Dawn Patrol is nothing new, but it cemented its place as “a thing” on the cover of a recent Bicycling Magazine. Absentmindedly, they didn’t feature the guest of my next Ted’s Talk interview who just may have invented it. I first met Jeff a few months after having moved to California in early 2016. I heard about a local shredder who charged as hard at work as he did on the bike — and that he was really really really good at both. By his math, he’s summited Mt. Tam a number that is well into the four digits, which in just under 7 miles takes you from sea level to 2,083′. His instagram feed is well worth a follow if you want to see bikes at dawn, bikes in beautiful places, and bikes at dawn in beatiful places. He’s been known to ride at dusk too and sometimes during the light of day.
Fittingly, Jeff and I did this Ted’s Talk while riding up Railroad Grade having met at 5:55am…
What’s your name and where are you from, please?
Jeff Jungsten. I was born in San Francisco and grew up in a little tiny house hanging off the cliff in Pacifica. So the sunrise and sunset has always been part of my life. The family moved to Mill Valley when I was really young and I’ve been here ever since.
Just between you and me, Jeff, how old are you?
The 1970 “Mill Valley” song was nearly a Billboard hit. I moved to town two years ago and there’s a feel of the Truman Show meets Stepford Wives here. You’ve seen quite a progression of your hometown over your lifetime. Mill Valley as a kid was… what exactly?
Growing up in Mill Valley, oh man, it was such a hoot! It was super hippy and hilarious. We’d hang out, have a good time, get in the hot tub, whatever you want to do. We grew up outdoors. My dad tricked out a big Chevy box van and my family would leave town in the summer, head up to Shasta, Oregon, Washington, Canada, then loop back down the coast. It was the original van life. So growing up in Mill Valley was all directed to the outdoors.
I’d guess that 90% of the time you and I hang out, it’s on mountain bikes, on this exact trail, chasing sunrise. What got you into riding?
Dawn patrol for me started when I was just twelve or thirteen years old. I’d leave in the morning for school and wouldn’t come home til after dark — this was all my backyard! I was ripping around on my BMX bike, I had a Redline with coaster brakes, always as a way to explore. I loved that freedom. I remember riding in jeans, boots, no shirt, no helmet, no gloves. We’d meet on the summit at West Peak and just bomb down the mountain. Nothing was illegal then. I was probably fifteen at that point. I’d sneak out at night, ride up the roads, then rip down the Mt. Tam fireroads.
For those outside of Marin County, to put it mildly, the current tension between mountain bikers and hikers on Mt. Tam is contentious. It seems like most trails are now illegal to bikes and even the legal trails host animosity. Did you kill mountain biking in Marin?
Ha! There was all a time before rangers spent time stopping bikes. It wasn’t illegal because there were only a few of us doing it! Gary Fisher, Steve Potts, they were a whole crew a bit older than ours and we’d run into them on the trail all the time. Every day as a kid, we’d hitchhike up, we’d ride down. Every day! It wasn’t yet illegal so we were just having fun. Then I got tired of waiting to hitchhike and just started riding up. This was all before mountain bikes.
Hey, hold up, photo op!
So you’re talking about your BMX bike: 24 inch wheels, coaster brakes, no gears. You haven’t even mentioned a mountain bike. What was your first real mountain bike?
It was a bright yellow, fully-rigid… Panasonic.
Ooh nice, did it come with earphones and batteries?!
It was a bright shiny object and I needed to have it. On ride number one I went up Red Hill, went down that really steep bit, I crashed horribly and the bike disintegrated. I decided at that point, it wasn’t the bike for me.
Probably a good indication.
I went through some bikes in those early days. I broke the seat collar at the Lamurien Race. That was eight miles in so I raced the next 32 miles without a saddle. After destroying a few aluminum bikes, we went to carbon. Then the local shop brought in front suspension but only sold it to downhillers. He quickly went out of business, but obviously a front shock lived on. Then rear suspension, tubeless; the technology is just so fast right now.
I couldn’t agree more, the speed at which technology is helping cycling is incredible. Where did you get your need for speed?
I grew up street racing motorcycles. It’s like the Sunday morning group bike ride, but point to point as fast as you could go with a whole crazy posse of whoever shows up. And… everyone showed up! After seeing people fly off the lagoon and into the bay or smash into things, we took it to the track.
And that went smoothly?
It did until I went 120mph to zero in zero seconds in 1988. Broken femur, compound. Broken scapulas, both of them. Broken right wrist. Broken left ankle. Cracked ribs. Turn 8A at the Sonoma Raceway. I was in shape because I rode bikes at the time, so the doctors did some wacky experimental surgery and said, “Hey, we want you mobile. We’re not going to put you in a cast. Just move. Do whatever you can. Move until you pass out, but move.” They put a vertical piece of metal right down the center of my femur that I still have. So after six weeks, I was back riding.
Man, I thought I’d taken a few tumbles. So that was six weeks and you were back riding a bicycle?
Yeah. So that accident was ’88. Being an athlete just expedited the whole recovery process. I blew the doctors away.
What eventually got you into road riding, cause you’re a ripper there too?
In probably 1999, a local coach Alex Albertis invited me to a road clinic. He was cut throat. There were 25 or 30 people and he’d ask how people were feeling and if you had any excuse, he kicked you out on the spot. “Boohoo, you had a hard ride yesterday? Go home!”
I somehow became his adopted project. He was always giving me tips, elbows in, flatten your bike, up your cadence. We trained to do a century on a fixie every year on Boxing Day. Out to the Point Reyes Lighthouse back. Or sometimes double (Mount) Diablos to work the leg speed. Don’t stop pedaling. Ever. Fun times.
Geeze, that’s some old school Russian. So switching gears, fixie pun intended, describe your profession please.
General contractor. We do, whoa… the sun rise is awesome right now! Ahh, we do high end residential.
Somehow amid your 53 years of cycling antics, how did you get into construction?
It’s been a progression so stay with me. To start, my father started an audio visual company. He did the audio visual sets for these really large stage sets. Really creative work with creative people. Pocket that for a second.
I then went to high school and decided I needed money. I started working with a residential contractor doing really basic jobs — stack this, dig a ditch from here to there — I loved it. All my buddies went to party and I went to work.
The guys on the site then said, “That went well. Try these things.” I completed those tasks. I started learning the basics, then pretty soon I was giving them instruction on how to do the jobs better. I’d learn from them as much as they learned from me. It was a lot of fun, low key, casual, fun.
Amid all that, I was also bussing tables. More of the same, go to school, go to work, ride my bike.
That segued to college at Chico State and thought I’d get into the fledgeling field of computer science. I got a call from one of the contract guys I’d worked with in the past. He was on a big project and said I’d be perfect for it. It would start right when I got out of school, build it here, and install it in LA. School let out, I met this crazy crew of super creatives and we built the opening and closing ceremonies for the LA Olympics! That was my first big gig. Probably 100 people, I was just following their lead, we had a wood shop, electric shop, soft goods, we had everything. 30 hour shifts, with 8 hours off, the entire summer. Flat out, a full summer of work.
That’s awesome. You’re probably not rewarded with tickets to the games though?
Naw, too busy riding. So once that was complete, I got a call that we just landed another job: Coca-Cola is celebrating their 100th anniversary. I didn’t want to miss that because I wouldn’t be around for the next hundredth! It was a huge endeavor.
So that was ’86. I finished school, and chased the dream; we built movie stuff, music stuff, then one day we went in to work and the doors were closed. WTF? The bank that owned the loans went belly up. They seized the assets and took the businesses and that made for a nice break.
I then partnered up with a buddy and joined his crew, mostly doing residential high end victorian work. I really honed my finishing skills. Mostly San Francisco and a little Marin, we did a series of really cool residential projects where I got to know a bunch of people.
My neighbor was doing a project and a friend of mine was on the crew. He said I’m working with this guy and you should meet him. I met him, nice guy, that was it. About a year later, ’95, I got a call again, “Hey Jeff I’m on this job, and I could use your help.” I met the same guy I’d met the year prior, John Coletti. He asked what it would take to get me on board. I said, “Listen, I’ll start right away and you’ll never be dissatisfied.” We just hit it off. I took all the systems that I learned over the years, teamed up with him in his GC background and we built a company. John retired a few years ago… and now I get all the stress.
Where do you get your balance? It takes energy to rip up the mountain or even to set the alarm for 4:30am to fit it all in. What’s your motivation?
One of the keys for riding for me is that my work is super mental. It’s creative, it’s problem solving all day. So I have to balance that physically. It’s also the whole reason that I started riding as a kid, I was looking for a way to explore. It’s that freedom I was seeking out from the age of ten.
That’s poetry. So if you have to put maple syrup on one thing, what would it be?
HA! I’ve been meaning to tell you, I was on a ride a few weeks back. It’s dry, it’s hot, and my chain is screaming out loud. So I literally put UnTapped on it. It worked for the ten miles I needed to get home. Usually I’m the one asking for maple, it was my chain this time. Worked perfectly!
(Editor’s note: there was also the time Jeff planned a dawn patrol soon after Laura and I were engaged, complete with everything one would need for a cold, rainy trip to the summit. Donuts, blankets, orange juice plus Dom, and freshly engraved crystal to toast. Jeff’s friendliness is met by his thoughtfulness is met by his sincereity. Thanks again Jeff!)