Tag Archives: Eric Wight

Talking Shop: Whistler’s Early Mountain Bike Shops

Not only do we have a trail-rich valley to call home in Whistler, but we are also spoiled with choice when it comes to bike shops.  This wasn’t always the case.

When mountain bikes first hit the logging roads in the valley in the early 1980s, most riders had to head to Vancouver for any mountain-bike-specific parts and maintenance, according to one or our oral history interviews with local mountain bike pioneer Steve Anderson.

Mountain biking steadily became more popular in Whistler from the 1980s but at the beginning there were few shops dedicated to the sport.  Whistler Question Collection.

A couple of shops were starting to pop up around that time.  In the newly constructed village Jim McConkey’s shop sold bikes in the summer months and Doris Burma operated a small bike shop, Summit Cycles, out of a trailer right above the commercial loading zone at the Delta Mountain Inn (today known as the Hilton).  Doris was passionate about mountain bikes and famed for her Cheakamus Challenge precursor race called “See Colours & Puke,” a wild mountain bike race reportedly meant to be completed on mushrooms.

In the autumn of 1985 Backroads Whistler owner Eric Wight opened a bike shop  in the basement of Creekside’s Southside Diner.  A short time later, the shop moved to the first floor of a house in Mons.

The new location was in the centre of the local mountain bike scene at the time, not far from new trails in Emerald and Lost Lake.  The shop sold, fixed, and rented mountain bikes, even building a small trials track outside their door.  Eric admits the shops didn’t make much money in the early days, as most of the clientele were locals who could only afford parts using “local deals.”  Big things were to come, however.

Whistler began hosting bike races in the early 1980s, creating even more demand for maintenance and shops.  Whistler Question Collection.

In 1989 Eric’s shop moved to Whistler Village, finding a spot in the base of the Delta.  The location was off the radar for visitors, however, and the clientele was still all locals.  The shop finally surfaced on the Village Stroll in the spot where Jim McConkey had sold bikes (currently Showcase Snowboards) around the time Backroads began working with Whistler Mountain to begin mountain bike tours down the mountain.  According to Eric, the new shop had a Santa Fe theme, a mechanic shop in the back, rentals and tours, and plenty of snazzy lycra on sale out front.

As mountain biking continued gaining traction the 1990s saw bike shops that are still kicking it today start up shop.

In 1994 John Inglis and Peter Colapinto opened the Whistler Bike Co., also in the underground portion of the Delta, for the summer months.  In 1995 they brought onboard Giant Bicycles and they eventually expanded to Pemberton, the Village Gate location, and, most recently, their Marketplace location to accommodate a growing population of bikers in town.

Molson’s Whistler Bike Race passes through the Whistler Village, where some of the earlier bike shops in town can still be found today.  Whistler Question Collection.

Bike Co. is currently the oldest independent bike shop in town, followed closely by Evolution, which was opened by Jenine Bourbonnais in 1995.  Many more mountain bike shops have opened up as Whistler has become the mountain bike mecca it is today: Summit Sports, Fanatyk Co., Garbanzo Bike & Bean, Coastal Culture Sports, Arbutus Routes, Whistler Village Sports, The Fix, Comor Sports, Fineline, Gateway Bikes – the list is long and continues to grow.  Needless to say, Whistler’s mountain bikers (and their bikes) are now very well serviced.

This week we’ve been celebrating Whistler’s mountain biking history with the museum’s 4th annual Mountain Bike Heritage Week.  You can find a full list of events here and join us for our final event on Wednesday featuring Chris Allen of North Shore Billet and Steve Mathews of Vorsprung.

The Origins of the Whistler Bike Park

It’s as good  time as any to look back at the origins of the Whistler Bike Park.

One of Whistler’s first mountain bike operators was Whistler Backroads, started by local resident and disillusioned breakfast server Eric Wight in 1982. They offered mountain bike rentals, sales and guided tours, operating from a number of different locations throughout Whistler during the 1980s.

As early as 1985 Eric approached Whistler Mountain about the potential of using chairlifts for summer trail access within the resort. It was obviously a great idea, but a little ahead of its time. There was still too much of a disconnect between what the average biker on the average bike could handle, and the experience that Eric was trying to provide.

Early mountain biking on Blackcomb Mountain. Greg Griffith photo.

Early mountain biking on Blackcomb Mountain. Greg Griffith photo.

Sometime around 1990 (dates can get a little fuzzy after a few decades) Whistler Mountain approached Eric about the possibility of taking over the guided bike tours they had been offering for the last few summers. Eric agreed, secured permission to build bike-specific trails (including Bear Cub), and within a few years (definitely by 1993) he finally succeeded in convincing the ski resort to run the chairlifts in summer for bikes. Blackcomb Mountain also experimented with lift-accessed mountain biking for a few years during the early 1990s.

The genius of Eric’s idea was becoming apparent by 1996 when opening weekend in the Whistler Mountain Bike Park drew more than 500 opening weekend riders. Yes, some riders will always appreciate the physical and technical challenge of a good uphill slog, but the comfort and convenience of a chairlift became a surefire driver of growth in the mountain bike world, just as it had for skiing decades earlier.

An early design for Whistler Bike Park ad, courtesy Whistler Backroads. Circa 1996.

An early design for a Whistler Bike Park ad, courtesy Whistler Backroads. Circa 1996.

Lift-accessed trails started from Olympic Station, most running down ski runs, while “two of the new routes even [took] riders right into the forest, with designers opening up old logging roads for the two-wheeled, knobby-tired set.” Also in 1996 in a separate guided tour for advanced riders, Eric’s guides invited guests to “bike the peak” by climbing access roads from the Roundhouse all the way to Whistler Peak. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Whistler Bike Park began offering lift-access to Whistler Summit and the new “Top of the World Trail.”

Despite this early success, Whistler Backroads was forced to change paths in 1998, when Intrawest purchased Whistler Mountain. Their contract was not renewed, despite the considerable efforts invested in building trails and growing the operation. They continued to offer guided mountain biking throughout the valley, but over time their focus shifted to water sports, especially guided canoe and kayak descents down the River of Golden Dreams, which they still offer to this day.

 

Next Wednesday May 18th, see Eric, WORCA trailbuilder Dan Raymond, and others discuss the past, present, and future of MTB trail-building in Whistler at “Dirt Masters: Whistler Trail-building through the Decades.” This is the opening event of our first ever Whistler MTB Heritage Week.