IN MEMORIAM: MIKE BELL – A MOTOCROSS & MOUNTAIN BIKE ICON
The e-mail chain started on October 10 last year….”Mike, thanks very much for playing along…as I said earlier, every time I come across old fotos of you I’ve been wanting to do this story….you have some great history to share…so here’s the start…”
Although I had interviewed Mike previously—in 2009 for Motocross Action and in 2014 for Road Bike Action—this interview was to be mountain bike-centric given his role on fat tires. And so began an interview process that stretched over a few weeks. In addition to the feature story I wrote, I also took the opportunity to dedicate my entire column at the front of the mag to Mike as means of sharing with him, with you, all that he meant to me. Eventually, I told Mike that I was really happy with how it all came out and was excited to have him see it. He never would.
Today I finally got my hands on a March issue – two days after Mike passed away after suffering a heart attack while out on a mountain bike ride. Damn!
Although we usually follow a grace period between when a story from the magazine can jump over to the web, I’m breaking official protocol now. Here is both my column and the story I was so excited to have Mike see. I hope he would’ve liked it. I hope you do. Mike Bell was a champion, a friend, an icon, a mentor, husband, father…a truly great person. He is loved and missed deeply.
Over the years I have said repeatedly that I have the best job in the world. And, as emphatic as I am about that, it’s not meant to slight anyone else who believes that he or she has the best job in the world; it’s a totally subjective declaration (but it really isn’t, because I do have the best job in the world).
As I related in the story last month about how MBA came to be, I originally worked for our sister publication Motocross Action. Admittedly, when I was hired in the fall of ’86, mountain bikes meant nothing to me. Motocross, on the other hand, is what kept my heart pumping.
These days, however, while I consider myself a bicycle guy, I’m still enamored with all things moto, especially the pro racers whom I idolized when I was twisting throttles with dreams of being a pro myself. And since I’m such a fan of racing, few things get me as excited as when I’ve been able to ride in the company of those who have excelled at racing on either a bicycle or a motorcycle. This column is dedicated to one of my racing heroes.
THE O’SHOW’S GRATITUDE
Owing both to my personal connections in the moto world and those gained from doing double duty at Motocross Action, in the late ’80s I was able to reacquaint myself with a litany of American motocross champions who were all trying their hand at this new thing called mountain biking.
As the editor of MBA, I was always doing my best to cajole the throttle twisters into giving pedaling a go. One successful example of that cajoling was confirmed in 1988 when I came upon former AMA Supercross national champion and factory Honda/Suzuki rider Johnny O’Mara lying out on the lawn of the Mammoth Mountain Inn just after he finished his first-ever XC race. As Johnny writhed in a mixture of pain and exhaustion, he looked at me and yelled, “Zap, why did I ever let you talk me into doing this?”
Johnny would eventually understand why, as he would go on to earn three factory rides (Yeti Cycles, Diamond Back and Barracuda), as well as multiple NORBA National Expert-class titles. Whether twisting a throttle or turning pedals, O’Mara was born and raised on competition, and winning was what it was all about.
THE COVER BOYS
Living close to the MBA offices, Johnny was also happy to come out and shoot test bike photos for us. Those early photo shoots with O’Mara marked the beginning of an era when we relied on a litany of motocross champions to test bicycles for us. Unlike many of the cyclists we knew, these throttle twisters were accustomed to slamming berms and getting big air.
If you were to go through a library of MBA back issues, you would spot action shots featuring such winning motocross riders as Jeff Ward, Mike Bell, Jeff Stanton, Larry Brooks, Jeff Leisk and Jeff Matasievich.
On page 62 of this issue, you will find a story about former AMA Supercross champion and factory Yamaha rider Mike Bell. Back in the late ’70s we raced at the same SoCal tracks, including Saddleback, Carlsbad, Ascot and Irwindale. He was a local hero who made it big. Not just good at his craft, Mike was also one of the friendliest big-name pros I knew.
THE BELL TOLLS FOR THEE
Due to ongoing knee issues caused by all his years banging bars on the pro motocross circuit, Mike eventually cut back on his mountain bike racing by the mid-’90s.
Fast-forward to 2011, and Mike showed up for the annual Mike Nosco Challenge road ride held in honor of my wife who had passed from cancer that year. Unlike mountain bike buddies John Tomac, Daryl Price and Mike Kloser, who flew in from Colorado, Mike had not been spending much time on the bike. But, as gracious as the others, Mike pedaled off for the grueling 88-mile ride that included 8000 feet of painful climbing.
After five hours of riding, we found each other at the base of the last (and longest) climb of the day. We were both exhausted, and by a third of the way up, Mike started coming unglued. Before things got really bad, he looked over at me and said, “I wouldn’t do this for anybody else!”
The sense of appreciation, guilt and, yes, love that I felt was overwhelming. Despite the pain of my loss, I couldn’t help but be thankful that my life’s journey would include the good fortune to share that moment with a guy I grew up idolizing. Eventually, Mike and I limped back to the finish line, both in pretty bad shape.
More than just a personal paean to an old friend, this column is dedicated to not only the good person that Mike Bell is but, more important, to the good people we all can be.
Hero Worship and Its Place in Mountain Bike History
To this day, whenever I’m descending on either my road or gravel bike, I often think back to a gondola ride at the Mammoth Mountain Kamikaze that I shared with Mike Bell back in 1987 as we were heading to the top for some practice runs. Besides being an old friend, Bell was also a former motocross national champion and previous winner of the Kamikaze. Mike would no doubt have some sage advice, and this would be my best opportunity to get an inside tip on how to shave seconds off my race time.
Anticipating a layered response that would include both physical and mental considerations, as well as some form of specific tactical application, I was instead met with a simple, four-word response that belied his years of winning races. “Don’t use the brakes,” he said calmly as he continued looking out the window at the rugged terrain far below the plastic carriage we found ourselves in.
YEARS IN THE MAKING
As I related in my column, Mike is a highly regarded two-wheeled competitor. It was in his early days on the threshold of motocross stardom that we became acquainted at the local races; he was already a number-one-ranked rider, me just a lowly junior.
Eight years after I quit racing in 1979, Mike and I got reacquainted when MBA began to rely on him for a handful of test-bike photo shoots. The first shoot was for the May ’87 issue; he appeared on the cover aboard a Fat City Fat Chance, dueling with some up-and-comer named John Tomac.
We met up again that summer at the Mammoth Mountain World Championships, and when we weren’t at the races, it was off to Convict Lake, where we shot Mike aboard a Fisher Pro Caliber that would be used for the December ’87 cover.
Before the year was out, we called on Mike once again to serve as a test rider for the first-ever Manitou built by Doug Bradbury. It was out of that photo shoot that Bell landed his third MBA cover shot (January ’88). A few months later, Mike would join fellow motocross champion Jeff Ward for a day in front of the cameras, and the two would share the cover of the July 1988 issue.
The sport of mountain biking has been blessed with many ex-motocrossers who brought a level of technical sophistication that the traditional cycling community could never grasp, and Mike Bell has certainly been one who has helped move the sport forward in significant ways.
WHAT ABOUT MIKE?
MBA: What was your history as a SoCal motocross racer?
Mike Bell: I started racing local motocross at age 14. My dad, Bill Bell, worked at Long Beach Honda, and he also raced in the ’50s through the early ’70s. He was a world-class mechanic, so my motorcycles were always fast and reliable. He taught me how to prep and maintain my racing equipment. My dad had a wealth of racing knowledge, and he helped me with my race craft and mental preparedness.
MBA: What were some of your motocross career highlights?
MB: As a kid, I dreamed about becoming a professional racer, so a major highlight was becoming a member of Team Yamaha in 1977. The highlights would include a 1975 CMC #1, 1976 4-Stroke World Championship, 1976 Mammoth Mountain MX Open Pro, 1978 Super Bowl of Motocross, 1980 AMA Supercross Championship, 11 AMA Supercross wins, six AMA Outdoor National wins, and four Trans-Am wins.
MBA: How did the mountain bike enter your life?
MB: In 1978 I suffered my first of many knee injuries. My friend and orthopedic surgeon Richard Riddell suggested that I start riding bicycles instead of running for my cardio fitness. As a result, I went down and bought a custom Italian road bike. I started riding further and harder. Before long, I was doing local group rides and races and loved it.
A few years later, I walked into my local shop and the owner showed me the new Specialized StumpJumper. I bought it on the spot, and the rest is history! I started going to local mountain bike races and saw a custom Mantis. The next week I contacted Richard Cunningham, and he built me an awesome bike. He even gave me a “racer’s discount.”
MBA: The Super Bowl of Motocross in the Los Angeles Coliseum was one of the biggest races on the professional MX calendar. You became a two-time winner when you won the motorcycle race in 1978, and then returned in 1986 to compete in, and win, the special mountain bike exhibition race.
MB: The Super Bowl mountain bike race was held at halftime, and it wasn’t my first mountain bike race, but it was definitely the biggest. I was so excited about the event, and I had a good day of fitness to take the win. One of the best moments was when I was heading for the peristyle drop on the final lap. Ricky Johnson, David Bailey and a few other motocross riders were cheering me on, saying, “You got this, ‘Too Tall.’”
MBA: How would you describe the difference between the physical conditioning needed for motocross and mountain biking?
MB: The biggest differences are the adrenaline and stress factors associated with motocross. There is nothing that can prepare you for that. There are some incredibly fit athletes who could not do a single lap of Supercross or a national at race speed, let alone a 30-minute moto. I think riding and racing a mountain bike is a good activity to add to anyone’s motocross fitness routine, but you also need time in the gym and lots of time on the motorcycle. Cycling fitness is different, but motocross riders often succeed in the sport because of the mental toughness moto requires.
MBA: What were your mountain bike racing career highlights?
MB: The Super Bowl of Motocross win, 1986 Kamikaze Downhill Pro Class win, multiple NORBA XC and DH wins (Expert division), 2017 Sea Otter Enduro and DH wins (60+ class).
MBA: How would you describe the technical evolution from your first bike to what you ride now?
MB: The technical innovations over the course of my mountain bike life are insane. There is really no comparison between the StumpJumper I rode back in 1984 and my current Santa Cruz Hightower. I suppose the same could be said when it comes to the evolution of motocross technology. In 1977, I rode what I thought was the best motocross bike ever—Heikki Mikkola’s factory Yamaha OW39. Still, I doubt if it’s comparable in any way to Justin Barcia’s 2020 factory Yamaha YZ450F!
MBA: Did you race the mountain bike race at the USGP?
MB: Yes, I did, and man that one was tough! I can remember my brother Scott packing down my line from the start gate halfway to the first turn. That was a trick used in motocross that most of the mountain bike riders didn’t know. That, and my ability to attack the Carlsbad downhill, were my only strengths on that day. I can’t remember how I finished, but I recall being humbled by some real bike racers.
MBA: What kind of training did you do when you raced motocross? Did it ever include cycling back then as it later did for Johnny O’Mara and Bailey?
MB: Early in my tenure as a factory Yamaha racer, I had the honor and advantage of being mentored by my teammate Pierre Karsmakers, who had moved to America from Holland. Even though we were teammates and often competed against each other, he was always super supportive of my potential. Although most of what I did for training off the motorcycle was common knowledge and typical of most of the riders in my era (running and weight training), Pierre helped me to understand the value of cross-training.
At the time, my cross-training consisted of surfing, tennis and golf. I know that might seem kind of lame compared to today, but the main goal was mental fitness, not physical. Pierre also helped me to understand the value and importance of being rested. That was something he struggled with in his own career, and he didn’t want me to do the same. That was probably the best, off-the-motorcycle advice I ever received.
As I mentioned before, I started cycling as a result of multiple knee injuries on the recommendation of my doctor. I personally think cycling is a great activity for recovery and cross-training, but running is more beneficial for motocross training. When you a have high fitness level, like professional motocross riders do, it takes several hours for the real suffering to kick in from riding a bicycle. Doing a 10K trail run under 30–35 minutes is tough, and there will be very little recovery. In motocross, it’s a full sprint and a 30–40 minute suffer-fest from the moment the gate drops!
MBA: How would you describe the Coliseum mountain bike race?
MB: The race at the LA Coliseum was a two-lap event. I got a good start, which turned out to be an advantage. As we started lapping the slower riders on lap two, I was able to disappear ahead of the chasing riders. I remember riding alone most of the race. After the finish, I felt like I had done a super-long BMX race. My lungs were burning and my legs were shaking, but it was awesome! There was no purse or even a trophy!
MBA: How about the Kamikaze win? Was that on the Mantis?
MB: In 1985 I started working at Oakley, and one of my responsibilities was our sports marketing support of all major cycling events. I was up at Mammoth for the Annual Whiskey Creek Stage Road Race, and on Sunday they were doing the Kamikaze DH race for the first time. I watched the riders coming down the hill and thought, “I could smoke these guys!” So, in 1986, I made sure I scheduled myself to be there for the race. I was still on my Mantis at that point, because it was the best bike I had ever ridden. The Kamikaze course was super fast, and since everyone was riding rigid bikes, there weren’t a lot of braking bumps except for the corner heading into the only uphill portion of the route.
MBA: What MX skills do you think served you well for MTB?
MB: Since it was Mammoth, the terrain was that really loose pumice, almost like coarse sand, and I knew that my moto skills would give me an advantage. What I didn’t count on was the Pro class being the last to start. What was the track going to be like after 600 riders hit the track before my start time? The upper section was still super fast and fairly smooth, so all was going well. I had determined during my pre-run sessions the three corners where I would use “a little brake,” and the rest were “hang on for dear life.”
When I finally reached the small climb section, it looked like a corner at Southwick, so I railed the top of the huge berm that had developed and I coasted over the top (most riders were either pedaling or running the section). I even passed the rider who started one minute ahead of me there. I finished the run with what felt like a solid time. Of course, there was no such thing as a transponder back then, so we had to wait hours for the results. I ended up winning by a pretty big margin. It was an awesome feeling to win that race. This time, there was a medal and a $136 purse!
Just as I did back in the day, I believe there are many physically skilled motocross and cycling athletes out there, but what separates them is related to attitude and mental preparedness. Posting your fastest lap times in the closing 10 minutes of a moto or dropping the field on the longest, hardest climb of the race requires more than the physical ability to suffer. You have to believe in yourself to get the job done. Sure, it’s hard, but probably a lot worse for the rest of the field!
MBA: What about Oakley’s early role in not just sponsoring riders but the roles any racers played in making design advances?
MB: I joined Oakley in 1985 to help Greg Arnett manage the sports marketing department. At that time, Oakley had fewer than 30 employees, so we all wore many hats and contributed in any way we could. Oakley founder Jim Gennard and Greg were really good at translating product ideas or improvements into innovative inventions. It was such a fun time to be with the best brand on the planet! Greg LeMond, Phil Anderson, Andy Hampsten, John Tomac, Scott Tilley, Ricky Johnson, Jeff Ward and many others all contributed to the mad science that made Oakley products so successful.
MBA: What made Tomac different from all the others?
MB: Johnny T was different because he was hungry, focused and passionate about being the best. He reminded me of motocross champions like Bob Hannah and Zach Osbourne—not for their style, but because of their determination to get the work done in order to win.
MBA: As an example of the cyclical pattern of fashion, “big” sunglasses have now come back in style, mimicking the size of the original Oakley Eyeshade. What was the design genesis of the original Oakley glasses, and how did Oakley move on to Blades?
MB: Oakley founder Jim Jannard’s original inspiration came during a drive up the 5 Freeway to Orange County from San Diego. The sun’s glare kept impairing his vision and, in typical Jim fashion, he arrived at his destination and got started on a solution. He took an Oakley O-Frame motocross goggle lens, cut it down to the right size, took a section of coat hanger wire and built a crude wire frame. He then used some black electrical tape to join the components. A few minutes later, he had created the original concept of the Oakley Eyeshade! The design/engineering crew would take it from there.
The Blade was just a more fashionable (for the time) version of the Eyeshade. Believe it or not, the early products were the brainchild of Jim alone. He would bounce his ideas off of us and trusted sponsored athletes, but he always had the final word, and he was usually right. I was so fortunate and grateful to be a member of the team back then. We had a lot of fun.
MBA: With motorcycles, you went from dual shocks to moved-up shocks to single shocks to remote reservoirs, clickers, etc. How much of a parallel do you see between the evolution of early MX suspension technology and that of mountain bikes today?
MB: You know, you always make me feel like such a pioneer of the sports I love! If I were a car guy, I bet you’d ask how it was going from a horse-drawn wagon to a Tesla!
For sure my generation has covered a lot of ground innovation-wise over the past 40 years. Luckily for mountain bike progression, mountain biking could follow and utilize motocross suspension/technology and its human resources—guys like Paul Turner, Mike McAndrews, Brian Skinner and many others who had the passion and experience in motocross. I think the evolution of mountain bike suspension was much smoother than that of motocross bikes.
MBA: You spoke of a mountain bike race at the Silverdome. What was that like, and were there many other races in any Supercross events that you competed in?MB: No, unfortunately the action was too slow for Supercross fans, and there was too much disparity in the field of riders. For example, at the L.A. Coliseum race, we started lapping the back markers on the second lap. I think it might be cool to reintroduce the concept to modern Supercross and/or the outdoor Nationals utilizing e-bikes.
MBA: If you were stuck on a desert island and you could choose to have either a mountain bike or a motorcycle, which would it be and why?
MB: That one is pretty easy for me—the mountain bike. First off, there are practical reasons for not wanting a motorcycle, such as running out of gas! Either way, I’d prefer the mountain bike simply because I love to ride bikes.
Top Photo: Jim Gianatsis