It’s 10 a.m. and I’m strapping on armour for what I’m pretty sure should prove the best day at work I’ve ever had. Then it hits me: I’m finally getting to try downhill mountain biking.
The morning I hit the Silver Star Bike Park, I am roughly 12 to 15 years into a “I’m going to get to that one day” commitment to try careening down a muddy alpine trail looking like Darth Vader on wheels.
My first bike, as an adult, was a Rocky Mountain Fusion. Much to my chagrin, it’s often listed on the Craigslist-style pedal portal PinkBike.com as “retro.”
It’s my commuter option these days. I own three bikes: a Wal-Mart cruiser, commuter beast and a scratched to death, heavy as sin and even uglier than that road bike.
Needless to say, I ride a lot; although, none of my bikes cost more than $1,000 new and, admittedly, my road bike was a steal of a deal. In my youth, I like to think I was a decent cross-country rider ready for some relaxed trails. Now, old enough to say no to weird offers that might be fun but are equally likely to get me killed, I’m a very decent bike commuter who dreams of flying down dirty hairpins rather than the odd harrowing dust-up with a truck in the right-turn lane.
Silver Star made it happen. By the end of this day, I would be able to say I saw a bear, slid effortlessly over some narrow wood features, felt the wind in my hair traversing a wildflower encrusted meadow—okay, I felt a breeze on the small strip of leg not covered by protective gear— and flew over the handlebars slamming face-first into gravel.
The latter event actually happened in the first minute or so, as we headed across the hill toward the lifts to load up to the top of the mountain.
A 43-pound bike does not react quite the same as my thin road tires—or the commuter or my cruiser—and while I’m always up for a challenge, and pretty athletic, I never learn anything quickly.
“I can do this. I really do bike,” I keep telling my gracious—if clearly concerned he had just destroyed the woman sent to write about his mountain—host Ian Galbraith, Silver Star summer business manager.
In a rather stunning turn of events, and with a fair bit of patience from Galbraith, I actually do make it to blue-level runs by the end of two hours and love it.
Where this seemingly daunting sport might only appear to be in the adrenalin junky’s arena, bike parks present almost anyone with the ability to learn in a staged process that takes a rider from green to blue to black runs, just as one would find on a ski hill. It is very possible to develop a manageable learning curve that makes great strides seem effortless.
Bruises are trophies on a mountain and great stories to tell over a beer; but if Galbraith’s claim that they’ve had people who couldn’t ride a bike challenge the trails is true, this could very well be the next big thing in Okanagan tourism.
Silver Star opened for mountain biking in the early 1990s, but re-opened as this Whistler-style, graduated system of groomed trails in 2004, on the heals of what the Whistler museum terms the “behemoth growth” of the sport.
The bike park is now the big attraction in Whistler come summertime, filling the village with hordes of spokes, chains and full-face helmets and making the place appear equally busy to winter on weekends.
Given the relatively inexpensive cost of running a bike park—less staff, less grooming and less water—it’s a business model that really adds value to a hill, even on a small scale, Galbraith tells me.
Whistler has managed to turn this into a $27.4 million revenue boost, not even an eighth of the resort’s total revenue in 2012, but decent gravy nonetheless.
Considered the groundbreaker in the sport, opening that park 15 years ago set the stage for Fernie, Panorama, Sun Peaks and Silver Star to follow suit.
Silver Star is the biggest of the four new developments with 18 distinct runs and a growing program of lessons and camps.
On the day I am there, professional riders Matt Hunter and Thomas Vanderham were on site teaching a camp of 37 young riders, aged 12 to 17, how to grow their skills safely on the mountain.
“I don’t know exactly what it was when I was younger that really grabbed me about cycling, but it just allows for a lot of creativity and a lot of freedom,” says Vanderham, a free-ride star known for his on-camera performance and spots in competitions like Red Bull Rampage.
“I like being outside, I like being in the mountains, I think it’s a great way to enjoy British Columbia,” he adds.
In his case, the province has hardly proved a boundary. Riding in Italy, China and Argentina last year alone, he’s spent 13 years in a dream career.
He and Hunter really wanted to offer a camp to give kids in the Interior the same access to the sport as those on the Coast and Silver Star worked it out for the pair.
Like many physically demanding, risk-taking sports, men dominate downhill mountain biking.
There were only two girls in the Elevate Camp—two of the best riders, Vanderham notes—although, just as we’re discussing this the third or fourth pack of women in in their 30s and early 40s walk by, armoured up with only the odd touch of pink on one woman’s jersey.
Just as in snowboarding, women tend to take more lessons, carefully learning the sport before heading out on the mountain to fly over the handlebars and I just might do the same.
Whether trail running, zip-lining or biking, it would seem there is plenty more to do in the Okanagan outdoors touring more relatives through wineries. I know this is one sport that will definitely draw me back.