, and stopped to watch the views disappear into grey before heading down Holy Cow. This was where I saw my first bear, lumbering slowly across the far side of a meadow before disappearing into the trees.
After exploring the far side of the mountain for a bit I worked my way back to a trail that I later learned was aptly named Bruin Romp. Loamy and fun, it twisted down through the trees and I was having a blast until I suddenly came upon a second bear: very large, very brown, and very close. I could see a cub just a little way into the forest, almost hidden in the undergrowth. Both were focused on their meals and weren’t paying a lot of attention to me, so I made a split-second decision to let momentum carry me past. I figured that if I did attract their attention, at least I’d be moving rapidly downhill instead of pedaling frantically back up the steep trail.
I flew by the mother bear and on downwards, brakes forgotten, whipping through the trees and bouncing off the odd branch and yelling as loudly as I could in case she’d decided to follow me or anyone else was waiting on the trail ahead. The trail was just forgiving enough to let me get away with the speed, right on the edge of control, grinning like a maniac from the rush of the ride in spite of my hammering heart. I eventually popped back out onto Pack Horse and ripped back down to the trailhead, adrenaline still pounding.
After I showed back up at the house covered in mud and ranting about bears there was a collective decision (by everyone else) that I shouldn’t go back out on the XC trails. Fortunately there was an excellent solution to this problem: the Sun Peaks bike park!
My first two runs were in pouring rain, which didn’t make for ideal conditions to get to know new trails (especially not on a 29er; not anticipating the bike park, I hadn’t brought the Flatline with me). I went for some epic slides on Barn Burner, which was steeper and more technical than I was expecting from the trail description. By the time the rain stopped en route to the third run I was head to toe mud, lucky to be in one piece, and it was no longer possible to tell what colour my bike had originally been.
Fortunately the clearing skies led to that most ideal of situations: hero dirt. The next three runs were fantastic, hopping off hits between the brake bumps on Ain’t No Scrubs and rocketing down the singletrack and flowy, curvy turns of Route 66. I finished each run on the bikercross course, leaping over tables and riding high on the sides of huge berms. (“Are you serious?” said a horrified C when she saw a rider hitting the bikercross jumps earlier in the day.) On my final run a young fox popped out to say hello and hung out beside me for a little while, completely unperturbed by my presence.
I wrapped up the last corners with a grin a mile wide, then hosed down the bike and pedaled off to meet J and C for the summer’s end Elliott Brood concert. Sitting at a patio with a beer in hand and Northern Air playing was the perfect end to the day. (Not that it was really the end; there was still a BBQ rib dinner, French 75s and a hot tub to come.)
The biking was actually a pretty small part of the trip compared to all the other fun we had, but having the opportunity to explore some new territory made me exceptionally happy. Next week it will be ten years since the day I turned my back on my entire adult life, got on a plane, and flew toward a completely unknown future. If I’d made a different choice back then I would never had the opportunity to see these things, to be in these places, to have built a life with J and have wonderful people like C and R among my friends. This is why I’m always willing to take the risks, even when they seem ridiculous. Because the biggest risk I ever took was the best thing I ever did, and the rewards have been beyond imagining.
On Friday I headed to Whistler with Epic Rides. I’d been meaning to try this company on my next solo outing, since at $35 it’s considerably cheaper than round trip gas. It was an excellent service – prompt, comfortable and quick, with no extra charge for bringing the bike. I do enjoy the early morning drives with the tunes cranked and a leisurely breakfast stop at Galileo, but this was far more cost effective.
And then: dust and dirt and sunshine and sweat and a bike that flies. More speed, more air, the bike easily clearing big doubles and touching down on the other side like I’d never left the ground at all. Huge berms and staggering views in the Garbo zone. It’s all about being in the air on this bike, looking for every opportunity to get the wheels off the ground and go higher, faster, longer. It’s a joyride from the first moment to the last.
It’s funny that I fell in love with Whistler in the summer right after I fell out of love with it in the winter. The ski resort holds no appeal for me anymore, except as a means of accessing the backcountry. The crowding and gouging is too much. But the bike park? It’s still not that cheap, but it’s cheaper; and it’s not that crowded in comparison. Not at all. And for someone like me, who’s still learning, the opportunity to bang out laps and just keep working, working, working on skills is pretty great. The only thing I miss is the uphill.
Monday: a hot morning on Fromme knocking out laps on the lower mountain and checking out the new Expresso. I surprised myself by being able to ride about 90% of it; obviously it’s no longer an old-school Shore black, although it retains a few stunts. There were more technical spots than I was expecting based on descriptions I’d heard, but nothing unmanageable and overall it was a lot of fun.
Wednesday: an after-work Squamish mission. Leaving downtown at 5pm gets us to the Ring Creek FSR in time for two solid laps. Trying for a third was a mistake; in the gathering darkness I missed seeing the branch that snagged my handlebars and whipped them around as I rode onto the final stretch of Pseudotsuga. My elbow and knee pads did their job but the boulder I landed on bruised everything in between. Fortunately it was a beautiful night and the riding more than made up for the tumble. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the views on the climb to Half Nelson.
Friday: day off and bike park! The weeks of cloudless skies have taken a bit of a toll on some of the trails, with B-Line and Heart of Darkness looking particularly beat up. Fortunately the Flatline proved up to the task of handling the washboards, and the lower half of Crank It Up was in much better shape. It was a day of heat and dust and sweat and airtime, and I’m fairly sure I didn’t stop grinning all the way home.
A couple of weeks ago I rode the Tour de Whatcom. This was one of my favourite cycling events last summer, and this year didn’t disappoint. Once again it was a relaxed, fun ride with a friendly crowd, and the added bonus that the route had been altered to finish with the rolling curves and beautiful views of Chuckanut Drive. Unfortunately, it also marked the return of a much less welcome part of last summer: crippling shoulder pain.
This brought me to a decision point. The shoulder has been completely settled recently; in fact the only times I’ve experienced pain from it this year have been the days that I’ve ridden the road bike. There’s nothing else we can do to dial in the fit at this point, and it’s become undeniable that the source of the problem is the more aggressive forward riding position.
So it’s time to say goodbye. I’m sad about this. The Prestige and I have had some excellent adventures together, and there’s no question that at one time it was my dream bike. But it’s also true that that time has passed, and that long-distance road cycling is no longer my priority. When I dream about bikes these days, their wheels are always on dirt.
Last Friday I took the day off and headed back to the Whistler Bike Park to practice my downhill skills. I’d decided that it would be fun to rent a proper freeride bike for the day, and see how much difference it made to the experience.
8 inches of front and rear travel and a double crown fork changed the game completely. I found myself charging over things I would have balked at before, and rattling over washboard entrances to berms at full speed. And jumps! This bike *loved* the jumps. It leapt into the air at the slightest opportunity, and landings – even the ones where I overshot or fell short and came down flat – felt cushioned and soft.
There was no way I was giving that experience up. As soon as I realised the bike shop had the same model of bike for sale at a huge discount (last year’s model, identical except for the paint job) financial restraint was forgotten. I loaded the Flatline onto the back of my truck with a grin a mile wide.
And so now I own a park bike. I realise I’ll probably only use this bike a dozen times a year, if that. But I have absolutely no regrets. How could I? If Friday was anything to go by, the days I spend on the Flatline will be the most ridiculously fun of all.
Thursday night in the BC heat wave. An after work Squamish mission with the bikes. A sweaty, lung-searing climb up the endless switchbacks of the legacy trail; an ungainly plunge interspersed with off-the-bike moments down Angry Midget; another broiling climb back up the logging road to Psuedotsuga; happy, hollering turns all the way down to the parking lot.
It was so much fun that I came back the next day to do it again, this time in baking 32 degree heat in the middle of the day. The legacy climb was even hotter than before, and I was grateful to descend to Half Nelson where the wind of my passage cooled me as I whipped through the trees and over jumps.
The climb back up the fire road was intense, with pockets of shade providing painfully brief relief from the sun. Fortunately the second lap on Half Neson made it all worthwhile. This trail just keeps getting more and more fun as I drop time and gain speed and air on each lap. This time I sped over the road and down Another Man’s Gold, a rolling, loamy trail that took me all the way down the side of the valley to Ring Creek, where I went for a much needed cool down.
Afterwards I’d planned to trundle along the final stretch of the Ring Creek Rip and then take the access road to the car, but after the cold plunge I felt a lot better and I ended up riding back up to Pseudotsuga for a final run. In total I managed 2,400m of elevation gain over 33km on the two hottest days of the year so far, which left me exhausted but incredibly happy. The Half Nelson addiction shows no signs of letting up yet.