The godfather of mountain biking tells us about his Hollywood history, inventing the first klunkers, and his plans for a global trail network
mbr: Will technology save the world or destroy it?
Gary Fisher: “It’s got to be both. Take clean eating… What food have we invented as Americans? The factory farm, and shelf life. We raise it up on chemical fertilisers and steroids. Then you ship it away 500 miles and kill it thoroughly.
“But shelf life is a huge boon to humanity, something that can sit on the shelf and not go bad. In the 60s and 70s they were predicting all these famines worldwide and by factory farming we missed that bullet. It’s good things and bad things.”
How have you been over the past 18 months?
“I’ve been hanging out with the kids a lot in lockdown, cooking and cleaning and being domestic. My travel went from 100,000 miles a year to 0, which is bizarre for the book because we were going on tour to promote it.
“We recently drove to Colorado with the kids though. On the way back we travelled through Ely, Nevada. It’s incredible, the scale of the mining we saw, they will literally move f**king mountains looking for copper. They figured out they could use arsenic to extract gold and that was a huge boom for a time. And now it’s become a super site, it’s unbelievable. It’s never been remediated properly, the ground water is all messed up. It’s such a bizarre slice, there are huge swathes of the country that are still Trump territory, they still believe in the guy. People don’t wear masks… I had a big cowboy hat to fit right in. The bike cuts across it.”
Is the bike the technology we need to save the world?
“Part of it. The e-bike is so efficient, the world’s most efficient motorised transport. It’s efficient because you’ve got this thing sitting on the saddle. And also because it came out of the bike industry, and man we’re into efficiency. The major delivery companies are starting to say cargo bikes are a more efficient way to distribute our goods. Trucks are overkill.
“I’ve read your book, and you’ve had an amazing life, tell us a little about it?
“It is truly amazing and I feel really lucky in a million ways. Nobody gets to decide where they’re born or when, and you don’t pick your parents either. It all happens to you. I’ve been super-lucky, but also blessed with the ability to work with people and to learn from them.
“To not be afraid to ask them.”
What’s your favourite part of the biography?
“I like to talk about the Hollywood days. My ancestors. Because of this book I researched them and uncovered a lot of stuff, and I was like, wow, have they been hiding this from me? What’s going on?” [laughs].
“The birth of mountain biking and your part in it is probably the major draw for most of us… would you go back to that time if you could?
“Well I have done, I recently put together a klunker! I wanted to do something that was pre-1979, which was when the 26in alloy rim became available from Japan. Previous to that we were all using steel and a steel rim with a drum brake is a bum deal. I used drum brakes, they had to be off a tandem and the bigger the better, because the small ones would overheat in an instant. I used real motorcycle levers and cables, and those brakes were one finger, I kid you not, they were super-powerful. Coaster brakes were no good, because you put all the heat in one area and it overheats and spits out all the grease.
“In 1980 we built 10 700c bikes with 42mm tyres. The tyre retailed at $110, that was a time when you could go into any bike shop in the US and you could buy a 26in tyre for $11. I could only buy tyres from one person, and if they ran out I couldn’t sell bicycles. The bike rode great, it was fast, but the tyres cut way too easily on the rocks.”
You made the first modern mountain bike then, in effect
“That’s when I started the company, because I could buy all these parts and put together a bike that worked. It’s a mind blower, the whole thing took off like a rocket, but it wasn’t until the ‘90s when we got any kind of suspension. We were the first company to put a fork on – 1991, a RockShox. And my sales guys told me I was stupid, for six months. Then they all sold like crazy and they told me I wasn’t stupid [laughs].”
How long did we have to wait for rear suspension?
“It took longer. We did front and rear with the RS1. We went to Japan in 1991 and 1992 seven times to develop this bike. The RS1 came out in 1992, with a virtual pivot point, a disc brake that didn’t work, an oversized 14mm rear axle, and a cantilever brake on the front. We made 750 bikes and sold every single one. We spent so much money and lost so much money on that bike. And it took 10 years, until Paola Pezzo, our racer, won a World Cup on the Sugar. And that broke the dam, everyone started selling front and rear travel bikes. It was crazy how long it took.”
Are riders more open to innovation now?
“People are much more willing to try new things than they ever were. People talk about the standards. But how about optimised? I don’t want to stick with the standards, I want to optimise it. What I am going to do is support it, have tyres, rims, forks, everything available. And that’s what the industry did with 650B, 29in – they went to the outside and filled in like crazy.”
What’s the most important thing you’re doing next?
“The best trail builders in the world work on Red Bull Rampage, they use mathematics and figure it out. Wheel size, tyre size, weight, these guys are masters. Do you know Ray’s Indoor mountain bike park?”
We know of it, a bike park in a shed about the size of London?
“Well these things need to be expanded into our cities, so you have safe routes to school, and maybe this thing blasts through buildings and goes over streets to create a whole network with features or go-arounds. Then get to school and your head will be better screwed on and able to think – we have medical evidence to say this is true. I’m just trying to create a little paradise to grow your family and say, this is the best I can do. I think this would be a really sound solution based on engineering, we already know how to build these paths. I love people, I love to be in cities, but I think I can contribute to bring it to the next level.”