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Is Canada in a new golden age of downhill?

A look at the past, present and future success of the Canadian downhill program

Gracey Hemstreet rides downhill Photo by: Andy Vathis

At 10 a.m. on March 27 in Lourdes, France, Jackson Goldstone crossed the line with the fastest junior men’s time in the first World Cup downhill of 2022. The 2021 world champ from Squamish was wearing the  wold champion’s rainbow jersey. Thirty minutes later, Gracey Hemstreet got a win of her own in the junior women’s race. Three hours after that, Finn Iles finished second in the elite men’s race. Until his recent win at Mont-Sainte-Anne, his first elite World Cup victory, Lourdes was his career-best result. There was a Canadian on three of the four podiums that afternoon.

It was a historic day for Canadian downhill. There was a poetic moment of symmetry, too. The triple podium happened 10 years after Stevie Smith’s first World Cup win, and at the same French venue as the iconic Canadian’s last World Cup podium in 2016.

Finn Iles races over sharp rocks in Lourdes, France
Finn Iles on course in Lourdes at the start of 2022. Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

More important, the Lourdes World Cup isn’t a stand-alone event. In late May, Hemstreet landed another win at Fort William. Goldstone was second at the same event. In early August at Mont-Sainte-Anne, Goldstone took his fifth World Cup victory of the year. Hemstreet finished third. Those results follow a 2021 season that saw two Canadians, Iles and Mark Wallace, stand together on the elite men’s podium for the first time at Snowshoe, W. Va., another big moment for Canada’s downhill program.

Look a little further back and you see a string of junior successes from Elliot Jamieson, Lucas Cruz, Seth Sherlock, Ethan Shandro and Patrick Laffey in 2018 and 2019, Miranda Miller’s elite women’s world championship title in 2017 and lles’ own 2016 junior world championship, with Magnus Manson on the podium in second.

What emerges from all these stats is a picture of a national program approaching critical mass. Exceptional individual results are turning into a culture of racing. That culture, the wider scene within this country, has momentum. Could this be the start of a new golden age for Canadian downhill? Maybe it’s started already.

CIndy Devine
Cindy Devine at the 1991 NorAm MTB race

A golden age, but not the first (a Devine history)

Canada’s success in downhill racing dates back to the sport’s beginnings. In fact, Cindy Devine is the first ever official DH world champion. She won that title in 1990 in Durango, Colo., after a string of similarly strong results in the “unofficial” years before the UCI took over.

“It was a different era back then,” says Devine, looking back at her own golden moment. “The tracks were quite different and we rode different bikes. We didn’t have much suspension. You’d be cornering and everything would be shaking in your front end.”

Coming from a road touring background, Devine had her first taste of mountain biking while travelling around New Zealand in the mid-’80s. When she returned to Canada in 1986, she fell in with the Deep Cove bike shop crowd in North Vancouver. They convinced her to start racing. At the time, it was common to see race times of more than 10 minutes and tires rarely left the ground. Those conditions suited Devine. “With my pedalling power and being a strong athlete, I was able to hold onto the bike better than any other woman at that time. That’s how I excelled so quickly. You were holding onto a rigid bike at high speeds. A lot of it was who could hold on the most and not get a flat or lose a chain,” she says.

When Devine won in 1990, a second Canadian, Elladee Brown, was standing right beside her on the podium with a silver medal. Both Devine and Brown recall having to travel south to race at a serious level. “We all had to go to the States to race in the ‘80s at the NORBA nationals. The circuit started pretty late in Canada,” Devine says. Brown, who spent much of her early career in Colorado, adds, “There was just an unbelievably supportive scene down there that really fostered my growth. I wasn’t really in the Canadian scene other than coming up for nationals and racing Whistler when I was at home.”

While the racing was U.S.-based, the emerging Canadian brands did try to support local racers. Devine’s first sponsor was Rocky Mountain in 1988. Brown later rode for the Vancouver brand in the mid-’90s.

“It gave me a lot of pride to ride for a sponsor that was from my own country,” Devine says. Rocky Mountain’s support allowed her to travel to races. “That was the beginning of people noticing that these Canadians were pretty good. If they show up, they get results.”

Brown continued racing for the next decade, eventually specializing in downhill over cross country racing, before switching her focus to freeride in the late ‘90s. “An opportunity came up to join the K2 Gravity Team,” she says. “After 10 years of racing, I wanted to get outside of the tape and do more exploration again.”

Wade Simmons while filming New World Disorder, 2007. Photo: John Gibson

The birth of freeride, a dearth of downhill

Just as Brown moved away from downhill, much of the Canadian scene followed. As racing became more specialized, Canada’s successes shifted toward cross country, driven by the Olympic achievements of Alison Sydor and other riders performing well internationally throughout the 2000s.

Deep in the heart of B.C.’s lush forests, a different revolution was on the rise. In the late ’90s, freeride exploded out of Vancouver’s North Shore and Kamloops’s dusty chutes to capture the mountain biking world’s imagination. With the global mountain bike scene focused on B.C. freeride, the nation’s focus shifted. Wade Simmons, Brett Tippie and Richie Schley were superstars in a predominantly Canadian freeride scene.

If you were getting into mountain biking, you were either chasing podiums uphill or dreaming of hucking yourself off a giant drop on the way back down.

“At the time, freeride was kind of everything, or at least that’s what I thought growing up,” recalls Finn Iles. “I think that might’ve just been within Canada,” he adds.

On Vancouver Island, Mark Wallace took to the gnarly and video-friendly form of riding. “I was like a lot of kids who grew up in Canada, a freerider until I was about 14,” he says.

Iles and Wallace now lead Canada’s international downhill program. For Wallace, the switch to racing started with a chance encounter with a national champion, Andrew Mitchell. “I was set up to go on a ride with him because his aunt worked with my mom and he suggested I try racing,” Wallace remembers. “I owe my start to him, and carrying on to Stevie and Gabe Fox.”

Gabe Fox is going on two decades as a major driver of the Canadian downhill scene. He started with the Cove team around 2004 before moving on to run the Evil, then Devinci and now Canyon Factory Racing programs. Fox traces the start of Canada’s DH revival in the 2000s to racers such as Mitchell, Dustin Adams and, before he switched to freeride, Jordie Lunn.

These riders, and many who came before and followed after, were important in Canada. But they didn’t have the same impact internationally. “The first global contender to put everyone on the map was Dustin Adams,” Fox says, referring to the now CEO of We Are One Composites. “At that point, no man in Canada was coming close to even a top-10 result, right? It just wasn’t happening.”

Then came Stevie.

Steve Smith (second from left) on his final World Cup podium at Lourdes, 2016. Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Steve Smith: The Canadian Chainsaw

Steve Smith grew up in the small Vancouver Island town of Cassidy. In 2006, Fox brought him on board the Cove team and, riding longside Mitchell and Tyler Morland, Smith started to get results, fast.

He rose through the elite ranks like a rocket. He earned the name “The Canadian Chainsaw” from downhill commentator Rob Warner. In 2010, he came in second at the world championships at Mont-Sainte-Anne. It was in 2012, with a win at Hafjell World Cup in Norway, that his success started to have an influence outside the small Canadian downhill scene.

“When he won in Norway, that was pretty eye opening for a lot of people,” Wallace recalls. “They started paying attention to Canadian racing a lot more. In 2013, when he won the overall, that exploded.”

The World Cup overall is considered to be downhill racing’s highest achievement. Smith won his 2013 title in dramatic fashion, passing British powerhouse Gee Atherton in the overall standings at the final race of the season. The win achieved something that no one had thought possible for a Canadian in the modern era of downhill racing. The effect was almost immediate.

Even for a rider who was already racing, such as Wallace, Smith’s success caused ripples. “It was very motivating and eye-opening to know that, you know, you’re from the Island and you can be up there and racing against people you were watching in videos and on live feeds. It makes it seem much more attainable,” Wallace says. “It’s just really exciting when someone you’re friends with is crushing it at the World Cups.”

“Stevie doing what he did flipped the switch in a lot of people’s minds that racing was cool and the thing that they wanted to do,” Iles says. “Having someone to look up to, and someone from your country being the best at something has such an influence on people that it changes the culture.”

Smith takes the overall World Cup title in 2013. Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

Long live Chainsaw: a growing legacy and a new golden age

After a series of injuries in 2014 and 2015, Smith looked to be back on track for the 2016 season. At the season opener in Lourdes, France, Smith returned to the World Cup podium with a second place finish. One month later, he died in a motorcycle accident.

While the arc of Smith’s career came to a sudden halt, his effect on the sport continued. On the same weekend Smith stood on his final podium, Iles won the junior men’s race. Later that season, he would win the junior World Cup title and world championships with Magnus Manson beside him in Val di Sole, Italy. Wallace continued to rack up World Cup podiums. Then, in 2017, Miranda Miller earned Canada’s second elite world championships title in Cairns, Australia.

From there, Canada’s success has only grown. Elliot Jamieson won bronze at the 2018 world championships. In 2019, there were four Canadians—Ethan Shandro, Patrick Laffey, Lucas Cruz and Seth Sherlock—on junior men’s World Cup podiums. COVID made the next two years difficult for the young riders, but did include standout results, such as Iles and Wallace’s historic shared elite podium.

What’s important from all these stats is that it’s no longer one exceptional individual. What started with Smith is turning into a trend of Canadian riders excelling at DH events.

“The guy who really turned it on was obviously Stevie. In every country where you see a surge in young talent, it’s always led by someone who shows everyone what’s possible. Someone to aspire to be,” Fox says.

“Stevie was pretty passionate about Canada being on the map for downhill racing,” Wallace adds. “He was a big supporter of that and so excited to see any Canadian going fast. He made an effort to elevate the scene in Canada in the community.”

Another change was the introduction of the junior World Cup category in 2010. While it took young Canadians a couple years to hit their stride at that level, they’ve since seen success, and crucially, more support.

The ability to race as a career, not just a passion, is something 2017 world champion Miranda Miller says has changed throughout the course of her career. “The people I looked up to were doing something cool; they were fulfilling their dreams. But you didn’t look up to that as a viable career,” Miranda Miller says. “Stevie was the first who I knew was making a living. Now, you can look and see Finn making a good career.”

Miranda Miller on the board as the 2017 DH world champion. Photo: Specialized/Sebastian Schieck

That support allows riders who might not have been able to pursue racing at a high level to do so. In concrete terms, brands are adding more juniors and more women to their race teams. “With that support, growth is just bound to happen. It just kinda makes sense that as the industry is putting more money behind younger people and women, we’re seeing more of them do well,” Miller says.

In order to attract attention from sponsors, though, riders need to be able to compete. Every rider approached for this story mentioned the need for local races and more events. “There isn’t a ton of opportunity to get that high level of racing in,” Miller says. “Right now Dunbar does an amazing job with the Summer Series, but that’s really only three rounds. If you can’t make those weekends, you can’t really do that much racing.”

In the U.K. and France, by contrast, the national series are complemented by regional and local races. Those riders in those countries simply have more chances to compete and grow. “People need to organize events,” Fox says, adding that it’s not up to national federations to be the organizers. “That’s the hardest thing. You can’t force someone to organize an event: someone has to take that on.”

Tristan Lemire, who is one of the few exceptions to Canada’s largely B.C.-based talent pool, now races with the powerhouse Commencal/Muc-Off by Riding Addiction team based in France. But to get into the sport, and attract the attention of sponsors, the Montrealer had to travel. “I got into racing because I saw Eastern States Cup advertised on the Internet. I was 11 when I started racing those.” At the time, he was too young to enter local races in Quebec, so he had to head south across the border. Later, he went to B.C. to do the Kidsworx events at Crankworx, then nationals. “With those results, I got onto Commencal, but I started racing because of how accessible those U.S. races were to kids.”

Events aren’t just about getting noticed, Lemire adds. “More races throughout the country mean more opportunities for young kids to get better at racing. It sounds funny to say, but you can’t get better at racing without doing races.”

“That’s something that’s missing in mountain biking,” Iles says. “I learned how to race through skiing. That translated to mountain biking, but it definitely needs to be learned when you’re younger.” Iles started racing on skis when he was six years old. In downhill mountain biking, you can’t race BC Cups until you’re 13. Events such as Kidsworx, the youth-focused wing of Crankworx, do provide some exposure to competition for the groms. Another avenue involves two wheels, but no mountains.

“I am a believer in BMX as training,” Devine says. “Feeding our BMX kids into mountain biking is a great angle. They have learned to spring, corner and jump already.”

There is also a price difference. Mountain biking is, to be blunt, an expensive sport. “The thing that makes BMX and lower-cost cycling events really cool,” Brown says, “is that the barriers for entry are much lower.”

Jackson Goldstone races to the win at the DH World Cup in Lourdes, 2022. Photo: Red Bull Content Pool

A new golden era?

Downhill moves fast, between the tape and outside of it. The next generation of Canadian racers is already here.

In 2021, Jackson Goldstone won the junior men’s world championships and the World Cup. Gracey Hemstreet was third at worlds that year. She started 2022 with back-to-back junior women’s World Cup wins, and third place at Leogang in June. Riders such as Lemire, Tegan Cruz and Bodhi Kuhn are logging top-10 World Cup finishes. The next wave of riders is already racing at Kidsworx, Dunbar Summer Series and the Eastern States Cup.

Something golden is going on. It could simply be the continued glow of Smith’s influence or the beginnings of a bigger presence for Canada internationally. Whether we are in a golden age or just at its cusp, it is an exciting moment. It’s no longer exceptional to see the maple leaf within a sea of flags from Europe and Oceania. Every weekend, you can expect to see at least one Canadian on a podium, often several. More are showing up to race, and move through the ranks, every year. It can continue as long as the scene here at home has the support it needs, so riders can keep growing.

This story originally appeared in the August/September 2022 issue of Canadian Cycling Magazine