Tag Archives: Blackcomb Mountain

Getting into Gear: Have Bike, Will Ride

Like much of the Whistler community, we have the Whistler Mountain Bike Park on our minds. When talking about the history of the bike park we often hear that mountain bike design and rider ability had to catch up before the bike park could take off. Thanks to generous funding from 100 Women of Whistler, and the local community who have been generous with their time, we have heard some great reflections on that recently through oral histories.

An unidentified rider heads down Blackcomb Mountain in the late 1980s or early 1990s, cut-off jeans the only armour required. Blackcomb Mountain Collection.

Not interested in road biking, Jim Kennedy, preferably Jimbo, was inspired to buy a mountain bike after watching the ET movie where they ride through the forest. Purchasing one of the first bikes when Doris Burma opened the door to Summit Cycles in 1983, Jim was the proud new owner of a $500 Nishiki Bushwacker. Not everyone was thrilled with his purchase, however. Mountain biker riders regularly copped abuse in the Village in regards to their choice of transport, as expletive laced “get a real bike” rang out.

In the mid-1980s, long before the bike park opened, Jimbo and friends were taking their bikes up the gondola to mid-station to ride down as part of a stag party. Luckily for them, a friend was working at mid-station, and with much encouragement let them stay on until the top of the mountain. A group filled with many former downhill racers, the ride was fast, wild and they didn’t see a single other person. Starting on snow and then following Jolly Green Giant, Jimbo remembers, “We were on these bikes, just handbrakes, no shocks or anything like that. By the time you got down your hands were just seized.” Additionally the rim brakes could get so hot they would burn or cause the tires to blow. So to ride more comfortably the bike technology had to catch up.

A few years later, the Kamikaze Descent down from the top of Blackcomb as part of Labatt’s Can-Am Challenge in 1989 followed the 15 km service road down the mountain, still no features involved. When Backroads Mountain Bike Adventures started to offer commercial downhill tours on Whistler Mountain many of the trails ridden were still the gravel access roads dotting the mountain, although Eric Wight and other passionate individuals had started to build some mountain bike specific trails across the mountains.  

Mountain bike riders cruising down Blackcomb. The marketing photos for on-mountain riding adventures have also changed in the last 30 years. Blackcomb Mountain Collection.

The opening day of the bike park in 1996 saw 500 keen riders take to the lifts. Then when Intrawest took over Whistler Blackcomb in 1998 they were convinced, with much lobbying, to further invest in the bike park. However rider ability and gear still had some catching up to do. After the first staff demo day an employee from Guest Relations remarked, “After trying the trails I couldn’t believe some of the people who had been getting on the lifts, even the greens are much harder than we were led to believe. We warn people that they need enclosed, appropriate footwear and I’ve seen people in slip-on flats go up, completely unprepared for what they are about to do.” Today it is recommended that every rider has a full face helmet, gloves, armour and a full suspension downhill bike.  

Some things change while others stay the same. A commonly heard adage in the 1990s was “You can tell if someone is a Whistler local because their bike is worth more than their car.” In many cases this still rings true today.

You wouldn’t want to crash in these outfits. Part of the Whistler Question Collection from 1992 this photo was captioned ‘All the nudes that’s fit to print: Whistler’s newest acapella group bares their wares.’ We’ve seen enough, but we want to know more. Whistler Question Collection.

Making Mountain Bikes and a Mountain Town

From the 1960s to the 1980s Whistler really was a one season resort. Outside of the peak winter season many businesses were shuttered because there were not enough people to turn a profit throughout the summer months. During the 1980s investments went into golf courses, tennis courts and lakeside parks to increase summer visitation. Certainly forty years ago, as Whistler village was being constructed, nobody thought the turning point for Whistler becoming a four-season destination resort would come from running the lifts in the summer so people could ride down the mountain at astonishing speeds.

In the 1980s, technical displays of riding were held in Whistler village to help advertise the fledgling sport. This event was part of Labatt’s Can Am Challenge in 1989 which also included Cross-country, Dual Slalom, Uphill Climb, and Downhill Kamikaze race events, and the World Mountain Bike Polo Championship. Compare the bike in the photo to those commonly seen in the bike park today. Blackcomb Mountain Collection.

That started to change in the late 1980s. According to a letter to village information in the summer of 1987, Backroads Mountain Bike Adventures was in their third season of running commercial mountain bike tours in Whistler. The language clearly shows that the understanding of mountain biking was still limited for many people. “A couple of hours on a bike tour will open your eyes to the sport of mountain biking and show you the hidden beauty of this 4-season resort. Unlike conventional 12-speed road bikes, 15-speed all-terrain mountain bikes have knobby tires, upright handle bars, and a strong sturdy frame. This allows one to travel with power and finesse through forested trails and groomed gravel paths, typically found on Whistler’s backroads.” At this time, the daily rental rate for a mountain bike was $14.

The Uphill Climb during Labatt’s Can-Am Challenge. Many athletes participated in all events.

Riding the hundreds of kilometres of incredible bike trails around Whistler today on my 1998 Rocky Mountain Spice I can’t help but notice that mountain bike design has also changed. When my bike was released it dominated the trails. Now the tires that seemed wide at the time feel very small compared to those around me. When I was over-eager a month ago and hit Lost Lake trails in the snow, those with tires nearly twice the width of mine managed many of the uphill sections as I slid every direction but forward even on the flats.

Dual Slalom during Labatt’s Can-Am Challenge in 1989.

Bikes have certainly changed over the years. While you could get custom-built mountain bikes earlier, in 1981 the Specialized Stumpjumper was one of the first mass-produced and mass-marketed mountain bikes. With no suspension and cantilever brakes, an early Stumpjumper can be seen in the Whistler Museum. Much of the progression of technology can be highlighted in this one bike. Still manufactured today, but with 40 additional years of competition and innovation the current Stumpjumper comes with full suspension, disc brakes so you can stop when wet, and the tires are larger in width and diameter. The frame is popular in both carbon fibre and alloy. Similar progression can be seen in mountain bikes generally.

Today in Whistler we are spoilt for choice when shopping for mountain bikes, with many of the best quality and innovative bikes designed and constructed in our own backyard. This month the Whistler Museum Speaker Series brings you conversations with Mike Truelove, the mastermind who constructed the OG bike for Chromag and has gone on make thousands of frames. Join us on Friday the 27th of May at 7pm, tickets are available now for $10 or $5 for museum members.

The Downhill Kamikaze followed Blackcomb’s 15km service road. This race was saved for the end of the Can-Am Challenge, but it was so foggy that spectators could only see the racers right in front of them.

Hot Dogging and the Evolution of Freestyle Skiing

People were flying through the air on skis long before the Wright Brothers took to the sky. However, freestyle skiing, or ‘hot dogging’ as it was once known, really took off in the 1970s. With few rules, the aim of hot dogging was to go down the slope in the most spectacular way possible.

A competitor in Labatt’s World Cup Freestyle, Whistler 1980. When Whistler hosted a similar championship in 1973 it was called the Labatt’s National Aerial and Hot Dog Championships. Whistler Question Collection.

Looking back at the evolution of freestyle skiing can feel like reading a different language. Even avid freestyle skiers today may not be familiar with the popular tricks from the 1970s such as the Mule Kick, Back Scratcher or the Leg Breaker, however you may be able to visualise the movement from the name. Other tricks were named after the first person to complete or popularise a manoeuvre, such as the Daigle Banger, named after Canadian ski legend Michel Daigle who lived in Whistler and worked as a ski patroller and freestyle ski instructor. The Daigle Banger was a popular ski ballet move that involved a front flip and rotation with one hand planted on the snow.

In the 1960s, skiing followed a rigid structure with specific ideas about how a person ‘should’ ski, and ski racing was the sole competitive focus. Freestyle skiing was born out of rebellion against the ‘rules’ of skiing. While freestyle skiing was not always accepted by the competitive sporting bodies, it quickly became popular with spectators watching as the competitors put on a great show, combining speed, strength and imagination. In early competitions, it could be difficult to tell if a person was somersaulting down the hill on purpose, but initially it did not really matter. The scoring of very early hot dog competitions was largely based off of crowd reaction, and the cheering could be loudest after an entertaining crash.

Freestyle skiing was recognised by the International Ski Federation (FIS) in 1979 and the judges at the Freestyle World Cup were looking for a lot more than audience reaction. Made up of three disciplines, a competitor participated in moguls, aerials and ski ballet (also known as acroski) to become the overall Freestyle World Champion. While you have likely watched aerial and mogul competitions more recently, ski ballet fell out of favour in the early 1990s and never became an official Olympic sport.

A ski ballet competitor in Labatt’s World Cup Freestyle, Whistler 1980. As well as dance like steps, ski ballet included jumps, handstands, and balancing on poles (sometimes upside down) requiring strength and balance. Whistler Question Collection.

Ski Canada Magazine from Spring 1980 explained what spectators should expect when watching ski ballet. “The ballet competition is run on a smooth intermediate slope, each competitor performing a run made up of dance-like steps, spins and turns mixed with leaps and stunts. The degree of difficultly of the skier’s run is a major factor in his eventual score. His style, control, innovation as well as the fluidity of the routine count for most of the skier’s total score. Judges look for good choreography and interpretation of the music and well-constructed combinations of the basic manoeuvres. Often, the simplest manoeuvres are also the most difficult to execute well.”

Freestyle skiing has seen dramatic changes since the days of hot dogging thanks to athletes constantly pushing the boundaries of the sport, as well as advances in equipment. Recently the Whistler Museum was lucky to host a Speaker Series with local freestyle ski legends – three time Freestyle World Champion Stephanie Sloan, and ‘Godfather of freeskiing’ Mike Douglas.

Snowboard Park – No Skiers Allowed!

Blackcomb Mountain opened for snowboarders in the 87/88 season. While it would take Whistler another year to start embracing snowboard culture, Blackcomb was generally supportive of the ‘knuckle-draggers’ thanks to the persistence and passion of a few snowboarders on staff and in the community. Additionally, Hugh Smythe could see the strategic benefits of welcoming a new group of riders.

Before terrain parks were a common feature of ski resorts, snowboarders would travel from all around Canada and the world to take advantage of the many natural features of Blackcomb, perfect for sending big air and pushing the boundaries of the new sport. The natural quarterpipe and wind lip on Blackcomb featured in many publications and films, including the cover of Transworld SNOWboarding with Doug Lundgren. Before the official park, groups would also build their own kickers and crude halfpipes on the mountain. This sometimes involved trying to avoid the watchful eye of ski patrol.

The natural features of Blackcomb attracted snowboarders from around Canada and the world. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Sean Sullivan 1991.

Stu Osborne was instrumental to the snowboarding scene on Blackcomb. Stu started as an instructor and went on to become Snowboard Coordinator and then Terrain Park Supervisor, founding the first Blackcomb management-sanctioned halfpipe and snowboard park. While the Kokanee Snowboard Park officially appeared on the Blackcomb trail map in the 94/95 winter season, the first halfpipe and park launched earlier.

There was still a mentality of skiers versus snowboarders at this time and despite receiving approval to create the initial halfpipe, accessing the resources from the Blackcomb Operations team to build the park was a different story. To get around the lack of resources, Snow Ejectors, a private snow removal company, became a sponsor, providing custom-painted shovels for the build. The early halfpipe was created using these shovels and a little cat time.

During a competition featuring many of the world’s best riders, the Snow Ejectors’ hand-painted banner was larger than those of any of the other sponsors, much to the chagrin of Blackcomb management. The next year, more equipment and support was provided by Blackcomb Mountain. Before the opening of the Kokanee Snowboard Park, Blackcomb became one of the first resorts in Canada to get a pipe dragon, specialised grooming equipment that could carve out a uniform halfpipe far more easily than hand-digging.

A snowboarder takes flight near the Kokanee Snowboard Park. Blackcomb Mountain Collection, Dano Pendygrasse.

In the early days, ‘Blackcomb Snowboard Park’ was exactly that, a park for snowboarders. Rules had changed (in this one niche area on the mountain) and there was a big sign that specified ‘no skiers allowed’. Skiers would wait outside the snowboard park in groups, and bomb the park together in a train so they were harder to catch. It wasn’t long, however, until the park evolved to welcome both snowboarders and skiers as the more inclusive ‘terrain park’ that we know today. 

Originally, the park features on Blackcomb and other resorts in the Canada West Ski Area Association were rated like ski runs, with greens, blues, blacks and double blacks. As most people probably understand, riding a beginner feature would require different skills to a typical green run; however the system broke down when a visitor went off a jump that was far beyond their ability and sustained a debilitating injury. The resulting lawsuit was eventually settled out of court and, learning from this experience, the ratings in the terrain park were changed to those that we see today. Burton had just introduced Smart Style, the orange oval to indicate freestyle terrain. Whistler Blackcomb and the Canada West Ski Area Association went one step further adding S, M, L and XL sizing to keep it easy to interpret. Both features and parks are marked so people can easily choose where to ride within their ability.