wrote this for Dirt
the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the first race at Repack.
Photos by Jerry Riboli
I got the word in traditional fashion. Someone came up to me on the street and said, "Hey, I hear there's a Repack race coming up." It was news to me.
During the heyday of the race from 1976 to 1980, I was the one distributing the word. Kind of shocking to be so far down the food chain that people I hardly know get the word ahead of me. Even my informant was shocked, because he had assumed that if there was a race, I was putting it on. Over the next few days, the information sorted itself out and the trail led to Joe Breeze's house. Without acknowledging a role as motivator, Joe seemed to have all the information.
"Monday, October 21 is the 20th anniversary of the first Repack race. Maybe some people will get together up there for something," he muttered. For Joe Breeze, this was pretty oblique. I didn't remember the date as anything significant, but Joe's research lately has exceeded anything I could have conceived of.
The story was leaked to a friendly reporter for the local press, and his piece was to be published on the day of the event, too late for anyone reading it to be there. Well, that was the plan, anyway, but the first game of the World Series got rained out, the sports section had an enormous void, and the story ran the day BEFORE the anniversary observation. And that assured an Official Presence in the form of a couple of trucks full of rangers from the Marin Municipal Water District, the agency which owns the land where we were gathering for a dangerous speed contest.
Before leaving the house I rummaged through a drawer for the two digital timers that clocked every Repack after about the fourth race. It's been twelve years since I even looked at them, and the batteries had to be green by now, the insides turned to corrosion. Hey, you can't top the copper top! I turned them on, and got digits. Might as well throw them in the shirt pocket. I didn't take the battered notebooks, though, with every previous race result.
One of the plans of the day was to recreate the panoramic photo taken in 1977 of a group of Marin County racers, a photo which has run so many times in so many publications that people who haven't even seen it are tired of it. Scratch that one. Plans were too vague, and after looking around for the photographer for a while, I bailed, tossed my bike in the back of a friend's pickup truck, and headed up the hill.
Below: Alan Bonds on a classic clunker
It was like opening a time capsule. There I was, doing things I did before I had responsibilities, a family, a mortgage. The day was the kind I remembered, bright, crisp, clear, not a cloud in the sky. "Pull over," I tell the driver. The vantage point from the paved road is perfect, and I have to get a photo of the ridge with the road that is Repack snaking down the crest.
The battery karma that protected the timers kicks me in the butt. My camera battery is dead. The same forces that kept me from photographing the race back then are still at work. I will have to depend on others to illustrate the story that is already writing itself in my mind.
From where the driver parks his truck it is a couple of miles of dirt road to Repack, and there are already people orbiting, getting ready to go up there, but something seems to be holding them back. I hang for a while, then decide to hit it. As soon as I do, everyone else does. Apparently they were looking for leadership, and without wanting to, I gave it to them.
Repack is a story in a magazine to most people, a name more than anything else, and its importance to those who didn't see it is questionable. For me the races were a pivotal event that shaped my life afterward. There hadn't been a race in twelve years, and even then, the last race with 96 NORBA racers and helmets and rules wasn't the real stuff. Today, there was some real stuff.
As I settle into the saddle to grind up a long hill, a bike comes flying past. It's a one-speed, with the highest possible gear, and the rider is charging as far up the hill as he can before he has to get off and trudge. Back then, I rode to the top without a dab a couple of times on my converted 10-speed, 55 lb. Schwinn, and it was considered one of the major clunker challenges. Today I can't do it on a modern suspended, lightweight frame with 21 gears. Go figure.
There is a crowd at the top, and the slanting sun lights it up just like every old photo I've seen a thousand times. The crowd is just right, about 60 total, spread out over a hundred feet of road, maybe half sitting on the south-facing road cut soaking up the autumn sun. A lot of primitive iron here, some coaster brake bikes without even a front brake, and people who get mentions in the mountain bike publications. Alan Bonds shows up on a perfect Excelsior sporting new two-tone paint and the standard custom Marin drum-brake rig from the '70s. Joe Breeze is on his old Schwinn with the Bendix two-speed, and Otis Guy's old bike sports a Morrow coaster brake and a set of Schwinn cantilever front brakes. Jeans and t-shirts are the costume of the day, with work shirt worn over the t-shirt, baseball caps standard headgear, and Alan Bonds even has on a pair of mint-condition Nike Approaches. Jacquie Phelan is not what the Repackers call an "original" but she raced there in the waning days, and she's original in every other sense of the word. She makes her traditional grand entrance with plastic flowers on the bike.
The one guy wearing a jersey and a helmet looks like a geek in the sea of baseball caps, because there are only three or four helmets in the whole crowd, and the only other bicycle jerseys were twenty year old, moth eaten, overstretched Velo-Club Tamalpais jerseys. Those were legit, because Joe and Otis and Wende and Gary and Kent Bostick and I were all members along with another half-dozen Repack regulars.
In the space of less than two months I have hit the extremes of mountain biking. The National Final, and now something that kicks ass on that mega-event. You have to inhale the clear air to believe it, and I can see and even hear a lot of people inhaling. These are my people, my roots, and I thought they had all gone. There is even a new generation of adult men who tell me they were envious kids at the time, and now they are finally where they have always wanted to be. A couple of kids who look to be about thirteen have come in the back way from Woodacre, a tough ride. They are so stoked they arrived two hours early.
Nobody is in a hurry to leave. Hangin' is almost as good as ridin' when you have this crowd. Hangin' at the top of Repack is more fun than riding in the National Championship. There are lots of photos to be taken, and we pose in the time-honored manner, lined up with our bikes like every photo of a bike club taken in the last hundred years. Joe makes a speech, and after someone wonders aloud where course record-holder Gary Fisher is, he shows up late on a new bike, not his antique. One of the photographers tries to get just the people who were at the first race, a group that includes myself, Bob Burrowes, Alan Bonds, Wende Cragg and Bob Peterson. The other original racer, Fred Wolf, hasn't made it up the hill. (Bob Peterson was fifty then, and now at seventy he's still riding, but on much nicer equipment and with hair down to here. You may have seen Bob in a TV commercial for Foundation Health, kicking mountain bike butt on his son and grandson.)
I didn't know if anyone cared that I had brought the timers, but when I break them out, it is as though I was expected to. They still have the bottle caps taped over the reset button; it would have been disaster if either of the clocks had quit, so once they were started, they could not be reset accidentally.
Chris Ioakimedes takes a quick lesson in timer operation, then calls together a group who want to race. I hadn't expected a real race, and I don't want any part of it, but it would have been difficult to get all these people here and not expect a little friendly rivalry. Nobody brought a notebook, and Chris has to borrow a pen to write his start list on an envelope. Some things never change.
I'm outa here. I don't want to have to wait for the race to be over before I leave, and I hit the trail. And now I'm faced with a problem I've been dealing with for about twenty years: how do you reduce the experience to words? Repack is the most famous descent in Marin County, but there are others as good that the locals will never tell you about. I've never committed myself to any of the others like I have this one, and I'll never learn every feature of two miles of road like I have here. None of the others changed my life. Okay, so it's a spiritual experience. I'll do the best I can without resorting to grunts and whines.
Some sections are hard enough to ride at all, let alone going fast. It's steep, and off-camber and the rocks are all loose except for a few that are very solid and the trick is to know which are the ones that won't move, or to ride so aggressively that it doesn't matter. I have nothing to gain by hitting the road here as hard as I did when I raced, and it seems easier to ride conservatively on a new, light, suspended bike than it did riding out of control on fifty pounds of flying iron.
It all unfolds like the song you know by heart. I'm not the only person who knows the groove on the hill, because everywhere I go I follow a six-inch wide track. Plenty of others know that you have to get to one side or the other for the ditch around this curve, or the change in camber that's coming up. The right line is not always obvious, which is why years ago Joe Breeze made a map to memorize, and one day I walked down the course with a friend who took a photo every fifty feet so we could study it from the comfort of our living rooms. On one corner I like to ride between two rocks that are on the line on the inside of the corner, and there they are, right where they're supposed to be.
The road opens up, and there are the ranger trucks, parked about halfway down in a really high-speed compression dip. I have nothing to gain by offending them, and I know they don't want to be here, so I go slow, say hi,¾ and let off the brakes around the corner. Too bad, because if you hit the dip at full speed, you can get null-grav coming out of it.
Oh yeah, the brakes. If nothing else improved between then and now, the brakes got great. You had to stop a lot more bike, and you had to do it with more primitive devices, drum brakes that got nearly incandescent and faded badly. No one got off one of those old bikes at the bottom and didn't try to shake some feeling back into paralyzed forearms. Two-thirds of the way down and my feet are cramping worse than my hands. This is great! With a suspended front end that annoying chatter that went with hard braking into a turn is gone.
The retro coaster brake guys must be having fun. Without a front brake there isn't much chance of slowing down on some parts of the course, but then you can't wash out the front wheel either, so as long as you stay on top and don't hit anything, you should be all right. A scary philosophy, but it actually works. The coaster brake guys have to set up for a turn like a skier, turning the bike long before arriving at the curve. Picture telemarking down a steep chute.
I'm one of the first at the bottom, and I know better than to come around the last turn and get sideways. It's a tradition, and so is the high-side crash that follows too often. A guy comes in right behind me, a coaster brake rider, and he has a real smoker going. His brake is hot enough to turn spit into a cloud of steam, and the smoke pouring off it illustrates as well as anything the limits of coaster brake technology. Before these bikes go out again, the hub will have to be repacked with grease. Hey, that's catchy.
Joe Breeze has thoughtfully stashed a couple of kegs of beer behind a tree, and although he didn't say which tree, it doesn't take long to find them and get them operational.
For the next half-hour riders arrive, invariably sideways around the last curve, spraying gravel and dust. There are various tales of the interaction with the rangers halfway down. Amazingly, there is no evidence of anyone going down, no damaged machinery, no exposed capillaries, no torn shirts covered with dust. This is a first, and it may be a sign that we are getting older.
There is even a winner, in the time of 4:52. That's thirty seconds off the record, but it includes getting past a gate and a ranger that weren't there 20 years ago, and the dry conditions are far from ideal for traction. Three sub-five minute times get a new generation into the record books.
Party, party, party until the beer is gone. Lots of reminiscing, then ride into town for food and more. Who says you can't go home again?