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
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
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.