I spot Tom at the rental shop. He's busy coordinating schedules for the guides—there are 93 adult instructors—but stops his juggling act to introduce me to Mike Johnstone, Training Coordinator of Whistler Mountain Bike Park. Mike is wearing yellow-tinted glasses and a Whistler staff jacket over an orange jersey. We shake hands and chat for a spell about his recent trip to Yellowstone.
He grabs his bike and helmet, and leads me to the patrol entrance where we leapfrog to the head of the lift line. Perhaps I should feel guilty, but I don't. Queue-cutting privilege comes standard with a guide.
Mike Johnstone is the guide of guides at Whistler Mountain Bike Park. | Photo: Nancy Kim
It's sunny and the dirt is tacky. The dread of a pedally trail, forged by a clown who thinks it's funny to put up in my down, is non-existent. This, gentle reader, is la dolce vita.
"What's your goal for the day?" Mike queries.
"I'd like to work on cornering and jumping," I reply. "I can ride Crank it Up and A-Line, but I know I'm not clearing all the jumps."
We head looker's right off Fitz and take a warm-up lap on Easy Does It, a green trail with ample width and a gentle gradient.
"I want you to feel the bike against your right leg on a right-hand turn," Mike explains, delving into the concept of angulation.
I ride behind Mike as he exaggerates the movement of leaning the bike. I scrub before the berm and angulate. I like left for some reason. I pick up speed, too much, and my bike has zero bevel through the turn. Slow it down, I tell myself.
Even seemingly simple skills like leaning your bike into a corner require practice and muscle memory to perfect. | Photo: Logan Swayze, Coast Mountain Photography
It's funny how I presume scrappy technique will morph into buttery perfection after a lap. Mike tells me there's a speed limit to human motor development, 10 percent per day, a slow progression. He and Tom (who earned a degree in sports science) both love to trot out scientific data. I half expect Mike to tell me how much dopamine my brain is releasing as I ride.
On the chairlift, I ask Mike standard biographical questions of place and passion. He grew up in North Vancouver, rode BMX bikes, then transitioned to mountain biking. He guided the infamous North Shore, birthplace of the freeride movement, and was a podium contender in downhill.
I think about American novelist Wallace Stegner who wrote: "Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on, that will be the sort of gauze through which he or she will see all the world afterwards." Mike's prism is rugged and vertiginous. British Columbia's coastal mountain forest is in his DNA.
I ask about the trails in Squamish where he lives, a hallowed playground for connoisseurs of fun. I made my first pilgrimage to Squamish in 1995 to climb Diedre, a classic dihedral route on the Chief's Apron. I know the granite; now I want to discover the dirt. Mike tells me that Alice Lake Provincial Park is lousy with shuttle-accessible trails. My pedal-loathing heart swoons.
The social aspect of guided riding—or any guided adventure for that matter—is cool. I like meeting passionate people and getting to know them and swapping stories and intel. I've taken a lot of chair rides solo and I much prefer having another rider to chat up while I'm soaking in the views.
The key to success is starting small. Mike Johnstone demonstrates popping off the lip of a jump in Whistler's Learning Area. | Photo: Nancy Kim
As we ride, Mike takes care not to over instruct. He calculates when to add the next element, information that can help or hinder my progress depending on the timing. His teaching approach is kinesthetic, focusing on feeling rather than seeing. While there's always a visual component to learning—you often ride behind a guide—the concept of feeling a movement and then programming it to muscle memory through repetition lies at the core.
When we shift to jumping skills, that coaching style becomes more apparent. Mike instructs me to roll the practice jump at the skills center in order to feel the incline of the lip pressing against me, to feel when to press, to dial the timing on the pre-load.
"You remember that game you played as a kid where you put your feet against someone else's and pressed as hard as you could?" he inquired, giving me a kinetic cue to concentrate on my feet.
Mike determines that I have solid fundamentals, and with a little tweaking, I will create more potential energy in the pre-load, thus greater amplitude in the arc. Up until that moment, I don't think I understood why some air felt so lame.
I hit the jump over and over. Then we hit Crank it Up, an intermediate jump line. On the lower section, Mike pulls over to point out the highlight, a forgiving tabletop called the Gentle Giant, so named for its big-air, low-risk nature. It's no coincidence that the jump shape at the learning center matches this one, a prime example of how much forethought Whistler puts into everything.
More than a scenic tour, guides can help provide the skill and confidence necesarry to conqure features like A-Line's famous rock drop. | Photo: Jason Jo, Coast Mountain Photography
We lap Crank It Up and cranked up the speed marginally with each descent. I know my press timing is off, but it will improve with mileage. Mike asks if there was anything else I want to work on.
"I want to do the rock drop on A-Line. Are there progressive features to ride to prepare me for that?" I ask.
He knows exactly where to take me. But the proper training ground is a few thousand feet up, in the Garbanzo Zone. Those trails aren't open yet. I am crestfallen. At least I have something to look forward to on my return trip.
As the day wears on, I start to make small errors in line selection, a sure sign of fatigue. Mike knows before I do that this is a good stopping point. Downhill riding is anaerobic, and the body's ability to perform anaerobically is very limited. Truth be told, I love someone else telling me when to hang it up, when the law of diminishing returns is about to kick in. It's learning to end on a high note before everything turns to rubbish.
My brother-in-law, Steve, isn't a downhill biker but he skis a lot. For years, he has been skiing with a guide. When asked why, he replies with one word: safety. He relies on his guide, who knows his skill level, to take him to the best stashes without sandbagging him.
Whistler bike guides are trained to assess each rider individually and they will tell you, diplomatically, when your desires surpass your abilities. Let's say you and some friends want to ride Top of the World, a bucket-list descent of 5,000 vertical feet from the Peak Chair, with a guide. You can't just throw down a credit card and get guided down the mountain. All riders must first demonstrate proficiency on the lower trails, Tom explains.
Riders must demonstrate proficiency before checking off bucket-list trails like Top of the World with a guide. | Photo: Mitch Winton, Coast Mountain Photography
If you're an advanced rider looking for something different, consider a guide for special access to trails closed to the rank and file. Ride from Peak to Harmony chair via Matthew's Traverse, followed by Pika's Traverse to the Roundhouse. Or start at Top of The World, turn off to Khyber Pass to Middle of Nowhere, connect to Kashmir and Kush and end up at Whistler Creekside.
The biggest downside to hiring a guide is cost. During the high season, a hired gun for a full day (six hours) sets you back $475; a half day (three hours) costs $385. That's a lot of beer. Splitting the tab for a guide is the way to go and a four-to-one client/guide ratio makes the price tag much more palatable.
Sure, you can self-guide and reap the rewards of self-discovery. I've done plenty of that. But if you're looking to up your downhill game while exploring new terrain, the cost of a guide is worth it. A guide is a catalyst to safe progression.
I have countless miles to descend before I'm sending Crabapple Hits, but in the meantime I'm feeling stronger on my bike. Maybe only 10 percent stronger according to the data, but stronger nonetheless. It's early season and I'm reveling in all the steep, rooty, rocky, flowy goodness to come.
Mike tells me about North Shore biking where traction was deemed a "luxury, not a necessity." The same can be said of a guide, but a little indulgence, like a little traction, makes the riding that much sweeter.
-by Nancy Kim