Looking back from the perspective of the 21st Century, there is no reasonable explanation for the fact that the Repack Downhill "clunker" race managed to take place for four years from 1976 to 1979. It came back for two encores in 1983 and 1984 as NORBA-sanctioned races, the first ever sanctioned downhill races in the history of mountain bike competition. The last Repack race saw 95 competitors, and attracted the type of attention that ended the event forever. Because it is such a departure from all previous forms of bicycle racing, I often wonder whether downhill racing would have become a sanctioned event had Repack not been recognized so early by NORBA.
The Repack Downhill, vertical skateboarding and BMX all began at roughly the same time, the mid-seventies, and these California expressions of exuberance are the origin of what are now called Extreme Sports, leading to the "X-Games."
We had a pretty good run. After working out the bugs in our timing system over the first few races, I promoted five or six races each year, with prizes and posters for the last couple of years, and no entry fees. Despite the facts that all the local off-roaders knew about the race and that several of the racers were firefighters, the authorities never caught on, and we never had to deal with any sort of official presence interfering with the races. There were a lot of cuts and bruises and probably a few concussions because helmets were not required and hardly ever used, but the worst injury I remember seeing was a broken arm, fortunately not mine.
I first saw what later became known as "Repack" from the back of a motorcycle driven by Fred Wolf in 1973, poaching fire roads. He had found a very steep road that we drove up during an exploration trip that took place before all fire roads were closed to vehicles. Or maybe a little while after they were closed. Some time later, Fred and I and Peggy Madigan spent a long day with our coaster-brake one-speeds, pushing them up the supersteep hill and coming down by a different route.
In the early seventies, my roommate Gary Fisher and I were both road cyclists, equipped with the best Italian road race bikes, but these were not very practical for local transportation, so we had put together a couple of old one-speeds for use running errands. We were both members of Velo-Club Tamalpais, and a contingent of club members such as Joe Breeze, Otis Guy and Marc Vendetti also took up using old one speeds for town bikes. With the example of the Larkspur Canyon Gang and their longtime practice of bombing down Mount Tamalpais, it wasn't long before we started hitting a few of the trails and fire roads around Fairfax.
In 1974 a half-dozen riders went on the first of what has become an annual ride, the Thanksgiving Day Appetite Seminar. The route we chose ended with a trip down Repack, and it was shortly afterward that someone applied the name that has become one of the most famous in mountain biking history. It's not a joke, it's just the truth. One trip down that hill put years of wear onto a coaster brake, and if you did not immediately disassemble it and repack all the bearings with grease, the hub would seize up very shortly afterward.
You couldn't use just any coaster brake either. All the kinetic energy of the descent is turned into heat, and the old brakes had no means of dissipating it from the relatively small surface area. The most common coaster brake found on old bikes is the New Departure. The reason they were so common was that they were the most cheaply made of the coaster brake hubs; they worked very well under ordinary conditions, but would explode halfway down Repack. Bendix brakes were good, as long as you found an old one, machined out of a solid piece of steel stock. The newer Bendix brakes were made in Mexico, and the stamped hubs were no comparison to the real thing from the 1930s. Mussleman brakes were pretty good, but the gold standard was the Morrow. You might even get away with a couple of trips down Repack with a Morrow before having to maintain it. Good luck finding a Morrow, though. I never had one of my own, and made do with a series of Mussleman and Bendix brakes. If you abused your coaster brake by riding off-road, you had to be familiar with the insides of it, because you had to tear it down a lot.
An entire generation of mountain bikers has grown up and worn out several bikes since those days, and few of them ever had the opportunity to ride a coaster-brake bike in the kind of scary terrain that we learned our skills on. There is simply no comparison between modern suspended bikes with hydraulic brakes and multiple gears, and the patched together, coaster-brake one-speeds that first conquered Repack. Now when I ride the same roads on modern equipment, it astonishes me that I survived all the rides I took on coaster brake bikes. Some of these hills are challenging enough even on modern dual-suspension bikes.
The first thing you have to learn about coaster brakes (and no front brake) is that stopping is out of the question. Fortunately, because you have no front brake, the front wheel rolls through and over just about anything. As long as there is some road in front of you, and as long as you can stay on it, you're probably all right. Once we had made a few trips down Repack, the skidding tires marked the proper line through blind corners. All you had to do was lock up your brake somewhere near the top of the hill, and point the front wheel down the groove worn in the road surface. On turns you had to brake with the outside foot while dragging the inside foot, and sometimes that meant letting off the brake briefly to switch feet. That was always a scary moment because you had to take half a pedal stroke to set up the pedal for braking on the other side.
The balance of a coaster-brake bike is completely different from a modern bike, because the braking pressure is applied a crank length behind the bottom bracket, while a modern cyclist balances himself on the bottom bracket. A front brake throws the rider's weight onto the front wheel, which has more braking power than the rear, while the coaster brake rider tries to throw as much weight on the rear wheel as possible.
The further you get down Repack the less effective your coaster brake becomes. It's not the hill, it's the heat causing the brake to fade. I had several rides where it was not possible to lock up the brake by the time I hit the bottom, and that's fairly serious on Repack. You would certainly get a third-degree burn if you touched one of these hubs at the bottom of the hill. You might as well heat a frying pan and put your hand on it. There is smoke pouring out of it, because the rider put a lot of grease in before the ride and it's been heated far beyond whatever it was made to do.
At a Marin County cyclo-cross race in 1974 several fat-tire riders from Cupertino about 50 miles to the south showed up with derailleur gears on their old Schwinns. Russ Mahon was the driving force behind a group of riders with ideas remarkably similar to ours, but they had already gone to derailleur gears. Gary Fisher was the first in our crowd to follow suit. One day in 1975 he came back to the house from the flea market with a disassembled tandem, a wreck really, missing too many parts and far too small for either of us to ride. But it had a huge, heavy, steel drum brake rear hub set up for a freewheel. Gary laced up a rear wheel and after some frame bending got it to work on his old Schwinn, and the improvement in performance of his 50-pound bike was enough that within a couple of months tandem drum brake hubs were the hottest item at Marin County bike shops.
Since Gary and I were roommates, I was among the first to follow his lead in converting my bike. By the time the first Repack races took place, most of the Fairfax and San Anselmo riders had switched from coaster brakes to derailleur gears and drum rear brakes made for tandems, and drum front brakes. These had the advantage of providing better braking and a different handling balance from coaster brakes, plus you didn't have to let off the brakes to set up for a turn because you could backpedal. The disadvantage was that these brakes faded too, and the grip required to operate them while steering and hanging on paralyzed your hands. We used the biggest motorcycle levers to get enough leverage.
Front brakes were not as easy to find. You could get steel drum front brake hubs from Sturmey-Archer, or you could use an old Arnold-Schwinn drum front hub if you could find it. Most commonly you found a wrecked Schwinn 20-inch bike from the popular Krate series, sold under names such as Apple Krate or Lemon Peeler. These bikes are super collectible now, but there were over a million sold between 1968 and 1974 when the design was banned by the CPSC, so they were easier to come by in the '70s than vintage parts from the '30s. A Krate had an aluminum drum front brake, which was all you wanted, and you threw the rest of the bike away. They were drilled for 28 spokes, so you added four more holes on either flange to lace your 36-spoke wheel.
As we took to the hills on fat tires between 1974 and 1976, we found ourselves racing on the downhills. It seemed that whenever we started off the top of whatever hill we had arrived on, every rider wanted to be the first to the bottom. Whenever more than a couple of riders wanted to use the same road, it got pretty crowded, and the informal competition heated up as the more aggressive riders didn't mind risking other riders' lives.
A few arguments about aggressive riding techniques led to the idea of having a timed downhill race, in order to settle once and for all time which of a half-dozen riders was the fastest, without having to contend with other riders in the way. Repack was the choice for a course because it was close to Fairfax, and it had a gnarly drop of 1300 feet in less than two miles. There might have been a hundred dirt roads in Marin County suitable for downhill racing, but Repack had location, location and location.
Accordingly, on October 21, 1976, a few riders assembled at the top of Repack. Our timing system was an old Navy chronometer with a sweep second hand, and an ordinary alarm clock with a second hand. I handled the starting, and Fred Wolf's wife Emma noted the finish times. There is no written record of that race, because the notes were made on a sheet of paper that disappeared almost immediately, but Alan Bonds, the only rider who didn't crash or damage his bike, was the winner in 5:12.
Whatever genius might be ascribed to the events of that day, they didn't seem very important at the time. It was just what we did that day, instead of taking a ride. There were no plans for another race. That one race was supposed to settle the question so we could argue about other things.
It turned out that some of the participants were not gracious losers. Alan had come up with the ultimate strategy for riding Repack, which was to stay on top of your bike instead of under it, and with this lesson in mind a few of the gang wanted another shot at him. Accordingly, a few days later we reassembled for another race, this time recorded for posterity. Bob Burrowes was the winner, we gave times for Alan's dog Ariel and Fred's dog Junior when they also ran down the course to keep up with their masters, and all races from that day forward were recorded in one of two battered notebooks that I still have.
After our second race, the word got out to other parts of the county, and by the third event the Larkspur Canyon Gang was participating, coaster-brake purists who had not made the upgrade to derailleurs and gears or even in some cases, front brakes. These guys favored "inch-pitch" chains, authentically old stuff, and owned most of the working Morrow brakes in the county. A couple more weeks, and we were joined by riders from across the bay, the Berkeley Trailers Union (BTU). I don't know how the word got out to them, because we didn't know them until they came to the race, but it didn't take long for the list in my book to number a couple of dozen riders.
Within a month of the first running, the event took the form that would last throughout its history. Fred and I purchased a couple of digital timers for about $70 apiece, and just over a month after the first race we started recording times in 100ths of a second. I would call a bunch of people from a list in the back of my notebook, and we would assemble in Fairfax on a Sunday morning, where we would throw the bikes and a lot of people into the back of a 1953 Chevy stakeside dump truck for the trip up the hill to the dirt road where you did another mile of pushing your bike to get to the start.
It was a serious effort to get to the start. A few pickup trucks and Fred Wolf's '53 pink Chevy stakeside would head up the hill loaded with bikes and riders. A couple of miles of winding uphill from Fairfax, and at the crest of the ridge is a place where a half dozen vehicles can park. Everyone piles out, and you ride and push for another mile or so, dropping and climbing, with a couple of hills that are a challenge to ride without getting off even on modern equipment. It's about 20 minutes of tough sledding from the road to the starting line at the high point of the ridge.
The alternative is to come directly up Repack, and a lot of riders will do that just to look at the course. It's a serious trudge with a 50-pound bicycle, and 40-50 minutes of hard work, but it gives you a slow-speed look at the road. The record time for going up Repack is 25 minutes, by national mountain bike champion Joe Murray, riding a post-clunker-era race bike.
The timing and scoring system came together after a few races, when we got the real timers. At the top of the course I would list the names of the riders in my notebook. Everyone got a starting time, with two-minute intervals between starts, usually starting at ten minutes. I would start the two clocks together, and give one to the finish timer, often Howie Hammerman. It had to be someone who could be trusted to get to the bottom of the hill without crashing and who was competent to handle the timing once he got there. The finish timer had no way of communicating with us once he left the start area, so we had to hope that a ten minute head start was enough that he would get there while riding prudently and set up shop without some catastrophe. Once the race started, we could send messages down with the first riders, but there was no way for messages to come back. Any major problem with the finish timer would have wasted the entire effort, but we never had a failure.
Once the regular racers established their best times, they ran in that order, with the fastest last. This meant that all the new riders and the slowest rode first. Each rider was given an index card with his start time on it. After a rider left I would call for the next starting time, and the rider would show me his card, then put it in his pocket. Because every rider tried to jump the start, I would aways hold the rear wheel until the zeros on the clock lined up. I gave them ten seconds, then five, then go, and let go of the wheel. Then I would get the split time as the rider disappeared over the crest of the first drop a hundred yards away, because that usually dictated how the rider would do. Two seconds one way or the other in the first hundred yards was thirty seconds at the bottom. After the last rider left, if I had someone still at the top who would start me, I would go for a time, but sometimes I was the last one left and I didn't get a time.
At the bottom of the hill Howie would note the finish time, check the rider's card and do the math and give him his time. Then he would file the index card in order of finish and wait for the next rider. As soon as the last rider finished and his card was filed, the results were in.
One aspect of Repack is hard to describe adequately. As the riders went off, the crowd at the top the hill dwindled. It wasn't a place for spectators, just riders, so no one there was there to watch, but to ride. The last starters were the fastest riders, they were the regulars and they all knew each other. The last half dozen or so riders were the ones this race was all about, the ones who started the whole thing to decide what seems never to be decided, and they didn't care about any of the rookies who left a little while ago, but they cared very much about a few seconds one way or another between friends on Repack.
At first it was boisterous, because the rookies were nervous and showing off, but the last half dozen don't talk, they click brakes and check bikes and look for an edge. It's the thickest, most competitive atmosphere I've been part of, and it gets quieter and quieter and then the last one is gone and I'm alone at the top of Repack knowing that the party has already started at the bottom.
I don't remember when I became the sole promoter of Repack. It began as a collective effort, but human nature is to let someone else do any task they accept. I started keeping the records and making the phone calls to arrange races. I handled the entries, the starting and timing, usually with my friend Howie Hammerman acting as the finish timer, eventually even arranged for prizes and had posters made, and it became my event. There was one race that took place without me, ironically the race in which Gary Fisher set the course record, but I promoted every one after that. At the end of the 1978 and 1979 seasons, I put on a big banquet with awards for the year's participants.
The end of Repack was the race filmed by a TV crew in 1979 for a program called Evening Magazine. It aired locally and then nationally, which meant it was seen twice in the Bay Area, and our cover was blown. In addition, one of the participants had broken his arm, easily the most serious injury of the entire series, and he had sued the TV station, hoping to collect. He lost in court, but the emphasis on liability effectively ended my interest in putting on events where people got sued.
Repack was something that a few dozen people shared. No more than 200 people ever rode a Repack race, and many of those only rode the final races in 1983 and 1984. It was a close knit group, a club without any rules for membership except that you ride the race. Do not tell me about your bike riding. Ride the race and show me what you've got. The loose club was centered around this outrageous thing we were pulling off, totally organized off-road insane downhill racing without anyone except the right people showing up. The spectators along the road numbered in the dozens and everyone knew the good corners to watch from. There were prize ceremonies and season-ending banquets. If you had a time under five minutes, you were a member of the most elite club around, the "Expert" class at Repack.
The formation of the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) in 1983 made insurance possible for racing, so Repack came back for a couple of last hurrahs in 1983 and 1984. These two races were the first-ever sanctioned downhill bicycle races anywhere in the world, so Repack rightly takes its place as the precursor to what is now a world championship event. Somehow we got away with a couple of races, this time with the help of a couple of moles in the Ross Valley Fire Department who let us use their sponsorship to sidestep some of the stickier issues of land use and whose land this was anyway. The last race, the first of a two-stage event with a cross country race in Santa Rosa the next day, saw a virtual pilgrimage of all the racers of the day, who wanted one timed trip down the legendary hill on their resumes. 95 riders put a strain on the system, but by then we had radio communication, and staff meetings on timing and scoring before the race. I hired timers from the local cross-country running club, and they handled it without a hitch.
We had a couple of NORBA races before the bureaucracy realized what was happening, but once they realized it they demanded permits for this activity. Once permits had to be applied for, there were no more permits granted.
Other Repack pages
Compiled list of top finishers