Catching My First Air at Whistler
I PICK MYSELF UP off the muddy ground. Trying to find my feet, I straighten the handlebars and run a diagnostics check, feeling for broken bones, bent rims and listening for the wet click of a fractured rib.
My injuries end at a raspberried shoulder and perforated ego. Days from now an ugly constellation of bruises would bloom on my legs and stomach but currently I am trying to make light of the fear I feel by risking more injury with a chuckle.
Jamie makes it look easy, leaving the ground, clearing an outcropping of slick granite and tangled western red cedar roots, landing in the soupy rut.
I don’t make it look easy. I make it look manageable.
After one of the most genuinely thrilling mornings of my life, hands cramped and aching, manageable feels like an Olympic medal.
I began the day at Whistler / Blackcomb with zero downhill mountain biking experience.
I didn’t know my ass from a crank shaft and under no condition had I ever cleared a tabletop.
But now I straddle a loaned bike, decked out in body armor and hurling through the woods at a velocity that I know would concern my wife. I try not to turn my wheels but practice leaning into the roller that takes us to a trail named Ninja Cougar.
Jamie tells me,“This is going to be more of the same, only a bit harder, more technical. Gonna be a kinda-long elevated ride and plenty of flowy rollers. Pretty fun.”
Jamie’s idea of “pretty fun” probably involves broken clavicles.
His story is admittedly typical of Whistler / Blackcomb employees–Kiwis, Brits, Aussies–all young and mostly male, working as lift operators, selling paninis or guiding, or all three. Anything to stay and mountain bike from spring to fall and to snowboard all winter. They cram in shared houses and fill their every free moment riding.
“It’s hard to leave.” He’s been here 9 years.
Suspended in the gondola, riding back to the Olympic Station at 3346ft we spot a black bear sitting on its ass and munching Oregon grape. Then in a great shudder another Ursus americanus, a black bear, comes tearing through the bush and fur flies as the two briefly tangle. Two Aussie lift workers hoist our bikes off the rack and wait for us to arrive in the next chair.
In a practice area Jamie shows me how to do a drop-in–essentially riding off a ledge–by pre-loading. Pre-loading for those of you that won’t quit your day jobs and spend $10,000 of mountain bike gear, is the act of pushing down on your suspension right before the lip of a jump.
The upward reaction of your suspension will lift you from the ground and send you sailing into an uncertain future. This went against my conventional wisdom of pulling up on my handlebars but pre-loading worked like a charm. The bike popped up and I landed grimacing and grinning 3 feet lower.
This was not exactly getting air though. Performing a few drop-ins in a practice corall and actually hitting the lip of a tabletop are completely different experiences. But pre-loading was indeed the codex that would crack the mystery of grabbing air.
Crank it Up is an intermediate trail, a warm up trail.
The trail pitches downward, and after a few rollers a series of tabletops are rushing towards me. I remember everything we practiced. I remember to keep my peddles level and to relax while in the air. I even remember my sheepish request to Jamie that I not leave the safety of terra firma just a few hours prior. But as the packed dirt slopes up and I heave down on the bikes powerful suspension these thoughts are like cobwebs caught in a second of sunlight.
The feeling of weightlessness, of Holy-Shit-I-Am-Flying, lasts but a moment as the brown, flat surface of the tabletop glides below my still spinning tires.
I land and the next jump is already upon me. [Authors Note: My air was pretty puny compared to the riders I have in photos here, but this shit is all relative. My accommodations in Whistler were furnished by Fairmont Chateau Whistler. All the fun I had was provided by Tourism Whistler.]