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Retro on Steroids
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[I wrote this for the political website DailyKos, but it is also relevant here.]

It was just 40 years ago, late summer of 1979. For a couple of months Gary Fisher had been riding a custom balloon tire bike he had built on a frame made by Tom Ritchey. I had a bike built by Joe Breeze a year earlier. Gary and I had been roommates for about four years, but Gary had recently rented a small cottage where he lived alone. During the time we had shared a house, we had evolved a hybrid off-road bike built on an old Schwinn frame. Then we had taken the next step, bicycles built for the purpose using modern materials and the big tires.

When Tom built Gary's bike, in addition to Gary's input he took advantage of what Joe had learned by building ten bikes like mine. The idea of building such bikes and selling them was far from our minds. The world's supply of such bikes was thirteen, ten built by Joe Breeze, and three built on Tom Ritchey's frames.

Almost unique among American frame builders of the '70s, Tom worked "lugless," using bronze welding to join tubes instead of the cast sleeves commonly used on steel road frames. That meant he was not limited in the diameter of the tubing he used, or the angles he chose to join them. He immediately used larger diameter tubing than he used on road bikes, and geometry nothing like that of a road bike.

When Tom built a bike for Gary, one for Gary's friend James and one for himself, he had a revelation. First, he didn't need to use an expensive double-butted tube set. He could buy straight-gauge chrome-moly tubing in 20-foot lengths straight from the foundry, in the larger diameters he preferred. Second, he didn't have to build each bike as a unique one-off, like all the custom road frames he was building. He could make two sizes, and even paint them all the same color. By standardizing the frame design, he could cut a dozen tube sets in an afternoon and build bikes the next day.

Building off-road bikes was simple compared to building custom road bikes, and the materials cost far less. For the time and money invested in building one custom road frame, he could build five or size balloon-tire frames. They were so easy to build that he built nine more than Gary had asked him for, in hopes of selling them to his own friends. Tom rode regularly with a group who hit the trails south of San Francisco on what would now be called "gravel bikes," drop bar, skinny tire bikes built to take abuse.

But because their passion was exploring, they didn't care for bikes with heavy wheels and big tires, built to take a downhill pounding. They didn't race downhill. Tom couldn't unload any of his nine new frames.

Finally Tom called Gary, who had bought one of Tom's frames and sold one to a friend. Maybe Gary could find a few more buyers. Gary drove the fifty miles to Tom's place in Palo Alto and picked up the frames. Later that day he tracked me down in Fairfax. He opened the trunk of his battered BMW, and showed me nine beautiful bicycle frames. He explained where they had come from.

"Hey man, you want to sell bikes?"

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had said no, but I didn't, and it set me off on the greatest bicycle adventure of the 20th Century.

We pooled the money we had in our pockets at that moment, about $200, and rode a few blocks to the bank where we opened a commercial account to handle the profits soon to come flooding in. The bank executive filled out the form and asked what we would call the company. Gary and I agreed that "MountainBikes" was a catchy title, for both the name of our company and the product we intended to sell.

Later on several big bicycle companies bought some of our hand made bikes and mass produced them. Within six years, mountain bikes dominated the bicycle market and in 1996 mountain biking became an Olympic sport.
 

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What an absolutely wonderful post. Thanks for sharing this.
 

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Thanks for sharing. At that time I remember our pursuing surplus and heavy duty touring stuff, finding Elgin in addition to old Schwinns worked, and later what I think was Gary's catalog that had parts. The Elgin I had for trail riding also had grease fittings so I didn't think that was so revolutionary when WTB was hyping that but of course newer was better.

If I recall, either side of 1980 I saw ads for the early MTB business catalogs and brochures. We moved from steel rims and stuff that didn't get trashed to what I think was Araya rims, motorcycle levers with canti brakes, and a snake or rib pattern 26 inch tire. Maybe some of the stuff we ordered was from you or your associates.

I still have one of the old Schwinns I was riding at that time, original owner Fat Chance, and once in a while regret not having the Elgin or my original StumpJumper. I love the old bikes but unlike many here I have no desire to ride them on trails. My two modern trail bikes are the dreams I wish we had when we were trying for stuff that didn't break 40 years ago.

Thanks again.
 

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Ride what you like!
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Thank you, Repack Rider, both for the article, and for helping to invent the sport that has saved my sanity so many times.
 

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[I wrote this for the political website DailyKos, but it is also relevant here.]

It was just 40 years ago, late summer of 1979. For a couple of months Gary Fisher had been riding a custom balloon tire bike he had built on a frame made by Tom Ritchey. I had a bike built by Joe Breeze a year earlier. Gary and I had been roommates for about four years, but Gary had recently rented a small cottage where he lived alone. During the time we had shared a house, we had evolved a hybrid off-road bike built on an old Schwinn frame. Then we had taken the next step, bicycles built for the purpose using modern materials and the big tires.

When Tom built Gary's bike, in addition to Gary's input he took advantage of what Joe had learned by building ten bikes like mine. The idea of building such bikes and selling them was far from our minds. The world's supply of such bikes was thirteen, ten built by Joe Breeze, and three built on Tom Ritchey's frames.

Almost unique among American frame builders of the '70s, Tom worked "lugless," using bronze welding to join tubes instead of the cast sleeves commonly used on steel road frames. That meant he was not limited in the diameter of the tubing he used, or the angles he chose to join them. He immediately used larger diameter tubing than he used on road bikes, and geometry nothing like that of a road bike.

When Tom built a bike for Gary, one for Gary's friend James and one for himself, he had a revelation. First, he didn't need to use an expensive double-butted tube set. He could buy straight-gauge chrome-moly tubing in 20-foot lengths straight from the foundry, in the larger diameters he preferred. Second, he didn't have to build each bike as a unique one-off, like all the custom road frames he was building. He could make two sizes, and even paint them all the same color. By standardizing the frame design, he could cut a dozen tube sets in an afternoon and build bikes the next day.

Building off-road bikes was simple compared to building custom road bikes, and the materials cost far less. For the time and money invested in building one custom road frame, he could build five or size balloon-tire frames. They were so easy to build that he built nine more than Gary had asked him for, in hopes of selling them to his own friends. Tom rode regularly with a group who hit the trails south of San Francisco on what would now be called "gravel bikes," drop bar, skinny tire bikes built to take abuse.

But because their passion was exploring, they didn't care for bikes with heavy wheels and big tires, built to take a downhill pounding. They didn't race downhill. Tom couldn't unload any of his nine new frames.

Finally Tom called Gary, who had bought one of Tom's frames and sold one to a friend. Maybe Gary could find a few more buyers. Gary drove the fifty miles to Tom's place in Palo Alto and picked up the frames. Later that day he tracked me down in Fairfax. He opened the trunk of his battered BMW, and showed me nine beautiful bicycle frames. He explained where they had come from.

"Hey man, you want to sell bikes?"

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had said no, but I didn't, and it set me off on the greatest bicycle adventure of the 20th Century.

We pooled the money we had in our pockets at that moment, about $200, and rode a few blocks to the bank where we opened a commercial account to handle the profits soon to come flooding in. The bank executive filled out the form and asked what we would call the company. Gary and I agreed that "MountainBikes" was a catchy title, for both the name of our company and the product we intended to sell.

Later on several big bicycle companies bought some of our hand made bikes and mass produced them. Within six years, mountain bikes dominated the bicycle market and in 1996 mountain biking became an Olympic sport.
Thx Charlie.....the the question I have is why couldn't you hold onto the title of "MountainBikes"? Was the name challenged in courts?
 

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** Always enjoy the visits to yesteryear to hear about the who and how of it all beginning.

I'm just now realizing the real reason I still have my Hardrock is the fact it is the closest bike I have to the early days of those vintage-looking things and it gives me that little bit of connection. That was 1991 when I was buying my first mtn bike.
In 1979, I was just moving on, graduating high school.
 

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My own introduction to the world of mountain bikes was a year or so after that. I was working in my first bike shop after a change of direction in my life. The guy I was working with had a beautiful touring bike, but said if he was going to do it again he would get a mountain bike which I had never heard of before. Then a couple of brothers came into the shop with some BMX cruisers that they had modified with Mafac brakes and derailleurs. They raved about riding around the local hills and got me interested. I purchased a road bike frame for $5 from a company that had gone out of business and built it into my first mountain bike. I brazed Mafac brake bosses and water bottle mounts on to it, built some wheels with Araya rims and Phil Wood hubs but could only fit 1.95" tires in the narrow frame, used a BMX stem which I drilled for the brake cable stop, and collected the rest of the parts including the "required" Magura brake levers. Yeah, the bottom bracket was a bit low but I had a blast riding all over the Santa Susanna mountains where I grew up! After I moved on to other bikes my sister rode that one for many years. Don't remember what ever happened to it but I still have the Magura levers around somewhere. After that I bought what I think was an Araya brand mountain bike and rode it for a while before deciding I was going to get a Ritchey. Must have been around 1983 I think since it was after I got married, I went to the Interbike show. Gary Fischer was working at the Ritchey booth and took my order for a frameset. I vividly remember how he somewhat furtively slipped a fork out from under the table to show me. It was a bare unicrown fork and I just HAD to have it for my bike! Beautiful work of art. I've still got that bike today, along with a 24" wheel one that I built for my wife shortly after that. Haven't ridden for a while since the body is getting old and worn out but they are still great bikes. Having been a fabricator for most of my life, I really appreciate the craftsmanship that went into those frames and forks.
 

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artistic...
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My own introduction to the world of mountain bikes was a year or so after that. I was working in my first bike shop after a change of direction in my life. The guy I was working with had a beautiful touring bike, but said if he was going to do it again he would get a mountain bike which I had never heard of before. Then a couple of brothers came into the shop with some BMX cruisers that they had modified with Mafac brakes and derailleurs. They raved about riding around the local hills and got me interested. I purchased a road bike frame for $5 from a company that had gone out of business and built it into my first mountain bike. I brazed Mafac brake bosses and water bottle mounts on to it, built some wheels with Araya rims and Phil Wood hubs but could only fit 1.95" tires in the narrow frame, used a BMX stem which I drilled for the brake cable stop, and collected the rest of the parts including the "required" Magura brake levers. Yeah, the bottom bracket was a bit low but I had a blast riding all over the Santa Susanna mountains where I grew up! After I moved on to other bikes my sister rode that one for many years. Don't remember what ever happened to it but I still have the Magura levers around somewhere. After that I bought what I think was an Araya brand mountain bike and rode it for a while before deciding I was going to get a Ritchey. Must have been around 1983 I think since it was after I got married, I went to the Interbike show. Gary Fischer was working at the Ritchey booth and took my order for a frameset. I vividly remember how he somewhat furtively slipped a fork out from under the table to show me. It was a bare unicrown fork and I just HAD to have it for my bike! Beautiful work of art. I've still got that bike today, along with a 24" wheel one that I built for my wife shortly after that. Haven't ridden for a while since the body is getting old and worn out but they are still great bikes. Having been a fabricator for most of my life, I really appreciate the craftsmanship that went into those frames and forks.
Similar story here. Bought something roadish and modified. It had the crappiest brakes, a bmx crankset which was wrong and creaked and slim tires but i was all set to ride like a kid again.
 

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I found these old snapshots of me and my friend. I had forgotten that He wanted me to modify a bike for him after seeing my first attempt. This is our one and only attempt at bikepacking somewhere on the western side of the Sierra Nevada in 1981 or thereabouts. The ranger up there wasn't happy with us riding the trails and promised to mail us tickets. Never happened, maybe because the signs prohibited "motorized vehicles" as we pointed out to him at the time. The bikes worked well enough on the trip even with the low bottom brackets.

Another thing a group of us did back then was to go on night rides in the foothills north of the San Fernando Valley. We would go on the night of the full moon in the summertime and it was a lot of fun cruising the trails and dirt roads.

Natural environment Bicycle wheel Bicycle Outdoor recreation Bicycle frame


Tire Bicycle wheel Wheel Bicycle frame Bicycle wheel rim
 
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