There are more than 15 bike shops in Bend, hordes of riders, countless trails and trail possibilities, and today mountain biking is a booming industry—equal parts cultural identity and athleticism.
But it wasn't always this way—and the pioneers, really unknowing trendsetters, that put mountain biking on Bend's map, and Bend on mountain bikers' maps, celebrate mountain bike history this weekend with the third annual Pioneers Ride.
Back in the day, circa the mid '70s, when mountain biking was called "dirt bombing," a small group of avid cyclists, including longtime locals Bob Woodward, Gary Bonacker, Dennis Heater and Phil Meglassen, began testing their Schwinn Typhoons on grounds not necessarily meant for coaster brakes—sans gears, sans shocks, sans comfort; it was bare bones bike adventuring.
"In the very early days we all rode old single-speed newsboy bikes," says Woodward, who is co-founder of Central Oregon Trail Alliance. "After a bit, riders were adding gears, better brakes, etc., to those bikes—the term at the time for old balloon-tired bikes was 'klunkers.'"
Strip down the present-day specialized mountain bike that could almost ride itself, and go back to bike basics. Very basic. Steel rigid frames, single gears, little in the way of brakes, tennis shoes and jeans were all that was required to make mountain bike history. In the beginning, homemade trails originated by animal tracks linked to double track Forest Service roads defined a "trail system." And also, defined primitive.
Awbrey Butte was one of the first rides where these klunkers made tracks. Completely undeveloped, Awbrey was the most accessible terrain from town and seemingly apt territory to begin Bend's bicycle evolution that since hasn't stopped spinning forward. Game trails turned single track, townies turned mountain bikes and mountain biking was born here.
"We made our own trails and the more you used it the more packed out it became—and now if you did that you'd be riding through someone's living room," says Bonacker of Awbrey, co-owner of the 40-plus-year-old bike shop, Sunnyside Sports. "And at that time you didn't think about shocks, that was a zillion years away."
Led by Bonacker, these bushwhacking pioneers who called themselves Klister Corner (a reference to the 3rd Street and Portland Avenue 'hood) soon went a little higher taking on Mount Bachelor game trails, pushing their bikes up in sections, and watering their coaster brakes on the way down.
"With the Bachelor attempt, we brought water for ourselves of course, but most of the water in our packs was used to cool the brakes down," says Bonacker. "We were basically frying the brakes on the way down."
Fast-forward to the early '80s and Bend's most popular trail system Phil's is born. Phil Meglassen headed the endeavor as a surveyor with the U.S. Geological Survey riding his bike instead of driving. And as is tradition, trails were named after those who blazed them.
Woodward and Bonacker agree; in the beginning, dirt bombing seemed a cult sport.
"You had to be a hardcore. You got pounded pretty heavily—without shocks, you took a beating," says Woodward. "Around here we were just a small group of people having a lot of fun."
Founded in the '90s, COTA is keeping the wheels rolling by advocating, protecting and expanding trail systems from Redmond to Sisters to Bend. And today, Woodward sees mountain biking as the primary recreational attraction in Bend where tourists and locals alike can take on trails, shifting from low to high ground year round.
"I think it's become the primary attraction here for people into sports. But the most important thing is mountain biking didn't start here last week, or five years ago...this has been going on a long time," says Woodward.
Pioneers Ride takes off Sunday from the GoodLife Brewery parking lot at 10 a.m. circling around the Old Mill and downtown, culminating at the brewery for reminiscing with photos and stories of the dawn of Bend's mountain biking culture.