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Feb 11, 2013

The first ever MTB world championships & the mystery of a banner, thought lost



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Last summer, mountain bike royalty gathered in the French ski resort of Villard de Lans to celebrate the staging of the 1987 Championnat Du Monde VTT. This was the first ever mountain bike world championships. Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, Hans Rey, Scot Nicol, Jacquie Phelan, and Ned Overend joined French riders from back-in-the-day, such as Jacques Devi, to ride the original course (a tough, high-level route long since closed to mountain bikers) and to attend a gala dinner. I was there for this reunion; I was there in 1987. Along with Peter Darke, a Sunderland bike shop owner, I had created the British Mountain Bike Team. Naturally, I picked myself to ride (I DNF’ed) but there were also real riders in the team, such as Jamie Carr and Orange founder Lester Noble. Here’s the story of the reunion, the 1987 event and the disappearance of the lovingly hand-made 1990 World Championship banner, thought to be long lost. It made a mysterious reappearance at the reunion. Who had shimmied up a pole, in a Durango storm, to cut down the banner? And where has it been for 22 years?

++++++++++++

Pushing up the daisies

A touch to the left. Up a bit. Bit more. FTHWHACK!

I’ve done many stupid things in my life but quite why I stuck my fat head beneath an electrified fence to get a better shot of a bunch of riders will always be a mystery to me. It’s not as though I didn’t know the fence was electrified. Minutes before I had gingerly touched it to see if it was live. It was. I got a buzz, a quick tingle. When you flick an electric fence you’re expecting the buzz and, if you’re at all normal, you limit the exposure.

When you’re not expecting the shock, and it’s to the back of your head and you don’t know to flinch, things are a lot different. While crouching down low, and sticking my head and camera under the wire, I got a whomping whack of a shock. For a second I thought I’d been hit with a plank, assailant unknown.

I jumped, instinctively holding on to my camera with one hand, impulsively gripping the back of my head with the other.

Hank looked at me and, non-plussed, said: “I was waiting for that to happen.”

Thanks for the warning, Hank.

Rambler's guard of honour for MTBers

Hank is Hank Barlow. The Hank Barlow who, in 1984, founded Mountain Bike, the first glossy US mountain bike magazine. He now lives in France but he’s an American. (Despite living in France for 17 years his impeccable French is murdered by the most amazingly bad accent).

He was not being my guardian angel in a farmer’s field above the town of Villard de Lans, in the Vercors region of France. He, and I, were by a dirt track, taking photos. Sensibly, Hank had positioned himself well away from the electric fence.

I had been able to fire off a few low angle shots before the whack to the head. The shots were of a group of old French guys, with spectacular ‘taches, clad in bulging day-glo Lycra, riding 1980s mountain bikes and sporting facial daubs of fluoro sunscreen.

Jacques Devi Serge Barnel behind

GenerationMTB

The jolt had given me a fright, it hadn’t summoned a flashback, this wasn’t my memory playing tricks with me. The garish Lycra, the ancient bikes, the neon face paint, it was all part of an anniversary weekend organised by Génération Mountain Bike, an MTB history organisation run by four enthusiastic French guys, still at school in the 1980s and who lusted after the high-end bikes of the day but couldn’t afford them. The 25 ans du 1er championnat du monde de VTT was Génération Mountain Bike’s celebration of the first ever mountain bike world championships. 26 years ago the ski town of Villard de Lans hosted hundreds of riders, on machines with cantilever brakes, no suspension forks, riding a severely technical course that involved almost as much carrying as riding.

VTT World Championships reunion sign

The 1987 event was organised by Winning magazine. This was before the UCI got its sticky mitts on mountain biking. This was when there were still fag breaks during races, for some of the riders at least. Others were clearly starting to take it very seriously.



Mountain biking was growing up. But it was not yet professional, the sport was still in flux. In 1987 it was still possible to go on a bike holiday with your mates, call yourself the British Mountain Bike Team, and get away with it. And not just get away with it but blag loads of sponsorship, too. The team was headline sponsored by SunTour, with Rohan providing travel togs. Team jerseys were flock printed by Been Bag.

Gary Fisher

I was in Villard de Lans, partaking of impromptu electrotherapy to my scalp, because, back in the day, I had been the chief blagger. As the co-manager of the British Mountain Bike Team - the first such outfit - I had been able to pick myself to race alongside some of the top riders of the day. I also seeded the team with friends.

British Mountain Bike Team, 1987

To my shame, I can’t remember the names of all on the team so don’t expect a full who’s who. Vince Edwards, I remember. He was the first placed bike rider in the 1987 Man v Horse v Bike races in Wales. Chris Hosking was a university mate of mine from Newcastle. He’s now the MTB trails specialist for the City of Prescott in Arizona and prior to that had worked on Mammoth Mountain in California, when the Kamikaze event was still being staged. Rob Orr was a baker. We’d met in Jesmond Dene, an urban woodland in Newcastle, surprising each other by seeing somebody else on a mountain bike: instant mates. Peter Darke was co-founder of the team. He had a bike shop in Sunderland; he still does, Darke Cycles. Shaun Rafferty was a mate of Peter’s. Jamie Carr was our youngest rider, and the most fearless, too. He now runs Ride the Alps, a mountain bike holiday company. Our best placed finisher (33rd or thereabouts) was Lester Noble. Yes, the Tushingham-riding windsurf champion who created the O-range of mountain bikes. Leaving his marque on the world he later ditched the hyphen.

Jacquie phelan

MTB history

In 1987 I was ostensibly at university but a religious studies degree wasn’t terribly taxing so I was also a full-time journalist, one of two people working on one of the three UK bicycle magazines then in existence, none of which specialised in mountain bikes. Bicycle Times was a tinpot title produced on Tyneside but it was available nationally in WH Smith’s. Publisher Peter Lumley introduced the world to Off Road Reid, my mountain bike stream of consciousness, a page that would be later transplanted into Bicycle Action, the mag owned by Muddy Fox (the original, market-shaping Muddy Fox), the mag that came before Mountain Biking UK.

MTB history

(Off Road Reid’s bike testing reports were so bad they prompted John Stevenson, then working in Two Wheels Good of Leeds, to think “I could do better than that.” He could and he did. John was the tech editor of Tym Manley and Chris Turner’s MBUK, a magazine I feared would quickly flounder. Good at market predictions, me).

MTB history

Off Road Reid in Bicycle Action had a cartoon strip by Jo Burt. Mint Sauce, the mountain biking sheep, had first appeared in the newsletter of the Mountain Bike Club. (Jo Burt’s name was on my page elsewhere too. The page had a list of mountain bike contacts, folks you could ring up to arrange a ride. Jo Burt, who I didn’t know for Adam, lived in the Norwich house recently vacated by my sister. Small world). The Mountain Bike Club was a NORBA-esque outfit run by journalist Max Glaskin and frame builder Jeremy Torr. In 1987 Torr hitched a ride in the Muddy Fox van and was one of the support crew at the first mountain bike world championships.

He remembers Villard de Lans, but wasn’t at the reunion (he now lives in Singapore). I didn’t remember the town, but was at the reunion. No amount of electrical stimulation could trigger recollections of Villard de Lans. Yet the course was memorable. So those that rode it second time around told me. I could only remember fragments of the 1987 trip.

Jamie Carr, 1987, Villard de Lans

Apparently, the British Mountain Bike Team flew to Geneva and hired a van. We rented a chalet. Don’t remember any of that. One evening Jamie Carr rode his bike down the concrete bobsleigh run. I took pictures of this feat, but have no memory of it.

Hans Ned Gary Joe

In the race, I punctured. I had a flat before the race started and - I’ve since been told - it was a mad dash to get me ready for the off. I can imagine that - I fluster easily - but don’t remember it. I partially remember shredding a tyre on a downhill section and DNFing.

Julia King

Ned Overend, first MTB world champion, 1987

Thanks to my slide collection (kids, get your mum or dad, or grandparents even, to explain what transparencies are) I can see that I photographed Ned Overend as he held his trophy aloft. I don’t remember the Muddy Fox team being there. From photos displayed in the pop-up MTB museum at the 25 year reunion I could see that Andy Pegg and Julia King were at the event, racing for Muddy Fox. Records show they were the best placed Brits, beating all in the ‘official’ team.

Stolen 1990 MTB World Championships banner

I can remember plenty of stuff from the 1980s but the first world champs remains, largely, a blur. This is therefore a tale of loss. Memory loss. But it’s also a tale of recovery. A banner was found, and a long lost racer was tracked down.

You’d think it would be pretty hard to lose a 12-metre wide race banner. But the organisers of the 1990 MTB World Championships, held on Purgatory Mountain, above Durango, Colorado, managed it. With the help of a fierce storm, that is. A prankster stayed on the mountain while others fled, and cut down the start banner. It was strung between 15-metre high poles. Designed by local artist Metja Swift, the banner was hand-stitched and proudly proclaimed the event to be the first ever mountain bike world championships sanctioned by the UCI.

This retrospectively made the Villard de Lans 1987 event into an unofficial world championships, ditto for the events held elsewhere in the world in 1988 and 1989 (there were World Championships staged in both Europe and the US in these two years).

Ed Zink, owner of Mountain Bike Specialists, a Durango bike shop, and chairman of the race committee, was gutted about the theft, and kept alive hopes that the banner might one day reappear. Many attempts, over the years, were made to track down the thief and the banner, to no avail. The colourful, and historic, banner was, to all intents and purposes, lost.

Which is why its appearance in Villard de Lans in June 2012 was such a surprise. Gary Fisher, in town at the invitation of Génération Mountain Bike, tweeted that the 22 year mystery had been solved, the famous banner had reappeared.

Hans Rey & Ned Overend

The banner may have resurfaced, but the identity of the thief remained a mystery. Only Hans Rey could solve that. It was he who erected the banner at the reunion weekend, he who later spirited it away again as a gift, and he who knows the identity of the thief.

Hans wasn’t at the original event, but like Gary, he was a guest of Génération Mountain Bike. The retro loving French foursome also shipped in Joe Breeze, Scot Nichols, Ned Overend and Jacquie Phelan. Only Ned and Jacquie had been at the original event.

Hans knew Durango native Ned was on the invite list and he figured that the reunion for the first world championships would be an appropriate venue for the lost banner to reappear. It was presented to Ned by Hans at the reunion’s ceremonial dinner. Hans said the banner had been stored, under lock and key, in Southern California, close to his Los Angeles home. He knew the identity of the prankster who had shimmied up the poles to cut down the banner, in a snowstorm, but, in public, would name no names.

Later that night, as Ned and Hans folded the banner into its storage bag, out of earshot of all others, I asked Hans if the thief was well known. He had a twinkle in his eye, but kept schtum.

Serge Barnel Organiser 1987 WorldChamps

The other rediscovery at the reunion weekend was MaryLee Atkins. Like the banner she, too, had been lost for more than 20 years. Lost to mountain biking, that is. She rode on the Schwinn team in the mid 1980s, the same team as Ned Overend (before he switched to Specialized, his current sponsor). She was the winner of the women’s race at the 1987 event. She then dropped out of the scene, retiring on a high. Nothing more was heard of her until Jacquie Phelan tracked her down.

Jacquie Phelan glove

Jacquie is one of the key characters of early mountain biking, founder of WOMBATS (the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society) and also, under her nom-de-plume of Alice B. Toeclips, a prolific writer. She’s married to Charlie Cunningham, the pioneering bike designer who championed aluminium long before the mainstream bike industry thought to do likewise. Charlie - co-founder of Wilderness Trail Bikes, WTB - also designed the iconic Roller Cam Brake and co-designed Specialized’s famous Ground Control MTB tyre. Jacquie used her hubby-designed bike and components to race as an equal with men. And horses: she was the first winner of the Man v Horse v Bike event of Llanwrtyd Wells.

Jacquie was second woman at the 1987 world championships. When Génération Mountain Bike invited her to the reunion she promised to track down MaryLee Atkins, the winner of the woman’s title in ’87.

Turning sleuth, she used old contacts books to track down friends of friends, before, finally, finding MaryLee’s bolt hole, in Eagle River, a small town in Alaska. She had been hard to track down because she had remarried and is now MaryLee Stiehrs. She and her carpenter husband run a bespoke wooden kitchen design business. For many years she didn’t ride. When girlfriends recently persuaded her to join them on a town loop on a borrowed beat up machine they couldn’t quite figure how she was so good and so fast. The first ever woman’s world champion mountain biker had kept her past to herself.
She’s now back in the saddle. She brought her original race-winning Schwinn to the reunion but for Alaskan trail riding she has a modern machine.

Durango has its banner back; MaryLee is riding again. I have my Kodachromes but I’m still waiting for my memories to kick in.

+++++++++++++

Jacquie Phelan

JACQUIE PHELAN
“I was not in perfect shape [at the first world championships]. The doctor checked me out the day before and told me not to race. But I entered anyhow. And came third. My friend MaryLee Atkins won. It was her very last race ever. She was a woodworker and wanted to return to a normal life. Her first husband, Jeff Norman, got her into racing. He said ‘you don’t wanna just watch me race. Get some sponsorship.’ She immediately began winning.

“For me it was a time of not being at the top of my game and that’s when I created the Woman’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society so I could enjoy riding with people who weren’t hammers, and introduce women to a really fun and safe thing to do in the woods. There are no cars. You can get off and walk if you want to.

“I re-framed mountain biking for women, with the usual lace, flowers, cheap perfume, and pearls.”

MaryLee Atkins

MARYLEE STIEHRS

I was riding for Schwinn back [in 1987]. I was 33 and I was on the team that had Ned Overend in it. I remember parts of the course, especially the scary bit where it’s a cliff. I don’t remember it being so technical but it’s the same course. We were younger then, invincible. It was my last event. I had other interests to pursue. Mountain biking wasn’t a big pull for me at that time. I was a reluctant racer. Although I did well, and I enjoyed it, I didn’t like being forced to train. I didn’t want to take the fun out of mountain biking by continuing to race. Ned used to give me a hard time about not training. I didn’t want to take anything away from the sport that they’re so into so I went off in a different direction. I got a divorce and boogied out of the country, and got a job in Antarctica. It was there that I met the love of my life. He was a carpenter too. I’ve been a carpenter all my life. It’s what I was doing in Antarctica: helping set up the bases for the National Science Foundation. We would make the camps all warm and cosy before the scientists got there, fixing things up for them. When they were done for the season we’d go back in and either tear the camp down or winterise it. It was a real fun experience.

“I ended up moving to Alaska, where my husband lived.

“I was born and raised in Durango, Colorado. I like it in Alaska now. My husband and I have our own business. We do kitchens, kitchen cabinets, curved stairs. I ride my mountain bike maybe once a week, for fun, on the weekend, with my girlfriends. They don’t know about my mountain bike history. I haven’t shared that with them. When I started riding with them I showed up on an old clunker bike. They were on couple of thousand dollar high-tech bikes. They looked at my bike and weren’t sure I’d be able to ride these trails they wanted to go on. I said ‘let’s take off, I’ll do what I can.’ They were surprised I could keep up. It’s kind of fun to be anonymous.

“Back in the day I bought a mountain bike because it looked like fun and I met my husband of that day [Jeff Norman, a racer on the Schwinn team]. I would travel to races with Jeff and I started racing too. Jeff got me some sponsorship with Schwinn. My history before that was as a cross country skier. I had a pretty solid base for training. I raced mountain bikes for maybe three or four years. I started riding in 1983 and raced for Schwinn in 1985, 1986 and 1987.

“I had quit racing before the [Villard de Lans world championship] race. I was no longer officially riding for Schwinn, but Winning magazine paid for me to come. Cindy Whitehead was their first choice but she didn’t want to travel so they asked me. I don’t think they realised I wasn’t racing at the time. But when they called I said ‘sure, I’ll go to France.’

“I think the reason I won was because I wasn’t real serious about it. I trained for the event but I wasn’t nervous, I did it for fun.”

Ned Overend

NED OVEREND
“We started on a football field. There were two hundred men in the open category. I remember it was a mad dash because everyone was on the front line. I remember the trails were rocky.

“The course was one big loop, with long stretches of narrow, single track. I remember one exposed single track section had netting rigged up below the trail to keep riders from falling down a cliff, if they should happen to ride off the trail on the downhill side. I won the race, Joe Murray was second and Jacques Devi was third. I think the winning margin was only a minute and a half. I had to be careful on the last descent, I didn’t want to puncture. In those days I rode with high tyre pressures, 48 pounds. The course was super technical.

“But they wouldn’t have that much pushing in events today. The riders would rebel against it. But in the early days it was the vision of promotors to make the events real hard. Riders always wanted the courses to be more rideable. I don’t remember pushing all that much [at the 1987 event] but that’s probably because it was just so common in those days.

“Back in the day it was common to have long laps and long climbs. That played to my strengths. Now races are an hour and a half long and courses are mandated to five or six kilometres so there tend to be shorter, punchier climbs, more like cyclo-cross courses. Scarier courses were good for me.
During today’s ride I rode toe clips and straps for the first eight kilometres and I was in danger of falling over because you’re used to getting out [of the pedals] so much faster. I started out on an 1988 bike and then switched to a modern one. 26 inch wheel bikes are going to become very rare, for cross country.

“I was impressed with the guys who rode the whole course on the old bikes. But they were struggling on their 26 inch bikes. Absolutely. It was way easier rolling over the technical rocks on 29 wheels. And with suspension I wasn’t being punished on the descents; I had more control. We may have been riding the same speed at times but those guys definitely had less control. And the longer they rode the less control they had as they got tired. It’s now a much more enjoyable experience, and faster.”

Hank Barlow

HANK BARLOW
“I live near Grenoble. I’m here because I married a French woman, the counsel for San Merino; she has been for 32 years. We met when I came to do a story on the Roc d’Azur mountain bike event 20 years ago.

“In 1984 I started Mountain Bike magazine. It wasn’t the first mountain biking magazine. Charlie Kelly had his Fat Tire Flyer. My background was skiing. I worked as a ski instructor, I owned a ski shop and I used to write for ski magazines. I started doing bike articles for Cycling magazine and with almost zero background in it whatsoever I decided to publish a magazine. The first issue was built around Moab. No-one even know Moab existed. There were no mountain bikers in Moab. Visually, I knew Moab would be stunning. You’ve got red rocks, blue sky, and the biking is just crazy on the slick rock.

“We were so underfunded it was ridiculous. We were always scrambling. We later got a cash injection but there were strings attached, the magazine had to be developed to sell. Bicycling wanted to buy it. I was in a fix. I still managed to sell it to ‘em for way more than they could have bought it for. People said it was never the same afterwards. My magazine was all about photos and going to places to ride. Finding cool places and great trails. Racing was never my thing. For me, mountain biking was all about riding in beautiful places. It still is.”

Peter Darke

PETER DARKE
“We came [to Villard de Lans] as the only national team. We turned up as a bunch of people on holiday and called ourselves the British team. We weren’t the best riders in the world, but we were the best dressed.”

++++++

This article first appeared in Privateer magazine. More pix can be found on Flickr.



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May 04, 2012

1st MTB World Championships, 1987



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IMG_0275 - Version 2

I was in two minds whether to load this particular clip to YouTube. Not because of worries about copyright, I don’t think the BBC will mind too much, but more because (a) I’m wearing yellow shorts (b) I make a right fool of myself and (c) see (a) and (b).



The news clip is from BBC Look North, aired on 3rd August 1987. I was a cub editor on long-gone ‘Bicycle Times’ (there were no mountain bike mags at this time) and Peter Darke had only recently started his bike shop in Sunderland (it’s still going strong).

We had started the first British mountain bike team. Because we could. And nobody else had. There was a British Muddy Fox squad and all the other teams at the first MTB World Championships, held later in August in that balmy summer of 1987, were trade teams too.

We had snazzy white jerseys, made by Been Bag, and flock printed with logos. Sublimation printing wasn’t widely used at that point. SunTour was the team’s major sponsor and Rohan provided the official team clothing. I still have the team jersey; the Rohan ‘Bags’ (with large, vinyl letters down the side) are long gone.

Check out the video for gory close-ups of Shimano Biopace chainrings (oh, gullible us), chainstay-mounted u-brakes and my Pink Thing. This was an all-steel touring mountain bike made for me by frame builder Dave Yates. It had steel, integrated racks, front and rear. It was my touring MTB, heaven knows why I was riding it in this TV clip. I can’t remember what I rode on at the world championships but I do know I punctured and Did Not Finish. I rode for the British Mountain Bike Team? Yup. As co-manager it was a tough selection process but I managed to find space on the team for myself.

Our best finisher came 33rd. Helmets off to Lester Noble, who later went on to found Orange Mountain Bikes. Talking about helmets, we wore them at the World Championships, but dunno if it was compulsory back then. The pic below shows what we used. I probably secured provision of them, I certainly scammed a load of other kit so must have bagged a helmet deal too. Maybe they hadn’t turned up in time for the TV news appearance?

I’m dredging up all this MTB history because next month there’s to be a 25th anniversary weekend celebrating the first ever MTB world championships. I shall be attending.

Also attending will be MTB legends Gary Fisher and Joe Breeze. I know these guys now. Back then I was 22 and still wet behind the ears when it came to publicity (as the video attests). Listening to my claims that the Brits would wipe the floor with the rest of the world is pretty groan worthy.

The winner on the day was Ned Overend. He’s planning to attend the reunion, too. Should be a scream.

Part of the British MTB team 1987



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Jun 16, 2008

Hall of Fame trophy arrives in post



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MBUK Hall of Fame trophy

“Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me.”

I got a heavy parcel this morning. Inside a black presentation box was a trophy, held in place with black ribbon.

It was a ruddy nice trophy. Glass, and laser-etched with my name.

In Mountain Biking UK’s 20th anniversary edition I was named one of the first recipients of the MBUK Hall of Fame awards, alongside 19 other names, big stars such as Steve Peat, John Tomac, Gary Fisher, Mike Sinyard and Jason McRoy.

MBUK editor Tym Manley said I was “one of the great communicators of British mountain biking.”

Entry into the Hall of Fame is a huge honour and the glass trophy is a wonderfully weighty reminder of my 22 years in cycle journalism. Thanks Tym, MBUK and Future Publishing.

“Carlton has been promoting the sport since 1986 when he took to the deserts and howling wastes of the world as a baby-faced adventurer…He was the co-manager of the first ever British mountain bike team which competed in the World Championships in Avoriaz, France, in 1987, and has recently pushed on in new media as a baby-faced - if greying - video blogger.”



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Apr 30, 2008

Chain Gang vids now on YouTube



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In 1994 I was the (young, fresh-faced) presenter of ‘Chain Gang’, a six part magazine programme on cycling by Tyne Tees.

I’ve been given permission to re-broadcast some of the best bits from this series. They are billed as ‘From the archive’ and the series is brought to you in association with Muc-Off.

The higher res versions went on iTunes last week. Here are the YouTube versions. Click on ‘play in higher quality’ for the best playback performance.

I won’t embed all the videos here as it would take up an awful lot of space. But here’s one of them: a bicycle tour in Malawi.



The other videos are:

Jason McRoy and the Reebok Eliminator, Mammoth Mountain 1993

Behind the scenes on ‘Chain Gang’

Bike v car commuter challenge
(Trivia: the car park at the start of this extract is the famous one featured in Michael Caine’s classic 1960’s gangster flick, ‘Get Carter’).

Wax or shave?

Mass v custom build, Raleigh v Dave Yates

If you like these sort of things, here’s a YouTube player with all the vids in place:



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Apr 25, 2008

‘Chain Gang’ video highlights now on iTunes



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itunes

In 1994 I was the presenter on CHAIN GANG, a Tyne Tees TV magazine series on cycling. Six half-hour episodes were aired. Tyne Tees has given me permission to publish some of the material.

Six items have been selected and now reside on the Quickrelease.tv video podcast on iTunes. Subscribe - for free - and the six episodes will automagically download to your PC or Mac.

The snippets - billed as ‘From the Archive’ - are brought to you in association with Muc-Off.

So, what’s available?

1 Mass v custom build, Raleigh v Dave Yates
This starts with some 1950s footage of the Raleigh factory, and includes a wonderfully cheesy ‘Head Designer’. The 1994 footage is also drenched in nostalgia. The factory - seen here humming with activity - was knocked down and made into student flats. Look out for the way Raleigh employees placed bike decals compared to the way a custom builder did it.

2 Wax or shave?
Bear in mind that I still look like this. I’ve not aged a bit. My leg hairs have grown back since, mind. This episode sees me going out with a road gang for the very first time. (And ripping their legs off…cameras never lie).

3 Bike versus sportscar
Car v bike through city centre traffic has been done umpteen times for TV cameras but this video is a little bit different, pitting as it does, an Aston Martin sportscar against an Aston Martin mountain bike (now a museum piece).

4 Malawi bicycle tour
Hi-8 footage from a hastily arranged bike tour of this beautiful African country. Along for the ride was Bob Strawson, owner of ‘trick bits’ maker Middleburn Engineering.

5 Behind the scenes
How the series was filmed. Helmet and bike cams are now ten-a-penny. In 1994 they were specialist items and required rucksacks…

6 Jason McRoy
Brilliant footage of the first British MTB superstar (RIP). He’s seen sliding around the NE of England as well as ripping down the Kamikaze course on Mammoth Mountain.

The videos will be placed on YouTube in daily installments next week, but are available as a package on iTunes right now.
Subscribe to the podcast to start the episodes downloading, iTunes isn’t listing the individual episodes yet.



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Apr 17, 2008

Bikes not bombs



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Kibbutz Be’eri is a great place to ride a bike. There are bike paths that wind through wheat fields and pass by eucalyptus trees. There’s a bike shop and a cyclists-friendly cafe.

But business is down right now. Is it any wonder? Kibbutz Be’eri is just 8kms from the Gaza Strip.

This tiny sliver of land, home to 1.3m Palestinians, is in the news at the moment. Hamas fighters and Israeli troops are at each other’s throats.

Yesterday an Israeli tank fired a shell that killed a Palestinian cameraman and three other people. Every death is shocking but, being a cyclist, I am somehow hard-wired to sit up and take notice when something bad happens to somebody on two wheels. The TV images of two teenage boys, killed as they were minding their own business, was personalised for me by the fact the lads were riding a bike. One was pedalling, the other getting a backie.

This is a normal thing for teens to be doing. In the UK you’d get a ticking off by a policeman if caught doing it. In the Gaza Strip you could be hit by an air-exploding tank shell. One second riding along with your mate, the next second lying in the road dead.

In the mid-1980s I spent a year in Israel. I did a lot of bike touring in the West Bank, something that would be impossible now. I rode my first mountain bike there, a Specialized Rockhopper specially imported by my bike-mad friend, Gil Bor, author of one of my favourite bedtime reads Bochner formulae for orthogonal G-structures on compact manifolds.

After university, in 1993, I went back to Israel to write the Berlitz Discover Guide to Israel. This was researched from a touring mountain bike.

Today, cycle touring in parts of Israel is tougher than it once was. Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reports that bookings are currently 50 percent down at LaMedavesh (Hebrew for ‘Pedal’) bicycle centre at Kibbutz Be’eri .



LaMedavesh owner Erez Manor said:

“Today most customers are experienced riders who come alone. Families and children prefer to ride elsewhere.”

The forthcoming Passover holiday would normally be peak time for Medavesh. Manor thinks business will be well down but that a few religious people would come.

“They aren’t afraid like the non-religious are.”

Israel is a fantastic country to cycle through. In Quarto Publishing’s ‘Classic Mountain Bike Routes of the World’ (2000) I did a chapter on Israel’s putative long-distance bicycle route, the Israel Bike Trail, a dream of Jon Lipman of the Carmel Mountain Bike Club. Some of it couldn’t be ridden today because of safety fears.

The 850km Israel Bike Trail - modelled on the Israel National Trail, a hiking route created by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel - runs from Metula in the north of Israel to Eilat in the south.

Last week plans were revealed for lots of local links to the Israel Bike Trail. This new network of joined-up routes is being promoted by the Ministries of Tourism, Environmental Protection, Transportation, Finance, Culture, the Nature and Parks Authority, and the Jewish National Fund.

Getting more people on bikes is a good thing, especially if it helps the political situation. And it can.

US-Israel religious charity Hazon (Hebrew for ‘Vision’) quotes 19th Century politico Theodore Herzl, founder of Zionism, who said “the light bicycle that brings new life.” Light bicycles? Yep, we can all relate to that.



Hazon is the creator of the bi-annual Israel Ride, an organised ride across Israel, mainly attended by Jews, mostly from America, but Arab Israelis and Arabs from other nations also take part.

Hazon is a supporter of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, situated on Kibbutz Ketura in Israel’s Southern Arava valley. This organisation has a logo with its name in English, Hebrew and Arabic. It champions peace, saving the planet and cycling.

David Lehrer, director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, said of the Israel Ride:

“It brings together lots of things that the Institute is all about, the environment, getting people to see Israel in a way that they can’t normally see, you see it very differently than from a car seat. It’s bringing diverse people together – from the US, Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians – a chance to learn from each other, a chance to see that we have more in common than separates us.

“It’s the opportunity to come together on an issue that concerns all of us and that affects all of us, the environment, the earth, and this particular part of the earth – only by working together, Jews and Arabs, can we protect our shared environment. Nature knows no boundaries.”

Hazon founder Nigel Savage said:

“This is what happens when the People of the Book become the People of the Bike.”

(People of the Book is an Islamic phrase to describe the Abraham-linked religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam).


Talking after the Israel Ride of 2005, Danny Ronen of Oakland, California, said:

“Me and Muatassim, a Palestinian, ended up staying in the same room together and spending time getting to know each other, and realizing that we are incredibly similar. Me being Jewish and him being Muslim is a non-issue. But you can’t build relationships without personal connections.”

It’s good to see that cycling isn’t just a sport, a form of transport, a means of keeping fit, it can also bring people together. Amen to that.

Map sourced from Walla, the Israeli equivalent of Google Maps.



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Apr 12, 2008

Ride Free



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In 1994 I was the presenter of CHAIN GANG, a six part magazine series on cycling, produced for Tyne Tees TV and Yorkshire Television.

One of the show’s interviewees was Jason McRoy, Britain’s first truly global MTB superstar.

The video below contains footage - with permission of Tyne Tees and Rose McRoy - of Jason more than a year before he starred in the famous MBUK video, Dirt.


Jason McRoy - 1994 TV appearance from Quickrelease.tv on Vimeo.

Unbelievably, Jason died in 1995 but his memory lives on…

BikeRadar.com has just run an excellent two-part feature on Jason and his legacy:

Riders and journalists pay their tributes

Jim McRoy talks about his son, the first homegrown global superstar of British mountain biking

Video also available as a direct download via Libsyn or for Apple TV via iTunes.



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Jan 17, 2008

From Romans to Rockets



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Had a bit of an epic ride on Monday. Brian Smith, a fellow coach at Newcastle Phoenix cycling club, said he had a free day and would I like to join him on a ride.

It was cold and wet, and forecast to stay that way all day. I suggested we explore a small corner of the Spadeadam Wastes, close to an evocative section of Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland.



We started at Birdoswald Roman fort. I wanted to follow a submerged Roman road by using the SatMap GPS device for bikes (this uses OS maps, a review will follow).


The route was a toughie, it took two hours to ‘ride’ the first 10 miles. Close to the end there was a river that had to be waded. This was the first ride I’ve been on with Brian. He might not want to let me choose the route in future…

The route went close to RAF Spadeadam, which isn’t marked on OS maps. This is one of Europe’s top two electronic warfare testing bases. There are ‘do-not-enter-or-you-are-breaching-Official-Secrets-Act’ signs on the tarmac road leading to the base, but no such warning signs on the severely under-used bridleway skirting the site.



Why the rockets in the headline? In the 1950s, Spadeadam was the testing site for Blue Streak, the UK’s would-be intercontinental ballistic missile. Had it not been cancelled, it might have also gone on to become the start of Britain’s space programme. Don’t laugh, it was seriously considered at the time.

The RAF base is littered with dummy tanks and aircraft to make it look like a Russian airbase from the air. NATO jets use the base for electronic jamming training.

This is probably the only bike ride in the UK where you can cycle close to Russian surface-to-air missile launchers. There’s even a hamlet called Moscow.

Brian was on a Specialized MTB. I wanted to see if I could cope on my Kona Jake-the-Snake cyclo-cross bike. I could.

After this punishing short ride, the historical resonances continued. We took tea (in fact, hot choc and a fruit cake) in the faded Gilsland Spa Hotel. This is famous for being the location where, in 1797, novelist Sir Walter Scott proposed to his French wife.

More pix on this slide show, check out the Scotchlite flashing on the Altura jacket.

Click for Animoto-created slideshow on YouTube:

Cycling is fashionable

In the 1980s, cycle clobber had its fifteen minutes of fame. Lycra skin shorts - sans padded inserts - were considered cool. The BBC’s I Love…1987 programme said: “Cycle racing has always been regarded as a rather nerdy occupation, so how [cycling shorts] became fashionable is beyond comprehension. Some regarded cycling shorts as a huge turn-on, as they revealed even more than the hotpants of the Seventies. But that was until even the hugest, most cellulite-riddled backside was squeezed into neon-coloured skin tight Lycra.”

Being fashionable is good for selling hot cakes but stock goes stale quickly because fickle fashionistas need to be surfing the next wave not waddling around in past-its-sell-by date Spandex. Hardcore cyclists are in it for the long term and don’t particularly want cycling to become fashionable again. Cycle fashion shows such as last year’s Pret a Rouleur and Hackney’s Heels and Wheelsshow staged on Valentine’s Day would be anathema to them.

But the world of fashion doesn’t care what we think. In fact, fashion labels are quite happy to ride roughshod over underground bicycle campaigns. For New York Fashion Week - sponsored by Mercedes Benz - DKNY released a load of orange bikes into the wild, chaining them to lamp-posts. Not Orange as in belt-drives and Patriots but orange as in Dulex. The fashion label’s painted bikes were meant to “get people thinking and talking about bicycles as a healthy and fashionable way to get around the city.”

The campaign enraged bicycle advocates because it seemed to mirror the placement of white Ghostbikes across the city, symbols of fatal car-v-bike smashes. The Gothamist blog called the campaign “misguided and terribly executed.”

A DKNY commissioned video on YouTube rubbed salt in the wounds:

This vid features two ’supermodels’ fighting with a cardboard car and actually riding the despised orange bikes. You’ve got to love the line ‘If supermodels can’t solve the world’s problems, then I don’t know who can,” but DKNY’s attempt at street cool didn’t generate much heat outside of bike blogs.

However, the publicity stunt allows me to remark that fashion designers seem to be disproportionately attracted to cycling.

Fashion designers Jeff Banks and Sir Paul Smith are avid roadies. Smith’s company has sponsored cycle teams, and Banks Jnr owes his love of cycling to Banks Snr:

“My dad was a racer before the war. He bought me an Italian racing bike when I was 11, and I suppose I’ve never looked back. There’s not a major col in the Alps or Pyrenees that I haven’t climbed. I suppose I do it for the sense of achievement you get when you complete rides like that. It’s amazing.”

Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood co-created Punk and she cuts a dash on her daily cycle commute in south London. Because of her extravagent dress sense she’s pretty much unmissable but the giveaway is the wire-haired fox terrier in the basket.

Wayne Hemingway, the co-founder of 1980s label Red or Dead, famous for its recycled denims, is so pro-cycling his new company even markets a bike shed and a folding bike. The Shack-up bike shed is lower than a garden shed, can hold four bikes and there’s a compartment for garden equipment or bike stuff. And want a Hemingway bike to put in the shed? Cough up a deposit on flat in a social housing scheme, the Road Runner folding bike is only available in quantities of 250 and is targeted at housing developers. At fifty eight quid a pop the Road Runner is no looker, and is light on innovation, but it’s all part and parcel of Hemingway’s desire to get more people on bikes.

He helped to design a new housing development in Gateshead, the pro-bike Staiths South Bank. It’s Britain’s biggest HomeZone and has a bike pool facility for residents.

Another fashion designer with his head screwed on right is Giles Deacon, the British Fashion Designer of the Year for 2007. He has expensive tastes (favourite hotels: Hôtel Costes in Paris, the Principe di Savoia in Milan and the Chateau Marmont in LA) but he’s still a down-to-earth Cumbrian lad who knows bikes are best. On Sunday he told The Observer: “I adore London and, if I have time off, I’ll just explore the city - visiting exhibitions. I like cycling everywhere. I have done so since I moved here 20 years ago.”

But my favourite fasionista is GQ columnist Scott Schuman. His massively popular and worryingly addictive blog - The Sartorialist - is dripping with good taste. It features smartly dressed folks from cities around the world, all photographed by Schuman and with just the shortest of captions. Click on the ‘bicycle’ tag and you fall into a world of beautiful people on bikes, from “All Cute Girls in Europe Ride Bikes Everywhere, Wearing Cute Clothes, All Day!” to The Very Personification Of A Sexy Summer. Oh, and there are some pix of men, too.

I think Schuman’s personalised approach to what’s truly fashionable is eye-opening. And his liking for bicycles is welcome. As a bunch - and I know you’ll say ’speak for yourself, mate’ - cyclists are not always the best looking clan out on the streets. Fluoro yellow isn’t terribly becoming and polystyrene prophalactics give you helmet hair. The Sartorialist shows it’s possible to look classy and still ride a bike.



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Sep 13, 2007

Spot to demo belt-drive bikes at Interbike



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Over on BikeBiz.com there was this story on Orange’s belt drive prototype. This bike wowed industry execs with its solid carbon belt drive manufactured by Gates in Dumfries.

Spot Bikes of the US also has a belt-driven bike, and it’s also a carbon belt drive from Gates. 30 of these bikes will be at Interbike’s Outdoor Demo and they’re sure to be booked solid.

This Spot video was only finished yesterday and Quickrelease.tv is airing it on the internet for the very first time (although it was pumped out to QR.tv podcast subscribers first, of course):


Later today Quickrelease.tv, and BikeBiz.com, will be shown around the Gates factory in Dumfries and there will also be a test ride of the Orange prototype. Watch out for a video real soon. Belt drive transmission could be the future. There are some interesting comments about the Spot bike – and pluses and minuses of belt drives - on Twentynineinches.com.



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Sep 07, 2007

Watch MTB World Champs live here on Quickrelease.tv


Thanks to those wonderful multi-camera folks at Freecaster.tv here’s a clickable player so you can watch tonight’s action from the Nissan UCI Mountain Bike World Championships, live from Fort William.


The 4X action kicks off at 8pm tonight (UK-time). The player requires your ‘puter to have the latest version of Quicktime. Freecaster doesn’t have the rights to stream the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships to the US. Apparently, UCI president Pat McQuaid is currently in the US and will personally knock on the doors of any Americans daring to access the Freecaster coverage. He’s a big bloke, you have been warned.

The 4X events look likely to fall to Michael Prokop (CZE) and Jill Kintner (USA). They have the explosive energy needed to move ahead in sprints, fearless commitment in the jumps and a natural ability to choose a line that puts them in front of their competitors. But they won’t have it all their own way in Fort William, especially in the Men’s race when riders such as Brian Lopes (USA), Guido Tschugg (GER) and the ultimate showman, Cedric Gracia (FRA) will be going for the Fort William crown. The Brits are also strong contenders, led by Gee and Dan Atherton, Will Longden, Scott Beaumont and in the women’s race, Joey Gough and Fionn Griffths.

On Sunday at 12:30 UK-time watch live coverage of the Downhill Championships for Women’s Elite and Men’s Elite on the slopes of Aonach Mor. Has Steve Peat recovered enough from his recent injury to withstand the challenges he will face in the new longer course of Aonach Mor?



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