by Jacquie Phelan
When you speak of “a culture,” it can be the behavior of a given society, or of a group of societies, or of a certain area, or of a certain period of time.—Margaret Mead
The Bay Area has long been a go-to haven for mountain biking enthusiasts.
And soon, biking aficionados—or the speckled-faced constituency known as fatheads, klunker riders and bikies—will have a formal way to pay tribute to the beloved outdoor sport. Scheduled to open this fall at an upcycled building at the foot of Mount Tamalpais is the Marin Museum of Bicycling (MMB) and Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, which is being relocated from its longtime home in Crested Butte, Colo.
The MMB, a nonprofit organization that aims to educate the public about the history of bicycling and encourage biking culture, will occupy the former location of Good Earth Natural Foods at 1966 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard in Fairfax—widely regarded as the birthplace of mountain biking. Plans for regular happenings perfect for bicycling fans are in the works and will include lectures, movies and live TV coverage of cycling events in a 12-person screening room. A main hall in the museum that will seat up to 90 people will serve as a meeting place for bicycle clubs and will feature a zone for skills- and shrediquette-training, while long-term plans include a garden, shower and bike wash, among other amenities.
The people behind the MMB range from Don and Kay Cook, who directed the original Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in Crested Butte, Colo., to Joe Breeze, bike builder and historian, to bike pioneers Otis Guy and Marc Vendetti, to Mark Squire, building owner and partner at Good Earth Natural Foods. A community of dedicated bicycle advocates has also been involved.
Larry Galetti, a former Food Villa greengrocer, came of age in San Anselmo during the uncrowded postwar era of the 1980s. Galetti recalls how his extremely hard working (as in seven days a week) stock boy, Al Baylocq, spent a majority of his growing years at the Food Villa. When Galetti was ready to retire, he promised the Villa to Baylocq, who was seeking to partner with others in the opening of Good Earth. When the customer base outgrew the building in 2012, the store moved to the huge lot in the center of Fairfax. Chris Lang, Fairfax commissioner and bike promoter, connected the dots and got Mark Squire together with the MMB team.
With the help of Lang, the MMB team found the former Good Earth location to be promising for the future museum. Morgan Hall, a Fairfax-based architect, wanted to return the building to its midcentury roots by creating a strong, horizontal element and exposing the beautiful bowstring truss construction. Hall partnered with Joe Breeze, a Marin-based bicycling legend in his own right, to collaborate on the building’s spatial elements. He attributes many of the building’s intricacies to Breeze’s attention to detail. “Working with Joe has been a joy,” Hall says. “He has such a good spatial eye, and his tolerances are … well, he works with metal so they’re in the thousandths of an inch. Me, I’m a broad brush-stroke kind of guy.”
To many, the museum’s opening is more than a new addition to what has long been an enthusiastic biking community—it’s a culmination of many events that highlight the Bay Area’s connection between sport, art and the landscape.
In 1998, San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, in collaboration with the SF Bicycle Coalition, sponsored a broad-scoped art show on bicycle cultures highlighting the history of mountain biking and displaying low rider bikes, art bikes and performance pieces. Many say the exhibit lit a slow fuse for bike culture that’s been sparkling ever since.
Momentum for fostering a biking culture grew from July of 2012 to February of 2013, when thousands of international travelers and bikers enjoyed the SFO Museum’s exhibit, “Repack to Rwanda: The Origins, Evolution and Global Reach of the Mountain Bike.” Often viewed as history in the making, the exhibit helped to unite the bicycle community—while setting a high standard for near-future scholarships and exhibitions.
In 2012, SFO Museum Curator Tim O’Brien realized that there had not yet been an exhibition that focused specifically on the role Marin County frame builders and riders played in bicycle design evolution. Joe Breeze, best known as the designer-builder of the first successful modern mountain bikes, created the first all-new bikes made with rugged frames specifically for mountain biking in the late 1970s.
“We quickly recognized Joe’s critical role in this early history, his steady involvement in the industry, the greater issues surrounding bicycling and his personal connection to so many people whose cooperation we were seeking,” O’Brien says. Having already been invited to contribute to Santa Clara University’s De Saisset Museum, Breeze was ready to commit more time and energy to exhibiting bicycle history.
Determined to avoid succumbing to the pressures many museums face today, O’Brien sought alternatives. “These are unsettled times for museums. The DeYoung and the Asian Art Museum have to push turnstiles,” O’Brien says. “Free from that pressure, our mission is to tell the truth and inspire others to learn more.”
In the spirit of no-waste, O’Brien donated the exhibit’s specially built panels, photographs and other valuable materials to Breeze and the MMB.
Breeze’s love of all-things-bicycling started early in his hometown of Mill Valley. As a child, he was sure that the mountain in his backyard was the “highest mountain in the world.” The magnificent presence of Mount Tamalpais—Marin’s original tourist attraction—and its green slopes has shaped his life indelibly. He roamed not just the county, but much of California by bike, at a time when few people rode bicycles at all.
Breeze was a road-racer on the weekend, but during the week he rode with a posse of free-spirits who sported no race numbers or uniforms. They roamed the yellow hills during long summers, astride clunky relics in search of fun and a little adventure away from the suburbs.
If you told Breeze or one of those denim-and-flannel-clad bikies that someday mountain biking, or the “world’s smallest sport,” would be an Olympic sport, a high school team activity or the inspiration for national transit policies, they would have wondered what planet you came from. While mountain biking started to leave a trail in the sporting industry, the organic food movement was picking up momentum. Good Earth sprouted up in 1969 and set itself apart from regular grocery stores—it was where you shopped if you really cared about what went into your body. Serious coin was spent on food and bicycles, being issues of the most pressing sort.
Always looking at the big picture, Breeze regarded bicycles as capable of influencing politics and, ultimately, saving the planet. In 1994 as the U.S. Army vacated San Francisco’s Presidio District, opening spaces for nonprofit organizations, Breeze and MMB partners envisioned and spearheaded a permanent exhibit to excite the kids of the future about bicycle culture. Breeze imagined a bicycle history corner at the Thoreau Center for Sustainability. He contacted Don and Kay Cook at the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.
The Mountain Bike Hall of Fame arose from businesspeople brainstorming in the summer of 1988. The Hall of Fame, which inducted mostly California riders at first, had as much to do with tourism as it did with preserving the memory of the sport’s earliest days. In a town of roughly 800 full-time residents, an influx of avid cyclists—especially in the slow season of autumn—means money. Induction ceremonies moved from Colorado to the annual bicycle dealer trade show to accommodate even more attendees. Inevitably, the industry titans who sponsored the Hall of Fame were enshrined; thus the world’s smallest sport became a tributary to the created cult of celebrity.
In the early 90s, around the country, federal funding for non-motorized transportation—mainly identified as the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), among other refreshing acronyms—swelled the coffers of many regional bicycle coalitions. The collective energies of their members resulted in greater numbers of riders on the road, including kids. Dan Freeman, a history teacher at Sir Francis Drake High School, coached Marin’s first high school mountain bike team, and 15 years later all of the high schools in the county have a mountain bike team.
And in 2012, with a space in mind, Breeze had his eye on moving the Hall of Fame and its historical memorabilia out to California. Breeze summoned his old friends Marc Vendetti, a former racer, businessman and philanthropist; Otis Guy, a local fireman, and early mountain biker/builder; Julia Violich, businesswoman and masters category racer and lawyer Keith Hastings to the team. The horde of bikies hammered out details for six months in the summer of 2013. Mark Squire shook hands last year to seal the lease—committing to a project that would house the famed Igler collection (30 bicycles from the beginning to the most recent of the bicycle era) as well as display cases, exhibit windows, bookshelves and, of course, docents and acolytes of the fundraising, culture maven ilk. Contributors to the two-wheeled world are named and honored, their feats described and their artifacts preserved.
Marin County is both the spirit home of the human-powered bicycle and the place where its adherents, despite heroic efforts, had little to no political traction. It is no longer a hidden gem, but a global tourist destination conveniently close to San Francisco.
And decades later beyond our county lines, the world caught the fat tire bug. Global production soared through the 1980s and 1990s as the industry realized: People could have more than one bicycle. This “fad” rescued the flattish-bicycle industry after the 1970s sting-ray and 10-speed boom. Trail prohibitions and inflammatory press coverage generated friction and a sensationalized trail war. A parade of journalists from The New York Times, the L.A. Times and countless European and Japanese bicycle magazines, rolled through impressed by the beautiful terrain and astonished by the grim faces of the bike-loathers. The journalists’ stories noted the incongruousness of “mellow” Marin’s cool regard of cyclists on the trail. But at the time, Marin wasn’t yet your typical tourist destination; and sharing was a new concept.
A new generation of bike-friendly policymakers, 30 years and a global climate shift have silenced the chorus of obstructive land managers and officials, who insisted that mountain bikes were ruining the tranquil outdoor experience. County residents continued to simply ride the bikes, and let the cares of a contentious, traffic-bound county slide off them with every revolution of the bear-trap pedal.
At times collaboration seemed unlikely until common goals, federal funding and expanding enfranchisement brought bicyclists into the negotiating rooms. Three decades later, Marin’s bicycle family has matured with the tincture of time. The Marin County Bicycle Coalition was founded precisely to educate this very mercurial and “skiddish” constituency. Years of lobbying, advocating, showing up and never giving up the mission of safer two-wheel transit paid dividends.
The roads are still jammed with cars and irritable, distracted motorists, but the roads have lanes being shared by thousands upon thousands of both residents and visitors.
The stampede into the county’s greensward can only grow. Farsighted Marinites preserved an impressive amount of public land, and, where once the bicyclists were coolly received, a slight thaw is taking place. Stafford Lake Bike Park—the proposed 17-acre bike park slated to include a single-track loop trail, gravity-fed flow trails with jumps and beams, several pump tracks and north shore style elevated trails—would take pressure off southern Marin fire roads.
Future generations of Marinites will remain young in the saddle. Perhaps, if we are good, there will be some narrow trails opened on Mount Tamalpais. Or all the trails will be open on certain weekdays. Anything is possible.
No car can touch what bicycles deliver on many different levels: the joy, the clean air, the clear head, the strong legs, the healthy lungs and the fascinating, translucent, black Lycra shorts—sorry.
Our love affair with the car is dying, and the romance of modernity’s first love, the bicycle, is gearing back up in its Golden Age.
The two-wheeler’s cultural center, the Marin Museum of Bicycling, will open before the rainy season this year. As a membership- and fund-driven entity, the MMB will be creating history for the foreseeable future.
- Recently released by two professors at MIT is Bicycle Design An Illustrated History by Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing. It’s a dense, rich and very readable text made up of 576 pages and 300 accompanying illustrations. Needless to say, most of the Marin inventors like Charlie Cunningham, Joe Breeze, etc. are cited.
- Due out in September of 2014 is the memoir Fat Tire Flyer by Charlie Kelly. After a 30-year hiatus, Kelly is back on the trail and ready to recharge his wild biking roots as a much-overlooked biking pioneer.