As you might have heard, the Bike Park re-opens for the season next Friday. Since officially opening in 1999 the bike park has rapidly grown from an awkward, uncertain program to what many would argue is now Whistler’s biggest summer draw.
A Crankworx competitor warms up on the road gap feature in 2005. Believe it or not, the features have only gotten bigger since. Whistler-Blackcomb photo.
Today the bike park is a behemoth. It certainly merits recognition as an important and growing part of our valley’s history. In anticipation, the museum has been beefing up mountain bike content in our archives to make sure that the sport’s prodigious rise is properly documented, and so that we can bring you more mtb-related content in the future.
We recently had long-time bike guide Tom Radke come to talk about the origins, trials, and tribulations of the bike park over the years. Tom has been guiding bikers on Whistler Mountain since 1992, and has been involved in the Whistler Bike Park since its inception, so he knows a thing or two.
It was a completely different world when Tom began. At first, Tom was guiding for Whistler Backroads which had a contract to run mountain bike tours on Whistler. A handful of trails had been built by devoted bikers like Eric Wight (who ran Backroads Whistler, and still does today), Rob Cocquyt and Dave Kelly (now with trail-design firm Gravity Logic). The trails included Fantastic, Golden Triangle, and Ripping Rutebaga (largely merged with Dirt Merchant now), but they hardly resembled today’s trails and just as much riding was done on the gravel access roads.
There were also a handful of trails on Blackcomb near staff housing and the sliding center, and separate guides leading tours there.
A racer on Blackcomb Mountain, 1990.
Here’s a clip of some mountain biking on Blackcomb in 1988 to give you a sense of what mountain biking was like in that era.
Biking on Whistler was put on hold for the summer of 1998 when they built the new Roundhouse Lodge, and the following summer Tom and a few others approached Whistler Blackcomb with the prospect of taking over the bike park and growing it into something bigger. Upper management was hesitant at first, but thankfully they were supported by Ski School general manager Rob McSkimming. Tom recalls, “thank god Rob was an avid biker… If it wasn’t for him, we were just, you know, dead in the water. “
One major problem was simply that the mountain bike world wasn’t ready for what Whistler’s visionaries were up to. Bike design and the general riding ability of mountain biking community had to catch up before the park could become commercially viable, so fueling the growth of the sport was part of the game-plan from the beginning.
Scoring gear sponsors for the rental shop was huge because equipment wasn’t cheap, and few people had the legit downhill bikes necessary to ride the bike park’s gnarly trails. It almost didn’t work out, as Tom actually made the first sponsor connection on an airplane leaving Las Vegas after a completely unsuccessful trip to the Interbike Conference. Whistler Bike Park simply didn’t have the cachet that it does today.
In order to entice (and retain) riders–and calm the lawyers–they offered free lessons with all gear rentals. It was obviously a successful program, as demand led them to grow the guiding crew from 5 to 100 over the years.
It was a steep learning curve for everyone involved, and they made full use of the expertise they gained. Tom’s initial guide-training program turned into the widely recognized Instructor Development Program (IDP) certification course. Meanwhile, Whistler’s trail-building know-how led to the creation of Gravity Logic, a trail design and consultation firm that has been responsible for spreading the Whistler magic at new bike parks from Costa Rica to Finland.
Today, A-line is probably the most recognizable downhill mountain biking trail on Earth, to the point that the name “A-line” now signifies more than the trail itself, but a whole style of trail design featuring tons of flowy dirt jumps and berms.
The “Boneyard” area in 2003. Check it out in a few weeks to see how far the features have progressed. Whistler-Blackcomb Photo.
The Whistler Bike Park has no intention of resting on its impressive laurels. This year marks their first incursion into the high-alpine, and you can be sure that they will continue to be standard bearers in the mountain bike world for years to come.