By Justin Steiner, action photos courtesy of Sterling Lorence and Shimano.
Whistler Bike Park has long been the Mecca for gravity riders thanks to its lore as the end-all-be-all of downhill riding. I know, because my heart raced like a sugar-addled 4-year old when I learned I had been invited to Shimano’s 2013 Saint press launch there this year. Like most gravity riders, Whistler has been high, if not on top of my bucket list for quite some time.
Last year, Whistler hit a major landmark; their one-millionth visitor rolled through the doors to shred down the mountain. Crunch those numbers and you’ll find it’s just shy of 83,000 visitors a year on average. That’s a staggering number considering the next biggest competitior is said to be somewhere around the 350,000 mark for total visitation. In some ways, it’s no surprise Whistler is so far ahead of the game; these folks popularized the bike park movement as we know it.
For those not familiar, Whistler’s mountain has historically consisted of two areas; the lower Fitzsimmons Zone with 1,200 feet of elevation loss and the upper Garbonzo Zone which drops 2,200.
There’s a third zone at the very top of the mountain, called the Peak Zone, that has traditionally only been open to mountain bikers touring with a hired guide. For the 2012 riding season, their 13th bike park season, Whistler has opened up this highest portion of the mountain to public bike access for the first time.
The Peak Zone’s 1,100 feet of vertical stacked upon the Fitzsimmons and Garbonzo Zones brings the park’s total elevation loss to a staggering 4,926 feet. According to Whistler, the Peak Zone now offers the first lift-accessed alpine singletrack in North America. Plans are currently in place to develop a multitude of high alpine mountain bike trails within this peak zone in the future. For the time being, there will be a daily maximum of 100 riders allowed into the Peak Zone after purchasing a $15 ticket upgrade to gain access. Peak Zone is projected to open mid-July. What an experience this will be!
My trip to the Mecca was just two weeks prior to the Garbonzo Zone’s official opening, so I was able to focus on learning the extensive trail network within the Fitzsimmons Zone. It was interesting to me just how much burlier Whistler’s trails are compared to everything I’ve ridden on the eastern portion of this fine country. The natural trails are steeper, rockier, and more challenging, while the jump lines are simply bigger. The iconic A-line was a thrill a minute, pushing me beyond my comfort zone just a bit thanks to large tables with steep lips that totally obscured most landings.
This trip to Whistler taught me quite a few lessons, so I’ll share what I learned:
- Plan a trip late enough in the season (mid-July through September) to ensure all of the mountain’s zones are open.
- Plan on staying a whole week if possible. There are so many trails and they’re all so amazing. Having lots of time will also encourage you to rest and recover sufficiently.
- Ride your local park or gravity trails as much as possible leading up to your trip to make sure you’re in the best park fitness you can muster. Whistler’s demanding terrain and overall elevation loss will work even the hardest of hardcore riders.
- Spend hours in the weeks and months prior to your trip strengthening your grip with a squeeze ball or gripper device. Whistler’s braking bumps will test your ability to hang onto the bars!
- Buy yourself a skills lesson while you’re there from a coaching/guide service like Endless Biking. This treat will advance your skills greatly.
- Ride within your means to maximize your time on the mountain. Traveling that distance only to hurt yourself on day one would be a bummer.
- Come prepared for wet and rainy conditions. Whistler gets a lot of precipitation every year, but the tracks hold up to moisture quite well so due come prepared to ride in the rain.
With the above points in mind, anyone and everyone can have an amazing experience in Whistler. There’s such a clear progression of trails for all ability levels, I guarantee everyone visiting Whistler will progress their riding ability greatly.
Here’s some of the great shots from the Saint media lanuch, courtesy of Shimano and photographer Sterling Lorence.
Saint rider Matt Hunter styles a techy rock section.
Mike Hopkins displays proper whip form. Maybe someday…
Geoff Gulevich airs out on the way down to Whistler Village.
Matt Hunter leads down one of Whistler’s many rock faces.
True style: Andrew Shandro shows us proper form and style during a typical moist Whistler day.