Vancouver 7 Gifts III: Freeriding

Photo: andy_c

In the beginning was the mud. And it was a mess. From that simple fact of life among North Shore trails was born a revolution in mountain biking: freeriding.

Nobody in North Vancouver was really trying to transform the sport at first. As far as I can tell, the problem was that when it rains, trails get muddy. There are lots of techniques for designing drainage into a trail, but on the North Shore, there were inevitably bits of some trails that were so fragile or mud-prone that no amount of drainage structure would save them.

So some genius, probably Dangerous Dan or Digger, put up a little wood structure to cover over the vulnerable section of trail. Then someone traversed a gap in a trail by using an aptly-placed log, and then things started getting silly.

Before long, these little bits of trail maintenance started to become the featured parts of trails. Bridges, log rides, and various other features (collectively, these un-natural obstacles became known as “stunts”) stopped being ways of reducing trail erosion, and instead became the entertainment. Eventually, it led here…

…and by no means did it stop there. By recent standards, that stunt would probably be considered a moderate one, at best. Add three feet of height and a more constrained landing area, or perhaps a skinny 50-foot log-ride approach to the drop, and then it might be hard.

Although the style of trail-building has now traveled around the world, this movement was born in North Vancouver, and its mecca remains North Vancouver. The freeride style of riding transformed the kinds of mountain bikes serious mountain bikers bought: before freeriding, the key inspiration was cross-country mountain bike racing. Somewhere around 1998, the freeride movement drove makers to start rethinking downhill bikes, and start building equipment more specifically built around these technical Shore trails with their tricky, consequential lines and lunatic jumps and drops.

Off the top of my head, at least four different local bike makers have made their international reputations by building Shore bikes: Norco, Rocky Mountain, Kona, and Cove. The movement has mutated into such strange forms as mountain bike parks at Whistler and numerous other ski resorts worldwide, freeride competitions, and after the bikes got insensibly heavy, it re-crossed with cross country to emerge as all mountain riding, a designation for bikes too heavy to race, too light to drop ten-feet to flat landings, but with some of the best of both worlds.

Mountain biking continues to mutate, and trends will ebb and flow (the latest thing is 29ers, which have little to do with freeriding of any sort, and “street” mountain bikes, which attempt to bring freeriding to the urban playground) but the North Shore endures as a world-class mountain biking destination, and the single place on the planet that had the most influence on the development of the sport over the last ten years.

[Here’s where I post my beg for someone to send me towards a really concise history of freeriding, including who to credit for constructing the early stunts and trails, and a clearer timeline of when that was happening. The stuff I’ve written here is, to the best of my ability, accurate; it’s just more vague about the particulars than I’d like].

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