WHEELS OF FORTUNE, A PERSONAL HYSTERY OF THE MOUNTAIN BIKE
NEW WAVE FRAME BUILDERS
You wanna call somebody, "Dad?" Joe Breeze was first in Marin to build a handcrafted, 26" wheeled off-road bicycle, from the ground up, specifically for riding on trails and racing downhill. Others such as Tom Ritchey, Steve Potts, Jeff Lindsey, and Charlie Cunningham soon followed.
One day I took Dago, my dirty dumpster loin cloth friend, on a visit to a funky little bike shop between Fairfax and San Anselmo where Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly sold things called Mountainbikes built by steel-brazing whiz-kid, Tom Ritchey. Gary, a roadie-turned-cruiser rider, was a top dog at the Repack race Charlie organized. Charlie published the world's first off-road bicycle magazine, The Fat Tire Flyer. Gary went on to market himself as the "father" of the mountain bike, and got away with it for years (and still has that tag with the stupids who buy his pitiful bikes now produced by Trek, otherwise known as Drek here at Dreamride).
After a test ride, I returned to San Francisco and wrote Tom Ritchey a letter, saying his bikes were works of art, that they felt and looked more like animals than machines. Later he called to thank me for the review, telling me not to spend too much money on one of his bikes. "Don't buy the Anapurna or the Everest. You are not just paying for filing and lugwork, you are paying a lot for cosmetics. The Mt. Tam is the bike to get. It's exactly the same as the Anapurna, but without all the fancy lugwork."
Ironically, Ritchey's Anapurna and Everest frames have become valuable collector's items, just as I suspected they would, and Tom himself will pay a small fortune to buy them back. I'll bet he isn't looking for Mt. Tams as desperately as those bikes with the "art" all over them.
To give credit where it is due, Ritchey, who began by building beautiful road bikes using the same brass filet brazing techniques, wisely looked to Joe Breeze for direction when it came to geometry for his off-road specific frames. Breeze's original Breezer bikes were designed around ideas stolen directly from the old Schwinn Excelsior. The ancient Schwinn's success at blasting Joe, Gary, and their buddies down Repack, led Breeze to copy the frame angles in order to optimize stability, downhill control, and keep vibration at the handlebar to a minimum. The last time I saw an original Joe Breeze frame it was displayed beside a gold plated Harley and the old Mel's Drive-Inn sign from the film, American Graffiti in the Oakland Museum of Art.
Speaking of art, Jeff Lindsey's Mountain Goats' innovative horizontal ovalized tubes and artful frame junctions were smothered in smoked paint, lush, deep woolland colors, and the most tasteful graphics I have ever seen. The Mountain Goat's heavily ovalized tubes were an attempt to offering a level of compliance over bumps (suspension action).
Charlie Cunningham's all aluminum bikes were very different. Unlike the compliant long-wheelbase steel bikes of Breeze, Lindsey and Ritchey, Cunninghams were stiff, tight and went REALLY fast uphill. Cunningham was the first to build a mountain bike from aluminum hang glider tubes, the first to get the weight below twenty pounds with methods as funky and functional as his own treehouse lifestyle. Refinements happened continuously, and as a result every Cunningham frame was different. It was rumored that he heat treated his bikes in a bonfire and tempered them by tossing them red hot into a pond behind his treehouse.
Because of this mystique and the true craftsmanship behind his bikes, trust funders, rock stars, and unhip agents fed like bloated pigs on real estate speculation, bought Charlie's bikes for $4000 a piece faster than he could pump them out. A handful of his bikes are still being ridden and admired, but most are displayed on the wall, or carefully stored as true folk art.
I once met Charlie on a street in San Rafael. I spotted his fat tube aluminum bike, pulled over and screamed, "CHARLIE CUNNINGHAM!"
He stopped to explain himself, "I just got back from riding over the bridge to Richmond to get some Suntour levers. I am going to take a bit of weight off of them and polish them up to match a frame I just built."
Charlie had more hair on his neck than on his head, was as skinny as Karen Carpenter IN THE COFFIN, and had an Adam's apple the size of a grapefruit that bobbed up and down when he talked and occillated as if on a string when he laughed, drawing much of your attention during a conversation. He smiled like a possum, on a constant endorphin high, ate nothing but pancakes, lived in a fucking tree, and rode one of his own raw aluminum bikes everywhere he went, epitomizing the driven, obsessed bicycle fiend.
Charlie's wife, Jacquie Phalen, rode Cunningham "Balooners" and "Indians" into infamy as the first woman mountain bike racing champion. Sometimes she rode topless, sometimes with a stuffed animal on her head, sometimes both, and later became the first to organize rides and clinics just for women.
As a starving musician I could only dream of owning one of Charlie's new wave wonders. So, I rode my cruiser, sat back and waited for the copycats in Japan to tool up. They didn't waste any time.
Specialized soon released the Stumpjumper, managing to effectively meet demand with supply, and taking a place at the table for a very long time. Still standing, Mike Sinaird's Specialized has managed to produce some of the best machines for the money in the history of cycling.
In 1983 I bought a Diamond Back Ridge Runner, the best, first Japanese import chromoly "ATB" I could get my hands on, a stable and reliable mount, a serious deal in dollars for performance. In 1986, while a film student at the San Francisco Art Institute, I purchased a Klein Pinnacle (serial number 258) and a Ritchey Commando (the very first one) with a student loan check. I still own both. The Commando's highly stable geometry was patterned after English paratrooper bikes from the second world war. The Klein was a revolution at the time with its compact dropped top tube design, filed welds, aluminum construction, square to round chainstays, steep angles, and short chainstays. I was great at picking your way through tight singletrack and climbing smooth trail, but take it downhill on anything loose and you find yourself screaming, "MAMA." I have x-rays to prove it. For some reason, whenever the Klein was pointed down, the rear end wanted to be the first to the bottom.
Sherwood Gibson of Ventana came along in 1988, the first truly trained engineer and welder to hand-build mountain bikes. To increase his output of frames he connected the act of sex with the craft of tig welding aluminum tubing and managed to weld up to fifty frames a day. Over the next decade Gibson designed and built the best of availble full suspension frames for other people to put their logos on. Sherwood's mean, dry wit, unpretentious manner and legendary lack of interest in advertising or marketing has pretty much left him out of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. "Those guys called me a couple of years ago, telling me that I had been nominated for induction into the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame. The fellow that called said, 'I have this nomination, but I have never heard of you.' I told him that if he didn't know who I was, then maybe I shouldn't be in ANY hall of FAME." The same attention to detail in construction in those early bikes built by Ritchey, Potts and Lindsey is still being echoed in state-of-the-art full suspension frames Sherwood Gibson still hand builds in his shop in Rancho Cordova. While the others are flying their planes, driving their BMW's, Sherwood is welding and working at his computer to produce the bikes you will actually be riding.
Standard rigid mountain bikes really haven't gotten much better since the mid 80's. Companies fudged geometry depending on which way the market was blowing. Top tubes got longer, then shorter, then longer, then shorter again. Angles slackened, steepened, then slackened again. Components got lighter, then heavier, then lighter again. Shifting improved A LOT. Carbon fiber and monocoque aluminum changed the shape of cycling, literally. Titanium materials truly fine tuned the ride and machines built from this wonder metal will be here for millennia.
A fellow named Kent Ericson invented the softail as we entered the gay 90's once again, then he put a picture of his childhood chi-chi alligator friend on the headtude and called it Mr. Moots. The Moots YBB (why be beat?)turned out an effective way to make the saddle a more comfortable place to sit and offered a bit more traction on loose climbs. A decade later, John Castellano, the fellow who gave us the horriblly dangerous "Sweetspot" Unified Rear Triangle design (URT), further refined the softail, creating the most simple and effective full suspension design ever with his Ibis Silk Ti and later his Castellano Fango.
What is probably the most stuning landmark in the later 20th century came at the Interbike Show of 1986. A nifty looking Kestrel carbon fiber full suspension prototype turned heads, got a ton of publicity, and sparked the imagination of an entire industry. This milestone was built through a collaboration of Kestrel's carbon fiber wizards direct from NASA, motorcycle mechanic Paul Turner (founder of Rock Shox), and Keith Bontrager from Santa Cruz, known for innovative steel cyclocross frames in the late 80's.
The gaunlet was thrown at the feet of the best designers. The race was on to get these things in action.
TO PART THREE