With apologies to Charles Dickens:
It was the best of races, it was the worst of races, it was the age of victory, it was the age of defeat, it was the age of innocence, it was the age of experience.
It began with a tale of two cities, in this case, Tahoe and Truckee. The year was 1982. Vacaville’s Bill Marlin and Chester Gourdin entered the T.N.T. (Truckee-North Tahoe) mountain bike race, an 18-mile point-to-point event.
“Chester and I had expectations of doing well,” Marlin said. “We did awful, almost last-place finishers. What was needed was intense physical training. Lots of uphill riding with interval (wind sprints) on the flats. More seat time, better results.”
Fast forward to 1985. Marlin had formed a formidable group of local mountain bikers called the ShadeTree Racers. They entered the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) Championships in Santa Barbara. Gourdin, then 29, finished first in the One Speed division, a 21-mile (seven 3-mile laps) race over a course chock full of hills and swerves.
ShadeTree’s Paul Thomasberg and Bobby Deion also took home first-place trophies, Thomasberg in the Expert division and Deion in the Under 17 division. The event drew nearly 300 racers, including former Olympic speed skating champion Eric Heiden.
The group began in innocence.
“They started bombing the hills and mountains of Northern California, mostly just doing the downhill portions,” recalled Marlin, who served as president of ShadeTree Racing. “No one on the team had been involved too much in sports. We were just a bunch of average people who had the dream of being the best and had loads of fun riding our mountain bikes. The ShadeTree Racers got their performance the good old-fashioned way — they developed it.”
Several groups of riders in different areas of the United States have valid claims to playing a part in the birth of the sport in the 1970s. Cyclists in Marin County used modified heavy cruiser bicycles, 1930s and 1940s Schwinn bicycles retrofitted with better brakes and fat tires to freewheel down mountain trails.
The first mountain bikes were essentially road bicycle frames (with heavier tubing and different geometry) with a wider frame and fork to allow for a wider tire. The handlebars were straight and transverse-mounted rather than the dropped, curved handlebars that are typically used on road racing bicycles.
Marlin traced the evolution of himself and his fellow racers.
“Through 1983, I was riding with a group from Davis, Sacramento and Vacaville. A few of us were riding the Rock Hoppe, Whiskeytown, Spring Runoff, and Mountain Mania. I was a middle-of-the-pack rider.”
A subgroup of those riders formed the ShadeTree Racing mountain bike team in 1984.
“We were starting to get too fast for hiking trails. We needed to race on courses,” Marlin said. “I was able to convince the team this was much better, having medical folks on hand, water and food stations, and at the end of the event, race results.”
In 1985 everything came together for the team, which garnered 33 podium finishes and 12 top tens, including that great showing in the Nationals.
Mountain bike racing is not for the faint of heart.
“You have to have the power of focus and concentration while being physically exhausted,” Marlin said. “Without this, you will likely be uncompetitive… Vacaville and Fairfield have a strong group of racers, so if you want to keep up you have to ride stronger. You have to have a good sense of pace, when to push, when to rest. It is hard to maintain a consistent strength to hang onto the bike and at the same time be able to ride light with finesse.”
He noted that on the rigid frame bikes, the rider is the engineer. Marlin went on to describe the decisions and challenges the engineer has to make. It may read like one of Dickens’s run-on sentences, but it is just as instructive as some of the novelist’s prose:
“Where you want to put your body weight, how much lean for the turns, on the turns early in, late out or in late, early out, who is around you, how much front brake to use to set front tire grip, how much rear tire brake to use, when you are in a turn with a good lean angle the gyro effect of the turning wheel, the downhill straight, always trying to be as small as you can for speed and watching for the next turn, how late do I brake, sitting upright for a little aerobrake, maintaining water hydration, keep moving forward while dealing with lactic acid, arm pump, salty sweat in your eyes, being stung by yellowjackets, lots of dust, going over terrain so chatter rough that your eyeballs can barely see from shaking so hard.”
That’s as many adjustments as a chiropractor makes in a day.
“Sometimes you get most of the disciplines right and other times it’s a mess,” Marlin said. “You are trying to maintain a fast pace with momentum, paying attention to your surface and trying to pick the line with the least resistance. Several times when climbing steep grades, I’ve had rocks the size of walnuts stop me. I had to get off the bike and run.”
By 1986, pro teams started hiring out some of ShadeTree’s faster riders. Thomasberg raced for MCS (Motor Cross South) and went on to design and test mountain bikes for Specialized Bikes. Paula Mara became the first woman to turn Pro-Am when she joined Fisher Mountain Bikes.
So that year Marlin began focusing more on his own riding.
“I finally got two firsts, Cow Mountain in Ukiah, and the Classic Revenge of the Siskiyous. Both were in the Single Speed Open class. Chester Gourdin moved to expert class.”
But Marlin soon had to retire from the sport.
“My final ride was the Tahoe-Roubaix,” he said. “I finished fourth in the Single Speed Open. I pulled a hamstring so badly it stopped my riding for years. A job change, marriage and a son to raise — my life was changing.”
But the good memories remain.
“I will never forget the inspirational times that I had with the ShadeTree Racers and the cycling community,” said Marlin, who now repairs bikes and gives them to underprivileged folks in Vacaville.
He cited some of the ShadeTree Racers’ creeds:
“May God protect you wherever you go, and if you are afraid to go too far you will never go far enough,” and “Win with class, lose with dignity. Let your racing do the talking.”