Blazing the Trail: North State Riders Played an Early Role in Mountain Biking
The relative newness of mountain biking as a sport might come as a surprise to some. Thirty-plus years ago, the concept of taking a knobby-tired bicycle on dirt trails was just starting to gain ground.
A lot of that ground was in Marin County, California, home to Mt. Tamalpais and other hilly terrain that attracted two-wheel enthusiasts from the Bay Area.
But the North State staked an early claim to the sport as well. In 1981, the Whiskeytown Downhill, a grueling 36-mile cross-country race, put the region on the map as a prime off-road cycling destination.
“It was the first organized mountain-bike race in the country,” said Gary Larson, owner of the Chain Gang bike shop in Redding and organizer of the Whiskeytown Downhill. Cyclists in Marin and elsewhere were holding informal races, but the Whiskeytown Downhill was the first such competition with established rules, he said.
Gary Fisher, known for his Fisher Mountain Bikes company, won the race its first year, in a field of 57 riders. Five years later, the race had grown to more than 500 competitors and had attracted some of the sport’s first pros, like John Tomac, Ned Overend, Olympic cyclist John Howard and former Redding resident Mike Jordan.
Itching for a change from his civil engineering job, Larson – who moved to Redding in 1973 – bought the Chain Gang bike shop in 1975. At the time, the closest thing to a mountain bike was “old balloon-style cruisers,” he said. A couple of years later, he saw his first commercially built mountain bike, a Lawwill-Knight Pro-Cruiser. “I saw one at a bike show we go to annually, and we bought a couple of them,” he said.
John Stein, bike shop manager at Sports LTD in Redding, worked for Chain Gang at the time and remembers that Pro-Cruiser. "We thought it was pretty exciting," he said. "We all rode it around the shop."
Not long after that, Specialized Bicycle Components came out with the Stumpjumper, a full-factory mountain bike “way more sophisticated” than the Pro-Cruiser, Larson said.
“Everyone who saw one wanted one,” he said. “Prior to that, all we had was road bikes and cruisers. We made a very fast transition. We still sell road bikes and other types, but sales on mountain bikes took off like crazy.”
Capitalizing on the sport’s popularity, Larson and his crew spent about a year picking out a route for the Whiskeytown Downhill, a point-to-point race that started atop Buckhorn Summit along Highway 299. The inaugural competition was Stein's first off-road experience, on a Pro-Cruiser. "I haven't looked back since," said the 56-year-old Redding resident.
While today’s so-called downhill races are directionally accurate, the Whiskeytown Downhill ended at a lower elevation but included several thousand feet of climbing.
After the first race in ’81, one of the contestants organized the Rockhopper mountain bike race in Santa Rosa. “It just grew; everybody wanted to do one,” Larson said.
In 1983, he met with other race promoters and riders in Tahoe to form NORBA (National Off-Road Bicycle Association). With some minor changes, “they adopted our rules that we made up for the first Whiskeytown Downhill,” Larson said.
By 1996, mountain biking had gained such worldwide popularity that it debuted as an Olympic event at the summer games in Atlanta.
North State Mountain Biking
The epic Whiskeytown Downhill ended in 1986, but the North State’s love affair with off-road cycling had just begun. (Those who’d like to ride the old course can find trail maps and instructions in two must-have volumes for area riders: John Shuman’s Mountain Biking Whiskeytown and Max Walter’s North State Singletrack).
Stein, who was in his mid-20s when mountain biking began, was part of the first generation of area riders in the early '80s. "There was lots of exploration," he said. "It was all virgin territory. I'm 100 percent sure my buddies and I put the first tire tracks on many roads."
Not into motorized sports, Stein found mountain biking an ideal way to indulge his desire to roam. "I was really strong then, so going for long, long distances -- it was a gateway to adventure," he said. "I've always been an explorer; I can't stand to go past a road and not follow it."
Most of his early riding was on graded Jeep roads. "Much of Whiskeytown's singletrack didn't exist then," he said. Stein would look at a U.S. Forest Service map to pick roads he hadn't yet explored.
By the early '90s, a lot of the recreation area's single-track trails had been developed on old logging and mining roads, said Shawn Tillman, a former Redding resident and longtime mountain biker.
"By then the trail network was pretty well established," he said. "The beginning of those trails is tightly tied up with the evolution of mountain bikes."
Both Tillman (now a Chico city planner) and Redding accountant Ron Bresolin Jr. grew up in Shasta County, left for a while, then returned – Bresolin in 1990, Tillman two years later.
Bresolin started mountain biking in 1988 in the Bay Area. A triathlete who excelled in the biking portion, he took his road bike on a 30-mile trek and wanted to keep going on the trail when the pavement ended. So he bought a mountain bike – and hasn’t stopped trail-riding since.
Tillman’s first mountain bike rides were in high school with Mark Foust, son of then-Whiskeytown Superintendent Ray Foust. His initial treks were along dirt roads that later became the Sacramento River Trail.
Tillman went to college in Santa Rosa, and his mom lived in Marin County, so much of his early riding was in the cradle of the sport.
When Bresolin came back to Redding, bike in tow, about 99 percent of the biking trails were in Whiskeytown, he said. Outside of that, the region’s early mountain-bikers, like Stein, rode a lot of dirt roads and old motorcycle trails from the '60s and '70s, he said.
The mountain biking community in Redding was relatively small at the start. Tired of seeing the same few faces ("and rear ends"), Stein and some friends started The Fat Folks (a reference to the width of mountain-bike tires compared with road-bike tires), an early mountain-biking group that explored North State trails on Sundays.
When Tillman returned to Redding, he soon started riding with Bresolin and joined a Wednesday night group started by employees at CH2M Hill. (That group, as well as several others, continue to ride each week.)
The limited number of cyclists also made it easier for impromptu trail names to catch on. The Couch, Recliner, Ice Box and Satan’s Crack are a few Whiskeytown trail monikers coined by riders.
Bresolin, who has helped name a few trails, said he “knew everybody” when he first came back to Redding in the early '90s. “When I’d see people with bikes on their cars, I’d recognize the bikes,” he said. “That’s not the case anymore. Now I know 10 to 20 percent of the riders I see. That’s good – I’m pleased by that.”
On a visit to Redding a few months ago, Tillman saw only two other riders while mountain biking. He cited the region’s expanding trail network -- naming the Westside and Swasey/Muletown trail systems as examples. “There are more trails now, so even with more people riding, they’re not packed,” he said.
The Lemurian Shasta Classic
One reason the area’s mountain-biking population has grown is the annual spring Lemurian Shasta Classic race, which Bresolin organized with partner Gail Shook for 11 of its 24 years thus far.
This cross-country epic, started in 1987, has featured grueling courses near Shasta Dam, in French Gulch, and most recently, in Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. It regularly attracts riders from out of the area (Chico pro cyclist Tim Olson has won five of the last seven races) and gives locals a chance to volunteer or test their mettle on a short, intermediate or long course, in various age categories.
The Lemurian gets capped at 400 riders. In 2011 it had 385, said Bresolin, who selected the race routes in French Gulch and Whiskeytown. The Redding Mountain Biking club took over organization of the race this year (Bresolin is vice president of the club). The event raises money for groups such as the Shasta County Sheriff’s Explorers, Mountain Search and Rescue, and Friends of Whiskeytown.
Bresolin has embraced the challenge of mapping out the Lemurian course numerous times. He rides the area three or four times, thinking “here, here, here, go there,” he said. “I’ll think through it in bed at night, then drag my buddies out there to test it.”
The Joy of Riding
One of those buddies is Redding real estate broker Steve Piles, a motorcycle racer who agreed to try mountain biking years ago when an injury kept him from running. He was soon hooked on the fresh air and adrenaline.
“When I get out there, I feel like a kid,” he said. “I deal with stress that way.”
Piles, 55, and Bresolin, who is 52, have ridden several times a week for years. Between them, they have logged thousands of miles of trail exploration and new-trail discovery, survived crashes, encountered wildlife, and introduced many of the region’s newer cyclists to the stunning vistas and technical thrills that have won the sport such acclaim.
One of those newbies was Piles’ wife, Christina, who had only ridden a road bike until she met Steve at age 49. An ultramarathoner, Christina challenged herself to master the new sport.
“I enjoyed it enough that I wanted to do it well,” she said. “I used to start out, heart pounding, hands shaky, thinking, I know I’m going to crash. As time went on, that became less and less. Steve’s a real good teacher.”
After riding only about three years, Christina Piles entered the Lemurian and was the first woman to finish in the intermediate course. She was also the oldest female contestant, at age 53.
“I had no sense of how I’d do,” she said. “I kept figuring there’d be some women passing me, and it never happened.”
Christina raced in the expert class in the Breakaway Series (Return on the Jedi, Humbug Hurry-Up, Spring Thaw), placing first, third and ninth, respectively. “I was 53, and the rest of the ladies were early 40s,” she said. “I learned there weren’t other women my age riding the harder courses, so I was competing against ladies who were pros and at least 10 years younger.”
Her race resume qualified her to race in the expert class at the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, a race series that attracts riders from across the country.
“During a practice run on that race, I broke my wrist and ended up in a cast for five months,” she said. Racing was again put on hold due to a hand injury last year, but Christina, now 58, still hopes to race again.
In August, she and Steve completed the grueling 100 miles of the Mount Shasta Summit Century road ride on a tandem bicycle. (The ride contains more than 10,000 feet of climbing.) Christina, a public works supervisor in charge of Redding’s recycling program, often rides a 40-pound bike to work and to pick up groceries.
“I’m always trying to encourage other women to go out and give mountain biking a try,” she said. “There’s something so exhilarating about riding that next, technical level – it’s so cool.”
Those drawn to the sport like the fact that they can cover significant distance in a short amount of time, going almost anywhere they could on foot.
“I like to pedal out to the middle of nowhere – I enjoy being way off the grid,” Bresolin said. “There’s nobody to bug me out there, and you don’t have to worry about getting run over.”
The views alone are often worth the effort, cyclists say. “It would take me so long to run or hike to these places,” Christina Piles said. “How few people have an opportunity to experience this. It’s a big draw for me to see these views.”
Tillman, who is able to commute by bike almost everywhere in Chico (something he couldn’t do as easily on Redding streets), said Redding mountain bikers have a training advantage over riders from other regions.
“When you go elsewhere, the trails are easier,” he said. “There are so many long climbs here, and the Whiskeytown trails are so technical – when you go somewhere else, you’re not hurting.”
He and Bresolin aren’t alone in singing the area’s praises as a prime mountain biking area.
“I’ve ridden in a lot of popular places in the West – Oregon, Washington, Utah, California,” Tillman said. “Nothing, in my opinion, compares to Redding as far as the breadth of trails. The trails that get you to Whiskeytown would be enough. But you’ve got French Gulch, the Muletown/Swasey area and Shasta Dam, Shasta Lake and Jones Valley. There’s such great variety.”
(Another area he considers ripe for cycling exploration: Fenders Ferry Road off Highway 299 east, near Squaw Creek. “Old logging areas have lots of potential,” he said.)
Stein acknowledges that the area continues to offer more for bikers. "We probably don't appreciate what we have," he said. "The new trail systems the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) has put in have the potential for exploding us as far as being a mountain-biking destination."
The Chain Gang’s Larson said Whiskeytown’s openness to mountain bikers is another appeal of the region. “In some national parks you can’t take your bike off road,” he said.
Though summer heat might keep bike tourists away, Bresolin thinks the overall climate is ideal for the sport.
“Eight to nine months out of the year, we’re right in there,” he said. “I don’t know why pro riders don’t live here. I think it’s phenomenal biking most of the year.”
-For more information on organized rides in the area, visit Redding Mountain Biking online.
Candace L. Brown has been a magazine and newspaper writer and editor for almost 20 years. While not much of that time has been spent on two wheels, she has watched a number of the area’s mountain bike races and waited for hours in the French Alps to witness two stages of the Tour de France. She lives in Redding and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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