Cycling Stories

I Was Downhill Before Downhill Was Cool

July 7, 2020

I Was Downhill Before Downhill Was Cool

Tipping into ‘The Fork Bender’ trail at Wildcat Canyon Regional Park was more akin to ‘dropping-in’ at Pastrana Land – it went straight vert for 100 feet before it rolled out to a wash-board of hard pack.  

The trail’s vertical ruts were pock-marked with sharp rocks cemented into place by time, so any wrestling with the ground meant rolling, not sliding; that much was clear. Our XT or XTR drivetrains meant that, at best, we ran 48 x 13 gearing. Nearly everyone else ran 44 or 46-tooth big rings, making any speed above 25 mph a “gravity-only” event. 

I had long since made a lamp fixture out of my Biopace 44 when I swapped my gruppo from Deore to XT in 1992. Dirt or road, anything under 48-tooth is a middle ring, not a big ring. 
 
Before the XT upgrade, I plotted out a 52-tooth roadie big ring and fabbed an adapter. I also dropped the granny ring and raised the front derailleur to clear the larger chainring. I set up a hot-swap 26″ rear wheel with a roadie cluster that got me down to a 12-tooth, but the 52×12 gearing still spun out before ‘Fork Bender’s’ vert section ended.  

My CatEye still read dirt speed in the low thirties (drat, rats, grrr…). Four-hour leg burners were still my bread and butter rides, whereas this “top-speed” assault was just an infectious hobby. 
 
My search for vert was spurred by a four-day group ride in Briones Regional Park in Lafayette, CA, a cow pasture draped over rolling hillsides with a ‘peak-to-parking’ elevation of over 1,100 feet. One day, we encountered a mondo downhill section that just kept going before we hit its vert section at 20 mph. 

Briones Regional Park. Credit: East Bay Regional Park District

Riding at the back of the pack, I crested the drop to see that my chums had stopped to watch, so I put the icing on gravity and pulled out a 38-mph top speed. Riding on mid-eighties steel and sneakers while everyone else was all “Klein’ed-up” and clicked-in, my top-speed podium position just didn’t sit well with the others. So, back up the hill we all rode, my comrades determined to knock me off my pedestal.  

But, I was not on a bubble – I was just a downhill speed freak in a pre-freeride world. Three passes later, their speeds remained slower than my first pass, while I was breaking 40 mph. The remainder of the ride, each of my buddies took turns riding beside me to verify that my speedo was not calibrated in my favor. 
 
What a beautifully infectious hobby! I was hooked, and I needed another pioneer to help me go where no man had gone before. I needed Josh Deetz. Deetz was a walking story all by himself. He was so gun-ho about bikes that any cyclist around him was encouraged. Within two weeks of meeting, we had already procured welding and machining talent and tools and had crafted our first batch of five aluminum Deetz frames. 

We used hole saws in Bridgeports and welding tables as fixtures, working two days at a time and cleaning it all up on Sunday night. Deetz had some frame paint that was ‘pearlescent white’ below 70 degrees but changed to purple, yellow, or red when above 70 degrees. It was my first encounter with thermal chameleon paint. 
 
Interbike was in Anaheim or Long Beach that year, and Josh was hot to show off our well-made frames, clincher rims, and chameleon paint. I guess the Haro Factory rep had his inventory stacked all over the living room of Josh’s studio apartment in exchange for a corner of the Haro booth at the trade show. Josh showed off one of the new bikes with the chameleon paint, and the new clincher rims shod in 26×1.95 semi-street skins, along with a Cannondale cut in half vertically and lengthwise; to show their elephant snot inside the tubing.  

Sometime before the show, Josh and I parted ways, since I’d completed all the drafting, tooling, fixtures, machining, and just about everything else, except for frame welding. Let’s just say that Josh ended up with five happy bike customers and one unpaid manufacturing mechanic. But that was for the best. 
 
You see, to run 52-tooth anything, I had to drop the granny ring up front, and my climbing sucked as a result. Luckily, I had just hired David Grant away from Gary Fisher, where he ran Marin County production. He had a knack for pilfering trick, one-off Fisher components, and he had an unobtainable 80 cm bar stem that I needed. Without a granny gear, its extra extension would help me mount steep grades. 
 
With this gigantic stem – pre-threadless, mind you – sticking out what seemed like a foot from my headset, I could stand and crank a granny gear up the slugger hills, along with a better aero position. This ‘full dive’ position was useful as I chased the ’50 miles per hour-dirt’ mark. 
 
Then, Josh Deetz landed back in town and needed last-minute work completed before he headed to Interbike. So, I offered him a Saturday, all day if needed, on one condition. I said, “I want that record-setting 70-tooth big ring you’ve been hiding, and I want it installed on my bike before the end of the day.” He agreed. We met the following Saturday morning, and I toiled to machine a few pieces for him while he fit my sled with a 70-tooth solo-ring. 
 
Sunday morning arrived. I was changing both of my CatEye’s batteries as my buddies rode off for an hour-long Wildcat Canyon loop, after which they’d return, pick me up, and we’d complete our four-hour leg burn. Until then, it was time for me to challenge my vertical friend and kick its ass: a dirty, rutted, rocky free-fall ramp that no one else could spin down. But first, it kicked my ass. 
 
When dropping down a vert section, a bike with a high gear requires pedal momentum, or cadence, to maintain proper balance. Under ten miles per hour, and the pedals don’t rotate fast enough to generate sufficient gyroscopic force, and balance suffers.  

Oops. After dropping in at 5mph, and mistakenly thinking that I could get myself over the stem and spin my cranks, I fell hard, face-skidded 60 feet across rocks and dirt, and tumbled through a sharp boulder field.

I decided that I needed an entry ramp, which would allow me to drop in at speed, lean heavily on my cranks upon reaching the vert section, and power through gravity in a relatively short section. 

So, I connected to a higher section of the trail and aimed by bike at the vert. With pebbles embedded and blood-dabs all over my face and knuckles, I was totally ready to bust this groove. I slowly walked uphill to my launch point, purposefully controlling my breathing and heart rate to mimic at-rest conditions. Once I arrived and saddled up, I saw my line and bolted out. 
 
Already, I could tell that gravity was doing more than my pedals. Soon, I got my pumps going, reached 26 miles per hour, put my head down, and prepared for the table-top style maneuver I needed to land to make a hard, 20mph right turn onto a road. 

Then, a tire dabbed. I felt like a cliff diver. 
 
I smacked hard, like when coming off a vert and landing in the flats. The problem was that I was approaching 30 miles an hour, so the initial landing was just my starting point. My thighs and buttocks volleyed the saddle back and forth furiously as I relinquished all control, except for cranking.  

There were sweat and dust. My goggles bounced, obscuring my view. My knee hit the handlebars. A lady with a jogging stroller whizzed past at 48 mph, and by the time I over-ran the trail onto a fire-road, I’d spun it up to 53 mph. 


My buddies still ride swag sleds, and I still run steel. They follow roads; I make them.  

So, if you’re ever on a bike and see an obstacle, instead of avoiding it, try tackling it. That is how podiums are won – just ask Ned Overend or Eli Tomac’s dad! 

Michael Williams is addicted to surfing oceans of asphalt on his two-wheeled street luge, which he does in Roseburg, Oregon. He has recovered from his addiction to downhill, although that 70-tooth big ring still hangs quietly over the door to his bike vault. Age does not diminish anyone; attitude does.
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