Heaven is a Bike Park

I’ve mentioned before the challenge of learning to ride in an area with a very steep learning curve. To learn steadily as a beginner requires trails that boost all three riding factors together – skills, fitness and confidence. When your local trails jump from a (boring) to d (no can do), it’s hard to gain the confidence to attack them, the skills to carry out the attack, or the fitness to get you there and back again. Luckily, I really didn’t have to wander too far afield to find the perfect answer. Last summer was my first full season of riding, and my riding coach/sweetheart Rivers had the genius idea of taking me to Silver Star for my first bike park ride. You might think that riding in a bike park would be too big a leap for a rank beginner, but it turns out they are designed to meet beginners where we’re starting from and boost us to the next level.

Silver Star is a year-round alpine playground in the southern interior of British Columbia. It is much smaller than some better-known BC mountain resorts (e.g. Whistler-Blackcomb) but it is also proportionally cheaper – we rented a condo with a full kitchen, laundry, hot tub and barbecue for only $75 per night. The lift ticket for a full day of riding is only $40 (2013 pricing), though I still had some doubts in my mind if I was up for making it a worthwhile investment over the $22 two-ride ticket. It turned out this was one of those instances when I was happy to be wrong. The north Okanagan climate makes Silver Star ideal for summer riding – the dry climate keeps underbrush limited and trails wide open, it’s hot and dry enough to limit bugs, but is still cool enough in the mountain that you can ride all day without heat being a factor.

After checking in, we toured the wee village, oriented ourselves to where we’d need to go in the morning, ate a tasty dinner in our condo, and headed to bed. First stop in the morning was the rental shop to both pick up our ride passes and outfit me with some elbow, shin and knee guards. It turned out I didn’t need them, but they lend an extra layer of confidence that’s worth the $15. As I waited outside the rental shop, I got that oh-so-typical mountain biker surge of bike envy. Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that I need any more bike than my used Giant Trance, but surrounded by big macho downhill bikes, I felt seriously deficient. My girly light-all-mountain bike wasn’t built for this kind of riding. Lucky for her, I’m not yet up to anything that takes the wheels in the air or off the trail.

Off we went, and within seconds I was having serious second thoughts. ‘Easy Street,’ the mis-named and unavoidable 2 kilometre trip from Silver Star village to the lift was jumping into the deep end and I felt a drowning person’s panic – sharp rocks, narrow twisty bits, a rickety curved bridge, washed out edges, cocky twelve year olds shooting past me – half way down I wanted to turn back, but it just wasn’t an option. The lift attendant assured me though that the actual trails were better maintained than Easy Street, and he was so very right. And, once you’re on the runs, it’s easy to avoid Easy Street unless you return to the village.

Our first full run was Challenger, and we kept going back to it throughout the day. It was really the perfect run for Rivers and I to ride together. It includes frequent blue ‘bump outs’ with features that increased the fun level for him while I stuck to the basic green. Every once in a while I’d hear a happy Whoop in the nearby bushes, and each time it made me smile and egged me on. Challenger is just under 6 kilometres and a great confidence builder, though not without its areas for skill building – Challenger was my first time really getting how to ride a berm, and how much amazing fun they are. I do love speed, or what passes for speed with me, and got some top speeds on Challenger of 38 km/hr. It’s choppier at the bottom in a very hand-numbing way (it could be I was holding on too tight) and in one spot the trail gets very narrow and drops away steeply on the left – my least favourite kind of ride. The sharp rocks and steady stream of discarded tubes along the trail was not encouraging, though I managed not to pop a tube. Rivers wasn’t so lucky, though his misfortune provided me with a nice break to stop and smell the wildflowers.

In time for lunch, we hopped off our third ride down Challenger and traversed the mountain on Paradise. While Paradise is a pretty way to see the mountain and the valley, it’s basically a service road, which means a lot more pedaling, and a lot less whooshy fun. There’s one fair climb midway, which turned out to be my first successful use of my granny gear. After a quick energy-boosting and rehydration lunch, we hit Challenger a couple more times and then took the Cabin Trail to Cross Mountain Road at the end of the day. I was sure I had one more ride in me, but my coach thought we should quit before I hit the wall, and he’s usually right about those things. Cabin Trail is a beautiful, peaceful non-roadish road. It’s very smooth and flowy, and a great way to end a long day of riding.

This was a day I did finally remembered to use Strava to track my rides, and at the end of the day we’d ridden a total of 32.3 kilometres with a total vertical drop of 10,455 metres. Which brings me back to the point of this post – the variety of riding that a bike park offers is ideal for beginners, even when it only has a few beginner trails, the quality of the features makes them accessible skill builders. The lift is a perfect work-around for beginner fitness and power issues, and just being able to say ‘I road a bike park’ is a serious confidence builder, never mind the great riding itself.

I truly hope that we get back to Silver Star this summer, but even if we make it to some other park instead, I know it’s a great chance to boost my skills, my confidence and maybe even my fitness.

One disappointing point worth mentioning is that Silver Star has few food outlets open in the summer, and next to no options for someone on a limited diet like me. As a celiac the only food on offer at the very sad pub was a limp side salad. Plan to bring your own food and book one of the great full-kitchen condos.

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