Mountain biking was practically invented on Mt. Tamalpais, in Marin County, California. Back in the mid-seventies, some bicycle makers and daredevils began meeting near the top of the mountain, and barreling down at breakneck speeds on old-fashioned fat-tire bikes. The future big names of the sport were there: Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchie, Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly, Steve Potts, Charlie Cunningham. They began to build bikes to handle not just downhills, but all terrain, and reworked the gearing to facilitate slow climbs over often impossibly arduous landscapes. Companies sprang up, word got out, and a new sport spread itself world-wide.
We started off in the early eighties with two “white-elephant” bikes. Josephine, who is barely over 5 feet tall, bought a rare, sleek, undersized Fisher with 24 inch wheels. I grabbed a Ritchie Annapurna, a beautiful filet-brazed chrome-moly bike that had been custom made for a 6’5” guy who reneged on the deal. Parked together, these bikes made quite a pair. I hadn’t ridden since grade school, and even then, mostly on roads with a skinny -tired bike. It took me a while to get some confidence about the terrain these bikes could negotiate—I often felt like an unguided missile. As an insurance policy, I gathered together enough protective gear to look like a downhill racer. To the average eye I resembled the Michelin Man. I’ve taken my share of kidding over the years, but I was keenly aware that a severe fall could end my musical career.
I initially focused on Mt. Tam fire roads, graduating to single-track trails as my skills improved. Our first big bike trip was to Moab, Utah, in the mid-eighties. A world-famous Mecca for the sport, it lived up to its reputation. We were in the heart of the Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, and I had never seen more magnificent terrain. We hired a guide for private rides for several days, and then went on a 3 day group ride of the White Rim Trail, camping along the way. Gradually we gained some assurance on the unique rocky terrain, sand, and “Slickrock”, a totally misnamed variety of sandstone that offers incredible traction and outrageous climbing possibilities. We returned to California even more stoked. I’ve always loved being a student, and I devoured the mountain bike magazines, fascinated with the history, lore, and intricacies of the sport.
As our interest in technical riding grew, the limitations of the structural geometry of our bikes became more apparent. By 1987, we had visited Charlie Cunningham, a pioneer of the sport, and graduated to two aluminum custom hand -made Cunningham bikes. Charlie had scoped out a way to build a bike for a very short person that still had 26” tires. Both bikes had the roller-cam brakes and grease guard hubs that he had invented, plus frame geometry with “faster” angles which permitted more control on single-track and complex terrain. They rode beautifully, and were collector’s items back then; they are even more rare today, and still stand up well next to more modern space-age frames. Our main concession to “progress” has been to add front suspension.
Over the years we have returned to Moab many times, and have ridden a number of the famous rides. Our most challenging was “Porcupine Rim,” which has some amazing natural rock staircases. There are a number of rides I wouldn’t dream of attempting. Some involve incredibly steep ascents and descents, almost absurdly gnarly trails, and portions where a fall from the bike is a certain fall to one’s death 1000 feet below. I leave those rides to the daredevils and experts. To reach that level, you have to be willing to crash quite frequently, which doesn’t mix well with playing the piano.
This doesn’t mean I have been exempt from falls. Naiveté caused a couple dramatic ones. On our first trip to Moab I came roaring down the Hurrah Pass right into a deep, long patch of sand and went soaring over the handlebars. On another occasion, during a wonderful two week biking trip to Vermont, I was riding over some railroad tracks up near the Canadian border and tried to shift direction. In a micro-second the bike had spilled me to the ground. Fatigue was the cause of another hard fall: In Steamboat Springs, Colorado, after 4 hours of an extremely technical trail, during which I reached my all-time highest level of riding, I lost my concentration and did a big spill over the handlebars. Fortunately, in none of these examples was I seriously injured.
The technical challenge is only part of the lure of this sport. I love the opportunity for aerobic climbs on easy terrain, like the fire roads on Mt. Tam. I can get in a meditative groove, and not have to worry about crashes. And I’ve had countless beautiful experiences simply moving through space at a gentle pace on level ground.