It took David Baillargeon five surgeries to find his athletic limits: Three shoulder operations. Torn ligaments in his knee. Broken bikes, bruised bones, and big medical bills. “I’ve toned back some,” said Baillargeon, 22, clenching a gloved hand on the worn grip a mountain bike.
Sunlight streaks a plywood starting ramp below Baillargeon’s front wheel. It is a Saturday in early September, and the Snake Trails — a private freeride mountain biking course near Somerset, Wis. — are quiet in the pine forest beside a farm field.
“Dropping!” Baillargeon shouts, announcing his entrance to the course. His tires whiz off plywood and onto turf, feet spinning on pedals for speed as Baillargeon stands up to fly from an approaching mound of dirt.
Baillargeon launches a ladder bridge gap jump
The sport of freeride mountain biking is the latest trend for cyclists looking to push limits. Focused on jumps, stunts, obstacles and tricks, freeride borrows influence from sources as obscure as motocross, skateboarding and BMX.
“In the last decade nothing has shaken up mountain biking more than freeride,” said Louis Mazzante, editor of Bike Magazine in San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
The discipline of freeride, which originates from the late 1990s and steep mountain slopes in places like Vancouver, Canada, has grown from obscurity to international sensation. “In mountain biking, for the last five years, the majority of images, movies, magazine articles and sponsored riders have all been associated with freeride,” Mazzante said.
Nissan, Red Bull and other corporations sponsor freeride competitions in Europe and the United States, bulldozing dirt mounds and drops on ski slopes and in stadiums to create gravity-defying courses. Several ski areas around the country are converting slopes to cater to the big-air requirements of the freeride demographic.
Beyond jumps, obstacles like wall rides — which allow bikers to skim sideways across propped wooden walls — and elevated “ladder” bridges visually define the sport. On an advanced course a biker may encounter banked singletrack trail through trees, elevated wooden bridges, and multiple make-it-or-crash jumps.
Big air off Snake Trails’ ‘Ramp of Death’
Mazzante said the standardization of mountain bikes to include large-travel suspension has prompted many trail riders to progress to jumps and stunts. “Everyday mountain bikers are now into freeride,” he said.
Freeride was born of evolution from the sport of mountain biking, where riders for decades have pushed limits to conquer increasingly wild terrain. But the discipline has garnered followers from outside the sport.
Riders like Baillargeon, a shipping manager who lives in St. Paul, come from a BMX background. “I started to feel like a circus clown on those little BMX bikes,” said Baillargeon, who switched to freeride in high school.
Jumping skills formed on BMX tracks transfer easily to the freeride world, where bikes with bigger tires and shocks allow for more air on rougher terrain. Snake Trails, a course on Baillargeon family land, includes exposed roots, rocks, gap jumps, embankments to whiz around corners, and a 50-foot ladder bridge that took Baillargeon and his biking buddies more than 100 hours to build.
On my visit to Somerset, where Baillargeon’s invite-only course is set on land outside of town, I followed directions to an unmarked turnoff. The trail twisted through pine trees from the base of a starting ramp, a rapid-fire obstacle course that takes less than a minute to complete.
Like a skateboarding session, there are few rules in freeride. Clocks and quantitative facets don’t often factor into competition. Instead, bikers launch and pull tricks to wow a crowd, with grace and control counting for style points.
Baillargeon hangs on for the wall ride
Before pushing off, Baillargeon stood with a friend and fellow rider, Travis Halverson, 21, of White Bear Lake, Minn., at the top of the ramp. “Dropping!” Baillargeon shouted, leaning off, letting gravity grab hold.
A pair of jumps — four-foot-high dirt mounds with mandatory gaps in between — started the session, Baillargeon flying high. He touched the brakes before pedaling at a ramp, bouncing onto a wooden bridge that twisted through trees.
His tires chattered on wood, a pathway five feet high that slanted and pitched before ending at a gap. But Baillargeon didn’t hesitate, eyes focused ahead, gloves gripping handlebars, he pulled up to pop through the air where the bridge ended.
Airborne for an instant, Baillargeon sat back to absorb the landing. Halverson shouted out as tire tread touched down again, a clean landing, wheels back on the ground, Baillargeon pedaling off for another spin around the track.
(Stephen Regenold writes The Gear Junkie column for eleven U.S. newspapers; see www.THEGEARJUNKIE.com for video gear reviews, a daily blog, and an archive of Regenold’s work.)