Take a minute and think about riding off the summit of Mt. Bachelor on a heavy, steel bike equipped with weak brakes, over-inflated tires, a rigid fork and a single gear. Imagine trying to finesse that clunker down the mountain and into town. Yeah.
“Dirt Bombing is what we called it,” said Gary Bonacker, Bend mountain biking pioneer, co-owner of Sunnyside Sports and one of the legends likely to make an appearance at the first ever “Pioneer's Ride” this weekend.
The event celebrates the developments in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when a small band of Central Oregon outdoorsmen started experimenting with riding bikes off road. Healthy doses of one-upmanship and adventure helped the band of biking brothers progress from rallying dirt roads on their glorified cruiser bikes to bombing down mountains.
To get an idea of what the early mountain bike pioneers were up against, take away the plush suspension, disc brakes, supple tires, carbon frame and all but three of the gear settings on your modern machine. Replace the manicured berms in the trail with a narrow strip of dirt haphazardly beaten in by hooves of deer. This scene, which was similar to the one unfolding around Mt. Tam and various other pockets throughout the mountains of the U.S., is what helped give rise to Central Oregon’s beloved mountain bike culture.
And, like us, Bend’s mountain bike pioneers had a good damn time out there—despite their primitive set-ups.
After three and a half decades of mountain biking heritage in Central Oregon, it’s time to celebrate the rich beginnings of a now booming local mountain bike scene. That’s exactly what Bend’s original off-road trailblazers will be doing this weekend at the “Pioneers Ride,” which meets at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 28 at the GoodLife Brewing parking lot.
Participants will first head out for a fun dirt ride (so bring your clunker and leave your spandex at home). Afterward, over beers, Bend’s mountain bike pioneers will swap photos and stories and reminisce about an era when mountain biking existed without mountain bikes.
The stories you may hear will be about Bonacker and a few of the others from “the old Portland Avenue gang,” who were some of the first people to get Bend’s mountain bike scene up and rolling. Bend’s Don Ipock, and Tim Boyle were also part of the original dirt-surfing crew.
“It really just started with single speeds,” Bonacker said. “You know, we beefed up the tires and put a little more comfortable saddle on it.”
At the time, what the Portland Avenue gang was doing with bikes was considered revolutionary.
Bob “Woody” Woodward, another member of Bend’s early mountain bike scene and co-founder of the Central Oregon Trail Association (COTA), remembers it well.
“They took some old newspaper Schwinns and fixed them up with some cantilever brakes. They took them to the top of Bachelor and rode down, and it got everybody excited,” Woodward said.
“The problem was with the coaster brakes,” Bonacker said of that epic run down Bachelor Butte, its former name. “[Going] downhill, the brakes get really heated up, so when you’re braking a lot they eventually start to fade, and then they just don’t work. I remember squirting a water bottle on the hub, and it just sizzled, I mean it was like a forge.”
From there, a small community of dirt riders grew and it was centered around near daily rides down Awbrey Butte—the go-to dirt-bombing arena back in those days. Only a few minutes ride from downtown and completely undeveloped at that point, Awbrey Butte was host to 10 miles of technical biking trails.
“We’d find old game trails and we’d go out and work on them,” Woodward said of trail riding in Bend. “A lot of the stuff that’s out at the Phil’s area now was done that way too.”
Early on, Woodward and people like Phil Meglassen, of Phil’s Trail fame, would connect deer trails with existing double track forest roads. The regional trail network was further developed as the mountain bike community grew, especially with the founding of COTA in the early ‘90s.
“We were always exploring,” said Woodward. “There was just all this territory out there and we were trying to discover it.”
The legacy of passion for the sport, combined with a collection of old bicycles, books and pictures, ensures that there will be plenty to chat about at the "Pioneer's Ride" this Sunday.
“We’re just trying to make sure people know that those roots are there,” said Woodward. “It’s just fun to look at some of the old stuff, and make sure we honor the past.”
10 a.m., Sunday, Oct. 28
GoodLife Brewing parking lot, ride then reminisce over brews
photo: Gary Bonacker