By Deborah Jones
North Vancouver, British Columbia, 2006

The start of Espresso, a gnarly mountain-bike trail on British Columbia’s famous North Shore, is unimposing. Bikers — and these are ”bikers,” whose body armor and monstrous downhill machines make other cyclists seem effete — start each run on residential streets, where suburban gardens flourish on the edge of wilderness.

Though a mere cyclist, I am here to stretch my comfort zone, intrigued by claims that the extreme sport of downhill biking is becoming mainstream. My son Gavin Kennedy, 18 and a longtime biker, has agreed to show me his playground. He seems nervous, concerned about my ability and safety.

We park on a bungalow-lined street, unload Gavin’s 60-pound full-suspension bike and trudge up a gravel road into the forest. Instantly, the noise of the city vanishes amid gushing streams, birdsong and the treetops rustling in a breeze. The sweaty tedium of climbing switchbacks for 45 minutes is alleviated by sightings of bikers on their mad descents through the forest. Through dense trees, we catch fleeting glimpses of riders on mechanical steeds flying off wooden jumps and charging along high wooden ladder bridges.

Later, I will hear some sound advice from the mountain bike expert Darren Butler, the owner of a guide and bike-rental outfit called Endless Biking: ”The Shore can be dangerous,” he said. ”Its mountains are very rugged and full of all types of hazards. ”Quite often, bikers take beginners onto trails like Espresso and scare the living daylights out of them.”

For now, I am happy I have talked my son into this adventure.

Espresso, halfway up Mount Fromme, is marked by an obscure sign nailed to a tree. We pause so Gavin can don his armor: a jacket made of netting reinforced with padding and hard plastic plates, padded leg and arm protectors, a full-face helmet and sturdy gloves. The idea is to take turns wearing the gear and riding the bike; Gavin goes first. I watch, heart in my mouth, as he rides off the road, rumbles onto a steep, wooden roller-coaster ramp then hits the steep, rock-strewn trail at full speed. I follow on foot as he vanishes into the forest.

Locally, the North Shore refers to the mountains towering over the northern shore of Burrard Inlet in Vancouver. Elsewhere, among mountain bikers in Scotland, Australia and throughout North America, North Shore biking is synonymous with Canada’s storied West Coast trails, and the technical riding developed here, with steep drops and built structures like wooden ladders, teeter-totters, roller coasters and skinnies, high narrow rails suspended over obstacles.

”In the world of mountain biking, North Shore riding is legendary,” said Mark Eller, a spokesman for the International Mountain Bike Association, based in Boulder, Colo. ”It has currency worldwide. The North Shore would be recognized in Australia or Britain.” Butler, a Saskatchewan native lured here by the bike culture, calls the North Shore ”the hub, the holy Mecca, the place to be in terms of mountain biking around the world.”

”In Asia, in Africa, or all over the world, all look to the North Shore,” said Butler, a former international competitor and star of extreme bike videos until he sustained severe injuries in a crash in 2003.

Reliable industry statistics are lacking, Eller said, but officials say the sport is booming. Manufacturers are developing more specialized downhill machines, and bikes sturdy enough for shore-style riding typically cost $4,000 and up, and include hydraulic suspension and motorcycle disc brakes on both wheels. Extreme sports videos, many filmed on the North Shore, have added to the shore’s cultlike status.

Even 10 years ago on the North Shore, the area was considered merely an adventure playground for young adrenaline junkies. In the beginning, hard-core locals hacked, hammered and shoveled trails into the mountains, then gave them names like Old Buck, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, CBC, Pipeline, Boogeyman and Espresso.

Partly to protect ecosystems recovering from earlier logging, and partly for sheer fun, trail builders found materials like fallen trees and built the trademark shore structures, said Cam McRae, an advocate of shore biking and founder of the mountain-bike Web site

At first, local politicians objected. Officials expressed fears about safety. A few environmentalists called trail-building the ”rape of the ecosystem.” There were parking disputes.

But today, while some land-use controversies linger, the communities on the North Shore celebrate the bike culture as sport and a vital tourist attraction, bringing about 100,000 mountain bike visitors annually from around the world, Butler said.

Capilano College* recently introduced one of the world’s first mountain bike certification programs for instructors and tourism managers at its Sechelt, British Columbia, campus. Resorts from Florida to California have installed North Shore-style mountain bike parks. International instruction and safety standards are planned through a new global association, and trails are being marked with the expert, intermediate and beginner signs familiar on ski hills.

But the legendary North Shore still remains unregulated, risky and with a maze of creative trails built by volunteers in what is essentially back country. North Shore biking remains a sport for adrenaline junkies. The risk, Butler said, is simply ”part of what makes it so exciting.”

Advocates say that downhill biking, traditionally the domain of young, male athletes, is being adopted by women, families and older people. While that is evident in resort bike parks with ski lifts adapted to bikes, North Shore downhill trails may be the last refuge of the hard-core gnarly bikers.

Today on Espresso, in a flight of fancy, I imagine that I, too, can be gnarly and hard core. On a relatively easy stretch of trail, my worried-looking son turns the bike over to me. I don the helmet, clamber onto the seat, clutch the handlebar brakes with a death grip — and promptly ride into a rock. I am braced for a fall, but the giant triple crown front shocks absorb the blow, the bike continues smoothly over a batch of rubble, and with a grin I pick up speed. Compared to my stiff cross-country mountain bike, this beast feels like riding on a soft couch.

I’m just gaining confidence when I suddenly come upon a ”skinny.” It’s a downed tree with the six-inch wide top shaved flat, about 25 feet long and arcing to eight feet off the ground.

I jam on the brakes, and the bike jerks to a stop. Abruptly, I decide that today’s adventure is over and return my son’s bike. Espresso has been fun, but next time, I’ll try decaffeinated terrain.

Copyright © 2006 Deborah Jones

Originally published in the New York Times, August 5, 2006

* Capilano College is now designated a university

References and further reading:

Story in New York Times
North Shore Mountain Bike Association


Capilano University mountain bike certificate program