Interview: Mountain bike legend Gary Fisher

True innovator, who's now lobbying to make cities more cycle-friendly

Boy, this is steeper than I remember,” says Gary Fisher, setting the kind of pace up the steep, gravel covered climb that makes it hard to believe this is the same Gary Fisher who was part of mountain biking’s beginnings 30 years ago.

Gary, astride a 2010 Fisher Rumblefish 29er, is leading me on what he calls a ‘classic’ loop of some old haunts in the golden grass-covered hills above Fairfax, California, giving me a taste of what it used to be about back then.

Now 59, Gary has seen pretty much all there is to see in mountain biking, but it’s clear from the moment I meet him that his passion for bikes hasn’t dwindled. You can see it in his eyes – at least when he lowers his dark, round-rimmed glasses you can.

It’s understandable that people pigeonhole Gary and his ‘mad professor’ image as a creation of Trek’s marketing department, but today’s nattily-suited character is a far cry from some marketing manager’s creative concept. The truth is Gary lives bikes. He always has and it seems, as he attacks the next climb with unbridled gusto, he always will.

“I was riding Raleigh three-speeds in sixth grade. We did 25-mile time trials, and I even did 85-mile rides when I was 12,” he says, as an introduction to a life lived on and around bikes. “The first year I rode I got second in the intermediate district championship – but there were only four kids taking part!” he adds, laughing. I suggest he keep that last bit quiet.

When I first started contacting some of the legendary figures that have made an impact during mountain biking’s 20-year history, Gary’s reply came through within an hour, with a very positive “yes” to the idea of holding our interview while riding together. Any excuse to get out on his bike obviously still holds a big attraction for Gary.

Driving from his home in San Francisco, he meets me at my friend’s house in Marin County, popularly regarded as the birthplace of mountain biking. As we spin out of the front door and into one of the few legal singletrack trails that Marin has to offer, it strikes me as ironic that mountain bikers aren’t welcome on so many of the area’s best trails.

Welcome to Marin

“Marin is a special case,” says Gary, before going on to explain how the efforts of the Sierra Club and Audubon Society prevented Marin’s population hitting the city planners’ 1.4 million target. Today, Marin has 260,000 inhabitants. “Basically they saved our mountain and we took advantage of it. In the Sixties there were a lot of people – hippies – camping out up there, then they put chains on the gates, then you needed a bike to get up there. That was a cool thing. But the guys who owned the place got pissed [off]. That’s what it came down to.”

At the top of our climb Gary points out some historic landmarks – Pine Mountain, Mount Tam, Bolinas Ridge – before setting off at a hairball rate down a loose, gravel-coated jeep track. I struggle to keep my guide in sight as he powerslides each corner, one foot out, in a style captured in so many photos of the old Repack Races that were the precursor to contemporary mountain biking.

“Back then they [Sierra Club] knew everybody in power and we knew nobody,” he says, explaining how mountain bikers quickly became the scourge of polite Marin society. “Now everything’s changed. There’s no-one in Marin who doesn’t know someone who rides a mountain bike, and who’s a completely sane person,” he adds, insisting that respectability is playing its part in the sport’s struggle for acceptance.

“It’s a problem in society: on the one hand no-one wants to be hindered in any way, but then you get all these rules that say you can’t put anyone at risk, and to that end programmes get shut down. The irony is that we now know that mountain biking is safer than any field sport in high school! Kids in all seven Marin high schools are in the high school mountain bike league and their parents are showing up at the [land owning] Water District meetings and saying, ‘We need a singletrack.’ That’s gonna happen,“ he says with certainty.

I’m guessing Gary’s goatee beard and slightly ‘out there’ dress sense may not see him blend seamlessly with the powers that be, but his insistence of the importance of getting involved when bike issues come to the fore has almost made him an honorary politician. While extolling the virtues of biking mothers campaigning for more singletrack, I see him become increasingly animated as he evolves onto the subject of traffic-jammed cities the world over, how the bike is the solution and how best to get this message across.

Gary the politician

Bike advocacy and the local City Bike project is a big part of Gary’s life and his philosophies, and he’s heavily involved in promoting the bike as a means of commuting, believing that if you can show local politicians the way forward they will spread the solution throughout the city by way of town planning.

“It’s about transferring our city’s transit systems, by helping our politicians look good on a bike and be unphased by traffic and rain. I’m trying to come in with examples of people making suits that work with cycling, or different capes or bags; giving them solutions to everyday practical questions so that the politicians and their staff can get around. We’ve been equipping them with electric assist bikes like Trek’s Ride Plus. These guys wear a suit and tie; they don’t want to arrive at meetings a sweat-ball.

“I’m becoming an advisor for these guys, which is pretty funny. Years ago when I was a mangy road racer I was always f**king with stuff, messing with the rules and team tactics when there weren’t any. Maybe I have a natural knack for this kind of thing?” he smiles wryly, reaching for his iPhone to share pictures of the electric bike designs he’s working on.

We’re now sipping tea and I’m tucking into my cake, but Gary still hasn’t picked up his fork. He’s on a roll and won’t let the subject go, touching on the 1930s conspiracy between General Motors, Firestone and Standard Oil that led to the downfall of the US railway network and tearing up of its tracks.

Animated but without lecturing, he continues: “Here’s the funny thing: you could rebuild the whole system for the price of one Iraq War, and we could make this a safer place to live. Take the bullet train in Japan: it covers the 325-mile Osaka to Tokyo section in just over two hours and there’s a train every 15 minutes. There hasn’t been a single death on the line since 1955 when it opened. That’s good technology. We Americans are idiots.”

Finally reaching for his cake, he rounds off the subject by touching on the OPEC oil crisis of the 1970s, which boosted bike sales in the US from 4.8 million to 15 million in a year. “And the bikes were crappy 10-speeds,” he says. “A third of the city streets should be gardens and another third should be walkways and bike ways. Of 11 city supervisors, seven ride bikes so they like the idea. I’m trying to infect people. I want the ideas and fantasies to be out there for when the shocks come.”

Gary might be on his way to realising at least some of his dream as far as bike advocacy goes, but it’s this same willingness to go against the grain, to stick his oar in, that’s behind many of the ‘outside the box’ concepts that are found on Gary Fisher bikes today. “I’m a developer,” he says. “It’s a hard thing to ever satisfy. When it comes to inventing, everything you do has been done before at some point – but the big thing is to make it so you can actually walk in and buy one of these things.”

The bigger picture

Just like the early days when he and Charlie Kelly started the company MountainBikes, it’s clear that Gary’s approach is to look at solutions rather than pick at the detail. But, I ask, what made him first look outside the tried-and-tested design philosophies to emerge with concepts like G2 geometry? “To make a better bike that people might enjoy,” he fires back.

“The whole [G2] offset thing was something people used to do all the time, for example, adjustable offsets in GP moto racing. It’s the most significant way to change the handling of the bike. We came out of the John Tomac era with steep head angles, then head angles started getting slacker but the offset stayed the same. Why? It just seemed no-one cared, because to get a different offset it cost so much to retool. I’m proud to say that we opened the door again, and now people are conscious that it’s something they can do to make the bike handle better.”

Gary’s battle to win hearts and minds to the 29er concept has been drawn out, yet his stable of 12 models is now selling better than ever. “It’s been 10 years, but journalists are starting to say, ah, there is something there!” he says, adding that seven out of the top 10 US men’s cross-country pro field won on 29ers last year. Gary is tall and thin, and his gait makes his 29er look like a 26in-wheeled bike does under anyone else. Kitted out in Lycra with a bandana tucked under his Fisher helmet, his riding style sits firmly in the cross-country camp: fast and smooth, with perhaps a nod towards his once roadie background.

As a self-proclaimed developer he sees opportunities to be had, rather than problems to solve. “With the 29er there was no problem: everyone was happy with the 26er. We haven’t done a good enough job with our marketing – but it actually worked out for us, that one. Pioneering is a bitch; it would be much easier to follow the trend one year behind. Everything takes time to be accepted. When Reynolds started butted chromoly tubing, it wasn’t popular in the beginning because it was suspect. The same goes for aluminium alloy frames, titanium frames, suspension, 29ers. It takes 10 years.”

After dinner speaker

Involvement in the sport at such an early stage lands Gary with endless speaking invitations, and not just at bike dealer dinners either. “I have one in India, speaking to computer geeks. They want to talk about how much opportunity there is in this world, what’s going to happen, how problems spawn opportunity. The evolution of the mountain bike is being held up as an example of how things change. 

“You’ve got to remember that before 1983, when the mountain bike became commercially available, there were only maybe 1500 or 2000 mountain bikes in the whole world.” It seems mildly amusing to think of the once-rebellious Repack racer Gary Fisher delivering a speech on marketing opportunities, but Gary doesn’t shy from telling it how it was. He saw an opportunity in the 1980s to bring the mountain bike to the masses and he took it, working with Japanese manufacturers to bring prices down.

The following years spelt crisis for his company, but he’s reflective about that. When I quiz him on Fisher Bikes and the 1993 buy-out by Trek, he’s honest about the positive changes it brought about. After all, Fisher’s contemporary offerings boast many shared technologies developed in-house at Trek’s Wisconsin HQ, including the ABP rear pivot point in Fisher suspension bikes and a host of carbon frame technologies.

His role at Fisher has of course changed over time. He’s no longer the boss, but he remains active in the company, and the change of role seems welcome. “I see one thing and I get an idea for another all the time,” he says snapping his fingers. “You collect the best people you can, give them the parameters, give them the inspiration. I’m an artist, I’m not the designer; that’s not what I do. I love metal shop, I can weld, it’s the only subject I got straight A’s in. But I want to cover the Earth with bikes, and you can’t be making them one at a time.”

Timeline

  • 1974: Despite being suspended from road racing because his hair was too long, Gary returns and becomes a category 1 racer. He builds his own ‘off-road’ bike using a Schwinn Excelsior X, drum brakes, thumbshifters and a triple chainring so it can go up and downhill.
  • 1976: With Charlie Kelly, Gary helps stage the Repack downhill race.
  • 1977: Gary sets the (still unbroken) Repack record time of 4:22:14.
  • 1979: With Charlie Kelly, Gary sets up ‘MountainBikes’ using frames welded by Tom Ritchey and Jeffrey Richmond. He sells 160 mountain bikes, which represented 50 percent of the mountain bike market in the US.
  • 1983: Gary buys out Charlie Kelly and begins Fisher Bikes.
  • 1984: Gary designs the first mountain bike using Tange Prestige tubing. The Fisher Excalibur specs a Shimano Dura-Ace freehub and toe clips. Joe Murray races for Fisher and wins the NORBA National Championships.
  • 1989: Gary introduces the Evolution headset, tubing and seatpost, effectively bringing oversize componentry into the spotlight.
  • 1991: Fisher start their international mountain bike team, the longest-running team today. He then sells his company to a Taiwanese firm, Anlen.
  • 1993: Trek buy Fisher Bikes after two years of struggling with Anlen.
  • 1998: Genesis geometry is born.
  • 2000: The Sugar line of full-suspension bikes is released.
  • 2002: The Fisher 29er hardtail is launched.
  • 2004: Fisher claim the lightest 5in-travel bike by releasing the Cake, and continue the 29er cause with the release of the singlespeed Rig.
  • 2007: Proprietary G2 geometry is introduced to improve slow speed performance in 29ers
  • 2008: Fisher release the all-mountain Roscoe.

Related Articles

Comments

Back to top