In Stowe’s Jack Nash, a mentor, a sport, and an era in the making

Jack Nash was instrumental in getting  Vermont cycling in the 1970s when he opened Onion River Sports in Montpelier with Warren Kitzmiller. He died Sept. 1,  2013, of a heart attack while biking. Courtesy photo

Jack Nash was instrumental in getting Vermont cycling in the 1970s when he opened Onion River Sports in Montpelier with Warren Kitzmiller. He died Sept. 1 of a heart attack while biking. Courtesy photo

You may not have known Jack Nash, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack on Sept. 1 at the age of 67. But he left a remarkable imprint on the Vermont we know today, with a formidable passion and character that touched many lives as it went quietly spinning through the sporting world, like the cycles that he loved.

For many drawn to Central Vermont in the 1970s, Jack Nash will be remembered as co-owner of Onion River Sports in Montpelier, which he started with now-Rep. Warren Kitzmiller. But he wasn’t really a businessman, a hat he seemed sometimes to wear uncomfortably. Nash was a cyclevangelist, a cheerful enabler for spoked-wheel fun with an unquenchable enthusiasm for getting folks on bikes, mentoring riders, and for club and race-organizing efforts. That he died while out biking, doing the sport he loved, seemed entirely in character.

Nash and Kitzmiller came together 40 years ago back in Stowe, opening a bike shop in the resort town under the auspices of Shaw’s General Store. In 1974, Kitzmiller was “bumbling around” about what to do in life, as he put it, and they decided to head off on their own and open their own bike shop in the state capital, where Bear Pond Books owner Michael Katzenberg offered them a small space in the back of his iconic bookshop.

Little did they know they would play an instrumental role in the athletic culture of the region, one that continues apace almost 40 years later.

It’s easy to forget it wasn’t always so.

Vermont today is a cycling-crazy state, avid pedalers on pricey carbon-fiber frames in gaudy jerseys spinning everywhere over asphalt and hardy mountain bikers doing everything from tricks to backroads, gnarly trail centers or downhill ski runs. Forgotten (or ancient history) is the fact that in the early 1970s, cycling in Vermont was anything but mainstream: an oddball outlier sport trying to gain a foothold.

Bikes, if you had one, were a Schwinn or a Raleigh or Huffy, heavy and utilitarian, or maybe a fancier Paris Sport. Cyclist Greg LeMond then was in his early teens – he wouldn’t make his mark on the Tour de France until 1986. Racers – the hardy few – wore sportif-looking cloth cycling caps or laughable padded leather strap “helmets” for protection. Cyclists like myself who were cajoled into racing by Jack Nash jokingly called them “brain baskets” for all the protection they provided. It would be years before Bell produced the first hard-shell bicycling helmet. Shimano? That bike component behemoth was just an upstart and the Dura Ace line wasn’t even coined until 1973.

As for the locale where Onion River started up, on Langdon Street, it was not much more than a red shed attached to the back of the bookstore, on a sleepy side avenue off the main drag in then-oh-so-staid Montpelier. So, for Jack Nash and Kitzmiller to open an oddly named shop called Onion River (the translation of the Native American name of the Winooski River) was sort of a radical act. Which proved to be fitting and amusing serendipity.

Langdon Street soon became Montpelier’s radical, hippie, way-ahead-of-the-curve home to a culinary hotbed of radical action, Ginny Callan’s Horn of the Moon vegetarian cafe. The radical attitude was accentuated by Goddard College graduate Fred Wilbur, who opened a counterculture record store, Buch Spieler, in 1973. And a vibe was born: Bikes, books, big breakfasts, muffins, tofu-scrambles and music, along with an era in the making.

At his poignant funeral service at the Stowe Community Church, close friend and cyclist Jon Williams humorously recalled to the gathering how in his early biking days, “Jack Nash gave me a great deal on a really nice bike.” Everyone erupted in laughter since, and as Williams noted, “I’m not the only one who can say that.”

 

That first shop, back of what is now Rivendell Books, was tiny, with a wood floor and a cramped second story sloped-roof attic with frames hanging from the rafters: a literal hotbed in summer. Downstairs was a dark stone basement for bike assembly. But folks were doing their own thing, going whole-grain healthy and getting back to the land, and pedal power fit right in, and Jack Nash, boy, did he have a bike for you.

At his poignant funeral service at the Stowe Community Church, close friend and cyclist Jon Williams humorously recalled to the gathering how in his early biking days, “Jack Nash gave me a great deal on a really nice bike.” Everyone erupted in laughter since, and as Williams noted, “I’m not the only one who can say that.”

No, because Jack Nash never gave up a chance to put a new rider on a nice bike, help them learn to ride and race, and with Kitzmiller, even organized a club for them to race in. The pair were instrumental through the shop in founding the Stowe-Shimano bike club in 1976, recalled Justin Crocker, and in spawning the weekly time trials and races that began to populate the hills of Vermont, and continue today. Which Nash often won, by the way.

Andy Brewer, who bought Onion River Sports in 2000, recalled being a 16-year-old kid in 1982 when Nash, always eager to mentor young riders, gave him a great deal. As Brewer pointed out, in those days, bikes didn’t come preassembled or out of a box. Nash would reach up and lift a gorgeous frame off a hook in the ceiling and put it in your hands. Brewer said it was a “magical thing” to a 16-year-old kid like himself – or to a nearly 30-year-old like myself, who bought three frames from Nash over the years, or to many of my friends, who all were put on bikes at Onion River and have been biking every since the ‘70s.

Those bikes were all “bespoke,” put together piece by piece after you had chosen what rims and spokes, derailleurs, brakes and hubs and stems you wanted. The equipment was European, shiny and exotic in an America where no one was making such fancy stuff. The brightly colored frames hanging on the ceiling in red, maroon, black, blue and yellow were like tempting chrome-moly candy, and the imported British and Italian names emblazoned on the tubes burned into the brains of a generation of riders in the region: Dawes double-blue, Basso, Colnago, Bianchi, Roberts, Cilo, Tommasini. On these you hung the gold standard of Campagnolo brakes, derailleurs and cranks or lesser Suntour gear, depending what you could afford.

Who knows how many Vermonters were outfitted by Nash, with his wicked slightly crooked grin, quick wisecracks, and infectious enthusiasm. After you chose components, a long list of young bike tech wizards who worked at ORS assembled the bikes in the basement, learning the business in the process. Some went off to eventually run their own businesses, like “Spike” Clayton at The Ski Rack and Chuck Schultz at Chuck’s Bikes in Morrisville, or into other sports-related businesses. ORS was both sports hub and fertile training ground.

There was a method to this madness, of course, a generation adopting a life sport that would then instill it in the new riders coming up and keep the business going. Jack was famed for mentoring young enthusiasts, and for being a generous host and crash pad provider for many who stayed with him and his athletic wife Barb, and later daughter Laura, in his house in Stowe.

“Jack loved his family, bikes and getting more people out on bikes,” said Williams.

One can’t talk about Nash without mentioning he was a fierce competitor, and a good one. Nash was described at the service as a “classy rider” whose “safe wheel” you could trust in a tight pack where mistakes and squirreliness have dire consequences. But he also did not like to lose.

But perhaps most telling was that he was described by many as a “friend for life” among those he came in contact with.

Racers-turned-entrepreneurs like Quebec’s Louis Garneau spoke with emotion at his service, and retailers alike showed up to honor the incredible friendship he struck up with them as a rep for cycling companies like Giant, Louis Garneau and Specialized.

That humble little shop Nash and Kitzmiller founded is now part of a much larger sports ecosystem in Vermont. Onion River Sports moved to its current much-expanded location on Langdon Street in 1978 and is a stalwart in the region’s sporting and gear scene in a state that embraces physical activity. Though Kitzmiller and Nash split in 1991 (Kitzmiller became sole owner until Brewer took over in 2000) Kitzmiller says he was struck by how hard news of Nash’s passing hit him.

Recalling many kindnesses and Nash’s unfailing willingness to help out, he wholeheartedly seconded the central theme at Nash’s service: “What came out of the funeral, which was absolutely true, Jack was an incredible friend.”

Andrew Nemethy

Comments

  1. Jason Serota Winston :

    Thanks for this article. I bought my first pair of real racing skis from Jack after working all summer to save up. Jack was a real source of inspiration that I remember to this day.

  2. Wow, what a well researched article! I remember pushing a few customers Jack and Warren’s way in the mid-70’s, and for Christmas they gave me a new pair of x-c racing skis. A real treasure for a starving racer who could barely afford the wax, let alone nice, new state of the art equipment. Loved those guys!!

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