With nothing but the echo of gunshots from the next canyon over and a menacing cow tracking my every step, there I was standing on a dirt road somewhere on the outskirts of Bakersfield, California, waiting. It was another year and another race. Just waiting.
Soon enough, the race leaders appeared off in the distance. Although the notoriously tough, 85-mile-long Rock Cobbler race was really a gravel bike event, 2021 UCI Marathon Mountain Bike World Champ Christopher Blevins was sitting second wheel with his “yard bars” in a four-man break of drop-bar fast guys. Wow!
Next came the chase group, and among them I spotted Tinker Juarez, who was mixing it up aboard his new Squad gravel bike. While certainly not the norm, seeing Tinker in the drops was a bit familiar, as over the years I’d occasionally see him out training on his road bike. This time, I couldn’t help myself and ran alongside the former NORBA national champion (his natty dread locks streaming underneath his helmet), cheering him on, “Let’s go, Tinker!”
A MAN & A MYTH
To say that Tinker and I go back would be an understatement. Just after I’d been hired by Mountain Bike Action in 1986, we’d gotten a call from the renowned rider agent/cycling enthusiast/BMX racer/life force Charlie Litsky who was looking for a bike for Tinker to ride. Tinker had been putting the finishing touches on his legendary BMX career and had just begun making the transition to riding 26-inch wheels.
While I had no real clue who either Litsky or Tinker were, I did know that Litsky had been our connection to another BMX racer by the name of John Tomac. I decided to find Tinker a bike, and the only one available was the Roland Pack Saddle bike that I was testing. Two things worth noting were that: 1. The “mountain” bike race was actually called a “scrambles,” and it took place on the grounds of the old 7-Eleven Olympic Velodrome in Dominguez Hills with no actual “mountain” to be found anywhere nearby. 2. Priced at $300 and weighing 30.25 pounds, the steel Roland “mountain” bike was really just a city bike rolling on slightly treaded 2.25-inch Kenda All Terrain tires (MBA, April 1987).
All that aside, we handed the bike over to Tinker for his first-ever mountain bike race, and he ended up finishing fourth. After that weekend, I lost track of Tinker’s racing exploits for a couple of years until he showed up at the ’88 NORBA Nationals riding for General. To say that Tinker looked a little ragged back in those days (a half-inflated inner tube always protruding from his jersey pocket) would be an understatement.
By 1990, Tinker had become a recognized pro rider, riding oversized aluminum-tubed Kleins that stood out with their triple-fade paint schemes and massive, rigid aluminum forks. He stayed with Klein until 1994 when he switched to the “other” American aluminum brand, Cannondale, which was assembling a super team with the backing of Volvo as a title sponsor. This was the real beginning of the “Tinker era,” as he would claim three National XC titles, plus a Pan American gold medal in ’95, multiple 24-hour National titles and be a member of Team USA at the Olympics twice.
THE NEW, NEW
As I was chasing down interviews the day before the Rock Cobbler, I spotted Tinker driving into the parking lot in his van, still covered with Cannondale colors despite the two having ended their nearly three-decade relationship last year. Tinker was his usual ageless, fit and trim self, as he spoke of his new tenure on the Floyd’s of Leadville team.
The next morning I found Tinker surrounded by hundreds of other racers at the start. He gave me a nod, and I wished him luck. Little did I know then that in a few hours I’d be running alongside the legendary mountain biker just as I had done at so many mountain bike races some 30 years prior. As the old saying goes, “The more things change, the more they stay the same!”
Weeks later, on a cold and wet day that was perfect for being indoors to talk, I reached out to Tinker to talk about his place in the sport. Typically, I caught him just as he was headed out on another training ride—rain or shine!
When I asked what it was about riding bikes that keeps him going, he was straightforward as always. “Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to race my bike as a job. To go out and ride and come home thinking I was at work all day is what I live for. With a full race schedule, the hard work is to maintain the fitness to stay competitive. I still get invited to races, and it ain’t because of my looks or speech-making; it’s because people recognize that, even at 60 years old, I still race to do well.”
In short, viva Tinker!