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Classic North Bay mountain biking trails to let your fat tires fly


There was a time, long ago, when mountain bikes held free rein on the trails. It was short-lived but glorious.

In those days — pre-Lycra, speed limits, closures and messy conflicts with other users — the trails in Marin and Sonoma counties gave rise to a new breed of trail advocate, athlete and thrill-seeker.

Nearly 50 years have passed since those halcyon days. Innovation, competition, dedication, passion and crowds have all played significant roles in mountain biking’s evolution as the sport has moved from radical to mainstream. But way back when, riders did crazy, original and terrifying things using new-fangled and/or marginal equipment on routes where such use had never been envisioned. Routes that are now classics.

Case in point: A relentless downhill run called Repack, located above Fairfax in Marin County and site of a now-defunct race series during which local legends like Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher and Jacquie Phelan set speed records and redefined sanity.

Another former race site with long roots: Trione-Annadel State Park, site of Rockhopper races in the early 1980s. The grueling event drew 373 riders in its second year, “making it the world’s largest event of its kind at the time,” according to a report prepared by the Sonoma County Museum.

“The course through the park was a single lap featuring 19 miles of dirt roads and rough trails. Five miles of descending course made parts of the race a fast and treacherous ride.”

The town of Fairfax is one of a kind in the fat-tire world. It holds the most righteous claim to being the birthplace of modern mountain biking. Similar adventurers were exploring other hills across the West, but the funky town on the hem of Mount Tamalpais was where visionary bike builders like Breeze, Fisher, Tom Ritchey, Charlie Cunningham and others wrapped their heads and bike-building skills around custom cycles that could manage the region’s tempting, sometimes treacherous, trails and fire roads.

It’s fitting, then, that the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame has found its way there from Crested Butte, Colorado, another undisputed mecca.

Located at 1966 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., the Hall of Fame is housed in the Marin Museum of Bicycling, where an eye-opening collection of cycles dating back more than a century is showcased. From a nineteenth-century high-wheeler to the full-suspension, multi-geared models of today, museum exhibits illuminate the evolution of what museum co-founder Otis Guy calls the world’s “most efficient” mode of transportation.

Guy, a retired firefighter, long-time bike builder and storied racer of mountain and road bikes, likes to talk about one of the enduring themes in the history of the sport he loves. Call it etiquette (or lack thereof), or call it conflict. The interplay between trail users on Mount Tam, in Trione-Annadel and elsewhere continues to elicit strong emotion and shape public land-use policy.

The glory days of trail riding on Mount Tam ended in the 1980s, when the Marin Municipal Water District prohibited cycling on singletracks and imposed speed limits on fire roads. Both hikers and horseback riders had complained about the fast-moving cyclists on the tracks, citing safety concerns, a change in ambiance and bad manners. As the sport took hold in other parklands and similar concerns were voiced, similar exclusions were adopted.

For the most part, mountain bikers responded by becoming trail stewards and banding together in advocacy organizations.

It has taken a long time to overcome the ill will, but these days, the tide is turning, Guy mused.

“At a certain point you have to serve the people. When there are 2,000 cyclists and 50 hikers on a trail, you have to take another look,” he said.

The Marin Museum of Bicycling and the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame are open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday to Sunday, at 415-450-8000, mmbhof.org.

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While some classic rides remain off-limits to mountain bikers, Guy noted a handful of classics available to area cyclists who would like to pedal in the treads of giants and practice proper trail etiquette in the process.

Trione-Annadel State Park

As the historic breeding ground for rockhoppers, Trione-Annadel boasts a number of singletracks and fire roads that can be hitched into easy or challenging rides. Tie the Cobblestone Trail with the Live Oak Trail and/or the North Burma Trail for a short, technical burn. Combine the Cobblestone with the fire roads at Lake Ilsanjo to ease things up a bit. On the Kenwood end, linking the Lawndale Trail with the Schulz Trail makes for a nice half-day ride. For more information, visit www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=480.

Pine Mountain Loop

This 13-mile lollipop links the Pine Mountain and San Geronimo Ridge Fire Roads above Fairfax, and has been part of the town’s annual Thanksgiving Day “Appetite Seminar” since the 1970s.

The ride begins with a stint on the narrow, paved Bolinas-Fairfax Road, then breaks right onto the exposed Pine Mountain Fire Road at the crest of Azalea Hill. Climb to where the loop begins and take the left fork to the Pine Mountain summit. The route continues west and north (with another climb) to San Geronimo Ridge Road, and then down to close the loop.

You have the option of returning to Fairfax via the Cascade Canyon (Repack) Road, which drops steeply to the canyon floor, negotiates a couple of creek crossings and meanders back into town via quiet, narrow neighborhood roads. For more information, check out bayarearides.com/rides/pinemountain, which has a useful map. The ride is on municipal water district property, so be sure to familiarize yourself with its rules.

Old Railroad Grade

Stretching from Mill Valley to the top of Mount Tamalpais, the Old Railroad Grade is long (18 miles out and back) but moderate, and offers spectacular views of the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific.

Starting at Blithedale Park in Mill Valley, the route follows the bed of the “Crookedest Railroad in the World,” operated by the Mill Valley & Mount Tamalpais Scenic Railway Company until it was abandoned in 1930.

The wide grade accommodates cyclists and hikers comfortably, and has long been a training ground for mountain bikers. As you climb you’ll pass the Double Bow Knot, where the tracks twisted back on themselves in tight switchbacks; the junction with the Gravity Car Fire Road; and the historic West Point Inn. The road ends near the East Peak of Mount Tam. Start your research by visiting Mount Tamalpais State Park, www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=471.

Camp Tamarancho

Tamarancho, a Marin Council of the Boy Scouts of America facility, also is located in the hills above Fairfax and is all about the singletrack. Trails were built by mountain bikers for mountain bikers, and are favored by cyclists craving narrow, winding, challenging routes.

A permit from Friends of Tamarancho is required to ride here, and there is no on-site parking, so you’ll have to make your way to the camp by riding up neighboring roadways.

You can link trails into a challenging loop of 10-plus miles, or divvy it up any way you chose. You can also hitch onto fire roads leading to Whites Hill and Pine Mountain, enabling longer explorations and impressive workouts. Details and a link to the trail map are at boyscouts-marin.org.

China Camp

Cycling in this bayside state park is increasingly popular, with flocks of cyclists enjoying sea breezes while cruising on the long, winding Shoreline Trail or huffing up to the ridge top.

The park isn’t huge, but by linking the Shoreline with fire roads and multi-use trails on the ridge line, more than 11 miles of moderate riding open up. Stick to the Shoreline track and it’s all easy, perfect for young ones or those learning how to handle a bike on singletrack.

Parking and camping fees are charged. For more information, visit China Camp State Park at parks.ca.gov/?page_id=466.