TWO CATACLYSMIC EVENTS f o r e v e r changed mountain-bike pioneer Charlie Cunningham’s life. The first was the day in 1981 when Jacquie Phelan crashed into his world with the force of a mountain biker
hitting pavement. The second was the day that metaphor became real — when he crashed on a solo ride in
2015. Phelan and a bevy of friends have been picking
him up ever since.
Cunningham, 69, has fond memories of the first
“crash,” when he met Phelan in the bike shop co-owned
by her then-boyfriend Gary Fisher. He has no memory
of the second crash.
In the intervening years, between the pairing of
this dynamic duo and the despairing fall that changed
everything, the couple endured a Pacific Crest Trail’s
worth of highs and lows. A high point was the weekend
in 1988 when Phelan oversaw Marin’s first mountain-bike festival and then married Cunningham outside
West Point Inn.
“The festival was partly an excuse to have a lot
of leftover beer and wine for the wedding the next
day,” she says with her trademark mischievous grin.
By then, they were the first couple of mountain
biking: Phelan known for her flamboyance (often
competing in wild costumes) and Cunningham for
After a catastrophic fall,
Charlie Cunningham gets
by with a lot of help from
his friends (and his wife,
Jacquie Phelan). BY BOB COOPER
A 39-YEAR RIDE
1979 Cunningham begins building
1981 Cunningham meets Phelan
at a bike shop.
1982 Cunningham and friends
launch Wilderness Trail Bikes
1984 Phelan launches WOMBATS,
the first women’s mountain
1985 Phelan wins U. S. women’s
mountain bike championship for
third time in a row.
1988 Cunningham and Phelan ride
mountain bikes to West Point Inn
for their 8/8/88 “welding.”
2000 Cunningham parts ways
with W TB; Phelan is treated
for breast cancer.
2009 Phelan pedals across the
U. S. at age 53.
2015 Cunningham crashes a bike
he’s testing, has emergency brain
surgery and starts long-term rehab.
2017 Cunningham begins doing
tandem rides, often with Phelan.
his bike-building brilliance (both are in the first group
of Mountain Bike Hall of Fame inductees).
Cunningham, a UC Berkeley aeronautical engineering student turned mountain bike fanatic, was a
pioneering figure in early bike design. Road bikes and
cruisers were ill-suited to trail riding, so he introduced
welded aluminum frames, sloping top tubes, single
chain-rings, roller-cam brakes and other key innovations. “I was driven by wanting to create bikes that
worked best for me and fortunately they also worked
well for everybody else,” he says.
Phelan kept busy going undefeated among
U.S. women in her first five years of racing and in her
activities as founder of the first women’s mountain
biking club in 1984 ( WOMBATS), which grew to 800
The couple’s lows converged in 2000 when, in a
messy settlement, Cunningham ended his connection with Wilderness Trail Bikes, the company he
co-founded, and Phelan was treated for breast cancer.
Eventually they got back in the saddle, as
Cunningham became a freelance inventor and custom
bike builder and Phelan got healthy enough to resume
leading mountain-bike camps and even pedaled across
America. By 2015 they were metaphorically cruising
on a smooth fire road like the one that starts shouting
In Marin / FYI