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Short film spotlights 73-year-old mountain bike legend 'North Shore Betty'

A new Patagonia documentary shines a light on North Vancouver downhill mountain biking trailblazer Betty Birrell, who didn't start riding until she was in her 40s and raising a young son.

Local off-road cycling legend Betty Birrell says her son had bikes from Day 1.

It started with tricycles but as Hayden Robbins got older, Birrell would pick him up from school and rush to get to the trails before it got dark.

With her big, heavy downhill bike in the early days, they would drive to the top of Cypress, ride down and then she’d hitchhike back up to get the car.

“That would be one of our after-school routines,” she said. “So Hayden really helped me stay in the sport and just do it a lot more.”

Birrell, better known as “North Shore Betty,” is the subject of a new 12-minute film by outdoor apparel maker Patagonia. The video launches Wednesday (May 4) on the company’s website and YouTube channel.

The self-proclaimed sports junkie moved to Horseshoe Bay in 1991, where she lived for 23 years. For the past seven years she’s lived in Lions Bay.

A number of factors came together to get Birrell hooked on off-road cycling.

She got her first mountain bike as a Christmas gift in 1987, just before Robbins was born the following January. When he was six months old, they started car camping and Birrell would ride around the campsites.

Soon after that, the already accomplished windsurfer and mountaineer was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in her hips. Her doctor told her she had to cut impact sports.

“No more running, no more squash, no more tennis,” she said.

When Robbins was around five years old, he wanted a dog. But when they got one, Birrell struggled with exercising it.

“That’s when I went, ‘OK, I gotta get a real mountain bike here,’” she said.

“So I went and got my first real mountain bike in 1993 and just immediately started downhill mountain biking.” A driving force in getting Birrell down trails like Seventh Secret and Executioner, now considered classics, was a friendship with famed trail builder Peter “Old Man” Morin.

Birrell said she wasn’t completely aware of her impact at the time, but would hear a lot that she – especially as a 40-something-year-old woman – was an inspiration to other riders. Because she had done it, they would too.

Around 30 years later, it was her son’s girlfriend Leah Evans – a professional skier and Patagonia ambassador – who pitched the idea of featuring North Shore Betty with the company.

Filmmaker Darcy Turenne wrote an initial article, which was then adapted into a film. Turenne, who co-directed the movie, explained that she wanted to showcase Birrell’s positive outlook when facing challenges.

“She knows her abilities and she's very calculated in what she does, but she doesn't have a lot of limiting beliefs that hold her back from doing exceptional things,” she said.

The film was shot in North Vancouver during some days of heavy rainfall, which didn’t stop Birrell and her son from riding down challenging trails with ease.

The mother-son dynamic was something Turenne wanted to highlight as well.

“That for me was a big point of resonance because I am a mother of two boys,” she said. “Seeing Betty, and how her and Hayden are riding buddies and such close friends through their activities together, it was super inspiring for me as I begin my motherhood journey.”

Despite her undeniable influence, Birrell has kept a low profile over the years. But that’s about to change, as her film makes its way through festivals and is shown at Patagonia stores and shared with the company’s large following online.

“I think [the film] will get a lot of people outdoors doing things that they wouldn't have thought they could try later in life,” Turenne said. “Betty’s legacy is only just beginning.”

As the years have gone by, thrill-seeking Birrell has had to navigate the difficult process of toning down the intensity of her riding to match what her body is capable of.

“But once I got through that process, I am still having so much fun and loving it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what level you’re at – if you’re having fun, that’s what it’s all about.”

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