RESISTING REINVENTION
Bike|March/April 2020
NELSON, B.C., IS ONE OF THE LAST DWINDLING HOLDOUTS OF OLD-SCHOOL DH IN NORTH AMERICA. THESE ARE THE PEOPLE KEEPING IT ALIVE.
MATT COTE

Eric Wahn looks like he’s competing in a World Cup DH race, only on a trail twice as steep. He weaves between old-growth fir and hemlock with statuesque form, slamming his bike into corners with mere flicks of his weight. Where most people’s brakes would be cooked, Wahn isn’t even using his.

My host, fast as he may be, is no racer, though— he’s a 31-year-old professional forester, and this is just how he rides. That’s because his hometown of Nelson, British Columbia, is one of the last places on earth that still holds a raft of this style of riding: steep, deep, technical, and really scary. While mountain biking as a whole has been sanitized over the last decade and smoothed out for smaller bikes, Nelson remains a throwback to the unsanctioned terror of yesteryear.

The hills above the Queen City of the Kootenays are still laced with the work of the sport’s most demented heyday. The picturesque lakeside town, known for its soft-sided arts and culture, has paradoxically maintained some of the most rugged mountain bike trails in North America. In Canada’s westernmost province, Nelson might just be making DH’s last stand.

Ride to the Hills

When prospectors first found silver on Toad Mountain in the late 1800s, a nearly lawless frenzy of resource extraction ensued. Fortune-seeking miners then built a townsite right on the steep hill wedged against the shore of Kootenay Lake. In 1897, that town was incorporated as the City of Nelson, with Victorian-style granite buildings becoming its longstanding marquee. By the early 1900s, dissident Russian Doukhobors (an agrarian Christian sect) began tilling the nearby valley bottoms, and also sowed anti-establishment thinking. In the 1970s, American draft dodgers followed suit, finding Nelson a well-serviced hideout in the thick B.C. jungle. Throughout, resource extractors carved roads all up and down the Selkirk Mountains, providing unique egress to the high bounty directly above town. In the 1990s, Nelson began to transition to tourism, and a new set of pioneers arose, using these same roads to forge one of the earliest crucibles of mountain biking in the province.

Thirty years later, those original trails are still running, and many of the new ones aren’t much different. Somewhere in the dark, canopied fetch of Giving out Creek, I watch the forest floor explode in bursts of dry duff and fir cones as Wahn—alongside Russ Fountain, Kevin Weinert, Brad Panton, and Kurt Sorge—braid turns down Gnarly Daniels, a classic ‘rake and ride’ line littered with sniper takeoffs and natural hips. Wahn and Panton track as true as they can, while Sorge and Weinerth skid their bikes back and forth in the loam, barely using the trail.

“I love that there are no catch berms and you just have to skid your tires,” Sorge tells me at the bottom, flippant to the onerous rigors of modern mountain biking. “That’s what we grew up riding.”

With the number of people on these trails likely fewer than 100 a year, skidding is still a technique you can use here. At 32 years old, Sorge, the first guy to ever win Red Bull Rampage three times, was raised in this surfy tradition. Nelson has, in fact, produced more Rampage participants than any town outside the Coast region of B.C. Secluded in the Kootenays, Sorge inherited his style from seminal Nelson forebears like Mike Kinrade, Robbie Bourdon and Joe Schwartz. Today, his contemporaries include Alex Volkhov and Garett Buehler. But more often than not he’s riding with guys you’ve never heard of, all equally as skilled, but happy under the radar in their quiet Kootenay locale.

“Maybe in Whistler you can find a bit of this stuff,” Sorge says. “But you can go ride anywhere and it won’t be gnarlier than the gnarliest stuff we ride in Nelson. To train for Rampage, I’ll just ride Gnarly Daniels as fast as I can.”

Wahn, a tall fellow with a disarmingly academic vocabulary, personally helps maintain Gnarly Daniels and has Heavy known dirt, Sorge broken since shovels, they and were digging both 10. Today, Sorge until good calls after him dark. the fastest These are the guy the in raw town because the materials won that beer go league into each DH build. series Heroic last season—a loose amounts set of backbreaking local races. labor “I’m going to craft to a come out and temporarily beat him like this that year,” often Sorge gets destroyed jokes, his frayed mane as reaching soon as to it is about ridden. Wahn’s chin.

While the latter uses a fairly standard DH setup—low and long with 27.5-inch wheels—Sorge actually retrofits his IAN bike COLLINSwith 26-inch wheels to make it more playful and jump-friendly: the opposite of fast. He’s not alone. Nelson, on the whole, has been slow to adopt the big-wheel movement. It’s still typical to see people using old 26er DH bikes here. They’re cheap, tough, and work in the air.

“It’s kind of like an old mindset from filming, to build stunts the whole way down,” Sorge says. “Now everybody just wants flow. Meanwhile, these guys are keeping up all the sickest trails.”

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