All Aboard!

Big Wheels in Biking's Off-Road Stampede

Alan Coté

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A LOT’S BEEN SAID ABOUT who invented mountain bikes—make that a hell of a lot—but you don’t hear enough about the tinkerers who perfected them, turning the original 50-pound hippie sled into the lithe fun juggernaut of today. Which is too bad. Whether they knew it or not, they were all pedaling in the same direction, looking for the next best way to get dirty.

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Our Mountain Bike Built for Eleven has a crowded rear seat, but it must be so: Lots of people helped with the original brainstorm. The charge was led by an early-seventies conglomerate of bored road racers in Marin County, California: Otis Guy, Charlie Kelly, Joe Breeze, and Gary Fisher. Guy, Breeze, and Fisher built and sold early mountain bikes; Kelly started the first mountain-bike magazine, The Fat Tire Flyer.
In 1973, Gary Klein built two aluminum frames for a student project at MIT, and steel started to lose its shine. In ’75, he hired a race-car welder and formed Klein bicycles, the first company to mass-produce fat-tube mountain bikes. Until only 20 years ago, bike clothes were made of wool—that undeniably loose, saggy, scratchy natural fiber. In 1977, Toni Maier Moussa, president of Swiss bike-clothing maker Assos, sewed the first pair of Lycra-spandex shorts. The second skin proved essential for mountain bikers, a group all too familiar with the pain of chafing.

Early mountain-bike wheels were strong enough to withstand off-road punishment, but so heavy that riding uphill was virtually impossible. Unsatisfied, itinerant bike mechanic Keith Bontrager cut lightweight road-bike wheels down to mountain-bike size, and coupled them with low-pressure knobby tires. His 1984 prototypes endured jagged rocks, weighed about as much as skinny wheels, and formed the hub of Bontrager Wheelworks and Components.

In 1985, Georgena Terry, a mechanical engineer based in Rochester, New York, started torching steel into custom frames with short top tubes to accommodate women’s shorter torsos. She now owns Terry Precision Cycling, a femme-specific catalog business with $6 million in annual sales.

Until the 1980s, bicycle helmets came in two varieties: flimsy leather hair nets or thick-shelled brain buckets. Jim Gentes recognized that it isn’t the hard outer shell of a bike helmet that saves your head, it’s the polystyrene inner layer. His first-generation domes, sold in 1986 under the name Giro, consisted of a fabric cover placed over high-tech Styrofoam, which meant they were feathery-light and saved your skull.

A college dropout, former Aerosmith roadie, and welder for Fat City Cycles, Gary Helfrich experimented with titanium in 1984, figuring that Ti’s impressive strength-to-weight ratio would make a dream ride. Fat City insisted there was no market for tubing that cost up to $20 per foot, but after a local bike messenger raved about Helfrich’s prototype, Helfrich and two partners formed Merlin Metalworks, the first Ti framemaker, in 1987.

Paul Turner, a motorcycle engineer from Honda, was the first to realize that front shocks didn’t have to make a bike ride like a pogo stick. He built early models in his garage, and formed RockShox with his wife and a friend in 1989. Turner now runs Maverick American, a small design shop that licenses his suspension system and sells limited quantities of really cool bikes.