Fairfax: Birthplace of Mountain Biking

By Errol Tremolada • Photos by Wende and Larry Cragg

Riders pose atop "Frisbee Knoll", above Kent Lake, 1975. Photo: Charlie Kelly/Charlie Wirtz collection

Riders pose atop “Frisbee Knoll”, above Kent Lake, 1975. Photo: Charlie Kelly/Charlie Wirtz collection

There are a number of places that claim to be outdoor meccas, but few have the robust history to prove it like Fairfax. Located at the base of the 2,574-foot Mount Tamalpais, thirty minutes from the pristine Point Reyes National Seashore, with hundreds of miles of multi-use trail at its disposal, Fairfax is the quintessential hub for the outdoor junkie. With a single gallon of gas you can reach six nationally protected areas, six state parks and a myriad of locally managed open space preserves.

Hikers, runners and naturalists alike flock to this small town sixteen miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, but the heart of Fairfax pumps with chain lube and fat tires.

Cycling Gets Dirty

It was on the rugged fire roads above downtown where the modern mountain bike was born. Repack Road is infamous in the mountain biking community as the trail where the legends of the industry raced their old clunker bikes back in the ‘70s. Dropping 1,300 feet in 2.1 miles, Charlie Kelly, Joe Breeze, Fred Wolf, Gary Fisher and friends would lead time trial races down this heralded trail with coaster-brake bikes.

Gateway to the infamous Repack Road. Photo: Larry & Wende Cragg

Gateway to the infamous Repack Road. Photo: Larry & Wende Cragg

Due to the intense downhill ride and epic speed, the coaster brakes would need to be ‘repacked’ every downhill; hence this route was dubbed Repack. There were twenty-two races between 1976 and 1979. Since then Fairfax has become a haven for mountain biking. Though technical singletrack riding has traditionally been the focus of mountain bikers, Joe Breeze considered Repack, “a much more high speed, nerves of steel contest than a venue for finesse.”

At the time, Kelly never thought that those races down Repack were the genesis of something bigger. “It was a goofy hobby. It was not a business at first; it was just a form of entertainment for a few enthusiasts,” said Kelly.

Repack is not exactly Whistler, BC in terms of high performance downhill; yet it is still a worthy destination to ride. “Originally Repack was a huge challenge for the old school machinery. Now anyone with a mountain bike can ride down Repack, in contrast to riding a modern downhill course with huge jumps that require advanced skills and that are only possible on a modern full-suspension bike,” said Kelly.

“Still, nobody has improved on the times set 35 years ago, even with all the new technology, because we were making the most of incredibly primitive equipment. We also practiced a lot on the course.” Asked if Kelly ever misses going down Repack on those giant clunkers, “I don’t at all. I like the new stuff, and I still enjoy shredding Repack now and then. It’s even more fun now that the brakes actually stop the bike.”

From weekend warriors cruising fire roads up and down Mount Tamalpais to hardcore hammerheads shredding singletrack, Fairfax has a little something for every mountain biker to enjoy. If you’re lucky, you might even run into a living legend like Charlie or Joe on the trail. This funky hippie town that seemingly is trapped in 1969 brings out every type of rider to enjoy its exciting backcountry trails and ideal riding weather.

Martin Hansen, owner of Sunshine Bicycle Center, which opened in 1971, attributes much of Sunshine’s success and longevity to having connections to the early mountain bike pioneers and the cycling culture of the town. “Fairfax has some of the best mountain biking in the Bay Area—Mount Tam, Camp Tamarancho (thanks to all the hard work of Bicycle Trails Council of Marin)—and some great post-ride hang outs for eat and drink.”

The Legacy Endures

Joe Breeze at Yellow Face, Repack, late 1977. Photo: Larry & Wende Cragg

Joe Breeze at Yellow Face, Repack, late 1977. Photo: Larry & Wende Cragg

Since 1975 local bikers and aficionados have come together every Thanksgiving morning to ride Appetite Seminar. This roughly 18-mile route takes a pack of a few hundred mountain bikers up along the west ridge of Mount Tamalpais and culminates with the classic Repack downhill.

At the top of Repack, riders can pull over and enjoy a hot beverage before their descent, provided by local supporters, or cool off with an ice cold beer from the keg or two that sits at the post ride gathering in downtown. After an hour or so, everyone heads home to enjoy Thanksgiving with their families. The ride takes place every Thanksgiving morning and has grown in attendance every year.

Not only is Fairfax a refuge for the recreational mountain biker but it also hosts one of the greatest high school mountain biking teams in the country, the Sir Francis Drake Pirates. Formed in 2002, the Drake Pirates have created a co-ed mountain biking powerhouse earning four California High School Championships (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012) and six Norcal High School Mountain Biking Championships (2004, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012).

Charlie Kelly on Repack's Camera Corner. Photo: Larry & Wende Cragg

Charlie Kelly on Repack’s Camera Corner. Photo: Larry & Wende Cragg

Garnering national attention, these young guys and gals have pedaled their way into mountain biking history. The team might have an unfair advantage in that they are trained and coached by mountain biking legend Otis Guy, and get their chains lubed and derailleurs checked by “mechanic” Joe Breeze. There are a number of fundraisers each year to assist in the racing costs that range from movie screenings to small local races; all of which are fully supported by the people of Fairfax.

Fairfax has cycling at its core and that’s something that Mayor John Reed takes pride in. Not only is this a place for fun off-trail riding, it’s also a catalyst for change. “Safe Routes to School was started here in Fairfax. This program involves biking and walking to school in part modeled off a similar program started in Scotland. Fairfax was the first place to put in place this program and now it’s spread across the nation,” said Reed.

The Hall of Fame Comes Home

The town has garnered such allure that the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame has been relocated from Crested Butte, Colorado to Fairfax . The Hall of Fame will be a part of the new Marin Museum of Bicycling.

According to Reed, Otis Guy and Joe Breeze put together an exhibit for the San Francisco International Airport about the history of biking and after positive feedback; the discussion to relocate the Hall of Fame began. It will be taking over a former natural foods store in the heart of downtown Fairfax and sit on a main route for most bikers to ride past. The Fairfax Chamber of Commerce is already working on ways to expand the museum experience and possibly provide lockers and showers so that riders can clean up after their ride and spend more time in the town.

As a town so rich in mountain biking history, Fairfax is an optimal location for the Hall of Fame. Breeze believes there is no better place for it. “The welcoming environment continues with the new Repack Mosaic installed in town, and the soon-to-open Marin Museum of Bicycling. The museum will educate the public on the history of cycling, right from its 19th-century beginnings,” said Breeze.

Present day downtown Fairfax. Photo: Larry & Wende Cragg

Present day downtown Fairfax. Photo: Larry & Wende Cragg

He thinks the relocation of the Hall of Fame in conjunction with the opening of the Marin Museum of Bicycling will have a heavy impact not only on the local community, but also for bike enthusiasts from all over. “ Having the Hall of Fame in Fairfax will allow it to grow. With over 7 million people in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Marin Museum of Bicycling should prove popular. San Francisco is a worldwide tourist destination and Fairfax is the gateway to Point Reyes National Seashore. The museum can expand the public’s understanding of cycling’s vast history and its potential, especially for transportation and community health. Who knows, maybe visitors’ seeing all the everyday cycling in our community will be inspired to ride more.”

Fairfax is a town that is seemingly forgotten on any map. It’s small, with a population of less than 8,000. Most visitors to Marin County drive past Fairfax on their way to Point Reyes National Seashore without knowing what this little town has to offer. Quite simply, Fairfax is the birthplace of the modern mountain bike and a continuing source of inspiration for people with a lifelong commitment to human powered adventure.”

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