Larkspur Canyon Gang
By Dave Richards
edited by MBHOF staff
Here’s a brief history of the Canyon Gang —and the story of The Great Race—as told by one of their own. It will give you some background about how they got started and all that, but it’s more about what it was like to be part of their gang in the very early days of what eventually became the international sport now known the world over as mountain biking. Enjoy.
In December of 1971, I and most of my friends were seniors at Redwood High School in Marin County. There were about ten of us who hung around together. We spent a lot of time running around wild in the woods of Baltimore Canyon at the end of Madrone Avenue in Larkspur. By virtue of this association with The Canyon and each other, we had become known as The Canyon Gang.
Our youthful activities were what some might consider unorthodox, to say the least. For instance, when I was 15, The Canyon Gang started riding freight trains on a regular basis (telling our parents we were going on “camping trips” – hah!). By the time I was 17, my pals and I – and even some girlfriends – had ridden boxcars across most of the western states.
Another pastime devised by members of The Canyon Gang – namely Tom S. and Robert K. – was going to the old Marin County dump in San Rafael (now closed), where you could hand a few bucks to one of the crafty old junk dealers and walk away with a dilapidated bicycle or two and maybe some scrounged bike parts.
For years, my two wacky, earnest, longhaired friends were rescuing old beaters from slow death by oxidation. As relentless gravity pulled the dead machines molecule by molecule into the maw of the earth amidst the steaming trash, Tom S. and Robert would dig through the refuse and yank the old bikes back up to the light of day.
Working right there in the dump, they would cannibalize other beaters, wrenching and hammering, gluing and paper-clipping together serviceable instamatic “clunkers.” These were essentially disposable mountain bikes (though we didn’t call them that then), good for one good hard ride and not much else. Use them once, then throw them away.
We would toss the “clunkers” into the back of a pickup and head to the top of Mt. Tam, where we’d give these old bikes, which the day before had been walking towards The Light, one last blazing moment of life screaming down the somber green slopes.
At first it was just for fun, the thrill of the ride, the purity and exhilaration of the experience for its own sake. Then, as this weekend pastime started to catch on with some of the other Gangers, a competitive edge began to kick in—instigated mainly by a fellow named John Y.
If there was one person who really got things rolling on an intensive scale, I would have to say it was John, one of the last of the diehard crazies. John was massive fun—even dangerous—to be around, a true American wild man in the best maniacal traditions of Neal Cassidy.
(In the years to come, it got to the point where, if John and I went out looking for a good time on a Friday night, one of four things would invariably happen: we would get into a hellacious fight [sometimes even with each other], we would get into a car wreck, we would get laid, or we would got to jail. Sometimes interesting combinations of the above would occur.)
This Raiser of Hell Extraordinaire was, and still is, for that matter, a very competitive person, to put it mildly. John is deceptively short but physically very powerful—a human howitzer. Many larger men who have had, shall we say “disagreements?” with John, came away from the encounter contemplating swollen jaws and flattened noses, indelibly and permanently convinced that big surprises can indeed come in little packages.
John was a bit of a latecomer to riding clunkers down The Mountain, but very soon he naturally wanted to be master of this domain. Inexorably, there boiled up an on-running feud over who was the best, the fastest, the craziest down The Mountain, and to John’s mind anyway, it was just the Natural Order Of The Universe that he would always be the first in a pack down Tam. Some of the other Gangers who had been doing it longer felt inclined to dispute this axiom.
Tom S. and Robert might have had adequate determination to win, but they just didn’t have the necessary pull-out-all-the-stops derangement. They didn’t possess, or weren’t possessed by, the raving, twitching, eternally driven demon that inhabited John’s soul.
The only Ganger who stood a realistic chance of beating John was Craig S., a rangy blond kid, somehow craggy at age 17. Craig possessed occasional streaks and flashes of genuine, kick-out-the-jams madness that—if properly channeled—might just upset the favorite.
And so it became inevitable that in order to officially settle the issue once and for all, The Great Race was born.
Poised nine abreast at the gate of the fire road just down from the parking lot at the top of Mt. Tam, several Canyon Gangers, and a few fellow travelers, sat astride a jumble of bikes that were a strange incoherent mishmash of frames and parts. Legs a-tremble with anticipation of the ride to come, they waited to push off.
Guttural howls exploded into the sky as they all launched simultaneously. With legs furiously peddling and gravity kicking in, the nine accelerated rapidly down the old serpentine railroad grade left over from the days of The Crookedest Railroad in The World.
The group separated quickly as John pushed immediately to the front, with Craig, Robert, Tom C. and Tom S. nipping at his back rim.
Pursuing 30 feet behind was a second pack: Kim K. (Robert’s younger brother), Dave B., Ken F. and Harvey O. As his inner demons came to life and fed strength to his pounding, thrashing legs, John slung low and went to work, pulling steadily ahead. Flailing away on his own bike, Craig managed to stay within snarling distance of John as Tom S., Tom C. and Robert fell slowly back. Negotiating blind curves on soft, damp earth, the nine racers slid and skittered around turns that were banked all wrong, seeming to defy several basic laws of physics as they somehow, miraculously stayed upright.
This was decades before the caterwauling of anti-bike voices reached today’s ridiculously high levels, mainly because in those days relatively few people hiked on The Mountain, and even fewer rode bikes on it.
At that time the idea of riding bicycles on dirt fire roads was outlandish. Normal people just didn’t go off paved roads with their bikes—it would wreck them. It was an aberration, an exotic amusement devised by crazed and rowdy kids.
Muscles pumping, reflexes singing, John gradually increased his lead until he was uncatchable.
As they reached the half-way point, it was obviously to all but the feeble-minded that John wasn’t going to just walk away with this race, he was going to sprint madly away with it, laughing and mocking, howlin’ his arrogance into the cold autumn wind that licked around the churning racers.
And then something unbelievable happened.
Let me try that again.
John didn’t just fall.
He didn’t just go down and slide quietly into a manzanita shrub.
Craig was the only one to see it. John streaked across the burning blue sky.
Apparently, he had become so caught up in his own invincibility, so full of confidence in his perfectly firing synaptic wiring and the fluid meshing of his finely-tuned musculature, that he mis-negotiated a major turn.
Craig later said that “it was just *&^%$#! amazing, man, I mean, I rounded a corner and right where I expected John to be there was just this cloud of brown dirt suspended in the air. Then something caught my eye and I looked up to see John leaving the earth in a high arc, he never even slowed down, man, and then he began a gradual descent into the valley below. Actually, it was really beautiful and even graceful. I would have stayed to watch him some more but I had a race to win, you know? I thought, ‘Well he’s dead’ there was no question in my mind. But first things first—win the damn race. I figured I could always come back later and help search for the body.”
The rest of the racers blasted past the diaphanous plume of dust as it lingered ghost-like in the air, just a whisper now, merely a light brown rapidly dissipating suggestion marking John’s place of departure from the competition, and they hauled down The Mountain.
Craig was beginning to feel the warm glow of victory now. His delicate olfactory sensors could smell it clearly, the fibers straining forward, vibrating in delicious anticipation. Those at the very back of the race could see that Craig was so far ahead of everyone else that the conclusion was foregone, etched indelibly in the dark basalt of The Mountain.
Then Kim K. heard something behind him and looked back to see what it was. His eyes grew big and his mouth fell open. The sight was so disconcerting that he nearly lost his balance and fell over. It was nothing less than The Stuff of Legend.
John, somehow still alive, somehow still in the race, was behind him—and gaining fast.
Kim K. did the only thing a sane and reasonable person would do. He got out of the way.
Because John was driven now, he had become an agent of The Devil. He was a vector straight from the shouting cave of hell as he moved full out down The Mountain, banqueting on the off-the-grid glory of the moment.
John shot past Kim K., Dave B., Ken F. and Harvey O. like they were standing still, and they saw that he was possessed by an evil fiend. His hair moved in the rushing wind like brown fire, his torn clothing streamed behind him like the tattered banners from some ancient, bloody Cossack battle.
John howled into the wind like an unleashed banshee, startling Tom S., Tom C. and Robert as he burned past them pressing low, flaps down, bury the nose. Craig heard this sound and glanced back. Though he would never admit to being afraid, Craig later said that the whole experience was surreal.
It was like John had come back from the dead, or performed voodoo, or black magic… something. There are just some powers in this world that are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with rational thought.
It was all there and so much more. Fiery blasts of Arctic wind forced up flared nostrils, surfing a tidal wave of adrenaline, riding the centrifuge, caressing the B’s, savoring the intensity, feeling the panic surge to your sparking ganglia, holding to the seat in a cojones-crushing grip, time compressing into seconds that crouched and wrestled with each other…
…not just pushing the envelope but shoving it, kicking it off the table, then viciously stomping it into little pieces.
Suddenly, it all became so very clear. School was open now. The University of John, where the curriculum is Soar and Peak, Crash and Burn, classes were in progress on Binge and Purge, with extra credit for Pillage, Plunder and Torch; a seminar was just starting on Torture and Kill; and –oh yes—doctorates were presently available in Take No Prisoners and Slaughter All the Women and Children as he charged down The Mountain with no concern for anything whatsoever save to WIN AT ALL COSTS.
…….and he was moving Ever Faster……………..reaching the very end of the Karmic loop, shedding and shredding all his previous lives, feasting savagely on the possibility of any future incarnations, Living Forever In the Now…….
Craig saw this final marshaling of the Dark Forces as John pulled ahead. It was a sign, something learned for the years of his life yet to come. And it was okay, because he finally understood now.
And Craig promptly blew up, leaving precious deposits of skin and hair, meat and gristle, on the cold rough fire road, troweled like some strange and colorful mortar over the indifferent metamorphic strata of Mount Tamalpais.
But just before he went down, right before he tasted the bitter brown dirt, Craig screamed out at the very top of his lungs, “YOU’RE *&^%$#! CRAZY, MAN! YOU KNOW THAT?! YOU ARE OUT OF YOUR *&^%$#! MIND!!!”
And John never looked back, just answered with a mighty, maniacal witch’s cackle that rang victoriously through the green hills and valleys of autumn……
We stood sipping our beers as John came roaring in on his clunker, his eyes blazing with madness. And curiously, just as quickly as it had arrived the demon, muttering to itself, subsided. Now, skulking back into the brimstone to its subterranean padded cell, John reverted back to just crazy John. He dismounted, poured himself a large beer and downed it in one exhilarated gulp.
And we, who had borne witness to this day’s events would never forget the sinister miracle, the terrible yet magnificent beauty of John’s Ride.
All of the Canyon Gang Racers eventually made it to the keg cooled by magic snow scooped from besides the railroad tracks in the High Sierra, marveling at Johns amazing comeback.
Craig—helped by Ken F. and Harvey O.—eventually limped in, wrecked and bloodied and without his clunker, which lay in pieces somewhere along the skirts of The Mountain. Although he was scraped and torn, he still managed to smile craggily and propose a toast to John- The Victor!
Besides being an onlooker to the amazing events that transpired that day, another reason I remember December 19th of ’71 so clearly is because it was also the day I turned 18. I’m just relating what I saw, when I saw it (at that time I kept a detailed journal).
Robert K., an artist of sorts, foraged in the back of Kim’s pickup until he found something on which to draw—the cardboard backing from a picture frame.
To commemorate this day, he drew a couple of outlines of The Mountain and then wrote down the names of the participants of The Great Race and the order in which they placed.
I spoke with Robert recently. He lives in a tiny hamlet in the coastal mountains of Northern California. He still has the old piece of cardboard, and keeps it safely stashed in The Canyon Archives.