BY JASON NORMAN
WHISTLER, British Columbia—Yes, there are many great places to ride mountain bikes throughout the world. Perhaps none, however, hold the cachet of British Columbia’s North Shore.
It’s a place steeped in bike history. It might not have given birth to the sport of mountain biking like California’s Marin County, but North Shore surely helped spur a certain style of riding for an entire generation of riders, and a certain type of product for a host of North Shore manufacturers.
“What makes it different [than any other place] is that the mountains are steep and rugged with a lot of trees lying down, so to make trails there is difficult and the end results are difficult trails [to ride],” said Richie Schley, a racing pioneer of the freeride movement. “The people that are into it have embraced it and so it has become a way for them. It is the place to measure your skills against the toughest riding in the world.”
Many of today’s younger riders only know British Columbia for Whistler Mountain Bike Park that opened eight years ago, but North Shore riding existed several years before.
“North Shore was bigger and more legendary before the bike park because I think the bike park stole the thunder of the North Shore,” Schley said. “However, I do think the bike park has helped evolve the trails on the Shore to be more fast and flowing. The history of the Shore is the same as it is today, the gnarliest trails in the world.”
Whistler’s vice president of business development Rob McSkimming, who has been instrumental in making the park the world’s best, said Northshore riding pre-exists the park by a good five years.
There is a definite connection, McSkimming said, between North Shore riding and current bike technology, and the current state of park riding. “North Shore riding or freeriding or freeriders begat bigger-travel bikes and other technological advances, which eventually—although I would argue a long time coming—begat the type of riding experiences we’re building in the park.”
Many players have made the North Shore into what it is today—companies like Brodie, Cove, Kona, Norco and Rocky Mountain and riders like Wade Simmons, Thomas Vanderham, Brett Tippie, Jay Hoots and Schley to name a few. But perhaps one of the most influential bodies in preserving the trails has been the North Shore Mountain Bike Association.
“Although the North Shore riding style did influence what may have been built at Whistler, Whistler is a corporate response to freeriding in general,” said Mark Peterman, director of product for GT Bicycles. “It’s a reproducible formula while the North Shore scene will never be replicated anywhere else in the world.”
Geographically speaking, Peterman said, the scene consists of five mountains on the North Shore of the Burrard Inlet, which separates Vancouver from North Vancouver. It includes Cypress Mountain, Mt. Fromme, Mt. Seymour, Eagle Mountain and Burke Mountain. Also included, but more to the east and south, are The Woodlot, Sumas and Vedder Mountains.
Like many “scenes” in the mountain bike culture, whether it be the aforementioned Marin, Colorado’s Durango and Crested Butte or Utah’s Moab, there’s a mix of culture, technology and personalities that have to meet in a certain way and at a certain time to create that unique symbiosis that allows a scene to develop, Peterman said.
“The North Shore is an example of unallied yet connected entities agreeing on a certain style of riding and then going about evolving this style into what we now know as ‘North Shore,’” Peterman said, “which I would define as based around the key attributes of flow, balance and risk.”
Vancouver also plays a huge role in the definition of North Shore style. “No other mountain bike scene in the world has as one of its key components arguably the coolest city in the world,” Peterman said.
Norco public relations and marketing manager Peter Stace-Smith said other places today are trying to copy the structural innovation—with ladder bridges, logs and other natural man-made obstacles—that has been theNorth Shore’s calling card throughout its evolution.
Simply put, no one does it better than the North Shore when it comes to these obstacles. And, in large part, the same can be said about bikes. Those early North Shore companies like Norco have a leg up on the U.S. competition when it comes to building bikes specifically for North Shore riding.
“We’ve been building bikes for the Shore since the early ’90s,” Stace-Smith said. “The North Shore is 20 minutes from our office, right in our backyard. There are a lot of bikes that we destroyed on the Shore. Specialized, Giant, Trek—they came 7 to 8 years later [to the North Shore].”
Most Norco bikes are built specifically for North Shore, which means they have thicker headtubes and downtubes, sloping toptube with a high standover, are spec’d with fatter tires, rims and flat pedals, and weigh a little extra for durability.
“The North Shore has definitely influenced us on the bike side,” said Gabe Fox, Cove’s marketing manager.
Fox said early cross-country racing bikes hatched in the United States weren’t fairing too well on the rugged and sometimes brutal North Shore terrain.
“The bikes just weren’t standing up,” Fox said. “They just weren’t standing up to the rigors of the riding.”
Shortly thereafter, in the early ’90s, Cove introduced a titanium hardtail that could stand up to the North Shore.
“You watch the evolution and you build things to that evolution,” Fox said of the North Shore.
Having the North Shore for a backyard makes for a convenient and worthy testing ground. Just ask World Cup cross-country vet and Rocky Mountain media relations agent Andreas Hestler.
“When the whole [North Shore] thing started, we were riding traditional bikes—hardtails, rigid front forks, toe clips,” he said.
When Rocky Mountain saw broken bikes coming back for repair, the company decided it was time to act. “We would have 50 warranties from the North Shore and three from the rest of the world,” Hestler said. “We had to burly them up. Most companies will now do their testing at Whistler.
“It’s like surfing in Hawaii,” Hestler said. “You go to where the culture is bike.”