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How a wild downhill race in 1970s Marin County launched national mountain biking trend

How a wild downhill race in 1970s Marin County launched national mountain biking trend

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On Oct. 21, 1976, a small group of cyclists and a dog named Junior gathered on Carson Ridge, which rises just west of Fairfax. It was midmorning and the sky was bright blue, a beautiful day for racing 50-pound vintage Schwinn Excelsior clunkers down Cascade Canyon Road, whose winding dirt surface plunges 1,300 feet in less than two miles, past serpentine outcrops, low-lying chaparral, and scattered oaks on its way to the confluence of San Anselmo and Cascade creeks.

Among the bike riders assembled that Thursday morning, at an hour when most folks were dutifully toiling at their boring 9-to-5s, was Fred Wolf, an early off-road cyclist; Charlie Kelly, a roadie for a beloved local rock band called the Sons of Champlin; Larry and Wende Cragg, who carried her trusty Nikkormat 35mm camera almost everywhere; and an airbrush artist and vintage-bicycle customizer named Alan Bonds, whose recorded time of 5 minutes and 12 seconds that day (average speed, about 23 mph) was good enough to take first place in a race that quickly became known around the world as Repack.

"It was kind of a fluke," said Bonds today of his historic victory.

"None of the really fast guys like Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, and Otis Guy were there. I was basically racing against Fred, Charlie, and a few others, although they were the fastest guys I knew."

For the record, Fisher would post the fastest time on Repack (4:22 on Dec. 5, 1976), Joe Breeze would wind up second (4:24 on Dec. 19, 1976), and Otis Guy would place third (4:25 on Dec. 12, 1976).

Repack was held 22 times between 1976 and 1979, plus two more times in the early 1980s. In many respects, Repack launched mountain biking, although, strictly speaking, it is not where the then-nascent sport and recreational pastime was born. Still, the first Repack race was early enough that riders did not refer to the bikes they pointed down Cascade Canyon Road as "mountain bikes," as the phrase had not yet been coined.

UC Davis professor John Finley Scott created a forerunner of the modern mountain bike in 1953 when he built his first "woodsie," as he called it.

In England, beginning in 1955, members of the Rough-Stuff Fellowship rode bicycles outfitted with fat balloon tires through places like the Chiltern Hills. And throughout the 1970s, people in the United States rode bicycles off road for fun in Santa Barbara and Cupertino, as well as in Crested Butte, Colorado, where the Pearl Pass Tour endurance ride through 40 miles of rocky, high-altitude terrain was launched a month before the first Repack race.

Those Repack riders on that first October morning weren't overly focused on their place in this mountain biking history, but by 1976, all of them were intimately familiar with the dusty fire roads that snaked around the flanks of nearby Mount Tamalpais, where handfuls of cyclists had been riding off-pavement since the mid-1960s.

For Fisher -- whose name has become synonymous with the sport thanks to the mountain bikes he and Kelly built in 1979 -- the hills of Marin County were an unsupervised playground, which he explored with a group of cycling buddies from Redwood High School in Larkspur called the Larkspur

Canyon Gang, who rode old Schwinns and other modified clunkers.

"The scene was like, you know, go out into the mountains, drink some beer," Fisher said.

Wende Cragg, one of the few female cyclists in the early days of mountain biking, definitely did not get into off-road for the speed.

"On my first ride out, I was terrified -- my bike weighed about 55 pounds, so it was hard to handle," said Cragg, who was a neighbor and friend of Wolf. "I thought, 'God, I'm never going to get back on this bike again.'

Little by little, I acclimated to it. Before I knew it, I was hooked." In part, Cragg was attracted to the freedom she felt riding a bicycle in the hills. "I lived right next to an open-space area, so I had immediate access," she said. "There was no reason not to take advantage of it. None of us really worked, and for a couple of years, that's all I did, really, just ride, ride, ride. We'd pack a lunch and a Frisbee, bring the dog and some bud, and go."

For people like Cragg, mountain biking was a portal to communing with Mother Nature. For others, not so much. "The reason mountain biking is so popular," says Kelly, "is that it's one of the only ways in modern life that you can turn on your adrenaline pump, and leave it on for a long time."

In Marin County, one of the best places to get in the adrenaline zone was Cascade Canyon Road, which had been a favorite of the hardest of the hardcores since the early 1970s. In fact, even its nickname, Repack, which people like Kelly and Wolf started using some time after 1974, was hardcore.

Coaster brakes got a serious workout on the way down Cascade Canyon Road. By the time riders arrived at the bottom, their bikes' rear hubs would actually be smoking from the pressures they were subjected to, as hot as a frying pan to the touch. The smoke, of course, was evidence of the lubricants inside the hub vaporizing. Thus, if you didn't want your rear hub to seize up on you without warning, you needed to repack it with fresh, cool grease.

"By 1976," Kelly says, "a whole bunch of us had upgraded our clunkers to 10-speeds, with drum brakes in the front and rear. That's what I was riding on the day of the first Repack. In those days, a bike did not last long enough under me to get too sentimental about it. I just destroyed frames, repeatedly."

Repack, then, did not mark the first time cyclists in Marin County started riding their bikes into the hills, nor was it the first time cyclists in California had tricked out fat-tire bikes with better hardware. But the competitive nature of Repack drew attention to mountain biking in a way that riding around in the hills drinking beer with your buddies did not. And once people in Marin like Bonds, Breeze, Kelly and Fisher began to customize, and then build from scratch, bikes designed to conquer Repack, the whole thing jelled.

To meet Breeze today, you wouldn't peg him as the guy who won more Repacks than anyone else, and whose personal-best time down Cascade Canyon Road (4:24) is just two seconds behind the course record set by Fisher (4:22).

Truth told, Breeze looks more like the curator of a bicycling museum in Marin County, which is what he happens to be, than a calculating speed demon, which is what he once was. In the early 1970s, encouraged by his friend Marc Vendetti, Breeze started riding a 1941, balloon-tire Schwinn on Mount Tam, too.

"When fat-tire racing came along," Breeze says of Repack, "I was the No. 1 draft pick. I took it really seriously. I would walk up and down the course to map it out, to memorize it. I made a science out of it."

Breeze appears to have been the first person to build a frame designed for mountain biking, although even he didn't call it that in the fall of 1977 when he began work on his first Breezer. With its distinctive twin-lateral tubes, the first nickel-plated Breezer was commissioned by Kelly. In all, Breeze made 10 Breezers between the fall of 1977 and the spring of 1978. Breezer No. 1, the prototype, which Breeze rode in Repack No. 15 in the fall of 1977 for a winning time of 4:25, is now in the Smithsonian.

Breezer No. 2 remains in the collection of Kelly.

Breeze's bikes were unarguably awesome, but Breeze was a perfectionist, which meant he didn't exactly work quickly. "Gary was looking for someone to build him a custom bike, but Joe was going to take a while," Kelly said. "So Gary farmed the job out to a couple of different builders, including Tom Ritchey, to see who could do it first. Tom Ritchey got Gary his bike first."

Ritchey was a whiz-kid, lightning-fast frame builder from Palo Alto.

"Tom thought, 'Well, these guys want frames, so I'll make some more,'" remembers Kelly, "but he didn't really want to build out the entire bikes, because that's a real pain. So, in desperation, Tom said, 'Hey Gary, can you help me get rid of these frames?' And Gary said, 'Hey Charlie, can you help me get rid of these frames?' And from that minute on, I guess we were in business. The whole thing was kind of flawed and doomed from the start, but it did change the world, and who gets to do that? So, I'm not unhappy about it."

What Kelly is referring to is co-founding with Fisher a company called MountainBikes, which finally gave a name to what he, Wolf, Bonds, Fisher, Breeze, Cragg, and many others were riding up the hills of Marin.

"In 1979, Charlie Kelly and I started a company called MountainBikes," said Fisher. "That was an original name at the time. Before that, people called them all kinds of stupid things.

"What we did basically," Fisher continues, "was make a lot of bikes. The first year we made 160 bikes, the second year we made 1,000. A thousand bikes! All these other guys were dickin' around, you know, making 10 bikes a year. But I was like, 'Man, you gotta make it happen!'"

The Kelly/Fisher partnership ended in 1983, and a decade later, Fisher ended up selling MountainBikes to Trek, which now has a brand called the Gary Fisher Collection.

"People call me the 'father of the mountain bike' and all this stuff, and they say to me, 'Gary, thank you, thank you for making a mountain bike. You've changed my life.' And I say to them, 'Hey, man, if it weren't for you wanting to ride my bikes, I'd be nothing, you know?'"

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