Downhill racing used to be my one and only passion because it required commitment and focus to reach an elite level, but I’ve since put other riding and life objectives on my list of personal goals.
I’ve been away from racing since 2019, ironically and conveniently around the time that the global pandemic disrupted international trade and travel. Without a race schedule to confine me and the sun as the only clock to worry about, roaming the far reaches of British Columbia’s backroads and high country trails became my primary focus.
When multiple downhill bikes came across my desk this year, there seemed like no better excuse to register for a regional gravity race. Sun Peaks is the bike park that kicked off my racing aspirations, and when I saw that the resort was listed in the Dunbar Summer Series downhill race schedule I signed on for what would be a guaranteed high-speed dust fest. Downhill racing Canada is alive and well
Canadians are going faster than ever right now and there’s a solid backbone, with teams like Norco’s all-Canadian factory DH crew, and other developed programs. The talent pool is deep and the results are tighter than ever. Spearheaded by the late and great Steve Smith’s race career, you’ll find riders like Finn Illes and Jackson Goldstone are now regular World Cup podium contenders.
Those names climbed the ranks in leaps and bounds, but there are a handful of privateer racers, like Gabe Neron, the 2022 Canadian National Champion, and another rapid racer, Patrick Laffey, that are chomping at the bit to crack the top 60 to qualify at World Cups. That’s not knocking their skills, it just shows how high the bar is set these days, and those two lads smoked me by more than ten seconds at Sun Peaks. That really put the international downhill race scene into perspective for me.
Adding to the DH resurgence is the fact that the excitement around enduro racing has plateaued. Those two disciplines are close in that they focus on descending, but vary drastically in the amount of effort spent pedalling.
There’s more down time, but also more uplift time, so that can be spent studying the track on helmet cam footage and perfecting your bike setup. Downhill racing is designed to go as fast as possible on a studied track, while the other plays to the reactionary skills of riding foreign tracks.Bikeparks are producing armies of young talent
They’re small, fast, fearless, and are putting pressure on elite riders - the U17 winner at Sun Peaks posted a time that would rank 7th overall on the day! It’s truly impressive to see how pinned these young kids are.
We all saw it coming, but now they’re flying past us. That’s because bike parks make for great babysitters. Just like in the ski world, kids can get dropped off at the hill to do lap after lap on their own (Sun Peaks requires that children 12 or under must be accompanied by an adult). What a time to be a kid.Sara Kempner was on hand to capture the action over the weekend.Downhill bikes are incredible machines
Although you don’t necessarily need a downhill bike to ride down a hill or take part in a race, there’s no denying that they’re capable of hitting higher speeds than an enduro bike. You may have heard statements surrounding the latest new-fangled 170mm travel bike that can keep up with downhill bikes, but they’re wrong.
Downhill bikes are generally longer, slacker, sturdier, and purpose built for one thing: to go as fast as f@ck down a mountain. If you haven’t had the chance to ride one on a proper track, they’ll make you feel invincible.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine how much more they can improve. We’ve gone beyond the limit in terms of head tube angles, wheelbases, and wheel sizes too. Best of all, they’re scaled to mini-sizes for riders of all heights. It’s not out of place to see groms on carbon-everything, Kashima-coated DH bikes, rather than hand-me-down enduro bikes from ten years ago.
For those mechanically in-tune elites looking to take their race craft to the next level, they’re searching for every ounce of speed and that means revisiting physics class. These days, if you aren’t strapped with data acquisition units to perfect your suspension settings, you’re losing precious time - even keen privateers are investing in these systems to make the most of their bikes that frequently cost more than their vehicles.Sun Peaks is a rad riding destination
Sun Peaks has a reputation for flat out riding, and the race course this year didn’t disappoint with singletrack speeds reaching 80km/h for some riders just two turns into the track, but the trail crews have been busy adding variety to the network here.
Last season, an additional chairlift opened to access more inviting trails that are wider and less steep, but aren’t numb for jump enthusiasts of all skill levels. Two blue and black machine-made trails off mellow grades best experienced in a party train of friends blasting berms and mixing up the variation on jump rhythms.
There’s something magical about the dirt up here, especially after a dousing of rain. It never packs down enough to get blue grooved and the lineups rarely take more than five minutes. Even in the dry dust of mid-August, the tracks retain a softer tread that rides better than broken coastal clay berms.
As for the specifics on the race track, it’s a physically challenging track due to the length, but I would wager that the technical sections were all within a localized intermediate skill level. B-lines existed where necessary and the absence of large gaps or drops invited riders of a wide range.Bedroom ski towns are hot spots for talented youth
I might not be the most educated in social economics, but there’s been a shift in where the majority of riders in the Sea to Sky are residing these days. No longer are racers calling Whistler and North Vancouver home. Although the riding is world-renowned, so too are the costs of living. A huge Squamish contingency saw more than forty racers make the drive up to Sun Peaks - even Pemberton, a “bedroom community” for Whistler, drew the second highest number of entrants. What’s next to come for Canadian downhill racing?
I predict that more localized pockets of riding and racing will pop up as the networks of trail centers and families of riders expand with the increased popularity in this sport we call mountain biking.
British Columbia is a huge province with less-than-ideal highways. There are more valleys and mountains out of our backdoor than we know what to do with, so why the need to drive ten or more hours for regional racing?
Take the racing scenes in the U.K., France, Australia, and New Zealand - historically, they have produced some of the greatest DH racing names in the game and not all of their events require ski hill infrastructure.