I didn’t know what this bike was - I hadn’t heard of the brand and had never seen anything like it - but I instantly knew what this bike was for. You just had to look at it. Small, strong 26 inch wheels with wide rims and knobbly tires. Cantilever brakes - the kind of brakes you only saw on foreigner’s Dawes touring bikes. Flat bars. A triple up front and seven gears out back for a wide-ranging twenty-one speeds. A set of chunky forks to resist the added forces of bumping along tracks.
A mountain bike, that’s what I had found.
It was called a ‘Montana Sport’ and it was produced by KHS, one of the original Taiwanese we can make bikes as good as the rest of the world brands. I didn’t know it at the time but it was essentially a copy of a Specialized Rock Hopper - the Ur Mountain bike.
I could barely sleep thinking about this thing. Like some opium-soaked romantic poet I imagined myself scaling alps on it, then soaring down sunset-tinged ice fields, loop the looping through soft clouds and hearing the distant trumpets of Valhalla saluting me.
I remembered the days when ‘the boys’ of the club would go ‘cyclo-crossing’ on Mount Victoria in Wellington. Cyclo-cross was (and is) very big in Europe, a way for roadies to keep fit in the winter. It involves hour-long races lapping an artificial circuit, usually knee-deep in mud, ridden on specialist bikes. Cyclo-cross is fast, furious and bonkers. It’s been reinvented in recent years as a even-more bonkers format with compulsory shots, costumes, post-industrial environments and all the rest of it - enormous fun.
What going cyclo crossing meant back in the day was less sophisticated. We would do our best to imitate the Uk and Continental riders by riding along a few benign dirt tracks on Mount Victoria for a couple of minutes until mud clogged our brakes, or the tracks started to climb, rendering our bottom gears (42x21) way too tall. Which is to say it was a waste of time, but somewhere in my bones I had a memory of the delicious soft crunch of fine gravel under my tyres and images of the enticing tracks of Mt Victoria snaking away under the pines.
The Europeans might have been cool but they didn’t have the innovative edge to think up the format of the bike I was now looking at. In England there was something called the ‘Rough Stuff Fellowship’ where knotty men from The North rode their touring bikes over ridiculous terrain (Iceland anyone?). For them the challenge was riding an inappropriate bike over inappropriate terrain, not making a bike that might make that task more, well, fun.
Once again it was those bloody Americans and their habit of innovation, taking a thing meant for one thing and turning it into something else (and a multi billion dollar market at the same time). A bunch of older guys around started riding their 26inch wheel cruisers down dirt roads and finding out it was more fun that being run over by trucks on the roads, so they started tweaking frames, building wheels specially, putting touring gears on their bikes and seeing what kind of trouble they could get into.
Soon enough they were setting up companies to make and sell their gear and the whole thing of Mountain Biking was born. Many of their names and early companies live on (Bontrager, Specialized, Breezer). These guys were the grown up versions of the boys who had invented BMX, guys who didn’t really give a shit about the mainstream, they just wanted to do fun stuff on bikes.
And here, very near the bottom of the world, a visible sliver of that spirit of innovation and adventure was just a sheet of glass and a thousand dollars away from me.
No, I didn’t break the glass, but I did do something about as stupid. I went into the shop the next day and rode it.
And then I bought it on hire-purchase.
It should be obvious that I didn’t have a lot of money at this point. I had just enough to pay the rent and eat, buy cheap wine and old books, but that was it. I recall my rent being $100 a month. So $1000 was a big commitment. One that I was never going to be able to keep. I am not sure what I thought was going to happen when I couldn’t pay the monthly terms, but whatever it was didn’t really matter the minute this thing was mine.
I rode it around a bit for a day or two, trying out the old BMX moves, dropping off ledges, twisting through trees, bouncing off kerbs and generally having mini fun before I went into an outdoor store, tried to memorise an outdoor map, and headed to the hills for some big fun. Pineapple track to be exact.
It was a revelation. A bike, on walking tracks, in the outdoors. My favourite form of propulsion taking me from the inside of city to the top of a remote hill in less than an hour. Here I was, the wind whipping around my face, utterly alone, standing before a view that soaked away any cares in the world. A double endorphin rush - the thrill of the ride with the joys of being in the ‘proper’ outdoors. Really big fun.
As you would expect this setting off into the hills became a regular thing. No one told me where to go because no one I knew had ridden a mountain bike in the hills around Dunedin before. There were no trail maps or grades, there was no trail grooming, there was just ‘that out there’ and me on a bike to take it all on.
It turns out there was a small MTB scene in Dunedin (here for the die-hards) and I would occasionally glimpse another mountain biker, but I didn’t really want to to be in any club. It was too good a thing not to share though, and I did soon acquire an accomplice.
Dan had come to Dunedin to study Physio - another arrow to a very full quiver. Dan had the good sense to avoid me in the day and I don’t think he was interested in theatre at all. About as much as I was interested in physio I guess, but we found common ground in riding, in just seeing what this new style of bikes could actually do.
Here’s his take on how he found mountain biking:
“I’ve got a new bike with a 21-inch bottom gear” said Allen, knocking on my door one random day in Dunedin. That’s how we got in touch 30 years ago — went round and knocked on each other’s door.
Twenty one inches. It didn’t make any sense at all. It was like saying it had square wheels or a frame made of Weetbix.
“Just shut up and try it.” he said.
So up and down Hyde St I went on Allen’s weird machine, with its fat tyres and upright stance and triple front chain ring. My legs spun into nothing, met no resistance at all. It was absolutely the stupidest feeling I’d ever had on a bike. It didn’t make any sense at all.
“Follow me” said Allen, leading me on my heroically high geared fixed wheel road bike to the bottom of a steep dirt track in Logan Park. “This bike can go anywhere.” said Allen. “Up, down or sideways. Just try it.”
What followed was an utter revelation. A flood of sensations so vivid I can still feel them today. This is what we wanted our Raleigh 20s to be when we skidded down steep paths in the Botanical Gardens. This made all the sense in the world.
Just as he had done with road bikes, club racing and Yamaha two-strokes, Allen had led me to a new state of mind. A new format of movement. An epiphany.
I bought one immediately.
This is a common story of early days MTBing in NZ - and I suspect in the UK too. There wasn’t a scene, there wasn’t a magazine or a website, just pure word of mouth - a bike borrowed for an hour off a mate, or even just ridden around the block. It was an insider, whispered, pursuit. It’s like that old shampoo ad “So I told two friends… and so on and so on.”
On solo days I kept pushing out on longer rides, on snowy rides, on steeper rides, taking it all in. I had a base of fitness that no amount of student drinking could destroy and a will to go up and up and up into the hills so that I could come all the way back down, as rapidly as my non-suspension forks would allow. On a good ride the feeling was magical. When you knew the trail, when you were feeling sharp, then twisting and turning, moving your weight around the bike, exploring the endless ways that gravity, momentum and the magical gyroscopic forces in your wheels interact was utterly absorbing.
The bikes have changed a lot over the years, but this feeling hasn’t - being forced out of your head and into a world of pure kinesthetic awareness.
Looking at ‘The Wanderer’ painting by Friedrich above I wonder what happened the moment The Wanderer got bored of contemplating the sublime aspect of the view and decided an absinthe at the inn would be a better idea. Did he just turn and walk down, carefully planting that stick into the rocks of the slopes like some cautious urbanite making their way down the local nature trail? Or did he start to run, skipping in delight off the tops of the rocks, feeling his boots catch and slide on the gravel? Did he let go his angst and experience the naked, animal delight in running crazily downwards? Embracing your animal nature is not something that 19th century aesthetes tended to do, but I hope he did, because then he would have had a taste of the joys of mountain biking.
Being at the top of a slope. Letting go the brakes. Gaining an irrevocable energy that will hurt you if you don’t do something with it. Pleasure, disaster, broken bikes and grazes, laughing and flying; it’s over to you now…
As Mountain Bikes go the KHS was a dismal affair really and I have ridden many that are considerably better but the fact that I was doing this first (or near enough) was unbeatable. No matter that it was a knock off, I loved it. It was the only possession I had that was worth more than $10, literally. I would often just stare at it at the end of my bed (yes, I know) and imagine where I would go next, and what I would feel like as I rode it.
That was until one afternoon when a couple of burly guys with mullets and a shitty van came and knocked on my door. Seems the shop that sold me the bike didn’t take kindly to not getting any money for it. Oh well, I thought, that’s the end of that as it disappeared out the door.
For a while I just footed around, missing the bike and tying not to care that much. That was until I got a call from my father. Apparently the bike shop had sent him a bill. For $1200. Outstanding amount and the cost of a couple of heavies with mullets and a shitty van. And he wanted to know what it was about.
That this should occur never so much as crossed my mind. Dad sighed very very deeply. Almost as deeply as when I had been caught shoplifting from Modelcrafts and Hobbies on Lambton Quay as a eleven year old. Then he put the phone down.
Turns out he paid the bill. Apparently this was better than having my credit score decimated. Not knowing what a credit score was I can’t say I would have minded, but apparently such things were important and needed protecting. A few years later I utterly destroyed whatever credit rating I had left (we’ll get there) so this was the last bailout from a long-suffering and barely tolerant parent.
So I was rather surprised when the bike shop rang me and told me to come and collect my bike. I was even more surprised when I turned up to find that, for some reason, they had repainted it in black red and orange fade and had put ‘Kuwahara’ BMX stickers on it. I found my bike again, and it looked hot.
Trying not to seem too elated, I apologised for my total lack of clues and fucks and then then rode out the door on a very good looking bike.
It was a bit too good looking as it turned out and the cheap lock I used to secure it to the fence outside Allen Hall wasn’t good enough. Soon the bike disappeared and once again I was shoeing it around town, very very glad I didn’t live in the same town as my parents and being able to avoid telling my dad that the very expensive thing he had just bought me had been stolen and of course I didn’t have insurance. In fact Dad, I know you’re reading this, so this will be the first you’ve ever known about that. Sorry!
A month later I was walking down the street outside University when someone on my bike rode past. Adrenaline surging, I ran after him until he reached the next traffic lights and challenged him, expecting a fight. Instead he calmly dismounted, apologised, said he’d found it on the lawn outside a party and handed it back to me. I was almost disappointed I didn’t have to fight for it.
And I found myself in possession of the KHS/Kuwahara again. Riding resumed. Smiles were had. A better lock was purchased.
Then, after two fabulous and occasionally delightfully strange years (no space to mention the ghost, or the music, or living in a Priory or being a Moa, or adventures in vegan food and abstinence) Wellington called me back. Dunedin was a fabulous place but I hadn’t actually done any study and people kept telling me that I had some acting talent and that maybe, just maybe, I should take it seriously and go to drama school.
I wasn’t any closer to a degree and the only thing that was keeping me amused was my performing, my writing and my riding, so I upped-sticks again and moved back to Wellington, bringing the Kuwahara with me.
Hours after arriving back in Wellington I was on my bike and up on Mount Victoria, snaking down the trails that been impossible on my road bike, grinning from ear to ear and trying my best to ignore the wind and the driving horizontal rain.
It was 1988. I was gifted reentry into Wellington life via a whole bunch of theatricals who I had previously been to Drama Club with at Victoria, and soon enough I was right in the mix again. But even I knew I couldn’t live on the dole forever. I was 21 for gods sake, I needed to Get My Life Together.
Auditions for Drama school were months away. I needed a job. But I didn’t have anything like a qualification and occasional holiday jobs with the Public Service had failed to ignite a passion for administration. So what I really needed was a McJob.
It was 1989. There were no cell phones yet. No internet. All there was to get documents and things around town was couriers in their shitty vans. And there was a new company in town, one that was faster, cheaper and more green than a car.
Allen, meet Office Express, a bicycle courier company running out of a cupboard on Taranaki St. Office Express meet Allen, a dude with silly clothes, a bike and in desperate need of employment.
They shake hands.