When photographer Larry Prosor started shooting the nascent sport of mountain biking in the early 1980s in Tahoe, the bikes had no shocks or suspensions, and helmets — if people wore them at all — were what Prosor called “super crude salad bowl” Styrofoam that would barely protect your head.
Prosor — then a Lake Tahoe local, but now a full-time resident of New Zealand — started riding some of the first mountain bikes with his friend Peter Underwood, adventuring in the early days of the Flume Trail and pioneering trails around both Mammoth and Tahoe. As one of the first photographers to shoot mountain biking in Tahoe, Prosor — who would become one of the most well-known ski photographers of his time — not only helped popularize the fledgling sport but also brought attention to Tahoe’s summertime beauty and raised the area’s status as a non-winter destination.
“Seeing Larry’s photographs of the greater Tahoe landscape and mountain bike riding most definitely brought attention to the region,” said Underwood, who now is part owner of Olympic Bike Shop in Tahoe City. “That attention built, and it became other photographers who jumped on that bandwagon. There was a fairly rapid building of awareness of what Tahoe had to offer.”
Now 65, Prosor grew up in the San Fernando Valley riding a Schwinn Stingray, complete with a banana seat, on fire roads and making jumps — what he called “my version of mountain biking.” In the mid-1970s, he moved to Tahoe for skiing, and found biking to be another way to enjoy the outdoors, stay in shape, and cover more terrain than hiking while getting the downhill speed of skiing. When Prosor met Underwood, who moved to Tahoe in 1976 at the age of 21, some of the first mountain bikes were just starting to be manufactured. Before that, the cycling scene in Tahoe was non-existent.
“It was a pure ski town and very few people had bicycles,” recalled Underwood. “There was no year-round business. Once the snow hit, that was it.”
Underwood had grown up in Marin County, and as a kid with his friends would pull old Schwinn Phantoms (circa 1949 to 1959) and Schwinn Varsities (1960 to 1986) out of the dump and put gears on them, creating the first geared mountain bikes that allowed them to bike up Mt. Tam instead of having to hitchhike to the top to ride down. Underwood still owns the 1930 single-speed Schwinn with a leather seat that became his first mountain bike.
Prosor and Underwood met through skiing, and in the summers, Underwood would take his friend on long, epic, pioneering adventures. (Underwood said his standards back then were to bring two headlamps, two meals, and be prepared to come back between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.) Underwood was sure he could find connecting trails from Conway Summit near Mono Lake to Bridgeport to Twin Lakes near Sawtooth Ridge, around 24 miles by car. In the ’80s, there were no mountain bike trails, so Underwood used wildlife and motorcycle trails, which were not user friendly for mountain bikers.
“It turned out to be a full hike-a-bike and a lot of ‘where are we?’ but we did it,” said Prosor, noting that they had to chuck their bikes over manzanita along the route. “Those were some of my first photos of mountain biking. It was a real ragtag thing … We were so beat up, we literally rode in the dark. We were toast, but we pulled it off.”
Because trails were not designed for mountain biking, it became so common to have to get off your mountain bike and carry it around obstacles that stores sold a product called portage straps to help riders hold their bikes.
“Half the time we went mountain bike riding we were going to be portaging bikes, and sometimes for hours and hours,” said Underwood, who described the stiff bikes of that time as “real bone shakers.”
Underwood and Prosor were also some of the first to bike the Flume Trail. Prosor remembers having to get off his bike to clear away debris from the old wooden flume that had deteriorated along with pieces of aluminum or lightweight steel, as well as removing 12-inch pipes. Underwood recalls biking over rusty nails.
“There was combination of wood and pipes, and you had to pick up your bike and get around that spot,” Prosor said.
Prosor began tapping athletes like snowboarding pioneer Jim Zellers, Tina Vindum, and Gregg Betonte to use as rider-models for mountain biking shots anywhere he could find scenic backdrops — Mt. Rose, the Sierra Buttes, the Southern Sierra, and around Truckee. One of his favorite photos is of Betonte riding through dust that Zellers kicked up with the sun setting behind him at the Prosser Pits. In 1993, this graced the premier cover of BIKE Magazine, an offshoot of POWDER Magazine. Twenty-five years later, the magazine reproduced the photo for a commemorative issue. Prosor went on to do a series of sunset dust-immersion photos.
Next, in 1994 Prosor conquered the cover of Mountain Bike magazine with photos of Zellers biking over rock slabs on Donner Summit and Vindum riding with Yosemite’s Half Dome in the background. Prosor, who was one of the few mountain bike photographers at the time, made connections with bike manufacturers at the Outdoor Retailer show in Las Vegas.
“Semi trucks would pull up with 10 bikes and all the gear, clothing and helmets, and they would say, ‘Here you go, just go shoot them,’” he said. “I started feeding the industry photos similar to Scot Schmidt skiing in the early days. I just took it for a ride.”
But it was Prosor’s photos of biking the Flume Trail that cemented him as a mountain bike photographer and put Tahoe’s summer beauty on the map.
“Larry’s photos of people on the Flume Trail with incredible views and the lake below started to promote the region and helped to grow the sport as well,” said Underwood. “Those were world-class views.”
According to Underwood, Prosor’s prowess as a mountain bike photographer kicked into high gear in the early ’90s, around the same time front suspension came into play, and then eventually full suspension, with bike manufacturers like Trek and Proflex. Prior to Prosor, according to Underwood, most mountain bike ads featured the bike as a “piece of jewelry” with the rider shouldering the bike in front of beautiful vistas but never riding it.
“Larry reconsidered how the mountain bike was used in advertising,” said Underwood.
With the advent of front shocks and full suspension, and as mountain bikes became lighter and lighter and tires became fatter and fatter, the sport gained in popularity. But Underwood gives a lot of the credit to the sport’s growth in Tahoe to Prosor, who paved the way for future mountain biking photographers.
“By the time mountain biking became something with broader appeal, a lot of photographers woke up,” said Underwood. “Larry was certainly very much a force in that community, no doubt about it. I really do believe his photography was responsible to a large degree in promoting the area to people coming with mountain bikes.”
Prosor, who shot mountain biking for 10 years, now rides his mountain bike three days a week in New Zealand or at his family cabin at Bucks Lake in Plumas County, but not much single track anymore.
“I want a workout and I want to look at a view and come back to the cabin all in one piece,” he said.