This article originally appeared in Singletrack Issue 115.
Words & Photography David ‘Sanny’ Gould
What happens if you take a Lycra-wearing cross-country rider and throw him in at the deep end in the world’s most famous bike park? Do you create a gnarly dude who says ‘stoked’ a lot or do you end up with a gibbering wreck? We sent Sanny to Whistler to find out.
As Valentine’s Day presents go, this one was definitely up there and it wasn’t even from my wife. “Sanny. We’re doing a launch of our new gear in Whistler. Do you want to come as my guest?”, read the email from Damian, head of all things marketing and PR at POC. I stared open-mouthed at my screen. Replying so fast that my ‘hell yeah,’ response practically arrived before Damian had even pressed send, I was already counting the days, hours and minutes.
Everyone knows that Whistler is the darling of downhillers and freeriders the world over. However, a brief conversation with a friend who had spent a season there convinced me that there is a burgeoning cross-country scene and that there is much more to Whistler than just the park. So it was with a little trepidation that I found myself on a flight to Vancouver and a date with destiny.
I will hold my hand up and say from the outset, I am a cross-country rider. To me, Whistler is a whole different ball game and I reckoned I was going to need a much bigger ball. [Or balls… Ed]
No time for jet lag when there’s riding to be had.
The drive up the Pacific Highway is stunning, or so I’m told. All I saw was murk, drizzle and trees – lots of trees – from the back of the transfer shuttle. “I could have had this at home without the jet lag,” I muttered to myself. However, pulling up to the door of my hotel, the sun came out and proceeded to stay out for the entire trip. Result.
No sooner had I stepped off the shuttle than I was met by Damian and some of the US POC team in full riding attire. “Get changed. We’re going riding.” Faster than a speeding mullet (hey, it’s Canada, mullets are still in), I found myself in Fanatyk bike shop being fitted up for a full-on downhill bike. “We don’t rent enduro bikes for the park. They wouldn’t last very long.” I laughed somewhat nervously.
What the hell had I let myself in for? Riding the quad lift, I watched slack-jawed as riders soared over jumps with consummate ease. As bikes were thrown edge to edge, it felt like I was watching skiing rather than bike riding. To be blunt, I was crapping myself.
Bitter experience has taught me that first rides on unfamiliar trails and borrowed bikes usually conspire to break me in some manner. As such, I was happy to play tail-end Charlie. However, with barely any pedal strokes, I felt like Mr Scott had just given my dilithium crystals a kick in the arse – I was flying. I tried to relax and let the suspension soak up the trail chatter, but it wasn’t easy. It had been so long since I had done this type of riding that I felt like I was having to relearn how to ride. It was utterly intoxicating. I found myself giggling and grinning like an idiot the more trails I rode. This was fun with a capital F…
What did I just say?
…right until I twatted myself. “Just one more run,” I’d said. Now at that point I should have stopped. Whenever I utter this phrase, something bad often happens. Some double black diamond fun in the shape of Captain Safety beckoned. Hewn out of steep slabs of rock, this was my kind of slow-speed fun trail. Everything was going swimmingly right up to the point that I hit a section of slippy rock and my front wheel spat out. Cue a fast sideways hip/solid rock interface with bonus points for denting my helmet and cutting my ankle. Welcome back Ibuprofen, how I have missed you.
Cross-country, Whistler Style.
Day two dawned sunny, warm and achy. Today was to be all about cross-country trails. Guiding us was Chris and the team from Big Mountain Bike Adventures. In terms of local knowledge and experience, they are highly regarded. Starting gently, we rode along the valley trails (think bike lanes as they should be done) to the trailhead.
Known as the Frank Zappa trails, each being named after one of his songs, this short but interconnected series of trails makes for an easy introduction to Whistler. Slopes are gentle, switchbacks easy as height is smoothly gained and lost on flowing forest trail. Boardwalks made of cedar pepper the trails. Take your preconceptions of North Shore and water them down into relatively flat trails where you can find yourself lost in the moment, your nose filled with the smell of pine resin and your mind wandering. If we had these back home, we would be raving about them. In Whistler, they barely seem to register.
Leaving the sanctuary of the forest, we experienced climbing, Canadian style. For European sensibilities, Canadian logging tracks come as a bit of a shock. Steep and unrelenting would be the kindest way of describing them. Sweat was pouring off me as I did my best to spin up the climb. Saving the best for last, Chris warned us that the final section of the climb was even steeper and that few people clean it in one go. I groaned as my inner chimp accepted and was proven worthy of the challenge. Note to self – the inner chimp is getting a sound beating when I get home.
“Are you kidding me?”
The descent that followed was a peach – it had a bit of everything to keep us on our toes. Stepdowns, off-camber roots, exposed sections of bedrock, loose scree, occasional wide-open vistas, a narrow channel through a boulder field, tight switchbacks – but all rollable. It was as if someone had taken a tick list of cross-country trail features and marked every box. I have to admit the grin was well and truly back.
Being a long descent, our group fragmented with Damian’s back tyre coming a cropper on an exposed rocky chute. Let’s just say that fixing it was an exercise in ingenuity and expletive deleted utterances. None of us had ever encountered a tubeless set up as tight. Brute force, ignorance, a disc brake straightener, gorilla tape, a toothpaste tube and some choice language were the order of the day.
We could have jumped for joy when we finally fixed it. However, our glory was short-lived. In some cruel act of sympathy, Damian’s dropper post had decided to stop working. Whoever thought that internal routing and cable pull droppers held on with the tiniest of grub screws were a good idea needs taken into a darkened room and ‘encouraged’ to reconsider their approach. Or left out with the mosquitos for company as we were.
After some creative swearing, we were back on and riding. Fortunately, the trails took our minds off our temporary travails and we could settle back into our enjoyment. We had climbed for what felt like an age but the payback was more than worth it when we finally hit the valley floor for a short pedal to the pre-arranged meeting point beside a lake for an al fresco lunch of beer (carefully concealed from the park rangers so as not to cause offence or, indeed, an offence), sandwiches, cookies and cake. With a skateboarding dog, a tame blue jay and a chipmunk for company, it was an excellent way to end our ride.
Rounding things off, we retired to an excellent sushi bar for the evening. I opted for the Scottish option. “Just bring me stuff that is deep-fried please,” I said to the slightly baffled waiter. As befits deep-fried food, I’m not sure what I ate but it was delicious.
Cross-country trails with a downhill flavour.
The next day cemented my feelings about the cross-country riding in Whistler. The morning started with a climb up beneath the main lift to take us to a track called Hey Bud. Marked as a black diamond trail, it has seen action in the Enduro World Series. When the show came to town, it was wet and greasy. Thankfully we experienced it on a dry and dusty day. In the UK, it would probably rank up there as a technical downhill trail albeit with no jumps or drops to contend with. Over here, it is merely deemed ‘cross-country’. In the wet, it would be a serious undertaking with potential for off the bike ejections lurking round every corner. After two days of adjustment to Whistler, I had found my new favourite trail. All the way down I felt that I was being challenged without risk (hopefully) of permanent disfigurement. I relaxed into it and enjoyed every chute, berm and steep run-off for what they were – fun. I could go on at length about what makes it such a terrific trail, but the best advice I can give is to just go and ride it. It really is that good.
Sun means riding.
Despite being a bit sore from my fall, I wanted to experience more trails so headed out with Christian from Germany and Lucas from Austria for a bit of an explore. We had been pointed in the direction of A River Runs Through It and Danimal. Suffice to say both were excellent. The former snakes and weaves its way along the valley floor, spitting you out at the gorgeous Alta Lake for an al fresco open water swim. Along its length, you are reminded of its proximity to the river and the liberal sprinkling of wooden bridges, drops, seesaws and skinnies does wonders to keep you on your technical toes. With no exposure or Whistler steepness to contend with, we could just enjoy whatever the trail brought us. Redolent with the scent of pine needles, this was trail perfection and by the bottom, we were all beaming. How good was it? So good that we rode it twice and only just made it back in time to celebrate midsummer, Swedish style.
Let’s make it a ride to remember.
After another day of park riding, by the end of which I felt like an extra from The Collective zooming down sun-dappled trails with dust kicking up behind me, I was hooked. I could see myself getting a downhill bike. Better get a full-face helmet too. Who would have thunk it? However, Whistler still had one more ace to play – Lord of the Squirrels. Over the last few years, a dedicated team of volunteer trail builders has grafted long and hard to create an alpine cross-country trail that is a match for the best the Alps have to offer. That is no small ambition. With the snowline being unseasonably low, the trail was yet to open.
However, Oscar, Damian and I were lucky enough to sneak a peek at the trail from 1,300m down. Climbing the Flank trail, trailheads were passed, viewpoints stopped at and incredible views across the valley drunk in. With the sweat dripping from our brows, we pressed on ever upward. Almost all of the climb was rideable, although the combination of 30 plus degree heat, the odd snow patch, and one by gearing meant that it was at times harder than it would otherwise be. On the plus side, lines could be scoped and assessed for our rapid return back down.
Reaching a natural clearing of rock slab and scrub, snow blocked further progress. I was disappointed that we wouldn’t reach the summit some 350 metres of vertical and a few more kilometres above us, but battling through snow up and down wasn’t going to be fun. Besides, the stop gave us the opportunity for a Tunnock’s Caramel Log break followed by a mid-ride siesta. As a way of softening the blow, it was nigh on perfect.
With time marching on, we saddled up for the final descent. And what a descent it proved to be. Fast, flowing and loamy, it could have been a scene from Endor in Return of the Jedi with us on speeder bikes. Despite only riding the bottom section, I was already making plans for a return trip to ride the entire trail. As a connoisseur of Swiss and French Alpine trails, I was impressed.
Lord of the Squirrels is the real deal. In their efforts to create an alpine trail that lingers in the memory and calls you back for more, the good folk of Whistler have succeeded. As icing on the cake, we got to sample a double black diamond descent which finished off with Danimal and A River Runs Through It straight after it. With the sun dropping behind the horizon, we headed for the café bar beside the main lift to inhale an unfeasibly large portion of nachos. In my short time in Whistler, I had become a convert. I still don’t say ‘stoked’ though.
Things to consider
Riding the natural stuff, I barely scratched the surface of the cross-country trails in Whistler, but those I did left me impressed. You could easily come here and ride nothing but cross-country trails. Locating them is easy if you have a smartphone or paper maps. With Pemberton and Squamish within easy reach, the challenge you will face is how to cram in all the trails on offer. However, they are a step up from the UK so consider investing in a back protector trail pack and body armour. You will at some point fall off. There is no point in wishing you had worn knee pads in the moments after you have split your knee open on a rock.
Did someone say ‘bears’?
“Watch out for bears, Daddy,” my daughter solemnly intoned as I headed for my flight. Nae danger, I thought. It took only one uplift to see my first bear before several sightings throughout the week – some rather too close for comfort. If you want a perfect cure for constipation, try nearly running into the back end of several hundred pounds of fur, teeth and claw. Shouting “Hey bear,” is a good way of making them aware of your presence. For the most part, they will just amble slowly away from you without even a cursory glance.
By the end of the week, I began to feel more relaxed about them. “Besides,” as Mallory from POC put it somewhat less than reassuringly, “it’s the mountain lions you need to worry about…”
This trip was paid for courtesy of POC and the Whistler Tourist Board.