January 6, 2016
Filed Under Tahoe-Truckee Profiles
It all started more than three decades ago when he decided to move to South Lake Tahoe, for just one winter. That one winter turned into 36 years and the beginning of a lifelong love affair with Tahoe.
Meet Gary Bell, back country pioneer and owner of Sierra Ski and Cycle Works (SSCW) in South Lake Tahoe. The big fun in the small shop since 1980.Besides his laid back style, Gary is an expert when it comes to bikes and skis which stems from his years of exploring his backyard. It sustains him, and defines his life. It’s been said that Gary’s ski and bike tunes make the rider. Gary and his long-time crew, Chris, make it a point to understand the skier or rider, the terrain they prefer, fitness level, and the fun factor expectation. This simple approach has lead to a successful business model that has fueled our healthy lifestyle for more than 30 years.
Running the shop since 1980, Gary pretty much knows everyone, or everyone knows Gary – wherever he may be – on top of Mount Shasta, inside the Gold Museum of Peru, Mammoth, or the PCT at Mount Hood. “Hey, aren’t you the Spoke Junkie?” or “Your shop helped me out when I needed…” The shop is a mini museum loaded with Lake Tahoe bike and ski memorabilia, and is a frequent stop for those who want to ride the latest vintage bicycle out front.
Gary fell in love with the mountains at age four during family ski trips to Alpine Meadows. Seeking more time in the mountains than just weekend ski club trips from the Bay Area, Gary made the move when he turned 20 telling his mom and dad it was just for one ski season. Like any new dedicated ski bum back in 1976 Gary painted houses, shoveled snow off rooftops, towed people off the snow berm, and was a late night cook at the Nugget. Soon he landed a ski teaching gig at Heavenly Valley while at the same time he practiced his aerials off the ski ramp into the lake at Bill O’Leary’s World Freestyle Training Center at Zephyr Cove.
During the summer he worked for Frank at Tahoe Bike Shop and at the Clean Machine for Bill Miller. It was then when he and Geoff Clarke started building mountain bikes, aka Clunkers, that they sold for $600 each. Gary, Geoff, Gene St. Denis and Big Daddy would ride their Clunkers on the Power Lines trail, and anywhere they could get. This fearless foursome are responsible for connecting abandoned hiking trails that became Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – a name coined by Gene St. Denis.
Gary purchased his first cross country skis from Jack Francis of Rock Bottom Sports which is the current location of SSCW. When Jack closed his doors, Gary took over the space in 1980 and created a corporation with two partners that focused on used ski gear. The Ski Trading Company had three locations; one in Kings Beach, Squaw Valley, and its current spot on Hwy 50 in the middle of South Lake Tahoe, next to Safeway. Gary and his friends loved the freedom of back country skiing and soon the shop was retrofitting the soft leather x-c ski boots with downhill boot cuffs to make them stiffer.
Always the innovator, Gary created a releasable telemark ski binding in the early 80’s, before Voile. However, he never went anywhere with his original design, except up to Heavenly Valley. Soon he was kicked off the mountain for having an “illegal binding.” After a ski meeting with HV mountain manager, Malcolm Tibbetts, Gary was issued a special pass that gave him permission to ride the lifts and use his newfangled gear. Tough break Gary. You’re stuck in Tahoe! By the mid 90’s, telemark skis and equipment were transformed to handle bigger all-mountain terrain – finally. Like a kid in a candy shop, Gary happily introduced everyone to telemark skiing along with split snowboards to help us get further into the mountains. Today, SSCW remains the quintessential back country ski shop in Lake Tahoe that rents and sells skins, shovels, probes, beacons and avalanche safety & preparedness kits.
In 1983, the corporation changed its name to Sierra Ski and Cycle Works and became a full service ski and bike shop. SSCW carried SR, Raleigh and Specialized bikes, and became the top Specialized Dealer in Northern California in the mid 80’s. By 1988, mountain biking had taken hold and Gary started TAMBA, the Tahoe Area Mountain Bicycling Association, along with Kathlee and Jesse from North Shore. The three developed a model program driven by volunteers who helped to build trails and educate riders to assist Don Lane, LTBMU Recreation Officer, and his staff. Although never called upon, TAMBA even developed a bike search and rescue team, a first in the nation. TAMBA continues strong to this day with a new fresh crew.
Gary mastered his technical bike handling skills in the early 1980s when he competed in bike trials. Sponsored by Raleigh and Yeti, he placed second in the Worlds and Third in Nationals in the Expert Division. He quit the circuit when it felt like a job. Instead, he prefers to take his friends on epic multi-day bike adventures that, so far, have traversed the Sierra from Tuolumne to Buck’s Lake. Those invited have learned to bring a head lamp, extra clothing, food, positive attitude, Advil and a water pump. Besides skiing and biking, Gary was an avid white water kayaker and rock climber, and still makes time to go on long hikes, wind surf, sail his boat, and write a column for Taylor’s Tahoe Mountain News.
While the two other original shops closed in the mid-80’s, Sierra Ski and Cycle Works is still open today in the same spot on Hwy 50. The shop’s success is due to Gary’s loyal and talented crew who keep him young and inspired. Chris has been with Gary for 16 years, setting the pace for the next phase of the shop who are responsible for its ongoing success.
Each of them have their own following, expert mechanical skills, distinctive styles, and one thing in common with Gary — A passion for playing on skis or bikes, and for turning others onto it. It’s a good fit. SSCW, the small shop with the big fun, is a full service rental and repair shop for bikes and skis that also sells new and used bikes, skis and gear that specialize in custom builds, of course. A specialty of the shop has become the ergonomically adjusted bike builds to help friends with chronic neck and back pain get out and ride their bikes with more comfort. Gary is also well known for his custom built wheels and bike tunes, just ask Soulcycler Rick Gunn.
Sierra Ski and Cycle Works 3430 Lake Tahoe Blvd. (Hwy 50), in the middle of South Lake Tahoe next to Safeway.
For more information about this South Shore institution, please call the shop at (530) 541-7505.
Open daily 9ish to 6ish.