Where we’re stood might look like just a junction of fireroads at the top of a hill, but one of them isn’t any old fireroad. Some clues: I’m in the company of bunch of local riders who work for Marin Mountain Bikes. We can see San Francisco Bay off in the distance. We’re about two miles from and 1,300ft above Fairfax, California.
Yes, we’re at the top of the Repack, possibly the most famous trail in the history of mountain biking. While the exact origins of mountain biking are debatable, there’s no doubt that the modern sport as we know it can be traced back to this exact spot, the top of a steep fireroad in Northern California that we’re about to ride for ourselves.
We’re not going to explore the history of the Repack, and the pioneering races that took place on it, in great detail – Charlie Kelly, de facto organiser of those races, has the first-hand account, and a fine read it is too. Even if you think you know the story, it’s worth a look. Nearly everyone knows, for example, that the trail was christened the Repack because riding it with a back-pedal coaster brake boiled all the grease out of it so you had to strip and regrease the hub afterwards. A lesser-known fact is that by the time the first timed race was held over thirty years ago on October 21, 1976, most of the top locals had moved on from coaster brakes and singlespeeds and were using tandem drum brakes at both ends and derailleur gears.
That first race was what made Repack a legend. The Fairfax locals were just one of several groups riding adapted cruiser bikes off-road, but they were the first to hold an actual timed (albeit not very sophisticatedly) race for them. At first it was just to settle the “who’s fastest down here?” question, but between 1976 and 1979 it became a regular, if underground, fixture. The last of the original Repack series was filmed for local TV and effectively killed off the race – partly because suddenly everyone (including local land managers) knew about it, and partly because one rider broke his arm and sued the TV crew. Kelly, wanting nothing to do with litigious competitors, knocked the Repack race on the head.
It came back twice, though, in 1983 and 1984, as the very first downhill races sanctioned by the newly-formed NORBA. As such, Repack represents the stepping-off point for mountain bike racing as we know it today. The course record of 4:22 was set by a certain Gary Fisher on 5 December 1976 and still stands today.
And here we are, over thirty years later, armed with bikes that represent the current state of the art – about half the weight of the Repackers’ clunkers but with disc brakes and full suspension. The trail, too, has changed. It’s been resurfaced numerous times since the 70s – as we roll in to the top section it really doesn’t look like much. Smooth, wide, not all that steep, wide curves flowing along the line of the ridge…
It could have been designed to lull you into the false sense of security of legend, though. Big, rolly jumps launch you skyward, each one a bit bigger than the last. And then the trail steepens, the corners tighten, the surface starts to break up and you’re suddenly going a wee bit too fast for comfort. Like a motor racing circuit, the corners have names – “Hamburger Helper”, “Mesquite”. Then there are trail features the names of which tell a painful story – racers Joe Breeze and Marc Vendetti are responsible for christening “Breeze Tree” and (wince now) “Vendetti’s Face”.
The very last section is the Repack that’s familiar to most students of MTB history. As the trail drops off the end of the ridge it follows a sequence of steep, loose, off-camber switchbacks. You’re quite close to Fairfax here, and this was where the spectators would gather – here’s “Camera Corner” and “Rubberneckers’ Knoll”. The hillside is steep enough that no resurfacing efforts short of actual Tarmac stick around for long. It’s loose, rutted and amongst the rocks that move around are some that don’t. It feels sketchy enough on some of the best bikes 2007 can offer, and not all the group makes it down unscathed. The thought of tackling it at higher speeds on a rigid bike with just one back-pedal brake (that by this point on the course would no longer be working) boggles the mind.
And then the track levels out into the valley and you’re in to the final straight. The racers would have been cranking out the final few meters, trying to save seconds in pursuit of an expert-level sub-five-minute time. Us? Well, we took about a quarter of an hour top to bottom, what with taking pictures and patching up fallen riders. But that doesn’t matter. This hasn’t been a race, it’s been a pilgrimage.
- Repack History – by Joe Breeze
- Repack Revisited – Charlie Kelly on the twentieth anniversary reunion. There was even a race. Browse around the rest of Charlie Kelly’s site too – there’s loads of great stuff on there.
Thanks to Marin Mountain Bikes for getting us out there and looking after us, particularly Jason for showing us some fantastic trails and Dave Hemming for giving it some late-70s (only without the jeans, flannel shirt and facial hair) action for the camera…