Travelling to other cities to compete in speedboarding, Mike Sanders learned firsthand what others thought of Edmonton as an extreme sport destination: “Flatlanders,” says the co-owner of Edmonton skateboard shop Local 124, “that’s what they’d call us.”
It may be a “Festival City,” a “City of Champions,” and the “Gateway to the North,” but there’s no billboard proclaiming Edmonton as a city of adventure.
But this “flat” reputation belies the true nature of the local scene. Here, adventure is a fire-breathing dragon with a scaly back, hiding in a dark cave. It’s there, but you have to look for it. And, when you find it, you better be ready.
Many so-called “extreme” sports like mountain biking can seem inaccessible, even intimidating. Marketing is partly responsible for this, as is media, but it’s also the nature of the sports themselves.
Unlike formal, organized sports there are few coaches, rules or schedules to follow, which can sometimes leave novices feeling sidelined, and unsure about where to begin. In sports that are predominantly male, this is especially true for women.
When Pepper Harlton saddled up for her first ever mountain bike ride, snow still blanketed the North Saskatchewan river valley. It was early spring 2001. Harlton was 15 at the time, and had just discovered DirtGirls Mountain Biking, an upstart women’s riding club.
“My mom worried I was going to come home with scars all over my face,” Harlton says. “My bike was two sizes too big, I wore jeans, a helmet that didn’t fit right and old clunky winter gloves.
“I crashed in the snow probably three or four times. But Kristy [Jacklin, club founder] and the DirtGirls were very encouraging and it was a great environment. I walked away from the first ride super stoked for the next week.”
For the next five years Harlton was a club regular, driving into Edmonton every week from Slave Lake to attend DirtGirls’ rides. She went on to compete in national level cross country mountain biking and cyclocross (a hybrid discipline combining road and trail), earning sponsorships and a berth on the international circuit.
Clearly, Harlton had innate athletic ability, but had she not found the DirtGirls her story might be different. “The DirtGirls were a huge influence for me,” Harlton says. “I owe a lot of my success to the club.”
“Girls have a different approach to action sports. We’re sometimes more hesitant in risky situations, whereas guys will just go for it and evaluate after,” says Jacklin. “We try to create a non-intimidating, supportive vibe.”
Now in its 11th year, the club has a membership of about 100 riders a season with half of them being return members.
For Jacklin, her motivation is the same as when she founded the club – good friends, camaraderie and embracing challenge. “The feeling of accomplishment in being able to best an obstacle is something special, and I just want others to experience that.”
Sheldon Smart, one half of the duo behind Alberta-based blog bikeridr.com, recommends group rides as one of the best ways to get into the sport, adding that pretty much every local bike shop hosts a weekly ride.
Naturally, much of the action centres on the river valley’s network of singletrack, an asset Smart, Harlton and Jacklin all agree is underappreciated.
Though Harlton has ridden trails throughout Canada, the U.S., Europe and Costa Rica, when she returns to her home trails, “It’s hard to want to be anywhere else.”
On top of great singletrack, the river valley’s paved trails have proven a great asset for longboarders, spawning a growing scene and two popular annual races (High Level Downhill and the R.O.G.U.E Race, Aug. 20 and 21 respectively).
The latest generation of skateboards aren’t what they used to be back when Michael J. Fox was killing hearts in Back to the Future. With longer decks, wider wheelbases and beefier wheels, longboards roll along more smoothly than their predecessors. “Longboarding just feels good,” says Sanders. “Carving [banking wide turns, like on a snowboard] is a really great feeling, it’s like surfing.”
That “feel” is a large part of why people participate in sports – after all, shouldn’t it be fun? That was a key reason Shawn Kozurok decided to pick up kiteboarding. “It was an excuse to hang out at the beach and enjoy being outside,” he says.
Basically, kiteboarding involves using a large kite to harness wind power, thereby generating lift and momentum to board across water. Despite its popularity in Latin American countries, the sport is still fairly new here and there are relatively few resources for beginners.
So Kozurok bought a kite but then confronted a steep learning curve. He eventually got the hang of it through trial and error, but he doesn’t recommend his approach to everyone. Instead, he suggests starting on a trainer kite and getting lessons through one of the local shops that specialize in the sport, like Pipeline Surf.
“The danger factor goes through the roof if you don’t know what can happen,” Kozurok says. “You need to understand and respect kite fundamentals before you strap in.”
The hardest part of getting into a sport is often the initial investment. Spending hard-earned money on gear before even knowing if you enjoy the sport can be a tough sell. Add prohibitive cost to inaccessibility and it’s easy to see why many adults balk at trying a new activity.
“If you haven’t done these things as a kid it’s difficult to find beginner groups where you can try something out once or twice before committing,” says Amy MacKinnon. Finding a way to clear this hurdle was what inspired her to launch W.H.A.L.E. (Women’s Healthy Active Living Evenings).
Now into its second year, the program introduces women to a different sport each week over a six- to eight-week session. Previous classes have done kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, speed skating, snowshoeing and geocache (searching for hidden outdoor “caches” using GPS).
“A lot of women just don’t try these things,” says MacKinnon. “The thought doesn’t even really enter their minds that: ‘Hey, I can do that.’ But once they try it, they realize that it’s fun.”
Of course, experiencing a little bit of fear and taking risks is part of the fun. Marketing skew aside, there’s a reason these sports are called “extreme.” But with the right guidance and a good attitude, you can harness that dragon. So search around, find something you want to try, and then hold on tight – it’s going to be a wild ride.
Remember: You’re not alone. When trying out a new sport, most people feel awkward and uncomfortable, confused about what to wear, where to go and what gear they need. Sometimes the best way to learn is to just plunge in. Participate in an event, show up for a group ride or join a club – there, you’ll meet friendly people who will help smooth your initiation to the sport. Or if you’ve already made a start, then these will be the people who will help you reach that elusive next level.
Weekly group rides depart from most local bike shops.