Tag Archives: CanAm Mountain Bike Challenge

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.

Racing Up Whistler

Summers in Whistler may be known for mountain biking today, but in the 1980s the sport was still young and Whistler was in the process of building its reputation as a site for races and events.

The first recorded mountain bike race in Whistler was held on June 20, 1982 and was organized by Jon Kirk. The race had few rules and lots of confusion. According to Jacob Heilbron, who came in third, the race may have been called the Canadian Championship, but, with no governing body for mountain bike racing in Canada until 1984, it would not have been officially sanctioned. The course began with a literal running start and some competitors switched between mountain and road bikes throughout the course.

Competitors cross a bridge in the 1982 race. Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

By the mid 1980s, some of the races held in Whistler looked a little different from that first race. In 1985, Whistler hosted the BMX World Championships, which brought 680 riders from fourteen different countries to the resort still finding its way out of a recession. Unlike the earlier Canadian Championship, this race was associated with the International BMX Federation. Whistler also hosted the 1986 North American BMX Championships and CanAm Freestyle BMX Challenge, but the Whistler Question reported that the races were hampered by wet weather and poor turnout.

A team of BMX freestyler cyclists added to the weekend’s festivities and gave Whistler just a taste of what things will be like here next summer when the BMX World Championships come to town in 1985. Two young performers on BMX bikes travelled from Pitt Meadows to represent the Lynx factory team. Whistler Question Collection, 1984.

The CanAm Mountain Bike Challenge, which was hosted on Whistler Mountain on July 5 & 6, 1986, did not have the same challenges. Over 70 racers entered the mountain race on the Saturday and the valley criterium race on the Sunday, with sunny but not hot conditions for both.

The mountain course followed an access road up to the Roundhouse (a climb of 1,200 m over 7 km) and then descended back to the valley. While those competing in the expert category completed the same course as the pro racers, those in the “sportsmen” category cycled only as far as midstation and then rode the Red Chair up to the top. The 40km criterium course took competitors on laps around the Lost Lake trail system.

Competitors appear to have enjoyed the Whistler Mountain course, comparing it favourably to the course in Crested Butte, CO. Jeff Norman, who raced for the Schwinn team, described it was “smoother,” while Tod Switzer of Ross Bicycles told the Question, “It’s much faster. Crested Butte is rocky and rutted. It’s definitely better here. I had a lot more fun.” Racers also commented on how their tires could hand on to the soil during the climb. One racer, upon crossing the finish line, even jumped off his bike to exclaim, “I like it, I like it, I like it!”

Paul Rawlinson cycles up the mountain during the Cheakamus Challenge a few years after the CanAm Mountain Bike Challenge. Whistler Question Collection, 1982.

By the end of the weekend, American teams for manufacturers such as Ross, Schwinn and Fisher had dominated the pro categories, taking home the cash prizes on offer. Despite this, Whistler riders were well represented in the expert and sportsmen categories. Merve Stalkie took first place in the expert category of the mountain race, followed closely by Paul Rawlinson, also of Whistler. Whistler rider Sharon Bishop came fifth in the women’s category and Eric Gunderson of Whistler took first in the sportsmen category.

The CanAm Mountain Bike Challenge marked the end of Whistler’s “Fat Tire Week,” which had begun with the BMX Championships. At the closing ceremony, president of the National Off Road Bicycle Association Glen O’Dell challenged Canadian racers to do better. O’Dell also hinted at Whistler’s future, referring to Whistler as “a mecca for the new sport.”