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Bearclaw Invitational

Freehub Magazine Fall 2011

“Bearclaw Invitational”

It’s early August on serene Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The snow covering the lower half of Mount Washington Bike Park has finally melted exposing the runs to the warm sun. The bull wheels are turning again and the summer routine is underway at the quiet alpine resort.

But this weekend, excitement is resonating. Local rider Darren “The Claw” Berrecloth, who calls this mountain home, is standing in a grove half-way up the mountain, with a smile on his face. Around him are crowds of spectators, pro riders, announcers, photographers and tents. Before him, and in the foreground of the surrounding majestic peaks, is a giant slopestyle course. It’s all for the return of his Bearclaw Invitational slopestyle competition—back after a two-year hiatus.

This year it’s a gold event on the Freeride Mountain Bike World Tour, and the mountain biking industry is tuned in. Riders such as Cam McCaul, Brandon Semenuk, Cam Zink, Greg Watts, Jamie Goldman, and 15-year-old phenom Anthony Messere have ventured out to compete for the coveted points, all of them personally invited by The Claw.

The course is an imaginative line of perfectly calculated amplitude and flow. Built by Berrecloth, it traverses down through the grove of moss-laden Cedar and Hemlock and demands that riders have big-mountain moves with the ability to switch on bmx-style finesse for the tight, lofty features. They begin with a Northshore-inspired skinny bridge drop-in. Then the signature boner log; and following that, a towering 15-foot on-off sky bridge. In between the wooden stunts, massive dirt jumps rise up. The crowds are sideline, only feet away and separated by a thin rope. Conventional contest wisdom is eons away on the mainland.

It’s Saturday, and the finals runs are mind-altering. Justin Wyper front flips the boner log. Yannick Granieri tailwhips off sky bridge. Berrecloth 360s from the skinny drop-in—these are but a few of the highlights.

Yet, Semenuk’s run—executed with every bit of expected crisp, technical elegance—tops them all. It includes a switch 360 onto the sky bridge to a regular 3 off, a barspin-to-table, and a perfect double tailwhip. The win catapults him to an early victory of the FMB tour. Messere nets second, and Berrecloth, third at this high-stakes show.

Despite the intense competitiveness, a laid-back vibe drifts with the BBQ smoke and the cool alpine breeze. It’s just the way Berrecloth intended. Ignore the all the hype and this event could be mistaken for a friendly backyard comp. In fact, the simplicity of it all makes it an anomaly in the mega slopestyle contest scene.

What sets the Bearclaw Invitational apart from its contemporary contests is its basic formula: It’s a rider-run contest, on a rider-built course. Most major slopestyle contests are not.

Back in 2006, the comp’s inaugural year, Berrecloth was frustrated: Poorly-run contests seemed too often to host ill-designed courses, and competition organizers seemed to take into account everything and everyone but the athletes themselves.

“I got fed up with so many competition organizers walking away with so much money and pretty much giving us nothing,” says Berrecloth. “A lot of the courses sucked and contest organizers weren’t really listening to the riders and meeting our needs. So I said to myself, I can make a better course and I can make an event where the riders get the money.”

He did just that. For three years, the Bearclaw Invitational grew in acclaim for its world-class courses and athlete-focused logistics. Then, it lapsed. “It’s in the middle of my peak season when I’m supposed to be filming and training like all the rest of my friends,” explains Berrecloth. “I ended up having to be out here building on a course. And, at the same time, there’s a lot of time spent on organizing—emailing, sponsor negotiations. I took two years off to focus on my career.”

Berrecloth returned this year with motivation—and sufficient sponsorship dollars. But it’s been a tough season. Ten weeks before his Invitational, he broke his back. (He rode in Crankworx and Claymore Challenge during his recovery.) Then, a lung infection hospitalized him. But days before his contest, he was back operating a Bobcat, moving dirt, staring at half-built features, tweaking them, fulfilling the promise he’d made to himself and the riders.

“This contest is cool because it’s our buddy who built it,” says Semenuk. “He’s someone we’ve all looked up to. He’s a legend. He’s helped progress the sport.”

Like most legends, Berrecloth’s driving force stems from a deeply rooted passion for his craft. “If I wasn’t a pro, I’d still be competing—and broke doing it,” he says. “I love the outdoors, pushing my limits, learning new things, riding down taller, bigger mountains.”

It’s easy to use Berrecloth’s name as a metaphor for the man. When The Claw rides, he charges with raw aggression. He takes ownership of a line, lashing out with swift, striking turndowns, and lunging off jumps with stretched-out Indian-airs.

But when Berrecloth speaks, however softly, his words carry the authority of more than a decade of influence in the sport. His increasingly vocal opinions on how contests should be run are casting him as a de facto spokesman for the institution of freeride itself. And his Bearclaw Invitational is a loud declaration of the direction in which he wants it to go.

“I think I nailed it on the head in terms of building a good course,” he says of this year’s design. Rather than locating it out in the open like years past, he placed it in a more natural setting: up a mountainside, in the trees.

“[The course] is cool because we’re in the forest,” says Semenuk. “It was flowy, you didn’t have to pedal, you didn’t have to break if you didn’t want to. And when the wind came up it didn’t bother us.”

Photographer Ian Hylands says when riders are stoked on a course, when they’re digging its rhythm and its beat, the showmanship comes out. Hylands shows a picture of Cam McCaul throwing a huge no hander framed by evergreen branches. “[The riders] aren’t stressed—and that shows in the pictures,” he says. To point, Berrecloth put his mountain bikers back in their mountains.

There are no jumbo-screens here demanding live action for viewers at home. “At other comps it’s ‘three, two, one, go’ because it’s all live feed,” Messere says after claiming his check. And there’s not much for a time schedule, as the riders tend to call the shots. Berrecloth worked with the FMB board also to structure the judging as the riders wanted it. “This one’s just a lot more chill,” Messere confirms.

By twilight on Saturday, the distant blue mountains of Strathcona Provincial Park are cast in a sapphire glow. The crowd has gathered at the bottom of the course for the high-air contest, a Bearclaw signature event. It’s the opposite of limbo, with a pole placed between two trees. This year, the bar is raised to an astounding 16 feet above the 8-foot quarter pipe, until only little Messere can clear and land it.

Berrecloth’s own momentum in the sport doesn’t seem to be arching anytime soon. Reflecting on the return of his namesake contest, he notes with pride that given its new location on the mountain—tucked in the grove—the course no longer will have to be torn down and rebuilt each year. Now, it’s a permanent fixture in the freeride scene.

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