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MountainBikes History and Advertising

Once upon a time, if you owned a Mountain Bike, it meant only one thing. You owned a bicycle built on a Tom Ritchey frame, assembled and sold to you by Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher out of their little shop in a rented garage at 1501 San Anselmo Avenue in San Anselmo. There were other off-road bikes, called the ProCruiser, Trailmaster, Breezer, Mountain Goat and Topanga, but there was only one "mountain bike," and we built and sold it, so no further identification was necessary.


Left: our first ad, from the February 1980 BMX Plus!


The name we coined for our business has become the generic term for these bikes, just as every popular off-road bike introduced onto the market for the next five years or so was designed directly from those bikes. It is unlikely that any single style of bicycle has influenced the cycling industry so completely since the introduction of the safety bicycle in the last years of the 19th century.

The term "mountain bike" first appeared in print in the December 1979/January 1980 City Sports. as "MountainBikes," the name of our company. The article was written by Darryl Skrabak after the 1979 Appetite Seminar on Thanksgiving Day.

In January 1980 Bicycle Motocross Action printed an article about the crazy Marin County riders. A photo of Gary holding his bike mentioned that he called it a mountain bike.

Dean Bradley reviewed the Ritchey bike in BMX Plus! (spelling the name wrong consistently), and we took an ad in that issue, February 1980, our first advertising. In the ad, we just called ourselves Mountain Bikes.

This article from a 1981 issue of Action Now, also by Dean Bradley, comes right out and says that there was only one "mountain bike."

By December of 1981 the trade magazine National Outdoor Outfitters News noticed us.

Although Gary Fisher and I were fulltime and passionate cyclists and roommates for about five years, we got into the bicycle business strictly by accident. In 1978 I took delivery on Breezer #2, just the second bike built from the ground up to be a mountain bike. At the time Gary was still riding his converted Schwinn Excelsior, but it was obvious to all of us in the Fairfax-San Anselmo bike crowd that custom off-roaders were what we needed in our lives, and we didn't really care whether the rest of the world rode them, because we rode them for ourselves anyway.

Gary talked to his friend Tom Ritchey about getting a custom off-roader. Tom was then only 21 years old but was already the most prolific frambuilder in the country. Tom could put together a frame in an afternoon, compared to Joe Breeze, a frame building hobbyist by comparison, who would take months on a production run of ten bikes. Since Tom worked with brazed lugless frames and was not limited by available lug sets, he could put together a bike with any angles or tubing sizes, and he had already seen Joe's bikes and had talked to Joe about what Joe had learned from building them. Gary added his own ideas to the mix when he ordered his bike, and in the spring of 1979, Gary took delivery of his Ritchey off-road frame, one of a production run of three. Another frame went to a Fairfax rider named James MacWay, and Tom kept the third.

Several months went by, and during that time we were visited by a writer and photographer from a magazine called Bicycle MotoCross Action, who were following up rumors of some crazy Marin County hippies who were practicing a new form of big-bike, off-road BMX. At the time a new 26-inch "cruiser-class" was first apearing at the BMX tracks, and the BMX magazines were finally becoming interested in covering stories about bigger bikes. In the resulting article a photograph of Gary appeared, in which he was holding his Ritchey over his head to demonstrate its lightness. The caption mentioned that he called his bike a mountain bike, a term that had first been tossed around during the photo shoot when we tried to explain to the BMXers the difference between a one-speed "cruiser" made for a downhill BMX track and a real, multiple gear "mountain" bike that could go up as well as down. To my knowledge, this is the first printed appearance of the term.

A few months after Gary got his frame, he had a call from Tom. Tom had built nine more frames, but since he lived some 40 miles from Marin County, he didn't ride with our crowd and didn't know anyone himself who might want to spend ungodly amounts of money on a funny bike. He asked Gary if Gary wanted to take them back to Marin County in case there might be one or two riders there who didn't already own one of the thirteen custom off-road bikes then in existence.

So one afternoon in September of 1979 I rode my bike down to the little one-bedroom house in Fairfax where Gary was living after he moved out of the house Alan Bonds and I still shared at 32 Humboldt Street in San Anselmo about a mile away. Gary took me out in the parking lot his house shared with Celoni's Liquors and popped open the trunk of his battered old BMW. Wrapped in some moving pads he had borrowed from me that morning were nine beautiful frames. Gary told me that Tom had no way to get rid of them and had said that if Gary could sell them, he could pay Tom when he collected the money. Gary asked whether I wanted to help him assemble and sell them. Why not? No company was ever funded on a looser definition of our roles.

In a scene that is almost a cliche, we dug in our pockets to see how much cash we had between us at that very moment. It was a few hundred bucks. We took it down to the bank and opened a checking account. The name we chose for our checking account seemed obvious: Mountain Bikes. We had a name.


This is one of the nine bikes that Tom advanced to Gary and me that became the founding of the company.

This was a 1/12 page ad in Bicycling in May, 1981. I don't remember what it cost us, but it seemed pretty expensive at the time.

That issue of Bicycling featured Tom Ritchey on the cover riding one of our bikes and there were several stories inside about the new type of off-road bike, so the ad department leaned on us a little to take out some space.

As you can see, "Mountain Bikes" was the name of the company, and our product was simply called a "Mountain Bike." At the time no other distinction was necessary, since only our company and our product were known by that name.


It took a lot of faith to buy one of those early MountainBikes from Gary and me. If you wanted a bike from us, you had to pay for it in advance, and the $1300 price is equivalent to about a $4000 dollar bike now. You had to give your money to a couple of extremely sketchy characters, who worked out of their living rooms, and then you waited a month or more for your bike. No amount of pleading or phone calls seemed to speed up the process.

The manufacturing process didn't start out as a smooth operation. Today you make a phone call, and you say, send me the box with all the components in it. For us there was no single source for the components. We got the brakes from one supplier, the levers from another, the derailleurs, cranks, hubs, rims, tires, bottom brackets, each from a different place. Some parts arrived quickly, some didn't. We had no purchasing power, since we had no capital and we couldn't use fifty or however many you had to buy to get the price break. For some parts we just went in the bike shops and bought one or two over the counter.

After we bought the components, we couldn't just bolt them right on, because some were being used for purposes other than originally intended. Some brake parts had to be modified, with a hacksaw or a file, before we could use them. Some parts we had to make ourselves. Because we were using motorcycle brake levers for bicycle brakes, we learned to make our own brake cables, and of course we built our own wheels.

We didn't even have a shop for the first couple of months, and after we got the order and the money we assembled the bikes in the house I shared with Kent Bostick and Pete Barrett, components laid out on the same table we ate from. The business could not support us, so Gary and I had to continue working at other jobs, building bikes when we had time.

After a couple of months at this level, we found a rental space that had once housed a mechanic who had worked on Motel T Fords. It was a single room twelve feet wide and about fifty feet long, with a concrete floor, in a firetrap of a wooden building. It was poorly lighted and drafty and cold as a witchboob, but it was cheap and it was on a convenient corner close to our houses and next door to the espresso place, and we moved our business into 1501 San Anselmo Avenue in the winter of 1979.

Gary had a Hasselblad camera, and I had an Instamatic. No comparison. So he took our publicity photos, and I did the posing. We used this one in a lot of places.

The irony here is that because I could not yet afford one of the bikes that we were selling, the bike in the photo is Gary's.

As you can see from these photographs of Tom Ritchey's second mountain bike, the "Bullmoose" handlebar had not yet been developed.

The origin of the "Bullmoose" design was Tom's only experience on Repack, when he had borrowed Wende Cragg's "clunker" bike, and the handlebars had twisted in the stem while he was riding. Tom decided to build a handlebar that could not change positions accidentally, and the result was the triangulated one-piece handlebar that John Finley Scott called "Bullmoose" because they reminded him of antlers.


This photo turned up in a lot of places.


Gary and I made our first presentation to the bicycle industry in the spring of 1981 at the Long Beach bicycle trade show. Gary had been to one or two trade shows in the course of his job with Bicycling, but I hadn't. It's overwhelming, the chaos and the intensity and the greed. It takes some getting used to, then you are addicted.

The house rules were that if your display took more than what you could walk in with, you had to pay for the union help. So Gary and I walked in with two bikes, a fat-tire Ritchey tandem and a fancy version of the regular bike, a card table and and two boxes of our cheaply printed literature. Meanwhile a few aisles away, Shimano had a booth the size of the Vatican, with sound and lights and a video of a wind tunnel test of the latest in bicycle technology, aerodynamic components, and a lot of guys wearing neckties ready to close the deals.

One bike industry regular dropped a little advice on us, since we were new to all of this. He told us that what we were doing was interesting, but the future of the bicycle industry was aerodynamic components. Look, the BMX "cruiser class" is not taking over the world with Baby Boomer BMXers. Grownups do not ride bicycles in the dirt, they ride on the road. Grow up and get real. Get aerodynamic. If you looked around, you couldn't argue, since every big component company had bet heavily on that very trend. Aerodynamics were that year's big thing.

There was no "market niche" for expensive off-road bicycles. The bike industry did not give a shit about Charlie and Gary and their bicycles. But their kids did. As much as the adults at the trade show paid little attention to us, some of the dealers had brought their families along to see California along with the show, and every kid under the age of about 18 took a look and got it instantly. Big bike. Fat tires. High tech. Gears. Brakes. Duh. I want one. How much? Aaack.

Our only competition at that show in the off-road market came from Victor Vincente of America, a Los Angeles area builder who had gone with lightweight 20" BMX wheels to get the weight down on his off-road bike, called the Topanga. This turned into a dead end once the alloy rims came out in the 26" size. There were a few 26" cruiser-class BMX bikes at the show and even one or two five-speeds that represented a generation behind what we were doing, but the only other people who could have built a bike like ours would be Jeff Lindsay with his Mountain Goat, the Koski brothers with the TrailMaster or Joe Breeze and his Breezer, and they were not displaying at the show, because they could not match Tom Ritchey's output. Tom kept churning them out, personally supplying the world with mountain bikes. He didn't have to think about marketing, or components, building wheels or assembling the bike once the frame left his hands, because Gary and I took care of that forty miles away, and he put in long hours in the shop. This amazing amount of production from a guy working in his garage and turning $20 worth of tubing into a $400 bike frame in a few hours was what made us the leaders in the nascent mountain bike industry. Others knew what we were doing, and the design of the bike was not a secret, but we could make more of them than anyone else at our level of manufacturing, and because of our volume we also acted as the component source for all the others. The only people capable of competing with us in our tiny niche would be real bike companies, but none of them thought the market was worth the effort.

In early 1981 a Ritchey MountainBike was your only choice if you wanted to ride off-road that year.


As late as 1983 the name "Mountain Bikes" still identified only one company and one product.

This is my pass from the 1983 New York bicycle show.

This ran in the Fat Tire Flyer in July 1981.

The reason that the type is so neat is because it is nothing more than a copy of our business card, and the type was set by a professional.

The graphics for the card, which we also used for our stationery, were drawn by Pete Barrett on the basis of my much cruder drawing.

Here we have some truly crude advertising. I cut up a business card for the graphics, and typed in the text on an ordinary typewriter, then resized it on a copier.

This ran in the Fat Tire Flyer in March 1982. In fact, one of the prime reasons for my publishing the Fat Tire Flyer was the obvious angle of exposing our products in the only printed material then available for mountain bikers.

I'm sure I violated some sort of journalistic ethics by using my magazine position to push my own commercial agenda, but it's not like a lot of people were fighting over the market for mountain biking magazines in 1982.

Perhaps I should have capitalized "call" and "catalog."

By July of 1982 we had learned of the wonders of typesetting for this Fat Tire Flyer ad. Because the national magazines cost so much for advertising, the biggest ads tended to run in my own magazine. Funny how that works.

One of our customers had taken his bike to China, and in exchange for our product support, he sent us this photograph of a first-generation Ritchey MountainBike on the Great Wall.

The two gentlemen posed with the bike had no idea why they were doing it. For the first time we had to mention that other bikes similar to ours were now on the market, and give reasons to choose ours over theirs.

In this ad, which ran in Bicycle News Canada's spring, 1982 edition, you can see that we were still holding onto MountainBikes as a brand name against a rising tide of generic use to describe all off-road bikes.

The rider is Monte Ward, the photographer is Dean Bradley.

This ad from late 1982 was aimed at dealers, to push our sales of mountain bike products such as brakes, wheels, derailleurs, and so forth. It ran in a trade magazine, Bicycle Dealer Showcase.






I shot the photo for this ad on my front porch. It ran in Bicycling in 1983.


The "Best Engineered All Terrain Vehicle for Under $35,000" phrase came from a t-shirt design created by one of our satisfied customers.


This ad ran in the Fat Tire Flyer in 1983

Because we were ordering so many parts to build our bikes, we offered them as a complete collection for people building up their own off-road creations.

As late as 1983 we were still defending the name "MountainBikes" as a brand name, in spite of the fact that we had been denied trademark status.