Dirt Rag Magazine

Blast From the Past: Ross Shafer Interview


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Editor’s note: Reprinted from Dirt Rag issue #102, published in August 2003 (a condensed version also appeared in issue #100). Interview conducted by Joel Kennedy. Photos courtesy of Ross Shafer.


In the mid-’70s, Ross Shafer acquired a serious taste for the bicycle. After building his first frame from the famed Proteus kit, people began asking, “Can you make one for me?” He said, “Sure.” That was almost the beginning, but it took a few more years of research and job experience for this California boy to create Salsa Cycles, one of the most highly regarded and recognizable brands of frames and components in American cycling.

It’s a small business success story that required a lot of commitment and hard work from everyone involved. After shipping many an order worldwide and witnessing many a change in the industry, the decision was made to sell the company in ‘95. At that point, Shafer pretty much left the bicycle industry, but that didn’t dampen the will to create for this homegrown engineer.

I had the opportunity to talk with Shafer in preparation for Dirt Rag’s issue #100 and it was a pleasure. As a veteran of the bike industry and a rather successful one at that, his insights helped answer some of my questions and created some new ones about the business side of a particularly useful and simple machine. —Joel Kennedy


Ross Shafer: Did you just call here?

Dirt Rag: No, it wasn’t me.

Really? Weird. The phone just rang like, 10 seconds ago.

Oh you’re right, it was me. I screwed up, my bad. What a way to get started.

No worries.

Anyway, what have you been up to since you sold Salsa? Can you explain what happened there?

No, I can’t. But, I sold Salsa. And I decided not to work for the new owners after a year and a half. Then I kinda went out on my own. Out of the gate, I was doing some pretty high-end fabrication. I did some electric bike frames that ended up being for a major American auto manufacturer who showed them at the Detroit Auto Show. Then shortly after that auto show, supposedly more work was coming. These were completely non-working prototypes. They were just … auto show fluff.

Were they functioning bicycles?

They were marginally functional electrically; if what the engineers who completed everything were telling me. They just sent drawings for a bizarre kind of frame that they needed, to fit all this goofy bodywork that was gonna be on it and whatnot.

Whoa.

That’s the high dollar world, man. The auto manufacturer was laying down tall dollars for that project. And the company came to me and said, “Hey, we need these two wacky frames built, and we need somebody to find someone who can do this, this and this.” I got some of my buds involved. Some of my old long time bike buds. It was a really cool project, because it was intense. I mean, I got drawings two weeks before this shit was due. Well, preliminary drawings at like three weeks, and I think things were finalized at two weeks. This is the really high-end design world. That’s how they work. They’re always on these outrageous deadlines. The customer ended up saying, “you know, I want to see a change in direction … and we still need it on the show floor.” And I was like, “Oh, OK.” I was on the phone a lot, on the emails a lot, down in the shop a bunch—had to do a bunch of wacky bending. It was exciting.

Cool.

I made way big bucks.

How does that compare to the custom bike building world? You know, regarding the demands on the spot, changing deadlines and stuff.

The one customer—your big corporate entity. In this case where it’s a design firm, they’re pretty much used to working with people like me. They find out what you can do, can you absolutely promise it by then. And they know that they’re probably going to have changes, but that you can only do what you can do and they have to be willing to pay; because they’re charging, who knows? Eight hundred or 1,000 bucks an hour for the project, something silly. They need to be willing to pay for this next day and whatnot, and they go in knowing that. Your average custom bike customer doesn’t. The average custom bike customer, I’ve talked to a lot of them over the years, and I have a strong affection for most of them so I don’t want to sound too negative here. But, the average customer doesn’t think the clock should be ticking while they’re talking to you on the phone, because there’s a set price on the frame. There were many times over the years that I said to somebody, “You know, the more we’re talking about it, the longer it’s taking. Plain and simple, I’m not in the shop if I’m on the phone with you.”

So, the customers know what to expect in the corporate world. More professional, I guess.

To a certain extent. Then there’s corporations that certainly don’t have a clue.

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Are you trained as a designer or engineer?

No. I just kind of taught myself and scraped knowledge off whatever friends I could muster. I’ve never walked through anybody’s shop without doing the mental recording. “Hmm, how did they do that … Ooh, there’s a machine … Oh, they’re cutting that this way … Oh, they’re bending this that way. It’s just acquired knowledge. I mean, designing and engineering tends to have so much basic logic involved. Somehow, there’s a fair amount of people that like my work, and I never went to college.

So, I did that right out of the gate and that was a really exciting project. Then right on top of that I was hired to build some motorcycle frames. It was another pretty exciting project. However, not nearly quite so quick, nor well-paying. I had to make two exact copies of a motorcycle frame that was built in the ’50s, of which there were only four made and there’s none in existence now.

Oh, nice.

It was a model that had seen a lot of evolution over time. I had a frame that was two years older to go by, as well as some history books that go, “Well, this year’s model was adapted from that year’s model, and they changed this and that.” I was doing drawings on top of pictures in books, making copies of pictures and doing drawings on them, just to derive geometry figures and distances from things. Of course, the pictures were never a full, perfect, ninety degree shot.

No, of course not.

Even so, you couldn’t take perfectly scaled measurements. It’s just a guideline. As my old Salsa production manager John said, (he made some oil tanks for this project), “This is more like motorcycle archaeology than it is motorcycle building. Jesus!”

Reverse engineering?

Yeah exactly. Reverse engineering with just skull fragments. So, it took me a long time. It took me about a year to build the two frames; to do all the research and make every little bracket. I mean, we’re talking from the ground up. There’s nothing you can buy.

What about bikes? You build any bikes lately?

No. The only bike I built recently was a super beautiful, lugged, fixed gear road bike for myself. I’ve turned into a fixed gear nut. It’s really all I ride, but it’s got a broken brake lever now. I gotta fix that. I’ve just turned into a fixed gear nut, I love it.

Well, what do you like about it?

It’s so … This sounds way too hippy trippy but it’s so natural … and … simple. It’s the pure cycling experience.

Yeah, you’re one with your bike.

Absolutely. You ride differently. I think it makes you a better rider. I think it makes you understand what your body’s place on the bike is a lot more.

Yeah. Position is important.

It’s just fun. You know how I best explain it to people? I go, “ it’s simple, watch this.” And I walk. I walk and then I stop walking. And they go, “What!?” And I say, “I’m not going anywhere. And watch this.” Then I walk backwards. “Well so what?” I say, “That’s what it’s like, but on a bike.”

Exactly.

Total control man, and you only get out what you put in, and to me that’s always been the fun part of cycling.

Yeah, it is fun.

A little cycle huh-huh, pun intended, of energy in, energy out. And there’s no clickety clackety, no adjusting the derailleur. I know I sound like a whiney shit.

No, man! I’m with it. It’s total assimilation of machine and person.

Joel, this is the truth. Until my brake lever broke a few weeks ago, I had ridden a geared bike two times in two and a half years.

Nice. That’s something to be proud of!

It is! And now I’ve been on my geared bike, maybe 10 times. I haven’t been riding much. I’ve been too busy working on other projects. But yeah, I’m totally into it. I almost never mountain bike anymore. I’m ashamed to say that.

First stem batch, circa 1984.

First stem batch, circa 1984.

What do you think of the industry right now? You been going to the show lately?

No, I didn’t go to the show last year. That was the first time since … 1976 I guess.

Whoa!

That show didn’t even exist back then. But some show or other did. I mean, I used to be one of those guys that was going to like four or five shows a year, cause there’s all those freakin shows in Europe and shit. The travel was fun, but a show is a show is a show.

Yeah, I’m sure. That’s why it’s funny that last year was the first one you missed.

That was cool actually, not going. But I very much missed seeing people like … the Dirt Rag gang. And that’s the truth; having a drink with Maurice …

Yeah, he wanted to know how the farm’s doing.

Oh, the farm is just … totally wonderful.

Right on. So, what do you think about all this technology? I’m assuming you have a bias toward simplicity, but there’s some seriously high-tech stuff being made.

There is some serious high-tech stuff being made, and I’ll be a gizmo nut until the end of time.

Yeah, I like all that stuff in a weird way, too.

I appreciate it and I like looking at it and I like laughing at it at the same time. It’s like—that’s totally cool, it’s so bitchin. They took that design from like, 1895, and made it with new manufacturing methods and new materials and now it really works great …

[laughing]

… and everybody thinks it’s a brand new idea. But, it’s beautifully executed. The last few years I’ve been going to the bike show it becomes more and more clear that you can only market technology so far. People buy into this technology and they get home and find out that their thirty pound gut is still keeping them from getting up the hill as fast as their $4,000 wonder should. It still hangs on the wall. The passion that gets built from true cycling enjoyment, which makes long-time bike customers, doesn’t happen. You know, I go to the bike shows, the last few years I did go, and there’s beautiful fabrication. I go, “God damn, I’d love to be able to put down a bead like that, I’d kill to be able to make that, I’d kill to have had the idea for that linkage.” It’s beautiful, it’s cool, it’s great … I don’t get it. These guys should be making fucking space shuttles, getting paid for their time and doing this for a hobby and really doing it for the passion of doing it.

I know you keep hearing passion, but I don’t talk about cycling without passion.

Well, you shouldn’t really.

It’s involved, and that’s the thing I miss the most. Thank God even those big companies are full of people with passion. You know, if the industry … well, it’s just plain too late now. I’m a pessimist extremo now that I’m an old person. But, if the industry had really embraced transportation, 10 or 15 years ago …

When it was gettin’ hot.

… and really pushed and made it easy for people to buy a transportation bike, we might have a far, far, I mean, immensely healthier bike industry. And the trick stuff would be tricker! Because it would have this healthy industry to feed it.

Instead of the trick stuff being the carnival barker of the whole show.

And what ends up happening … Joel, this is a true story that I’ve told eight billion times.

Let’s hear it!

I was selling a car, and a family comes looking for a car for their college son. They’re very obviously a counter culture, ex-hippy, left wing kind of family. They walk into the garage and they go, “Whoa, look at all those bicycles” and I go, “Yeah, I’m into bikes.” The lady’s lookin’ at one of my bikes and she sees the shifters and the brake levers on the Campy equipped bike that I had in there, and she goes, “You know, I have a friend who’s a cyclist, and she has these too.” That’s the first thing she recognized, those trick parts. And this is a fifty-year-old mom.

She was dazzled.

The lady goes, “Oh, the friend of mine she has a light bike. It’s not made of metal. She’s a triathlete.” “Oh, it’s probably a Kestrel,” I say. “That’s right, it is! How did you know?” “I just know bikes.” And she goes, “It’s such a beautiful bike, but it’s so expensive. I guess you just can’t get into bikes without spending a couple three thousand dollars.” This is a fifty-year-old woman who’s totally into it. It’s her husband’s hobby. He’s into getting old bikes out of the garbage, fixing them up and giving them to inner city kids.

Oh, right on!

So this is the totally amenable couple. The perfect life cyclists, and she’s got this image that you can’t enjoy cycling without spending a shit bag of money.

And that’s why? Because she’s standing in the grocery line and she’s checking out a cycling magazine and she goes, “Whoa, I don’t even understand what they’re talking about.”

I know. Last time I talked to you, you said it’s all about loving to make stuff. So in general, it’s the will to create?

That’s my deal. I love it. Around here, we make our Christmas presents, as a family.

Everybody does? Well, how big is your family?

I have a wife and a seventeen-year-old son. His mother and I are not together, so he’s only here one week out of two. So, it’s a small family and my wife is totally into the farm and gardening.

Sounds pretty bucolic out there.

It is. I’ve turned into a hermit. There’s no reason to leave the farm. I’ve got my shop; I’ve got my office. I go, “Oh god, I don’t want to go to town.” I end up saving all my errands. I go all of three miles to town … once every two weeks.

It sounds like you have the rural life down pat.

It’s … totally wonderful.

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Well, on that note I think I’m going to call this interview. Anything you’d like to add?

I’d like to add, and this is not ass kissing, happy hundredth anniversary issue.

Right on. Thank you.

Because, when I’m saying that people stand in the grocery lines and see the bike magazines, and all that’s being shoved down their throats is this technology and shit, they’re not seeing your magazine enough.

Right on. Well, we’re trying.

For a long, long time, it’s had a lot of soul and far more passion and true promotion of what cycling’s about in it than, well, than some of those other really great magazines that I think are really great, too. Put it however you want.

No man, I appreciate it.

I don’t want to turn people off. If someone comes to me with a job from the bike industry, I’m gonna look at it.

Well, that’s just livin’. But, we try. And getting back, the average person is not Joe NORBA, but they ride too. That’s kind of the approach I take when I tell people what Dirt Rag is about.

Right, he isn’t. And it’s so exciting when the average person starts to tell ya how much they love riding.

It is! That’s who’s out riding bikes.

That’s who’s supporting the industry. So, make sure you’re writing stuff for them, which you guys are.

We’re working on it.

It’s getting your magazine to them, that’s the tough part.

Yeah. Always. Distribution’s a bitch.

It is. Because, they don’t even know to look for it. They look at the other magazines and go, “Magazines are like this,” and they do tend to be that way.

Yeah, people aren’t looking. You have to really try to get their attention.

Keep reading

We’ve published a lot of stuff in 27 years of Dirt Rag. Find all our Blast From the Past stories here.

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Catching up with Charlie Kelly


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Charlie Kelly was one of the early pioneers of mountain biking in Marin County, California, in the late 1970s. He’s seen quite a few things in cycling change over the years, so we asked him to share his thoughts on cycling technology. Originally published in Bicycle Times (our sister magazine) Issue #40. 

I’m way low tech.

I used to build bikes with Gary Fisher and now I can’t even work on my own bike. It’s got so much stuff going on that I’m not familiar with. I’m just happy the guys down at the bike shop treat me like they’re my personal pit crew.

I say the golden age of cycling ended around 1990.

I say that because I see people riding around on old Rockhoppers. Which was a cheap mountain bike the day it was born but it’s a simple, straightforward design, so that if you oil the chain you can ride the bike forever … The early mountain bike movement has left us with so many rugged, simple bikes that you can ride forever.

At this point everything I could have ever imagined is here.

And all the stuff that surprises me, I never saw it coming … Back in the day, we thought “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was suspension?” Well now there is. “Wouldn’t it be cool if the brakes worked?” Well now they do.

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I’ve said this a number of times. I could give up everything except disc brakes.

I started my off -road career in a time when the brakes were obviously the weakest system on the bike and they remained the weakest system on the bike for 20 years. Disc brakes have revolutionized [mountain biking] even more than suspension if you ask me. Although I really appreciate suspension. I go out on a rigid bike for a ride and I go “Wow. I forgot what this was about!”

Innovation has really gone wild.

I’m just thrilled to see how many ways there are to approach something with two wheels

It’s more about people than machinery.

I’m happy the bike works great. I don’t care how it works. I got people for that.

 

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Feature: The Legend of Victor Vicente of America


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Words: Christopher Harland-Dunaway
Photos: Toby Kahn and courtesy of VVA

Victor Vincente of America, a man born as Michael Beckwith Hiltner, stood on a dirt road that runs along the small mountaintop valley he calls home most of the year.

“I mean look at this party!” he implored, as much to me as to the distracted world around us. The valley air shifted in an almost supernatural response. Crickets sang, the dry grass fluttered, unkempt grapevines stood in repose on their trellises, and the pine-covered hilltops locked fingers with a cloud-scattered sky.

“Let me just be really candid and say lots of times I feel like I’ve had just about enough of life. Not a lot more I really want to do. If I can just see my book in print, I’ll be happy. It’s always hard to think about leaving the party—that’s the way I refer to dying—just a party here!”

It’s been an eventful and creative trip for Vincente. He is now 40 as his current self, who began with a long stumbling, victorious and eager 34-year stint as Michael Hiltner. Together, the two personalities combine into a man that is 74. His journey from road cycling to pioneering one of the first mountain-bike frames, and being one of the first mountain bikers, has earned him notoriety, even legend.

Hiltner grew up without his father in the postwar Los Angeles basin. Imagine suburban tract housing purchased by new families on a GI Bill in the arid hills beyond the breezy coast of Santa Monica. Think pomade-structured hair-dos, “that’d-be-swell-Dad” vignettes of 1950s California. Amid an era unrivaled in its conformity and material aspirations was where the fates dropped Hiltner.

At high school he was unequivocally a loner. One of his only friends was obsessed with medieval warfare. Sometimes he played chess, but there wasn’t much to his social life beyond the cowboys-and-Indians games he had outgrown. “Nature Boy,” as his classmates dubbed him, ate lunch alone everyday by a little spring that trickled fresh water from a concrete spout, surrounded by pine trees. He loved it for reasons he wasn’t able to articulate at the time, but now he emphatically says, “It was nature!”

Grasping for nature epitomized the way in which Hiltner made discoveries throughout life—pursing ideas with visceral impulsiveness. So Hiltner decided that he was going to ride his bike to school. High school was an awkward age to be seen riding a bike. He did it anyway, undeterred.

On his ride home, he was chased down by another bike rider, who suggested he try racing. The rider was Dave Waco. Waco was prominent in the Santa Monica Cycling Club. For the ’50s, though, he was an aberration— shaven legs, kit and simply riding a bike, especially as an adult. Vincente remembers the colorful pages of cycling newsprint that Waco obtained from France.

“There was Coppi and Bobet and Anquetil in full color, glistening with sweat with their race-horse legs. We were doing little races, 10 miles; these guys were doing the Tour de France— that was unimaginable.”

Right away, entire lists of regional championships were sucked into the victorious Hiltner dragnet. At the 1959 Southern California Grand Prix, he met a rider from Northern California named Lars Zebroski. Zebroski persuaded Hiltner to come north and train to make the 1960 Rome Olympic team. Italy was the crucible of road cycling at the time. To succeed there, or just make it there, meant everything.

Zebroski was often quiet but intense and irreverent. He masterminded the Olympic effort for Rome, which depended on a two-man time trial at the Olympic trials to decide two of the 14 total roster spots available. Zebroski and Hiltner moved into the Santa Cruz Mountains and created a training hermitage along Tunitas Creek. Here among the redwoods they lived a borderline ascetic lifestyle in which they bathed, showered and washed their clothes in the brisk wintertime creek.

As they forged themselves into Olympians, they depended on cheap cheese from a dairy farmer down the road. The farmer offered his skim milk for free. Zebroski would sometimes go down the road with a peanut butter sandwich to make himself thirsty, so he could chug as much skim milk as possible. Hiltner’s favorite cheap ride food was a carton of concentrated pineapple juice with cottage cheese mixed into it.

The two lived minimally, but richly, and dreamed of the games. The Zebroski-Hiltner two-man time trial smashed the Olympic trials and punched their tickets for the ’60 Olympics. When they arrived in Rome, the city was wilting under an oppressive late-summer heat wave. The Olympic Road Race was a sequence of staccato images of flashing musculature glossed in sweat, drenched in suffering. Hiltner finished 24th.

For a long time, his result was a source of inspiration for emerging American riders; ironically, the judges made a mistake and Hiltner was actually lapped. With the games over, Hiltner, Zebroski and a crew of itinerant American bike-racing expats stayed on. They spent their first evening feasting with the famous Signore Cinelli at his villa in Tuscany. They left with factory-priced Cinellis, the best in the world.

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Photo shortly before the World Championships in Berne, Switzerland.

Hiltner dove headlong into his first season racing in Tuscany. Once adapted, he learned how to sniff out breakaways and use his penchant for suffering to great effect. He won solo one occasion by riding everyone off his wheel in a hilly finale. By the end of his first campaign he won four races, a pioneering accomplishment. The dumbfounded Tuscan press noted, “And who in America could have possibly taught this young man how to race a bike?”

During the winter offseason, Hiltner fell in love with a girl who worked across the narrow street from his house. Her name was Leda. Leda visited Hiltner’s room at the villa, where they talked for hours. By this time, his Italian had gotten pretty good. The two took frequent trips into the countryside on his roommate’s BMW motorcycle, a shaftdrive 500 cc BMW motorcycle. But Hiltner struggled with the awkwardness of his socially cloistered suburban upbringing.

“I remember lounging on the bed with her and feeling loving, when all of a sudden something loud fell somewhere in the villa. It completely ruined the moment,” he recalled. “That didn’t work out there. When the racing season got going I was out by Pisa so I didn’t see her much.”

Hiltner, or Victor Vincente as he stood in his small kitchenette, exhaled wistfully, breaking the Italian reverie. He turned to the photographer and me and asked, “Would you both like some hot cocoa?” I had brought a gallon of milk at Vincente’s request: 2 percent, nonorganic. When he saw the white jug he cried, “Milk! I haven’t had milk in weeks!” As he finished up the hot cocoa, using obscure ingredients such as Chinese five spice, he paused and turned to us, saying, “I usually finish it off with a splash of rum.” He tipped the Kings Bay into each drink and distributed the mugs, leaving the last one, his favorite, for himself. It read “I love crosswords” on the side.

He also has a pair of pajama pants with a crossword pattern. He has taken a pen and written his name through the crossword boxes, and over time, found ways to intersect the names of the many lovers with his. Vincente has had three wives since leaving Italy, and many more lovers. The concept of free love and multiple lovers became a hallmark of the Vincente persona. He considers monogamy more fraught than society generally believes.

“A certain percentage of men, it’s either in their nature or they learn how to focus on one woman and that’s plenty. I never learned that,” he put it.

Hiltner’s Italian adventure started to go flat after he began to use amphetamines while racing. “It wasn’t such a taboo subject, but other teams didn’t mention it outright. They’d joke around on the starting line. ‘Quante pastiglie prendete oggi?’ How many little pills are you going to take today? It’s like drinking a lot of coffee. I’d stay up all night after races sometimes, staring at the ceiling.” After winning four races in ’60 and two in ’61, the season of ’62 was a bust. Hiltner didn’t win any races in Italy and returned to California to recuperate.

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“Would you both like to go for a walk?” Vincente suddenly asked. We nodded and stepped outside into day. There was a spring chill in the air, the last gasp of winter holding on to the hills. Vincente directed us to the trailhead where a small signpost was planted in the ground, which read “VVA Trail.” The Victor Vincente of America Trail. It sounded very grand and heavy with importance. It announced itself as some famous land feature might: Half Dome, El Capitan and Evolution Basin. The trail opposed the grandiose imagery its name evoked. Moss gently covered the stones and tree trunks surrounding us. It was just as he liked it, curving and hugging the terrain, moving with it.

We came to a footbridge he had built over a creek. It was sturdy and made out of slats of wood that had been painted garish colors of yellow, blue and red. The lumber was reclaimed from a group of Hare Krishnas that owned the land in the ’60s.

What transformed a timid boy racer into a prolific creative mind? A meandering chain of events precipitated this radical change, beginning when Hiltner went to Brazil for the Pan-American Games in 1963. Hiltner and his teammates stayed after an uneventful event.

Vincente remembered a special day they left the Pan-Am Village for a training ride: “On one of our first days out training from the Pan-Am Village, [Bob] Tetzlaff, [Tim] Kelly, about a group of six of us roadmen were out for a spin. I remember an intersection and there was a gal around the corner smoking a cigarette and we said hi to her, and she waves back—that’s all it took for me. I made a U-turn. That was my first wife, Naide.”

1965. Michael Hiltner on the way to becoming national road champ. This photo is on Mulholland Drive, at the top of the Sepulveda Pass in Los Angeles.

1965. Michael Hiltner on the way to becoming national road champ. This photo is on Mulholland Drive, at the top of the Sepulveda Pass in Los Angeles.

Their courtship consisted of free meals at the Pan-Am Village, where Naide worked as a switchboard operator. Despite Hiltner’s lack of Portuguese, they fell in love and he asked her to marry him. She said yes. Six months later the two returned to California, where Hiltner continued racing. That year, Hiltner won the U.S. National Road Race, which he regards as his greatest career accomplishment, and he was sent to San Sebastian, Spain, for the ’65 World Championships.

Vincente can’t remember San Sebastian: “I don’t think I finished.” Naide and Hiltner sold everything to live in Italy. They stayed outside of Florence, as Hiltner had as a budding road racer. Vincente prefaced the tale with a deep sigh. “That was the winter that the Arno overflowed its banks and did a lot of damage in Florence. The water invaded basements and historical archives. Did a lot of damage … Naide and I were living just a few miles outside Florence. Just to get into Florence was dangerous because you’d drive through miles of water. It was completely upsetting, so we just decided to go to Brazil instead of braving the winter.”

Without realizing it, the return to Brazil would lead Hiltner into the major doldrums of his adult life, and eventually, the collapse of his marriage. The two took a cruise liner to Brazil and Hiltner signed up with a local racing team. He struggled, was dropped and was left staring down the barrel of an existence outside of bike racing. Naide’s parents got him a job at one of the largest publishing houses in Brazil.

“I had a job. A real job. For three years straight,” Vincente remembered disbelievingly.

The loss of bike riding left Hiltner adrift. That changed when he and Naide encountered a pair of Mormon missionaries on the streets of Sao Paulo, and the couple ended up converting. This was hard to believe—Hiltner, or Vincente, a Mormon at one time? He quickly explained what he found so compelling.

“Well for one thing, if you followed that straight path and you do everything they tell you to and you learn everything that is learnable, eventually, sometime within eternity you can become a god.” He laughed heartily and continued. “Some kind of god, whether it’s the God or an assistant god, I don’t really know, but you could have powers of creation and decision making. So that was a part of it. I guess the organization itself was attractive.”

His time as a Mormon came full circle when he volunteered as a missionary. “I personally baptized four people. By that time I was an elder; you have to be an elder to carry out that function. So that’s part of your steps to becoming a god, eventually,” explained Vincente with a wry smile. “It was good for me in some ways, and it was deadly in others.”

Vincente tithed 10 percent of his earnings at the publishing house to the church. Naide always resented this, because well into their marriage, and in a home for more than a year, the couple could not even afford livingroom furniture. “The church in that way was sort of destructive to our marriage. But for me more personally, it gave me kind of an organization in my life.”

In the last year of their marriage, Hiltner and Naide had a child. Ultimately, they could not assuage his restlessness. All the life had gone out of the marriage, and he wanted to go back to California. The end of their marriage was the beginning of an immensely creative time period for Hiltner, and soon for Vincente. The idea of human-powered vehicles had come to him in Brazil— recumbent bikes encased in a fairing. Before that, though, Hiltner was occasionally struck with creative urges, like when he once did a watercolor painting in the offseason in Italy.

His homecoming to California in 1971 fell against the backdrop of a fizzling hippie movement. He dabbled in psychedelic drugs and marijuana, loved freely and created new things prolifically. “I did open up creatively during that period when I wasn’t racing. I’d always had a creative drive but had always put it on the back burner because of racing,” he said.

First, Hiltner built his human-powered vehicle. He was shocked to discover that others had the same idea and they were racing. He recalled steering problems during once race that led to speed wobbles and a crash into the spectators. Abandoning that, he started designing and fabricating clothes. He made androgynous designs that used sparkling or sheened textiles. Some used wizard-like sleeves, long skirts and monochromatic tie-dye. Eventually, he developed his signature-style overalls that frequently used vivid colors and unusual prints. They seemed to be the most practical outfit for a man inextricably tangled in his love for cycling.

He tried a racing comeback but had lost everything in Brazil. “I thought I would be a few seconds behind my best times up all of the climbs, but I wasn’t. I was minutes slower.” Still, his amazing endurance remained, so he hatched the idea of the double transcontinental record. Hiltner rode from Santa Monica, California, to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and back in 36 days and eight hours, establishing the double transcontinental record. He had a support crew that began with four men but dwindled to two. One decided to take a job in New York, while the other was kicked out when he stole the support car to go visit his family in Nebraska. He made a run for the car when the group had stopped to picnic on a watermelon. The highway patrol had to chase him down.

After long, contemplative days in the saddle, the name Victor began repeating in Hiltner’s mind, and when the ride was over, Mike Hiltner decided to change his name to mark his achievement. That is when he officially became Victor Vincente of America.

In 1979, Vincente made his big discovery. He remembers the moment very clearly. “I was on my bike one day, coming down a canyon road from Mulholland down to the San Fernando Valley, lots of fancy homes up there. I was heading home in the valley, I was going down this paved road, and then the pavement stopped and I was on a dirt stretch of sand and rocks and I got a flat tire. I liked that dirt stretch. The dirt impressed me so much.”

The creative engine began to run hot. “So right after that I figured, well, I don’t want a flat tire riding on dirt. I figured, well, if I put on heavier tires, I can easily do it.”

It began as a practical solution but grew into something else entirely. As we stood along the VVA trail, he took a California bay laurel in hand. “I’ve noticed a certain way that comes about sometimes. You know how on a plant there’s always a growing tip? Well everything grows from right in there. That’s the way I feel about creative ideas, it just sort of comes out. It sort of grows. So I usually find if I just let that happen, anything can grow.”

From there, Vincente developed the Topanga! frame. Topanga! used 20-inch BMX wheels with BMX tires, fitted into what was essentially a road frame. As soon as he had a machine, Vincente began frequenting the Santa Monica Mountains, discovering a network of fire roads he had no idea existed. He routinely found tire tracks that were his own and no one else’s.

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He soon began to hear murmurs of a dirt-riding group in Northern California, about whom he knew little. Bringing more people into the fold of dirt riding proved challenging. Vincente’s solution was to create dirt-riding races, most famously, Puerco!, as advertised in his Topanga Rider’s Bulletin in his own trippy typeface, West World. The races Vincente began to put on were not aimed at establishing a pecking order in the world of dirt per se but to find who else even existed in the world of dirt.

For his first race, a motley crew arrived from Northern California in a double-decker bus. Vincente soon found they were the Northern Californians he had heard of. “Gary Fisher won the race, Charlie Kelly was there, Joe Breeze was second place, then Wende Cragg and Denise Caramagno. They took away the prizes. Most of the prize list!”

Racing aside, Vincente’s primary love of dirt-road riding, or mountain biking as it was quickly dubbed, lay not in racing, but in the wild, in nature, the communion that was possible. “It’s not so much the feeling of the surface, but then there’s bushes right alongside the road, even on a mountain road when it’s paved—I don’t know, it just seems like there’s the road and then there’s wilderness, which seems almost alien. Not much interest in getting into the bushes. But on a dirt road, the bushes are right there, maybe there’s wildflowers, you can stop right there, there’s no traffic, you can leave your bike in the middle of the road, maybe look at the stones, the stones you’ve been riding over or the boulders on the side of the road. It’s more like you’re in the world.”

Vincente was also crafting electronic jewelry, a concept ahead of its time, perhaps too far. He was inspired by gazing at stoplights at night. Vincente’s first electronic jewelry used mercury switches, which were little glass capsules half-filled with mercury. He installed them in wiring boxes with holes drilled out for small incandescent lights that were covered with taillight plastic to emit different colors. The wiring box was worn as a pendant, and whenever it moved the mercury in the switch would splash and intermittently complete the circuit, flashing the lights. Vincente’s design continued to evolve, and he began using lines of LED lights to flash in different patterns. Despite their gradual sophistication, they were hard to sell for $300 apiece.

After years of honing his mountain bike frames, particularly his VVA 26-inch Semi- Custom Dirt Road Bicycle, which he showed us before our walk on the VVA Trail, Vincente moved on to a more permanent art form: coin making.

“Around ’88. This was another one of those instances where I dreamed something up and just had to make it happen. As a legacy and as a medium, [a coin is] more enduring than fabric. Since my teenage years I always enjoyed coin collecting and I had handfuls of favorite coins and I just realized I can make artwork and stamp it in metal and people could hoard it and keep it in a museum.” He laughed. “As with many other dreams I’ve had, inventions I’ve come up with, dirt road bicycles is one, coins another, I dream them up and they’re something new to me. For me it was an independent invention.”

Vincente raises an important question: “Does it matter who was first if you’re creating something for you the first time? From my point of view it’s just a new thing with me. It was just my child, my baby,” Vincente explained.

We reached the end of VVA Trail. The low sun cast long shadows from the 100-yearold walnut trees that surround his dwelling. He threw his leg over his VVA 26-inch Semi- Custom and rode around, the intrinsic delight beaming from him. Really loosened up, he asked, “You guys wanna burn some money?”

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We went inside, and Vincente took a lighter to a dollar bill. “I do this when I become too preoccupied with material ambitions.”

For a man who at times seems to be at a crossroads in age, whose body has begun to fail him in disturbing ways for a lifelong bike rider, the gleam of intellectual glee burns brightly. He now considers bike riding a waste of time and would rather work on his book or absorb others’ creative output.

“Having been perfectly healthy for a long time, just to see the body start to go downhill is hard. Go downhill fast. I like that phrase too. I’m going downhill fast now!” And when Victor Vincente of America does leave the party, it will be going downhill. Fast.

 

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Blast From the Past: The Jacquie Phelan Interview


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Editor’s note: This Colleen Corcoran interview of Jacquie Phelan first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #127, published in April 2007. Illustration by Damara Kaminecki.


Founder of WOMBATS—Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society—Jacquie Phelan (alter ego: Alice B. Toeclips) sleeps beneath an electric blanket in a treehouse named Offhand Manor at the foot of Mount Tam. Her father: a prominent psychotherapist in L.A. Her mother: a soap opera suicide. Her brother: in prison. Jacquie: three-time national mountain biking champion and NORBA co-founder, undefeated in the United States between 1981 and 1986.

Her racing kit was polka-dot tights, pigtails and a Bell helmet with a rubber duck glued on top. She reads and speaks German, French, Italian, Swedish, Spanish and a little Dutch. Around her neck hangs a silver fish riding a bicycle—a reference to the feminist slogan, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” She has been called “the outlaw queen of mountain biking.” Sometimes, she plays the banjo. What follows are Phelan’s responses to questions asked over pasta and a pale ale at her Northern California home.


I’ve been playing on my mountain bike for about 25 years and I never treated it as a job. As the sport evolved, it became more and more like a job to the newer adherents, and now you hear people talk strictly in terms of a job. To me, that seems sort of sad to turn play into work. It’s not play anymore. And ask any rock ‘n roller who signs any contract. They might not love what they do anymore. It can squelch the burning love you have for the scene. To me, the whole essence of bicycling is a manifestation of joy and celebrating freedom … I have two ways of looking at it—one is pathological and one is a play on words. And the pathological one is I feel like I’m allergic to work. And the pun one is just having a play ethic as opposed to a work ethic … Specifically, the people who were doing it when I was doing it were goofing off. The change has been enormous—from bicycling as sort of a frivolous fun and “Gee I wonder who else wants to do this?” to “I’m selling cars.”

In 1981 or so the word got out that the ban on women racing bicycles in the Olympics had been lifted, and I went, oh my god, I could be in the Olympics. That eclipsed data entry. A few years after, I saw “Breaking Away,” and I was pretty convinced that racing was going to be my thing. I was telling people I was a racer even before I started. I was a liar. And mountain biking was in the corner of my eye just at the time my boyfriend, Gary Fisher, was sort of mentoring me in racing. My main event was road racing. In the first part of my road racing career, people hated my guts because I was so strong and kind of a sketchy bike handler, because I was still getting into it. They tried to vote me off the island. Mountain biking came along so I just elected to leave the island. I was a terrible criterion racer. You have to be pretty good at elbow-to-elbow action and cornering and crashes. Every weekend was a road race and then a crit the next, so I’d win the road race and then do okay in the crit. One weekend, there were two crits and Gary said, “let’s go do a mountain bike race,” and I won that race—first woman. Fisher won, then five other guys, and then me. The Whiskeytown Downhill in Redding.

I wore a Bell biking helmet and it looked like a mixing bowl on your head, and on top of that mixing bowl was a toy duck. People were like, “Oh, are you planning on crashing?” And I was like, “No, I’m protecting my college education.” That one mountain bike race made me realize that this bunch of people is really more fun. At the countdown to the start, I developed a flat tire and said, “Wait a minute; wait a minute. I’ve got a flat.” And the announcer said, “Wait a minute. Can we wait?” And that was unlike the roadies who were sort of cold.

I kept gunning for the Olympics and totally didn’t make it, but I went to the national time trials. I had the memory of this amazing mountain bike group, and then it was clear that I wasn’t going to be selected for any kind of road team. And there’s a little politics of who likes you and what coaches are you gonna sleep with, and with mountain biking there was an absence of that cigar smoking … I was 25 when I started bike racing. I was older. The talent was in the early 20s and more malleable with the coaches, who were sometimes in need of a blowjob or two, ‘cause that’s the other game, at least on the women’s side. There’s sexual politics. There’s political politics. There’s money politics, probably geopolitics too. Disgusting.

Getting away from my parents in college at Middlebury was really, really good. I came from a chaotic family, and that’s where actually a lot of athletes come from. They pound their rage into the racquetball or whatever. It was a tiny, tiny campus back then. It was kind of an unheard of place—small classes, great teachers, decent skiing, Eric Clapton and Grateful Dead out of every window. It was kind of the world’s longest slumber party. I was no longer the bored kid in the back of the class and was busting my butt to maybe get Cs. I didn’t know how I was gonna get there from Burlington. I hitchhiked. I barely went home. I was just kind of there hanging by a thread.

When I moved to San Francisco after college, I crashed at my friend’s house and got work at a vet clinic where you didn’t have to change your clothes. I didn’t have a clue that I could’ve started working at an ad agency, but you had to dress a certain way. And this primitive part of me didn’t want to wear clothes to coordinate and wear makeup and nylons, and because I had an idea that I wanted to go to vet school. I took an easy job. You didn’t have to look a certain way. I had a night watchwoman job, and so I had all afternoon to make up all kinds of mischief. And in the late ‘70s in San Francisco, there was folk music and great theaters. Basically, it was like being on a smorgasbord. And to cover the rent I was a nanny since I’d nannied in Europe. So that meant the money I earned would cover food and whatever, and I owned my time.

I was going to City College too, because the hours of working at the vet hospital were nine in the morning until noon, then all afternoon off, then go back to work at seven at night and stay the night. So that meant the whole afternoon was mine to sign up for botany, singing, chemistry—I kept tackling chemistry and physics for years—so I call this second helpings, because I got my Bachelor of Arts in French at Middlebury. And then like this City College was free—literally free back then, and I love school. I never did master physics, but I kept bashing my head against the wall thinking, well, maybe a different teacher. Then I met Fisher, moved from the city to Marin, tried to stay in the county after we broke up, was a nanny in Mill Valley. That didn’t work, and me being 26—really lonely. And they were not my breed anyhow. They were just these yups with sports cars and back and forth to the city for something. And then hanging out at the bars at night, and I’m not a bar person. So back to the city. And then I did gardening in exchange for a room because I was still allergic to paying rent. So I gardened right next door to City College. Then the bike thing came along, and I won enough to get 100 bucks here, 100 bucks there. It was a tiny little bit. Right then the magazines—you read those things and you go, you know, anybody could do better than that. And guess what, anybody can. So I just started writing for California Bicyclist and Cyclist. So then I’d get the 500 dollar check, or for Cyclist I’d get the 1000 dollar check, and I could live a year on 2000 bucks. Since then, a couple straight jobs—teaching inner-city kids in Oakland.

My college magazine wrote a cover story about me: “But can she get a job?” It’s a long long, long, long pathetic story. You know what he asked when he took the picture? He was like way far away when he took the picture, and he goes, “So what went through your head when the doctor told you that you had cancer?” And I just thought, that was a low blow, waiting for that flash across my face. Being so far away he was just being disingenuous … I didn’t think the article was that good. It has that queen for a day kind of sob thing.

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The thing is I’ve never had a straight job, except for maybe that vet job. I’ve had just a very few run-of-the-mill paycheck kind of jobs. I can’t believe how much energy you spend … Your time card—like half your job is tending your fucking time card. And I can’t believe that. It’s like, oh shit, they don’t keep track of it so I have to keep track of it? Then I not only have to keep track of it, but I have to submit it, make sure they get it, justify it with the paycheck I get. Then I go, well, okay, I’m gonna bill them for the time I’m babying this because I didn’t plan on having to follow the little chit that tells what school I work at and the hours and all that. It’s bizarre.

Tons of browbeating from the parents. In fact, middle of college when I declared a French major, they kind of withdrew check writing privileges. I certainly wasn’t going to get work. I guess you could get a loan, but I don’t think I was even sophisticated enough to do that. With AP classes, I only had to stay there a few years, and that was enough for Middlebury to give me a diploma.

I was from an extremely fucked-up family. I was on my own when I got to college. I was definitely on my own when I stopped premed. And then being in the city doing the nanny thing saved me a shitload of money. I was at work when Harvey Milk and Moscone were shot, and I was at work when it happened. And I thought, oh my god, this is the wild west. And I was around when JFK was assassinated. My mom actually shot my dad. I decided I didn’t want to be a part of the sick culture that breeds insanity, greed, jealousy, drug use, domestic abuse, murder. I wanted out. And also when John Lennon was shot … those things really hit home.

I’ve kept a journal since I was a very young kid, mostly as evidence against my parents. They’re a mixed up bunch … My Dartmouth brother’s in prison—troubled alcoholic, drug addict. There’s something about the mental hospitals closing in the ‘70s, and now it’s prisons where people go. In 1968 when Ronald Reagan was governor of California, he did something because on a certain day the nuts were let loose. And that was like the day that homelessness was invented.

I know that if I had been a doctor, I’d be the most miserable person on the planet. It was a big expectation … I think the doctorly thing I do is honoring the Hippocratic Oath. First, do no harm. Although I do play banjo—in some circles, that’s considered a deep insult.

It always seemed like on a bike you just don’t do any harm. On a bike, it’s the ultimate peace-mobile. When everything is going whack, just get on a bike. Until I got a bike, I was using Muni transfers. What a low life. Eventually I got a bike. Then I was even more on time. It was during the biking in San Francisco that someone said, “You should race.” And ever since then I’ve used that same line whenever I see a girl on a bike. I say, “Have you ever thought of a career in racing?” At least one person told them.

WOMBATS came about because of the absence of any kind of voice for women in mountain biking. I wish that I’d been squawking earlier for the years I’d been winning all the races. Prizes for me didn’t even come close to what the tenth place guy got. Why not? Besides, we’re post Title 9. It would be nice if we could sort of climb out of bed on the right side. The guys were like, “What do you mean? You’re like one of the only women doing it. You’d be taking all the spoils.” So since I can’t change guys’ minds—I thought, well, why not create a women’s scene that’s not competitive and sort of nurture the novice. I never really knew if it was because of the video images, the media impressions, the macho lexicon, the fact that they’re not taken seriously in a bike shop—why women are not as interested or are intimidated by it. That’s why WOMBATS endeavors to show a pudgy, slow-moving animal as its mascot, because it’s actually a lot safer than it’s made out to be.

One of my minors was women’s studies in college. And I thought, this is a great place to do something for women and make up the rules. And I would never say “women only” because to me it brings back the 1950s Jim Crow laws. So I made up a funny acronym—something that would make people laugh. And the tea … A century prior to the women’s lib movement, the bicycle was one of the tools for women getting out of the house and away from the patriarchy. Anything that any woman does as a conscientious feminist is standing on at least three generations, and this generation is kind of in denial for any kind of action because supposedly we got it all. Because we didn’t.

For my clinics, I’ll get between three and eight people, and I have everyone tell me one thing they want to know how to do. And I teach ‘em how to do a trackstand, which is just standing on your bike without putting your foot down. That pretty much covers the 110 bucks. You start by cheating, leaning the front wheel against something, and you kind of get used to the wiggle waggle as the bike kind of jitters. You jitter too. It’s always been women, but ever since Sunset ran a story on me doing this, I’ve had guys. It’s great. Guys are great to teach. In the early days, they wouldn’t pay me for anything.

If I passed a fellow in a race and he figured out that it was a woman that went by, they might kill themselves trying to get by you—but we all started together. We didn’t have a women’s category and a men’s, so it was mixed up. I rode drop bars, so the bike stuck out. I probably have a fairly feminine ass. I ride like a guy, but my legs were as fast as all but a few of the guys. And if the guy ahead of me didn’t want to be passed, he might go so fast that he would go faster than he was able and get hurt. Well, I can easily tell by the way their shoulders are moving or whatever and the way the bike is starting to misbehave, they’re in over their head simply because they’re going too fast. So back off, let the accident happen, and go around, and apologize. Because people will go faster than they ought to when they have issues, whatever the issue is. And guys do it with each other. That’s why guys come back all bloody from a fun ride.

The great thing has been getting to own my time from post-college to the present. Thirty years of not having to get up early, put on makeup, put on nylons, race out the door, be in a car, think about a mortgage, hate my thighs, hate my job, hate my boss, wait for that two-week vacation. I’m not a drug addict. I’m not in prison. I’m making individuals just love riding their bikes because they know they can wear dumpy-looking clothes. They can get off when they want. It’s not about the latest bike. It’s about whether they like riding, whether it’s safe to ride. And it’s OK not to wear toe clips, because there’s this unbelievable peer pressure to just laugh at each others’ stuff. And I think women do it differently. We seem to embrace a broader expression of individuality.

I’m the queen of making lemonade out of lemons. And, you know, there’s an awful lot of lemons, and lemonade is pretty damn good. And then if you get sick of that, there’s lemon curd, lemon pie, lemon tart, lemon sorbet…

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We’ve published a lot of stuff in 26 years of Dirt Rag. Find all our Blast From the Past stories here.

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Feature: The Voice of Amanda Batty


Words by Chris “Bama” Milucky
Photos by John Shafer

ABatty-DR-CoverOriginally published in Issue #187

Amanda Batty gained a degree of notoriety [in 2015], not because of her race results as a professional downhill and enduro racer but because she abruptly resigned from a position as an online columnist due to sexism, double standards and misogyny often found within our industry and its media.

As a supporter of women’s rights and equality in a male-dominated sport, she was appalled by the disrespectful feedback, lack of respect and outright verbal attacks she received for standing up for herself and women in general. Amanda considers herself outspoken and opinionated, yet she’s also funny, clever and smart. While some may say she’s a man-hating feminist, she doesn’t want to wear that label: she considers herself the voice of equality for all individuals and a spokeswoman for mutual respect amongst everyone in our sport.

Shortly after her announcement, I took a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, to unlock some of these misogynistic mysteries and see what Amanda had to say about her current situation and that of the bike industry in general when it comes to equality. Her heart was still black and blue from the breakup, and it showed during this candid and insightful interview where nothing was held back.

CHRIS MILUCKY: Are you a feminist?

AMANDA BATTY: A feminist? Sure, if you want to label it. I prefer “humanist” or even “sane,” but sure, let’s call me a feminist. But if I am, can we say that I’m probably the most liberal, wide-open feminist on earth? I don’t usually like to describe myself as a feminist because I don’t subscribe to a lot of the modern exclusions that mainstream feminism seems to be all about, and I also dislike compartmentalization.

CM: So what’s it like?

AB: It’s just like any other label. Troublemaker, bisexual, self-educated, felon, professional athlete, you name it, they’re all labels. I’ve fallen under a lot of labels, but I prefer to be seen as a human, as an individual. Being labeled as, or identifying as, a feminist is just one more way for people to sum me up in a word. But it’s not that easy. Just like “sexual violence survivor” doesn’t sum me up, I’m not branded by my history as an elementary math genius. Would I waltz around claiming to be a high school spelling bee champion? No, and “feminist” falls under that. It’s a manipulator for someone else’s perspective. That’s what being a feminist is like. It’s not really like anything, I guess. It’s just being of an opinion that everyone is equal.

CM: You don’t really hate men then?

AB: I don’t hate men even a little. In fact, I often prefer spending time with guys. Most of my friends (up until recently) are male, and I’m closest with my brothers out of all my siblings. I’m a humanist, and every individual is equal in my eyes.

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CM: What’s the difference between viewing women as physically sexy versus strong and athletic? Aren’t they both judging the body?

AB: I think sexy is interpretive, even physically. If you get 10 people in a room, their description of physical sexiness is going to differ. I find athleticism sexy. I think physical, athletic prowess is powerful and confident and really sexually attractive. But do I want to be marketed a product with a guy in half shorts and sweat dripping down his 12-pack? No. A product should be able to stand on its own for me to buy it.

I think confidence is sexy. I like moustaches, strong arms and really work-hammered hands, and I despise beards, man-buns and loud, jerkish assholes. Is it all physical? No! Those physical and behavioral markers are signs of a human who appreciates hard work. I like women who are strong: emotionally, physically and mentally. I respect a girl who can kick my ass on a bike and who thinks for herself. That sexiness has nothing to do with physicality or visual stimulation. So, long-form answer? No. Athletic is definite: it’s muscular and it’s capable. Strong is also definite. Sexy can vary between body sizes, types, clothing, hair—you name it.

CM: Why did you leave your writing position within the bike industry?

AB: I left because of the larger issue of community sexism and overall censorship. If we truly aim to grow the sport (instead of allowing it to stagnate into a political mire of what can and cannot be said), [we] need to allow dissenting opinions. And it’s OK, honestly—I am unpredictable. But I don’t play by anyone’s script of what’s appropriate and I don’t respect authority. Authority is earned, not given, and if you want to earn authority, you treat everyone with respect. I don’t respect hierarchy or chain of command, either.

It came down to a decision for me: Do I maintain my integrity and speak up as honestly as I’m able to about the issues that really plague us as an industry, or do I gloss over what I’m really feeling and churn out worthless, mindless, commercially valuable content? And the decision wasn’t easy, but it was clear. I write best when I’m passionately involved, and I stopped caring and my writing suffered. The line “never push an honest person to the point where they no longer give a fuck” is one that I’ve come to identify intimately with.

At the end of this all, it doesn’t matter if my career crashes and burns inside of the bike industry. I’m not racing to pay the bills, and I have a good education, a whole slew of skills and a creative mind. I work my ass off; I’m passionate as hell. I have insight to offer the world, and there’s value in that. My experiences matter, and even if they help one person or they change one tiny thing that creates a ripple effect, then my life is worth something. My existence has value.

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Despite the effort made to include female perspectives, a lot of hate is directed at women. I can fight like nobody’s business, but at the end of the day, there has to be ground gained in the fight. For every inch of ground gained in the effort towards equality, we jump 10 miles in the opposite direction. Is the fight futile? Fuck no. I’m still getting messages from women who saw me as someone they knew would stand up for them, and that counts for something.

Women don’t need a champion, but we do need fearlessness, and whether it comes from stupidity, brain damage or pure rage at the status quo, my fearlessness was something they could count on. They still can. Is it always based in logic? Hell no. I’m human, but is it there? Yeah. It always will be, but it’s time for me to fight on a larger stage, and my role might be playing the outlier. I may be the borderline of behavior for women to fall within, but if I can push that boundary line or even blur it to where a woman is judged less harshly because she’s not quite as crazy as I am, then I’ve accomplished something. She now has more room to make change happen.

CM: Do you still care if men are misogynists?

AB: Well, I honestly don’t give two shits whether or not someone is a misogynist, to be honest. But the second a person’s actions (or inaction) affects my life, I’ll throw down. If a guy (or girl) wants to live in peace and secretly hate everyone or even a select group, that’s on them. But if someone’s hatred bleeds over into a sport I’m involved in and they’re given a platform to influence young minds about hatred and discrimination, that’s when I’ll step in. Why? Because those small influences, that tone, that undercurrent, it affects how I’m treated, even in small ways. It affects how we see sexual objectification, it affects how girls are promoted into leadership positions, into the jobs they’re offered and the ones they accept. It affects all of us that are compartmentalized into one box because of our gender.

Like an open wound, once it’s cut it bleeds into what’s available for women and girls, the opportunities we earn as athletes and the legacy of women in sport overall. If we accept that, suddenly, we’re accepting less than our best. And that’s not what mountain biking is about. So my message to the sexists and the misogynists is this: go ahead and be a hater—I don’t care. But the second it affects my life, or me, I will light you up. If I’ve done something wrong as a person, then let me know. Tell me so I can fix it, but if I’ve done something you feel is “inappropriate” for my gender, just go right ahead and fuck off.

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CM: Why not just live independently in apathy? Can’t you find your own happiness and hunt it ferociously as if you must kill and consume it for survival?

AB: In a sense, I’ve tried that. I tried to ignore the obvious, but I was born a fighter. Sitting back and watching the world burn is OK for some people, and that’s fine, but apathy isn’t for me. Passion is like nuclear energy: I can either bury it or release it, but either way it comes out. It can either manifest positively or negatively, but it’s my responsibility to decide which one it will be.

Personally, the whole happiness search is overrated. I don’t think happiness is something to be “gotten,” but rather it’s a state of mind that’s maintained through all sorts of storms. I’ve hunted happiness, and all I found was regret because I wasted so much goddamn time. But I found that, personally, freedom and passion makes me happy. The freedom to pursue my passion, be it bikes, traveling, art, knowledge, curiosity. And just like every other human, I want to share that with everyone I come across. Sometimes I really fuck it up, though. Despite being a writer and reader and talker, I’m a terrible communicator.

What I want is girls and women to dispel this bullshit myth of perfection, this expectation. Whether it’s clothes, behavior, body type, looks, education, life pattern, etc., I want to blow the doors wide-open. It’s OK to make choices that have negative impacts and still be a great human because that’s what we are: humans. My belief is that it’s OK to try and fail—fail a lot. You don’t get that drive to fail from apathy. It comes from passion and a desire to learn, this inherent curiosity. “What will happen?” is the question I want to know.

CM: What should we do? How can we respect women for their minds and hard work, yet still appreciate their beauty in the bike industry?

AB: For me, when I look at another person and find myself valuing them more for their appearance than for their humanity, that’s my sign that I’m too caught up. And it happens for different reasons. I’m not going to say that we aren’t physical creatures attracted to pretty things—that’s why sex sells so well. But humans aren’t objects; other people don’t exist for our satisfaction. If we stop behaving as though they do, maybe companies will stop selling that. Maybe companies will stop throwing their money at people who are willing to do “whatever it takes” to be famous and instead start supporting people who give back to the industry and have actually invested in a sustainable future for our sport.

When people stop buying because of objectification, companies will stop using it. But it takes people standing up, speaking out and saying, “Wait a minute, this isn’t right,” and it starts with recognizing our own humanity. I don’t want to be valued solely for my physicality, and if I feel that way, others feel that way, too. And that means there’s more beneath the surface to a lot of people who are just like me: human. Complex, interesting, smart, comical, and that creates a connection that stems from curiosity. Does it make them any less physically attractive? Of course not. I think we just have to remember that people are people; everyone is an individual.


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Blast From the Past: The Bobby McMullen Interview


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Editor’s note: Then-editor Michael Browne interviewed blind mountain bike racer Bobby McMullen for Dirt Rag Issue #122, published in July 2006. We’re happy to report that McMullen is still shredding. You can follow him via Facebook or rideblindracing.com.


The act of riding a mountain bike requires amounts of athleticism, coordination, balance and attention that most people simply don’t have. If you narrow that relatively small class of people down to those willing to race bikes downhill, on technical and physically demanding courses, that group gets even smaller. Now, take that select portion of riders and ask around for the blind guy. Bobby McMullen is the one who’ll respond with a resounding “Hey bro!”

Blind since 1991, Bobby McMullen is in a class of his own. A former diabetic and two-time kidney/pancreas transplant patient, Bobby also happens to be one of the most positive and enthusiastic riders on the race scene. I had the chance to catch up with McMullen at the 2006 Sea Otter Classic, where he raced downhill and cross-country on an extraordinarily muddy race course.
—Michael Browne

Dirt Rag: Fill us in. Why are you here at Sea Otter, and how is it possible to ride blind?

Bobby McMullen: My name is Bobby McMullen and I’m here because I ride for the WTB/ Fox/Santa Cruz team. I’m a blind downhiller and cross-country racer who rides about a bike length or two behind a guide. I’m blind, but I guess the technical definition is that I’m visually impaired. I don’t see out of my left eye at all, and my right eye is 20/1200 with the best correction lenses I can find. I tell people it’s like looking through a rolled up piece of paper with Vaseline over the end. Or a really bad Monet if you’re one to know Monet.

DR: Have you always been blind?

BM: No, I lost my sight 15 years ago. I was born a diabetic and I lost my vision to proliferative diabetic retinopathy. Since I was in law school at the time that I lost my vision, I figured the next best thing would be to join the U.S. Disabled Ski Team as a downhill racer, which was a sport I was heavily involved in prior to my blindness. I did some National Championships and did pretty well even at the World Cup level. But then my kidneys failed for the first time, which forced me onto the kidney dialysis machine, which is no place to be. I got my first of two kidney and pancreas transplants in 1997. With the new pancreas, I was no longer a diabetic. Unfortunately, it shut down in 2001, and I went back on dialysis for another two years, waiting for another kidney and pancreas. Since age 18 or 19, I have found cycling to be a great training tool for ski racing and other sports. As a visually impaired athlete, I found riding down the ski courses on a bicycle was a great way to build the athlete and guide relationship.

DR: How did you decide this was something you wanted to pursue?

BM: I’ve always been pretty aggressive in the way I live, and I was determined when I lost my sight not to give that up. I knew I’d have to do things differently. I’d heard about disabled athletes who ride with guides and I just made the decision that I was still going to ride my bike and ski.

After my second transplant, I swore I was going to take it easy and slow down a bit, but I thought I could take those skills I’d learned as a downhill ski racer and combine them with the little bit of riding I did as training. I started to do it for cross-country races, and in 2004 I came to my first Sea Otter Classic to give it a try. That’s when I really fell in love with it.

DR: How do you describe the experience to someone who’s never seen you race?

BM: Effectively, my guide needs to be about a bike length or two in front of me. I need to have some sort of contrast from him—once he gets outside of two bike lengths, I’ll lose him in the grey that is the background. If the course is muddy and my guide is wearing dark clothes, he’ll be camouflaged out there.

I know I’m going to get knocked around every time I ride, but I’ll listen to the wheels spinning on hard ground or the sludge of him hitting mud.

It’s a very audible experience for me—when it’s time to shift and go up a hill, my guide tells me “shift, up, up, up!” “sit back” is a big one this weekend since it’s so muddy.

“Hup, hup hup” means fast, and I repeat things like “go, go, go” “I’m on, I’m on” “I’m clipped in … ”

It’s like a really bad game of follow the leader. I’m back there, and he’s yelling “left, left,” and I’ll yell “I’m left, I’m left … ” My voice as a reference lets him know that I’m on. When he doesn’t hear me, well, I could be somewhere else. But I’ll also tell him. “I’m down. I’m off.”

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DR: How does a good guide communicate a turn?

BM: It’s all in the inflection. A medium right is “right … right … right” If it’s a sharp narrow turn, it’s “slow, rightrightright.”

The tough thing is that once you’re halfway through the turn, your guide has to start planning the next one. He has to think out loud and verbalize those commands before I get to it. The guide is thinking it, and I’m doing it. “rightright, shift, up, up, up … ” Downhill is “straight, straight, straight, stay off the brakes.”

The guide’s job is to keep things really basic and simple. He commands my technique rather than the texture of the trail. If it’s slippery and there are a lot of holes, he’ll say, “Stay back, pull up. Feather that front.”

DR: What’s the cue for “drop” or “jump”?

BM: “Pull up.” [laughs] You have to understand that I walk it all first. I’ll feel it all. I’ll touch the landing to see how long the run-out is. I’m working on jumping, but it has to have a perfect landing. With the right run-out, I can do about two bike lengths. Drops, I’ll go five or six feet. I’ll ride my V-10 and just pull back.

DR: You’ve described hearing as a large part of the experience. How does a full face downhill helmet impact your riding?

BM: Well, different helmet styles are certainly more advantageous. This Giro helmet has vented slots that help me hear pretty well. I’ve also used a Troy Lee helmet and that seems to provide the maximum amount of protection you can ask for. I try to find the right balance between protection and hearing ability, because there are definitely times when I’ve stuck it face first in the mud or into a tree.

My guide Mark Weir uses an open face helmet on the downhill course so that I can hear him, but I just have to make sure I’m talking loud enough for him to hear me.

The cool thing about Mark is that we don’t do any yo-yoing. The gap between us is so consistent that it brings confidence. He’s always right there, and that’s the first time I’ve experienced that consistency.

It’s an amazing education to ride with someone at that level. I wish everybody could have that experience—not to ride blind, but to ride with a professional rider.

DR: These bikes you’re riding are considered some of the more visually appealing bikes around. With your blurry, pinhole view of the world, how do you appreciate and understand them?

BM: I’ll get my nose right up on it and follow the lines. I once did the bike portion of a triathlon for challenged athletes, and one of the guests was Robin Williams who’s a huge bike fan. He took his time with me and we started talking bikes. I asked him, “Do you mind, Robin?” in reference to his bike. And I just started stroking the thing and I got my nose up on it and I could hear him laughing in the back when I got to the seat. But I just had to tell him, “Sorry Robin, I’m not sniffing your seat.”

But I love bikes. I love the lines of the Nomad, and I love the feel of the downhill bike. Understanding a bike is almost like going through the buffet line—I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hit my head on the sneeze guard. I do what it takes, and I use what I have.

DR: You have a great way of looking at life.

BM: Thanks. I credit my parents, my family and my friends for who I am. My dad and mom are some of my best friends. I have the love of my life who shares the same passions.

Some people have asked me if I got depressed when I lost my sight, and I said, “I don’t know what that word means. I’ve never had a depressed day.” So I challenge all the doctors in the world to figure me out.

Someone asked me the other day what I did when I learned I was going to lose my sight. I went home, looked at my parents, looked at my dad and said, “I’m fucking going blind,” and I cried my eyes out. I put my hands on my knees, cried a bit more and said, “let’s go get something to eat.”

So many clichés apply to my situation. It’s not what you have, it’s what you do with it. You can fall down seven times, but you get up eight. It just comes down to making the decision to do what you want, to hang out with the people who put a smile on your face—because all of these things, these transplants and procedures, wouldn’t mean a thing to me if I couldn’t keep doing all of this, with the people who are here with me now.

And here I am, a blind guy who’s going to go crash his way down the downhill course.

[ Ed note: Bobby tumbled his way down the Sea Otter Downhill course to a 17th place finish in the Sport 40–49 class. Shortly after his event, race officials installed a bridge over the mud hole at the top of the trail, where many riders gathered in awe of McMullen’s audacity. After Sea Otter, he set out to race across America in the 2006 RAAM event with Team Donate Life, a team of eight disabled riders.]

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Bobby’s Guide, on Bobby

Dirt Rag: Tell us about Bobby.

Mark Weir: Bobby? Well, he’s blind, and I know he can’t see a damn thing. But I didn’t always know this. One time, we were doing a photo shoot for a U.K. magazine and I was guiding him through the same bermed turn over and over. I was giving him the same commands, “left, left, left … ” and after the fourth time, I figured he’d get used to it, you know, get familiar with the turn. So on that last run, I just stopped giving him commands. And you know what? The guy’s really blind! I lured him right into a big stack of brush.

He carcassed, and I laughed at him, cause that’s the kind of relationship we have. He said, “Look dude! I can’t see anything. You can’t do that!”

I call him the highest maintenance blind guy I’ve ever met. And I’m not sure what he calls me, but I’m sure he’d say it with the same affection. Sure he’s high maintenance, but you have to be when you’re blind and you don’t have a dog or a cane. All he has is his bike, me and anybody else who’s willing to ride with him.

And he’s a helluva rider—he just broke his personal record at the Spring Thaw in Ashland, Oregon.

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Personality: Andreu Lacondeguy


Words and photos by Malcolm Mclaws
From Issue #187

Andreu Lacondeguy made his Crankworx debut in 2006. His arrival in Whistler, British Columbia, as a fresh-faced, clean-cut unknown was an introduction to someone who would become one of the most well-known and colorful riders ever. This is Little Andy.

Little Andy

With a riding style that has always been more motocross- and freeride-influenced than classic slopestyle, it would only take two short years for him to step up to the top tier and claim the slopestyle title at Kokanee Crankworx in 2008. That same year he also became one of only three riders to land a double backflip on a mountain bike in competition at the Snowboard Big Air World Cup in Graz, Austria.

He has continued to push boundaries within the sport through contests and videos, always letting his riding do the talking. This year he won the Whistler Crankworx Whip-Off World Championship.

At just 26 years old with “Love Dirt” tattooed on his fingers, “Little Andy,” as his friends call him, has a distinct attitude about where freeriding should be headed. He has won a lot, from Crankworx to Rampage, but still remains unsettled and wants to change the course of mountain biking.

To accomplish this, he has teamed up with Kurt Sorge, Graham Agassiz, Nico Vink, Makken Haugen and Nick Pescetto to form the Fest series (see video below), an innovative new series of week-long, invitation-only freeride sessions around the world, where only the riders involved vote on the best line, trick and jump, yet there’s no official winner or series champ.

I GREW UP IN A LITTLE TOWN IN EL MONTSENY IN CATALUÑA [CATALONIA], SPAIN, ONE HOUR NORTH OF BARCELONA. It’s a small town at the bottom of the mountains, so when I was a kid a bike was how I got around. I started riding cross-country when I was 10 and was a regional champion. Then I moved to BMX racing at 11. From there it was on … I learned how to jump a bike, and that changed everything!

When I was 12 I started downhill racing—that’s when I first mixed in my BMX skills with mountain biking. Racing was sick, and it’s how I learned to ride a bike. I got a contract with Team Maxxis when I was only 15 and traveled with the national team to learn from the old guys. I was national champ and won a few European Maxxis Cups. I even have a few photos with Josh “Ratboy” Bryceland and me on the podium.

I did over 100 races, and going fast was the main goal. That’s how I still ride—I love to go fast. I think I’m still a racer, but I’m not racing the clock or others. I’m racing the hills.

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I WAS FAST IN DOWNHILL AND SLALOM BUT NEVER FOCUSED ON ANYTHING. Downhill racing was huge for me; I grew up racing the Spanish nationals and some European races. I looked up to Steve Peat and Sam Hill, and I was trying to look and ride like them—I think I still do.

SOCAL IS MY FAVORITE BMX SPOT FOR SURE. I always rode dirt jumps and skate parks on my 20-inch bike. I still do. BMX is super fun and easy to ride. I had some dream seasons in Southern California with BMX dirt-jump legends T.J. Ellis and Cory Nastazio that I’ll never forget.

CAM ZINK IS ONE OF THE GUYS I RESPECT THE MOST. I think that he is by far the most confident rider to ever ride a mountain bike. He pushes the sport more than anyone I know, with the biggest 360 drops and flips over some crazy jumps. He’s pushing the sport in the right direction, just going huge.

MOTOCROSS IS MY FAVORITE THING TO DO. I just love riding a dirt bike—it’s the most badass machine ever made, and it’s just insane what you can do with it. I got into moto when I moved next door to Edgar Torronteras—he’s a freestyle motocross legend with more than five X Games medals, X-Fighter wins, European Supercross and motocross wins. So as soon as I met the dude there was no way back. I’ll be burning gas forever!

WHEN I FIRST SHOWED UP AT WHISTLER [FOR CRANKWORX], I JUST WANTED TO SEND IT AS HARD AS I COULD. I was 16 years old and I didn’t care much about anything. My hair was long and dirty. I was hung over and riding in a Misfits T-shirt. I won qualifiers and then overjumped the biggest step-down on the mountain when I tried to flip it and landed in the hospital. Those days were crazy, and we were all a little out of control.

I’VE NEVER SEEN MYSELF AS A CONTEST RIDER. I have managed to get a Crankworx gold, an X Games medal and a Rampage win. Contests are just too restrictive for me. I don’t think that they are what riding means to me, so I’m not into them anymore.

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X GAMES WAS CRAZY. I knew that the course wasn’t going to be fun and went there injured with a broken finger and two bruised knees. When I first showed up in Munich, Germany, and saw the course, I knew that it was probably going to be a one-time chance to get an X Games medal. The course was so horrible that no one was able to ride the whole thing on the first day.

Finals got out of control because of the wind and all of the [other] Europeans decided not to ride. When I dropped in, everyone was crashing super hard in front of me, and I just made it to the bottom. I got third with a shit run but got a medal. It was weird. I was stoked but embarrassed. That wasn’t freeride mountain biking at all.

love dirt tatI DON’T HATE SLOPESTYLE. I think it’s cool, but why use the word “freeride” for a slopestyle event? Freeride is something a little bigger than a few ramps in a parking lot. I got bored of slopestyle events: rankings, cities, rules—I just want to go huge on my bike, and there’s no way to do it on the FMB Tour. If you go big there, you land flat—I learned that the hard way, and I’m never going to go there again. Freeride Mountain Bike Tour? Call it Slopestyle Mountain Bike Tour, and freeriders will take care of freeriding.

I DON’T KNOW IF I’LL BECOME INVOLVED WITH ENDURO IN THE FUTURE. I just ride big jumps on my downhill bike. I don’t think I will race, not when I’m older. Enduro is the new name for mountain biking, but if it helps sell more bikes, perfect.

THE FEST SERIES CAME ABOUT BECAUSE ME AND OTHER BIG MOUNTAIN RIDERS WERE OVER THE WHOLE CONTEST SCENE. We just created our own thing. We build and ride the best jumps and trails on the planet and film it. The Fest series is the best thing that ever happened to my career. We are the riders, we build the courses and ride them. Fest series is going be the most insane freestyle events in the world. Just riding and exploring new locations while building and filming sick lines.

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THE FEST SERIES IS ALREADY GROWING REALLY FAST. We’re going to make sure that the only benefits are for the sport. We’re going with the flow, having fun and going nuts on our bikes. We’ll see how it goes. I had more fun last year with Fest than ever, so I’m pumped about it.

RAMPAGE LAST YEAR WAS A GOOD WIN FOR ME. I came from riding the Fest series the whole year, so I was ready for it. I felt like I rode harder in Fest than at Rampage. Rampage is TV format, so I was being careful not to get hurt. There’s huge media at Rampage and you want to be safe until the last run.

Little Andy2IT WAS ALL ABOUT CONFIDENCE AT RAMPAGE. I was going to win and that was it, there was no way around it. I was going to build the craziest line and ride it as fast as I could. I didn’t need to step it up on my second run, and everything went smooth. I was happy that I proved myself and showed that if I really want something I can get it. That was kind of how Rampage felt for me.

CRASHES ARE ALWAYS THERE; IT’S WHAT MAKES IT FUN. The closer you get to going down the better it feels, but there’s a price. I’ve had a few bad crashes, earlier this year with a broken knee, and it sucked.

I MOVED TO THE PYRENEES A YEAR AGO. I wanted to ride my bike every day, and moving to the mountains was the way to do it. I’m going to be working on a big project with Red Bull and La Molina ski resort, so I just moved there. I have great trails right at my house, and we are going to build some big jumps this spring.

2014 WAS THE BEST YEAR ON MY BIKE FOR SURE. I’m happy about Rampage and the great result, but the main thing is that it was when the Fest series was born. This is what I’m going to remember when I can’t ride a bike anymore. I will always have 2014 in my head.

 

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