War of the Woods - Mountain Bike Mecca
By Justin Beddall
May 19 2005
Does a tourist mountain bike economy exist on the North Shore?
Or, are mountain bikers just spinning their economic wheels here - crashing on friend's sofas and scarfing down Kraft Dinner?
Richard Juryn, events producer for the North Shore Credit Union World Mountain Bike Festival and Conference, hopes to debunk the myth that the mountain biking demographic doesn't bring money into the local economy.
That's why he's scheduled speaker Dafydd Davis at the upcoming conference on June 1 to discuss an overseas mountain bike tourism success story. Davis has played a pioneering role in the creation of "purpose-built" mountain bike trails in Wales and other parts of England.
"The biggest question there is, and Ernie [Crist] brings it up all the time, is there is no such thing as a mountain biking tourist economy: it doesn't happen," says Juryn. "We've got a guy coming who's got the hard facts that mountain bikers do travel, they are destination tourists, they do spend significant money.
"Mountain biking already is a $30 million dollar a year business on the North Shore."
Juryn sees many parallels between the situation Davis faced in the U.K. a decade ago and the current plight of mountain biking on the Shore today.
"Do we really want lots of recreational access? Can our forests and the environment sustain a tourist mountain-bike economy? Will it destroy the hillside? Do mountain bikers really spend money?"
Davis should help to debunk those myths. By creating sustainable mountain bike trails in an area in Wales called Coed y Brenin, he proved to local government and the Wales Tourist Board that mountain bike trails were good for locals - and, perhaps just as importantly, the local economy.
The area went from getting 10,000 riders a year to 150,000-plus a year and now brings several million pounds per year into the local economy.
Davis, who has created more than 200 kilometres of sustainable trails, was honoured by the Queen with a Civil Order of the British Empire (MBE).
"I'm really excited that he's coming," Juryn said. "They've done it. It's working for the local people; it's working for the tourists. It's bringing money in to the economy, it is sustainable. That's cool because we are in the state here where nobody's really collected stats."
While there's no denying the fact that tourists - both locally and globally - are riding the trails of the North Shore, at this point it's all anecdotal.
"Nobody's ever done the proper sort of tourist studies, the entrance and exit studies, and interviewed people to ask 'How many people are coming, how long have you stayed, how much money do you figure you'll spend when you're here.'
"Nobody's done the tangible things to get proper stats," Juryn explained.
To illustrate his point, Juryn reads a quote by B.C. Chamber of Commerce CEO John Winter a few years back: "As well, one of the North Shore's thriving businesses and recreation is in danger of being shut down by this council - I refer to mountain biking. The positive impact of which communities all over the province can only dream about. What are they doing over there in North Vancouver?"
That's not to say, of course, that some haven't already realized the North Shore's potential as a world-class mountain-bike destination.
Donna Green, a mountain bike rider with a masters degree in tourism marketing, started Ride the Shore Inc. in 2003, a company that specializes in providing customized trips for experienced riders into the Shore's famous network of trails.
Her company takes care of everything for travelling bike tourists: trail maps and guides, bike rentals and booking local accommodation.
"I believe [the North Shore] has huge potential," she said. "There's basically no marketing going on for the North Shore."
Other than her website, Green's main form of advertising is a classified ad in the back of Bike magazine.
"I get a fair number of calls," she said, noting that most of the riders come from the U.S. and England.
Green, who also works for Tourism B.C., said the myth that bikers don't spend money when they travel is a misnomer.
"It's totally wrong," she said.
For instance, Green said a group of four riders from the U.K. who came to B.C. for two weeks last year to ride the Shore, Squamish and Whistler dropped at least $10,000 while on vacation. She said her clients length of stay varies from someone in town for a conference who wants to get a day of mountain biking in to groups who plan to ride for several weeks. While some bring their bikes, others rent while they're here.
"There's a huge potential for bike rentals here."
Juryn said there's no question riders from around the world are flocking to the Shore.
"We've got a situation that most communities would die for. We've got a place that's known around the world: We've got a world class destination. It's not being marketed at all. The marketing is word of mouth, videos, trade publications, pictures, websites - there's no real trail maps, there's no real trail signage, there's no real rentals, there's no service industry around it."
Still Juryn is quick to admit there are mountain bike-related issues that need to be addressed before the sport on the North Shore can be properly mapped out.
"One of the things we're saying is let's get the whole group of North Shore stakeholders together and lets talk about this stuff. And let's figure out what we want it to look like.
"The reason the top of Mountain Highway has all those resident problems is because 10 years ago, as it started to grow, nobody pulled everybody aside and said, 'OK we've got something growing here; what are we going to do about it.'
"Let's get together and make a plan and figure out as it grows how we're going to deal with parking lots or whatever.' There are situations that need to be handled."
Another important topic at the conference will be the answer to a fundamental question: Are trails good for the communities?
"If trails are constructed properly they're good for health, something that everybody in North America is concerned about. Trails get people out and active.
"Trails are good emotionally and spiritually: anybody who goes in and hikes, or bikes, or horseback rides or trail runs will obviously do it because they feel better when they come out. Trails are actually good for the environment. Because if you have a good, well-constructed trail then people stay on the trail.
"Mountain bikers don't want to go riding through swamps, we want single-track, we want the smallest footprint possible to get a single bike through."
Currently, Juryn said North American and international riders are packing their bikes and heading to the North Shore and Whistler, but Whistler is taking in most of the tourist dollars. "What's happening now is, by and large, people are coming to ride the North Shore for a day or two and going to Whistler for the rest of their vacation and riding the park and guess where they spend most of their money?"
Trail-building pioneer Todd "Digger" Fiander figures mountain biking will one day be bigger than skiing, bringing in the same sort of adventure tourists who spend their bucks on heli-skiing or other big adventures. "People are going to save up their money and go to Vancouver."
War of the Woods -The bike shop business boom
John Henry bike shop owner Willie Cromack had no idea the impact mountain biking would have on his North Van business when he opened 13 years ago.
By Jennifer Maloney (Rob Newell photo)
May 19 2005
Long before snowboarding was accepted into the mainstream, ambitious borders were surfing the snow on makeshift boards in B.C.'s rugged back-country.
The renegade sport has since shredded into the Olympic Games, garnering as much media hype and arguably as many retail sales as traditional skiing. A North Shore bike shop owner sees a parallel emerging with mountain biking.
"For us the growth is happening within the major population," explains Willie Cromack in his swag-strewn office at the John Henry bike shop in North Vancouver. "It's a little bit like snowboarding was in the days when you weren't allowed to snowboard on the mountain. The first people that broke the ground aren't the pulse anymore and that's good because it means it's established then."
John Henry opened its doors on the North Shore 13 years ago, when mountain biking was still an underground sport. At the time, Cromack said his family had no idea the activity would become the epicenter of their business.
"It was just starting. We actually had no idea the impact it would have," he admits. "At the end of the day it's sustained this business up until today. It's the reason we've been able to stay a solid business."
Roughly 90 per cent of the 15,000 square foot store's sales are related to mountain biking, attracting customers from across the globe. Even the shop's staff have immigrated across Canada and overseas to be a part of what Cromack refers to as an emerging culture.
"So many people want to be working around the industry," he explains. "We don't always have to sell to the community at large. You have to take care of them, but sometimes in the middle of summer it feels like a bit of a resort. The concept is like Whistler. Whistler's market is outside the country. The same thing applies here. You get a large number of people walking in the door and you may never see them again.
"The fundamental thing is this is where the vibe of mountain biking is coming from. It's like the North Shore of Hawaii but to mountain biking."
Since John Henry opened, sales have increased by 20 per cent every year. The store has nearly doubled its original 8,000 square footage and is only now starting to see a bit of a plateau, mostly due to the high volume of locals who are already equipped with quality bikes, Cromack says.
Even with a slight dip in the number of extreme riders, the future of mountain biking looks strong. This is apparent in the store's supply for young generations, who can no longer buy a BMX or road bike.
"All you can get now is a kid's bike that's a mountain bike," he says. "They're durable, they have BMX style and they can ride them anywhere. They don't break as easily and they have gears to keep up with mom and dad."
The store sells about 1,000 kids' bikes a year. The average price of a mountain bike is $1,000, but religious riders will spend 10 times that amount for a sweet ride.
While the store has thrived off the sport's success, Cromack is quick to point out the economic benefits have spread to local sectors. The pubs for one, are popular stops for thirsty riders, and with the hockey season at a halt, Cromack notes businesses are happy to accommodate the year-round activity.
"It really has a deeper impact on businesses around us as well," he says. "We buy signs from the sign shops and cars from local dealers. The stronger we are as a culture, the more it helps the businesses around us keep strong.
"People want to ride here because of where they are," he continued. "The overall culture is on the North Shore. Bikes are just so prevalent. It's almost unfathomable to know how much money is being spent."
Dan Sedlacek, 33, was well aware of the impact mountain bikers were having on the North Shore when he opened On Top Bike Shop in March of '96 because he was one of them. It was the beginning of free riding, when pioneers of the sport were building a lot of the trails in the Alpine area. Although some shops were already retailing mountain bike gear, Sedlacek and his brother John saw a niche.
"Our focus was free ride right from the start," Sedlacek says sipping a coffee outside his Lonsdale-based store. "I met a good crew that was actively involved in [mountain biking]. I could see they needed a shop that catered toward their style of riding that built bikes with the performance needed, really, for this style of riding."
As they started testing more difficult terrain, it became apparent to Sedlacek and his fellow riders that suspension was needed on their bikes as well as a place to repair and maintain them. The Sedlaceks' shop started a service department, which maintains 40 per cent of its business today.
"Because of the demand in riding and the hours people actually spend on their bike, maintenance and service repairs is a large part of our business," Sedlacek says. "We've developed super solid brands of bikes. There's been huge development in the last seven or eight years in suspension, suspension frames and brakes. It's incredible the gains in technology in these areas and we've really catered to that market so, it's huge growth in that respect."
The small business has tripled in size in the last nine years with the other 60 per cent of sales coming from its retail component, which includes everything from machine components to streetwear and armour. The store's latest expansion is a 1,000 square foot area devoted to armour and technical gear.
"Armour is a big thing - helmets, safety, gloves - it's more than just buying a bike, you have to gear up as well," Sedlacek explains. "If you're a beginning rider, a young kid on a trail bike with helmet, gloves and armour can spend about $900 to a thousand. For some of our avid cyclists, where a big part of their life is cycling, I've seen investments of $7,000 for a bike in itself."
While helmets can be bought for as little as $30, Sedlacek said it's not uncommon for avid riders to spend $599 on a carbon fibre Troy-Lee Helmet to protect their heads. Roughly half of the six lines of armour On Top carries, are designed or developed locally, however most manufacturing is done in China or Taiwan. The store's machine components such as chain rings, guides and stems, are made by eNVy, another local company that markets North Vancouver through its name. While Sedlacek agrees there is some novelty in buying North Shore products simply because the area is seen as a mecca for mountain bikers, he said the products are valued for another reason.
"Being such a challenging area and with the weather it's almost like a time machine out here for developing product. If it's done out in North Vancouver you know it's a high calibre product because that's what the North Shore demands."
While Sedlacek doesn't expect business to expand as rapidly in the next few years as it has in the past, he predicts the sport will continue to thrive in the community.
"There's just so many positives to the sport and recreation of mountain biking, that it attracts many people and the spin offs are gained by everybody in the local community: restaurants, gas stations, corner stores, pubs, hotels," he says. "Financially that's a great reward, but the biggest reward is the activity itself and the healthy lifestyle, getting in the forest that we're so fortunate to have.
"It's pretty rewarding seeing 12-year-olds with incredibly advanced bike handling skills just because they naturally grow up in this area. That's why we have so many top athletes out here."
War of the Woods Business goes into high gear
A trip to a bike shop in search of bar pads over a decade ago led Jay Hoots (above) to create a thriving mountain bike gear and accessory business.
By Jennifer Maloney (Rob Newell photo)
May 19 2005
Donning dreads, knee-length shorts and an energy that makes one think he'd embrace any one's neighbour, Jay Hoots does not come across as a stereotypical entrepreneur. While anything but typical, Hoots' possesses the entrepreneurial spirit that has pushed him to build a local empire out of his passion for mountain biking.
"We believe it's not a matter of creating armour for if you get hurt," Hoots says from a sunken chair at a Lonsdale coffee shop. "It's creating armour for when you get hurt."
Hoots comes from a BMX background and was used to wearing protective gear while racing off dirt ramps and popping tricks. The concept of mountain bike armour, however, didn't exist 13 years ago when he and his peers were pioneering a subculture that the North Shore is today internationally recognized for.
It was the purchase of an expensive mountain bike that led Hoots into a Vancouver bike shop in search of a protective bar pad, but what he found was a simple design of foam and material that carried a price tag of $25.
Unsatisfied with his shopping venture, he went home to create the first Hoots' bar pads, in which he put foam both in and outside of the products, hand drawing unique labels on each one. He took them back to the shop, which agreed to sell them.
"It was a tester to see if I was interested in doing it," Hoots explains. "It was also a demonstration of what I thought I should get for $25."
Vancouver-based companies like Roach and CoreRat were starting to get into mountain biking armour, but the friends Hoots was riding with were going beyond the protocol of what the stores could offer. That soon became the epiphany of Hoots armour.
His workshop started with the purchase of a 1934 sewing machine, equipped with a large hand wheel, which he bought at a garage sale for $60. He fixed the machine's motor using leather shoelaces and began using the handwheel to punch through quarter inch foam, which he opted to use in place of the bulky half inch foam found in most pads at the time. He started out making shin and kneepads using North Shore Plastics, which used heated guns and a vacuum to create the plastic. Local students shaped the substance on to molds. At home, Hoots sewed and riveted the pads onto the plastic molds finishing about 150 in the first year. The gear was sold at local shops like John Henry, Dizzy Cycles and On Top Bike Shop.
"I took the best parts of other sports pads and kept 99 per cent of the protection, but lightened it to make it breathable," he explains. "If you're getting into trouble you're taught to jump off the bike. In skateboarding the first thing you do is go to your knees. There's no reason that philosophy can't work in the forest - in fact it works better."
The next phase he embarked on was a clothing line, which he'd created from home after returning from his day job. Hoots spent nights at the library reading books on screen printing, from which he learned how to build his own clothing press.
He started out hand printing the T-shirts and hoodies himself, but soon hired four seamstresses - half of whom were retired - to keep up with the demand.
It was also at that time that the May 1998 edition of Bike, an influential American publication, came out lauding the North Shore for having the "sickest" riding trails on the continent.
"All of the sudden, I was inundated with international orders," Hoots recalls. "America, Australia and Germany were buying like crazy. It was absolutely insane. I was getting cash orders, and everytime I sent out an order somewhere, I had a new product. That was a huge benchmark."
Hoots moved to six seamstresses from four, but they were just meeting orders and the demand was getting stronger.
"I could only screen print so much and then it started to get very intense," Hoots remembers with frustration. "I was ready to sell my soul."
While the whirlwind of a surging business proved tough at times, Hoots found a mentor in his brother-in-law's friend who had started a windsurfing distribution company called Trident Performance Sports. In 2001, Hoots decided to partner with the company, which took over the business from a distance providing research and development as well as structure and financial background. Hoots remains in creative control of Hoots Gear and still custom makes special orders like the high school uniforms for Rockridge school's mountain biking team. All of the six local seamstresses except one have since slowed down or stopped working for the company, which now does most of its manufacturing out of China. Last year, Hoots Gear did just over 200,000 units in sales, a third of these were international orders from as far as Australia, Italy and the Czech Republic.
"We're not a big shop that does tons and tons of business," says Hoots. "We do under a million dollar sales a year, but we understand to be a pro rider you need to be protected. People with responsibilities can't afford to get hurt."
With a whole new contingency of young riders emerging on the North Shore and beyond however, the local entrepreneur is planning on taking the concept of mountain biking armour to a whole new level, which he expects will triple sales in the next two years.
"We're about to converge on the next level of technical advancement going from a small company that's been borrowing technology to actually creating our own," Hoots confesses, but is tight-lipped when pressed for details on the new line. "I'll leave you guessing."
The first phase of Hoots' new gear is expected to be in stores in 2006 with the second phase planned for 2007. For more information on Hoots visit www.hootsgear.com
War of the Woods - Extreme box office
In addition to building epic trails, 'Digger' has found his calling as a video producer. Here, he holds up his latest, NSX 8: Cease and Desist.
By Justin Beddall (Rob Newell photo)
May 19 2005
Todd "Digger" Fiander's started filmmaking with a handicam Duct-taped to his mountain bike helmet.
For fun, he started filming his buddies as they rode the North Shore trails, documenting the thrilling stunt-riding - and rim-busting spills -that had come to define the new style of riding in these parts.
He added a soundtrack and took it down to a local bike shop to watch it with some fellow riders. "Someone came in and said 'Wow, where can I buy that.'"
Fiander decided to create a video called North Shore Extreme, which is now one of the most widely watched mountain bike video series in the world.
So far reaching, in fact, that when Digger dropped by a friend's house who had a Japanese home-stay student, he was instantly recognized. "It sold around the world," he said.
These days, Fiander's Know Fear production company recently released North Shore Extreme 8: Cease and Desist, described like this: "Digger's legacy has returned with his 8th installment of the North Shore Extreme series. Continuing on his quest for sicker and bigger trails, he has been slapped with a Cease and Desist order from the North Shore District of Environmental Protection and Preservation Bylaw. With a shovel and stealth-like techniques, Digger has once again risen to the calling and continued building his world famous trails. The next installment continues to mesmerize and capture the attention of all bikers everywhere."
He is currently filming a ninth installment. "It's pretty tough to get nice shots," Digger explained.
Dangerous Dan, who has appeared in all of the videos and even provided some music for the soundtracks, said the videos represent a seminal moment in the history of mountain biking on the North Shore.
"I would say NSX has had a profound effect, it has changed mountain biking forever - it displayed and introduced a new type of riding to the world."
Cam McRae, a longtime North Shore mountain bike rider and founder-slash-editor of e-magazine nsmb.com, agrees.
"Digger's videos showed Joe rider what's possible on the Shore. Before I saw any of his films we just rolled down steep stuff. Afterwards we began trying to 'wheelie drop' off.
"Then the top riders in the video started riding off and launching without pedaling so we began to try that. By exposing the cutting edge Digger has brought everyone's riding level up and inspired other trail builders to stay ahead of the curve as well."
John Sedacek, co-owner of On The Top bike shop, says Digger's videos fly off the shelves. "[The videos are] very popular. It's definitely made sport bigger. More people want to ride."
While Digger's NSX and other mountain bike video series like Kranked continue to use the North Shore as the backdrop for their videos, there's also interest to turn the North Shore into an actual video game.
Rumours have persisted for the past three years that Burnaby-based EA Sports is interested in developing a game based on North Shore freeriding legends, which would likely translate into huge gaming sales.
Digger, meanwhile, isn't sure exactly how many of his videos have sold world-wide. "It's in the thousands," he said.
For Digger, filming and building trails is a labour of love - not a money-making venture - taking up approximately 80 per cent of his time.
"I'm seven days a week. I've spent more time building trails than I did working any job. It's just too much fun," Digger smiled.