40-Some Years of Mountain Biking

40-Some Years of Mountain Biking

Charlie Kelly Talks About the Early Days of Our Sport

“Fat Tire Flyer”: Charlie Kelly put together an excellent book on the birth of mountain biking published by Velo Press in 2014. The book is filled with great stories, tons of information and historic photos, including Wende Cragg’s cover shot of Charlie Kelly racing at Repack.

Back in October of 1976, a bunch of young, long-haired bike riders started racing their old, 1930s-style cruiser bikes on the dirt roads of the hills in Marin County, California. One of those riders, a guy named Charlie Kelly, helped organize the races and began keeping records of them. From those humble beginnings, the sport of mountain biking that we know today came into existence. In less than 20 years, the sport became so popular that it was included in the Olympics in 1996.

Kelly soon emerged as one of the foremost historians of the early days of the sport. In recognition of his historic place in the origin of mountain biking, we called on Charlie recently and asked him if he’d be willing to share some of his memories of those days and offer his perspective on how bikes and the sport have changed over the past 40 years.

Gary Fisher revisiting his roots in Marin County in the late ’80s or early ’90s. (Photo: Zapata Espinoza)

THE BIRTH OF THE SPORT

MBA: How did you and your friends become involved in the birth of mountain biking?

Kelly: When you own an Italian race bike and an old cruiser that you take on dirt roads, eventually you ask, “What if this bike (the cruiser) were built as beautifully as this bike (the Italian race bike)?” When a couple of frame builders accepted that challenge and other people saw the result, it became a stampede.

MBA: What kind of bikes were you guys riding?

Kelly: My friends and I were members of a road race bike club. Most of us also had one-speed balloon-tire coaster-brake cruisers to use as town bikes. We were surrounded by hills with dirt roads, and eventually we started going out on them. Beginning in 1975, inspired by the example of my roommate, Gary Fisher, some of us started adding gears and front brakes to our 50-pound bikes. By late 1976, there were probably a couple dozen converted cruisers roaming the hills of Marin.

The founding fathers: Joe Breeze (left), Gary Fisher (center) and Charlie Kelly were largely responsible for the rise of mountain biking 40 years ago.  Tom Ritchey, who was not present in the reunion photo shown above, was the other key player in the birth of the sport; Ritchey built most of the early mountain bikes made in the U.S., and Ritchey’s bike designs probably influenced the development of all—or nearly all —the mountain bike frame designs that followed.  

THE FIRST MOUNTAIN BIKE RACES, CIRCA 1976

MBA: When did you guys start racing?

Kelly: October 21, 1976. Typical recreational rides would end on top of a hill, where we would hang out and play Frisbee or whatever. Eventually, someone would make a break for his bike, and the unofficial race was on. Four or five is fun, but a dozen riders dicing gets insane. So, the smack-talking started. As a road racer, I was familiar with time trials. After talking the subject to death for a couple of months, a half dozen of us collected a couple of clocks, figured out a timing system and held a time-trial downhill race. It didn’t settle anything except the winner of one race. It was so much fun that it didn’t even matter who won; we all wanted more. So, within a week I purchased digital stop- watches and became the promoter. Guys started showing up from places we didn’t even know about.

MBA: When did you decide to start keeping records of them?

Kelly: October 25, 1976. I have all the records from the second race on. The record of the first race was lost, because no one knew it would be important, but all the others were kept in a battered notebook that I still have.

History in the making: The early years of the sport are well documented in Charlie Kelly’s book, including this spread (with a classic photo by Wende Cragg) showing Joe Breeze (far right, on Breezer #1) and friends atop Mount Tamalpais in 1978. (Courtesy: Velo Press)

THE REPACK NAME

MBA: Who came up with the Repack name, and how did that come about?

Kelly: The original coiner of the name was one of maybe a half dozen people, but I couldn’t say whom. It described what you had to do for your coaster brake hub after you cooked it on the long downhill. At the bottom of the hill, smoke would be billowing out. Hot, blackened grease would be dripping from the hub, and you had to tear it down and “repack” it with grease.

While the sport of mountain biking didn’t take off until the late 1970s, the seeds were planted much earlier, as this photo shows, with a dual-suspension bike built for the rough roads of the late 1800s or early 1900s. (Photo courtesy of Mountain Bike Hall of Fame)

THE BIKE MODIFICATIONS OF 40 YEARS AGO

MBA: What kind of modifications did you make to your bikes in those days?

Kelly: There was a standard set of modifications to the classic Marin County clunker, most developed at the house I shared with Gary Fisher and Alan Bonds, who won the first Repack race—drum brakes front and rear, both special orders, because most bike shops don’t carry them. Spread the rear stays while maintaining frame straightness. Add motorcycle brake levers, because you needed lots of leverage with the crappy brakes. Before thumb-shifters became available, I used a pair of stem shifters mounted on the handlebar next to the brake lever. Seatpost quick release, because the frame was made for a kid, not a 6-foot adult. You had so much seatpost extended that if you bounced on it, you would bend it. The seatpost would be lowered to protect it and also improve handling.

Fellow pioneer: Tom Ritchey designed and built the early mountain bikes (called Ritchey-MountainBikes) that were sold by Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher. (Photo courtesy of Tom Ritchey)

THE FIRST MOUNTAIN BIKE FRAMES

MBA: When did you guys start coming up with new frame designs?

Kelly: In 1976, I persuaded Craig Mitchell to build me a diamond frame to replace the cruisers that I would break in a couple of months. I wasn’t happy with it, and Craig took it back. Then I leaned on my friend Joe Breeze, who had taken the Eisentraut frame course and had built a few road frames. He was also one of the best Repack racers, and he knew what I wanted the bike for. Eventually he came through, finishing his own bike in 1977 and mine a few months later. Another eight people got bikes from Joe after that. Those 10 bikes are among the most collectible in the world. Joe’s, #1, is in the Smithsonian collection. Mine, #2, is in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.

Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly, Gary Fisher and their friends launched the sport 40 years ago. (Courtesy: Velo Press)

THE START OF THE FIRST MOUNTAIN BIKE COMPANY

MBA: How much money did it take to start your first mountain bike company?

Kelly: Gary Fisher and I decided to sell bikes when Tom Ritchey started cranking them out. Our decision took place in the parking lot of a liquor store, where Gary opened the trunk of his car and showed me nine new frames. We pooled the money we both had in our pockets at the time, about $200, marched over to the bank, and opened a checking account in the name of our new company, MountainBikes.

MBA: What goals did you guys have in designing your first bikes?

Kelly: Tom Ritchey didn’t need any direction, so frame design was left to him. Gary and I concentrated on the component group, because at the time nothing was really made for this purpose, so we had to modify a lot of the stuff we used. “Goals” is a loaded word. It implies a plan. There was no plan; there was only reaction to the latest developments, and they were coming pretty fast.

Joe Breeze is a major player in Kelly’s book, available from Velo Press.

IF CHARLIE COULD DO IT AGAIN…

MBA: If you had the chance to do it again, what would you do differently?

Kelly: I would structure the company. We didn’t have a business plan or any idea of who would do what and how they would be compensated. We just wanted to sell these cool bikes. Our lack of structure eventually ended the company, but it would not have lasted long with the three of us, since we all had different ideas of how to move forward. Also, I might do a better job of trademarking the company name. We filed for a trademark on “MountainBikes,” but it was denied on a technical basis, so it went generic. Knowing what I know now, I could do a better job of protecting the name if I got another shot at it.

 

MBA: How did you come up with the name “mountain bikes”?

Kelly: Another origin lost in the mists of history. Since most of us had road bikes, it was a term used to identify which of our bikes we were referring to at the time. Same idea was the distinction between “skinny tire” bikes and “fat tire” bikes. The first time the term “MountainBikes” appears in print, it refers to our company.

MBA: How long did you hold your early Repack races?

Kelly: There were 22 races between 1976 and 1979, one in 1983 and one in 1984. The last two races were the first sanctioned downhill races in mountain bike history.

THE SPORT GROWS

MBA: When did mountain bike racing start to catch on in other places?

Kelly: By 1980, we heard about other races. Victor Vincente had Reseda to the Sea, Glen Odell had Central Coast Clunker Classic, and Gary and Bonnie Larson in Redding put on the Whiskeytown Downhill.

MBA: When did you come to think that this new sport was going to spread around the world?

Kelly: By 1983 it was on its way, and a few of us organized the first sanctioning body, because the regular bike community represented by the likes of the UCI wanted nothing to do with this craziness.

Charlie Kelly.

FORTY YEARS OF BIKE CHANGES

MBA: What were the biggest changes in frame designs as the sport took off?

Kelly: When the sport first took off, every major bicycle company cloned the Ritchey/MountainBike that Gary and I
were selling. It saved them the five years of R&D that we had already done. Charlie Cunningham introduced aluminum around 1980, before Klein and Cannondale jumped in. The “Bullmoose” handlebar, which was not a great design but had a great and iconic look, disappeared. Frames got steeper and tighter. Titanium frames arrived. The “Unicrown” fork replaced the Bullmoose bar as the iconic look.

MBA: What were the biggest changes in forks?

Kelly: Forks were a problem at first, because they took as much time to make as the rest of the frame. There were no cast fork crowns available like the ones used for road forks, so the crown had to be fabricated. Tom Ritchey used several different fork crown designs during our association. The boys at WTB developed the modern Unicrown, although the same design had been used for bikes before. They started with just the crown, with regular fork blades inserted, but that created problems with matching the blade to the crown, and around 1983 the one-piece, double-curved blade became available. Now of course we all have a front shock. Even a cheap-o bike from a box store has a front shock.

MBA: What were the biggest changes in drivetrains?

Kelly: Lots more gears, wider range, index shifting, shifts under load, 1×10, it seems there is a new change every year. I’m riding 2×10 right now, very cool because you can use any gear combination, big-big or small-small. Now there rear clusters with a pie plate for the big cog. You can climb a tree with one of those. Did someone say Biopace? Not recently, that’s for sure.

MBA: What were the biggest changes in brakes?

Kelly: The kids these days don’t know what it’s like to hit a long downhill with brakes that barely work. Coaster brakes gave way to drum brakes, which gave way to rim brakes, none of them very effective; but at least rim brakes saved weight. Drum brakes would fade away when they got really hot. My first off-road rim brakes were on a bike with steel rims. In wet weather or even high humidity, they stopped working. Hydraulic disc brakes are da bomb, even though they require a lot more maintenance than rim brakes. I hit Repack the other day for the anniversary ride. When I reached the bottom, my brakes still worked and my forearms were not on fire from trying to MAKE them work. One-finger, no-fade braking is amazing.

MBA: What were the big changes with other components?

Kelly: Headsets. We started with Campagnolo road headsets. Head tubes got shorter to allow for increased travel in front suspension, but that put bigger loads on the bearings. In response, mountain bike headset bearings have gotten really big. Also, threadless headsets.

Clipless pedals. I started with flats on my clunker, moved to clips and straps on my rigid mountain bikes, but I love me some clipless.

Rims no longer need a flat side for braking, which gives manufacturers more flexibility in design. Rims are shallower and lighter and no longer need 36 spokes. Tubeless tires. Love ’em. Except when I get a flat and have to break the bead on the trail.

BIKES TODAY AND 40 YEARS AGO

MBA: How would you compare the bikes of today to the ones you rode 40 years ago?

Kelly: Performance is off the charts, but maintenance is now crucial. The original idea of a stripped-down cruiser was that it was indestructible and cheap. It was a given that it was a low-performance bike. Now a mountain bike will set you back as much or more than a fancy road bike, and you will spend a lot more on maintenance.

Competition has refined the machinery and complicated it as well. Now a modern mountain bike is like a racehorse, very fast and agile, but not as tough as a draft horse. There are systems on new bikes and tools to maintain them that I have never used. Even though Gary Fisher and I used to build bikes, I no longer have the mechanical ability to maintain my own bike. Fortunately for me, the local bike shop gives me extra special attention that is not available to everyone.

Also, suspension. Last year, I did a book promotion ride in Chico with Jeff Lindsay, which we called the “Old Goat Ride” in honor of Jeff’s brand name “Mountain Goat.” I rode a beautiful mid-’80s rigid Fisher Comp. It wasn’t even a challenging ride, and all I could think about was how rough it was! I’m pretty soft now, hooked on long-travel suspension.

Shifting will probably go electronic, perhaps even automatic, but we’re not quite there yet. As an “analog” shifter, I don’t trust a battery to do it for me.

Joe Breeze: The first guy to build a mountain bike from scratch was Joe Breeze, who created his first Breezer mountain bike in 1977. That bike is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. The bikes weren’t even called mountain bikes yet. Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly would get credit for the first commercial use of that term when they started selling their first “MountainBikes,” which were designed and built by Tom Ritchey.

THE FUTURE OF THE SPORT

MBA: What kinds of changes do you think we’ll be seeing in the next 40 years?

Kelly: I was 30 years old when I took up off-road riding. I had no BMX experience, and I started on crap bikes. When you take up a sport that late in life, you won’t be as good as someone who started young. Now there are people in their 40s who have grown up in a world with great bikes, great cycling challenges and complete acceptance of the sport. They have already taken it to places I could not have imagined. The Red Bull riders in Utah, riding off cliffs, jumping chasms and throwing in a backflip just to make it interesting; is there any place left to go?

Joe Breeze: 40 Years Later

MBA: What was it like being in the first mountain bike races in 1976?

Joe Breeze: When Charlie Kelly, one of Repack’s instigators, first told me of the race, I knew my moment had arrived. Being a Mill Valley boy with a need for speed, I had spent my youth perfecting all the paved descents Mt. Tam had to offer. I was all in for race #3, October 30, 1976, the third Repack within two weeks. Time to show the Fairfax contingent how it’s done. The two days prior, I pushed my ’41 Schwinn ballooner up the 2-mile course, carefully mapping and strategizing for the fire road’s 52 turns and hairball 1300-foot descent. On race day, my efforts rewarded me fast- est time of the day, something I’d manage 10 times over the two-dozen Repack races, held mostly in the late 1970s. The top of each Repack race, on Pine Mountain, saw quite a social scene. Repack was a magnet for all us kids from around Mt. Tam with a bent for fat-tire riding. The start line would be abuzz with tales of recent rides and the latest ideas to drive our fledgling sport forward. All the while, riders would be called to the line every two minutes. As minutes ticked down, the start area would be whittled to the fastest seeded riders, all now in quiet contemplation of the visualized course at speed, awaiting their final countdown. This was our calling, and we prided ourselves in our skill, any get-off a failing; giving blood, taboo. We calculated risk accordingly and fought hard to stay upright and out of hospitals. Over the span of the races, there’d be the occasional tangle with a tree or loss of skin, but nothing really serious. At the bottom, lucky once again, the party resumed.

MBA: When you built your first mountain bike in 1977, the one that’s now in the Smithsonian Institution, what were the key differences between that first mountain bike and the road bike frames you had been trained to build?

Joe Breeze: On Repack, etc., the biggest guys were eventually busting their mild-steel 1940s frames. Being that I was already building road racing frames and riding fat-tire bikes as much as anyone, I was the obvious go-to guy to weld up a new off-roader using chromoly airframe steel. I started with the geometry of my ’41 Schwinn, deeming it best for our purposes after trying many old fatties. Off road, the head angle would need to be slacker, something like 68 degrees instead of 73 for road. My Schwinn’s wheelbase was 5 inches longer than my road racer’s. Stresses would be higher, so I needed to add more metal to retain strength and rigidity. I added twin lateral tubes between the head tube and rear tips. It was only after I had built all of those first 10 Breezers that I bothered to do mechanical calculations. That’s when I realized that if I increased the downtube diameter by 1/8- inch and thickened the chainstays a little, I could achieve the needed strength and stiffness, save 3/4 of a pound and have 11 fewer welds. Ah, the beauty of the diamond frame (re-)discovered!

MBA: What are the biggest differences between the mountain bikes of today and the ones of 40 years ago?

Joe Breeze: Interesting question. Oddly enough, mountain bike head angles morphed to almost 72 degrees by the mid 1990s and have since swung back to where we began. Similarly, regarding wheelbase: longer to shorter to longer. This follows mountain biking’s drift over the years from serious fun to serious racing to serious fun again.

MBA: Did you ever imagine, back in the late ’70s, that the sport you were creating would catch on the way it did?

Joe Breeze: It was a realization that came slowly. In the earliest days, I could tell something was up when my non-cycling friends kept asking me if they could try my odd new fat-tire bike. They would take it down the road and invariably return exclaiming, “Wow! Where’s this bike been [hiding]?” But even as an optimist, there was no way to foresee the popularity of the mountain bike. And it just keeps growing.

MBA: When did you first realize that mountain biking was catching on all over the world?

Joe Breeze: That Europeans would take to mountain biking was what startled me most about the movement. That was in the late 1980s, about when MTB sales had eclipsed road bike sales in the USA. Europeans knew bicycles all day long, so I didn’t think they’d find anything to learn from us Americans, but they totally embraced the sport, eventually dominating MTB racing. But for me, the coolest fallout from mountain biking is that, all over the world, it revitalized the everyday use of cycling for getting where we need to go in our lives. There’s no greater legacy than that.


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