There are some bikes that call to you, “let’s go” or cheer you on, “we can go further”. This is a story steeped in the lore of mountain biking and one of those bikes. The bicycle is a 1936 Schwinn Admiral in the rare XL King Size. I put it together with parts and pieces from a few bikes of the same vintage, and a newer drum brake in the front, some new alloy rims and knobby mountain bike tires. It was built with the sole purpose, to klunk. Klunk as a verb, the act of klunking. The bike pulls from the roots of mountain biking when some California counter-culture types and road racers converted fat tire balloon bicycles into dirt shredding down hill terrors, these men and women, always striving to go further and faster birthed the mountain bike industry. Charlie Kelly chronicles all of this beautifully in his book “Fat Tire Flyer”. pearl passFor 39 years mountain bikers and klunker riders have made an annual pilgrimage to Crested Butte, Colorado to test their skills and equipment against one mountain pass, Pearl Pass, that connects Crested Butte with Aspen. The story goes that a group of motorcycle riders from Aspen once rumbled into town bragging over beers at the Grubsteak Saloon, and flirting with the local girls, claiming to have made the impossible feat of traversing Pearl Pass. The local boys of Crested Butte were not going to let themselves be out done, but lacking in the resources of the affluent Aspenites, they decided to ride their townie bikes over the pass to drink their beer and flirt with their women. It was a grand plan and a better party as the 15 Crested Butte locals loaded up a keg of beer and camping gear in a truck and rode off that day in September 1976. They camped in Cumberland Basin the first night and arrived in Aspen the next day. Legend states only 2 riders made the whole journey without riding in the support vehicle. The next year all the riders were off fighting fires, but in 1978 a group of California riders who had heard about the ride showed up. Among them were Wende Craig, Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly, and Joe Breeze – history was made and the tradition continues today. I grew up racing BMX in Pennsylvania and never heard of Pearl Pass. As I graduated to mountain bikes and moved to Colorado in the 90’s I still never felt the pull to ride the pass. It was not until last year that I found a group of riders dedicated to reviving one speed klunkers and conquering that fabled pass. I got hooked, partly because I was feeling disenchanted with the costs associated to the modern mountain bike. I thought this klunker thing could be just the ticket to get back to the basics. My first trip over the pass was a success except I really wanted to ride self supported and the old steel baskets I tried to use were not going to cut it, and my old klunker was too small. That’s when the ’36 Admiral and one picture changed everything. Photo Sep 13, 9 26 02 AM Sometimes you wonder about old bikes, where have they been? What have they seen? Who rode them? My Admiral is no exception, it’s long and tall and so comfortable, and it’s like a thoroughbred made to ride long distance. The picture is of Mike Rust, a mountain biking and bikepacking pioneer whose mysterious disappearance in 2009 is the subject of the documentary “The Rider and the Wolf.” In this picture he is smiling on Pearl Pass completely leaded with gear pedaling past other early mountain bikers all with smiling faces. I wanted to be this man. I wanted the freedom he exuded. I wanted the fitness, the confidence. I wanted all of it. Since my bike is very heavy I needed to pack as light as possible. So I bought a small Jandd frame pack, a giant Timbuk 2 seat bag, and a light down sleeping bag. Instead of a tent I picked up a nylon tarp and taped the seams, and hunted the surplus stores for a set of small aluminum pup tent poles. I found a cool set of figure 9 carabineers that made guy lines and rigged a snap. I already had a backpacking stove and an aluminum percolator pot that could serve as my coffee maker, cup, and boiling pot. I was pleased with the compactness of the kit. If I carried one change of clothes and food and water in a camelback I was all set. pearl passIt’s 9am in Crested Butte and a small crowd is gathering on Elk Avenue. An older couple asks questions about the bicycles assembled, “Where are you going?” Do you even have brakes or gears?” Well wishes are shared (even though they obviously think we’re nuts) handshakes given and received, our smiles are genuine but mask the nagging fear that lives in the back of your mind when test yourself against the mountain. Suddenly there is a line of bikes on the street and the cameras come out. 10 riders are blocking the gentle morning traffic. There’s Austin Weaver, Sandy Hague, Alexander Reshetniak, Wolf J Fly, Ryan Marley, David Mc Donnell, Jim Harlow, Howie Hammerman, James Rooke and myself. We roll out of town together heading south to the bike path that will take us out to Brush Creek Road. Soon Alex peals off to drive the support vehicle, and the group thins out considerably after the first water crossing. Sandy turns around to take care of his sick dog back in town. Now the 10 are 8. The day shines as bright as a newly minted dime, and the shinning sun matches the shinning smiles on the faces of the riders. At the junction of Pearl Pass Road and Brush Creek we pause for a group photo. Now the pain begins, its all uphill to camp from here. Some pitches are too steep to ride with my single speed, so I walk. Oh my, the scenery! As I climb up through the trees, Castle Peak begins to loom large on the horizon. It’s pointed and many layered spires seem to touch the sky. It reminds me of when I was a boy and visiting the beach, we would sit down near the waves where the sand was saturated with water. You could drizzle the water and sand through the tips of your fingers creating dollops of sand in pointy spires, like little goopy stalagmites in a cave. I can’t imagine how big the fingers are that created this masterpiece that stands at the end of Cumberland Basin near where we are camped for the night. The last rider rolls in around 4 pm, just in time for a fine campfire, dinner, and beer. The stories and drinks flow long after sunset until the frosty cold chases us to our sleeping bags where the rushing stream and endless stars sing us to sleep. pearl passWith the morning comes coffee, bacon, eggs and finding a sunny spot to dry the frost off my gear. By nine the wheels are rolling, up and up the rocky switchbacks. The steep grades leave little pedal time but plenty of time to look around. Above tree line the world opens up. It’s easy to feel small with such vast amounts of ground and sky. Like the road before us, time and space again are endless. By noon I am sitting at 12,705 feet breathing in the sights with Marley and James who’s superhuman effort put them to the top of the pass first. Those to roll down towards Aspen and I cheer the rest of our group to the top. Wolf comes in with his arm in a sling having dislocated his shoulder on the ride, he’ll spend much of the rest of the day in the truck until Austin uses a bicycle to pop it back in because apparently he has experience with such things. pearl pass pearl passDown and down the road goes, it is so rocky that you have to link together move after move, laughing hysterically that you survived that last only to roll into another. It’s like you’re a rubber-tired pinball, bouncing from rock to rock only to get flipped against the bumpers and do it again. “The Who” have got nothing on this pinball wizard. At some point a stream runs down the middle of the trail like a slow falling waterfall. Some parts are just too slippery to ride, and the water under the rocky surface makes the whole ground move beneath your wheels. Unbelievably it’s only 2pm as I roll onto the asphalt of Castle Creek Road. A long look at the map lets me strategize my next move, and plan the best way back to Crested Butte. Since there is plenty of time I climb up Express Creek Road, which joins Castle Creek Road just outside Ashcroft. I climb about a mile looking for a campsite. There is not much flat ground so I finally settle on a little overgrown ledge over the side of the road. I pitch my tent, toss out my sleeping bag, and stash some gear. I hang a camp towel in a tree near the road to mark my spot since it will be dark when I get back here again. The bike feels light and free without it’s baggage, and the 12 miles down to town rush by. Many of the aspen leaves are already on the ground and that fall musty smell is strong. I pause very little, all I’m thinking about is the cold beer and warm food of the J Bar in Aspen. pearl passIt’s after 4 pm and the sun is still shinning boldly through the windows at the J Bar, and nearly every stool at the bar has a sun burned and smiling face of a rider. Everyone is there, including spouses and friends. Sandy made the trip the long way around by car after tending to his dog. Our bellies are full and cold beer is in our hands, the joy flows out the door, spilling out on to the sidewalk; a stuffy wedding party almost slips in it but manages to get around before they crack a smile. Some look at our bikes and us like we are aliens, others ask if we are a band. We laugh heartily. I could stay like this forever, but by 5:30 there is a nagging in my limbs. I need to go. Friends offer rides but I refuse, I need to do this alone. Back on the bicycle I rush out of town like a man possessed, the devil is on my tail and he chases me mercilessly up the 13 miles to camp. As I climb in my sleeping bag exhausted my heart hammers so loud that I lie and watch the dying light until I drift into a fitful full bellied sleep. pearl passWhen dawn comes I make coffee and break camp. Sitting on a log I can see much of Castle Creek valley. I watch as the light plays in the trees and eat a little granola and sip my coffee. By 8 I’m moving on up Express Creek Road. The sun has not reached me; the air is cool and refreshing. I feel stronger now than on day one. The movement of pedaling and pushing the loaded old heavy bike are second nature now, and as I move through glowing green and gold tunnels on the road my heart is filled with gratitude, my limbs full of vigor. Why have I not done this before? It seems like the most natural thing to live on the bike. I didn’t see or hear another soul all the way up Express Creek to Taylor Pass. At the top I eat and take pictures. The sign says Gunnison 53 miles, let’s save that for another day. I follow Taylor Traverse Road to trail 400 or East Brush Creek. Finally some single track, the trail is fantastic, rolling and fast, swooping through the dense foliage that lines the trail. I can see the signs that just a few weeks ago these hillsides were exploding with wildflowers. A few motorcycles and mountain bikes pass me along the trail all on missions of their own. As I push up the headwall at the top of Star Pass two motorcyclists cheer me on. We sit and taking in the sights we share stories and my last pear. One gentleman is moving to Washington State, it sounds beautiful wedged between the mountain and the sea, but I can’t imagine leaving this behind. Now the down begins for real. My overheating brakes sizzle with each water crossing. At some point I come into a stand of large trees and I see new prayer flags flying. As I come into the grove I know where I am, this is the shrine of William Dean Olson, the rider who died a little more than a month before during the Crested Butte Enduro. I didn’t know him, but I was overcome with emotion. A brother went down here in these trees and I cried and cried… Finally I pull myself together and pedal on, what else can we do? The descent is wonderful and all too soon I close the loop at the bottom of Pearl Pass Road, only two more water crossings and the long spin back to Crested Butte. By 2 pm I’m back on Elk Avenue, I see other riders who are just returning from the long shuttle ride from Aspen to Crested Butte. I’m so glad I came this way. Incredulous and grateful, I have covered 80 or so miles, climbed three mountain passes over 12 thousand feet, slept two nights beneath the stars, all on this amazing 79 year old bike in this amazing corner of Western Colorado.pearl pass

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