Growing up in Hull, an English city that is so flat that driving instructors have to teach ‘hill starts’ on a flyover, I should have had no interest in mountain bikes as a kid. With no hills, peaks, passes or summits nearby (there was a rumour of a hillock a few miles away but our searches always proved fruitless) to ride on, and definitely no need of 15 or 18 speeds on my morning paper round, the whole MTB scene of the late Eighties should have passed me by without incident. But, in the late Eighties, to our teenage eyes at least, mountain bikes were new, mountain bikes were different, mountain bikes were cool. Of course I wanted one.
The first mountain bike I lusted over was a Kona Lava Dome. I saw it in a catalogue and simply couldn’t stop looking at it. It had Jackson Pollock splash paint and a straight fork. It had a sloping top tube, a triple chainset and fat knobbly tyres that made me go weak at the knees. It was gorgeous. The GT Avalanche was another one that I cut out pictures from bike magazines and stuck on the cupboard door in my bedroom. I used to spend hours making charts showing how long it would take me to save up for one of these mythical machines. With the amount I earned each week delivering the papers adding up to the less than princely sum of £3.50, those charts were depressingly long pieces of art.
The actual ‘mountain bike’ I eventually ended up with was something far closer to the early ‘Klunkers’ that Charlie Kelly, Gary Fisher and a few other northern California hippies had started out with about a decade and a half earlier. Single speed, heavy as hell and with brakes that were as much use as an altimeter in my home town, my bike was not much more technologically advanced than the 1940’s Schwinns and other vintage cruisers that were first hauled up and raced down the fire trails of Marin County before the sport even had a name. Looking back now I could probably just about delude myself that my Raleigh Bomber had a certain ‘heritage’ kudos with it’s bent top tube and all around deficiencies, but back then, with the world looking to mountain bikes as the cutting edge of the cycling world, I instantly knew I had bought a dog.
The story of the birth of mountain biking is fascinating because just a few folks in mid-Seventies Marin were the crucible for the whole movement taking off. Much like the Dogtown skating scene of their LA contemporaries, Kelly, Fisher, Joe Breeze, Tom Ritchey and a handful of other semi-dropouts started taking to the Mount Tamalpais fire trails high up above their often shared houses below for a different kind of ride. Scouring junkyards for old, sturdy bikes that were the anthesis of the lightweight racing machines that some of them rode semi-professionally, they sought the quiet places where they could bomb downhill at breakneck (and usually break-bike) speeds. The place they found to be the best, and where they held their first official timed races, was a 2 mile long 1,200 feet roller coaster of a descent which they christened Repack on account that the punishing ride boiled the grease in their ancient coaster brakes away into clouds of smoke, requiring the grease to be ‘repacked’ after every run.
The thrill of the ride quickly outlasted their venerable equipment and some members of the group turned their skilled hands to first repairing and modifying the Schwinns before creating purpose-built downhill bikes to improve their Repack ride times. Joe Breeze may have made the first ones but Tom Ritchey quickly perfected the art of mountain bike frame building and Kelly and Fisher almost accidentally found themselves with a burgeoning business assembling and selling them. At first they were made for the other friends in the Repack group but the seed was quickly set and, inspite of the lack of anything remotely resembling a business plan or grand scheme, this small group became the de facto instigators of a nascent global phenomenon. They were the creators, manufacturers, promoters, publicists and archivists of something that had finally found it’s moment. If you want to know about the birth of the LSD scene, you get on Ken Kesey’s Magic Bus and take the Acid Test. If you want to know about the birth of mountain biking Kelly is your man. Just like Kesey, he lived it, built it, rode it and (though his magazine Fat-Tire Flyer) wrote it. He even had a bus too..
The richness of the writing stems from Kelly’s firsthand experience of the movement and his journalistic experience. Little details like the taping of beer bottle caps over one of the buttons on the early timing devices so as to not accidentally cancel the count are gold dust for a historical read like this one and add weight, candour and feeling to every page. The richness of the book in general – and it is a wonderful thing to enagage with – comes from the homespun nature of the photographs, drawings and the slightly shambolic progress of the journey that Kelly does well to narrate. These people weren’t on a mission to turn the world onto off-road riding or sell shedloads of bikes. They just wanted to beat each other down the mountain and have some fun along the way. In a passage that is typical of the whole book Kelly relates how they heard a story about a similar off-road scene in Colorado so they took a 3,000 mile road trip and drove out there, much to the surprise of the locals who now found a busload of Californian’s expecting a cross-country race over one of the highest passes in the Rockies. It says much for both sides that one was organised immediately and took place the next day and for many years after. Crested Butte, the town which the Californian’s invaded is now home to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame Museum.
The book is exhaustive in it’s detail about the geographical, cultural and technological ingredients that were mixed together to create the potent brew that became known as Mountain Biking. The genesis of myriad things that a billion bike riders take for granted today are traced back and pinpointed in time and space. It is quite amazing. And all seemingly without a hint of bad feeling that their baby outgrew them so quickly and was taken over by bigger, more corporate concerns.
I hadn’t been too sure about Fat-Tire Flyer when it dropped through my letter box. Like many of the bicycle industry executives of the time who looked at the big, heavy bikes, at the dress-down people riding them and who wondered what all the fuss was about, I harboured reservations about how much enjoyment I would get out of a slab of a book about off-roading. But then I tried it, and I just couldn’t stop. Just like the biking; it was too good, too fast, and waaay too much fun..