Far over the misty mountains cold To dungeons deep and caverns old We must away ere break of day To seek the pale enchanted gold.
- J. R. R. Tolkien
For the penultimate round of the 2017 Enduro World Series we head to Whistler, Canada, the self-declared mecca of mountain biking.
Synonymous with crisp singletrack through picture-perfect pine forests and open alpine, as well as those alluring bike park trails, Whistler has been a fixture on the EWS calendar since 2013. Held alongside the biggest mountain biking festival on the planet, the prize purse is much bigger here, and so too is the size of the crowds.
There'll be five stages of racing this weekend, all held on a single day. Riders will be competing over 49km (or 57km including lifts), with 1,464m of climbing and 3,197m of descending to add to the mix.
However, the mountains around Whistler are currently enveloped in what could be mistaken as heavy haze, but on closer inspection—especially by smell—that mist is actually smoke. There are currently a number of wildfires burning in the British Columbia region, in fact, it's the worst wildfire season British Columbia has suffered since 1958. At the time of writing, there are no fires burning in the vicinity of Whistler; the winds are blowing vast clouds of smoke over the town and its surrounding area, leading to public health officials providing real-time air quality updates, as well as special advisory statements for those wanting to work and play outside.
Enduro World Series race organizers have said that they're monitoring the situation carefully and will be updating competitors regularly as to whether there are going to be any adaptations to the course.
Beyond the bike park, there's a wealth of summer and winter activities to be ticked off when you're staying in Whistler and its surrounding area, but what about the history of the town itself?
Dig a little deeper and you'll find a rich culture of two proud First Nation communities; the Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh (Squamish) and L̓il̓wat7úl (Lil'wat). Having resided in the area for thousands of years, the history of both First Nations are tied to the rivers that run through it, the mountains that overlook it, and the lakes that rest within it. With a shared history of the land - via oral stories from generation to generation rather than written—the two First Nations began visiting the area now known as Whistler in the summer months to harvest the flora and fauna for food and medicines.
In the 19th Century, European traders, trappers, and prospectors made their way into the mountains, dividing the lands between themselves, and rounding up the indigenous population into reserves. The British Navy surveyed the area in the latter part of the century, naming the highest peak London Mountain on account of the fog that hung around it. The mountain would later be renamed Whistler Mountain, and in 1914 Myrtle and Alex Philip established the first commercial fishing and weekend retreat cabin on the shores of Alta Lake. From there, tourism began to thrive, with the area being touted as a picturesque getaway thanks to its easy access via the Pacific Great Eastern railway line.
One hundred years later, Whistler has grown into the booming tourist playground that we all know and love, playing host to events as part of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, and with the two First Nations having signed a historic agreement in 2001, we're seeing the area really flourish into somewhere that has more to offer than just bike park laps.
Stage 1:Top of the World » Ride Don't Slide (distance 7.3km / vertical drop 1,298m)
Stage 2: A Rockwork Orange » Korova Milk Bar » Wizard Burial Ground (distance 1.7km // vertical drop 288m)
Stage 3: Billy Epic » Bob's Rebob (distance 1.75km / vertical drop 341m)
Stage 4: Howler » No View (distance 3.2km / vertical drop 651m)
Stage 5: No Joke » Drop in Clinic » Duffman » Mackenzie River » Duffman » Golden Triangle » Samurai Pizza Cat » Afternoon Delight » Longhorn » Monkey Hands (distance 4.4km / vertical drop 619m)
What happened at the last round?
The high altitude of Aspen-Snowmass played host to a closely fought race in the Pro Men's field. With 70km already behind him, Richie Rude entered the final race day with a strong lead but a mechanical on Stage 4 gave his competitors the opportunity to seize the advantage, and sure enough, they did. Sam Hill became the man to beat, and not even Jared Graves could get close, although he gave it a good shot. Despite it being the first time he had raced at Aspen-Snowmass in the EWS format, Hill was able to pull away, claiming the last two stages. Graves would fall foul to a last minute rush on the final stage by Martin Maes, leaving the Australian in third place, behind the Belgian.
Hill has his eyes on the championship even more so now, and with a 40 point advantage, he's got a tough fight ahead to keep the lead with two more rounds to go. Adrien Dailly is currently his closest contender in second place and Greg Callaghan in third.
In the Pro Women's field, Cécile Ravanel maintained her lead throughout the weekend, bar relinquishing the Stage 1 win to fellow countrywoman Isabeau Courdurier. Ravanel would win Aspen-Snowmass with 47 seconds to spare, leaving her rivals to fight it out for the remaining podium steps. Between Winton, Anita Gehrig, Courdurier, and Brown, it would be Courdurier who would fair best, taking second spot, whilst Canadian Casey Brown came away with third.
Adding more points to the overall, Ravanel cemented her lead, with Katy Winton moving up to second spot and Ines Thoma into third.
The weather forecast
*Weather forecast as of 07 August.
What happened last year at EWS Whistler?
Last time out in Whistler for the EWS, we saw series leaders Richie Rude and Cécile Ravanel suffer mechanicals but despite this, they fought on right to the very end, and it was worth it.
Fine tuning his competitiveness year-on-year, it was Whistler local Jesse Melamed who took the early advantage with a Stage 2 win. Melamed was on course to take his maiden EWS win on home soil, however, it was undone by Rude, who stormed the last three stages after suffering a puncture on Stage 2. Josh Carlson wrapped up third spot in the Pro Men's category.
In the Pro Women, we saw Isabeau Courdurier taking her first double stage wins, but like Rude, Ravanel simply upped the pace, taking the remaining stages, and the overall win. Casey Brown took the third step of the podium.
The Whistler race is a tough one to call; it's been dominated by Graves and Rude since it first appeared on the calendar. But, for this year, I don't see the form changing with either of those two, despite their strong showings during the last round in Aspen-Snowmass. There's no doubting they'll be there or thereabouts, but I think there are other riders who have form and determination on their side right now. My call for the winner is maybe more of a heart decision than a head one, but I'm going to stick my neck out for Jesse Melamed. Here at his home race, he's been so close a couple of times, and while suffering a mechanical as he lead the race in Madeira this season may have been bitter disappointment, that has given him the confidence to know that he should be right up there. This isn't to ignore his talent, fitness or determination either; he belongs at the very sharp end of any race, but having seen how emotional it is with his family on the finish line, it would be something of a fairytale to see him fulfill his potential for the first time here at home.
For second, I'd put my money on the man of the hour, Sam Hill. He was something of an unknown rider last time out in Aspen. Nobody knew how fast he could be in such a physical race, and whether he could deal with the challenges of racing at altitude. He answered those questions, and then some. That win made it clear that he can win anywhere, not just on the steep, technical terrain that his Downhill background had prepared him for so well. He was clear in his post-race interview that he sees Whistler as his best chance to put some ground between himself and Dailly, so he's coming to win. I think he'll be close to the win for sure, but with a championship on the line for Hill, he's at a disadvantage to Melamed who I think will be willing to put it all on the line for that maiden win, and that may well be the difference that decides the race.
For the third step, how do you call between Rude, Graves, Dailly and Maes? I think Dailly may be at a disadvantage for this one—while his times were up there with the elite men for much of last season, in Whistler he was further back, with a time that would only just scrape a top 20. When we get down to nut-cutting time, I'd have to back Rude. No matter what happens through the day, he owns the bike park stages—the question is whether, with the course this year, there is enough bike park for him to make up any time he might lose on the valley stages?
With the women's race, it's too easy to back Cecile Ravanel, but I think in Whistler maybe Isabeau Courdurier can score another upset. Every year she seems to go a little better here; from her debut stage win and podium in 2015, to second place in 2016, she loves to race in Whistler and this is definitely her best chance to get the better of Ravanel in the back half of the season. That leaves Ravanel for the second step, and for the third, I think Casey Brown will be the woman who completes the podium. She had a strong showing in Aspen-Snowmass but coming back to familiar terrain in Whistler, she's certainly one to watch this weekend.—Matt Wragg, Pinkbike's EWS Prediction-ator
Pinkbike will be providing you with the best daily coverage from our team of photographers and videographers in Whistler this week. There'll be fresh content arriving on the Pinkbike homepage from practice on Friday and Saturday, and race day news and recaps on Sunday August 13, with the final rider crossing the line around 19:00 PST. Get your screens ready because you can catch the riders' times as they progress through the stages on both days via the EWS live timing feature, as well as catching the live broadcast feed on the Pinkbike homepage from 17:30 local time.