The Fusion of The 1983 Mountain Bike National Championships
Fusion, or synthesis, is the process of combining two or more distinct entities into a new whole.
Mountain Bikes arrived quickly into the cycling scene in Santa Barbara. Hendrickson’s Bicycles on State Street was the nexus of racing and early mountain bike racing. The home of the silver and black Santa Barbara Bicycle Club — Centurion Nutratech team run by Doug Knox, Chris King headsets, and early Dyno resistance trainers came out of the shop basement. Former Junior National Champion and Santa Barbara Cycling legend Larry Shields trained for the Coors Classic as a young medical student using a dyno in the shop basement. That shop was the spark for a lot of cycling in play today, but mountain bikes are the most significant.
The first mountain bikes around the shop were expensive custom Ritchy mountain bikes with fillet braised handlebars. Shop mechanic Terry Gearheart had a turquoise Ritchy. He was instrumental in my first mountain bike ride on a closeout Specialized Stumpjumper Sport the shop helped me obtain. My first rides with Terry included swimming in Paradise swimming holes and full-day rides up Little Pine Mountain which involved 10,000 ft of climbing. Terry also introduced the 7–11 Pro Cycling team to mountain biking up the Romero trail.. The 7–11 team also spent days during their training camps riding the fire roads on Eddy Merckx race machines hiding from team coaches and doing early rebel gravel rides. sadly Terry passed away from heart issues in the ’80s. He was the soulful guide of early mountain biking in Santa Barbara.
John Parker’s Time in The Basement
John Parker, founder of Yeti, would also stop into Hendrickson’s with his one-piece rear triangle frame with BMX influences. Parker was a welder in Hollywood who built movie sets, and later became one of the sport’s steward. He was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 1997.
“In Late ’84 early ’85, while recovering from my real bad accident at Manzanita Speedway, I was recovering and trying to figure out what to do with my life, and how to start Yeti. I sold my ’28 Indian Motorcycle. I bought Bicycle Bob out. I welded up the first three bikes. I asked Linda what color she would like her bike to be (one of the first 3). And there was a really nice guy named Terry Gearheart that worked at Hendrickson’s bicycles on State Street in Santa Barbara. Terry used to help me a lot, Teaching me about bicycles including road cycles and cyclo-cross. He was pretty knowledgeable about Mtn. Bikes. We used to smoke a lot of pot down in the basement of Hendrickson’s and talk about what the future of Mtn. Biking would be. We weren’t far off. Linda waited to the last minute, and finally, when pressed to choose her color, she asked Terry, who had this beautiful Desert Turquoise Ritchey, if he would be offended if she painted her Yeti desert Turquoise. Terry was very gracious and pointed out that it was a 1971 Chrysler auto color, called Desert Turquoise. Through the years, when we switched from wet paint to powder paint, the color changed a little bit. Within a year of establishing the race team and going with the color turquoise, my dear friend Terry died of an enlarged heart. It turns out no male in his family had lived beyond their 30s. He was such a happy go lucky free-spirited bicycle mechanic. Somebody I still miss to this day. That’s when I made the commitment to always use Turquoise in association with the race bikes” John Parker
At the 1989 Track National Championships, I rode a 24'’ wheel “funny bike” designed by Olympian Rory O’Reilly of Santa Barbara and built by Yeti. The officials got out a tape measure to try and figure out a way to say that my bike violated the geometry rules and to try to keep me from starting the points race. I was pissed, and I won the first sprint and got into an early break with multi-time Tour De France finisher Frankie Andreau, all with a temporary bar across my cow horn bars. Open cow horn bars were not allowed in mass start track events at the time. I had taken a mountain bike company to the front of track cycling, All proof that cycling was a melting pot of disciplines, backgrounds, and companies.
The winter of 1983 was a deep, soaking El Niño winter in Santa Barbara. The El Niño was the most substantial and most devastating of the last century, with piers being ripped from the coast or damaged.
1983 NORBA National Mountain Bike Championships -Santa Barbara
Specialized bicycle components were evolving from importing Cinelli stems Specialized Touring tires into the new mountain bike market. The first Stumpjumper was designed by custom Lighthouse frame builder Tim Nennon of the Central Coast of California. With roots and customers in Santa Barbara. Specialized reached out to Doug Knox looking for young local road cycling talent that could ride the first-ever NORBA Nationals at Rancho Oso in the driving cold rain. Doug suggested Tom Hodges, a local Junior National team standout and winner of Willows Road Race in San Diego during his first year as a senior in 1984. Kurt Stockton was also a junior standout with offroad genes. Kurt’s Mom, Cherry Stockton, was the first female duo who rode and finished the Baja 500 on a motorcycle. Kurt would later become the 1990 U.S. Pro National Champion and a Downhill Mountain Bike racer for John Parker’s Yeti Race Team.
The Specialized Bikes arrived the day before the race and were quickly built in the back of Hendrisckson’s or in the famous basement. With the bikes not ready, and a heavy rain, there would be no pre-riding the course for the local boys.
I woke up early on race day with rain pelting on my Dad’s San Marcos Trout Club sod roof skylight which was over my bed.. My Dad was a distance runner in the second half of his life, but he always supported my cycling passion. We drove his green diesel Peugeot over San Marcos Pass along Paradise Road to Rancho Oso, the race site. I shared that day with my Dad in an area we had backpacked together in the Thanksgiving rain to camp and eat small cornish game hens we packed in our tent for our holiday dinner. My sister and I had hitchhiked home in the rain the next day so we didn’t have to hike back up the mud climb. The same climb that would now be on the mountain bike course.
The parking lot was full of blank white rental vans for the mountain bike teams as well as painted team vans from road cycling teams like Levi Raleigh and 7–11. Greg LeMond was rumored to start the race for Team Ritchey, but he was a no show. Another favorite, Gavin Chilcott, had recently injured himself and was also a no show.. On the starting line was a mix of the big names in the klunker mountain biking scene Tom Ritchey, Gary Fisher and, Jacquie Phelan. Among the stars of cycling included top road cyclist and 1980 Speed Skating Multiple Gold Medalist Eric Heiden, 1984 Road Race Gold Medalist Alexi Grewal, Olympian Roy Kickman, and Dale Stetina: two-time US National Road Champion, two-time winner of the Coors Classic which is considered the premiere race in American cycling history, and yes, the father of gravel pro and Belgium Waffle Ride Winner- Pete Stetina (yes genetics work in cycling). Steve Tilford was on the line as a national team rider with cyclo-cross skills, and he came prepared to compete for a National Title.
The day before the Championships, Tilford and Knickman received their custom made Moots mountain bikes and promptly did a practice lap around the Rancho Oso course which took over 1 1/2 hours to complete. At that rate, with a five-lap race, Tilford estimated it would be a 5–6 hour event. The rugged rocky course was an old fire road that climbed up the backside of the Santa Ynez Mountains, below the abandoned Knapp’s Castle. It included a single track muddy descent through the oaks and chaparral. The climb took nearly 45 minutes to get to the top. The descent was single-track through the oaks. Steve wore two jerseys, both for warmth and an extra six pockets, to pack all his stuff, which including a peanut butter sandwich, tools, and many tubes. The Raleigh riders sprayed their bikes down with Pam in hopes it would help shed mud. Some riders opted for cyclo-cross bikes, and the Ross mountain bike team used smaller tires for more mud clearance.
Because of the rain, the men’s race was shortened from 5 laps to 3 laps. Tom Ritchey, and Eric Heiden dropped out early. Kurt Stockton finished with a front flat, and Roy Knickman finished with a rear flat, but both riders were out of tubes. Tom Hodges was so far down by the last lap he ended up abandoning. He still had fun and was part of history. Tom Hodges remembers his wheels locking up from the mud piling up on the frame around the bottom bracket multiple times. “It was pure frustration; it was pretty cold and I was soaked to the bone wet. Yeah, but I was so far down by the last lap I ended up abandoning. I wasn’t going to go out and suffer one more lap to come in near last place!”
Steve Tilford completed 3 laps in 3 hours 27 minutes while Jacquie Phelan completed 2 laps in 3 hours 7 minutes, making them our first Mountain Bike National Champions.. 37 of the 66 starters finished. The event was a blend of drop bars, klunkers , road cycling, and the roots of gravel festival-style events. I’m not sure how much of a festival took place that day in the driving rain, but I remember gathering around the finishers and hearing their mud and flat stories as they talked to family and friends while hosing the mud from their bikes.
My Own Cycling Fusion
In the years that followed, I grew up cycling, racing at an elite level across the U.S. and Brittany France. I raced road and track, winning four state titles as a junior, senior, and master. I always did cyclo-cross for pure joy on converted touring bikes, sometimes on Yeti mountain bikes. My cycling journey was not easy going from a top junior to struggling Pro 1–2, to the only English speaking rider in Brittany to the back of the pro peloton with no “call up”, to not riding for 20 plus years only to finding cycling again but having no one care about your history, and being the last one up the climb to find peace and joy with cycling again while taking pictures of the nature that you see along the way. I’m currently flat on my back post back surgery, missing my cycling zen. So I felt I should document some history and share the ingredient mix that makes cycling a fantastic sport and pay respect to my Santa Barbara roots.
Nowadays when I’m out on a carbon endurance style race frame with tires too narrow for the dirt, I see mountain bikers in board shorts ignoring gravel cyclists in tight lycra. I see the dirt jump mountain bike kids ignore the road cyclists in white shoes. E-bikes will force the cycling establishment into acceptance, but I feel that my generation of cyclists will all end up on e-bikes as our bodies’ natural power diminishes and we still strive to explore. Respect the wave.
We all need to remember that they all come from the same roots and mud.
Cycling is a fusion across all disciplines and types, and as new variations of the sport evolve, we need to remember, we all like to talk story and roll in the dirt, and hang out in the basement.