Mountains' trails make for freeride heaven
Magic happens. And nowhere more so than on the bike trails in the newly-minted Magic Park at the foot of Blackcomb Mountain and in the adjacent Whistler Mountain Bike Park. Try a few runs to see for yourself. That's exactly what I did earlier this month. The longer I rode, the more convinced I became that something truly bewitching was being triggered inside my brain.
Thanks to my guide and instructor, Mike Johnstone, my eyes were the wand that cast this spellbinding effect. At the start of the day he counselled me to lift my head and look where I wanted to go, and my bike would automatically follow. It's one thing to believe this advice when you're simply coasting along. It's a whole other article of faith when you're speeding downhill atop a 20-kilo bike whose geometry makes it look more like a motorcycle-minus the engine-than a street cruiser. Yet every time I brought this enchantment into play, it worked. I gazed ahead, around the corners of the single-track trail snaking through the woods, and my bike followed as naturally as if it had been programmed to do so. The more I practised this artful technique, the stronger my sense grew that a touch of magic was indeed in the air. I revelled in it. As soon as I reached the bottom of the slope, I was ready to hop on the chair lift and head back uphill to try again.
It was with considerable trepidation that I found myself riding in the Whistler Mountain Bike Park. Several years ago, when I had first given these trails a whirl, I found that even the ones rated easiest were too challenging for me. Partway through my first run, I executed a perfect "endo" over my handlebars, Superman-style, a manoeuvre Mike told me was also known as the Park 'n' Fly.
This June, when I learned that a new series of bike trails specifically designed for beginners had just opened in Blackcomb's Magic Park, where novice skiers and snowboarders overcome their jitters in winter, I was tempted to give the freeride style of pedalling a second chance. Donning a helmet fitted with full-face protection, plus padded arm, leg, and hand pads, I mounted a dual-suspension behemoth and wheeled over to rendezvous with my guide at the bottom of the Magic chair lift.
Johnstone has been on staff in the mountain-bike park since it opened in 1998. The veteran rider briefed me on some basics, starting with how to load my bike onto the lift. Given the bike's hefty size, this proved to be a challenging workout in itself. About the only thing one can categorize as small about a freeride bike is its seat, as insignificant as a flea on an elephant. That's because, as I quickly learned, freeriders don't spend much time sitting down. This style of cycling is done almost exclusively in a standing position.
Once at the top of the Magic Park lift, we had our choice of two trails, reassuringly named Cruise Control and Easy Rider, which increasingly sums up my approach to life in general these days, let alone my style of cycling. We headed to a level skills area to practise some balancing techniques that would soon come in handy when switchbacking around banked turns, or berms. Mike explained how bike trails, unlike their winter counterparts, are mostly winding, single-track affairs. Rather than fanning out across an open slope, downhill bike riders typically follow one another through the forest, much like hikers do.
Not that I'm a quick learner, but something in my riding style must have impressed Mike. After only one confidence-building run in the Magic Park, he suggested we head over to play on the big-league trails a short distance away, on the lower slopes of Whistler Mountain. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by burly biker buddies who were stacked up like the BC Lions defensive front line, ready to tackle trails with names like Angry Pirate, No Joke, Dirt Merchant, and the ominous Heart of Darkness. I'd already told Mike about my experience from several years ago. Was he intent on seeing me get trail-mugged again? Mercifully, he steered me away from the pack at the top of the lift and introduced me to Easy Does It, a relatively gentle trail that opened in 2003. This was where I would really begin to put my newly acquired skills to work.
Muscle memory is an admirable trait, an acquired response that keeps one's reflexes sharp. Imprint a move on your muscles a hundred times and it becomes as natural as, say, rolling out of bed. With about that many bermed turns spread out across its seven-kilometre length, Easy Does It was the perfect trail to train my muscles to automatically handle the challenge of cornering at high speed. And to remember to keep my eyes focused as far ahead of me as possible rather than yield to the powerful temptation to look down at the trail.
At first, this act took every nerve I could muster to apply. Then, when I saw that it worked time and again, I was almost overwhelmed by the magic of what my eyes were doing. Somehow, while I scoped out what was fast approaching up ahead, my peripheral vision sensed the best line to take over the rocks and roots. Spellbound, I bid Mike adieu and spent the rest of my day immersed in what had truly become a magic park.
ACCESS: For information on mountain biking at Whistler, check out www.whistlerblackcomb.com/. The West Coast School of Mountain Biking has just released West Coast Style, a slickly produced DVD on freeride fundamentals. For details, visit www.wcsmb.com/.