Five riders line up along a ridgeline, tiny action figures wavering against a setting sun. Uncertainty is what it looks like, though there’s little doubt what will come next.
One by one, they push off, their passage a snail’s pace at this distance. But cresting a breakover in the upper part of the slope, their bikes pick up speed, spreading out across the face. One straightlines while the rest execute the kind of sinuous turns one might make in snow. All fight the rim-deep sand and gravel, leaving smoky rooster tails to hang in the still, searing air. As the group descends, a clutch of onlookers at the bottom cheers them on; cameras follow from every compass direction.
If you’re old enough to remember, as I am, it looks like a scene straight out of the Kranked trilogy, the original freeride mountain bike film series launched by Whistler-based Radical Films in the late 1990s. And when the group finally rolls onto the flats at the bottom of Todd Pit outside Kamloops, British Columbia, and the dust—quite literally—settles, the reason for that assessment is clear. Right down to the high-fives, it is a scene out of Kranked, one filmed in this exact spot some 20 years earlier. Or at least as reasonable a facsimile as could be staged by Darcy Turenne, director of The Moment, the award-winning documentary that traces how a handful of radical, localized mountain bike movements in B.C. came together to launch the freeride milieu that now defines the sport.
“There were so many pivotal moments in making the Kranked series, and in bringing freeriding to a larger audience,” Turenne notes. “But everyone involved in the current project thought it was important to try and recreate the most memorable scene from the first film—the gathering at Todd Pit.”
That original gig—in July 1997 for Kranked: Live to Ride—saw directors/producers Christian Begin and Bjorn Enga invite riders from three separate B.C. freeride scenes to meet up in Kamloops for a group shoot. Locals Richie Schley and Brett Tippie would share their favoured playgrounds with Aaron Knowles and Wade Simmons, another Kamloops-born pair then living and riding in Deep Cove on Vancouver’s North Shore, as well as Dave Swetland and Chris Lawrence from Rossland, deep in the Kootenay Mountains. The group shred that day was rife with friendly one-upmanship, an expression-session that offered a precursor of freeride comps to come. “As much as I could, I wanted to gather that same group,” says Turenne. “I came pretty close.”
Lawrence, Simmons, Tippie and Schley were on hand for her shoot in late August 2017, along with Elladee Brown, another Kranked star who graciously stood-in for Dave Swetland, her K2 bike teammate who was lost to a car accident in 2008. The footage makes up The Moment’s final scene, bringing freeriding’s arc of humble beginnings full circle. “I wanted to show that these pioneers still ride bikes, still love it, and are still friends,” offers Turenne, adding, “… even if they mostly act like a bunch of mean siblings with each other.”
Indeed, watching their instant camaraderie, listening to their smack talk, and taking in the day’s proceedings from the base of the pit brought on my own memories, closing an entirely different circle.
In the spring of 1996, I occupied a desk in southern California as Senior Editor of Bike magazine. Launched only two years earlier in 1994, Bike had nevertheless gained fast footing by filling a noticeable void. Where other mountain bike magazines produced covers featuring tried-and-true closeups of top-name, Lycra-clad riders in cross-country, downhill, or night races (a strangely common motif), and populated their content with similar fodder, Bike borrowed its ethos from sister publications Powder and Surfer to channel the wider world of fat-tire culture and the feel of riding.
Without trying too hard, Bike quickly owned the experiential niche—adventure mountain biking, foreign travel, beautiful scenery, stunning photography, irreverent commentary, grassroots scenes. Being all about the sport’s fuzzy edges and farthest-flung singletrack (well-framed, if you please) it wasn’t a huge surprise to receive phone calls from my Whistler-based friends Begin and photographer Eric Berger, both insisting there was something going on in the town of Kamloops that Bike readers should know about. Berger’s take was that what riders here were doing was so far outside the box of mountain biking’s public perception (a received view solidified when cross-country racing debuted at the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta that year) that it begged journalistic investigation. Begin though wont to say the same of anything he was filming—excitedly told me: “What these guys are doing will change the sport.”
Well. That alone might have convinced me, but there was a pièce de résistance. Begin’s B.C. footage had been packaged for an edgy mountain bike film that bike company Specialized had contracted ski-movie impresario Greg Stump to make. From the minute Bike staff gathered to watch an advance copy of Pulp Traction on the office VHS, I was booking a ticket north. The insanity of the off-trail descents it depicted, the high speeds and edge-of-control turns, the BMX-style jumps, the crushing wipe-outs, and the sheer joy and energy of rubes trying to out-duel each other in an unspoken “bike-off” was as stunningly fresh to our eyes as it was horrifying to Specialized, which would never release the film. Though the seeds of everything the sport of mountain biking would become can be found in Pulp Traction, it was nothing compared to what I would see on the ground.
Eventually joining Berger and Begin on a trip to Kamloops, what I witnessed was so crazed, so heart-in-mouth terrifying, that “Sick” became the logical title of my February 1997 cover story, on which then-editor Rob Story upped the ante with an enormous cover blurb: “Drop Everything: B.C.’s sick riders do it wilder and faster than anyone on the planet.” The accompanying photo of Schley on a clay feature called Devil’s Peak did everything to reinforce the proclamation. Influenced by snowboarding and skiing, these renegade riders were echoing that same freedom of the hills by challenging themselves with big, steep descents on natural mountain terrain, clay badland features, and open gravel pits. Outside the box, yes. Interesting, ditto. Worth documenting, definitely. What couldn’t be known was how this vision would indeed change the public’s view of mountain biking’s potential.
Imagery of riders dropping six-metre ledges and railing high-speed lines down talus slopes were unheralded, improbable, even death-defying in an age where bunny-hopping a log was considered rad. But praise and respect wouldn’t accrue easily: this devil-may-care, landscape-ripping style was as upsetting to the mountain bike community as it was eye-opening. Bike companies and trail associations literally freaked out, and the industry wanted nothing to do with what seemed a reckless, equipment-destroying, liability-plagued, redneck milieu. But there was little they could do, as the earthquake had already set in motion an unstoppable tsunami. Besides, it turned out that the Kamloops crew weren’t the sport’s only hinterland pariahs.
At the same time, on Vancouver’s dank North Shore, an enigmatic group influenced by trials riding were engineering and building elevated, high-consequence structures known as “skinnies” above the rainforest floor. It could be argued—and was—that what “Dangerous Dan” Cowan, Todd “Digger” Fiander, Wade Simmons and others in the North Shore scene were doing was far bolder and ballsier than the Kamloops clay-bluff scene, which one wag likened to “a beach scene.” Certainly moody photos by the likes of John Gibson and Sterling Lorence showing riders making fog-shrouded drops of several metres into wet, log-jammed understory did nothing to dispel the notion.
Regardless, the industry wanted nothing to do with this circus, either. And so, these very separate subcultures, connected at first only by the spirit of freedom and challenge each fostered, would be fused together with other fringe elements by Kranked. When the film became a mega-hit, it forever changed the way mountain biking was marketed. Begin’s enthusiasms had been prescient: it actually did change the sport. Keening to public interest, the industry had to take notice and adapt, soon enough elevating many from the original Kranked crew onto teams comprising the sport’s first sponsored freeriders.
This slice of time in 1996–1998 was a passion-fuelled moment that could only happen once, a story filled with both gravity and gravitas that has long begged telling. Which brings us back to Todd Pit.
Darcy Turenne had just finished a long-term film project and wasn’t sure she wanted to take on another when Christian Begin approached her with a movie idea. “He told me he had this freeride mountain bike film he wanted to do but felt he was too close to it and needed an outside filmmaker. He appreciated my focus on storytelling, and we agreed that what he was talking about was a documentary and not a sports film, and that it should go much deeper than just a chronological history.”
In the end, Turenne, a former mountain bike pro herself, couldn’t resist, and jumped in. Soon, as predicted, it became her life.
“My background helped me to handle the subject matter, but it was funny how little I knew about the history. I grew up in the mountain bike community as a competitive freerider but came in just past the first generation of freeriders. So, I basically thought freeriding always existed and it never crossed my mind how it had evolved. That part has been really enlightening.”
After a Kickstarter campaign that helped fund all the post-production bells and whistles of a solid feature film, The Moment was released in November 2017 to rave reviews, which followed it on a worldwide tour. “There have been ups and downs but in general it has been fun. These characters became my companions for a whole year,” she chuckles. “I just edited the helmet cam stuff and was laughing my head off. Also, the movie’s opening with Greg Stump talking about Pulp Traction is way too funny.”
And her takeaway after thirty-some interviews and scanning through hundreds of hours of archival footage?
“What I realized at Todd Pit was that even if they weren’t being filmed, these guys would have been doing this stuff regardless. They were just a bunch of passionate riders who wanted to share what they were doing, and none of them had any idea what they were starting. If it wasn’t them it would have been someone else… but how it became them is the story I’m telling.”
Excerpted from Mountain Life Annual 2018/19.