In September of 1976, a motley group of 15 decided to ride bikes from Crested Butte to Aspen over Pearl Pass at 12,700 feet. They called it the Pearl Pass Klunker Tour, in homage to the place, and to the bikes ridden.
The 38-mile journey is arduous still today due to the elevation and incredibly rough terrain on the northwestern side of the pass. However, it’s easily doable (to ride from CB to Aspen and even back) in one day on modern bikes and with the benefit of lived experience.
Back then, however, no one had done it.
Of the 15, seven made it from the Grubstake Saloon in downtown CB to a planned camp at Cumberland Basin, 10 miles from town and a thousand feet shy of the pass. After an evening of steak and beer and bike repair, only one rider, Richard Ullery, had the equipment (or was the least hungover?) to complete the voyage to Aspen.
The whole thing was enough to set the wheels of history in motion. Germinating in those early pedal strokes were the seeds of mountain biking. Year after year, the Pearl Pass Klunker Tour provided fertile soil for innovation and invention, as intrigued riders from all over — including some notables from Marin County, California — traveled to Crested Butte to take place in the revelry while simultaneously developing a whole new way to ride bikes.
46 years later, mountain biking is a sport unto itself, one that has rapidly grown in tandem with both technology and trail infrastructure. Youth can now select mountain biking as a school sport, and there are world championships and career paths for the truly inspired.
And, on the second weekend of September, no matter who you are or what bike you ride, you can still pedal and push your way from Crested Butte to Aspen, just to experience what it was like.
I’m so glad I did.
Why klunkers? The streets of Crested Butte — a mining town turned ski destination, whose population circa 1976 was about 1,200 — were almost entirely unpaved and rutted from the serious winters. Furthermore, the town was nearly boxed in by the towering 12,000-14,000 foot peaks of the Elk Range with the only access in the form of rough old mining roads. A high-end road bike would have been a moot point.
A modern day pilgrimage.
The Grubstake is no more, so the Pearl Pass Klunker Tour now leaves from the Crested Butte Museum (where the original MTB Hall of Fame was housed until it moved to Marin). This year, about 25 or so folks joined the fun, on an assortment of bikes.
The itinerary remains the same as in 1976: leave Saturday morning, camp that evening, and make the push over the pass and into Aspen (to the bar at the Hotel Jerome) on Sunday.
I had planned to ride a very modern mountain bike over to Aspen because I do not have a klunker. I even debated loading it up with all my bikepacking bags and riding up in one day, straight to Aspen without the campout, and riding back to CB the next.
What would have been the fun in that? Fortunately, a last minute ask got me exactly what I was looking for: a 1941 Schwinn DX with a Morrow coaster brake hub— the last Schwinn model made before WWII shuttered production. Did I have a spare tube for such a bike? No. Was my multi-tool pretty much useless? Yes. Had I ridden coaster brakes? I guess when I was a kid.
Was I stoked?
Always buy the t-shirt.
So, back to my bike.
The night before the Klunker Tour, the Crested Butte Museum hosted a casual, happy hour-esque event called Pearls and Pioneers to showcase the mountain biking installation. There was a slideshow featuring rare/unpublished photography from the 1970s-90s, a showing of the short film, Trailblazers, and a bike show in the garden. MTB pioneers Donnie and Kay Cook answered questions that illuminated just how far mountain biking has come.
There was also a raffle for this klunker, restored by Austin Weaver, the trip leader of the Klunker Tour. Howie Hammermann (pictured here) won the bike in the raffle, donated it immediately to the museum, and then let me ride it over Pearl Pass the next day.
Howie was part of the 1979 Pearl Pass Klunker Tour. His buddy from California, the MTB legend Charlie Kelly, recruited him. Howie came back for the ’80 and ’81 tours and then resumed again in 2015.
This tandem klunker did not go to Aspen but was on display during the happy hour at the museum. It’s a Rixe, from “western Germany,” with moped suspension.
I wanted to ride this early 80s Schwinn King Sting but she also stayed back in CB.
This is Austin Weaver (left) who now coordinates the Pearl Pass Klunker Tour, handling logistics like food and shuttles. Weaver first heard about the Pearl Pass Klunker Tour at the museum, nearly 15 years ago after coming to Crested Butte for the beloved but now defunct Bike Week.
“I went to museum, learned about klunkers,” he said. “Being a mechanic and a bike nerd, I built a klunker a week later. I had everything, even pre-war Schwinns.”
Later that year, Weaver showed up for the tour. It was, characteristically, kind-of a shit show.
“Everyone was on new bikes, 29ers, and super fit. I showed up on a Schwinn with coaster brakes and enough gear to camp for the night. But no one was camping so we just went for it, got to the summit at 4 or 5 and thought, ‘we need to get down fast before it’s dark, we don’t know where we are.’ We made it to Aspen and met the old timers at a restaurant in town.”
Before I left Crested Butte my friend Bill asked me if I was going to take off the kickstand, ‘to save weight.’
Julian from Denver volunteered to man the beer and popsicle aid station.
He brought his Mountain Machine, a mid 80s “hill climber,” made in Englewood, Colorado. Check out that mullet wheelset – 24″ in the front and 20″ in the back!
Cooking at camp at Cumberland Basin.
For $25, riders can get dinner and breakfast at camp. Maybe a few beers, too.
In case we ran into the rangers.
We lucked out with absolutely perfect weather.
And there were always helping hands to deal with mechanical failures.
This actually held all the way until Aspen.
On Sunday morning, we arose to sunny skies (after a full moon illuminated the night) and started to push.
Occasionally we could pedal up, but mostly it was shortlived.
The road roughens up considerably toward the Pearl Pass saddle.
So we stopped to take a dip.
Around 12 p.m., we made it!
From L to R, Skidz, Two Flats, Dry Rot, Pills, Bugs, Dale, and Coach.
I have no idea what their real names were.
These guys, however — there are some legends in this photo. Recognize that mustache third from right?
For context, this is from the 1978 Klunker Tour, when the Cali guys (Tom Ritchey, Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly, Gary Fisher) showed up. They’d been doing their own klunker ride back in Marin, a 1,300 foot descent in two miles that they called Repack.
Why? Because the old hub coaster brakes would get so hot that the grease would vaporize and they’d have to repack them after a run or two.
I was terrified of this happening to me on the descent off Pearl Pass.
History repeats. September 11, 2022
Before we headed down, all bolts were tightened.
Although — there were plenty of downhill sections that were totally unrideable.
After the first few miles of boulder fields, the road smooths out.
And it becomes more rideable the closer you get to the ghost town of Ashcroft, where Pearl Pass Road terminates at Castle Creek Road, eight buttery smooth miles of pavement that drop you into the town of Aspen.
Bodies and bikes intact (mostly), we made it off the mountain.
Not once during the Pearl Pass Klunker Tour did I find myself wishing for suspension or gears or disc brakes (OK, maybe a little); mainly I just felt so grateful and giddy to be in my favorite mountains with a bike and a bunch of new friends.
After all, before there was mountain biking, there were just mountains and bikes.