(this article was also published on Pinkbike.com, for a slightly shorter version with different pictures you can also see it there)
For most of their existence, bike parks have been the domain of the hardcore freerider downhiller, but as time rolled on these hardcore twenty-somethings hit their early thirties and became new parents before raising a herd of full-fledged groms some years after that. As this progression took place, bike parks have recognized that their demographics have expanded and whole families of travelling bikers were making their way to the grass covered ski hills. The trick, though, is how to make sure your grom has the best bike park experience so that they’ll want to come back to do it all over again.
This article talks specifically about the Whistler Bike Park, but the points below are applicable to any bike park or trail center in the world.
With events like Kidsworx (hosted in parallel with Crankworx every year), Whistler Blackcomb has been at the forefront of the youth movement. Whistler also invites the kids into racing fun throughout the summer with a few ‘Phat Kids’ DH races (when the local beer league takes a week off), and it’s also home to what’s got to be one of the world’s premier bike daycamps, DFX. Obviously Whistler has some of the best biking in the world, but it’s also home to some spectacular lakes, constant events and festivals, and world class amenities that make it a pretty easy sell for all around great family summer vacation.
If the Whistler Bike Park is on your itinerary and your grom is ready to have the rides of her/his life, then here’s a rundown of what they’ll need and what to expect.
The Whistler Bike Park requires that all bikes have hand operated brakes for the front and back wheels, so they must have that skill mastered. Beyond that, if your grom is comfortable on the local BMX track, gaining speed on the downhills in order to make the ups, they shouldn’t have any problem stepping into the green-level trails in the park. They should also be able to comfortably roll off medium sized curbs that are high enough for them to need to shift their body weight back to ride out comfortably.
If they’ve got these two skills down, then they’re ready.
Now that you feel comfortable that your grom is ready for the park, you’ll need to ensure that their bike is also ready to go. As we all know, the bike can be what makes the difference between your grom having the time of his or her life in the bike park, or ending up hating life that day (and likely taking you down with them).
Brakes – Great brakes are necessary, and I don’t mean good as in they work great for skids in the driveway – I mean hydraulic disc brakes ideally with a reach adjust feature. The bike park takes a serious toll on your hands, especially at the beginning of the season. Add that to the fact that your grom is going to be riding the brakes and holding onto the grips for dear life all day and you get the picture of why great brakes matter. Your grom’s grip strength isn’t super high to begin with, and the last thing you want is an incident due to the fact that they can’t apply enough force to the lever to slow themselves down when needed.
Being able to adjusting the reach of the lever makes things more comfortable, especially when they’re going to be used so often.
Front Suspension – The bike also needs good front suspension. The thing is that most kid’s bikes, even the relatively high-end ones, have terrible suspension forks. You can see how well their fork is working, at least in terms of travel being used, in the same way you’d do on your own fork: by using an o-ring or zip-tie on the stanchion tube to see if the fork is moving enough relative to your child’s weight and the terrain. Take him or her out for a ride and keep an eye on how much travel is being used – the less it’s moved, the less the suspension has engaged. Now consider that all the rest of the bumps have been absorbed by their arms and wrists, then consider how big the bumps and ruts of Whistler are relative to your grom. If their bike suffers from an under-performing fork, don’t be shy about taking it to your local shop and seeing if there’s anything that can be done, we’ve seen some incredible performance transformations at the hands of innovative bike-techs over the years.
Rear suspension – This isn’t necessary, but it’s a really good idea. Not only will rear suspension smooth out the landings when your grom catches a bit of air, it also makes it easier for them to hold a line on the trail. Good rear suspension can also help conserve their energy, meaning that you’re more likely to get a few extra runs in over a hardtail.
Renting a Bike – As grom parents we have a lot invested in the prospect of our rippers having a good time, and if you’re willing to put down the money, your grom will almost certainly enjoy things more on a high-performance full-suspension setup. Summit Sport, which is just across from the gondola, rents out Lil’ Shredder Prodigy bikes, which are the gold standard in 20″ wheeled mountain bikes (and can also accommodate 16″ wheels). For 24″ wheeled bikes they also rent the Lil’ Shredder Phenom, or you could head over to the Whistler Blackcomb rental area and pick up a 24″ Giant Yukon.
The bad news is there’s a very good chance that your grom is going to fall at least once or twice in the bike park – it’s part of the sport. The good news is that there’s all sorts of gear to minimize the tears that will come from leaving the bike in a hurry.
Full Face Helmet – This is non-negotiable. Make sure your grom wears a full face helmet in the park. If they don’t have one, rent one.
Padding – Another must-have, and not just little elbow and knee pads, either, but forearms and especially shins. Pedal strikes and minor tumbles are going to happen, and while protecting your grom from the bigger bails is necessary, minimizing the minor bumps and bruises will keep the smiles lasting longer. Gloves are another requirement. It’s what they’re going to land on, not to mention that bike parks are hard on the hands in general. A hydration pack is also nice to have on your back in case they get thirsty, but there’s also water fountains at the top and bottom of the hill.
What to Keep in Mind
Lower your expectations. Riding the park can be difficult, and unless your grom is an endurance rockstar on your home trails, they’re going to get tired pretty quickly. And let’s not forget that the park can be intimidating for a kid… do you remember your first time? But it’s more than made up for with the exhilaration factor.
When it comes to lift tickets, it might pay to think short-term. While the Whistler Bike Park offers a pretty decent discount on lift tickets, there’s probably little chance that your grom’s first day will last longer than three or four laps. For this reason, consider a ‘Sampler’ ticket, which is good for up to three laps. It’s meant to allow a rider to get a taste of the park without committing to an entire day, and it’s a little more than half the price of a full-day ticket. If they’re loving it, you can just upgrade it later by paying the difference. Everybody wins.
They’re going to bail, and when they do (and you’ve assessed that they’re not in need of EMS attention) make a big deal of it! It’s awesome! Mountain biking is a burly sport and they just took a hit, can walk it off, and get back on their bike! Creating a positive connection with falling not takes a bit of the fear out of the ride, encouraging them to try more things on the bike without being so concerned with leaving the bike. You’ll probably find that at the end of the day they’ll be bragging to people about the (in their minds) spectacular crashes they had as much as any other element of the ride.
Ideally, you’ll be able to pre-ride and scope out the trails ahead of time because the ratings they’re given in the park don’t provide a comprehensive understanding of what the trails include. If you don’t have that chance, I’d recommend staring out on ‘Easy Does It’, which has had a lot of work lately and is a great introduction to banked corners. Also, some smaller trails can be accessed from Easy Does It that are a great introduction to tighter riding without being too intimidating.
Then it’s on to a perennial favourite, B-Line. B-Line is smooth, fun, and has lots of pull-outs to let riders pass safely, most of which have a good view up the trail so you’ll know when it’s a good time to drop back into the trail and continue riding. Whistler has a pretty good rundown of how your day might progress, but keep in mind that, for the groms specifically, smooth trails are the key. Those brake ruts or rocky bits that riders complain about are far worse when the rider is half your height and a quarter your weight.
Always ride behind your grom, at least until they get to the point where they’re leaving you in the dust. This not only allows you to see how they’re doing, it also puts a physical barrier (you) between them and the odd racer-boy that thinks he owns the trail and should pass wherever and whenever he feels like it. It should be said that these jerks are very few and far between, and that 99% of the riders you’ll encounter will holler encouragement and offer high-fives rather than do or say anything negative – with about sixty days of park riding with my grom in the past couple of seasons, I’ve only had one bad experience.
Got an enduro / trail bike for yourself? Bring it! If you’ve ever ridden a full-on DH sled, you’re familiar with that feeling of riding an engineering marvel that’s core purpose is go fast, it’s something that rides better the less you brake, and feels like a caged monster that just wants you to let go of the reigns and let it fly. Riding this sort of bike with your grom will make both you and your bike cry. You’ll always be on the brakes, riding their back wheel, and wishing you could just go fast for a little bit. A heavy trail or enduro bike is much better suited for the trails you’ll be hitting with your grom and the speeds you won’t be hitting.
You’re also going to go through brake pads quickly while following your grom down the trail. Your larger and heavier body is going to be fighting gravity more to keep from gaining momentum, and it’s going to be a bit of a strain on your fingers and your brake pads. You may want to consider longer-lasting sintered pads for your trip, as I personally go through pads twice as fast on my trail bike even though I spend more time riding my DH sled.
And what about one of the most intimidating aspects of anyone’s first time to a bike park… loading the bike onto the lift in front of everyone. Depending on your grom’s age or size, getting their bike on the lift the first few time can be rough. Never fear, your friendly neighbourhood lifty is always around to help. Just wave and make eye contact and they’ll totally hook your little riding buddy up (or more specifically, hook their bike up to the lift). There’s also the option to go up on the gondola, but be aware that there aren’t any beginner-friendly trails past mid-station, although the top does have some pretty good food.
After the Ride
After you’re done, hit up the GLC or anywhere where you can sit down and relax with an apple juice for them and a beer for you, and talk about all the awesome things you did together that day. Review how much improvement was made and all the different features you hit together, and let your grom describe all the awesome trails in the park to the rest of the family. In short, make them the hero who slayed the bike park! Hopefully these stories will be retold in the playgrounds and at school, and will lead to an excitement to return to face the bike park once again.
You’ve likely spent the better part of a lifetime developing your love for all things biking, and this introduction to park riding is a delicate time. If your grom loves it, it could lead to a WAY better selection in family vacations and weekend getaways. Then again, it could also be a day filled with tears and regrets. The most important thing is that you help them discover what they like about riding, whether it’s big corners, table-top hits, or just riding doubletrack while making motorcycle noises. Do this right and you could have a riding buddy for life, or at least until they drop you and prefer riding with their friends who can keep up.