Crested Butte, Colorado is the birthplace of mountain biking. Forty years on (and two hundred years since the invention of the bicycle), Ros Walford follows the well-worn trails of America’s first bikers.
Perched at the head of the Hotdogger Trail, there’s only one way down. So I launch onto the groomed dirt track that twists through aspen forests and meadows scattered with wildflowers.
The moment is made even more thrilling as I’m following in the tyre tracks of the world’s first mountain-bike racers, 40 years on – and 200 years since the bicycle itself was invented.
I’m in Crested Butte, a former mining town turned ski resort in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. In summer, the horn-shaped mountain becomes a playground for cyclists, with 30 miles of single-track trails at the Evolution Bike Park crisscrossing the slopes.
The mountain resort runs a year-round programme of events for cyclists, but the big draw for a faithful gang of die-hard bike fanatics is still the Annual Pearl Pass Tour.
The two-day event, held every September (September 9–10 in 2017), includes an overnight campout and free beer at 11,000ft.
The riders turn up on rebuilt klunkers, nostalgically re-creating every last detail of the original bikes.
As I carve up corners and leap over rollers on my fancy modern bicycle, its spongy suspension easily absorbing the impact, I think about what it must have been like back in the 1970s for the local teenagers riding the rocky tracks on their “klunkers” – one-speed paper-boy bikes, known for their bone-shaking qualities.
After my ride, I catch up with one of the main players who helped to turn a grassroots sport into a worldwide phenomenon to find out more.
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“1976 was the first year [of the tour],” says local legend and mountain bike historian Don Cook. “Our neighbour town Aspen had a lot of young bachelors. They would ride over Pearl Pass on their motorcycles and come to this funky old dirt town.
“To them, they were just going to get a beer.” Don continues. “Out of bravado, they’d come into the local pub called the Grubstake, chase women and brag about it. The local guys took it personal and said, ‘well, we’re gonna go over and show those Aspen fellas that we’re going to get the girls’.
“So they grabbed their klunkers, rode up and over Pearl Pass at 12,705ft, and coasted on down into Aspen. Today, with full 5–6 inch suspension, it’s still one of the best challenges we’ve got around here.”
From then on, the Pearl Pass tour became an annual event, attracting interest from around the USA – and the sport we know as mountain biking took off.
Although there are several contenders, Joe Breeze is generally credited with inventing the first modern mountain bike in 1977 with his Breezer #1. He was based at Fairfax in Marin County, California – another centre for mountain biking – but it was in Crested Butte that he refined and tested his prototypes.
“The Californians had the technology; we had the terrain,” says Don. “They were pretty locked up on Mount Tamalpais to fire roads, but here they could ride freely and share their technology with punks like me.
“I was a teenager, one of the guys that these Californians wanted to beat on the bikes. We were still riding these old klunkers and they showed up in 1980 on ‘Ritcheys’, but they forgot that we were riding at 10,000ft, so guess who did better. We did.”
You get a sense of how things were at the Crested Butte Mountain Heritage Museum. In a corner of this old wooden building, once a hardware store and gas station, there’s a display of Don Cook’s first bikes, including his first “klunker”.
A large photo on the wall shows the old gang lined up on their bikes at the pass wearing lumberjack shirts, cut-off jeans and baseball caps.
Emerging from the museum onto Elk Avenue, Crested Butte’s peaceful main drag, you’ll see a town that has apparently changed little in 200 years, besides the motorcar. Low-level wooden buildings with historic facades evoke the Gold Rush era.
The Grubstake pub has long gone, but you can sit and have a top-quality rum cocktail outside Montanya Distillers or a craft beer at The Eldo Brewpub instead, and easily imagine how the klunker riders might have shaken things up in this peaceful town.
“There used to be elevated wooden sidewalks with hitching posts for horses in front of every establishment,” explains Don. “So to be able to ride up in front of whatever watering hole you wanted to, and throw your bike up against where the horses got hitched up and just walk in, it was really something. It was the attitude. The hippies are here!
“I had a pony-tail, the long hair – and miles and miles of attitude. Hell yeah! At 18 years old, you think you know everything. We were doing something that wasn’t being done anywhere except in one other place – Fairfax, California.”
Crested Butte remains one of the best places to go mountain biking in the USA, with an ever-evolving network of gnarly trails to satisfy professional riders through to fun (yet sufficiently challenging) routes for beginners. There’s also an adaptive sports centre so people with most kinds of disabilities can get out on bikes too.
As well as the groomed trails on Crested Butte mountain, you can explore a beautiful network of tracks around Gothic, a nearby ghost town, or venture further afield to explore the 750 miles of cross-country trails around Gunnison County.
Back on the Hotdogger trail for a second run, I pause at a junction to swig from my water bottle and listen as the shrill whistle of a marmot cuts the silence.
Then to my left, a downhill speed-freak appears, dressed head to toe in black lycra and protective pads. He makes quick work of the Psycho Rocks – a horrendously steep set of broken planks – then he’s gone.
A moment later, a family ride past from a trail to my right.
While the parents take a cautious approach, the kids are fearlessly attacking the corners with glee. It’s good to see that mountain biking today seems to have lost none of its “hell, yeah” attitude.
Ros Walford travelled courtesy of the Colorado Tourism Office. Header image: Visit Crested Butte. Image top to bottom (left–right): Zach Dischner/Flickr; Pierce Martin/Flickr; Trailsource.com/Flickr; Visit Crested Butte; Trailsource.com/Flickr; Ros Walford; Trailsource.com/Flickr.