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Editorial - The Birth of Freeride?

Pockets of Wisdom

Words Wayne Parsons
Photos Cam McRae
Date Oct 22, 2021
Reading time

Mountain biking's humble beginnings emerged from the perfect brew of characters and terrain. From those early days to present day, there have been areas on the planet that have created the culture of the sport and jolted it forward. Marin County was the first epicentre, where mountain biking’s forefathers modified beach cruisers and raced them down service roads and hiking trails, perhaps the first to do so. Product development wasn't yet on the industry radar and these early bikes were fitted with fat tires and motorcycle levers so they could be ridden off road with moderate success.


Our norm was their hell, something we just took for granted I suppose.

We continue to be influenced by the path these incidental founders revealed for us. All of us. Big names were born from these locales, partially by accident, and because these personalities aligned with this oddball activity so perfectly, there could be no other result. As the sport grew, products changed. Early production mountain bikes were handcrafted and designed to adapt to the rolling hills of Northern California. If the word landmark can be thrown around, this was it.

I was working in a bike shop in North Van at the height of the freeride movement. I have to admit, just writing those two words, freeride movement, makes me cringe a little. It could be argued that freeriding was born the first day tires hit dirt. Throwing ourselves down the hillside was in our repertoire from day one, but let’s pretend the this only started sometime in the nineties and continued on for about ten years or so. Perhaps we can say that was when commercial recognition of this freakish subset of mountain biking began.

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Rider - Wade Simmons (all photos)

Did any of us know that taking off our big rings and replacing them with bash guards would lead to the development of the single ring drivetrains we have today? Of course not, but everyone did it anyway. I was running a single ring drivetrain as early as the late nineties because I found the simplicity and durability outweighed the gearing range of the triple. Meanwhile, breaking bottom bracket spindles and bending crank arms were regular occurrences - almost every day we saw them coming into the store. Sheared and flared head tubes, folded wheels, destroyed pivots, and blown out shocks were things we dealt with constantly. The shop I worked at was one of many that rode this wave of exponential growth. And while some took to the rapid expansion successfully, others didn’t survive. Eventually, they sank because of their refusal to adapt to this blossoming scene that was reshaping mountain biking.

I remember this time fondly. What happened here at that time was so influential despite being relatively tiny in the grand scheme of the cycling world, but the industry was taking notice. Product managers from the US couldn’t understand the volume of broken bikes coming out of the North Shore. I recall a few of us shop rats taking out a couple of spandex-clad product managers from a major Californian brand with deep cross country racing roots. Let's say they were from Fisher (since they were). To give them a taste, we threw them down some of the less scary trails on Mount Fromme, and then introduced them to a couple of notables like Ladies Only and Upper Oilcan. Their tails between their legs, they hiked their twenty two pound hardtails down the mountainside, humbled and shaking. Our norm was their hell, something we just took for granted I suppose.


We didn’t over-fork our bikes because it was cool, we did it because we had to.

Freeriding was an unprecedented moment that had to happen for mountain biking to flourish and fragment; a portion calving off and delineating itself from the lycra-wearing crowd. Everyone working in that shop (and mostly every other one) was aware of what was going on. We all knew that it was a special time, but none of us realized that our singular efforts would each be a spoke in the wheel that helped shape the progress of mountain biking. We were just trying to survive and keep our customers rolling, adapting to the countless "JRA failures" and burgeoning egos.

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These visits were common. The big US brands were trying to figure out what was going on here. Why were so many product failures coming from this one area and nowhere else? Why were trail riders using modified downhill bikes? How could their best selling cross country race bikes not even be considered in North Van bike stores? Nothing made sense. After each visit, I’m sure their take home message was that something had to change at HQ right now.

A wholesale approach to product development quickly took place in response to what was happening in B.C. While product managers, designers, and engineers were trying to grab a capture a bit of this rapid development, riders seemed to be a step ahead. We didn’t over-fork our bikes because it was cool, we did it because we had to. Most of us built our bikes from the frame up because stock bikes just weren’t capable of withstanding these trails. Those off-the-shelf bikes seemed to be made of spindly chopsticks that would crack if you looked at them funny. Our cross country” bikes had 150mm travel forks, bash guards, riser bars, and downhill rubber. Our trail bikes were essentially what enduro bikes are today - fitted with coil suspension and downhill wheels. It just took the industry that long to categorize it. Tell me I’m wrong, but I believe that even lock on grip technology came from a North Shore necessity. Lock ons were a response to riding the dank Shore because slide on grips jettisoned upon landing. These were incremental responses to a much bigger need; to avoid death on impact. We were just surviving.


Broken parts were replaced, broken bodies mended. Consequences were not the priority; pushing boundaries was.

The world took notice. The Californian market was still massive and dominating the industry, but B.C. was driving product development (even Fisher bikes joined the fray). The North Shore of Vancouver quickly became Dogtown. Everyone who rode here during this time contributed to this subculture, in spite of the giants running the show. A scene was emerging which necessitated building gnarlier and scarier lines without much consideration. Broken parts were replaced, broken bodies mended. Consequences were not the priority; pushing boundaries was. Camaraderie flourished and rivalries were formed. Bike shops hired warranty managers who soon had suppliers on speed dial. I know, I was one.

There were pockets of wisdom all over this province. Total unknowns seemed to know more about product performance than the engineers at the major brands. Tires that worked in Cali instantly proved useless here by shop rats. Brands that were at the forefront of technology disappeared because a handful of BC riders demonstrated their products didn’t work.

I can only speak from my own perspective, but I believe this was the most important era in product development in mountain biking’s history. I one hundred percent believe that all our kooky product adaptations led to the nearly perfect bikes we have today. This defining set of trails combined with influential riders who took risks advanced technology faster than in any other time.

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What a time to be alive! Nobodies became somebodies, kids became veterans, and lowly shop rats became industry leaders. Mostly all of my coworkers went on to bigger and better things within the industry. I believe it was in part due to the rapid learning curve that they went through during the freeride movement. You don’t truly learn unless you are constantly wrecking your bike and your body. Thrown into the wave and trying not to hit the pier. The industry as a whole had to keep up and try to learn from what was happening. Wisdom was earned and not acquired. The North Shore scene was the new “it” - something special was going down.

The industry’s response to what was happening eventually resulted in revolutionary products. Certain brands dove right in and established their reputations during this era. Little brands were popping up everywhere much like the explosion of the early nineties in skateboarding. Everyone’s learning curve was steep and the products that were being pumped out showed that. Our collective peak was reached when bikes started improving and riders became more calculated. Overbuilt and underperforming bikes that were made in response to this type of riding evolved into products that just worked better. And thus, the riding got better.

I believe that modern day freeriding was born on the North Shore of Vancouver, but I also believe that without this type of riding, bikes wouldn't have evolved to the level they have achieved recently. The unmistakable form of trail building, the riding, the bikes we were using, even the commercial success of hucking your meat was derived from this little part of the world. Not only that but this had to lead towards better products; there was no other choice. If we didn’t have this set of extreme trails at our disposal next to a major city, our bikes may not have advanced as fast as they have.

Thanks to everyone who rode during that time on the North Shore. The bike shop employees, the highschool groms, and weekend warriors who were out breaking shit day in/day out. Because without your small contributions, we wouldn’t have gotten to where we are now. Your dedication to pushing limits and giving a collective finger to the industry gave us good bikes and better trails.

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Comments

syncro
+2 Lowcard Pete Roggeman
Mark  - Oct. 21, 2021, 10:09 p.m.

Oh shit, look who's in the house. Cod Power!

Reply

Lowcard
+1 Mark
Lowcard  - Oct. 22, 2021, 7:23 a.m.

Newfie power!

Reply

cheapondirt
+4 ackshunW Allen Lloyd Cam McRae Lowcard
cheapondirt  - Oct. 22, 2021, 6:29 a.m.

I remember when Fisher came out with a freeride hardtail. Not really on-brand, except in that it looked weird. The seatstays must have been almost as big as the top tube.

Reply

Lowcard
+1 cheapondirt
Lowcard  - Oct. 22, 2021, 7:22 a.m.

I had a Mt. Tam. I loved that bike. Great geometry for the time.

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
+1 cheapondirt
Cam McRae  - Oct. 22, 2021, 9:37 a.m.

That thing was so stiff. It was painful to ride.

Reply

Chappy13
+2 Cooper Quinn Lowcard
Chappy13  - Oct. 22, 2021, 6:48 a.m.

Thanks WP but I still miss you riding your bike. 

Let’s ride.

Reply

Lowcard
0
Lowcard  - Oct. 22, 2021, 7:21 a.m.

I ride bicycles, but now the gravelly kind

Reply

Bad-Sean
+4 Cam McRae Lowcard Mammal Pete Roggeman
Sean Chee  - Oct. 22, 2021, 7:14 a.m.

The shore is the first place I think of when I hear the word freeride. For those of us very far away from it (Australia in my case), the photos and vhs tapes provided all the inspiration we needed to adapt our approach to riding. What constitutes fun didn’t require Lycra or having a terrible experience riding down a hill because our bikes were tailored for going up it. 

As someone who broke bikes and parts regularly, north shore freeride gave me the hardware I needed to keep enjoying mtb. I very nearly sold all my stuff to buy a mx bike as I thought it was the only reasonable way for me to keep enjoying two wheels. I do regret never buying that Honda CR500, but I’m really grateful that MTB’s were able to handle the abuse that I was dishing out.

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Lowcard
+1 Sean Chee
Lowcard  - Oct. 22, 2021, 7:20 a.m.

I've always wanted a Service Honda CR500. What a bike!

Reply

Bad-Sean
+2 Lowcard Pete Roggeman
Sean Chee  - Oct. 22, 2021, 10:10 a.m.

I think I would have ended up in a wheelchair if I bought any two stroke back then. I was going to get a 200/250, then the 500 later. 

I was nowhere near strong enough back then to handle it. Hell my gf’s 2019 ktm 150exc would have been too much for me back then. My 2020 ktm 300exc is way too much bike for me now haha. But it’s a lot more fun than all the other farm bikes and in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t much more expensive than them. If I need to be on a bike half the day, everyday, I may as well be on a nice one. 

I will say that riding such a crazy dirt bike a lot has really been a game changer for my mtb skills, and physical condition. I wish I had cross trained with one a long time ago.

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craw
+9 Lowcard Mammal Todd Hellinga wizardB trumpstinyhands AlanB strahan ackshunW Derek Baker
Cr4w  - Oct. 22, 2021, 8:45 a.m.

The experimental mindset and grit you needed back then to get your bike home in rideable condition would be hard to understand to a newer rider. I'd take a modern bike over any bike I had between 1990 and 2010.

But I much preferred the culture during those years. A small but dedicated army of misfits and seekers willing to go out into the woods and do weird stuff because it seemed like a good idea, not because it was marketed to them. They paved the way for the culture of joiners we have today.

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strahan
0
strahan  - Oct. 25, 2021, 2:44 p.m.

So controversial yet so brave.

Reply

xy9ine
+5 Dave Smith Lowcard Mark wizardB OneShavedLeg
Perry Schebel  - Oct. 22, 2021, 8:53 a.m.

that was such a cool period of time. the vancouver scene was just vibrating with energy - ever more extreme trails were being built, and a cottage industry of core manufacturers building gear capable of withstanding the punishment sprang up alongside. i also worked in a shop at the time, and the stack of broken warranty frames that accumulated in the early days was impressive. but the manufacturers were paying attention, and subsequent iterations got burlier in response.

So yeah - I have to agree that the north shore had a significant impact on the evolution of the modern mountain bike. Or at least was an important catalyst in the accelerated development of the species. rad to have been part of this era (if only peripherally).

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Lowcard
0
Lowcard  - Oct. 22, 2021, 9:53 a.m.

Nah, you had a part to play

Reply

LoamtoHome
+10 Lowcard kcy4130 Greg Bly Mammal Mark Pete Roggeman Andrew Major OneShavedLeg AlanB Ddean
Jerry Willows  - Oct. 22, 2021, 8:58 a.m.

You forgot the most important thing...  there would be no "Freeride" without the Builders/Maintainers.

Great article btw.

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Lowcard
0
Lowcard  - Oct. 22, 2021, 9:53 a.m.

100% true. Thank you

Reply

DaveSmith
+4 Lowcard Mammal Pete Roggeman wizardB
Dave Smith  - Oct. 22, 2021, 9:15 a.m.

I've always loved that in that one stump drop image that the girl from The Ring is hanging out in the background.

Nice to see you up in here again, Parsons!

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
+1 Pete Roggeman
Cam McRae  - Oct. 22, 2021, 9:39 a.m.

I have occasionally used that image with her ‘shopped out. Like Ryan Berrecloth in my shot of Jerry on Britus!

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syncro
+3 Mammal taprider DadStillRides
Mark  - Oct. 22, 2021, 10:22 a.m.

Claim to fame is accidently rolling that when the landing was non-existent and hearing the chorus of oooooh's in a tone of impending doom erupt into a raucous round of ohhhhhh's after pulling it off unscathed. Later on watching one of the guys pull off a ridiculous ladder move on Boundary while riding a fully rigid bike with rim brakes was icing on the cake.

The subliminality of those moments were as much about the atmosphere of the riding as it was about the riding itself. I think a lot of the "loss" from those days  comes down to the fact that back then we didn't really know what the limits were and a lot of stuff the pro/top level riders did seemed within reach of  us normals, whereas today that gap is so big that the top level riding doesn't even seem real anymore.

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Lowcard
0
Lowcard  - Oct. 22, 2021, 10:28 a.m.

Cheers buddy, appreciate it

Reply

pete@nsmb.com
+4 Lowcard Dave Smith Mammal DadStillRides
Pete Roggeman  - Oct. 22, 2021, 10:40 a.m.

Another big contributor to the breathless mysticism of that era was the fact that a lot of what was going on was communicated only by word of mouth, unless you were there to see something happen in person. Every ride was a chance to discover a new trail or even a new line or stunt - let alone the rides where you would successfully navigate something terrifying for the first time. But other than the annual release of the latest NSX or Kranked or NWD (and, later, others), there was an element of mystery about everything that perfectly matched the dark and misty environment where it was all taking place. There were so few riders in the late 90s and early 00s that I remember how strange it was to actually bump into another rider on a lot of rides - particularly if it was a weekday afternoon in November. Someone would pop out of the fog and drop in and you'd be left wondering 'who the hell was that?' 

Rumours constantly dominated the local MTB gossip and often you didn't care whether it was true or not that something happened - just being in on the latest tale of someone's antics was often enough to feel a part of it. What a time.

Reply

Lowcard
+1 Pete Roggeman
Lowcard  - Oct. 22, 2021, 10:55 a.m.

So true, and knowing about these big secrets that were going down in our backyards was something special to witness or even hear about. I loved the mysticism around secret lines and what was being done on them. That's why I compare that era to Dogtown, the similarities are hard to miss.

Reply

xy9ine
+4 Dave Smith OneShavedLeg nothingfuture Pete Roggeman
Perry Schebel  - Oct. 22, 2021, 11:14 a.m.

haha, "breathless mysticism" - love it. but yeah. all this was happening pre- social media & smart phones, so info dissemination was a very different thing & relatively little was documented for posterity. so much epic-ness relegated to foggy memories. 

i remember when the shore issue of bike mag dropped - so stoked to see our little scene finally getting recognition on the world stage.

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nothingfuture
+3 Cam McRae Perry Schebel Pete Roggeman
nothingfuture  - Oct. 25, 2021, 4:35 a.m.

As a New England kid, when that Bike issue dropped- whoa. Changed everything for me. There was a scene of some of that stuff happening up here too- a move towards more technical riding- but the ideas about building really seemed to shift things into high gear.

Frame/part warranties went up out here too- the trails that were being built at the time had substantial drops on them, but were usually flat landings, so the impacts were immense.

It's so crazy to think that both coasts had these movements (with each having their own cottage industries to deal with the problems riders were having- think Sinister, Evil, Goat, Geekbikes, etc).

Reply

Dogl0rd
0
Dogl0rd  - Oct. 22, 2021, 8:38 p.m.

Wow they only had black and white film back then! :)

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
+1 nothingfuture
Cam McRae  - Oct. 25, 2021, 3:43 p.m.

And sepia! But yes - those were shot using black and white film.

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gary-j
0
Gary Jackson  - Nov. 3, 2021, 1:52 p.m.

Great article, and fun stroll down memory lane for sure. I do agree that Fromme and Seymour were at the centre of the movement, but it seems unfair to discount the early MTB pioneers all over BC:

Lumpy and Binty in Whistler

Schley and Tippie in Kamloops

Vic, The Crazy Carpenter, and all the builders in the Fraser Valley.

The list is endless.

I do question how prolific "The Shore" and it's riders were to the emergence of the the modern mountain bike. When examining the modern trail bike, I feel the early European designs, are far more relevant to how and what we ride today.  When comparing Wade's RM9 to Nico's Sunn World Champs bike I know which one I would pick.

Still, a fun read, Thanks.

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