Remembering Repack

Although I am a committed roadie, with no experience riding mountain bikes, I gladly join with people around the world in celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of the first running of Repack, the short-lived but legendary race that inspired a new kind of bicycling. The first Repack Race was staged on Pine Mountain, a foothill of Mount Tamalpais, on October 21, 1976.

For several years, a group of young, athletic, competitive guys living in Marin County north of San Francisco had been modifying clunker bikes. They stripped off unessential parts, added items from other bikes, put on bigger tires, and engineered new components when the ideas struck them. They used these two-wheeled machines for hard-core cycling off of the paved roads, on trails and over broken ground where bicycles had rarely been ridden previously. Everything on these bikes had been used before, but as Robert Penn puts it, “no one had put them together, on one frame, with the specific aim of blitzing downhill, off-road.”

The most challenging of the courses was a footpath that dropped 1200 feet within two miles, with an average gradient, Penn reports, of 14%. The course received its name because these early bikes used coaster brakes and by the time cyclists reached the bottom of the course they had worked the brake so much that the grease in the brake hub had been burned out and the hub had to be repacked.

The important people in the mountain bike legend were there—Charlie Kelly, Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, Tom Richey, Otis Guy, Wende Cragg, and Alan Bonds. That first race was a time trial, with people leaving at two-minute intervals. They bombed their way down the course, “on the dirt and gravel, over bare rock and gullies, ruts, roots and boulders, at average speeds of over 25 mph, down slopes of up to 20 per cent.”

Alan Bonds, the only one not to crash, won, and his dog came in second. There were twenty-five more Repack races, the last one in 1984. Altogether not more than 250 people participated in these events. The trail is still there and, as far as I know, can still be traveled by people with the right kind of bike and plenty of nerve.

It didn’t take long for the design of mountain bikes to be improved and for manufacturing to go big time. Just when the early 1970s surge back to bicycles, bottomed out, mountain bikes came on strong and saved the bicycle industry from disaster.

My conversion to cycling as an adult sport was to road bikes and by the time that mountain bikes came along, I was committed to riding light weight, skinny tire, drop handlebar bikes. I’ve neither owned nor ridden a mountain bike. Yet, I honor the Northern California bunch of guys who pioneered the mountain bike. The specialized machine they developed contributes to the energy and excitement of the sport I love.

Hurray and halleluia.

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