A conversation with Gary-Fucking-Fisher
By Patrick Brady
YOU GOTTA BE FIT AND RESPECT YOUR BODY
Gary Fisher: Yeah I was good but you know wasn’t good enough to make money. You know what? It was one of these things … it was like a total obsession. In a cult, in a way, but a fabulous one.
I was a road racer, first category. I take what I do seriously, whatever I do. My grandfather—he was a health food nut in the 1930s in Los Angeles because he worked with the actors. He was a script director and he basically would go and do open water swimming and running all the time, after going to the Los Angeles Farmer’s Market; it was a marvelous experience. You know he had vitamins and worked with doctors and things. It was pretty intense. That and then the commune movement in the sixties—I hooked up with some people who were cooking there.
I cooked for a lot of bands, you know the Grateful Dead—they were playing in the mid- to later ‘60s, and I got out of it but that was a health food thing. Actually did a lot of catering and whatnot; it was all health food, exotic food, Japanese food, which was exotic at the time. Things like that. I mean when I was five years old my best friend a block away was Japanese; we’d trade lunches.
That’s how you build that appreciation for different flavors and tastes and kitchens and cuisines. You’ve got to start early but that’s always there, was always going on. And I was trying to be a good racer and to be a good racer you had to watch all those things. Otherwise you didn’t have the motor. So it was a big deal.
When I was 12 years old like I’m like doing 70, 80-mile long rides with the club…. Well, I was a kid but my mother let me go away with these older guys and race. That there weren’t too many other kids my age so it was sort of lonely at the time but man it was exciting.
It’s crazy man, you know? I started racing before Eddy Merckx did.
I was teammates with Greg LeMond for a while. Took care of that kid. He was amazing. Went on a ride with him once from San Francisco to L.A. Started at our house, went to L.A. Lots of the top young juniors and first, second senior seniors went on that ride. We’d have a car with all the luggage and everybody’d ride; we’d go down in four days. One of those days would be like 160 miles because you’d have tailwinds all day; you’d have a really fast group. You’d go crush miles and we’d race! Oh, fun! Oh, Brother.
THE MOUNTAIN BIKE WAS A THING AND WOULD SELL
Gary Fisher: We went for the high end. Our bikes were super expensive. I mean, come on, you could buy a full Campagnolo-equipped Colnago nice bike $450 bucks in 1979. You could buy a Ben Serotta, super nice custom bike complete $995 you know Mavic rims full Campagnolo. Our bikes started at $1320 and I’d say to people, ‘You don’t want a cheap parachute do you?’
And we’d have a lot of exotic equipment on it and we had beautiful paint jobs. You know, fillet-brazed Tom Ritchey frames. It was beautiful. People paid it like crazy and they got—I had all types of stuff and annodized black and gold equipment, powder coated black—I had a ton of things. I was doing a black bike for this super-high-end boutique in Beverly Hills called Maxfield’s. And so I agreed not to do any black bikes except for them. I took the black equipment and made like Tiger stripe, Bumblebee bike with a yellow frame or Zebra bikes. You would have like a silver group or as much silver as possible. That would look really good on some frames. This other is totally blacked out. Murdered-out black bike. It killed—did the original camouflage bike. Yeah it was good.
Later we did a bike for Sammy Hagar, the Red Rocker, totally red and Suntour equipment that was completely murdered out black and Suntour did it for me. It was like a total of two 40-foot containers.
The more we scratched the surface, we found people who wanted to do exactly the same thing we did but they didn’t pull it off. You needed good design, and we adapted every high-end part dimension that is, the classic then was a Campagnolo English spec—that is, English threads, English headset dimensions and then that sort of thing because that would put us in the department of, ‘Well this is serious stuff.’ Take these—this is a serious bike. It’s not a joke. It’s not a BMX bike; it’s not a kid’s bike because the guys we were trying to reach were traditional bike shop people and especially the highest-end ones. I knew a lot of these guys from my days of racing. East Coast, Midwest—they knew bikes, they knew what they were doing.
And so those were my peers; I had to make a bike that worked with that. So it wasn’t that hard to put together a bike.
There’s so many times people on the test ride go out and ride it and come back with a huge smile. Right. That was the litmus paper right there. That was everything. I could take anybody off the street and take them out on this thing. And they go like, ‘Holy shit. How do I get one of these things?’
Oh man, it’s worth a lot. It was the most powerful thing going on, the most powerful drug. We joke about that all the time.
You know this whole endorphin thing—the fact that you’re fit, that you could breathe. The fact that those will help the brain but now they’re finding it’s also this movement that we do know that the skiers do, skaters do it. All kinds of happy sports do it because it makes us happy.
THE ONE TIME GARY FUCKING FISHER WAS WRONG
Gary Fisher: Okay, there was Hite Rite, right? Yeah. We used Hite Rite and because we used Hite Rite everybody used Hite Rite. Joe (Breeze) bought his house with Hite Rite. OK? But Hite Rite had a problem. The nylocks (nuts) would get loose. The whole thing would become wiggly. You had to get off the bike and get your wrenches. People didn’t like that. So I started working with this guy—Strong Seatpost—in Japan. He says, ‘Hey check this out.’ He made a dropper post. This is like 1983. Yeah he made a dropper post. Cable-operated, lever. I said, ‘No, no, no I’ve got to protect my guy Joe. I’m doing too much business with him.’ I said forget it. I don’t want it.
So I didn’t do it.
BIGGER HEADSETS ARE BETTER
Gary Fisher: It’s some basic logic. I was spec’ing tubing I had computer programs that told me what type of walls thickness, what type of modulus of elasticity I’d get out of this thing, and weight per, and all those things and we stiffened up the blades and the stems and the handlebars about double.
And then we—just think—right in the center of the structure the same? That’s stupid! And the thing in the center had become so ridiculously thick it was no longer efficient by any means. So to me it was a no-brainer. You know it was, like, a standard. But I’m saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute; we’ve become big enough to where we can wag the dog.’ We can just make it happen.
135MM SPACING MAKES THE WHEEL STRONGER
Gary Fisher: When we started, the spacing in the rear was 125mm for a five speed or a six speed. And we’re going to seven speeds and eight speeds. And I’m saying, ‘Wait a minute.’ We went to 130 and then 135 and it was all to get the triangulation in the wheel, and make a stronger wheel. They made it available to everyone. I was the guy that pushed that with them. You know that time was like a—
Patrick Brady: You pushed the leap to 135 with Shimano?!
Gary Fisher: A long time ago. Cuz it was like, come on! This is way too easy to do. All those wheels that got it last. That was still like in the cantilever brake time.
STRONGER BRAKES ARE BETTER AND THE SHADOW DERAILLER
Gary Fisher: And then they did the V-brakes and Shimano guys are saying, ‘Oh this is too strong’ and they put the modulator on it and I said, ‘No, no, no, you can never make brakes too strong.’ Remember that—keep remembering that. Or like the Shadow derailleur. Yeah that was funniest. So, I said, ‘Why is it every year you make these derailleurs when I lay down the bike it’s the first thing that touches the ground?’
Then the next year they did Shadow they said, ‘We had that little conversation with you and we got real serious about it.’ And that’s why they did it. You know to me it’s like the stupidest thing that is hanging off—it’s the first thing that’s going to touch.
BIGGER WHEELS ARE BETTER
Gary Fisher: It was something that was never settled in the first place—the wheel size. I mean, back in the ‘70s I remember sitting at the top of Pearl Pass with Charlie Cunningham; I was looking at Charlie saying, ‘You know, if we get a wheel that’s like 12 feet tall it would work here really well.’ The boulders are almost as big as the wheels. This is crazy. I’d love to be able to get a bigger tire. It just it made sense because you look at bikes in history, too, and they had all kinds of sizes of wheels and the way technology was we were still using steel rims; we were using drum brakes and steel rims. It was so funky. And at the same time we no wherewithal—I mean none of us had that type of money for tires or rims then.
We gotta keep coming up with new things all the time, oh my God. All of the time. But I’m into let’s get back to fundamental research. A few years ago people in the companies were saying, ‘Well, Gary you ever think 29 will be for downhill?’ I said, ‘Look, nobody knows. Nobody’s built the proper downhill bike in 29, so I can’t answer that.’
I made 10 of the 29ers. Or we didn’t call them 29ers. We made five of the 650 and people were like, ‘Well that’s sort of weird.’ It was really funny. That was all an offshoot of it.
Patrick Brady: And so what changed to cause you decide OK I’m going to do it now? It makes sense now.
Gary Fisher: Because I wanted to do it right. I wanted to do it with the tire that was the same sort of tires and we’d had a lot of experience with WTB was sponsoring our team and we use the Nano Raptor tire in our racing. So everybody had experience with the tire, how it handled, how it felt, how fast it was and everything, and I wanted to build at least pair of bikes A-B ’em really well—that is, the bikes had as much comparable from one bike to the other and the only difference was going to be the wheel size. And they did that.
We were at Eurobike and we saw Mark Slate [one of the founders of WTB] there and I said, ‘Mark we’ve been talking about this for 15 years 20 years.’ You know? Sometimes stuff takes this long. It’s really stupid. You have to just check stuff out. And that’s all I wanted to do. I said, ‘Hey I’m sick of talking about this. Let’s check it out see what works or doesn’t.’ So I built the other bike. And then I spent the next six months with a polar heart rate monitor and the two bikes that were as identical as possible riding the same courses, different courses and learning about them. And what I learned was the 29er was about three to five percent faster on a real regular basis and I was like, ‘Wow this thing’s faster!’ I was really surprised that it was faster on pavement, too. It’s crazy. You know downhill, pavement and climbing it was really fast and then I really began to appreciate once again how much traction has to do with not losing your energy because, I mean, you lose a ton of energy when you’re going uphill and a wheel skips. Oh my God.
In fact it doesn’t lose much energy because the axle doesn’t go up and down as much. But the world is a lot rougher than people think. And it counts, a pretty fair amount. But the frustration levels go way down.
The wheel size thing—the funny thing, people don’t realize, too—I went to the UCI!
I had to go to those guys because they had a rule on the book that said a mountain bike can have no larger than a 26-inch wheel. God, it was the year I broke my wrist  because I got so excited because they went with my rule that I went on a ride on Mount Tam. I went down; I was going so fast. I mean nothing could stop me; I crashed. (laughs) Broke this wrist.
I went to Switzerland twice. We just basically argued mountain bikes haven’t been developed, you know? They’re saying, ‘We’re really afraid that we’ll have ‘cross bikes.’ Well your courses suck; you got to do a better job. That’s not a mountain bike course. Get a mountain bike course. So I’ve been doing more of that. I go in and I go see the higher ups and I just read them the riot act and say, ‘Look you’re going to do this or you’re going to die.’ And they do it a lot of the time. (laughs, smacks table with fist)
It’s hilarious because I told them with the 29er we know it is definitely safer for a lot of people; you’re going to have real problems in the States. People are going to sue you guys for no good reason.
MOUNTAIN BIKES NEED SUSPENSION AND IT HAS TO HANDLE RIGHT
Gary Fisher: I was the first and in fact we had rigid forks that had Campagnolo rear drop outs. Big, long horizontal dropouts. Then you move the wheel back and forth, ‘til you found the right offset. And I said to Paul Turner, ‘I gotta figure out the offset, man.’ It would always be the last thing I’d mess with on the bike because it was the single most effective way you could change how a bike handled. So I wanted Paul make one of the sliders; he said, ‘Aw I can’t do that but I’ll send you some different crowns.
So he sent me a bunch of different crowns. We played around and played around and it took about three months and figured out 38.1. And so that became the production. His only spec. Everybody started using that. Right? I mean everybody! You because, ‘Hey this works.’ So they went for it. And respecting it.
And that’s a whole other funny story because then you realize just how incredibly haphazard things can be at times because that’s a huge difference in how a bike will feel. And most people like it one particular way or another but not everybody. And you know that’s the other funny thing you find out because what we’ve got going mostly is neutral which is really good and the Trek bikes all ride close to the same. I like that. You know for a selfish reason, that I travel around, so I pick up different bikes. They’re not always the same model but they tend to handle the same way. And we got really good at that; it comes from the road side because the road riders they really want to be able to have the different models of bike handle the same and everything, and the offroad bikes—they’re different depending on the discipline. I mean absolutely. You know, they get more attuned to that. And those guys, the top guys they get like things just you can play around and things with a lot of different ways to play around with it and they get stuff super dialed in. Part of it is the machinery, but part of it is, like man, you just gotta get used to things and spend some time on it and have every type of an experience on it. So you can learn about it and everything so they—that’s a hard thing about downhill, is be really good, invincible, know what to do. So you don’t get into big trouble, because trouble, man that kills, you know? It really kills. The top riders, at the end of the day, they don’t get in trouble. You look at Danny Hart. Oh man he can find traction where no one else can. I love to watch how he rides. Another big guy you know like Aaron Gwinn. He just lays down his big power swath you know like this is going to be the line you know.
FOUR BAR LINKAGE SUSPENSION
Patrick Brady: Yours was the first four bar linkage wasn’t it?
Gary Fisher: Well I think so. On a bicycle, Mert had done it already on a motorcycle.
Patrick Brady: Sure sure. But that doesn’t count.
Gary Fisher: I guess not. You know we actually just delivered 750 of ’em of an aluminum frame one and seven of the carbon ones. Yeah. And that bike had a lot of stuff that was ahead of its time. It didn’t work that well unfortunately. You know it didn’t really. It had like a big wide bottom bracket shell, 101mm; it had a 14mm rear axle that Campagnolo made, a big oversized one. I was trying to stiffen up the rear end on it. (sighs) Man, what a crazy bike that was. It had a disc brake that was—(sighs) it didn’t work. (laughs) It was a problem.
Yeah. Yeah. that bike—it did have some incredible uncanny powers, and it was that whole virtual pivot point thing going on. It worked well, it had some good pivotsm as long as you kept everything clean.
And Mert, he worked with our racers, and I went to Japan seven times with him. I mean he lost a lot of money on that project. But I loved it. You know I was bound and determined because I knew this was going to be the future. But these projects man, it wasn’t until 10 years after that that we sold a lot of dual suspension bikes; it’s a sort of a 10 year thing. I’m tellin’ ya man. It’s like sometimes you know things can be completely right but people don’t believe in it and it just takes a long time to develop the whole thing.
LONGER TOP TUBES AND SHORTER STEMS DESCEND BETTER
Gary Fisher: Now … that’s once again one of these funny things of us knowing our own history to know that we really didn’t research it out in the first place.
And that’s to say the original mountain bike geometry for—when I say mountain bike, you know, the whole craze started in Marin County and everything—that was a Schwinn Excelsior X geometry from before World War II.
And that’s a good handling bike—68 degree head, 73 seat, really long chainstay, 18.5 inches; the front end’s pretty short. You know it’s not that long. And [it] meets traditional road bike. In the traditional road bike they’re doing things like we vary the seat angles and chainstay lengths and head angles and offsets. And, actually, when I think about it, that was a mistake, because the reason you do that on a road bike is because on a road bike you’ve got this whole issue of trying to draft the guy in front of you. So, I mean road bikes, you’ll notice that the front ends get steeper as the bikes get bigger, because they get longer but you want to keep the front wheel tucked in because you might as well get closer to the guy in front of you. It’s really funny because handling is sort of secondary in a way compared to, I want to be able to draft, to get close. It’s funny. And the handling is pretty well mitigated; the head angle changes and the fork offset changes. You match the one to the other and you’re good to go. It works and everything is fine. You got remember the old Schwinn Excelsior X—it came in one size.
So we started making bigger frames and smaller frames and everything. And then, oh man, then what happened though was when we made that first fork with Paul Turner, that was like where we used the 71, 71.5 degree head angles. I mean we were just coming out of days of John Tomac and the Mongoose’s 73 degree head angle. Yeah, they actually made a bike one year that was that steep. John Tomac could ride it and nobody else could ride it; it was really twitchy.
We had a geometry that was super popular, in 1987 Mountain Bike Action named it the best all-time NORBA race geometry. And it was the Pro Caliber, it was this sort of a hybrid between a road bike and a mountain bike, the Schwinn Excelsior X, you know except the head angle had gotten steeper so it was like 71 degree head, 73 degree seat. And the top tubes were various lengths, but nothing super long, and it was you know a 150mm-long stem.
And then one day I’m out riding a ride—years later—and I go over the bars a couple of times and I say, ‘You know this is all stupid. This wheelbase has got to be longer. The stems are stupid like this; it’s time. And really it was; we had to try some things on the outside edges and as a company we did, we built about 50 bikes. It was crazy. We convinced the hires-up there had been no rhyme or reason to how we developed the geometry; we just blended one thing and another, that didn’t really need to be, want to be blended. So then we developed our geometry. Basically we found having a real short chainstay helped, having a real long front end because the bike can still be lively and traction greatly improved when you’re climbing, and that counted for a lot, and slacker head angles are your friend, especially descending, they make it a lot less nervous.
So basically, you know, what I’m proudest of is just making frame builders think about this stuff.
YOU GOTTA MAKE FRIENDS, BE AN ADVOCATE
Gary Fisher: Come on. A lot of it is you just gotta make friends with people first. That’s the big thing. And it takes time. Otherwise you can spend years beating your head against the wall. That’s part of the problem we had early on 29er. There were some guys in the movement that were just so on the case with all the journalists that those journalists said, ‘Nah.’
Patrick Brady: I think what’s interesting is people who follow cycling are familiar with your role as an Ambassador within the sport, a bon vivant, if we may. But I don’t think people see your role in terms of outreach as much in terms of trying to be an advocate on behalf of the sport to municipalities and governments.
Gary Fisher: Well it’s always a privilege I have, let’s put it that way. It’s sort of surprises me, but I get along with a lot of people in government and federations and all that. I think a lot of them see me as a maverick of sorts but also one that’s capable. And I have enough experience to see things—you see how the powers work and how they grind and everything, and what I’m trying to do is more like Walt Disney tried to do; he was just a great example to people you know about how fantasy and dreams can really power people.
That’s, I think, what I do—now more than ever—is I travel great distances and give people permission to follow their own dreams because I’ve got a lot of people that are thinking on the same wavelength, as I am not alone. A lot of these ideas are not mine by the very first. That’s for sure. And that’s quite all right because they’re the right ideas.
And it’s been said the only movements that really stick are the grassroots movements, and the grassroots movements are the ones that people think of independently on their own because they’re the right thing to do. I really like those people. They’re real special. It’s really difficult because a lot of people can’t envision what those people have envisioned and that’s really our duty—to try and make it clearer-er, and it’s a great art. That’s our storytelling. You always have to explain your story. Whilst there are a percentage of people that can get it from just the verbal. You know with just an inkling. You can’t get everybody that way.
Patrick Brady: No that’s true.
Gary Fisher: Not even a majority.
Patrick Brady: Yeah. Wow. That’s a heck of a way to sum things up.
Gary Fisher: Hey, emotion rules, man.
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Originally published in Dirt Rag.