Gary Bell smiles back on decades in Tahoe as shop hits 30th anniversary
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Gary Bell peered out the smudged window of his small Lake Tahoe Boulevard shop, Sierra Ski and Cycle Works, at a row of bikes brought in by customers for a fix or a tune. For no apparent reason, his weather-worn features wrinkled into a toothy grin.
“This is what we like, playing with bikes and playing with skis,” Bell said. “If we’re not in here, we’re out using this stuff.”
This year, his business is celebrating its 30th anniversary – three decades of a delicate balancing act, the right cocktail of one part work and two parts play.
“He just likes to play all the time,” said Dylan Dickie, who works part time at the shop. “I think it brings people happiness when they get to play as much as he does. And (Bell) knows happiness is greater than wealth.”
Throughout his years on the slopes and trails, Bell has witnessed major changes in both sports. He’s watched mountain biking explode from homemade fat tires built in dusty garages and small shops into the billion-dollar industry it currently is. He’s seen telemarking rise from an obscure pastime not allowed at the resorts to the fastest growing sector of ski retail. Yet, as much as he’s seen, he’s also had an impact.
In the 1970s when few were riding off road, he built mountain bikes out of old cruiser frames, calling them “clunkers.” With friends, he connected trails throughout Tahoe, creating and naming what is now Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – one of the area’s most well known single-tracks. He started and, for 13 years, managed the Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association. In his early winters here, he showed resort managers what could be done on telemark skis.
“It’s all been kind of a blur,” Bell said. “It’s exciting that I’ve been able to be on the leading edge of these sports. It’s exciting to see how many people do them today. But it’s hard for me to visualize. It’s been neat watching the growth.”
The interior of Bell’s shop is riddled with artifacts from his years of involvement in both skiing and cycling. A faded poster-sized photo of a radical-looking 20-something Bell wheelie-ing one of his clunkers over a granite boulder hangs from a filing cabinet.
Bell’s early telemark skis, the same ones that often got him ejected and finally accepted at Heavenly in the early 1980s, are fixed to the ceiling in the “ski museum” near a pair of late 1800s model wood skis complete with real animal skin bottoms.
A 1875 Penny-farthing replica – the original fixed-gear bicycle – with its massive front wheel waits in the corner.
“I was always curious about that period of bicycle history, what it was like to ride one of those,” Bell said of the Penny-farthing. “It’s harder than anything I’ve ever ridden. I’ll take my downhill bike all day long and jump off rocks and slam through crazy stuff. (The Penny) is way more scary.”
Bell’s love for the sports and his extensive knowledge of history and mechanics has, over time, drawn him a wide reputation. He acknowledges it with a laugh and passes the credit over to his coworkers.
“It all stems from that passion, that desire to be doing stuff,” Bell said. “People appreciate that.”
But his notoriety has shown up in unlikely places, his wife Becky Bell noted.
“We were in Peru in a museum and someone knew him,” she said. “We were at the top of Mt. Shasta, having lunch, and someone walked up and said, “Hey, aren’t you Gary Bell?’ I was like, ‘OK, I’m outta here.'”
Bell moved to Lake Tahoe in 1975 from Vallejo, Calif., for a year of skiing and a year away from school. It was a drought year and Bell thought he’d stay for just one more season. That was 35 years ago.
“Tahoe gets its hook in you and you can’t get away,” Bell said. “I love it.”
In 1980, he started Sierra Ski and Cycle Works after the previous tenant Rock Bottom Sports, where Bell worked, shut and the building went up for sale. At 25 years old, he opened the shop in conjunction with two other shops, one in Squaw Valley and another on the North Shore.
“Squaw saw us making money and they wanted to put their own shop in there,” Bell remembered. “The Kings Beach location, I bought out my partner and sold that. I didn’t want to work that much.”
Sierra Ski and Cycle Works has been in the same location throughout the years. The town has changed quite a bit and Bell is quick to name the businesses that have come and gone. Part of the reason he’s been able to stay open so long is because of the customers who line their bikes up outside, he said gratefully.
“We have a super cool clientele, both locals and visitors,” Bell said. “We get a different type of people in here than most of the big shops get. It just makes it fun. It makes us interesting for us.”
This Friday, shop staff are hosting a 30th anniversary celebration bike swap and barbecue, a return to the shop’s beginnings selling and trading used gear. As always, dogs will be welcome.
“We like the level we’re at,” Bell said when asked what the next 30 years holds for him and the shop. “We just want to enjoy this right now.””
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