I Learned to Fly… On A Mountain Bike: Wende Cragg Documents the Birth of Mountain Biking

As a kid, I wanted to fly. Like Superman. The recurring dream never materialized but the fantasy took flight when I met the mountain bike. The history of the early mountain bike is often seen through the lens of a handful of guys who modified their old Schwinns back in the mid-1970s. However, as the lone woman participating in those early riding adventures, I snapped a few photographs along the way, capturing the age of innocence often associated with those seminal days. A small group of trailblazers, pioneering a new course of action riding these old relics, would soon change the future of cycling.

When two worlds collide, as they sometimes do, changes that ensue can be life-altering. Such was the serendipitous encounter that produced the “klunker,” a generic term for the fat-tired, converted newsboy bikes usually found in junkyards. These outmoded throwaways were repurposed into workable machines, often taken into the backwoods and byways of Marin County, California. A wonderland of natural grandeur, this area is a visual delicacy, a feast for the eyes.

The Pacific Ocean kisses the western edge of the county. Suitably dramatic and notable for its diverse topography, the Point Reyes National Seashore is a pristine peninsula. Primordial, majestic redwood trees, found only in small pockets around the world, are scattered throughout the region. Mount Tamalpais, or the “Sleeping Lady” (affectionately nicknamed by the local Miwok tribe of Native Americans), sits prominently in the southern belt. This natural attraction was our personal amusement park: a mix of fire roads, hiking trails, and overgrown deer paths. To the north lies the verdant, open woodlands so typical of California. Pastoral, dotted with heritage oaks and fleshy madrones, it is sparsely populated and a favorite with the locals who want to make a day of it.

However, the real crown jewel was right in our own backyard. Camp Tamarancho, a 400+ acre piece of prime, woodsy real estate, was right out our backdoor. With its extensive network of fire roads and singletrack, we could, technically, ride to the Pacific Ocean without crossing private property, a whopping 22 miles. This was an ideal starting off point, providing easy access to various destination rides. For several decades, it was an undiscovered treasure trove of multiple disciplines, eventually developed into a plexus of comprehensive, multi-faceted bike trails. Devotees the world over are drawn to this amazing arena of two-wheeled challenges. A mecca for thrill seekers, it offers up a wild array of terra firma daring-do. The individual trail names reflect the local physicality and or history of the region: Serpentine, Rock Garden, B-17, Wagon Wheel, Alchemist, Endor (Flow Trail). Nowadays, this fertile stomping ground is overseen by Friends of Tamarancho, a bike-friendly group of proponents and trail builders, champions of the outdoor experience and access.

Lightning in a bottle. You can’t really capture it, but a camera can, and mine did. Passion for the natural world, quick access to open space and an adventurous spirit led to a fork in the road. As a novice, my introduction to this new sport was rocky at the start. My first steed, a behemoth topping 50 pounds, was cumbersome and heavy, nearly half my body weight. After an upgrade to a lighter ride, the fire was lit. I was hooked…

No rules, no regulations, no restrictions. We ventured out at every opportunity, exploring the wonders of our own backyard and beyond. Most rides were impromptu, spontaneous jaunts out our back doors, but many destination rides were of purpose and intent. As “naturalists”, some of us were foragers of wild edibles and enjoyed wildflower identification and photography. Such was the reason for the purchase of my trusty Nikkormat, a sturdy SLR designed to take abuse. Old school, these cameras were easy to use and garnered quality shots. As an amateur photographer, I took quickly to my new hobby. However, a camera plus gear, added extra poundage to an already hefty grunt. Most times, we pushed our bikes up steep inclines. Back in those days, there were no cell phones, GPS or STRAVA. We huffed and puffed our way to the top of all our local peaks. In time, the camera lens focused on these makers and shakers whose vision would forever alter the outdoor experience.

Every picture tells a story. Every story has a heart and soul. Facts are often lost in translation, but the camera doesn’t lie. Historical reference is enhanced by visual documentation, and I snapped photos freely as we savored the independence and frolics that awaited us. Each day was a new excitement, full of mystery and magic. As our small circle grew larger, so did our desire to explore further. Gaining traction locally, we discovered other like-minded enthusiasts within the county and outskirts of the Bay Area. Popularity soared. Within a few years the newly minted designation, “Mountain Bike” was recognized as an apt description for this novel two-wheeler.

Invention is the mother of necessity. The groundbreakers who revolutionized the sport of cycling unwittingly tapped into a deep-seated need to connect with the great outdoors. A human powered, portable means of escaping into the wild for quiet moments of reflection or a hearty workout, the mountain bike transformed our perception of possibilities. “Away from the cars, cops and concrete” was our credo for years, employed in all our ventures. The stunning environment of the Bay Area was a focal point in our attraction to explore further, and venture we did. North, south, east, west. Our travels were well documented on film and to this day testify to the unique embodiment of a culture generated by a childlike fascination with the simple joy of soaring, physically and emotionally. It was all doable, and we did it.

The Golden Age of mountain biking was a brief moment in time, experienced by a lucky few. The truly fortunate were well aware of the organic, home spun nature of our sport and embraced it. Some made it their lifelong vocation: advocating, educating and promoting for future generations of cyclists. A sub-culture of new riders has advanced the whole notion of what is possible on a bike. Radical to the extreme, today’s technology has attracted a new wave of thrill seekers and gadgetry.

Now, the mountain bike is a ubiquitous sighting on the urban/rural landscape. Nearly every garage in the country houses a fat tire bike or two. Internationally recognized, its popularity has soared since first introduced to the European market in the early 80’s. Spotted around the globe, high in the mountains of the most remote regions of all continents, these welcome adjuncts to everyday life have fulfilled multiple roles.

Hybrid, cargo, gravel, enduro, e-bike…The wave of the future generated a tsunami of innovation and demand. These utilitarian vehicles are purpose driven, designed for pragmatic service in disadvantaged areas of the world. Flatbeds, trailers, racks, baskets: the practicality of these add-ons has generated a slew of simple transport modifications.

Parents tool around town, towing their toddlers in trailers. Families enjoy the opportunity of a shared, healthy experience at all levels of active, hands-on involvement. Senior citizens, sporting e-bikes, are able to access the once unreachable. Youngsters/pre-adolescents learn skills, comraderie and teamwork as cliques of newcomers participate in middle school cycling competitions. First responders, search and rescue teams and local law agencies have employed these reliable, stealth-like, all-terrain vehicles in their arsenal of reinforcements. What once was a fragmented, counterculture indulgence has sprouted wings and taken on a life of its own. “Transmogrify”: to transform in a surprising and magical manner. Just one word. Sums it all up perfectly…

Imagine a world before full suspension, camelbacks, earbuds and spandex. Before performance enhancing, titanium frames, clipless pedals and really, really fat tires. Before apps, social media and live streaming. Imagine the lowly klunker. Imagine a time and place when your only connection was to Mother Nature.

As an adult, I learned to fly…on a mountain bike.