Twenty-some years ago, a small cohort of crazed cyclists skidded their way down the white silt cliffs outside Kamloops, in the Thompson-Okanagan region of south-central British Columbia. Mountain biking had just entered the Olympics; racing was ascendant. But this was something altogether different.
Not since Marin County hippies bombed cruiser bikes down dirt roads some twenty years before that had the sport of mountain biking changed so fundamentally. Together with similar enclaves in the Kootenays and the North Shore of Vancouver, free riding was born.
Today the Thompson-Okanagan region remains at the forefront of gravity-based biking. Brett Rheeder, this year’s winner of the Redbull Rampage, the Super Bowl of freeriding, calls SilverStar Bike Park, near Vernon, his home hill; several of his competitors in the invite-only competition hail from the Okanagan. It’s likely little coincidence that the sport’s marquee event, although based in Utah, is held on a landscape remarkably similar to that Kamloops dirt.
Visit the region’s lift-served bike parks and it’s not hard to see why it produces world-class riders. Here is the future of bike park design. Gone is hand-hacked singletrack; in is machine-built trails with big, bike-dwarfing berms and manicured, precisely sculpted jumps.
Despite the rowdy nature of the trails, the Okanagan bike parks give off a laid-back, low-key vibe. Absent is the agro attitude that has occasionally plagued the downhill scene. Here there’s a home-hill bonhomie where all are welcome—the patrollers, the park rats, the first-timers, and the old-timers.
BIG WHITE BIKE PARK
Despite its proximity to the birthplace of freeriding, Big White Ski Resort, near Kelowna, didn’t have a bike park until the summer of 2017. But Big White Bike Park has made up for lost time, applying decades of dirt-moving knowledge to the construction of its trails. The crew from LOFT Pike Parks, a build crew on the cutting edge of trail design, has shown what’s possible with a blank slate.
“We are incredibly lucky to be entering the bike park game at this point,” says Luc Gaudet. Gaudet, a member of the Bike Patrol team since the park’s inception, is also involved with trail construction and maintenance, including the slopestyle course in Happy Valley.
“Sustainable building practices have been the biggest lesson in bike park construction over the last decade or so,” says Gaudet. “The changes in geometry and most importantly wheel sizes have changed the physics of how we need to approach building a modern park, particularly with jump and turn radius shapes and sizes.”
But the work the build crew, in conjunction with LOFT, has put in shows: even green runs such as Pry Bar boast big, beginner-friendly berms and low-consequence doubles.
What started off as a handful of trails in the abbreviated season of 2017 continues to grow, with black flow trail Dark Roast, whipping riders down the lower half of the mountain on a series of massive step-up and tabletop jumps. Meanwhile, Bermslang coils big turns one on top of the other.
Gaudet’s enthusiasm for the bike park is infectious; his favorite trail is always the one he’s just about to ride. “Rock Hammer into Dark Roast is the current owner of my heart,” says Gaudet. “It has everything: above-tree-line alpine with stellar rock formations, then spitting you onto a brown highway all the way the bottom.”
Gaudet also gushes about the full unveiling of The Joker, the massive, gasp-inducing jump line featured in the Red Bull film “Rhythm.” Designed by local freeride pro Bas van Steenbergen before the bike park even opened its gates, The Joker opens to the public for the 2019 season.
Big White Bike Park is unique in the region in that it extends into true alpine. From the 7,057-foot top of the Bullet Express, double blacks Rock Hammer and Catapult Ranch lead with granite slabs into immaculate dirt with sight lines all the way to the base area and to the Monashee Mountains in the east—should you take your eyes off the trail.
“The quality of our rocks is also something to be spoken of,” says Gaudet. “It has an incredible amount of grip that allows it to be ridden with some confidence in even wetter conditions.”
Down below, in Happy Valley, the LOFT crew has carved out a pro-level slopestyle park of monolithic jumps. Mere mortals can test their skills on a slimmed-down version of the pro line, which is only open for competitions. Make no mistake: even the “amateur” line is intense.
Says Gaudet, “More than anything, we are aiming for a world-class experience from the first-day rider up to the professional.”
SILVERSTAR BIKE PARK
If you’ve watched a mountain bike film in the last ten years, you’ve seen SilverStar Bike Park. This park, near Vernon, about ninety minutes north of Big White, goes big. The resort’s Comet Six Pack Express—Canada’s longest mountain bike chairlift—climbs 1,600 vertical feet and accesses over 600 berms and more than 300 jumps on 30 miles of downhill trails. The cross-country crowd needn’t feel left out since the park features roughly the same mileage in pedal-friendly trails. Oh, and the wildflowers are legendary—not that you’ll notice.
Gently rounded as opposed to Big White’s slabby summit, SilverStar makes the most of its elevation and the “magic dirt” of its open meadows and loamy forest. Their terrain allows SilverStar’s builders to finesse the trails rather than simply fighting the fall line.
“We don’t have a lot of rock features at SilverStar, but what the trail crew has done is use the rock that is there to its best ability,” says SilverStar team rider Jesse McClintock, who winters at Mike Weigele Heli Skiing as a guide.
“If you are looking for some technical bike-punishing trails, then my favorite would be Dag’s Downhill,” adds McClintock. “It’s the race for the BC Cup Downhill series. Lots of rock, rock drops, and fast tree sections on this trail. It really keeps your heart rate maxed out!”
Crystal Townsend, a SilverStar team downhill rider and bike instructor here, says that SilverStar is the best place she’s coached at because there’s a natural progression of trail difficulty. It culminates in Walk the Line and its wall rides with 15-foot gaps and mandatory doubles.
Adds McClintock, “I love the intermediate trail called Super Star because it is pretty mellow, but you can really dial in your skills before heading to the bigger jump/flow runs like Walk the Line or Pipe Dream, both of which are rowdy.”
Here as at its neighbors, though, the mountain offers instruction ranging from half-day sessions to weeklong skills camps, so flatlanders and freeriding first-timers need not be intimidated. That’s a feeling that extends beyond the confines of the skills camps too. “The community here [includes] some of the most friendly people I’ve ever met,” says McClintock. “They make you feel at home and will gladly show you around or help you out if they can. I’ve met some life long friends up here.”
SUN PEAKS BIKE PARK
British Columbia’s second-largest ski resort, Sun Peaks Resort, hosts the province’s second-oldest, lift-served bike park, just behind Whistler—this year marks its 20th anniversary. In many ways this bike park just north of Kamloops retains the feel of an elder statesman, with steep, rowdy, and rocky hand-hewn singletrack reminiscent of downhill’s late-90s arms race.
But the builders at Sun Peaks have begun adding some machine-built trail for modern riding. The showpiece Steam Shovel speeds off the Sunburst chair into a corkscrewing progression of berms and jumps. With no mandatory drops or big gaps, intermediate riders can safely roll through any features. An as-yet unnamed green trail provides a solid thirty minutes of smooth, sinuous descending of machine-built tread from Sunburst down to the lodge.
Sun Peaks-sponsored rider Gabe Neron is younger than the bike park, and even though he only crossed over to mountain biking from the moto world four years ago, he embodies the old-school bike park riding mentality.
“[The park] has still got the rocks, roots and free-ride background to it,” says Neron. “We’re working toward building more of the machine-built, flowy stuff, but we’re definitely interested in keeping the raw, old-school flavor that Sun Peaks is all about.”
For a rider with eyes set on qualifying for the World Cup, Sun Peaks is an ideal training ground. “If I go to another resort where the course is a little easier, I’ve got the background where I can go down the steepest, gnarliest stuff,” says Neron. “I always know I’m going to be able to ride it.”Just as at SilverStar, the subalpine wildflowers deserve special mention; they are popular enough that they have their own festival at the end of July. It’s worth the short hike from the Sunburst Express to the top of Tod Mountain after a day of riding. On a clear day—of which there are many—scissor-shaped Shuswap Lake is visible to the east. And to the south, so is the birthplace of freeriding.