young boy in Beaverton in 1953.
– See his photos below –
(All images © James Mason)
A few months ago, a man named James Mason popped up on the always interesting OBRA email list. He shared a link to photographs of bicycle racing in Portland he took back in the 1970s and ’80s. Mason’s images instantly struck a nerve with me; not only for his technical prowess, but because he captured legendary competitors in action at venues still used for racing today and the beautiful scenes and faces that defined the era. His photos are a testament to Portland’s rich bicycling legacy.
I asked Mason for permission to share his images here on BikePortland. Mason, 62, not only gave me permission to use the images, he also answered my questions about his own past and what it was like to grow up in Beaverton and come of age around Portland’s bike racing scene from the 1960s through the 80s.
Below are a selection of Mason’s images mixed with text taken from some emails we exchanged…
I grew up in Beaverton, my parents grew up in Beaverton. The first racing bike I ever saw was at Kissler’s Bicycle Shop in Portland. They were then at 4th and Jefferson. I was 13, which means it was 1961. I’m now 62 years old. I’d been riding a Raleigh three speed and had taken it apart and re-assembled it about 20 times. At that time 13 was about the age a boy was supposed to stop riding a bike.
(More about this image)
I bought a used Raleigh Gran Sport from Kissler’s for $90 in 1962. It had a Campagnolo rear derailleur, Weinmann center pull brakes, a Brooks B15 Swallow saddle, and steel rims. I rode it to school, which was a mile each way, and cruised the roads around Beaverton, which back then had 14,000 people. Four months after buying the Raleigh I got interested in a Raphael Geminiani racing bike at Kissler’s and somehow got the money together to buy it.
The first race I rode was a 12 ½ mile time trial at Sauvie’s Island. There were four juniors in the race and I won. My time was 35:12. Funny I still remember that. I rode two more races on Sauvie’s Island and then the 1962 Rose Festival race at Mt. Tabor. The Mt. Tabor course is terrific for racing. I finished 5th.
I was also a swimmer and that was my main sport. I remember doing a morning swim workout, riding 75 miles, and then going back to the pool for the afternoon workout. That was the exception, but I was eager to both swim seriously and also to race. Because there was no such thing as a triathlon in those days I never met a swimmer who also rode a bike. Not until later. But I did swim against a guy from North Bend and then race my bike against his cousin in Portland.
When I was 17 I went to California to swim, living with a swimmer’s family and doing my last year of high school. The local club was Pedali Alpini and I got to know some of the riders. By then I was shooting photos for the high school newspaper and yearbook and also shooting some bike races. In California I didn’t race until I was over 40 years old.
In 1966 I went to the Nevada City bike race and shot pictures. Some of those photos are online. Nick Zeller, who I rode with in Portland before I moved to California, won the junior race. At that time Nevada City was the big race on the west coast. The combination of steep hills and hot weather is deadly.
I began working as a photographer in Portland in the mid-70s and covered the Trail Blazers, local and state politics, general news. I went to work for the newspaper in the Tri-Cities and shot a great five-stage bike race there in 1979. Dave Auker from Portland and Tom Broznowski from Seattle were two of the top guys there, although the race was won by a Canadian. After getting fired from the newspaper I returned to Portland.
At this time my favorite ride in Portland was up Montgomery St. to Fairmount, around Fairmount, over the Humphrey Blvd. and either over to Burnside and down or else back down either Broadway Dr., Vista, or Montgomery. Considering how lame brakes were in those days I’m amazed I didn’t get killed. In 1983 I moved to San Francisco because of a woman. Turned out it was better for being a photographer also.
I shot lots of bike races, got to know local riders. LeMond was just coming into his own and I shot pictures of him. Lots of bike racing in the Bay Area and when I got the chance I’d shoot races. In 1985 I got tired of being a photographer and bought a bike shop. For the next six years I slaved away selling Rockhoppers and other good bikes. It was an important time in the history of the bicycle and Marin County, the center of it all, was just across the Golden Gate Bridge. We sold a lot of Ritchey bikes and I got to know Tom well. I rode every day and had bike racers working for me. I started racing myself and managed to hang on to the pack for a while before I got blown off the back… but I really enjoyed it.
Since then I’ve continued to ride. I worked briefly for a guy who makes carbon fiber bikes and learned a lot about that. I still like steel bikes. I’ve got a good collection of them up here in Alaska. This time of year I’m skiing on the bike trails. But in May the snow will be gone and it will be back on the bikes. I have Merckx, Eisentraut, and 3Rensho road bikes, a 3Rensho NJS track bike I ride on the trails, and half a dozen Ritchey mountain bikes. No suspension, no carbon, all old-style stuff. I know the new bikes are better, it’s just that I like what was cool when I was cool!
Here’s Mason in a recent photograph on one of his “old-style” mountain bikes…
Looking back on the 60s in Portland I have to give those old guys, Frans, Phil, and Tom Miller, real credit for getting adults to ride bikes. It’s hard to imagine the amount of bad attitude toward an adult riding a bicycle in those days. But Franz in particular had a vision and his vision has had a very positive effect on our lives. I love bicycles. The last time I was in Portland, in 2009, I was amazed at the sophistication of the average bike rider. People were riding the sort of bikes only bikeshop mechanics rode in the old days. Simple, practical, but still stylish.
The bicycle is such a wonderful thing. I’m glad more and more people have discovered this.
Thanks James. We’re glad you were around back then to capture these amazing moments. Check out all the images in James Mason’s online gallery.
— For more history, read our recent story (republished from Vintage Bicycle Quarterly) on Frans Pauwels — Frans Pauwels: Founding father of Portland bicycle racing.