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This article, which was written in early 1978 and ran in Bicycling Magazine (January 1979), marks a milestone for several reasons. It was the first magazine article I ever sold, starting my writing career. It was the first article to run in the mainstream cycling press about a new phenomenon out of Northern California, off-road bikes, then called "Clunkers". (The term "mountain bike" had not been coined yet.) It concerns a new sport, off-road racing, and makes a number of predictions that were absurd in 1978, but which have come to pass.


It is a cool, clear morning in Northern California, but the five young men are sweating profusely as they push strangely modified bicycles up the steep hill. They are discussing the dirt road surface, which resembles a moonscape more than it does a road, and as they push their machines one or another will kick a rock to one side or fill a small depression with dirt.

These young men belong to the same breed that skis down cliffs, jumps out of airplanes, or rides skateboards down Everest; they have developed their own unique athletic challenge, a race which is known only to a few dozen locals and is referred to as "Repack." The road they are on is the racecourse.

After 35 minutes of hard climbing, scrambling and pushing, the five reach the top of the hill, where the road they are on intersects another rarely used fire road. There they are met by another fifteen or so riders, including a couple of high-energy ladies, who have taken a route only slightly easier to the top. The road becomes a tangled jumble of modified machinery as riders pile their bikes around the intersection.

Most of the crowd are in their twenties, but there are a few teenagers and one bearded individual who claims to be fifty, although no one believes him. All are wearing heavy shirts and pants and most are wearing leather gloves and vibram soled boots.

There seems to be a little method to this madness, however, as one of the group drags a very well-thumbed notebook out of a backpack along with a pair of electronic stopwatches. This notebook is the heart of the race, since it contains all previous race results as well as the phone numbers of all the local riders. (Races are not scheduled; they are held only when the cosmic alignment is right.) Names are taken and numbers are assigned according to experience. First time riders and those with slow previous times are numbered first and the fastest are numbered last; each rider is then assigned a starting time, which is duly noted. A copy of the list is made and the watches are started simultaneously. One copy of the list and one of the watches is given to a scruffy looking "official timer" who then jumps on his machine and vanishes downhill.

For the next ten minutes or so the adrenalin content of the air increases noticeably as riders eat oranges, make minor adjustments, and talk excitedly among themselves. Finally the first name on the list is called and a nervous young man wheels up to the starting line, which is scraped across the road in the dirt. This is his first time down the course and he spends his last few seconds at the top asking questions about the course and not listening to the answers.

"Ten seconds...five seconds." The novice is so anxious that he applies full power a little early; however the starter has a firm grip on the rear wheel and releases it as he says, "Go!" The novice is thrown off-balance by his early start and wobbles for the first few yards before finding the throttle and disappearing over the first rise.

The sport that is going on here may never catch on with the American public, and its originators couldn't care less. They are here to get off. The bicycles in use are as unique as the sport; they are usually old Schwinns, although a few other rugged species are included. Highly modified, most are five- or ten-speeds with front and rear drum brakes, motorcycle brake levers, motocross bars, and the biggest knobby tires available. A few reactionaries still cling to their one or two speed coaster brake machines, but drum brakes and ten speeds seem to be the wave of the future. The machines are referred to as Clunkers, Bombers or Cruisers, depending on the owner's local affiliation, and there are probably not more than a few hundred of the advanced models in California.

Clunking seems to have started with the invention of the bicycle; certainly people have been riding old bikes on dirt roads as long as there have been old bikes. Recently, however, the old bikes have been successfully crossed with the ten-speed to produce a hybrid which is perfectly adapted to the fire roads and trails of the Northern California hills. In the process of field testing modifications the researchers have shattered every part to be found on a bicycle. rims, hubs, handlebars, cranks, seatposts, saddles, gears, chains, derailleurs, stems, pedals and frames have all been ground to fragments along with the exterior portions of a number of clunking enthusiasts. Any sacrifice in the name of science.

Early in the experimental stage it was realized that the hill now known as Repack was the ultimate field test for bike and rider. Repack is a rarely used fire road that loses 1300 feet of elevation in the two miles from top to bottom. In addition to its incredible steepness it features off-camber blind corners, deep erosion ruts, and a liberal sprinkling of fist-sized rocks. The name "Repack" stems from the coaster brake era; after a trip down the hill all the grease in a coaster brake turns to smoke and it is time to repack the hub.

While Clunkers somewhat resemble lightweight dirt motorcycles, the similarity is largely visual, and cornering at high speed is a unique form of body art. A motorcycle has large tires and shock absorbers, but a Clunker does not and it consequently tends to become airborne when it hits even very slight projections in the road surface. In a tight corner a Clunker does not have the instant acceleration that a motorcyclist uses to bring the rear end around, and the lack of shock absorbers causes it to skitter. Nevertheless, they can be ridden around curves much faster than seems possible by an expert rider. Interestingly, photographs have shown that the fastest riders raise the least dust on corners.

Another interesting feature of the ride is the fact that the handlebars can become extremely difficult to hold onto at high speed when the surface gets rough. There isn't much to take up the shock, and it is transmitted directly to your hands, making delicate braking operations rather difficult. At the end of a Repack ride the most noticeable feeling is the cramp in the hands caused by this abuse. In this area the coaster-brake reactionaries claim superiority since their brakes are foot-operated.

The styles displayed by the expert riders vary with the personalities involved. One of the fastest riders, Joe, is known as the "Mad Scientist." Joe has drawn up detailed maps of the course, which he studies carefully. On race day he walks up the course to check for new hazards, then he rides with a controlled fury that makes cornering on gravel at 40 mph look easy.

Another rider, George, occupies the other end of the stylistic spectrum. Called the "Mad Bomber" because of his Kamikaze approach, George rides an old one-speed coaster brake machine with no front brake. His style is characterized by 75-foot sideways slides going into curves, accompanied by miraculous recoveries from certain doom. On other roads, George rides under single pipe fire-road gates at 35-40 mph and claims distance jumps of 40 feet or more.

Returning to the top of the course we find that riders have been sent off at two minute intervals. The spacing is to prevent one rider from catching another, since passing on this course is not easy. The ability grouping prevents a slow rider from being followed by an extremely fast one who might catch up. The fastest riders are started last so the others get a chance to see the experts finish.

What is it like to ride this course? As the rider before you leaves, you have two minutes to prepare yourself. for a surprising number of this means a fast trip to the bushes for emergency urination. Wheeling up to the line with a minute to go you find your breathing a little strained, fast, and loud in your ears. "Thirty seconds." Squeeze brake levers to make sure they are adjusted for maximum grab. "Fifteen." You check for the eighth time to make sure you are in the right gear. "Ten." Up onto the pedals as the starter holds the rear wheel. "Five." The world shrinks and becomes twelve feet wide, stretched out in front of you. Conscious effort is required to hold back from an early start. "GO!" The wheel is released and the bike shoots forward as if propelled by a tightly wound spring.

The first 150 yards are level with a soft surface and then a slight uphill. It is imperative to ride this section as fast as possible since there is a two or three second difference between a fast rider and a slow one here.

Over the rise and into the first downhill and you are already gasping from the initial effort. No time to let up though, for this section is straight and even though it is steep you are still standing on your highest gear.

Blind left turn onto the steepest section, covered with ruts and loose rocks. Watch that little lump across the road because at this speed it will put you in the air and out of position for the next turn.

Now the road becomes a series of blind corners which all seem to look the same as you approach. This section favors the experienced Repack rider who can remember which corners to brake for and which ones can be taken wide open. Since Repack is in more or less a straight line at the top, most of the corners can be taken at full speed, which is a thrilling prospect in light of the fact that it will take you about 200 feet to stop (unless you hit a tree). At no time should you stop pedaling unless you are jamming on the brakes. As you approach some of the more wicked curves you are conscious of a few fifty-foot, side-to-side skidmarks. amateur tracks. A definite "groove" is visible on most of the corners, worn into the surface by the passage of many knobby tires.

A roller-coaster section gives you a new thrill as the bike becomes weightless just when you want the tires on the ground. into a dip and the bike slides sideways, then corrects itself pointed in exactly the right direction. Cutting all corners as closely as possible, you receive a whack or two from overhanging branches.

As your adrenalin pump goes into overdrive, your reflexes and vision improve immeasurably. You are aware of every pebble on the road, even though they are whipping past. You are totally alone; the only spectators are at the bottom. You dare not lose your concentration for an instant, but the danger of that is slight. You are definitely getting off.

Sliding into an off-camber, eroded turn you make a micro miscalculation. Out of control, you must make a rapid decision, off the edge, or lay it down. Lay it down...damn..torn shirt, bloody elbow. No time to mess with that now (the shirt was old, so was the elbow), how's the bike? Okay...jump on it and feed the chain back on with your hand as you coast the first few yards. Back in gear you really stand on it to make up time.

Near the bottom of the course is a series of switchbacks and you are vaguely aware that you are being photographed as you try for maximum cornering speed. Out of the switchbacks in a cloud of dust and into the final straightaway. Jam on the brakes to keep a lump in the road from launching you off the edge. Now there are several dozen people along the sides of the course, earlier riders, girlfriends, and a few locals. Last corner...and roaring past the big rock that marks the finish, you skid 50 feet to the flashiest possible stop, then throw down you bike and run over to the timer, who instantly gives you your time. It is the best so far, but your elation is reduced by the arrival of the next rider somewhat less than two minutes later. As the last half-dozen riders finish the times continue to go down, and the last finisher records the best time, some twenty seconds better than yours. Any time under five minutes is respectable, but the record stands at 4:22.

Now that the event is over the winners are announced, but no prizes are handed out. There are no entry fees, very few rules, and usually no prizes other than a round of beers, but no one seems to care. The finish line is a hubbub as adrenalized riders bounce around, reliving and describing at length their rides and various crashes. "I would have done better, but I crashed..." "I crashed twice and still did better than you..." "You should have seen it..." But no one did.

While the Repack race seems to define the essence of clunking, it is completely unique and is only one facet of the sport. Most Clunker riders are interested primarily in riding, rather than racing. In Northern California there is ample hill country, laced with fire roads and trails which are as good as freeways to Clunker riders. This is where the Clunker comes into its own, for these are not just downhill machines. Super-low gears enable a strong rider to climb most hills, and the true enthusiast sees nothing wrong with spending an hour pushing his bike up a steep hill in order to come flying down. The Clunker allows the rider to penetrate deeply into the hills, away from cars and most hikers. The ability to travel at 10-15 mph in total silence in rough country makes the Clunker the most effective backwoods transportation yet invented. It can be ridden on the narrowest hiking trails or carried if necessary over any obstacle.

As a means of local transportation the Clunker has a few drawbacks; weight (about 45 pounds) and high rolling resistance due to the balloon tires keep the cruising speed down to a mellow but very comfortable velocity, but for short distances it is a perfect vehicle as its lack of speed is offset by incredible braking, cornering and maneuverability. To the experienced rider there are no obstacles, and ditches, curbs, fallen trees, etc. become part of the enjoyment of riding. One need not worry excessively about tire damage since there is probably no tougher tire than the 2.125 balloon tire knobbies in general Clunker use.

Clunker technology, a field limited to a small number of mad cyclo-scientists, is still in its infancy. Plans are being developed for frames to be made of the same lightweight tubing used in racing bicycles. If the weight can be brought down and the frame redesigned for better handling, the machines in use now will become as obsolete as the bikes they were made from. In underdeveloped countries, such as this one, the Clunker has promise as low-cost, non-polluting transportation over any type of terrain.



Copyright 1978 by Charles Kelly

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