By Adam Newman, photos by Jordan Clark Haggard
Almost as soon as mountain bikes burst into the public consciousness in the late 1970s, the bikes themselves began to stratify. Downhill, trials, cross country, enduro—the list goes on and on. But it wasn’t always this way. For a few glorious years, the mountain bike was just a bike, and all racers competed in all types of races with essentially the same machine.
While there’s no disputing modern bikes outperform the bikes of a generation ago in every way, riders are rediscovering the simplicity and camaraderie of those heady times. For 28 years, mountain bikers have been gathering at the Keyesville Classic stage race in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The bikes that were cutting edge when the racing began are now organized into their own vintage category, competing on the same course as modern, carbon fiber wünderbikes.
“This race always has a downhill and cross country [segment], and both are hard and challenging by today’s standards,” said Sky Boyer, who raced at Keyesville for the first time in 1990 and houses a substantial vintage bike collection in his bike shop, Velo Cult, in Portland, Oregon. “Back in the day, we [raced] them on rigid bikes so there’s really zero excuses for anybody showing up on a vintage bike. We did it back then, so you can do it now.”
For Eric Rumpf, the passion to both collect vintage bikes and to race them is fueled almost entirely by nostalgia. He takes special joy in finding bikes he idolized as a kid.
“Once I got older, not only could I afford the dream bike from my youth, they were cheap! The challenge became how many dream bikes could I find? How many could I rebuild just as I would have as a kid? There’s great satisfaction in finding something you’d only ever seen in magazines, rebuilding it back to a running mountain bike, and actually getting to ride it.”
Boyer saw that collectors had a passion for their bikes but were looking for a be er way to enjoy them, not just put them on a pedestal. He worked with the race organizers to start the vintage category in 2006. Now there’s such a diverse collection of vintage mountain bikes at Keyesville that the race has divided them into categories of “1986 and older” and “1987-1996.” The course itself has a variety of terrain to challenge anyone with a rigid fork, super long stem, rim brakes and sketchy tires.
“There’s no arguing that modern sports and muscle cars are faster, but the soul of driving an early 911 or classic Mustang is something that can’t be replicated. It’s the same for vintage mountain bikes,” Rumpf said. “Vintage mountain bikes are more challenging to ride. You get the same thrill of being on the edge of control, it just comes a little sooner.”
Despite the challenge, or perhaps because of it, more and more people are discovering the joy in simplicity, Rumpf said. Half are riders were barely even born when these bikes first hit the trails and are looking for a way to connect with a bygone era, he said, and half are folks who have been riding since these bikes since they were new and like things just the way they are.
“The number of racers grows slightly each year, but there is always a core group of collectors who make their way back year after year. I think that’s telling of a quality event.”
Boyer cites the laid-back vibe of the weekend and the positive camaraderie as the biggest draw.
“The general vibe of the race is exactly the same as back then,” he said. “Seriously, this race has never changed.”