Local writer, Dan Falloon, explores the history of BMX in Whistler and the 1985 BMX World Championships.
Whistler had a BMX track once upon a time.
Heck, the resort had the best riders in the world come to town 30 years ago for the 1985 BMX World Championships.
One of them even decided to return and build a family here.
James Collingridge, now a realtor with Re/Max Sea to Sky, said visiting Whistler for the first time had a major effect on him when he raced here as a 15-year-old.
“I’m 15, I qualify for the world championships, come to Whistler and we’re looking at a brand-spankin’ new town — everything new, everything vibrant. You really felt like you were part of something good. It was a very cool thing to be doing in a very cool setting,” he said. “You had all these people from all over the world. There were well over 1,000 kids between 13 and 18. We just spent the week running wild and it was just the most amazing experience. It was kind of like a modern-day Crankworx.”
The resort left such a lasting impression on Collingridge that he ultimately moved to Whistler in 1993, with his dad playing the role of doubter all along, expecting he would come back home to Kamloops. But Collingridge, the top Canadian in his age group, said the resort was so different from the places he was used to travelling to, and he knew it would be his home.
“We would race in these funny towns. You’d go to a big event in Merritt, say, or St. Albert or Regina, middle-of-nowhere towns like Red Deer, Alta.,” he recalled. “The events were fun but you never said ‘Hey, I’m moving to Red Deer.’
“But everyone here in Whistler was like ‘This is the best! This is the best!'”
At the event, legends like Travis Chipres, Gary Ellis and Phil Hoogendoorn graced the resort with their presence two decades before the first Crankworx festival hit Whistler Mountain.
It turned out to be the start of a turnaround of sorts for Whistler, which was hammered by recession in the early 1980s.
THE POWER OF THE ONE-OFF
Times were desperate in Whistler village in the years previous to the event.
Though crowds regularly made their way to town in the winter, business owner Rich Miller said during the summer, one could probably sunbathe nude undisturbed in the village. And many of the residents at the time would be the type to do it.
“These were the days where they were building the village and there was absolutely nothing there,” he said. “Back in those days, if you said you were from Whistler, you were (thought of) as a hippie on unemployment insurance. The rich folks weren’t there then. It was a totally different world. We were just trying to do something for the community.”
Fellow Chamber of Commerce member Drew Meredith, who was elected mayor in 1986, said the Chamber organized numerous one-off events like the jazz festival the same summer to try to generate traffic for the fledgling village.
“Whistler back in those days was kind of desperate for business,” he said. “In ’85, we were coming out of an awful recession. The worst years of my life were ’82 to ’85.
“If you were standing in Village Square looking up the Stroll to Mountain Square, on the right hand side, concrete and rusty rebar, that’s all that was there. And we were a destination resort — or trying to be.”
Miller doesn’t remember exactly how it happened, but he and Meredith somehow became connected with the International BMX Federation (IBMXF), itself in its infancy. With organizers looking for a venue and a community eager to welcome the world, the match seemed made. Miller and Meredith attended the 1984 event in Japan to get a sense of whether it was reasonable and determined it was worth a shot.
“We didn’t have a clue what was involved,” Miller acknowledged. “We went over to Japan to see the 1984 championships and said ‘Yeah, we can do that.'”
Tony Hoar, a 1955 Tour de France competitor, helped bring Canada into the IBMXF, which formed in 1981. Now 83, the Vancouver Island resident hoped to help grow the sport north of the border and was pleased to see the event come to Whistler.
“Once we formed the Canadian federation and got these international races going, we had tracks all across Canada,” he said. “We just talked to (organizers in Whistler) and they embraced it. They wanted to do it.
“One of the American guys in our association, he was also a track builder, so they hired him to build a really nice track and it went off rather smoothly.”
THAT FIRST TURN
Though just the fourth world championships ever held, riders came from as far away as the Netherlands and, no surprise, Australia, to compete.
Some who would eventually become champions were attending worlds for the first time and recalled it being unlike anything they’d seen before — or have seen since.
Collingridge, one of the rookies, compared the course to the set-up Crankworx puts together for the dual slalom, noting it was a sometimes-terrifying downhill course set up in the exact same spot.
“(The course) had this huge sweeping downhill first turn. It was scary. The first straight, you almost didn’t want to pedal it because it was so fast,” he said. “You just shot out of this berm going downhill. If you went off the berm, you’d go into (Fitzsimmons) Creek. It was just crazy.
“It’s the first time I ever felt scared on a track. If I go off this berm, I could die,” he added. “We just never really had any fear anywhere else.
“We were used to racing in parking lots, on flat, flat ground and this actually had a downhill, slopestyle feel to it. It was insane.”
Craig “Gork” Barrette, who had taken over as editor of BMX Action magazine shortly before the event, wrote at the time: “Ten pages isn’t enough to tell you about the first turn.” Also a Worlds rookie, the current USA BMX chief communications officer said the turn still stands out in his mind on what would have been a tough course even without it. In his memory, it was the final time the world championships were contested on a downhill course.
“The one thing that stands out on that track was that gnarly first turn,” Barrette said. “That was the make or break of the whole race, surviving that first turn. They had it lined with hay bales and a lot of riders (were) getting pushed over the top of it. That was back in the rough-track days. The soil there wasn’t the greatest, so that would have given riders lots of fits.
“The Olympic tracks now, or pretty much your average BMX track these days, are a hard-surface. We have asphalt turns on almost every major track, so it’s definitely changed a whole lot since then.”
Competitors also had to hoof their way up the hill, bikes in tow. Michigander Jamson Hendler, who won the 16 experts division, said the corner could have ended with more injuries than it did.
“It’s the first time that any of the Americans, or probably BMXers for that matter, raced on the side of a ski mountain,” said Hendler, who now lives in Boulder, Colo. “I remember having to trudge up the mountain.
“I was like ‘Oh my God, what the hell? We’ve got to walk up here to get to the track?’
“We thought ‘If anyone goes over the first turn, we’re going to be 100 feet down in the river and the rocks.’ Some of us were really concerned,” he said.
“The race organizers put up big orange pillows that kept people from going over the berm if there was a crash.
“Sure enough, there were a lot of crashes. In the pro races, there were a couple, and I’m sure the amateurs had some, too.”
The Americans recalled the beauty of Whistler, with experts 17 champion Travis Chipres saying the event holds a place in his heart. As a current sports marketing manager at Giant Bicycle in Newbury Park, Calif., the USA BMX Hall-of-Famer said memories rush back whenever he returns for Crankworx.
“Being in such a beautiful place is what stuck out in my mind the most,” he said. “It’s definitely the coolest one ever.”
A FULL VILLAGE
During the festival, Whistler village was, at some points, a dangerous place to be.
“The town was full. It was almost dangerous to walk through the village because they were all ripping around (on bikes) knocking little old ladies over,” Meredith said.
Overall attendance numbers seem to have been lost to the sands of time, but with estimates ranging from 2,000 to 4,000 in person and others watching on American television, Whistler received an attention boost.
“I think it was the first event where 4,000 people showed up… Seeing the whole — whatever was in the town centre at the time — it was totally overrun and everybody had a good time. It worked out pretty good,” Miller said.
Barrette, like the visiting riders, was also impressed with the proximity of the track to Whistler village. And though he had hung around some major events before coming up to Canada, was blown away by the response.
“From what I remember, and looking at these photos in our coverage, the whole hillside was full of spectators which was the biggest crowd I had ever seen for a BMX race,” he said.
Meredith said he feels Whistler’s big summer break ultimately came the following summer with the arrival of Expo ’86, but hosting a world-class event certainly helped to set the stage.
THE FALL OF BMX
Though a sport on the rise at the time, BMX waned in popularity before enjoying a more recent wave.
When the world championships left, so too did much of its influence in the resort.
The course was available for people to ride, Miller said, but few took advantage.
“I paid the insurance for two years on it because it was Whistler Mountain property at that point. It was $300 a year. I tried to get people interested and nobody was interested so I told the mountain I can’t afford it anymore,” he said. “They brought a bulldozer in and cleared it out and that was it.”
BMX has enjoyed a resurgence in the Sea to Sky with a track in Squamish opening in 2007 and Pemberton’s opening in 2012. But Whistler proper remained out of the permanent loop.
A plan to help bring a BMX track back to Whistler is in the works with organizers are holding a fundraiser at Creekbread tonight (Oct. 22) beginning at 5 p.m. Whistler BMX will receive a portion of proceeds to put toward its planned pump track and dirt track at Bayly Park.
Small community or not Pemberton’s team has put up impressive results, and it’s not unthinkable for local athletes to make some big impressions in the future.
BMX was added to the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing after becoming a truly international sport, making particular inroads in South America.
Though Americans took six of the competition’s major events in 1985, it was far from a clean sweep, as riders from Australia, Great Britain and the Netherlands also took gold medals over the course of the competition. The sport has grown to become a global one, as at the 2015 worlds in Belgium, riders from six different countries took gold, with three of those riders hailing from Venezuela, Argentina and Colombia.
Hendler recalled in particular how Santiago, Chile wanted its 1988 event to help participation skyrocket.
“Other foreign governments were starting to look at BMX as a sport, as a means for their citizens to compete,” he said. “They all got the right idea. The government of Chile sponsored a bunch of us riders to go down there to have a pro presence. They paid for our trip and everything just to get some exposure down there. They certainly got the exposure.”
Hoar said the Union Cycliste International (UCI) sought to bring BMX under its umbrella as early as the mid-80s, finally doing so in 1996. He recalled the significance of Whistler’s event.
“Whistler was a landmark for BMX. It set the stage for the other worlds,” he said. “They (UCI) got it into the Olympics in 20 years. We saw the potential of it way, way back.”