Words: Hans Rey
Just north of San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge lies Mount Tamalpais, the place where this whole ‘mountain biking’ thing started, in the mid-to-late seventies.
Back then, before the bikes and even the name were invented, these Marin County locals would challenge each other on old ‘klunkers’ – modified beach cruisers – riding a downhill known as ‘Repack’.
I’ve made arrangements to meet some of these OGs, along with another famous face, and ride this infamous descent with them.
Then I’ll be heading into the city to ride against some of its celebrated backdrops, before checking in with the next generation of the sport. But first, time for a solo warm-up on the Camp Tamarancho trail network.
Just outside the town of Fairfax, Tamarancho are some great singletracks and fire roads, a highlight being the Endor flow trail – a really fun track with berms, rollers and jumps, through a beautiful redwood forest.
While I’m looking forward to meeting the others, I love riding alone, too. You can just soak up the nature, clear your head and forget everything else in your life. Just be there in the moment and be one with your bike.
It’s a pleasure to feel the wind blow in your face and listen to your tyres rumbling, or the sounds of the birds.
That serenity is soon over when I’m joined by Canadian freeride trailblazer Brett Tippie.
With him are some of the early pioneers of mountain biking – Charlie Kelly, Joe Breeze and Otis Guy. Joe and Otis are even riding two of the original klunkers.
We head to the top of Repack and it’s amazing to hear their stories and ride this legendary dirt road with them.
Astonishingly, the course record set by Gary Fisher in the 1970s was only beaten in 2021 – hard to believe, but then, your speed isn’t easy to control when you’ve only got a coaster brake!
Even though Repack looks like a fire road, the loose surface makes it tricky to go fast and still make it around the turns – you have to take them very precisely, with a lot of finesse.
It’s sketchy on my modern-day bike, and when I try riding one of the klunkers, it takes things to a whole different level.
Slowing down is almost impossible, and it’s an art in itself to apply pressure with your feet and activate the coaster brake while navigating over and around obstacles with that curved handlebar.
Much respect! I won’t forget the feeling of drifting sideways through the turns, slightly out of control, while rubbing elbows with these guys. It’s a very special experience and, for a moment, I feel like I’m back in the seventies.
All five of us have been inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame over the years, so we can’t pass up the opportunity to end our day at its home, the Marin Museum of Bicycling. It’s a place every mountain biker should visit, filled with old bikes and stories.
After some beers and laughs – trust me, there’s never a shortage of jokes when Tippie is around – the two of us head to our hotel and prepare for the first urban leg of our trip.
I’m lucky to receive a super-cool souvenir – an original rivet from the bridge (more than a million of these are being replaced).
Arriving in the city, we embark on a clockwise tour of the tourist spots – Fort Point, Presidio park, Fisherman’s Wharf, the famous curvy Lombard Street and the waterfront Embarcadero – taking in the many neighbourhoods and parks in between. There’s no better way to explore this city than by bike.
After lunch, I’m not sure if I’m dehydrated, have had too much caffeine or it’s the constant jokes from Tippie, but I start to feel dizzy and have zero energy.
We’ve just ridden some pretty steep drops and hillsides, yet five minutes later I can barely ride in a straight line.
Thankfully, it passes, but for a while I find myself lying on a park bench next to a homeless person. The streets of San Francisco are filled with interesting characters, from hippies, bike messengers and tourists to people panhandling for change.
Tippie may be known for his million-dollar smile, but he lived on the streets for two years himself, after hitting a low point in his life, and shows his empathy for the homeless people we pass by handing them some dollars or an energy bar.
Day three starts on 3,849ft Mount Diablo, with panoramic views of Mt Tam, San Francisco and the mountain ranges to the south. From here, we’re to traverse the East Bay, via the Oakland Hills. Tippie finds a steep and technical line near the top to get us started, and on the way down we enjoy some great trails through groves of oak trees.
Then we hit some of the classic East Bay riding at Joaquin Miller Park and follow the Skyline route until a final descent into Berkeley. The quality and quantity of trails here has improved so much in recent years that it’s dark when we finally finish.
Our second urban stage sees us explore the other half of San Francisco, from Presidio, Lands End park and Golden Gate Park to the Twin Peaks and Castro district.
Some of the old fortresses and batteries have incredible lines, where we can showcase our love for steeps. It’s amazing how many green spaces there are in the city, and how many people exercise everywhere.
We rub elbows with golfers, frisbee players and roller-skaters as we work our way through Golden Gate Park – somewhere I dream of building a flow trail. What a location it’d be, right near the birthplace of our sport!
Mountain bikers have had many access issues in the Bay Area, but, thanks to organisations such as Access4Bikes, SF Urban Riders, IMBA and CAMTB, the riding is getting better every year, and there’s now even some legal singletrack in the city.
This includes Troop 88 on Mount Sutro – a perfectly built flow trail, where I decide to wallride a fence and am punished with a painful crash and some deep cuts to my shin.
Shaking it off, we continue to Dolores Park, where we’re to meet Polo, a member of the Team SE7EN ‘wheelie kids’ crew, and no other than Jackson Goldstone, the newly crowned junior downhill world champion.
Jackson will be joining us on tomorrow’s ride, but not before an evening wheelie session in Dolores Park, Valencia Street and some of the graffiti-strewn back alleys of the Mission.
It’s a lot of fun watching and following the youngsters, and a great transition from meeting the pioneers of our sport a few days earlier to now riding with the next generation.
Early the next morning, we meet Jackson in Pacifica, a coastal town 30 minutes south of San Francisco.
He insists on a detour through the local skate park before we head up to the countless trails on Montara Mountain, located on top of the San Andreas earthquake fault.
Jackson is only 17, but he made his name a long time ago, aged five, when his parents posted a video of him on a balance bike that went viral.
He’s gone on to live up to that early promise, from pulling double backflips to winning World Cups.
On the ‘Boy Scout’ trail, Jackson puts us old-schoolers in our place, pushing us out of our comfort zone a few times. That’s one of the perks of riding with others – you always learn, get inspired and get pushed.
Tippie impresses, too, sending a big road gap, and Jackson has no hesitation hitting everything the locals have built. It always amazes me how high the level of riding has become on local trails, no matter where in the world. Little did we imagine back in the early days, before the internet became popular, that our videos would start something like this!
After sweating up the final climb, we’re rewarded with the ultimate downhill on ‘Two Pines’, an old-school trail with many switchbacks and some technical sections.
Far below, a layer of fog hides apparently breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean, but hey, that too is part of the San Francisco experience!
We’ve had an incredible week, with lots of laughs, riding and memories. Make sure you watch our Slay The Bay film, and bring on the next adventure!
Hans Rey: A trials and adventure-riding pioneer, Hans ‘No Way’ Rey’s videos made him a household name in the pre-internet era and paved the way for the likes of Danny MacAskill.
Joe Breeze: Repack racer Breeze is credited with making the first purpose-built ‘mountain bike’ frame – the steel Breezer #1 – back in 1977.
Brett Tippie: Across the border, Tippie and fellow FRO Riders Wade Simmons and Richie Schley kickstarted MTB freeride on the slopes of Kamloops, BC. He’s now a successful presenter, podcaster and more.
Otis Guy: Another racer and frame builder who was there at the birth of the sport (and raced the 1990 World Champs), Otis still makes bikes in the shadow of Mt Tam.
Charlie Kelly: The man behind the Repack DH race, Charlie was also the first to bring a complete MTB to market, when he joined Gary Fisher and frame builder Tom Ritchey in their MountainBikes business venture.
Jackson Goldstone: At just 17, Jackson is the reigning Junior DH world champ and World Cup champ, has ridden at Nitro Circus and hit the huge jumps of the FEST Series.
‘Polo’: A member of Las Vegas-based Team SE7EN, Polo is part of the ‘wheelie kids’ movement, where youngsters meet up for ride-outs to show off their tricks.