WHISTLER, British Columbia -- Thirty-thousand fans -- it's a number we might equate with a Major League Baseball game, the NBA Finals or a Bruce Springsteen concert. But The Boss wasn't in Whistler last Saturday, playing to 30,000 mountain bikers on hand. These knobby-tire fanatics were there to watch Brandon Semenuk win his second Red Bull Joyride, the marquee slopestyle event of the 10-day mountain biking festival known as Crankworx.
"It's the Super Bowl of our sport," Cam McCaul said. "Crankworx is the biggest gathering of the mountain bike world all year."
The California native, 27, would know. He is a legend in the freeride mountain bike scene, and he has been going to Crankworx since its inception a decade ago. He stood atop the Joyride course under threatening skies last Saturday, awaiting a practice run that had been delayed by weather. Below him, a dozen-or-so jumps and drops snaked their way down to a growing sea of spectators and the upper façade of Whistler Village. With airs in the 20- to 50-foot range, practice at Joyride is essential. Stringing tricks together through the whole line without it is unthinkable.
The centerpiece of the Freeride Mountain Bike World Tour, Joyride shares top-tier "diamond" status with X Games Munich's Mountain Bike Slopestyle event and Red Bull Rampage, a big-mountain freeride competition scheduled for October in Utah. The Joyride victor earns $25,000 and claims a spot in a prestigious club of riders to win a contest that helped start an entirely new style of mountain biking: freeriding.
A pursuit borne 11 years ago out of the rugged mountains of Vancouver's North Shore, freeride mountain biking started when riders began tinkering with natural airs, wooden bridges and increasingly steeper, gnarlier, rooted and rocky terrain. To keep up with the riding, bikes grew bigger and burlier and were equipped with front and rear suspension with increasing inches of travel. Pads replaced spandex, soon gravity-crazed bikers were riding chair lifts, and a heavier bike was no longer a concern.
At that time, the Whistler Mountain Bike Park was still a pipe dream for Paddy Kaye. But the original course designer for Joyride and current vice president of operations for Joyride Bike Parks remembers the shift. "[Fellow Whistler veteran rider] Chris Winter and I felt that mountain biking needed a new format," Kaye said. "So we built a technical downhill trail on Whistler Mountain called Joyride, and it became the original trail on the Bike Park."
The two held a slopestyle contest with a handful of local freeride pioneers. "It was the first time we saw everyone come together, from downhill racers to [freeriders]," Kaye said.
A young rider named Darren Berrecloth from nearby Vancouver Island won that first Joyride Slopestyle on a Specialized BigHit -- a downhill mountain bike pushing 50 pounds with 8 inches of travel that was built for punishment. Berrecloth landed a 360 on the behemoth bike in that first competition and is still competing today, albeit on a much smaller rig.
As slopestyle courses have become increasingly refined, smoother transitions now allow riders to step down to smaller bikes with 4 inches of travel that weigh in less than 30 pounds. The newer bikes, designed specifically for slopestyle, make for easier handling and lend themselves to more technical tricks. "At that first [Joyride] there were maybe 400 people who had heard about a jump contest," Berrecloth said. "But it seemed like it could take off. And here we are now -- we have this world tour and this awesome sport that's all our own."
With legitimate prize money from the likes of Red Bull, the first generation of riders raised on live webcast feeds are now making their way into the elite ranks. Every year a new star emerges to push the level of riding further.
Along with Semenuk, the latest prodigy is Brett Rheeder. A 20-year-old from a small farm town outside of Toronto, Rheeder came onto the scene in a huge way, winning the inaugural X Games Munich Mountain Bike Slopestyle in June. Shortly after his X Games win, Rheeder crashed training for Crankworx Les 2 Alpes (a pro slopestyle event in France) and suffered a four-vertebrae compression fracture. So Rheeder was in Whistler last weekend, a reluctant spectator at Joyride, cheering on his friends and counting the days until he was back on the bike. "I'm going to take it easy and take enough time to heal," Rheeder said. "I have to think about my career. I want to do this for a long time."
Crashes are a big part of the game for this field, and Brayden Barrett-Hay, the first rider on course in the finals, crashed hard while attempting a tailwhip off a 20-foot drop. He was taken off on a stretcher with a concussion, but his condition has since stabilized.
The show went on as the sun began to peek through. One by one, riders worked their way down the course, which turned into a thin ribbon of dirt snaking through a sea of fans, many in costume. Kaye built the course from the ground up with input from many of the top riders -- a key factor in keeping Joyride at the forefront of mountain bike slopestyle events. The riders settled into a rhythm and began upping the level of trickery with each run. Thirty-foot backflips were standard -- combination tricks like a flip or a 360 with a barspin or a tailwhip were essential to reach the top of the leaderboard.
Near the end of the day, local hero Semenuk sat in first. Sweden's Martin Soderstrom stood in second place and was the last man to drop in. Soderstrom strung together a mind-blowing run, adding difficult variations to each trick, including a rare triple tailwhip. On the final jump, Soderstrom tried a 360 double tailwhip and overrotated, going down in a crash that resulted in a broken tibia and fibula in his right leg. For Semenuk, it was a bittersweet victory. He didn't like seeing a fellow competitor go down, but he also was elated.
Fans filtered into the village to continue the party. Crankworx ended the following day with its traditional swansong: the Canadian Open downhill. For Darren Kinnaird, the general manager of the festival, it was time for a well-deserved rest.
"The great thing about Joyride," Kinnaird said, "is that it brings in a non-endemic crowd and exposes them to mountain biking at its core. They see mountain bikes, they talk to the brands, maybe they ride some of the easier trails in the bike park. In the end, we have more people riding. The energy brings people to the sport who wouldn't otherwise get involved."
Mountain biking has more momentum now than ever. The chair lifts at Whistler, and at fledgling bike parks around the world, will spin well into October. And if this year's record turnout for Crankworx was any indication, the mountain bike tribe will continue to grow. Maybe one day the sport will even be bigger than The Boss.