Charlie Kelly’s Press Camp Experience

In: Bike Industry News, NEWS By: Dirt Rag Magazine On: August 9, 2008

Long-time Dirt Rag contributor Charlie Kelly filed this report:Karen at Dirt Rag asked me to go to the Specialized product presentation, since I live a short bike ride away from it, and that saves the magazine a big airfare that they weren’t going to pay anyway. It’s a press party, and I get some stuff published in the Rag, so I could probably talk my way in as a “journalist.”

Specialized Camp

Strictly for the benefit of a few dozen representatives of mountain bike magazines from all over the world, Specialized had rented the jewel of Bay Area mountain biking, Camp Tamarancho, with its miles of private mountain bike trails. The cycling press was immersed in Specialized and isolated from every other brand name, and nobody was complaining.

Even though the three-day party was kept a secret from most of the locals, I had been invited, in connection with a showing of Billy Savage’s film “Klunkerz” on Wednesday night. Billy was also coming, with his vintage 1983 Stumpjumper and his Alan Bonds klunkerized 1935 Schwinn. The journalists all wanted a ride down the legendary Repack downhill course, and I couldn’t pass the opportunity to lecture them on its lore while standing in the place that changed my life.

Here’s a disclaimer. My main bike is a Stumpjumper Expert that Mike Sinyard provided for me a couple of years ago. I can’t say enough nice things about someone who does that, so I am no more objective than any of the journalists who partied with me at Specialized’s expense.

As limited invitation mountain bike parties, with exceptional catering, perfect weather, world-class singletrack trails and a selection of next year’s bikes to ride them on go, the Specialized event was still high on the scale. I’m not a journalist, I’m a guy who pretends to work for Dirt Rag so I can get into the Interbike trade show. I have a real job, so I skipped the demonstrations of the products, even though the widget lectures were supposedly the reason for an operation roughly as complex as the Normandy invasion. That only leaves all the other stuff to write about.

The real journalists, from some forty different mountain bike magazines, were held captive for the product presentations in beautifully appointed matching tents, with hot showers available, a full-time espresso bar with smoothies on the side, a huge selection of incredible bikes, coolers full of drinks conveniently placed everywhere you looked, and of course, the trails.

Camp Tamarancho is owned by the Boy Scouts, and the Bicycle Trails Council has built a series of mountain bike-specific singletrack trails all over the property. Use is limited to mountain bikers with $50 annual or $5 day passes. This riding is world class and I am fortunate to live a short bike ride away and hold a season pass. I hit these trails all the time.

These are trails I first walked on fifty years ago as a Cub Scout and then a Boy Scout, and the journalists were camped on the same ground that I camped on then. These are the trails that my roommate Gary Fisher and I first ventured out on in the seventies with our fat tire, single-speed, coaster brake “town bikes,” and thought, hey, this is fun. Maybe we should do it again. The Repack downhill that the scribes wanted to experience was my own promotion, and I still have the original timers we used then.

The first night I met some of the people and had dinner at the camp with them, then just before it got too dark to navigate the brutal road down into Fairfax I borrowed Billy’s 1983 Stumpjumper and rode home. Day two was a little more fun.

After putting in a day at work I brought my own bike up with me, and with an hour to ride before dinner, I mentioned that I knew a short loop that we could ride in less than half an hour. All the downhill would be on singletrack, and the ride back up to the camp was on Iron Springs Road.

Mike Sinyard and a couple of other riders followed me to the trailhead for the Alan Goldman Trail. They had already ridden it, but they hadn’t ridden Alchemist, a trail that cuts off the Goldman trail and features juicy downhill with plenty of switchbacks, roots and rocks to negotiate in about half a mile.

Just as I was about to lead the way, I dropped my sunglasses. As I pulled over to retrieve them a rider passed me, and with another coming up fast behind, I got rolling as quickly as I could. The guy in front of me was pretty fast and he already had a good lead, so I concentrated on staying ahead of the rider behind me, assuming it was one of the journalists.

At the exit of the trail the two riders turned out to be Joe Breeze in front of me and his thirteen-year-old son Tommy behind me, and the members of the foreign press were murmuring about who you actually run into on the trails here.

The pack pulled away from me on the climb back up to the camp on Iron Springs Road, and I blame that three-year-old bike of mine for being so slow. The new stuff that everyone else was riding is much faster. I found Mike waiting for me at the Goldman trailhead. “That was awesome! Want to do it again?”

Hell, yes.

The second time down, it was just Mike and me, shredding the trail as well as competitive guys our age with decades of trail shredding experience and full suspension are likely to do.

I have known Mike Sinyard for close to three decades, but only as an important member of the bicycle business, not as a riding buddy. We had been on a few rides together, but always in a crowd at some ceremonial event. Now just the two of us were riding together on equipment several orders of magnitude better than when we first started, on legal singletrack, and on what is for me, almost hallowed ground.

I hope you don’t mind if I get a little verklempt here.

Thank you. Better now.

That evening Billy Savage showed “Klunkerz” at the camp. Both Mike and I are in it, and my mother thinks you should see it. I have no opinion myself, but you may form one by visiting

It was eleven o’clock and very dark by the time Joe and Tommy Breeze and I hit Iron Springs Road to get back home. The road is treacherous, with a broken, potholed, worn out, gravel-strewn surface that does not look any different to me now than it did fifty years ago. Joe was riding one of his own bikes with a built-in light, and Tommy and I stayed close until we got into Fairfax.

Thursday they wanted Repack, and they got it.

Kind of.

The printed camp schedule had the riders being delivered to the Pine Mountain Fire Road in two waves starting at 9:00 a.m. and then riding the mile or so of dirt to Repack. I was planning to ride my bike up the hill instead of trucking up, so I got an early start, and Billy Savage caught me in his own vehicle just as I reached the Pine Mountain road at exactly 9:00 a.m.

There were no Specialized vehicles in the small parking area. We felt lonely, perhaps because we were alone except for the lady hiking with her poodle.

Excellent. I can get started up the last couple of hard climbs without these guys riding past me. So Billy and I took our bikes, my 2005 Stumpjumper and Billy’s 1983 Stumpjumper, and grunted them up the dirt road to Repack. On the way we met another mountain biker, riding a Specialized bike and wearing a Specialized jersey, so we assumed he was from the camp, but he turned out to be a local fireman out for a ride. We told him what was going on, and he pulled over and got out his cell phone.

“Dude, you should have come with me. The guys from ‘Klunkerz’ are out here with all the people from Specialized, and we’re going to run Repack.”

Apparently the schedule I had seen was more optimistic than realistic, because the three of us waited at the top for half an hour, and during that time Otis Guy arrived, riding up Repack with a huge backpack full of first-aid equipment.

I took up a post down the hill where I could watch the approach through my binoculars, and finally spotted the Specialized crowd coming toward us. When they arrived, most were on replicas of the 1983 Stumpjumper that the company had made specifically for this old-school purpose. A number of them were dressed “in character,” with Calvin Klein jeans and the ever popular cheap Hawaiian shirts procured from a local thrift store.

I explained that designer jeans are not Levis, old skool shirts are made of flannel, plaid is the color scheme, and that any name other than Levi Strauss on your jeans, polyester, buttons on your shirt collar, stripes or tropical prints with palm trees and surfing hula girls identified the rider as a foreign journalist.

The nerve.

Otis lectured to the assembly on what they could expect from where they were about to ride. He gave them so much detail that they started glazing over immediately. “You’re going to hit an off-camber left that’s real slippery, then you got the rollers and you have to hug the inside on the off-camber right. When you see the sweeping left at the bottom, look out for the…” Pay attention, please. This will all be on the test.

I explained the timing. “This is not a race, and I am not putting it on. I am going to start this timer, and at intervals I will announce the digital reading. At the bottom of the hill, Billy Savage will be holding an identical timer running simultaneously, and when you get there he will announce the time on his display. If you do some simple math, you might be able to determine how fast you had gone down the hill, but that is not my concern. I am not writing anything down, and I do not know your name. I’m just here telling you what time it is. Good luck, and watch out for the off camber turns.”

Most of the people were not interested in a shot at the title, but a half dozen left in a hurry, the rest a little more cautiously. Tommy Breeze lined up and took off down the course where his father had ridden the second fastest time thirty years earlier.

Otis’s radio crackled. “Rider down.” That didn’t take long. Otis, holder of the third fastest run just behind Joe, shouldered his huge first aid pack and rolled off down the hill.

Mike Sinyard was the last to leave, and then I was alone at the top of Repack, contemplating my personal history with the place and waiting for the second wave of riders to arrive. I took up my post where I could scan the approach, and I was finally rewarded by couple of dozen specks on the horizon that I could not have seen without my cheap binoculars.

I saw the riders gathering at the top of a hard climb, and then I saw them drop down the hill toward my position. In five minutes or so I should start to hear them or see the leaders, but ten, then twenty minutes passed, and I was still alone. The only way they could have missed me was if they had turned on the Pine Mountain Fire Road toward Pine Mountain. I couldn’t see it from my position, but it was the only other road that they would have seen after the last place where I had seen them. If they reached the Pine Mountain summit a couple of miles of hard climbing ahead, the other side drops a thousand vertical feet into a deep valley that requires a tough climb to leave.

If they hadn’t turned back by now, they were in for a longer ride than they expected, a potential circuit over Pine Mountain of sixteen miles with 2500 feet of climbing. I wasn’t going to hang out that long, so I started down Repack to spread the news.

I got as far as the first dangerous off-camber drop, and found Otis and a couple of others sitting by a bandaged German journalist, waiting for a fire truck to arrive and take him away. You couldn’t have made a White Castle burger out of the meager amount of meat he had left on the road. I would have spit on a scratch like that and rubbed some dirt on it, then finished the ride. Just to help the guy get some perspective for his story when he got around to writing about his adventure on Repack, Otis and I joked about the time during a night ride years ago when I had lain unconscious for ten minutes on the Pine Mountain road before getting back on my damaged bike and riding Repack in the dark, then went into Celoni’s bar with the road rash on my face and ordered Jack Daniels.

You do crazy things when you are young, and I would never do anything like that now. Why drink bourbon if the bar has single-malt Scotch?

One of the riders comforting the fallen Germalist was a Specialized employee protecting the company’s public relations investment, so I explained to him that the other group was lost and might skip lunch, and by the way, where is lunch? He had a radio and a cell phone and knew some phone numbers, but our location, the locations of the errant flock and of the people at the finish line were not good for cell phones, and no one from the lost patrol on the far side of Pine Mountain was copying on the little radio.

“Well, Ned’s with them, so they’ll survive.”

Ned Overend was leading the group. Even though he went to high school in Marin and has three sisters living here, he took up mountain biking while living in Colorado and never rode Repack, so he didn’t know where it was.

In that case the journalists will still get a story, just a different one. Where’s lunch?

The Specialized guy headed back up the hill, figuring he would follow the other group toward Pine Mountain, and if possible raise them by cell phone or radio. I continued on down, riding at a conservative rate, which was apparently too much use of my (Avid Juicy 7) rear brake. It stopped working a quarter mile from the bottom.

I limped across the line feathering the front brake and found Mike and Billy and a few other riders awaiting the arrival of Ned’s group. I told them we didn’t need to wait for Ned and his crew, especially if lunch was waiting for us. The brake cooled down and started working again, and the others followed me back to a little park in Fairfax. A Specialized truck delivered box lunches for all, while a few of us tossed a Frisbee in a place where I have thrown a lot of Frisbees over the last forty or so years.

Finally the other half of the ridership arrived, having put in a pretty good ride including a lot of the far side of Pine Mountain and then a trip down Repack with no one timing. I had pointed out where Jacquie Phelan and Charlie Cunningham lived, and someone asked me whether Jacquie was around. As far as I knew she was still in Europe, but I was wrong, because none other than she came riding down the street. Attracted by the crowd of cyclists, she investigated and found Ned and Mike and me and discovered that we were accompanied by representatives of dozens of cycling magazines from around the world.

For Jacquie, heaven had arrived in Fairfax.

Jacquie stood up and shouted to the park in general, “HellOOO, anybody here want my autograph?” She produced a sheaf of postcards with her photo in case anyone needed something for her to sign, and started working the crowd like the president at a fundraiser.

I am not making this up.

Just about the same time, Joe Breeze showed up. He had been working on a Fourth of July parade float, and had skipped the trip down Repack. Mike asked Jacquie about Charlie Cunningham, and he and Jacquie decided to ride over to Offhand Manor and say hello while everyone else ate and the Specialized crew loaded bikes onto trucks for the ride back up to the camp. If the journalists wanted local color, they were getting all that and more.

But wait, the day was just getting started. We trucked back up to the camp, refreshed briefly with a cappuccino and a smoothie, and then while Jacquie played “Cripple Creek” on her banjo, Mike Sinyard asked rhetorically, “What do you have to do around here to get someone to go on a ride?”

One way, I thought, was to put me on one of the demo bikes, which was no sooner mentioned than accomplished. A Specialized mechanic put on pedals to match my shoes and tuned the suspension. Without the Gravity Dropper that I use on my own bike, and without even a quick release on the seatpost, I settled for a seat height too low for power on climbs and too high for control on drop-offs, just the way I like it. The bike was ridiculously light, but it had only one bottle cage, and I normally carry two large bottles.

By now a group of riders including Ned Overend had formed around Mike. When the host wants to ride, he will have a host to ride with. Ned said he had a trail suggestion for us to check out. At the moment I didn’t appreciate the irony of the guy who couldn’t find Repack telling the guy with three Tamarancho season passes hanging from his handlebars that he was going to show me a new trail, but who doesn’t want to see a new trail? Lead the way.

We took the Broken Dam trail to the B-17 trail, and I followed a Canadian woman down to the bridge at Iron Spring. She smoked the twisting trail, and while we waited for the others she admitted that the steep drop on the side of the narrow hillside trail made her nervous. Could have fooled me. We regrouped, joined by Mike, Ned and another woman rider as well as a couple of men of undetermined nationality and Billy Savage on his low-tech 1983 Stumpy, and started the slog up to the B-17 junction and then to the fire road where I usually enter Tamarancho on my own rides.

Ned had gotten directions from a local rider who works as a publicist for Specialized, and I knew from the area he described where the trail was. I hadn’t been down it because it didn’t look at all inviting, but I was prepared to learn. A half hour climb from the end of B-17 at the boundary of Tamarancho got us to the unmarked path, and after we followed the faint track through the tall grass, I figured out why I hadn’t ridden it, other than the fact that it is fully illegal. It drops into a canyon with sheer walls, which required plummeting down steep drops hanging off the back of the too-high saddle, followed by another half hour of pushing and thrashing along a narrow, rutted former game trail completely unlike the bike specific singletrack routes in the camp. I am not sensitive to poison oak, and it was a good place to be immune to the lush growth of it that lined the narrow trail.

We had all been out of water for a while, turning back was not an option, and people were getting cranky. The Canadian woman observed that poison ivy is worse than poison oak, because the ivy starts affecting you immediately instead of a few hours later. Okay, but at least our sucky trails suck more than your sucky trails, and poison oak can grow into small trees ten feet tall like the one you’re pushing through right now. So there.

When we finally came out onto familiar ground we found ourselves back on Repack just a hundred yards from the bottom of the hill. With Ned no longer navigating, I directed the group up a short cut that took us back to the camp. My legs were cramping from dehydration and the low saddle height on the hard climbs, and I never cramp.

Cappuccino at camp. That’s the ticket. Every ride that finishes at the top of the hill should have that incentive.

My short route climbs steeply toward Tamarancho and even Ned was reduced to pushing in places, but it was over quickly. Back iatthe camp, I enjoyed Specialized hospitality with a cappuccino in one hand and a smoothie in the other while the other riders slathered on anti-poison oak lotion and continued their discussion of the relative merits of poison oak vs. poison ivy.

The camp was already being dismantled. During my ride on the demo bike, the Specialized mechanic had worked on the brake that had let me down on Repack and my bike hung on the rack next to Mike’s personal ride. After three days isolated from alcohol, the party was wrapping up at Rancho Nicasio, a country roadhouse with a bar, a band and gourmet food, but I’ve been there and done that and I needed to get home and walk the dog.

It was time to say goodbye.

So I did, and I got on my bike and went home, about a fifteen-minute ride. I never did look at the products or see the presentations, and I don’t even know what kind of cool 2009 bike I rode. Sorry about that. I’ll do better next year. I still want to be a real mountain bike journalist and stuff.

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