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.