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Going Big (part 1)


By Patrick Farrell

High Country News

On a bright blue-sky morning in June, the cinnamon-coloured hills of the Marin Headlands, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, are just starting to heat up. I’m pedaling hard to keep up with Jacquie Phelan as we climb up the backside of Mount Tamalpais. Phelan, a longtime bicycle advocate and former United States dirt-racing queen, is giving me an up-close and dusty tour of mountain-bike history.

Every greasy bike-shop kid in America knows the story of how "Mount Tam" gave birth to the mountain bike. Back in the mid-1970s, a pack of hippie bike riders salvaged old Schwinn paperboy bikes and retrofitted them for the mountain’s rough dirt roads. Mount Tam’s "Repack Hill" was the testing ground for the sport’s pioneers. Legend has it that the steep route got its name because riders had to repack their drum brakes with grease after each speedy run.

Phelan was one of the first women to join the Marin mountain-bike scene. In 1980, she took part in the annual Thanksgiving Day ride — the "Appetite Seminar" — on a girl’s 5-speed town-bike. She soldiered through it and was hooked. She started racing the next year, winning her first national championship in 1982. Phelan held her title until 1986 and continued racing well into the ’90s. Now 50 and a survivor of breast cancer, she is still an astounding climber, capable of putting this writer, 21 years her junior, to shame.

Phelan is out ahead of me, threading her wheels along the best line up the dusty hill. I call out and ask the name of the trail.

"Fire road," she says over her shoulder. "I’m really going to have teach you to say ‘fire road.’ This isn’t a trail."

The distinction has more to do with politics than with anything else. In Marin, nearly every narrow trail — "singletrack" in bike lingo — has been off-limits almost since Phelan started riding here. And therein lies the other side of the mountain bike’s creation story: With mountain biking was born a new kind of controversy on the trails, one that has only deepened today.

Surging up another steep, rocky road, Phelan tells me that the early riders never imagined that the sport would catch on the way it did. "We thought it was going to be the world’s biggest small sport," she says. But by the mid-’80s, the fire roads and trails on Mount Tam were jammed with cyclists. Soon other users were complaining that the bikers were destroying trails and scaring horses and walkers.

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