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Mountain Biking Multiple Meccas in America

December 5th, 2013
On the road again...

On the road again…

Americans get behind things. I mean, when there is something Americans believe in, they wholeheartedly invest their time and energy into making it a reality. Us laid-back Canadians might poo-poo this idea, but in many ways it is true. How do you think the good ol’ US of A grew into a superpower in the span of a few short centuries? Or, look at the near-rabid following of the Tea Party, or hardcore evangelism. When people wanna believe, they stick to their guns (forgive the pun).

It’s no different with mountain biking, and the way mountain towns have latched onto the sport as a way of bringing tourist dollars into their communities. This fall I traveled to America with some friends from Vancouver, on a road trip to some of the new, and old, mountain bike meccas of the Lower 49.

In the span of ten action-packed days we drove to and rode in Sun Valley, Moab, Fruita and Park City. All mountain bike hotspots in their own right, and deserving of a “mecca” status for different reasons.

Sun Valley, our first stop after leaving Vancouver, was a spot I had visited years ago on a Bike Magazine assignment, driving through the American MidWest in Honda Elements and riding the most obscure spots we could find. Sun Valley is far from unknown, especially in the ski circles, and the riding surrounding Ketchum and Hailey, the two towns that make up Sun Valley, is world class.

Our host this time was Greg Randolph, the director of public relations and social media for the Sun Valley Marketing Alliance. Greg has a rich background in cycling, and straight up loves where he lives, which shows in all of his marketing efforts and events hosted. Lucky for us mountain bikers, he does play favourites, organizing an annual mountain bike festival, developing a detailed trail map and generally stoking out the mountain bike community whenever possible.

Chasing the last rays of sun in Sun Valley

Chasing the last rays of sun in Sun Valley

We rode two days of perfect singletrack, from sinuous desert rips to flowing loops in the forest. We hit the road after riding the Prairie/Miner Loop, a mini-epic that took us up into the fresh snowline of the alpine, and where Greg had to get in a dip in one of the close-to-freezing-over lakes. “I never miss a swim up here!” he exclaimed, surveying all the new snow in the high country. With ambassadors like this, Sun Valley is going to continue to attract keen riders for years to come.

A late night drive, along with a stop at a suspect Taco Bell in Salt Lake City, took us to Moab, our southernmost destination and a spot I had never ridden. Yes, I had never ridden. That’s blasphemy according to many riders who consider Moab the true Mecca, and make pilgrimages whenever possible. I thought I had to check it out for myself.

Ripping down Porcupine Rim, Moab.

Ripping down Porcupine Rim, Moab.

Moab is a place that seemingly needs to do no work to attract mountain bike tourism. Gracing covers of magazines worldwide, the surreal landscape of the Utah slickrock has implanted itself in mountain biker psyche as the place to go, as the ultimate mountain bike experience. This is evident in the number of bike shops, guiding outfits and shuttle services that dot the town. While the Slickrock trail has sustained this mountain bike boom for years, Moab is not one to rest on its laurels. The Whole Enchilada, a 42 km, 7,000-foot downhill epic draws thousands of riders each year, as does Captain Ahab, a newly-handbuilt maze carved out of the unforgiving sandstone that offers perfect flow its entire length. The mountain bike community in Moab has seen the sport evolve, and has evolved the trail offerings to match.

It's not a Moab visit without a Slickrock Trail loop!

It’s not a Moab visit without a Slickrock Trail loop!

Connecting the blue dots in Moab.

Connecting the blue dots in Moab.

We were welcomed to Fruita by a three-story banner of a mountain biker in action plastered to the side of a grain elevator towering over the small town. A sure sign that the community is on board! As we only had the day to check out the riding, we tried to maximize our efficiency and headed to the 18 Road trail system. We were not alone here, and for a mid-week day the parking lot was surprisingly busy. The trails were flowy and fun, and we looped back and forth underneath the Bookcliffs, sampling as much singletrack as we could possibly muster. We ended the day with amazing pizza at the Hot Tomato Café in town, a business born of the mountain bike boom, owned by mountain bikers, and a rad spot that definitely catered to the two-wheeled brethren.

Sampling the sweet singletrack of Fruita.

Sampling the sweet singletrack of Fruita.

Another late night drive (and more shady Taco Bell) took us to Park City, our last stop on this roadtrip. We had planned this stop based on some rumours, and a friend who promised great singletrack. I had not ever heard of the riding here, but was willing to give it a try. When we arrived it was obvious that Park City is ready to show the world what they have to offer. With over 400 miles (yes, 400) of trails, three lift-served bike parks (and some free public bus shuttle zones) this place is a mecca in the making. IMBA apparently knows how good it is here, and this year gave Park City the first (and so far, only) Gold Level Ride Center designation.

IMBA gold-level singletrack high above Park City

IMBA gold-level singletrack high above Park City

It was certainly golden in Park City, with vibrant fall colours from the aspens lining the long singletrack climbs and epic descents. We rode trails straight out of our condo, and did shuttles to 10,000 feet. The mix of trail styles was amazing. The main street indicated the level of commitment Park City had to mountain biking as well. Every lamp post was adorned in bike-focused slogans; “IMBA Gold Level,” “Epic Singletrack” and more. Money abounds in this wealthy area, but smart minds prevail also, and are not letting the mountain bike tourism opportunity pass them by.

Fall colours in Park City

Fall colours in Park City.

Real life was calling the desk jockeys on our road trip, and we sadly pulled up stakes and made the painfully long drive back to Canada. During the drive we had plenty of time to reflect on the impact that mountain biking is making in these small communities, and marveled at how Americans really do get behind whatever they believe is a good thing. Lucky for us, in these cases, it’s singletrack.

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Mountain Biking the Tour de Mont Blanc

October 23rd, 2013

 

The start (and end) of the Tour de Mont Blanc: Chamonix.

The start (and end) of the Tour de Mont Blanc: Chamonix.

I don’t like to admit to hastily-made plans or half-baked ideas, but this attempt of the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) was verging on that. I had done some previous research into the route, even including some first-hand accounts from friends who had done the trip before. It had been a jam-packed summer, and with a single day of rest between departing on the TMB and 18 days straight of bike guiding for Big Mountain Bike Adventures in the Swiss Alps, I hadn’t afforded myself much time to prepare mentally or physically for the task ahead. All I had was the commitment from a friend, Trevor Mitzel, to join me for the adventure, and a couple maps, which I hadn’t actually opened and looked at yet. I was winging it a bit, I know, but I was confident in our abilities to make it up as we went.

We arrived into Chamonix in the evening, the clouds boiling around Mont Blanc high above town. It was dismal looking weather, but a forecast promised nothing but blue skies and warm temperatures for the following week. Getting our gear and bikes dialed, we decided on our route, and even reserved a couple places to stay along the way. Things were starting to come together. All that was left was to saddle up and head out on the 160km loop that promised over 8000m of ascent along the way.

Day 1 – Chamonix to Les Chapieux

The weather man was right, and the morning sun highlights the upper reaches of Mont Blanc as we pack our bags and scurry around the village picking up essential trail food items (sausages, cheese, chocolate and bread). Spirits are high as we connect to gravel paths that take us down the valley, and towards Les Houches. Our lack of planning is made apparent when we arrive at the bottom of the lift station to find the lift running and open for bikes. We gladly use this bump up to ridgetop, happy with our unexpected elevation assist. Our smugness is quickly and efficiently wiped away for the rest of the day though, starting with a crucial juncture missed, sending us deep into the valley and resulting in an extra hour’s climb back up the road. Once the proper route is established we get a few kilometres respite before beginning a 1600 metre climb up the Col de Bonhomme, the ascent mostly consisting of steep dirt road or rocky hike-a-bike.

It's not all riding!

It’s not all riding!

The sun does little to warm us on the Col, and we are presented with another soul-crushing surprise, more climbing to the Col de Croix de Bonhomme, which is a seemingly endless series of ridges away. Finally achieving this last col, and feeling the effects of a large day on the bikes, we wobble our way down the descent to the Auberge de la Nova, a secluded refuge tucked in a remote valley far below. Dinner is hearty and delicious, and we retire early, slightly wary of the next day, and a little unsure of what we have gotten ourselves into.

Day 2 – Les Chapieux to Courmayeur

It’s amazing what a night’s rest will do. We awake stoked to tackle the day ahead, albeit stiff and sore. The climb up to the Col des Seigne (2,516m) is an arduous one, but mostly all climbable on the bike, which makes it enjoyable, in a masochistic kind of way. The views help too, with the sun rising on the broad valley where we had spent the night, and the Mt Blanc massif coming into sight as we crest the col. We had begun a tally to weigh the pros and cons of attempting this route on a bike, and where the hikers probably had won on Day 1, we were definitely winning today. The col marks the border between France and Italy, and the descent into Italy is welcomed. Italians seem to take less pride in their waterbar construction (years of riding in the Alps has made me a de-facto waterbar expert) and we have to negotiate numerous logs placed in awkward positions on the trail. Not enough to ruin the experience, but the flow of the trail is altered slightly. Descending into the valley is spectacular though, with big alpine walls on both sides, and glaciers yawning up above. As quickly as the TMB gives though, it takes away, and we steel ourselves for another climb, this one extending a mere 400m above the main valley. It is a deceiving 400m, as our legs feel like it is at least double. The reward is there though, with a ripping fast trail that descends to the top of the Courmayeur ski resort, and finally into the picturesque town below the ski runs.

Beauty views along the trail.

Beauty views along the trail.

My Kona Process and Osprey Manta 36 on the France/Italy border.

My Kona Process and Osprey Manta 36 on the Col de Seigne, the France/Italy border.

Day 3 – Courmayeur to La Fouly

The bikers definitely lose to the hikers on the climb out of Courmayeur. It is a rocky, steep affair all the way to the Rifugio Bertone, pushing/carrying our bikes the whole way. Once at the Refugio, a split in the trail requires a decision. One, a beautiful looking traverse around the corner, and on the map it looks like a fine, lower level option. The other route continues with the hike-a-bike, but promises some ridge-top singletrack and a peak to climb with the bikes. Being gluttons for punishment, we forgo the smooth-looking traverse and shoulder the bikes for more climbing. The climb pays off with unbelievable views and great trail once we get higher, but the ratio of riding to hiking is skewed the wrong way, and we regret our decision. We make our way off the ridge eventually and downclimb to the Col Sapin, and from there ride a fun trail that takes us back to the main route, the smooth, buffed trail we stupidly avoided. Oh well, next time. We soldier on up the stunningly beautiful and easily accessed (judging by the number of cars out for a Sunday drive) Val Ferret. Another giant climb is hiked up (we are really losing to the hikers today) and we look down into Switzerland from the Grand Col du Ferret (2537m). This is when we start winning again, with a sinuous descent that drops over 1000m down to the sleepy town of La Fouly. We check into a somewhat questionable auberge, but are treated to an amazing steak dinner, washed down with beer and wine.

Climbing high above Courmayeur with Mt Blanc in the background.

Climbing high above Courmayeur with Mt Blanc in the background.

Day 4 – La Fouly to Trient

With the skies still a perfect azure blue, the morning is a relaxing mix of singletrack and exploratory roads through quiet Swiss villages. We really start to feel like we’re on a bit of a bike holiday, rather than a sufferfest. The inevitable climbing begins eventually though, and we work our way out of the valley towards Champex Lac. Lunch is spent at a café by the lake, and we easily turn it into a two-hour stop, enjoying ourselves and soaking up the perfect September weather. The food sits a little heavy an hour later though, as we approach the base of the Bovine, a 700m wall of a climb. Appropriately named too, as all the cows had just been escorted out of the alpine for the winter, and the trail was left ravaged by cow shit and swarms of flies. We escape the Swiss agricultural tour eventually, and rip a long fast descent all the way into Trient.

Epic descent into La Fouly.

Epic descent into La Fouly.

Day 5 – Trient to Chamonix

While we probably could have squeezed more riding into Day 4 and pushed on to Chamonix, we did not feel the need to, given the amazing weather. Where else would we rather be? Day 5 is a bonus, and we mean to treat it as such, maybe go do a little exploring. With that in mind we stray from the normal TMB route, and even from the recommended variation route, and head out on a little ride. The little ride ends up turning into a gnarly hike-a-bike complete with bolted chains for safety, getting completely lost in the woods, and eventually finding some very rarely traveled-on singletrack. Despite our momentary lapse in route-finding, we have a great morning of riding, connecting long-forgotten trail that eventually takes us down to le Buet, at the north end of the Chamonix Valley. We now embark on the only planned part of our TMB adventure, a booze cruise hitting key pubs all the way into the town of Chamonix, where we continue to celebrate an amazing mountain bike trip.

A leisurely lunch in Champex Lac.

A leisurely lunch in Champex Lac.

The final climb to Chamonix, and our booze cruise.

The final climb to Chamonix, and our booze cruise.

 Story and photos by Osprey Athlete Joe Schwartz

 

 

 

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Riding in zee Alps, Italian Style

October 4th, 2013
Climbing up the tunnel next to the Mauvoisin Dam

Climbing up the tunnel next to the Mauvoisin Dam

Having recently wrapped up three weeks of guiding Big Mountain Bike Adventures trips in Switzerland, my mind is alight with multiple moments of adventure, almost too many to distill singular experiences from. It’s probably easier to just summarize an entire trip as a whole. And while  I was tempted to do this, there was, indeed, one particular day that stood out amongst all the others.

The stark contrast of this day is not so much about the riding itself. The ride did feature some spectacular singletrack, but the uniqueness of the day was more about how it allowed us to travel with our bikes. Travel in the sense of moving through terrain; achieving numerous objectives over the course of a day while focused on a final destination, one very different from the beginning of the adventure.

The day started cold and clear in Lourtier, our sleepy little homebase tucked into the postcard-perfect Val de Bagnes, Switzerland. I had made the executive decision to postpone this particular outing a couple of days due to a low freezing level and poor weather, and looking out the window at a splitter blue sky, I felt very self congratulatory and guide-like. Taking advantage of this perfect weather window, our group powered back a Swiss breakfast (mostly bread, cheese and meat) and headed out.

The climb begins as quintessentially as a Swiss climb should: in a tunnel. The tunnel bores up through the mountainside next to the Mauvoisin Dam, at 250 meters tall, it is the highest arched dam in Europe. The tunnel is faintly lit, with water seeping through the ceiling. We climb up the narrow dirt track, sporadically sniping sights of the dam and lake below us through small ports in the rock. Finally, the tunnel ends, and we emerge, blinking, into blinding sunlight on the other side, a fantastic view of mountains and water and glaciers and rivers spilling out in front of us. Inspired by the sight we bend into a grinding road climb that eventually gives way to an even more oppressive hike-a-bike that finally relents to a merely painful climb, all of this getting us closer to the Fenetre du Durand, a 2800m col that marks the border between Switzerland and Italy.

Into the merely painful part of the climb. Epic views though!

Into the merely painful part of the climb. Epic views though!

As we climb, the air becomes sharper, distilled by the last few days of freezing temperatures. The crisp air seems to bring out our surroundings in flawless relief. Snow-capped peaks tower above the distinct singletrack that stretches out in front of our tires, and as we crest the col, Italy beckons below, a different landscape perhaps only in perspective, but beckoning us onwards in perfect detail.

Approaching the col, with Mt Gele looming behind.

Approaching the col, with Mt Gele looming behind.

The ride down is a glorious amalgamation of flowy trail, technical rock features, and everything in between. While down is the general direction, we traverse through the valley for a long distance on a perfectly graded “bisse,” or ancient waterway designed to re-direct water from the glaciers to mid-mountain fields and towns. As we descend the air becomes warmer, as one would imagine it would, descending into Italy. It all seems so perfect.

Smooth Italian singletrack.

Smooth Italian singletrack.

The final descent is long and winding, on a rarely visited trail that recently revealed itself thanks to some keen map reading and some valuable local knowledge. We revel in the secrecy of the spot, shredding down the rolling singletrack. At one point the trail points down through a perfectly-spaced group of larch trees, the forest floor nothing but knee-high vibrant green grasses, the trail cutting a straight line through. The afternoon sun dapples the grass, as a light wind creates a wild kaleidoscope of light in front of our tires. Minds blown, we rocket through the trees and exit out on the road far below, coasting down to the Italian town of Aosta for eagerly awaited beers.

After spending the day bundled up in the high mountains, it is an abrupt change to find ourselves in the old town of Aosta. The sun is warm, and as we relax and drink beers we witness a perfect slice of Italian life unfold around us. The striking differences between our morning’s departure and where we are now help to gel the unique experiences of the day together, and we celebrate two-wheeled travel, Italian style.

Story and photos by Joe Schwartz, Osprey Athlete

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A Snippet of Singletrack: The BC Bike Race

August 8th, 2013

Eagles soar overhead, and I fixate on countless coves I wish to build my dream cabin on as we sail across the scenic Strait of Georgia to the isolated northern Sunshine Coast on the BC Ferries Queen of Burnaby. Powell River is a town that has ridden the tumultuous wave of boom and bust for years, starting when the first pulp mill was built there in 1908. With the last downturn in BC’s forestry industry, the town saw significant job cuts, and another cycle of depression. More recently, Powell River has turned to other forms of industry, such as eco-tourism. The BC Bike Race is the perfect fit, as proven by our reception upon arrival. We depart the ferry on foot, walking up the main street toward the start line, crowds of locals cheering us on. Tiny cheerleading squads toss each other in the air while teenage boys smash out rhythms on drums. Storeowners hand out watermelon to racers, while bagpipers stand at attention on a street corner. We make our way to the start line, which is also our campsite for the evening, located right beside the ocean on the green grass of the town park.

The singletrack of the day’s stage proves to be equally welcoming. We quickly dive into flowy singletrack winding through the temperate rainforest surrounding Powell River. The riding demands full concentration, but whenever I raise my focus from the task at hand I am rewarded with a beautiful view of a pristine lake, river or some other natural wonder. The community spirit overflows onto the trails as well. On the first of two timed Enduro sections of the day, hundreds of people line the freshly-built track called Death Rattle, yelling encouragement and smashing cowbells. There’s even one fellow railing out rock anthems on his guitar and battery-powered amp. The energy is electric as I rail turns down the mountain, carving up berms of dark coastal dirt, cascading my way through some of the most enjoyable trail I have ever ridden. The stage ends right where it began, next to the ocean, and many racers take advantage of that fact, soaking tired muscles in the cool waters of the Pacific.

That evening we convene for dinner at the local sports complex. The hockey rink is devoid of ice, and now features cloth-covered tables and silverware, complete with candles and decorative white lights adorning the sides of the rink. Girls on rollerskates float around serving local craft beer and wine while we dig into barbequed pork roast, shrimp and asparagus pasta, local organic veggies and caramel-glazed cake for dessert. While we loosen our belts and sit groaning from the herculean amounts of food we have just ingested, local talents hit the stage for the evening’s entertainment. The night is capped off when an awkward, chubby teenager shuffles on stage to sing. He starts off with Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You” and has the crowd on its feet cheering incredulously after the first few pitch-perfect notes, like a scene out of an American Idol audition. Later, as the sun sets over the ocean, and I fall asleep to the sound of waves on the shore, I marvel over how this was just one of seven amazing days of this race. Each day is an experience unto itself, and the whole week an incredible adventure.

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I Hate Road Trips

June 20th, 2013

Das Rad Haus owner Christine ripping on Xanadu in Leavenworth

I hate road trips. Especially trips to awesome new zones to go bike riding. They are a blur of teases: quick, sneaky peeks into great scenes that you previously didn’t even know existed. One short day of checking the area out, maybe a few if you’re lucky, and you are on to the next spot, fantasizing about pulling up stakes, quitting your job and moving to your new-found riding center of the universe. And if the road trip is anything like the one I just got back from, the next little haven you pull into will have the same effect, making you wonder just what life would be like if you never left this freshly-discovered Shangri-La of bicycling.

My girlfriend Rachel and I left from our home in Vancouver on a trip into Washington with four bikes and one goal: ride a lot. The plan was to minimize the driving by staying in one small corner of Washington State, and riding our road bikes and mountain bikes everyday in a new area. The loop we planned took us through the North Cascades National Park, through Winthrop, down the arid and beautiful Okanogan and Columbia River valleys, up over to Leavenworth, detouring over Stevens Pass to Snoqualmie, and finally back up to Bellingham to end off the six day excursion. No one day did we drive more than two hours, and every day we got in a scenic road ride and a sweet mountain bike ride (or two). In other words, six days of being teased and tantalized by some amazing areas in this part of the state.

The Loop

The path of most resistance.

Our schedule was simple: Wake up in our new locale, go for a morning road ride, eat breakfast, go for a mountain bike ride, eat a late lunch and head off to our next destination, usually making plans for the next time we found ourselves passing through that area again.

The roads in America are great, often much better than in Canada. Where we have a decrepit, pot-holed forestry road, Americans have a smooth winding strip of asphalt through some amazing country. We took advantage of this fact on the uber-scenic North Cascades drive, and on some memorable road rides through miles of orchards and vineyards in Chelan and Leavenworth, and along quiet country highways along the Methow and Snoqualmie Rivers.

Tuscany?

Nope, the rolling hills and smooth pavement of Lake Chelan.

Rachel is relatively new to mountain biking, and I have had mixed success with introducing her to the joys of riding. One decent pedal in Squamish is quickly overshadowed by a horror-fest of technical roots and rocks on the Shore, or a crazed B-Liner running her off a berm on his personal race to Strava glory. Washington gave up the goods for her, with a variety of trails that were a lot of fun for the both of us. Highlights included the Sun Mountain trails in Winthrop, the amazing variety of the Duthie Hill Bike Park near Seattle, the long climb but epic descent of Fruend Canyon in Leavenworth and the flowy goodness of Galbraith Mountain in Bellingham. I got out on a couple shreds as well, on a super cool ridgeline DH off of Chelan Butte, and a sweet rip down Xanadu in Leavenworth with some locals.

The towns beguiled us with their charms as well. Winthrop has gone with the Western theme, but pulled it off in fine style. As we walked up the main street taking in the views, Rachel noted: “Even the gas station is adorable!” Can’t argue with that. We had a quick peek into the potential of the Methow Valley, but barely scratched the surface. The fellows at Methow Cycle and Sport (a fine Kona dealer) alluded to many more singletrack epics up in the surrounding hills above Mazama and Winthrop. But, like any road trip, we shelved those ideas for later, and carried on.

Taking in the views on Echo Ridge, Chelan.

With my F.O.M.O. (Fear Of Missing Out) disorder going into overdrive from all the epic spots we were merely sampling, I almost blew a gasket once we arrived in Leavenworth. Two weeks, let alone our two days (actually only one night and a day) would not be enough to experience everything this town has to offer, once you look past the kitschy Bavarian theme that pervades every element of the main drag, including the McDonalds sign. It would take me at least a few days just to get through the menu at South, an amazing Mexican restaurant in town. Trails abound here, leading out of every corner of this alpen town. Rivers cascade out of the tight mountain valleys, climbable rock spires reach for the sky, and friendly locals (like the ones at Kona dealer Das Rad Haus) point visitors in the direction of the singletrack goods (while probably saving a few secret nuggets for themselves).

Ridge Ride

Taking in the views from the top of Xanadu

Fantasizing about our new lives in Leavenworth, we carried on our way, spoiling ourselves for a couple nights at the fancy Salish Lodge and Spa near Snoqualmie (thanks Groupon Getaway deal!) and riding the very unique and super fun Duthie Hill Bike Park, which is located just minutes from the Lodge. Coming to terms with the realization that we could not live in the Lodge full-time, we drove up to Bellingham to end off the trip with some fun exploration of the Galbraith Mountain trails, with a side trip to Boundary Bay Brewery for some eats, and Trader Joe’s to stock up on some cheap cheese and Two Buck Chuck.

So, like I mentioned, I hate road trips. Especially when they are as awesome as this one was.

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Forcing Nature at the Whistler Bike Park

May 23rd, 2013

I usually try to avoid the opening weekend of the Whistler Bike Park. Some reasons for my refusal to participate in this annual event are paltry, being that there are just a few muddy trails open, huge lines and the fact that other Sea to Sky venues are in mint shape this time of year, including, well, everywhere else.

All of that aside, I went this year. I think the Whistler Corp would like to hear that it was because of their barrage of marketing prior to the lifts firing up. Not really, although I did enjoy the first Force of Nature Video released before opening, featuring their motley bunch of bike athletes. The video shows riders carving perfect corners and lofting sculpted lips in what looks like epic mid-season conditions. Pretty convincing stuff, but the deciding factor for me was some good ‘ol fashioned arm-twisting by a group of buddies. A deal was struck where we worked out a balance of park and pedal, in a few Sea to Sky locations, over this Canadian long weekend.

It was a good decision. The bike park was all-time. The trail crew put in their due diligence, preparing almost every lower mountain trail in time for the gates to drop. The dirt was tacky and the riding was heroic. We had a casual start to the day, nothing like the kids who waited in line from 3 a.m. in order to secure first chair. The casual start was no hindrance though, as we were greeted by mellow lift lines that grew progressively larger over the afternoon. The wait in line was welcome though, as I could rest my cramping hands and catch up with friends. “How was your winter?” and “Epic conditions, eh?” were refrains echoing through the queue.

I had my own “Force of Nature” Friday night after a questionable chicken burrito wreaked havoc on my guts for the next 36 hours. I almost pulled the plug and hightailed back to Vancouver to recuperate, but the weekend was heading into high gear, so I decided hang around to see if things would improve.

The next day dawned wet and rainy, and my guts were still churning something fierce, so we abandoned the “official” opening day of the Park for a pedal in Squamish. A lush rainforest met us there, along with some fun new trails that magically sprung up over the winter, not unlike the mass proliferation of green undergrowth that appears with the spring rain.

The weekend was a blur of riding, eating and sleeping. My food poisoning waned, so with renewed energy I sampled more bike park, usually riding the lifts in the morning until the lift line got too oppressive, and then trading bikes for a pedal in the Whistler Valley or Pemberton. An amazing way to spend this Victoria Day long weekend!

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Canadian Mountain Ski Guide Full Exam

May 6th, 2013

Exams are tough. Whether they’re your first driver’s test, an important midterm or a job-dependent physical exam, they all force you to lay it on the line. There is no hiding behind feigned indifference, or deferral to a more knowledgeable friend. It is you, the challenge laid out, and the raw truth of what knowledge or physical prowess you have amassed up to then.

To be a student and attempt an exam is normal; the risk of failure is part of the learning process, and is a generally accepted part of educational progression. But the Canadian Mountain Ski Guide (run through Thompson Rivers University for the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides) exam process has a distinct difference. Candidates go into their exam identifying as ski guides already. The risk of failure is compounded by that negative result outing you as an unworthy guide, which is as crushing an assertion as anything to people who have worked so hard to get where they are already, and by all accounts are very capable of safely guiding clients through the mountains. This “what if” outcome is always close by, reminding us, the candidates, to train harder and prepare more thoroughly for the upcoming exam. Maps are pored over, techniques refined and ski miles are pounded in. We visit the exam area, scouting potential routes daily, hypothesizing over different examiner approaches to a particular situation. The evenings are spent discussing more potential exam options, every candidate with their own opinion of how things will unfold. Everyone is fueled along by their own “what if” scenario, adding to the general group stress and anxiety. The weeks before the exam generally unfold like this: The focus is singular, creating a mad sort of efficiency, all of the candidates striving towards one goal, the successful completion of the exam.

In many ways we are no different from law students preparing for the bar, or firefighters with their physical tests. All of this preparation has come down to one week in the mountains with my fellow candidates and examiners. We are now up to the challenge, skills honed from weeks of training and years in the mountains. The pressure lies in putting together seamless days back to back. One great lead is not enough. The next day we need to put together another great lead, and the following day, and the day after that. The singular focus remains from training and all other worldly worries melt away. All that matters is the day in front of us. The stress of all our prior assumptions disappears as well, as now this exam is a reality, and we are actually out there, skiing in some wild places. The proper reasons for embarking on this crazy process come flooding back, as I top out on another Rocky Mountain peak, a vast expanse of mountainous terrain expanding before me. “What exam?” I think, as we lay turns between massive rock walls, sinuous pathways of powder cascading far down below into the valley.

The longest week of my life somehow quickly comes to a close. We are now left to reflect on the week, wondering what we would have done differently, if anything at all. Feeling thankful for a pretty much perfect week of weather and conditions with a great group of candidates, I now allow my body to start recovering from an intense winter season of guiding and training and begin a new stressful period: waiting for the official results of the exam to be mailed out in a couple of weeks.

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The State of Enduro Racing: Is It The Next Big Thing?

August 14th, 2012

The beauty of Enduro racing can be found on the transition stages with friends: riding along and enjoying the day.

I should preface this piece by stating that I am not an experienced Enduro racer, but rather one that has participated in several races, and likes the idea of a race that is like a ride with friends, but against the clock in the fun sections. The burgeoning excitement over this new style of racing is contagious, but I am unsure of whether to completely jump on the bandwagon of those claiming it’s the next big thing. Is it the next big thing? Can it dethrone the juggernauts that are DH racing and XC?

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Kamloops Reminiscing: Getting Back To The Roots of Freeride

June 22nd, 2012

Stephen Matthews catching the last rays of the day.

I was invited along for a weekend of riding in the Kamloops by a small crew led by Seb Kemp, who was writing a story on the Loops for Dirt Magazine, and Reuben Krabbe, who was capturing the images for the article. I had not been to Kamloops in a long while, focusing my travels on other parts of BC, and more exotic locales in the previous few years. I feel strong ties to that arid part of the province though, having spent many weeks there in the early days of my freeride career, shooting for the New World Disorder movies and getting into the youthful trouble that seemed to follow our film shoots around in those days.

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Singletrack Report: McKenzie River Trail

May 30th, 2012

Much of the trail runs next to the rushing river, creating a unique juxtapostion between the water and dirt.

The McKenzie River Trail (the MRT) is situated in Central Oregon, on the west side of the Cascades. This mountain range, predominantly made up of dormant and not-so-dormant volcanoes, does an efficient job of stopping the moisture from the Pacific Coast. On the west side you have temperate rainforests and old growth timber, and a stones throw to the east you are exploring an arid desert-like landscape. The MRT, being on the west side of the volcanoes, features towering Douglas fir, mossy forest floors, a raging river (complete with big waterfalls) and a cool climate. Apparently it rains frequently, but it was nice and dry for our visit down this renowned trail.

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