WORKING UP AN APPETITE
By Darryl Skrabak
This article ran in the December 1979 issue of City Sports Magazine. Author Darryl Skrabak had heard about the Appetite Seminar and figured he would give it a shot. It turned out to be the worst weather the ride has ever been conducted it. This article was written just a month or so after Gary Fisher and I had started our company, MountainBikes, and the photograph of Gary on his Ritchey bike is the first ever published.
Working up an Appetite
By Darryl Skrabak
There are events that become adventures, and adventures that become ordeals, and ordeals in which things go from bad to worse, and the worse things become, the better they are.
It was that way at the Appetite Seminar held Thanksgiving Day in the Marin hills. This unheralded event was plain awful. It was the worst seminar ever, and it was the Fifth Annual. It will fuel Marin bench racing for months. The miseries visited upon the participants will be dwelt upon at length, and recounted repeatedly, and expanded into tales, and thence into legend. It will be recalled as one of the great ones.
Because it was the worst.
You had to be acquainted among the Marin bicycle underground to know about the Appetite Seminar - so named because its survivors work up one hell of an appetite for the Thanksgiving repast. Each year somewhat in advance of Thanksgiving, Charles Kelly, 34, who lives in Fairfax, gets out an instant-print flyer announcing the event. These flyers are furtively distributed to the cognoscenti. They lie obscurely on counters in the nether corners of select Marin bike shops. They are not remarkable art, but they have a certain style. Someday they will be minor collector's items.
It was not Charlie's fault things went bad. The beginning was fine. It was a brisk fall morning, as the weatherman had promised. Charlie showed up at the appointed hour, 9a.m., at the appointed place, the Fairfax movie house parking lot. He did not rush proceedings, for the annual Equipment Review was under way. The E.R. is where people look over what the other guys have brought. In the early days what they brought was whatever old-timey fat-tired bicycles the thrift shops had to offer. They were called klunkers, because that's what they were.
These days they're still called klunkers. But they ain't. The old bikes - those undestroyed - have been lovingly worked over, fitted with low-range derailleur gearing, and super-strong handlebar stems that won't break off, leaving you holding handlebars unconnected to a bicycle hurtling down some rocky descent. Their wheels have drum brakes rarely to be found in the U.S.A. outside Marin County. The 26-inch rims are aluminum, also virtually unobtainable beyond Marin. Dirt motorcycle-style handlebars have been added, along with Magura-style motorcycle brake levers. The thumbshifters are stock SunTour, but like the rims and the brakes and a lot of other trick parts, you won't see them outside Marin, either.
Getting most scrutiny were the new specials. From the frame up these are designed for their particular element. They represent the state of a still developing art. None are cheap. Some are really dear, even by custom bike standards.
Klunkers they ain't, but they are called that because nobody has yet coined an acclaimed replacement term. This is to the embarrassment of the purveyors and manufacturers of finer klunkers, who would really prefer a more dignified appellation for their wares.
On review at the parking lot were historic reworked Schwinns, new heavy-duty Schwinns, also reworked, beach cruisers from L.A., and the custom frame machines. Examples of the latter were produced by Mert Lawwill of Tiburon, former national champion motorcycle racer (you saw him in film maker Bruce Brown's On Any Sunday,) whose design was developed with the Koski brothers of the Cove Bike Shop in Tiburon; and by Menlo Park framebuilder Tom Ritchey, who joined forces' with Kelly and bicycle road racer Gary Fisher to design his frame. Ritchey is now party to a fledgling Kelly and Fisher concern known as MountainBikes, which markets Ritchey's frames and other klunker equipment.
The Lawwill and Ritchey-based bikes you can buy. Others were on hand that you can't buy. These were one-or two-off specials. Of this breed were a couple by Joe Breeze, who is a machinist and half of the famed tandem team of Otis Guy and Joe Breeze, perennial winners of the annual Davis 200 miler; and a bike made and ridden by Craig Mitchell, owner and proprietor of Mitchell Engineering in Fairfax. In a more formal showing, his beautifully crafted 20-inch wheel bike would have won Most Different.
There was even a lone foreign entry, this a Jack Taylor from England. For years the renown Taylor firm has built frames for English backlaners who tour historic unpaved roads, and who have formed an association known as the Rough Stuff Fellowship. For years Holland Jones, owner of Fulton Street Cyclery in San Francisco, had been badgering Taylor to ship a roughstuff bike. That which arrived a few months ago is probably the first in the country.
All the klunkers - the Taylor and Tom Ritchey's personal bike excepting- had one feature in common. They were shod with the largest and knobbiest tread tires to be had (the Taylor and Ritchey bikes had middling thick tires). This is in stark contrast to the trend for conventional road bikes, whose tires have become increasingly skinnier - and more fragile.
Klunker tires are big for two reasons. Their cushioning effect helps the rest of the bike -and rider- to withstand treatment no ordinary bike could withstand. Klunkerites are prone to ride over logs, bash against rocks and unabashedly ride downs tairways. It takes big tires -and a tough and non-squirrelly bike- to suffer that without wrecking.
The other reason big tires are favored is flotation. "High flotation" is a reference for those oversize tires stuck on four-wheel drive rigs. Even FWDs sink on soft stuff with regular tires. Big, wide tires "float" on top and prevent bog-downs.
The effect is the same for bicycles. Klunker bikes are the ORVs (off-road vehicles) of the non-motorized set. Off pavement it's better if your tires stay on top of loose surfaces, rather than sink in, which is what happens to skinny ten-speed tires. The result can be like getting a tire stuck in a streetcar track - disaster. Or it can be like just getting stuck in the mud, which is even less fun when the other guys are rapidly disappearing down the road, buoyed up by their fat tires.
It was mud which prevailed at the 1979 Appetite Seminar -but not until the event was well under way, and riders had got to the interior of Marin's backcountry. The initial leg was pavement, and the first dirt mostly rocks, and the rain hadn't started yet. But it would come.
The start seemed to occur without signal. By some common agreement the group bolted the parking lot, within seconds chasing up the Bolinas-Fairfax Road. This section proved to be a not inconsequential hill. The climb was severe enough to discourage some riders. Klunker bikes are heavy, and their weight, combined with the rolling resistance of fat tires, does not allow hills to be surmounted with the elan of a ten-speed on pavement.
"How much farther up the hill, Charlie?" breathless riders shouted to the event organizer.
"Not much farther," Kelly would reply reassuringly. (What else should he say?)
Some riders were hip to the hill. They piled into Ed Christiansen's Sunshine Bike Shop (Fairfax) van with Ed and his wife. Mrs. Christiansen was driving the empty van down the hill while the pedal-it-yourself brigade was still ascending.
At the summit there was pause for a group photograph. Some 31 klunkers and two skinny-tired ten-speeds (both of which managed the entire seminar) lined up in the traditional handlebar-to-handlebar pose.
Then the seminar began in earnest, off pavement and onto Pine Mountain Road, a fire road, following a loop route of connecting fire roads that Charlie Kelly reckoned would cover 15 or 20 miles.
Only a handful of the most capable riders, led by Repack race fast-timer Gary Fisher, remained aboard on the first rock-strewn hill. The rest were off and pushing. Then the rocks thinned and the grade flattened, and the surface, recently rendered dustless by the season's first rains, became much quicker.
"This is okay now," said Howie Hammermann, veteran of all, four previous Seminars. "But wait until the winter rains. This stuff turns to mud that sticks to anything with in ten feet of it."
That pronouncement, only partially hyperbolic, was prophetic. Within minutes rain commenced. Riders dove beneath a sheltering tree. Charlie advised of a route option: the Repack course was less than a mile away. It offered a fast shortcut back to town. More than a dozen chose this shunt, leaving 20 others who pressed on over the original route, hoping the rain was no more than a shower. Having believed the weather predictions, none had brought rain-gear.
Charlie had chosen a course easy to follow. There were no turnoffs, hence no wrong choices. There was only one "Y." That was marked by the first riders through, who dug arrows into the dirt with their boot heels to indicate the right direction.
By the time later riders arrived, the arrows had filled with rainwater. The rain did not let up. By mid-course it gave evidence of being serious about preventing another Marin drought. And by mid-course it was too late to turn back - it was just as far to return as to continue.
It was a tough course that Charlie laid out. The Appetite Seminar is supposed to be tough. It led over rugged ridges and mostly up and down. Even the flat stretches became difficult as the rain made the rocks slick and began to transform dirt to mud. This was, as Howie Hammermann had said, awful stuff. In consistency it resembled bread dough. It developed the adhesive properties of Elmer's Glue-All. It sucked at wheels that went through it, and it stuck to the wheels, so that they looked like wet clay sculptures.
Fortunately, for the riders slogging and pushing through the goo, it was early in the season. The roads were only getting their first soakings. Later, when the mud has some depth to it, a bike can be parked in it. The bike will stand, its tires firmly anchored, until its owner returns, rested enough to drag it out.
Atop Pine Mountain it is alleged there is a spectacular view of Tamales Bay. But the view was blocked by the low cloud shrouding the mountain. There is a rare stunted cypress forest, which normally would provide cause to stop and admire, while the naturalist of the group(there is always one in Marin) pointed out the wherefores and the curiosities. But the trouble with a stunted cypress forest, when it's raining, is that it doesn't offer any trees big enough to keep the rain off. And anyway the naturalist isn't around, having already split up the road, desperately trying to get back to Fairfax, to back home, to somewhere that's warm before he freezes to death.
It was damn cold up on that mountain. And the cold got worse on the descent. The windchill factor combined with the evaporative cooling of soaked clothes made for super refrigeration. Riders arrived back in town in a state of near hypothermia.
There was no post-Seminar gathering in Fairfax this year. The Marinites fled to their homes or to those of the nearest friends who could be prevailed upon for hot showers. The outlanders scrambled muddily into cars and vans as quickly as frozen limbs and digits would allow and cranked the heaters up full. And those with only their bicycles for transport huddled miserably at Old Uncle Gaylord's giving thanks the place was open on Thanksgiving, hands clenched numbly around cups of hot coffee, wearing the doubtful expressions of those who wonder if it will ever be possible to be warm again.
It was a debacle, Charlie and partner Gary Fisher agreed afterwards. No camaraderie. No gathering of the group for smokes and repartee. None of the sharing of admiration for best assault on the last rocky ascent, or best get-off on a cliff-side corner.
However, this is not altogether true. These good things are merely put off, pending recovery of the participants. They will be shared in the months to come, when klunker riders cross paths on the Marin backroads, or gather for bench racing in bike-shop backrooms and Marin watering holes. Then the terrible Seminar of '79 will' be worked into the legend of the Marin dirt bike underground, gradually transformed from a debacle into the one where You Should've BeenThere. One of the All-Time Great Ones.