Reluctant Adrenaline Junkie
Do you ever get one of those ideas in your head that seem really out there? You know, the ones that you dismiss as too dangerous or too expensive or too whatever, shortly after having them? The trick with those ideas is not to act on them right away. That way, by the time you are ready to act, the smart, rational bit of your brain that tells you what not to do will kick in and stop you from being an idiot.
When I came up with the idea of riding the bike park at Whistler Mountain I did so on the patio at The Longhorn. I saw tonnes of people coming down the mountain, unscathed, with big smiles on their faces and thought “I should try that”.
Normally I would wait with an idea like that. You know? Weigh it against the advice of other, much smarter, people than myself. I don’t know if it was the double Caesars or the Whistler blue sky but something made me feel invincible that day and I immediately pitched an article idea to nsmb.com.
Most of you nsmb.com veterans will, no doubt, think that a ride down the bike park is easy and fun and something that is just “done” daily. I, on the other hand, am a 43 year old, mom of 2 kids who was never able to master mountain biking with any grace. In fact, for the 8 years I lived in whistler I carried my bike more than I rode it and eventually just made grandiose excuses for not going riding. (then I bought a road bike and everyone stopped asking me to trail ride).
The notion of the hurtling down hill at top speed on a 50lb bike is really something that is so far out of my suburban, housewife comfort zone I was sure people would try to talk me out of it. No such luck. Not only was everyone really keen on the idea, they started taking side bets about which bone I might break or how many times I’d bail. And those were my “good” friends.
Before I was able to change my mind I contacted Whistler Blackcomb media relations and told Amber, from Whistler Blackcomb’s P.R. department, about my article idea. She loved it and immediately set me up with a pass, a bike, armour and a guide. After that there was really no turning back so I decided I’d embrace the plan and just hope for the best.
Getting all set up by Tom Radke and his staff at the Whistler Mountain Bike Park rental shop went off without a hitch. In fact, they were all a bit too efficient for my state of mind. I’d been hoping they’d take a bit more time so I could delay the inevitable, the actual riding part.
I kept thinking that people would look at me funny. Like “what the hell is she doing here?” One look at the lift line cemented the fact that downhill mountain biking is a super male dominated sport. And most of the guys were young. Younger than me anyway.
My guide, Derek Foose, (who, by the way was insanely awesome!) actually took a better look around and noticed that there were at least 5 women within about 20 feet of us in line. A number he assured me has more than quadrupled in the last couple of years. Women are really getting in to the sport in no small part to the Whistler Bike Park Women’s Wednesdays.
Women’s “Wednesdays” are actually held on both Monday and Wednesday evenings because the demand was so great. They were getting 50+ women out to learn to conquer the mountain every week!
The first big hurdle for me was docking my bike in the lift. I’m not kidding! It was really difficult to sort out how to get the bike all stowed away so we could hop on the next chair. Honestly, someone ought to come up with a better way to do that! There is absolutely no way to look cool or even adept while trying to dock your bike.
Not exactly as planned – but somewhat successful.
After Derek assisted me on my first docking, (the front brake stuck, I swear!) we loaded and were on our way. It’s not often I get to ride the lift in the summer so it was a great treat to see the mountain in all it’s pretty greenery.
About half way up the Fitzsimmons Express, we saw a little Mr. Fuzzy Pants munching away on some tall grass. I could see bikers within a few feet of him and neither seemed to care what the other was up to.
Now, after 8 years in Whistler, I have a healthy respect/fear for bears. The site of this 1 year old did little to allay my fear about the entire notion of downhill biking. I’m always pretty sure that where there’s a 1 year old, there’s a mother bear with a bad attitude.
Fortunately we went the other way when we got off the lift and I was shortly too pre-occupied with the tasks at hand to worry about a mere bear. I had trees and rocks and roots to fill my entire being with enough worry to keep it from even considering the bear for the rest of the day.
Derek was great! He took me to the beginner skills park and then went over a few things with me.
Did you know that when you brake the bike in the curve you have less control over it? I mean, who the hell doesn’t brake in a turn?! I can tell you at that moment I was sure that I would be able to defy these laws of gravity and I’d be able to brake regardless of what he said. I nodded politely and pretended that this advice would be useful but in my mind I was thinking it was unlikely I would take my hands off of the brakes for the entire day. I did manage to ride over a few little wooden thingys in the skills park and was quite pleased with myself when D decided I was ready for the trail.
Kindly Derek started us off on Easy Does It, the mellowest trail on the mountain and the only real “easy” way to get down. That said, if I had been alone with no instruction I probably would have felt that even Easy Does It was quite challenging. But that was before I realized what being on a massive, full suspension bike meant to all those pesky rocks and roots that I’d never been able to master in the past.
I was pleasantly surprised that those big tires could just ride through most of what was in my way. That was pretty fortuitous for me because there was little chance I was going to be able to miss that stuff. There are obstacles everywhere! The upper part of the trail was really cool. It was dirt with minimal rock and the rocks I did encounter were nothing for my trusted steel steed. I really learned to love that bike (a Kona Stab Deluxe) by the end of the day.
Since I wasn’t allowed to sit down the entire way I was pretty wiped out after the top half. I looked at Derek, who wasn’t winded or even sweating in the 800 degrees and tested his tolerance for whining with a tentative “wow, my legs and hands are killing me!”
After having me ride around in front of him for a minute he suggested that perhaps a half squat was not the most efficient stance if I wanted to last longer than 15 minutes. Well stated, Derek. I learned, on the next section, that standing up straight did not guarantee that I would fly over the handlebars. Who knew?
OK, so now that I had the stance right and I’d gotten the top bit of the mountain under my belt it was time to ramp it up a bit. On the lower section of the B Line trail, a “blue” trail thank you very much! I learned that the whole not braking in the curves things was right.
I also learned that you don’t actually have to fall off of the bike to use the leg and elbow armour. Again, who knew? When I tried to brake in curve the bike straightened right up out of the tilt I had it on and the front wheel headed off directly for the tree that I couldn’t stop staring at. Oh, another thing about biking downhill fast; don’t stare at nasty things that you don’t want to hit. Just a little hint there.
Anyway, the armour took the lion’s share of the collision with the tree, which by the way, failed to slow me down at all. I managed to get out of the curve and yank myself to a full stop before trying to breath again. It’s shocking how fast things can go wrong!
That said, if I’d listened to Derek in the first place and braked “before” the curve then let the bike carve through it like a ski, that little incident never would have happened. I was a little bit shaky after my “almost” run in with the tree and my death grip on the handlebars so I took it easy the rest of the way down. Once we found some water we jumped right back on the lift. I say that like getting on the lift is an easy thing to do. It still posed a challenge to me on the 2nd try but at least this time I did it myself.
On the ride up Derek gave me a few more pointers. Turns out downhill biking is a lot like skiing. I love to ski and I really enjoy carving big turns down the mountain. He told me that if I can commit to braking on the way into the turn then letting go completely once in it, I’d be surprised at the way the bike would do what I expected. When you’re tentative the notion of letting go of the brakes really goes against what your head thinks you should be doing.
For our 2nd run we did Blue Line all the way down and wow, what a difference. The Blue Line run is super curvy and has a ton of great banks to practice “letting go”. Once I got the hang of the technique it was so much fun. The difference between the first and second run was 100%. I really got into the rhythm of having the bike do the work and just hanging on and riding it out.
Apparently Derek noticed I was having a great time on the Blue Line so he made me stop and hit the intermediate skills park, half way down the mountain. The beginner park, at the top, was nice and calm and not scary at all. This one was a different story!
“I jumped a bike!”
I so never want to see what the “expert” skills park looks like. I suspect 30 foot ramps and a water hazard with crocodiles would be the only thing that would be tougher than the intermediate. That may sound like an exaggeration but, to me, the newb, the stunts in this park looked really harsh. There was no bloody way, on earth, I was going to jump off of any of those jumps. Nope, no way, not gonna happen.
I bet you can guess what happens next…
After watching a bunch of people, including some 10 year old snot-nosed kid, hit the jumps (which I’m meant to call “drops” now that I have the lingo down) and make it look easy, Derek showed me a couple of tricks to launch the bike and myself off the drop. It’s kind of unfortunate that anytime you want to get airborne speed is the key factor.
Every bone in my body wanted me to slow down on the approach to the drop but that lack of commitment could be problematic. I.e. if I didn’t go fast enough the front wheel would drop off the jump and there was a chance I could go over it. Apparently, my insistent need to jump on the front brake could cause the front wheel to stop completely sending me airborne without the bike. These are the important things “real” downhill mountain bikers know J
The first attempt was a bit lame. I didn’t get going fast enough but I did manage to lay off of the brakes. I knew it right away that it didn’t come out the way we’d hoped. The front wheel hit first and I pitched forward a bit. Not a catastrophe but not optimal either.
On the second try I got up a good head of speed and shoved the bike forward while jutting my butt back just before going off the lip. The back wheel hit the ground first. It felt so great! I jumped a bike!! K, it was a little jump but still. It was my first day and I’m kind of old so I was pretty pleased with myself. (see photo)
Pleased with myself!
After the skills park I was stoked! I was really proud of myself for making that jump and seeing how the bike did what I wanted when I stopped bucking the laws of gravity and common sense and just went with it all.
By the 4th run I was feeling pretty cocky and we rode the B Line again. When we got near the skills park Derek called over his shoulder “let’s just hit the drop”. Since, by then, I was a seasoned trickster I followed him and hit the jump with a lot more speed and a lot more grace.
The best part? When I hit that jump there were about 20 people sitting on the side of the hill and every single one of them saw a 43 year old mom of 2 who had never downhilled before launch into the air and land like a pro. Even if they didn’t know any of that, I still felt pretty great.
We finished up the day just cruising top to bottom with my new found exceptional skills until I had to jump off my bike and did a crazy dance to extricate myself from my helmet to get the bee out of it. No joke, there was an actual bee in my helmet!
If you’d asked me a month ago if I’d go off of a jump on a down hill bike I would have laughed at you. I’m not a wuss or anything, far from it. But I usually try to stay away from things I think could land me in the hospital for extended periods of time.
I loved my day in the park. I love that more and more women are getting into the sport and that age has little to do with your ability to get down the mountain. If you’re somewhat fit and have a passing knowledge of how to ride a bike, you’re a perfect candidate for the Whistler Mountain Bike Park.
Cornering off the brakes works better. Who knew?
However, I would suggest that anyone who wants to take a turn in the park hire a guide. I definitely would not have been able to do it alone. There are tricks and techniques that are not natural but that really work. Without a guide it’s unlikely your first day on the mountain would be even remotely as fun as mine was.
During our lunch Derek told me that the Women’s Wednesday’s have been so amazing because many women return season after season. He’s seen absolute beginners become bike park guides in the 2 years they’ve been running the program. He’s also taught a ton of women to take the big jump called the Garibaldi Drop that lands right in front of the GLC (Garibaldi Lift Co.) and always has an appreciative audience.
After much discussion we decided that my first day wasn’t the day to learn to drop the bike 30 feet. Maybe next time though!
Remember your first time in the bike park? Can you relate to Jacquie’s trepidation – or is she just a wimpy soccer mom? Dish it out here…