By Ron Lindley — The phone rang, it was early, and I was getting ready to head to work. The caller was my close friend and longtime mountain biking buddy Dennis McCormick — he had some bad news.
“Hey Ron, Clifford went to check on Rich a few minutes ago and found him dead on his couch.” I was stunned, and both Dennis and Clifford Funk were even more so. Dennis was matter-of-fact and collected, but I could sense the grief in his voice as he explained the situation.
[Editor’s Note: This remembrance was originally posted in the August 2007 issue of Cycling Utah. Recent conversations inspired us to repost this story. Unfortunately, Cyndi Schwandt, who had a major part in this story, passed away in a mountain biking accident in 2019.]
Rich had been sick for about 5 days with a particularly nasty strain of influenza (Rich was one of 5 or 6 Utah residents to die from it that year; I don’t remember hearing reports of flu taking down that many before or since). Rich’s good friend Clifford Funk knew Rich was pretty sick and hadn’t heard from him in a couple of days, so he decided to check in on him, never expecting to make such a painful discovery. Rich lived alone.
If you’ve ever had the flu, you know that it’s difficult to even get up to drink water even if you’re desperately thirsty. You can’t eat; you have no strength at all. All you can do is puke, sweat and sleep … not good if you’re living alone. It just seemed so ironic that such a relatively common ailment would claim the life of one of the most amazing athletes I’ve ever met, especially when he was still so very fit and vibrant, but it did. That dreary December day will be long remembered by so many who loved and respected Rich Perrier and believe me when I say that there are many.
Rich was truly one of the most likeable people I’ve ever known. He had a quick but polite wit, a pleasant smile, and a genuine demeanor that you just had to admire. Always positive, polite, and honest; he left a trail of good will everywhere he went. You’ll hear this said about people all the time: “I’ve never heard him/her say a bad word about anyone,” and, at least in my experience, it was really true of Rich. What goes around comes around; I’ve never met anyone who’s had anything negative to say about Rich (except maybe that they were tired of getting beaten by him every time they competed in a mountain bike race). Rich really set an excellent example for his close friends, co-workers and pretty much anyone else who crossed paths with the man.
As far as mountain bike racing is concerned, Rich Perrier was hands down the most dominating Expert Veteran Class racer in NORBA history. The Vet Class, (which is no longer a USA Cycling category) pitted men 35 to 44 years of age against one another and, back in the day, was very competitive. Rich won numerous Nationals and dominated the Utah scene for most of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Rich made the U.S. National Team multiple times and represented well with podium and Top 10 finishes in both cross-country and hill climb races. After he retired from full-time racing, he would still kick butt in the Tour-des-Suds race year in and year out.
I recently sat down with two people who were very close to Rich to learn more about his past history: Cyndi Schwandt, who was Rich’s “sweetie” for nine years, and his favorite mountain biking buddy, Dennis McCormick. I learned that Rich was born in 1952 in the Midwest, but he spent the majority of his youth in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since his dad had a career in the Military, he traveled around a bit and even lived in Hawaii for a while as a kid. He migrated to Utah in 1980 to work at Solitude for the winter and be a real-live ski bum (like none of you have done that).
He liked it so much that the following year he moved back to Utah and took up residency in Park City (like none of you have done that either). Rich was a skilled carpenter and quickly found work in the trade (Park City was just at the start of the incredible development boom that continues today). Rich was an avid telemark skier at the time and that was how Dennis first met him on a casual basis during since they were both doing the local telemark ski races. When the mountain bike craze really hit the Wasatch Front in 1985, Dennis got involved as a volunteer with the “Snug Series”, Utah’s first mountain bike race series. Rich and mutual pal Mark Oliver were both dominating those races, and Dennis and Cyndi (who also competed in the series), soon became good friends with them.
During our recent conversation, Dennis reflected on the time he and Rich first met me which was at my very first mountain bike race back in 1986. The race was part of a multi-stage (mainly road) event held in Heber Valley. This “new-fangled” mountain bike stage was held on a course that started at the Homestead Resort. The night prior to the race, a friend and I were checking out the course when we encountered these guys who were very helpful and seemed to know a hell of a lot more than we did. The two guys were Rich and Dennis.
Since this was to be Dennis’s first mountain bike race as well, we were both asking Rich, the experienced racer, a number of questions. Actually, they were both very helpful to me and gave me not only directions, but also some sound advice: “you should probably get a helmet for the race”: I did. Rich wasn’t racing as his bike was torn down and the “Focus” frame was being re-painted “Rasta” colors: red, green, and gold. Rich was acting as Dennis’s pit crew which paid off because Dennis actually won the race!
Dennis had some additional help though; a poorly informed course marshal sent the lead pack of several riders off the wrong way and, coming by after the fact and knowing where the course was actually supposed to go, Dennis got to the finish line well before the pack of angry, raging roadies. By the time I got there (finished 2nd to last) Dennis and Rich were celebrating the big victory. From that first encounter on, Rich was someone I really liked and respected.
Cyndi shared some memorable moments that she spent with Rich. She recalled the 1992 National Championships at Durango when she and Rich both made the National Team and qualified for the World Championships. Another episode she mentioned was at the first ever “official” World Championship Race (also in Durango) at which both she and Rich were chosen for random drug testing. Cyndi recalled “not being able to go” and that she couldn’t leave until she did! After a couple of hours and “having to drink lots of water” she was able to deliver and was hence released by race officials. Rich had no such problem that day. Cyndi also mentioned that Rich liked to start at the back of the field during a race. He liked to start slowly, let the guys who blew off the front fade, and then pick off each guy ahead of him one by one. I just remember him getting called up to line all the time and having to eat his dust.
Cyndi, Dennis, and I all agreed that the most remarkable trait that Rich possessed and that really set him apart as a mountain bike racer was his ability to “dig deeper” than any of his rivals. He wasn’t the strongest, most physically gifted, or most technically skilled rider, he was just unbelievably mentally strong. He could endure pain and suffering during the course of a race to a degree most can’t attain (without dope!). He was driven and relentless and, when he was feeling it, he’d crush his foes into the dust.
Dennis recalls one example of this when Rich broke his ankle at work early one week, was casted on Wednesday, but modified his cast to race the “Wild Rose Series” final at the Bobsled/Agony Escalator race that Saturday.
“If you don’t mind, it don’t matter,” Rich said, after Dennis reminded him that he already had the series championship wrapped up whether he raced or not.
Rich won his class that day going away. Before moving to Utah, Rich injured his leg in a mining accident, which resulted in one of his legs being an inch shorter than the other, so he rode sort of tilted when he really got pushing it hard. If you ever watched Rich race, you surely recall his interesting posture on the bike, it just made him look all the more formidable, kind of like a machine.
Some of my fondest memories with Rich and Cyndi are when we’d go exploring in the early days, seeking out new trails to ride. Rich was responsible for pioneering many of today’s most popular routes, some of which were initially nothing more than game trails or seldom used equestrian routes. Upon completion of some of those exploratory adventures a few of the conversations went like this: “We’d better not tell Gregg Bromka about this one” (eventually he’d find out anyway).
Rich was also a very prolific trail builder in both Summit and Wasatch counties. Rich and a few other Park City area notables (you know who you are) started building trails long before it became popular in the area. Many of these trails remain today; some of the old “bandit trails” have been lost to the vast developments that now dominate the outskirts of Park City, some have been “re-paved” by the Mountain Trails folks, and some are still there just as Rich and the boys originally constructed them. Rich even has a couple of trails named after him.
To finish this tribute to Rich, I’d like to share a couple more of my fondest recollections of him. I always thought it was cool when he’d pull up to a race in that old, blue, Ford station wagon with the homemade bike rack that had a bike on it worth 4 times more than the car. I looked forward every winter to chasing Rich (and Dennis) through the steep and deep on their super-wide, swallow tail Wintersticks on my skinny tele-boards and loving every minute of it (Rich was an avid back country snow boarder). Lastly, I’ll never forget the day someone made some comment about not going to church and riding on Sunday and Rich said, “Mountain biking is my religion” … well, we all miss you buddy, but I’ll bet you’re rippin’ it up on that buffed single track in the sky.
Rich Perrier died in December of 2003; he was 52 years young.