Richard Cunningham was an avid motorcycle racer before the back-to-nature movement came along and set him off on what he now calls a "wholesome oatmeal-whole wheat transmutation."
So, instead of roaring around a dusty, exhaust-filled track, Cunningham found himself crouched over the handlebars of a sleek European racing bicycle, gliding silently and cleanly over asphalt streets.
Then came the call of the wild, and before long Cunningham was riding his 10-speed on the dirt fire roads that crisscross the Santa Ana Mountains.
A handful of other cyclists soon joined him on Orange County's backcountry trails. Monte Ward was one: From the back rooms of his Costa Mesa bike shop he rescued some aging Schwinn balloon-tire cruisers--rusting paper-route relics--and with a group of friends took to trails around Upper Newport Bay, the Santa Ana Mountains and the coastal bluffs in what is now Crystal Cove State Park.
Ward and his cohorts were inspired in part by the now-legendary exploits of a group of Northern California riders who were hurtling down the steep hills of Marin County in the late 1970s. Pioneers such as Tom Ritchie and Gary Fisher started by grafting heavy-duty brakes and multiple gears onto old single-speed "clunkers." (Ten-speed road bikes, with their frail, lightweight frames and skinny tires, weren't able to stand up to the rigors of riding off-road.)
Before long, Fisher and Ritchie were building custom bikes specifically for riding off-road. By 1980, the first off-road bicycle races were being organized, and in Placentia, Cunningham began building his custom Mantis mountain bikes.
A new sport had been born.
Today, the fat-tire revolution is in full swing. Most bicycle makers now carry an off-road line, and according to industry estimates, mountain bikes now compose about half of all bicycle sales.
The bikes are not cheap. With the entry of large bicycle companies--especially Japanese companies--into the field, prices for quality off-road bicycles now start at about $350 and rise quickly into the $1,000 range. Custom bikes can cost even more--Cunningham's elite Mantis bicycles run from $1,300 to $2,200, and he builds only about 110 each year.
The bikes are not found only on the trail. With their wide, stable tires and upright seats, they have become a popular around-town bike; in fact, most mountain bikes are never taken off the road, according to the National Off-Road Bicycle Assn.
But it is in the backcountry that mountain bikes are most at home. The fat, treaded tires are made to grip corners through dirt and mud; the aluminum or alloy frames are built to take a bumpy ride but are light enough for the bikes to be carried easily. With 18 speeds, all but the steepest hills can be climbed, and the flat, upright handlebars allow better visibility and more control on fast descents. By their looks, they are still the spiritual descendants of the old cruisers, but the technology of mountain bikes is quickly catching up to the best of the road bicycles.
In Orange County, mountain bikes are a common sight on many backcountry trails. Chino Hills State Park in the northeastern corner of the county, largely undeveloped and lined with miles of fire roads and single-track trails, is a popular spot. The canyons of the Santa Ana Mountains--Silverado, Black Star, Modjeska, Trabuco--are prime off-road biking locations, as are areas off Ortega Highway, including Caspers Regional Wilderness Park.
The backcountry of Crystal Cove State Park, on the coast between Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar, can probably stake a claim as the county's favorite destination for mountain bikers. Its 3,000 acres contain 17 miles of trails, and the hilly terrain ranges in elevation from sea level to 2,000 feet.
According to John O'Rourke, the park's ranger in charge of resource protection, between 800 and 2,000 mountain bikers use the park each week. He attributes Crystal Cove's popularity to its accessibility to urban areas, the cool ocean breezes and a recent burst of publicity in local bicycling publications. "It's a good place for beginning and intermediate riders," said O'Rourke, who recently took up the sport himself.
With its increasing popularity, the sport is no longer the private domain of a few hardy--and sometimes eccentric--pioneers. Mountain bike enthusiasts now cut across a range of ages and interest levels, but with all the hill climbing, a basic level of physical fitness is still requisite.
"You have to be in really good shape," Cunningham said. "I ride three times a week seriously, and I consider that basic maintenance to just be able to do the sport." The physical demands help keep a cap on the number of off-road riders, Ward said. "It's not an easy activity . . . so there's a certain regulating factor at work there."
Asking mountain bikers why they like the sport is likely to elicit a variety of answers. For Cunningham, off-road biking offered a welcome alternative to the increasingly fashion-conscious world of road riding.