I'm standing cautiously, a few steps back from the service counter at Brian's Bicycles and Cross-Country Skis in Mammoth Lakes, California. I'm having second thoughts about what I'm doing here. We're visiting Mammoth Mountain to test long-travel 29s, most of them carbon, some of them sporting bulbous carbon rims with cavernous inner widths, and half of them still embargoed. I'd called Brian's two weeks ago on the hope and prayer that the shop would accept an unreleased bike, shipped in a hurried manner, and not open the box.
Eyeing my surroundings, I'm now not so certain I needed worry about coveted product and secret embargos. I'm in a bike shop. Like, the real kind: one owner, the seasoned smell of service and known surroundings, old parts and sure bets of what sells. Nothing fancy, yet deep know-how that's felt--the force of it practically reverberates from old black-and-whites of road bikes above a wall of inner tubes, most of them Schrader, stacked behind the counter. Brian Ellison eyes me over glasses behind a nearby truing stand and saunters over, "Can I help you?"
We're not on the main strip. We're arguably not even on the way to the mountain. We're six or so blocks south of Main Street in a slim, shotgun storefront straddled by a liquor store on one side, a bowling alley on the other. On the way to the golf course. What was I doing here?
Time hadn't been on my side leading up to this trip. I'd substitute-covered inbound carbon arrivals while our gear editor took an unwed honeymoon and our web editor quit. Now I'm in Mammoth.
The little hunting I'd done led here. I'm an '80s baby who grew up riding cantilevered contraptions in the '90s. Mammoth to me means Jürgen Beneke, Myles Rockwell, John Tomac and Missy Giove. Speed and exhaustion. Full-face helmets, ski goggles and skin suits. Dust, 60-tooth rings and the F-in' Kamikaze Downhill.
In order to enjoy the future--five carbon-fiber sleds of it anyway--I had to understand the past. Mammoth's past. Brian Ellison is Mammoth's past with an unwavering, true look to its future.
Ellison opened Mammoth's first bike shop and it was illegal. When I ask his age, he tells me 64 or 65, somewhere in there. His business card does not contain an e-mail address. He was the bike guy in town, a devout roadie who moved to Mammoth in 1971 from San Diego County. The town was small. Few rode at all, if so, not as competitive road cyclists. Ellison did, so inadvertently was the town mechanic, morphing his expertise into a sign proclaiming "Honk for Bike Service" hanging outside of Highland Lodge on Old Mammoth Road. Then the Feds and state police honked, and asked for permits. He had to go legit, which he did, moving to town and officially opening what later became Brian's Bicycles and Cross-Country Skis in 1976.
Talking to Ellison, it's evident he's seen change in Mammoth, witnessing growth, identity and economy evolve with time's passing. With early riders exploring the town's boundaries on fat tires, he also took part in land-access issues, in a time period before user conflict existed for mountain bikes.
"There weren't any mountain bike trails, they were just riding dirt roads," explains Ellison, referring to early ragtag riders with modified cruisers he'd helped create. "They were riding up into the backcountry, and that's when the conversation started: What are we going to allow or not allow mountain bikes to do in the forest?" he adds, referring to national forest and Wilderness officials addressing and questioning mountain bike access surrounding Mammoth Lakes.
Attention quickly shifted as in 1985, when the Kamikaze lured spectators and racers to Mammoth Mountain.
To the Dome
Mammoth Mountain stands 11,057 feet tall. Standing at the top, it's an eerie feeling envisioning Schwinn cruisers lining the fire road's start, as it leads from the lava dome's treeless top shoulder, plummeting 2,000 vertical feet near continuously downward. Exposed Kamikaze fire road shoulders leave sight lines transfixed as the Minaret peaks swallow remaining patches of skyline whole. Looking east, the Owens Valley unfolds, backed by the White Mountains and Inyos farther south. The Eastern Sierra's relief is daunting, dramatic rise occurring impatiently in a land layered by darkened ridgelines.
Fortunately, for our testing duties we're not racing but we do reap the rewards of sweeping summit views, starting our loop down Skid Marks trail, which carefully flanks the mountain's eastern shoulder, wrapping thin, alpine, pristine lines before wholeheartedly opening to rocky chunk as speeds increase while switchbacks sharpen. Skid Marks offers riders a true alpine experience--as seems to be becoming more popular--starting just feet from the gondola's Eleven53 summit station. It contrasts nicely with Kamikaze, old and new each taking their own shoulder down from over 11,000 feet up.
After sputtering to a stop at the base of Skid Marks, giving our hands welcomed pause from incessant braking duties, we drop Bridge the Gap, a high-speed fire road testing off-camber cornering prowess, reminiscent of Kamikaze's outright onslaught of speed. Rounding the bend at McCoy Station, we lurch up Brake Through, a gut-busting fire road ascent before soft-pedaling, thankfully, onto Gravy Train, a winding traverse of a singletrack more than adept at testing a rider--and bike's--needle-threading skills over pumice while avoiding intermittent boulders lining and occasionally littering the trail.
Afterward, we hop on Shock Treatment, an historic black-diamond descent punctuated with ledges and constrictive root-lined chutes. It's an oldie, but certainly a goodie within our test circuit, bringing steep surfy descents to modern, slacked-out 29ers. The convergence of old and new within Mammoth's bike park is indiscernible--one second you're rock stuttering through a speed-blurred ribbon of tech you'd swear is EWS-worthy, the next you're gritting your teeth as two tires claw for traction in an old, off-camber fire-road cutaway. The equalizer between both worlds invariably is length--our laps at Mammoth were long. It's easy to see how those seeking views but hoping to earn their uplift could take one Panorama Gondola ride to the top, then traverse their way across the mountain's midsection, making for a hardy ride in one descent alone.
Cruising back to Panorama Gondola's base--still descending, everything at Mammoth is drawn-out--we jump on Beach Cruiser, Mammoth's oldest trail aside from Downtown, linking the modern-day Village at Mammoth to the Main Lodge. While Beach Cruiser may date back to 1987, it narrowly undulates like any prime modern singletrack, linking occasional berms and natural root lips, the difference between old and new again near indecipherable. Midway through, we peel off on a newer jump line, adding in small gaps before funneling to our lower convergence, lap complete--modern features and trails punctuating historic mountain bike speedways.
From Motors to Pedal Power (and back again)
If Ellison can be credited with helping fuel riders' fat-tire passions in-town and nearby, Bill Cockroft and founder Dave McCoy are due a heartfelt thank you for their tireless efforts on-hill. Cockroft, a 1994 Mountain Bike Hall of Fame Inductee who’s still serving as senior vice president for Mammoth Mountain (having started in 1969), attributes the idea of a mountain bike park to a tip his friend Bob Hadley gave him while both were attending a United States Cycling Federation (USCF) board meeting in late 1986 in Monterey, California.
"He [Hadley] said, ‘You need to go by this motocross park in Hollister on the way home,’" reflects Cockroft, when I ask him about the bike park's origins. "I did, and to me it was just made for mountain bikes ... I went home and talked with Dave [McCoy] and said, 'Let's make a mountain bike park, let's open up the Kamikaze to these riders, let's let them be on the gondola ... we'll build cross-country trails.’ He was all into that."
McCoy and Cockroft, along with Don Douglass, a longtime Eastern Sierra local, had already tasted success in 1985 with the Mammoth Cycling Classic, combining road cycling and mountain biking in one event. The mountain portion had borrowed from road stage racing, combining multiple disciplines. The 1984 mountain portion of the race combined trials, XC and DH (using the Kamikaze), ushering in more than 800 racers, quite an accomplishment considering the 1984 NORBA Nationals didn't even feature downhill as a discipline.
Further building on success, Cockroft added another format in 1986:
"I was curious of having something that was easy to watch and easy to televise, and a person could sit there in the stands and drink a beer and understand what was going on in front of them, see the whole show. I adapted something off of World Pro Skiing and we adapted it to mountain biking and called it the 'dual slalom.'”
It was the first dual slalom in history, and pros were somewhat skeptical, "It was a little bit suspect," admits Cockroft, "And they got into it, and they loved it--you know, we had a prize purse for it."
The more I talk to Cockroft over the phone, the more I realize Mammoth has had a forward-thinking outlook on mountain biking's capabilities since the sport's inception.
As Ellison, from Brian's Bicycles puts it, "The McCoy family and Mammoth Mountain has always been on the cutting edge ... they've been that kind of place and those kind of people ... if they weren't trying to do something up in their garage on the mountain, they were opening their doors to people that were doing things, that was always the approach."
Out of the Park
At the end of our stay, we ride Mammoth Rock trail, just past the golf course, down the street from Brian's Bicycles and Cross-Country Skis where I started the week. The trail bubbles over sage-bush hills before pitching upward, climbing to Lake Mary where we stop and jump in, enjoying a cool reprieve in the fading light. Senior writer Ryan Palmer reminds us that he was just here weeks ago, during Trek's Remedy and e-bike launch, having ridden the upper reaches of the trail from the resort past the lake we now enjoy. It reminds me, Mammoth Mountain bounded past yet another frontier the rest of the industry is tiptoeing around: e-bikes. Class 1 e-bikes are allowed within the park and may be rented from Mammoth.
In a time when the bicycle industry remains cautious, Mammoth maintains the same ethos it's held steadfast to since inception: progression. Some probably criticize Mammoth’s current decision, yet if you look at Mammoth's track record--the Kamikaze, bringing the ski lift model to fat tires and the birth of dual slalom, it looks like being ahead of the curve has served Mammoth well. Only time will tell.