Once a resort destination pastime, bike tourism has become big business for cities too, fuelled by the growing acceptance of bikes as part of the urban fabric
A leggy blonde girl in a blue T-shirt and jean shorts waves the starting flag and two 20-something guys in full-face helmets and body armour throw themselves down the steep slope on bikes worth more than any car I’ve ever owned. A blink later they’re flying down the mountain, sometimes pedalling to go even faster, other times bouncing off wooden walls or launching off jumps and hanging suspended in mid-air in fancy manoeuvres that send the announcer into paroxysms of excitement. Several more rapid breaths and one rider cruises to victory, the other losing control and crashing in a spectacular cloud of brown dust. He emerges with a big grin and a bloody forearm. The throng around me erupts into adrenaline-fuelled yells of appreciation. This is day two of the 2012 Crankworx Whistler Freeride Mountain Bike Festival, a 10-day celebration of extreme bike riding held each August.
A film crew materializes at the Skiers’ Plaza in Whistler Village and swoops in to talk with the contenders. A big screen at the base of the bike park carries the interview live. It’s been flickering all day, streaming races live and filling gaps with replays of big-air moments dating back several decades. An on-site audiovisual tent and fibre-optic network—the latter an Olympic legacy—handle timekeeping and live webcasting. Energy drink giant Red Bull is a major sponsor, as are Jeep and Bud Light, whose massive inflatable can now sits awkwardly at the ranger station abandoned by original beer partner Kokanee. A number of bike manufacturers peddle full-suspension machines made of carbon fibre and priced just shy of $10,000. That’s also the top prize of the tournament: $10,000 for the winner of the Jeep Canadian Open DH, described by event organizers as the world’s biggest purse in downhill mountain biking.
Just the same, the cyclists I spot this weekend aren’t all Red Bull-guzzling adrenaline junkies. Not even close. Walking around the village, I also find plenty of baby boomers battling their mid-life crises with shiny road bikes instead of sports cars. Then, loitering around some bike racks, I spy a good variety of hipsters parking indeterminate two-wheelers—less flashy sports equipment, more personal transportation devices. Down the road, a few visiting couples meander by on rented cruiser bikes with fat tires and cushy saddles. In all, the resort is an interesting microcosm of all types of bicycling, from the realm of sport—the traditional stronghold of North American bicycle culture—to the world of utility cycling, whose proponents include policy-makers, planners, economists and healthy living advocates all plugging bicycles as tools to make smart cities richer and their citizens fitter and happier.
To find out more about the sports side of the equation, I meet Crankworx general manager Darren Kinnaird at a bar at the foot of the bike park. A seasoned downhill mountain biker right down to handlebar calluses on his hands and pedal wounds on his legs, the lean, middle-aged Kinnaird says Crankworx is a crucial financial property for the resort. He says it costs more than a million dollars a year to put the festival on and organizers are keen to repeat it every year even though it barely breaks even.
“We are a business and it is a Whistler Blackcomb property. We’ve always felt that events are a great way to tell a story of the experiences and products we have to offer,” he says. “It’s been a really good long-term business builder for us. It’s marketing, but for this 10-day period we also drive a pile of people up here. They’re staying in hotels, they’re eating in restaurants, they’re going to bars, they’re buying stuff.”
The spinoffs have been significant enough for the festival to expand into Europe last summer as Crankworx Les 2 Alpes, a week-long prequel to the domestic competition and a chance to push the brand in France and beyond: Kinnaird expects the partnership with Red Bull Media House to deliver more than a million views of this year’s live webcasts and video downloads around the world.
A bride and groom arrive at the bar with their wedding party in tow, many wearing their protective gear and still sweaty from a ceremony in the bike park. Kinnaird laughs as I use the microphone to shoo away friendly arrivals gravitating to the leather couches we’re monopolizing in the corner of the noisy patio. It’s no use. Soon it’s too loud to hear anything over celebratory clinking and conversing. “This will be the busiest 10 days of the summer in Whistler for sure,” Kinnaird says with a grin as we leave the bar and part ways.