Looking back at the history of mountain biking in Whislter

Last week saw the opening of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park - an exciting event for all those who have been missing their downhill biking fix.

I first came to this town in 2008, and so for me, the bike park has always been a integral part of what Whistler is - it feels like its always been here, right? In fact the park is only 14 years old. For me this seems incredibly young for a huge infrastructure with global recognition. On the other hand, if one considers that the dual suspension mountain bike was only introduced in 2002 then one begins to see how starting a downhill mountain bike park in 1999 was visionary.

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It was certainly small in its first year. There were around 11,000 visitors and only a handful of trails. Tom Radke recalls the response from riders in 1999: "Right away people pretty much demanded: 'That's it? That's all you got?' "

It was only a few years after the park's opening when the powers that be realized that it was a viable business model that the funds to build the incredible network of trails we have today started to kick in.

Another major problem was simply that the mountain bike world wasn't ready for what Whistler was up to. Bike design and the general riding ability of the mountain biking community had to catch up before the park could become commercially viable, so fuelling the growth of the sport was part of the game-plan from the beginning.

Scoring gear sponsors for the rental shop was extremely important because equipment wasn't cheap. It almost didn't work out, as Tom Radke actually made the first sponsor connection on an airplane leaving Las Vegas after a completely unsuccessful trip to the Interbike Conference. Whistler Bike Park simply didn't have the cachet that it does today. "People would ask me 'Where? The Whistler Bike Park? Never heard of it.' "

Although Whistler's global recognition as a mountain bike destination was clearly not in place at the inception of the park, there was certainly plenty of mountain biking going on prior to 1999. Backroads Mountain Bike Adventures had been offering guided mountain bike tours since 1985. Founder Richard Kelly recalls of those early days: "Most of the visitors had never seen a mountain bike, let alone ridden one".

They must have done a good job promoting the sport, as by 1988 a journalist from Mountain Biking Magazine was clearly blown away by the fact that people in Whistler weren't gawping when a group of mountain bikers rolled into town. "They'd all ridden into town on mountain bikes" he reported excitedly, as if this was an unbelievable concept.

In the last 30 years Whistler's mountain bike scene has evolved from an unheard of sport to a world-class Mecca with 200 kilometers of bike park trails and countless kilometers of cross country. Let's see what the next 30 years will bring.

Sarah Drewery is the executive director of the Whistler Museum.

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