Bicycling down a mountain is addictive and dangerous. Crashes are inevitable. Unlike skiing, even relatively small falls off a mountain bike can deliver stinging pain that lingers for days. There's no snow to soften the blows on rooty, rocky dirt. More painful outcomes occur with frightening frequency, a snapped collar bone being the most common severe injury.
Yet downhill mountain biking thrives – and the sport's promise lures more than only damn-the-consequences young men. At the base of Whistler Mountain on a sunny summer day, the stream of people on bikes, wearing plastic body armour and beefy helmets, is a panoply. Men are in the majority, but amid the testosterone there are quite a few women and even families. Kim Allan, a bike park instructor, once taught the basics of navigating the area's trails to a 78-year-old woman.
“It's not all gnarly,” Allan says.
I am, happily, doing a grown-up version of summer school with friends at Whistler. In reality, I'm getting schooled – and am simply trying to remain intact for later lessons in the decapitation of Champagne bottles and oyster shucking at Bearfoot Bistro.
On the mountain, I face my first hurdle. Getting the bike on the steel racks fitted to the Fitzsimmons Express lift is trickier than it sounds. For a long-time skier, it's humbling to repeatedly botch the feat. But then, comic relief: Two bears, 50 metres up the mountain, are having sex. A third bear, its fur mauled from a previous conflict, charges the couple and interrupts coitus.
After that display of derring-do, we start to get a sense for the bikes. They're highly specialized (price tags can surpass $4,000), weighing 40 kilograms with thick tires, and have so much suspension the bike is almost a pogo stick. “These bikes,” Allan says, “can take anything.”
We practise some turns – leaning with the bike, like on a motorcycle, is key – and are reminded the brakes are delicate. Too much hastily applied pressure can catapult the rider over the handlebars to the aforementioned spectrum of injuries.
Still, the feeling of some savvy comes quickly – probably too quickly (hubris). We're soon on a green run, Upper EZ Does It, which wends through the forest at a relatively benign grade. Suddenly we're speeding – thanks gravity! – which terrifies and exhilarates as we manoeuvre 180-degree berms, images of a devastating crash tickling and torturing the brain.
Allan counsels caution; we make it to the bottom, where B-Line beckons, and lust for more.
The entrance here is steeper and, just as my adrenalin and confidence surge, the trail swiftly banks left into tough roots and rocks. Already going too fast, and trying to slow down, I am over the handlebars and off the bike. A banging shoulder roll cuts up my shoulder (and will leave it aching for days).
Confidence quelled and caution increased, the rest of B-Line is conquered without too much trouble. Back on for a second go, I am jazzed by a return of escalating confidence when, while slightly airborne, a small panic seizes me and I let go of the bike. I watch it crash in front of me as I tumble to the earth, my landing absorbed mostly by my tailbone (which, like the shoulder, will hurt for days).
As dusk settles in on Whistler Mountain, we reluctantly retire. On the way to dinner, I make two declarations: Never again; and let's ride again tomorrow.
In the relatively safer confines of the wine cellar at the Bearfoot Bistro, where André Saint-Jacques reigns as chief orchestrator of Champagne-fuelled revelry, we are ready to decapitate a bottle of bubbles. This is the sword-weilding tradition of sabrage – one that legend dates to Napoleon and his generals boozing on Dom Pérignon before and after military campaigns.
Saint-Jacques, a bottle of vintage 2000 Dom in hand, glides the blade of the large knife (or sword, whatever's handy) along the neck of the bottle, coming with some force to the lip of the glass below the cork. A swift stroke, aided by the pressure in the bottle, is enough to pop the glass lip and cork off cleanly. It suitably impresses the uninitiated, and is easier than you'd think (do try this at home).
“The trick is to follow through – but not too hard,” says Saint-
Jacques, a colourful Quebecker who established a Guinness World Record for most bottles sabred in a minute (he capped 21), and who can achieve this feat with a delicate Champagne glass, wielding the stem as sword.
One bleary-eyed morning later, excitement builds for Saint-Jacques's latest concoction: The First Annual World Oyster Invitational. Billed as the world's richest shucking contest, with a first prize of $5,000, the competition draws the best names in the game. A morning tutorial precedes the afternoon event.
The basic technique is standard. With an oyster in hand (gloved, ideally), the bivalve mollusc's upside down, a shucker jiggles the oyster knife in to the shell's hinge and pops it open. A quick cut severs the top muscle (find it two-thirds of the way up the shell, a little over to the right from centre). A second cut takes out the muscle underneath. The job's done, but it's a matter of perfection: no shards or grit, just the oyster and the juice, the ocean's candy in a shell.
Saint-Jacques created the oyster invitational – won by Eamon Clark of Rodney's in Toronto – as a summer pairing for his winter bacchanal, the notorious Masquerade party held during Cornucopia, a food and drink festival. After a five-year absence, the party returns this November. Hyperbole-happy Saint-Jacques dubs it Resurrection and promises the “wildest party on the planet.”
But the oyster action is calmer. Xavier Caille – a world champion Belgian shucker – counsels: “La patience, lentement.” Patience, slowly.
Good advice, for oysters, beheading Champagne, or bicycling down a mountain.
Globe Travel visited courtesy of Tourism Whistler.