There are a number of locations around the world that transcend mere cycling hotbed and rise to the ranks of culturally significant, places so important to cycling they are part of the fabric of the sport itself. It may be that no single place can lay greater claim to being historically relevant than Marin County, Calif. Sure, Paris and the Champs Elysees are huge. So is the Roubaix velodrome. The Col du Tourmalet is similarly memorable, but all of these places are notable largely because of a couple of bike races. What happens when we talk about cycling as an activity for anyone, everyone? Is Amsterdam more or less important than Paris? What of cycling’s own version of the Santiago de Compostela—climbing l’Alpe d’Huez? Again, we’re back to a place made famous by racing.
An oil lantern from one of the 19th century bikes.
What makes Marin County so special is that it is the undisputed birthplace of mountain biking. The road bike had as many midwives as a factory has workers; its design is like democracy itself, helped along by France, England, the United States and other countries. We know the where, the when, even the who of mountain biking. There’s not even any question of the why or the how.
An astonishingly faithful replica of a Draisine.
So where better to put a museum devoted to the bicycle than in Marin County, in the town of Fairfax?
Rather than simply document the rise of the mountain bike, the museum followed a broader mission, to look back on the whole of the history of the bicycle. The Marin Museum of Bicycling has examples dating to the 19th century, as well as a replica of an early Draisine. The museum is also the home to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame, to which it moved from Crested Butte, Colo.
An original penny-farthing.
I got to meet up with Mr. Cornerstone himself, Charlie Kelly, for my tour. It was an education I didn’t expect. He was able to talk about those early bikes from a technical perspective that was revelatory. He would point out how the geometry of the bikes changed over time, the slackening of head tube angles, the addition of fork rake, inefficient designs that wasted energy and were discarded. And while I was aware of many of the details, he was able to weave them together into a narrative of necessity, one imperative following another. I can’t tell you the last time I had a meaningful conversation—hell, any conversation—about tied and soldered spokes.
One of Joe Breeze’s road bikes.
Then it hit me. If you’re going to serve as the obstetrician to the birth of a whole culture, you need to make sure your gadget works.
Seat lug detail from the Breeze.
The background to Kelly’s collaboration with Joe Breeze on the first purpose-made mountain bikes, rather than just adapted Excelsiors, is driven home with the Joe Breeze road bike on display. The windowed, filed lugs demonstrate just how good a builder Breeze already was and his participation in the burgeoning sport made him the ideal partner to take the next step toward the first deliberate mountain bikes.
One of the original Schwinn Excelsior Klunkerz.
While other road bikes are on display, the museum’s display takes a hard left turn and chases the development of mountain bikes through the 1980s and ’90s in a display worthy of its own book. From early Cunninghams and Fishers to local genius John Castellano’s own Ibis Bow Ti (I could devote a whole post to that bike), and of course an early Specialized Stumpjumper, the display is a survey of passion and innovation.
An original Stumpjumper, above it one of Charlie Cunningham’s drop-bar mountain bikes and a Trailmaster.
And when you go, be sure to leave an hour just to peruse their library of old cycling books. There are some absolute treasures in there.
An Ibis Bow-Ti, a bike obsolete by almost any standard and yet still mythically cool.
I’m willing to bet that if you make an appointment for a whole group and offer to make an extra donation to the museum, you can get Kelly to lead your tour as well. Worth it is hardly a way to describe the experience.
The Ibis Maximus.
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