when it finally dawned on me more years ago than i'm likely to list here, that it was costing me rather a lot of money for the petrol in my citroen to drive to and from work only three miles away, i bought myself a bike. a pretty crappy, solid steel ten-speed racer from one of those mail order catalogues. fortunately, the road from home to work (and obviously vice-versa) was pretty flat, so a 52/42 set of rings married to what was probably a 14-19 freewheel wasn't quite the leg breaker i would likely find it to be now. still, it wasn't that this was a specific choice of bicycle: i had no idea people raced these things, despite the bike having arrived with a poster of the team, who likely weren't on exactly the same frame material that i was.
after a few years, another type of bike arrived on the market - the mountain bike, which, as we all now know, was pretty much the saviour of the bicycle industry. with hindsight, it may not have been the all-singing, all-dancing bicycle that the magazines and advertisements would have had us believe, but then its origins were a bit different than the dual carriageway between troon road-end and prestwick airport. allegedly there were people in the known world that rode these things down the side of mountains, and had obviously lived to tell the tale and build more bikes to sell to those of us who couldn't even see a mountain from our bedroom window, let alone ride up and down one.
in the early seventies, a bunch of hippies (no disrespect intended) took heavy steel schwinns - the bikes that american kids delivered newspapers from - and pushed them to the top of mount tamalpais in marin county, california, then hung on for grim death till the helter-skelter ride over loose gravel ended at the bottom. then, always assuming punctures or fractures (frames or bodies) hadn't intervened, they did it all over again. as is human nature, one always said that they were the fastest, the litmus test of which became a race down the mountain over the repack ride. this latter gained its name because these bikes relied on rear coaster brakes to slow their gravitational descent; by the time the bottom was reached, these brakes had grossly overheated through extended use and evaporation of the internal grease. so then they'd all to traipse home and repack the hub.
all this is now as much a part of our heritage as coppi winning the giro and tour in the same year, because it's happened to all of us, and in some cases, may well still be happening. many of the guys who created what we now know as the mountain bike (the exact origin of which is clearly explained by gary fisher in the movie) were roadies either at heart or by designation, but throwing themselves off mount tam on heavy klunkerz was a different type of, and less straight-laced, fun. of course, you can't just blame fisher, joe breeze, tom ritchey, charlie kelly et al for the outcome: somebody else had the idea of sticking a derailleur on the back.
this dvd by billy savage is a masterclass in editing, weaving interviews with all the principal characters into a chronological story that not only makes sense, but would appear to be historically as accurate as is ever likely to be assembled from a bunch of hippies over thirty years from the event. there is some excellent super 8 footage from back in the day where hurtling at speed round blind bends edged with unruly undergrowth while wearing denims, t-shirts and baseball caps, compares laughingly with the astronauts who practise today's sport of downhill mountain biking.
some of these guys are still hippies today including, it seems, the film's director, but all seem aware of the positive effect they have had on the world of cycling; tom ritchey and otis guy seem the most lucid and self aware, while a bearded and ponytailed charlie kelly is now out of the business and sat behind a fender stratocaster. there's no happy ending by way of an appreciation of where mountain biking is today, other than an acknowledgment of its inclusion in the olympics from 1996. but that would rather undermine the premise of this movie. it verges on unashamed nostalgia, and is all the better for it. thewashingmachinepost may not do mountain biking, but in this case i'm very happy to have made an exception.
klunkerz - a film about mountain bikes is available from urbanhunter.biz for the princely sum of £22.50 and lasts just under ninety minutes. remove yourself from the world of the spring classics for a brief moment in time, sit back and just enjoy a different kind of cycling from an entirely different era.
posted on friday april 3 2009..........................................................................................................................................................................................................