Spoke Word 

The debate over mountain bike paternity

It's been two weeks since they were in Boise, and the question still hangs in the minds of persnickety mountain bikers: Whodunnit? Did Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly and their friends really invent the mountain bike?

Boise, a town with more than its fair share of mountain bike nuts, had a chance to ponder the question recently, when filmmaker Billy Savage brought his documentary Klunkerz to The Flicks. The 90-minute film charmingly retells many of the mythical stories of how a bunch of Northern California hippies took old "klunker" bikes, the likes of which are now being sold as "cruiser" bikes for neo-hippies to ride around the North End, and pointed them down dirt roads on Mt. Tamalpais.

Savage traveled with mountain biking eminence: Fisher and Kelly, who were there on Mt. Tam, both appeared with Savage in Boise to talk up the movie.

click to enlarge The man, the myth, the legend: Gary Fisher. - SHEA ANDERSEN

And they'll do that, sure. But if you really want to get Fisher and Kelly going, ask them about the real origin of the mountain bike. And then stand back. Although mountain biking as a sport has been around since the 1980s, the debate about how it got going will apparently never die.

In the movie, a variety of threads seem to come together, then fray apart. The film spends plenty of time highlighting the fact that others had the idea—at the very same time—about taking bikes off roads and onto mountain trails.

Some of them were just over the other side of the mountain: The Morrow Dirt Club, "led" by Russ Mahon, one-upped the Marin bikers by adding gears to their bikes, enabling them to ride uphill as well as down. They might have gone on in parallel universes for a while had they not met the Marin guys at a bike race in 1974.

But then Mahon and his buddies more or less disappeared, while Fisher and company aggressively pursued high-profile careers in mountain biking. Fisher started the company that now bears his name, as a joint venture with Charlie Kelly; it was originally called MountainBikes. (Fisher's company is now owned by Trek Bicycles.)

click to enlarge There at the beginning: Charlie Kelly. - SHEA ANDERSEN

Tom Ritchey, another Tamalpais rider, took his affinity for framebuilding and started Ritchey, Inc., a bike parts company whose parts are found all over modern mountain bikes.

The Morrow Dirt Club guys appear as wry snickering characters in the documentary, happily discussing the story of how they put their bikes together. Never mind that the movie also focuses in on John Finley Scott, a sociology professor from University of California Davis, who built what was, essentially, a mountain bike in 1953.

Over coffee at the Flying M Coffeehouse, Fisher and Kelly happily re-started the dusty old engines of debate about mountain biking's origins, seemingly oblivious to the passage of time.

"I hear people say, 'Hey, I invented mountain biking, too,'" Kelly said. "You know what I say? 'How come I never heard of you?'"

While they rightly characterize the relative pettiness of the question, they nonetheless keep chewing on it.

"To me, it's not the nuts and bolts that were important," Fisher said of the movie's obsession over the ins and outs of the mountain bike legends. "There are details that I absolutely think are incorrect. But the overall thing is right."

In the May 12 edition of The New Yorker, writer Malcolm Gladwell discusses the phenomenon of simultaneous discovery. The notion, he said, describes the tandem discoveries, by separate parties, of such scientific epiphanies as evolution, calculus and color photography.

"Invention has its own algorithm: genius, obsession, serendipity and epiphany in some unknowable combination," Gladwell writes. Among his conclusions is that scientific discoveries must be practically inevitable. "They must be in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place," writes Gladwell.

Something was in the Marin County air all right. But you won't find too many overt references to Northern California drug culture that permeated the early biking scene.

"I couldn't make it too edgy," Savage said. "It would alienate some of the younger kids, or their parents."

And it's the parents who should be impressed by Savage's detective work, hunting down all of mountain biking's various legends.

"Billy Savage was about the fifth or sixth guy who came along who wanted to make this flick," Fisher said. "I said, 'Here's another hippie.'"

So he gave Savage a long list of names, people who ought to be dug up and contacted about the birth of mountain biking. Fisher didn't expect to see it go much further. But to Fisher's delight, Savage hunted up many of the old names, and strung together a narrative about the sport's origins that relies on direct interviews with participants, rather than a decisive conclusion.

Friction still abounds. Fisher and Specialized Bicycles founder Mike Sinyard, both sitting atop different bike empires, still quibble about business tactics and strategies. Likewise, as much as he might admire Ritchey, Fisher nonetheless describes the mustachioed bike builder as "a weird bird" who got his start in the bike biz by doing "lots of whack, crazy things to his road bike."

Overall, Kelly and Fisher seem to be enjoying this extended class reunion, where various aging bike nuts, many of whom were together in California for the emerging mountain bike culture, are finding each other once again.

"We were the real thing," Kelly said.

For more information about the movie, or to buy a DVD of the film, go to www.klunkerz.com.

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