Mammoth Trail Blazers: Mountain Bike Racing on Mammoth Mountain
The origins of downhill mountain biking
It’s almost impossible to believe there was a time before mountain biking. A time when ski areas sat dormant during the warm summer months, hosting an occasional hiker and dreaming of snowy winter days when their slopes could once again be worshiped.
Now-a-days, of course, the slopes of most American ski areas echo with the hoots, hollers and clunking-shocks of merry mountain bikers. And it all changed thanks to a bunch of trailblazers at Mammoth Mountain.
1985 wasn’t considered a real good year for ideas; New Coke was invented, Christie Brinkley married Billy Joel, the “Super Bowl Shuffle” was released. But here on the slopes of the Eastern Sierra they decided to buck the year’s troubling trend.
“We were trying to figure out a way to make use of the ski area in the summertime and we started kicking around the idea for a Chinese Downhill, and then the Kamikaze was born,” explained Bill Cockroft, a Senior Vice President of Mammoth Mountain, as well as a Mountain Bike Hall of Famer.
The Kamikaze is considered the nation’s first downhill mountain bike race ever (though some Eastsiders argue a similar race was held a few years earlier in Silver Canyon outside Bishop). The race would have an immediate impact across the cycling country and not only change the face of mountain biking, Kamikaze changed the ski industry. As they said in the `80s, the race was “like totally rad, dude!”
The first thing that made the Kamikaze so radical was its starting line: the Top of Mammoth Mountain, more than 11,000 feet high in the sky. It then bombed down the mountain, following the winter trail known as Road Runner, for close to three and a half miles and a couple thousand feet. In an age when shocks were still for cars and helmets worked better in theory than in practice, riders would hit speeds of 35 to 65 miles per hour while literally holding on for dear life.
The mass start race was full of carnage and the Wide World of Sports-type of crashes only added to the hype, but most riders came away barely scathed and highly impressed with the thrill of riding bikes where only skis had carved before. The Kamikaze became an instant classic and was not only considered the fastest mountain bike race on the planet, but was soon to be known as the “world’s most famous mountain bike race.”
The Kamikaze was the first-time ski lifts were used to haul mountain bikers up the hill. Within a year, other areas like Vail, Colorado, would follow suit. Not content to rest upon their laurels, the trailblazers at Mammoth decided to create a mountain bike park and then turned to the snow-covered slopes for more inspiration.
“What Mammoth did which was so original was to bring aspects of ski racing into mountain biking,” explained Mark Davis, a founding member of MAMBO (Mammoth Area Mountain Biking Organization) and a long-time Eastside advocate for the sport. “Running side-by-side elimination heats made the event just like ski racing so it was really fun to watch. Mammoth was the forefront of mountain biking.”
Impressed with the success of the first Kamikaze event, big-time sponsor Bud Light got involved and the Mammoth Cycling Classic was born. The event marked the first time a dual slalom format was used for mountain bike racing, a discipline that’s now a staple in the sport.
In an attempt to make the event more balanced and well-rounded, contestants were not just asked to compete in the timed Kamikaze and the Dual Slalom, but also in a hill climb known as the Ezakimak.
The Ezakimak is the word kamikaze spelled backwards, which is what it asked the riders to do—ride up the world’s most famous downhill. For obvious reasons, it wasn’t nearly as popular as the other disciplines and eventually went the way of prostate un-friendly bicycle seats.
For the next decade, the sport of mountain biking grew in popularity faster than a speeding bullet. Mammoth regularly hosted the World Cup of Mountain Biking and an annual expo known as Outer-Bike. More than 10,000 spectators and 3,000 participants would come to events that were covered by ESPN. More technical downhill runs like Bullet, which bombs down the backside of Lincoln Mountain, continued to raise the bar.
The highlight of this period for many Eastsiders was an event called the Reebok Eliminator, which included using a helicopter to haul contests back up the mountain for their next race.
“It was the heyday of mountain biking and Mammoth was right at the heart of it,” Cockroft said.
As the 20th Century came to a close, Mammoth decided to make one last major mark on the sport and introduced a run called Velocity. Velocity runs under Chair 3 and there was some concern when it first opened that it would be too challenging, too sick and scary, for even the best riders. But that hasn’t proven to be the case. Velocity is now considered to be one of the best mountain bike runs in the world.
Thanks to the evolution of its equipment, downhill mountain biking has become a much more inclusive sport and now more than 30,000 visitors will ride Mammoth each summer. “What makes our park unique is that we have trails that cater to anyone’s abilities,” said Dave Geirman, Mammoth’s Mountain Bike Park manager.
That’s good news, because there aren’t many activities that the whole family can do that are as exhilarating and down-right fun as mountain biking. And there’s no better place on this mountains planet of ours to ride than the birthplace of downhill mountain biking.