I’ve always been fascinated with the history of mountain biking. From the heyday of the 1990’s with its big budget racing to the skid-huck freeride style of the early 2000’s. But most of all, I’m a complete fan-boy of the earliest days of mountain biking. That old DIY style of cobbling anything together simply to go for a rolling picnic with your friends. I love the evolution from singlespeeds and coaster brakes to rim brakes and gears. I’m obsessed with the stories and photos of all the characters, visionaries, artisans and egomaniacs who were there at the start of it all. Maybe I’m so obsessed because it’s the only era I haven’t been alive for? Or, more likely, because it was the most chill era in cycling.
Whatever the case may be, there has always been one nostalgic/historical thing I’ve wanted to check off my list. The annual Pearl Pass Klunker tour. If you don’t know what that is, ask the googlemachine. I have been up, around and over Pearl Pass in some capacity at least a half dozen times. Pushing my bike up into that thin air, I have let my imagination run wild thinking about the pioneers of our sport. But I’ve never been there on THE day of the big ride. It’s happened on the first weekend after Labor Day for the past 46 years and now that I spend summers only a short drive away, I really have no excuses for not getting it done.
As most great bad ideas happen in my life, I was sitting at the bar chatting with a good buddy Nicolai and Pearl Pass came up. With the courage of a couple whiskies in us, we said ‘fuck it’ and decided to head up the pass the next morning. The traditional ride goes from Crested Butte to Aspen. But we would start up from the Aspen side (because we live on this side) and try to time it just right and meet the group at the pass, make a little party and then bomb back to town to get kicked out of a couple bars.
Sunday morning came quick and still reeking of booze and spliffs from the night before, I got my bike ready for a day in the alpine. Nicolai loaded up his 1986 Moots Mountaineer with panniers full of beers and snacks. While I tended to my trusty Coconino. We got a last minute call from our homegirl AG and she said not to leave without her. Yes, ma’am. We were now a gang of three.
The drive to the trailhead was just long enough to get a big cup of coffee in us and everyone was starting to look alive. We didn’t say much, but we all agreed on the fact that it was colder than shit outside. Go figure, this morning was the first frost of the year and we were about to go 3500ft higher. We shivered as we geared up to ride. So it goes. We’ll warm up soon enough.
We started out slow and tapered from there. The climb isn’t super hard, but it’s far from easy. Before we knew it, we were at tree line and we sat down to have our first union beer break. We had to help lighten Nicolai’s load. It’s what friends do. A couple Sierra Nevada green cans were drained and then we got back to work.
We’d hike a little then stomp the pedals then hike some more. I stopped to have a little snack and notice that I still have my “Over 21” wrist band on from the night before. I leave it on. I joke to myself that it’s fashionable. Very alpine chic.
At one point, way above tree line, you come around a bend and see the pass for the first time. Off in the distance and maybe 500ft up, you can just barely make out the sign. It’s extremely motivating…for about 30 seconds, then you get back to gasping for air and putting one foot in front of the other. The good news was that I didn’t see anyone else up there yet. Well, except for the trail runner who passed us, went to the top and was already running back. What a fit little jerk. I bet he didn’t have any beers that day. But at least the klunkers coming from Crested Butte weren’t up there yet. We were right on time.
Just as we got to the base of the last steep pitch, I look up and see a few people milling about at the top. They all had that body language of “Fuck yeah! We did it!” Then I see a bike get hoisted overhead and I knew that was our people. I let out a “YEEEEEOOOOW!” and it echos off the cliffs and scree fields around me.
I hear a woman’s voice yell “DIRTY IS THAT YOU?!”
In between gasps for air I yell back “YEEEEEOOOOW!” and it’s met with some cheers and whoops. Hell ya. I know people up there. That’s cool as hell. When our gang of three made it to the top, we were met with hugs and cheers. Cold beers were handed out and the traditional watermelons were chopped up and distributed. If you haven’t had a slice of watermelon and a beer at 12,750ft after a 3 hour climb, I’d highly recommend it.
There were some amazing people up there. Youngsters, old timers, classic bike enthusiasts… we all became quick friends. My buddy Boots, who is typically in spandex and clip-in tap shoes when I see her on rides, came up from Crested Butte on a klunker wearing street clothes. She was about to do her first coaster brake descent, ever. Much respect, it’s an intimidating hill to look down. But just like Nicolai and I at the bar the night before, sometimes you just gotta say fuck-it and go for the ride. There was a strong contingent of Crested Butte locals on shit-heap bikes. They definitely weren’t sober and having a fantastic time. My people. At some point, some special chocolate bars were passed around and most folks entered the next dimension of their ride. A group photo was made and then it was time to ride.
With heads full of altitude and poisonous mushrooms we started down the hill in a chorus of hoots and hollers. I like going fast over fucked up rocky terrain and the challenge of doing it on a rigid bike is even better. I mostly rode my own ride, but I stopped every so often to take some photos and admire the massive views. My brain was turned off, completely devoid of distraction, and my smile was huge. It was an amazing descent.
I’m still in awe at how amazing the day turned out. Positivity and stoke were pouring out of everyone. Even when we had to make a quick stop at the hospital for some stitches, nobody seemed too stressed. Luckily the hospital was on the way to the pub.
You wouldn’t know it by the white hair on my head and face, but the Pearl Pass Klunker tour has been around longer than I have, and it’s a real gift that it’s still happening. To me, this was more than a check mark on a bucket list or some superfluous old tradition. This ride is a beautiful example of how mountain biking started and what it still can be. Cheers to getting weird in the mountains with your friends, no matter what bike you are on.
Damn it feels good to be back. Keep it dirty…by