“People see you, and they are like ‘how are you doing that?!’ Dude, it’s all the same thing. Whether you’re on your totally sick pimped out new bike, or your old POS, it’s all mountain biking. You get loose in a corner, and you’re like ‘Oh! That’s what it’s all about right there!’” – Brendan Shafer
I didn’t give them much intro, I just said bring your old bike and be yourself. That was my own plan, at least, so it seemed prudent to invite the locals to do the same. Vintage bikes have always been cool in my book, and particularly so if they can still somewhat shred by modern day standards. Now, when I write “vintage bikes”, I think of early 1990s bikes, with their finicky cantilever brakes, skinny tires, and nervous geometry.
My own fond memories of obsolete technology mixed with fluorescent colors also make me think of Durango, CO. The small mountain town is known for its steam-powered locomotive and formidably strong Fort Lewis College cycling team, and once upon a time, the town hosted massive races and was the ultimate training grounds for the sports elite. Now, other Southwestern meccas have crowded the spotlight: Moab, Sedona, Park City, Crested Butte, Vail, Grand Junction, Fruita, Summit County, Winter Park. With Durango a bit forgotten by much of today’s mountain bike culture, I too have been guilty of not considering a trip to Durango for over a decade.
I grew up during Durango’s heyday, hearing about the 1990 World Champs and hometown to brands such as Yeti Cycles. I finally got to visit Durango in 2004 for the NORBA Nationals at Purgatory resort. A buddy and I took a week off work with no plans beyond a tent, a dozen boxes of Clif bars, four bikes, and that race. I got pretty sick of those Clif bars, but I ended up winning the National Mountain Cross title that weekend.
Fast forward nearly 15 years, and it’s early spring 2018. I went for a ride with a local guy where I live here in Bellingham, WA, who showed up with a late-1990s hardtail, sporting v-brakes, narrow tires, and a killer upgrade: an open dropout Marzocchi fork with nearly *gasp* 100mm of travel. The bike would have been a solid ride for the late 90s, but compared to my plush carbon machine, it was clearly from a different era. Not one to shun anyone without the latest piece of gadgetry, I led him on a lap of our local mountain. And he did awesome, not once complaining about the pouring rain and soupy mud. He was sending jumps and making it through some slick root sections, and even nailed a few tough skinny lines. I was so inspired! His bike wasn’t modern, but it was a lot more bike than I had for a good portion of my early riding career. With this experience in mind, I set out to build a dream vintage bike.
After nearly 6 months of internet scouring, I found what to me is a complete unicorn bedazzled in rainbows of rad: a 1995 Ibis Mojo Titanium. This old Mojo Ti was so right, and the fellow I bought it from was totally cool as well. He knew about my videos and was super supportive, and gave me a great deal on the bike, though my wife is still perplexed as to why I would spend so much money on a bike old enough to purchase a six pack.
As I built the old bike up and took it on its maiden voyage, the feel of the steep, old school geometry reminded me of a time when cross country ruled the mountain bike roost. Then I finally connected the dots: Durango, CO, would be a perfect destination to shred the cantilever equipped piece of wheeled nostalgia! I realized that not only had I completely forgotten about Durango, but with the town’s rich MTB history, I should really experience the trails with both a vintage AND a modern bike. This would be such a cool way to connect a bike to a community!
This idea had all the pieces to be a cool story, so I called Logan Nelson, who’s been traveling and filming quite a bit for me over the past year, and contacted some Durango residents.
First and foremost, I wanted to ride the trails that John Tomac absolutely shredded in Bill Snider’s film “Retread.” I gave Snider a call, who still lives in Colorado today, and got to chat with him about making that film.
“We filmed the whole thing in about two hours or so,” says Snider. “My wife and I worked together. She ran the second camera. Probably the hardest part of that day was hiking along the hillside as John came down the ridge line there.”
Snider also explained another detail that I had been wondering about, “The boy narrating the intro,” Snider told me, “is John’s stepson, Greg.”
As I began to research key figures in the Durango mountain bike scene, I realized no trip to the town, especially one with vintage bikes and historical inspirations, would be complete without meeting one of the greatest authorities on all things using narrow knobbies and biopace chainrings: Mike Wilk. Wilk is very well known throughout the vintage community, has run websites documenting the restorations of old bikes, and he’s a US national cross country champion. The host of the Cycle Squawk podcast, Wilk has lived in Durango since 1999. When we landed in Durango, our plans were to meet with him ASAP!
“Here in Durango, we shred plenty of modern bikes, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the vintage experience,” says Wilk. “I do have a collection of vintage bikes, but what really gets me excited is when I find an actual ex-pro’s bike, especially one that’s won something important. That’s really cool.”
Wilk welcomed us into his garage, which has a few of his favorite vintage bikes proudly hanging alongside modern bikes, all of which are ready to ride. Some of his most prized possessions are featured elsewhere, such as the museum at The Pro’s Closet in Boulder, CO. A couple of those rare bikes on display in Boulder include Missy Giove’s 1993 Yeti ARC ASLT that she used to finish 3rd in the UCI DH World Champs, as well as Juli Furtado’s 1990 Yeti FRO that she used to win the 1990 UCI XC World Champs. The bikes that Wilk planned to ride during my visit were pretty dang special as well. As his 4 year old daughter utilized my visit as an excuse to delay the ominous bedtime ritual, she pedaled circles around us, and got us all stoked to do our own pedaling the next day.
“I ride old bikes because I grew up drooling over these bikes in Mountain Bike Action, and now that we get a little older, a little more financially stable, we can get our hands on them for a little less money. A lot of people just put them on the wall. You know what, I say that’s silly, these bikes were made to be ridden hard. And as long as you back it off a little bit, there’s nothing this bike can’t do,” says Wilk.
We planned for a full day of riding a typical Durango high-country trail, and even recorded a podcast episode in the car on the way to the trailhead. The summit of our ride would be at 12,176 feet above sea level, more than two miles high in the sky. With Wilk guiding us, we sampled Engineer Mountain Trail. This is a great trail for vintage bikes, as it’s never too gnarly, but at the same time, it’s no gravel path through the park.
“There are definitely trails that suit themselves more to vintage bikes, and there are definitely trails that suits themselves more to bigger, enduro bikes, and we’re gonna ride both,” Wilk promised.
As we saw more than a handful of riders all on modern bikes, it’s quite clear the older bikes provide just as much fun as the newer ones, albeit with a couple caveats. For one, the speeds will inherently be a bit lower. No, or minimal, suspension can get sketchy. However, the reliability of these older bikes isn’t what we are accustomed to on modern rigs. These parts are old, have been ridden a lot, and are often designed for riding styles from a different era. When Mike shredded a tension strand in his Tioga disc rear wheel, he had to open his brakes up to keep the bike rolling.
I was thrilled to ride with Wilk. I had heard he was a good rider, and while he definitely was, his riding style really surprised me. He showed a surprising amount of BMX influence for someone with such a big background in the endurance side of the sport. But I guess anyone who’s able to smoothly pilot a fully rigid bike down Engineer Mountain with a smile on their face will mandatorily have ample handling skills.
“You gotta have that fine line of knowing that yeah, I can push it, but I gotta back it off just that little bit because with cantilever brakes, you’re not gonna be able to bail out if something goes wrong,” says Wilk.
Another famous old school spot is Raider’s Ridge, just above Horse Gulch. Wilk and I rode Raider’s along with a fellow vintage connoisseur, Brendan Shafer. Shafer embodies a true mountain town local, and he has the stories to back it up. “I moved to Durango as a teenager in 2004,” Shafer told me. “The saying goes in mountain towns, when the times are good, you don’t wanna leave, and when times are bad, you can’t! We have our own way of doing things here.”
Durango has a long list of top-level names that have called the town home– such as Myles Rockwell, Kirt Voreis, Greg Herbold, John Tomac, Missy Giove, Ruthie Matthes, Travis Brown, Todd Wells, Troy Wells, and even Bob Roll.
Shafer is also new to the #raddad club- congrats to him and his family! I’d heard quite a bit about his unique style on the older bikes, and his Fat Chance was- and still is- a coveted vintage ride. While not a born and raised Durango local, Shafer is a great example of the type of passion-filled individual who finds an ideal home in the town of Durango.
Another long time Durango resident, Ned Overend is known for being an amazing athlete, though he isn’t particularly known for his jumping prowess. However, during an Iron Horse Classic in 1991, photographer Malcolm Fearon captured an absolutely classic image of Overend off the ground and crossing it up over a black dirt section of the course. We made sure to spend a few minutes sessioning this same jump, though none of us were deserving of a number one plate like Ned.
“Horse Gulch is fun. You can hit sendy type stuff if you
want, or you can just noodle. I like to do both. There are lots of great climbs here.
I’m an XC type guy, and I like to push it on the climbs up a classic Durango type
trail,” says Wilk.
Descending from the classic ridge line, the modern trail “Snake Charmer” was purposely built as a mountain bike trail. Extensive rock work punctuated by berms and rock drops hammer home the point of the route. Watching Shafer and Wilk smoothly weave their vintage bikes down this trail was a real treat, a visual display of handling prowess.
I couldn’t help but notice our bikes were many times older than the machines of any rider who rode by us, and definitely quite different from the type of mountain bike that the trail builders would have had in mind. However, with age, a bicycle accumulates character, and these older bikes were indeed storied. And descending modern trails like this would only add to the story. “I have a couple other vintage bikes. The situation is more like I have enough parts and random stuff to put together ten bikes, but there’s only one rideable at any given time. Bikes come and go. You’re always trading, buying stuff, collecting,” says Shafer.
Wilk is a well known vintage connoisseur, and leads monthly vintage rides. Mike’s style is really unique. He’s ready to lay down the pedal power, but he finesses the bike around or over obstacles rather than simply smashing them. Shafer also has a unique style, and appears to be surfing or skating the bike, using the short wheelbase to his advantage. I came away from my time with both Wilk and Shafer just plain stoked on the vibe: old bikes, good trails, and a goal to simply enjoy our time in the woods.
“Everyone has some cool vintage bike here, which I think is pretty special. You might not see them out the trails, but everyone has a story, which is unique, especially for a small, isolated place,” says Shafer.
Mike Wilk Describes his 3D: My 1994 3D Racing Rover was built by Chris Herting for a team rider whose name he cannot remember. The little black book with handwritten notes documenting the serial number has been lost. The bike is exactly as it would have appeared at a NORBA National that season with Rock Shox Mag fork, Topline crankset, custom modified Answer ATAC stem, Ringle seatpost, and the first generation XTR Shimano M900 components that still shift and brake amazingly. The bike is just under 24lbs, which was pretty incredible for the time.
For years, a key aspect to the Durango scene has been Fort Lewis College. The school introduces a healthy number of youngsters to mountain culture, and many of these alumni, such as Wilk, end up calling Durango their permanent home. We were lucky enough to catch a modern day shred down a rough and proper Durango descent of Haflin Creek Trail with current Fort Lewis College coach Lucas Lemaire. In order to get in touch with Lemaire, I had been communicating with Chad Cheeney, another head coach, but Cheeney was not going to be able to meet with us. The modern bike was a necessity on the terrain, which shifted from traditional high country aspens to bright red Moab-esque rock.
“Haflin’s a great one. It’s like an in-town high country ride. It’s got all aspects of trail riding- rocky steep, super flowy, technical,” says Lemaire.
Durango has gnar, though it’s not fall line, freeride type gnar. It’s more of a traditional mountain bike experience, where covering some mileage will be required. You work hard to play hard. I loved Haflin’s high speed singletrack, and a series of tighter switchbacks were fun to carve through with the tacky dirt after a recent rain. Pounding through Southwest style rock gardens with my 130mm travel bike reminded me what arm pump is like. It was a fun departure to simply monster truck through rocks rather than the “hold on and pray” technique the vintage bikes often require.
Lemaire’s specialties are slalom and downhill, and we had just one morning available to ride with Lemaire before he had to depart to Snowmass, in Aspen, with 84 students in tow, for a race that weekend. “Fort Lewis brings in a lot of riders. The trails here are so amazing, and the college does volunteer days with Trails 2000, the local advocacy group,” Lemaire told me.
“The college brought me here; I graduated in 2013. I wanted to bring back to the community and help coach, so they brought me aboard. The riding is phenomenal. You can ride tons of trails out of your backdoor. Downhill is my passion, and one of my favorite bikes, so I just ride it everywhere.”
The rainy ride back home in Bellingham with my friend who showed up on the green hardtail with the v-brakes really opened my eyes to the “why” behind our reasons for riding. That feeling of inspiration was strong enough to kick me into gear, to buy that vintage bike, and sample a simpler version of this same sport. And I’m so glad to have ventured into this world.
The coolest vintage bikes have a story behind them. Whether it’s a brand’s marketing, or personal significance for the bike in question, there’s something almost spiritual about bikes. And when we find a bike that aligns our personal stars, we can’t help but feel stoked. As Shafer put it:
“You don’t need to have the look to have the spirit. That to me is a mountain biker— kind of rough around the edges. You might show up hungover, and not be able to ride that good, but you’re a mountain biker, man. That’s what Yo Eddy was all about to me as a kid. And I’ve always thought that that kind of attitude was what it’s all about.”
Durango has a unique position with a mix of desert and high country trails, just like it has a unique mix of old school heroes and current students of the sport. Modern style trail development has been slow to be accepted, though I’m optimistic that this will change with time. Youngsters are finding new lines and shredding it up. Durango has its own unique culture, and will always blend desert dirt with alpine colors. What really sets Durango up as an iconic destination is a mix of the people in town along with the general town attitude of just get out and ride. And regardless of the bike being ridden, this attitude will keep anyone’s lens on the best aspect of the local trails anywhere: having fun in the woods.
”If you can get out on your old bike, it’s a great way to remind yourself just how to have fun. I think when you can remind yourself that you can have fun on any bike, it’s almost more fun. You can still ride a bike that’s 25 years old. You can still get ride, get rad, and get gnarly on an old bikes, and it’s actually just as fun. The feeling is the same.” — Brendan Shafer.
Old Bike Psyche
- Produced and written by: Jeff Kendall-Weed
- Filming and editing: Logan Patrick Nelson
- Photography: Ben Gavelda
- Follow Mike Wilk @ridevintagemtb
- Follow Brendan Shafer @ brendanoshafer
- Follow Lucas Lemaire @ downhillinbasta