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Ode to fat tires and the faces that ride them

Rob Bhatt

Mountain bicycles may not have been born at Lake Tahoe, but there can be no doubt that the two were made for each other.

After all, the type of geological formations ringing the basin gave the sports vehicle its name.

Some call mountain biking the best way to get to know the mountain.

See, hear and smell the mountain.

And sometimes, for the over-enthusiastic, to taste the mountain.

Feel her soft, gentle curves and hard, jagged rocks.

At Lake Tahoe, there are the extreme, who travel the country in search of fame and what fortune top-level competition and accompanying endorsements can afford.

There are pseudo yuppies, who end their office-cramped workday by getting phat on fat tires to pump the energy back into their adrenaline-deprived lifestyles.

Some incorporate the sport into a strict exercise regimen.

Others do it to stave off boredom while waiting for ski or snowboard season.

Like the mountains themselves, limitless are the faces and people behind them in the area’s mountain bike community.

Tahoe Extreme

Included in the roughly 3,000-racer field in last week’s NORBA National Series stop at Mammoth Mountain was a roughly 20-member contingent from South Lake Tahoe. (See David Greco’s roundup on today’s sports page).

At the head of the class is South Shore product Shaun Palmer, the downhill bike racer who has quickly worked his way up in the sport’s ranks.

And there are up-and-coming phenoms like Matt Gerken and Travis and Amber Ramos. Amber Ramos, only 10, took third in expert women’s cross country and first in the women’s hill climb at Mammoth.

Lake Tahoe has produced the sport’s early pioneers and continues to crank out top-level contenders. Still, the area does not have the reputation as a breeding ground for the sport’s elite like Durango, Colo., and Salt Lake City … yet.

Many from the area seemed poised for greatness as the sport comes of age.

“Usually what it takes is one guy from a community having success to light a fire,” says Zapata “Zap” Espinosa, executive editor of Mountain Bike Magazine.

Travis Ramos credits the terrain for helping shape the area’s riders.

“Everything’s laid back here and lets you relax,” he says. “But the mountains let you go after your goals and train hard.”

Tuesday night ride

“It’s good exercise and beautiful scenery,” said Aaron Farley between cool sips of a draft lager in the Tudor Pub at Dory’s Oar Restaurant after a Tuesday night ride on Powerline Road. “Nothing makes me feel better than taking a big gasp of air and knowing that it’s clean.”

Between 20 and 30 people, if not more, meet once a week to explore terrain in a fast-paced and friendly environment organized by South Shore Bike Shop of South Lake Tahoe.

The length of the ride and the pace are determined by ability levels of those who show up. Members in the group often turn each other on to new trails.

“No one ever gets stuck on a trail,” Farley adds. “Someone’s always got one of the tools that’s necessary (to repair damaged equipment).”

Respect

As if a 10-mile, 1,600-foot vertical climb is not enough, how about capping it off by digging and clearing brush on a hot, summer day?

That was what the Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association and friends did last Sunday near Marlette Peak.

A roughly 15-member group of riders worked on the Tahoe Rim Trail northeast of Marlette Lake during the TAMBA-organized trail maintenance day.

Most pedaled up grueling hills above Spooner Lake to get to the roughly one-mile-long job site.

Finding time for trail maintenance is no easy chore for those who already have full-time jobs like Incline Village Elementary School teacher Michelle Bassett.

“What’s nice about this is, you don’t have to give up a day of riding to work on the trail,” she said after last Sunday’s work project.

TAMBA is credited for facilitating the growing harmony between the mountain bike community and other trail users – particularly Tahoe Rim Trail, Inc.

When it formed in 1981, TRT had no idea how popular mountain bikes would become. Organizers envisioned hikers and equestrians only on the 150-mile loop around the lake.

For years, TRT excluded and generally looked down upon mountain bikes despite TAMBA’s efforts dating back to 1988 to work on trails and educate riders about etiquette. Two winters ago, TAMBA, TRT and state and federal land managers began meeting to work out differences.

Since then, TRT and land managers have opened 74 miles – nearly half of the Rim Trail – to fat-tire bicycles.

TAMBA bought signs advising trail users about right-of-way and advocates courteous riding through its newsletter. The group’s motto is one word: respect.

Says Sierra Cycle Works owner and TAMBA co-founder Gary Bell, “It’s all about being able to have multiple-use trails.”

TRT Executive Director Lynda McDowell admits that most of TRT’s more than 700 members are still wary of mountain bikes. They cringe each time a biker screams down a hill without slowing for anyone in his or her path. But this type of cyclist is becoming the exception rather than the rule.

The simple “hello” most mountain bike riders offer when they stop to let others pass have eased the misgivings about the two-wheeled trail users.

“I feel good with what’s happening,” McDowell says. “The movement is in the right direction.”

Freedom

U.S. Forest Service officials estimate that there are about 350 miles of managed roads and trails open to mountain bikes within the Tahoe Basin on federal lands alone.

The message is clear: plenty of mountain for the bike.

Mountain bikes do not pollute.

They traverse large distances and can easily be thrown over a shoulder to let the rider scramble over rocks or around a waterfall blocking the trail.

They let the rider test his or her own limits while enjoying the rejuvenating powers of an hour, a day or more surrounded only by mountains, trees, streams and friends.

To make things easier, most area ski resorts have made trails along their slopes accessible to mountain bikers who pay to ride lift chairs up the mountain.

Perhaps Bell sums it up best: “It’s freedom. You can get to so many places where there’s no other way to do it. There’s no other ground-based transportation that can cover the terrain like a mountain bike can.”


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