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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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.