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The Pearl Pass Tour and me

The Pearl Pass Tour and me

This morning I spotted a story about the Pearl Pass Tour, in Crested Butte, Colorado. It took me back to 1989, the first time I went mountain biking in America. I landed in San Francisco because I had some mates who lived there. I had a rough itinerary for a month or so and I was definitely in the market for a bike. The variety on offer was mind-boggling compared to what we could get back home. 

The old hippy area of Haight - Ashbury at the top end of Golden Gate Park had a heap of interesting bike shops, and I spent a happy couple of hours taking laps of the area on various bikes trying to decide what to buy, and trying to avoid buying any dope.

I ended up with a Ritchey, which I carried over my shoulder as I was ferried back to my mate’s place by my friend Casey on his Harley. 

The Ritchey Ascent Comp. More or less state-of-the-1989-art. Note frame bag suitable for shoulder portages, full size frame pump, 3 chainrings, toeclips.

In those far-off days, before the internet, I didn’t have many clues about where to take my bike besides Mount Tam in Marin County. We did that, and then I boxed my new sled up and put it on a bus to Colorado. I left for a lap of the states that would eventually see me collect my bike from the Greyhound Depot in Denver. I had seen an article in Bicycling magazine about Moab, Utah, and another about Crested Butte in Colorado. So that is where I went. 

Moab was as far from riding up OneTree Hill or fanging around in Riverhead Forest as you can get on this planet. I camped in my rental mini-van at the SlickRock Trail carpark, there were two other guys camping up there and we teamed up for a couple of days of riding trails that defied belief, especially considering our bikes had no suspension and fairly primitive rim brakes.

2am, SlickRock Trail. This guy's name is Michael Jackson, true story.

We rode SlickRock several times, including one lap after midnight under a full moon. No lights, just following the white painted dots on the rock that mark the trail. I have been back there on a modern trail bike and the idea of Porcupine Rim solo on a rigid hardtail with cantilever brakes (a 70 kilometre round trip I took from the SlickRock carpark before I hooked up with the other guys) frankly terrifies me in retrospect. I guess I didn’t know any better at the time.

The startline crowd, Pearl Pass Tour 1989.

Crested Butte was allegedly among the first places besides San Francisco to become a hotbed of mountain biking, and when I got there I blundered by sheer chance into one of the very early mountain biking ‘events’ - the Pearl Pass Tour. According to local legend, a bunch of motorcyclists from swanky Aspen had ridden over the 12,700ft Pearl Pass and made nuisances of themselves in the much more bohemian CB. The following year a bunch of Crested Butteans took bicycles over the same pass, and raised hell in Aspen before riding back. These were not mountain bikes, they were just whatever piles of crap that the people riding them had laying around. None of the people were what you would call a mountain biker - at the time there was no such thing. But there were mountains. And bikes. And putting them together was a lot of fun, plus it really annoyed the wealthy residents of Aspen so they kept doing it on an annual basis. 

Sometime between the first one and the twelfth edition I lucked on to, a Californian contingent got wind of the Pearl Pass Tour, and went out to take a look. Among them were some real godfathers (and mothers) of mountain biking - Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly, Wendy Cragge and Gary Fisher.

Two local brothers, Don and Steve Cook, were very serious cross country skiers. As soon as they saw the bikes the Californians had, they knew what they would be spending their summers doing. The day before the Tour was a guided group ride, Don was guiding. I got to see his downhill style on a bike with flared drop bars, and a bike that was really a proto ‘gravel’ beast, decades ahead of its time. 

Me ready to go. I have the mother of all bum bags on, to cart my gigantic camera around. That makes it look like my t shirt was tucked into my lycra shorts. It wasn't.

Check out the width of those bars. That is how we rolled.

That Pearl Pass Tour was a good example of what mountain biking was about back then - a ride up a 4wd road that got steadily worse the closer we got the the actual pass, where about 60 us stood en masse for photos before starting the long descent. Everybody else dropped in to Aspen for hooliganism, I had to leave that afternoon, so I rattled back down the way we had come and made it back to CB in one piece. 

It was really a just very gnarly gravel ride, and my new Ritchey handled it majestically. I wish I could have hung on to that bike, but it got stolen off the back of our Kombi in Los Angeles, on another voyage, in another story.

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