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Rick Vosper: I Didn't Invent the MTB

Published March 26, 2012


After years of making a living in this industry by breaking other people's rules, I think it's only fair that I break one of my own for once. The rule  is a simple one: I don't write about myself.

This has less to do with any innate need for privacy than with the fact that I'm not very interesting, as any number of friends and family members will cheerfully attest.

But as the Walrus once famously opined, the Time Has Come to Talk of Many Things, including some items  I've never told  anyone in the bike industry about, ever. Mostly because I never thought they were all that interesting or relevant, until now. I should also mention that this post has almost nothing to do with marketing and contains language not typical of my other posts. If you don't like that sort of thing click here for some pictures of unicorns and rainbows instead.  

I see it's been a couple of years since the last go-round and the press is now working up a head of steam towards yet another round of  stories about how the Usual Suspects in Marin County— in no particular order, Joe Breeze, Charles Kelly, Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchey, Charlie Cunningham et al— did not, in fact, invent the mountain bike, and that the real inventor was (insert names-of-the moment here) in (insert place-of-the-moment here).

Well, I'm-a call shenanigans on that stuff right now.

This week's exercise in revisionist mountain bike history comes to us from a fellow named Howard Booth. According to his version of the story, much of the secret origins of the mountain bike lie in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties in southern California, only to have been ruthlessly suppressed by some sort of shadowy Marin County Conspiracy.

I mean, Dude. Seriously? With all the ganja those guys were smokin' back in the day, they weren't capable of suppressing a giggle, let alone an entire burgeoning industry.

In his article, Booth mentions a lot of legit folks like Chris King and Chris Pauley and Victor Vicente ("Of America," as he always  insisted) and my old friend James MacLean who, to his credit, did first hear the name "mountain bike" and popularized it up and down the 101 corridor,  pretty much as described.

But the idea of James—or anyone else—seeing a 50-pound clunker (as opposed to a hybridized Klunker) and more or less instantly falling to his knees like Saul on the road to Damascus, envisioning all the steps and technologies necessary to evolve said clunker  into a complete modern mountain bike? Puh-lease.

Which brings us to another great revisionist favorite, a fellow named Russ Mahon, arguably the first person to put gears on a coaster-brake crusier; a guy who met the Marin crew exactly once, at a race in 1974 one before dropping out of sight for thirty years and resurfacing in the excellent movie, Klunkers.

Russ, for those of you who missed Klunkers, was just a guy in small-town Cupertino, California who grew up within easy cycling distance of the Cali Brothers grain depot there, a wide spot in the road now known as Apple World headquarters.

Well, so did I.

In fact, I actually knew Russ—or knew of him, anyway— through his younger brother Bernie, who was in some of the same classes as me in high school. The thing was, neither Russ nor I knew the other was bumming around offroad on bikes even though we were doing it at more or less the same time and on what had to have been be on some of the very same trails.  If I ever saw any tire tracks on those trails, I was either remarkably unperceptive or just assumed they came from motorcycles and forgot about them.

Also, Russ' approach to building bikes was somewhat more sophisticated than mine.

My introduction to what would later come to be called mountain bikes was through my brother Paul who was  head wrench at The Bicycle Tree a few miles north in Sunnyvale.

The Tree was the largest Peugeot dealer in Northern California, which was quite a distinction at the time. It was run by an old character named Frank who had contracted Legionnaire's Disease through a bad flu shot and was confined to a wheelchair.

Depending on when and to whom he was telling the story, Frank had either acquired the bike shop in a settlement with the government over the flu shot;  his son had bought it for him as a way to get him out of the house; or he had won it in a poker game. Frank also had an early-vintage digital wristwatch  the size of a box of matches; the thing must have weighed half a pound  (this was the  '70's, remember). Every hour on the hour, an alarm would go off  and the words "TIME TO FUCK" would flash on and off  the screen until Frank had gleefully shown it to enough unsuspecting customers that he could be persuaded to hit the reset button and the cycle would begin again. This would go on every hour until closing time.

In addition to these charming eccentricities, Frank paid all his employees under the table in cash and had an easygoing attitude toward staff members working on their own bikes on company time. In Paul's case this often meant picking through the junker pile out back and assembling  hi-ten 10-speed frames and crusier parts into various horrible Frankenbike configurations for us to try out on the local trails on his days off. (I was going to college and studying music at the time, which meant lots of hours in the practice studio, but on no particular schedule so I was pretty flexible.)

We'd go out and ride Paul's bikes offroad before it got too hot in the mornings or later in the evenings after things had cooled off. We'd ride up in the hills above Stevens Creek Dam or get chased off the trails behind the old Buck Norred Stables by mounted ranch hands with shotguns (really!).

But in all that time, we never saw another person on bikes. There were kids on BMX machines and a few old Sting-Rays at what would eventually become Calabazas Bike Park, but as far as we knew, the whole trail-riding-and-downhills thing was an original idea of ours and of no interest to anyone besides the two of us.

But as I said, Russ' approach was more sophisticated than ours. His bikes presumably lasted longer, too; none of ours made it more than a couple weeks. We just pounded them into junk and moved on to the next batch. As to those guys back at the top of the page in Santa Barbara, who knows? But here's my point to Mr. Booth, the Santa Barbara Revisionist, and it wraps everything up into a nice package: neither Russ nor your guys invented the mountain bike any more than me and my bother Paul did.

You know why? Because we weren't world-class framebuilders or visionary inventors or tenacious businesspeople, and those other guys, the ones you're so jealous of,  were. And we didn't devote our lives to building companies that would take us from being that bunch of kids messing around on bikes to people who reinvented not just the bikes themselves, but the entire business model that defines the way bikes are bought and sold everywhere in the world today.

And they did.

In a phrase, they get the title of  The Guys Who Invented The Mountain Bike pretty much because they earned it.  And you know what? That's how the world works.

So yes, lots of people from lots of places contributed ideas and technology to the development of the mountain bike.  And yes, some of them were in Santa Barnara and Ventura. It's in Klunkerz. We already knew that. So get off your high horse, get over yourself, and go ride your bike or something.

PS: Know who won that first Reseda-to-the Sea race you're so proud of? Gary Fisher. He worked his butt off logging  training miles With Greg LeMond and Steve Bauer and the La Vie Clair team and come race day he was a lot harder and fitter and better prepared than anyone else and he won the race. Funny how that works.


Editor's note: Rick Vosper's quarter century in the cycling business includes executive stints as Director of Airborne Bicycles, Director of Global Marketing for Specialized Bicycles, and VP of Marketing & Product for Veltec Sports. Outside the cycling industry, he's worked as an award-winning copywriter and creative director for advertising, collateral, web, and multimedia agencies.

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