CHARACTERS 12: SAM WHITTINGHAM - THE RARE MAN
Story by Riley McIntosh // Photos by Dave Silver
|I had this dream about you. We were hunting in the mountains and you showed me where the Unicorns live. I told you: Now I know how it feels to be you. |
Chapter 1: Quadra Island
My closest family friends have a cabin on Village Bay Lake on Quadra Island, so I was lucky enough to spend some time there throughout my childhood. Quadra has always held a certain mystique for me, because it is big and wild. The island is just that bit farther north, a little more remote, and far enough away from what I consider to be the more quaint Gulf Islands, to have always held a certain mysteriousness in my mind. My childhood friends and I rode the trails up behind the cabin when I was a kid, but as I grew up and spent less and less time there, my mind would sometimes return to those fern choked forests I’d explored. I knew Quadra must hold many secrets. When I met Sam, the door opened to finally discovering the truth about what I had always wanted to know.
Chapter 2: A Remarkable Place to Call Home
Sam’s house isn’t a full on Lord of the Rings scenario, but very close. The property is over 100 acres and was purchased as a co-op by his parents and their friends in the 1970’s. The only rule was, if you wanted to leave, you just walked away. You couldn’t sell. So when Sam’s parents were finally ready to move on, this haven of refuge, tucked below Quadra Island’s famously tall Douglas Fir trees, became his. Sam’s house is the kind of place you drive up to and say “Holy crap, I wish this was my mine.” He shares it with his wife of twenty years, Andrea, and their kids, Misha and Sophie. The house could be called ‘Rustic Island West Coast design’ and fifteen paces from the front door is an equally charming shop where Sam creates handmade bicycles that are as much art as practical machine. A mossy trail leads from the edge of the yard, heading up towards rocky outcroppings protruding from the ferns and firs like a fortification guarding the property. Sam’s frequent mountain bike outings begin on this trail, and lead outwards into the vast wilderness of his Island home.
Chapter 3: Self Made
A Quadra posse assembles in front of Sam’s shop. Jack, James, Dave and Jeronimo are as local as it gets. They are as friendly as can be and seem happy to take ‘Mainlanders’ like myself; Dave, Linden, and Beverly, for a tour of their pride and joy, the trails that they have cultivated over the last thirty years. We pedal right from the yard, past the bluffs, and into a forest cloaked with tall ferns. The trail is a fairy tale mixture of totally there, entirely ride-able, but also appears as if rarely ridden. However, this trail is ridden often, but by a select few, and the result is like riding something that has just been newly scratched into the soil. Crossing a back road, we climb steeply, and the landscape changes. We begin to catch views of the ocean, and surprisingly, we criss-cross through wide open bluff lands, dominated by pine trees. This is a much drier zone than I anticipated for an Island, smack dab in the middle of Johnstone Strait, sandwiched between Vancouver Island and the Coast Mountain Range. The Quadra boys ride every Sunday, rain or shine, summer or winter, and we are making our way to the Morte Lake parking lot to meet up with the rest of the crew. I ask Sam how many trails are on Quadra, and he tells me that he once tried to ride them all in one day, and gave up after 13 hours.
Chapter 4: Sam’s Calves
Sam is not your average rider. In fact, until a short time ago, he was officially the fastest rider in the entire world. Yes, you read that right! Sam spent years chasing the goal of breaking the land speed record for un-assisted human powered vehicles, and on Sept 14 2000, he set a world record of 117km/hr, on a dead flat stretch of Highway just outside of Battle Mountain, Nevada. He held that record for 13 years, and increased it to 133.3 km/hr until it was broken by Dutch cyclist, Sebastiaan Bowier, in 2013. He also set the benchmark for the furthest distance traveled by any living thing in one hour under its own power. He did it on the Ford test track, in a bullet like, streamlined bicycle. I dare you to guess how far he travelled. Ok, ninety-one-frickin’-kilometers. In one hour. On a bike. What the hell! As a result, his calves look like somebody took a three pound biopsy off each of Schwarzenegger’s shoulders and glued them below each of his knees.
Chapter 5: Jeronimo!
The Deadfish trail begins and I am behind Sam’s best friend, Jeronimo. He is in his late forties, riding a well abused Rocky Mountain Slayer. I don’t expect him to be especially quick, but suddenly I am chasing, and losing. I pedal hard to catch him, grab his wheel, and have to work hard to stay close. He doesn’t seem to be pedaling much, just carrying speed. His rear wheel slides around hard packed berms, and we aren’t just riding along any more. We are full on shredding. Jeronimo has cranked it up to 11 to try and drop the Mainlander. Suddenly we are on a log, riding fast, and I look down, and we are eight feet off the ground. I freak out a little bit, but in a flash we are safely across. I hadn’t ridden a narrow log that fast in a long time. We skid into the parking lot. Jack has arranged a picnic with treats and beer, grinning at me expectantly. I have been shown the keystone trail. “So, how did you like Deadfish?” Jack stares intently at me, wanting my reaction. Now we are all smiling.
Chapter 6: Jack’s Crown Jewels
Jack is only ankle deep in the water. The rest of us ran in and submerged our naked asses as quickly as we could, to spare the others the ghastly reality of being surrounded by twigs and berries. Jack, however, proudly stands before us in all his glory, manhood dangling, camera in hand, demanding that we get nice and close for a photo. Yes, the lake is beautiful, the sky is blue, but we are yelling at him, “Jack just take the damn photo and get in the water for God sakes, hide that shit!” But, we are in Jack’s domain, we are on his territory, and here on Quadra Island, Jack is as comfortable as can be. And the truth is, being let into someone’s home and having them be instantly at ease around you, to treat you as one of their own, is a very special privilege.
Chapter 7: Sam is a Rare Man
I feel like there is nothing more beautiful in this world than creating something. Sam is an artist. He is eloquent, and has the calm presence of a capable person. A confident calmness is a trait I have noticed in other impressive people I’ve come across in my life. He is a creator of fine handmade bicycles, of unique trails, and a purveyor of fine friendships. He taught himself to weld frames in the basement of Fairfield Cycles in Victoria. Originally his bikes were called S.A.M.S, then Forte, before melding into his homespun brand, Naked Bicycles. He has built over 750 bikes since then, one hundred percent custom designed down to every detail, to fit the exact needs and dreams of his clients.
Chapter 8: Another Renaissance Man Arrives
Dylan Tremblay will one day be a subject of the folklore of BC mountain biking. He grew up in Nelson, and was progressing riding before just about anyone. Nelson riders like Joe Schwartz, Robbie Bourdon, and Kurt Sorge consider him to be ‘The Man’ and fondly remember him 360ing off curbs and doing BMX tricks on his 1996 Rocky Mountain Altitude. Dylan was the first rider ever to 360 off a natural cliff, and bar spin one, too. He is naturally an enigmatic person, so it fits perfectly into his air of mystery when he shows up completely randomly at Sam’s house, just as we are about to leave the yard for yet another ride. Dylan is riding a 1995 Rocky Mountain Equipe, pulling a trailer loaded with a Rubbermaid, spare clothing, and of all things, a weed wacker. “Hey guys, thought I’d find you here. My buddy knows this guy that is really good at fixing power tools so I thought I’d come over and find him.” I am surprised and completely un-surprised at the same time. That night, we head over to our digs at Gowlland Harbour Resort, and it is such a pleasure to have Dylan there with us.
Chapter 9: The Creation of a Bike - In Sam’s Words
“In late 2007, one of my best friends developed liver cancer and passed away 6 weeks later. It was a terrible shock, and I think, as a way to process it, I tucked myself away in the shop and just poured all my grief into this one, crazy bike. I took all the passionate design ideas that had been swimming around in my head for the last 10 years and created what became known as the "Baba Ganoush bike" due to the deep purple, eggplant colour. Andrea and I took this bike, as our only showpiece for the 2008 North American Handmade Bike Show (NAHBS), with no ambition other than honoring our friend, Peter Marcus, but it really seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people. That bike stole the show, winning Best in Show, Peoples Choice, and President’s Choice. Patrons of the show that year included both Robin Williams and Lance Armstrong, both of whom wanted to purchase the bike! In the end, Lance ended up purchasing the bike with a cheque made out to $2000 OVER the asking price and the proclamation "You know Sam, this is the first bike I have had to pay for in 20 years."
''A few months later, we got an invite to come down to Austin for the grand opening of Mellow Johnnies Bike Shop, Lance’s retirement project, where the bike would hang (and still does) as the shop centerpiece. As part of the trip a few of us were invited to a day of mountain biking on the Armstrong ranch. The trails had been custom built to include sections of "Pave", or cobblestones, especially imported from Europe. That was quite the day of riding, very surreal, with a small mixed bag of pro riders, celebrities and Lance insiders. Always the competitor, and in the guise of training for the Leadville 100, Lance took off like a shot, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves. A west coast bro ride, this was not. My biggest memory of that day was when an elegantly attired gentleman washed out in front of me on a sketchy bit of trail and I found myself screaming "Woah! Outta the way Gary (Fisher)! I'm trying to catch up to Lance Armstrong!”
This concludes volume 12 of Characters. If you ever visit Quadra Island, be sure to contact Sam Whittingham at Naked Bicycles. I’m sure you could convince him to take you for a ride. Also, Gowlland Harbour Resort has perfect rental cabins that can sleep up to 8 people, and is located close to the trails. Thanks for reading.
Riley McIntosh is a mountain biker from Maple Bay on Vancouver Island. After a decade of living in Nelson, he returned home to the land of year round riding conditions. He loves meeting new people and exploring fresh trails, which the Characters series helps him do. Riley sincerely hopes the readers of Pinkbike enjoy Characters and would like to thank everyone involved for their participation. Dave Silver was born with a strong love of the outdoors, and from a young age always had a camera in hand. Whether for work or leisure, he can often be found skiing, mountain biking, paddling, climbing, or hiking in the rugged backcountry of British Columbia. Basing himself out of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island gives him easy access to a beautiful coastal setting as well as allowing him more time to spend with his loving wife and two young kids. Check out: davesilverphotography.com
Characters #1 - Thomas Schoen
Characters #2 - Bill McLane
Characters #3 - Tig Cross and Sasha LeBaron
Characters #4 - Mark Holt
Characters #5 - Kevin Eskelin
Characters #6 - James Doerfling and Kenny Smith
Characters #7 - Tara Llanes
Characters #8 - Andreas Hestler
Characters #9 - Linden Feniak
Characters #10 - Doug Detwiller
Characters #11 - The United Riders of Cumberland