Recently, we reached the 40th anniversary of the first timed races organized by Charlie Kelly in Marin County, CA. These are the legendary Repack races, so named because you had to repack the grease that melted away from the blistering fire road downhill.
A lot of people – myself included – would consider these races to be the birth of mountain biking as we currently know it in 2016.
There are people will argue this though, and that’s fine – but they’re wrong.
Let’s explore why.
Whenever the topic of who invented mountain bikes comes up, there is inevitably debate. For starters, there’s always the anecdotal “my buddy’s cousin built a bike like that years ago” stories. Then there’s the Morrow Dirt Club – guys that Kelly and Fisher saw riding modded Schwinns with derailleurs and thumb shifters. The guy that Kelly knew that built a bicycle in 1953 with motorcycle parts. The Finnish army apparently ripped around Europe in WWII riding modified mountain-like bikes, and the Tour de France. The Tour started way back in 1903 on a lot of dirt roads.
So, being first on dirt is certainly not something that can be attributed to the Repack crew.
And even putting together a bike meant to rip down, and back up, dirt trails was done long before Repack. There are lots of pictures of flat bar bikes, bikes with suspension, curved seat tubes, and other mods for off road use.
What the Repack crew did do, is make it look good.
As they slowly wore out the entire klunker stock in Northern California, the Repack crew realized they needed bikes built for the task. Enter Joe Breeze, who built ten Breezers in ’77/’78. You certainly couldn’t go out and buy a Shimano XT group back then, so all the parts on it were Euro touring and tandem stuff, with motorcycle bits mixed in.
Take a moment to look at that bike – it is simply gorgeous. And when Breeze won Repack on his first outing, that was it; the writing was on the wall for the klunker. If you wanted to race, and have any hope at winning, you need a MountainBike.
Enter the frame building prodigy Tom Ritchey. By 1979, the 22 year old Ritchey was already the most prolific frame building in the U.S. You can see Ritchey in the Repack pictures, and Gary Fisher knew him, as he had asked Tom to build him a frame. Charlie Kelly though says he didn’t formally meet him until well after he and Fisher stumbled into becoming a mountain bike company, selling complete bikes that they built out of Ritchey’s frames.
When I look at this bike built in 1979, I see a bike that’s virtually the same as what you bought in 1991, just with different frame geometry. If you then add a suspension fork and disc brakes, you have a typical hardtail from 2001. Make the wheels 29″ (or 27.5″), and you’ve got a bike you can go buy from a shop today.
People rode bikes off road before the Repack crew, and people modded bikes for off road use before the Repack crew. But, my involvement in mountain bikes can be traced directly back to Repack through Tom Ritchey who worked with Rocky Mountain in the early 80’s. You can make a case that Ritchey helped kick start the Canadian mountain bike scene.
So take the Pacific Northwest mountain bike scene, add in what happened in California, and you’ve got the genesis of everything we have now.
Good enough for me.