MERT LAWWILL: A MAN WITH A MOUNTAIN BIKE MISSION
It was 1 o’clock straight up. It was the exact time and day that I said I would arrive. But, as I had been knocking for a few minutes with no reply, I began to wonder, “Did I have the right day?”
The house belonged to Mert Lawwill, a former AMA Grand National champion and mountain bike pioneer. Oh yeah, he was also one of the three main characters (along with Steve McQueen and Malcolm Smith) in Bruce Brown’s epic motorcycling movie On Any Sunday that debuted in 1971.
The house I was now standing in front of was the same one I’d first seen some four decades earlier when, as an impressionable young lad glued to the big screen, I sat enraptured by Mert’s every move. Never in a million years would I have thought it possible that I would walk up the same driveway that I watched him drive down in the movie as he left home to pursue motorcycle glory.
MERT THE MOUNTAIN BIKER
As referenced in On Any Sunday, one surprising trait shared by many of the riders who muscled their 300-pound motorcycles around the dirt tracks of America was their slight build. Mert, while never impressive in physical stature, was famous for the courage, grit and determination he displayed on two wheels.
As talented as he was racing motorcycles, Mert was never much of a mountain biker. But, similar to RockShox founder Paul Turner the first time he rode a rigid mountain bike, within a few pedal strokes aboard his Pro Cruiser on a bumpy descent on Mt. Tam back in the mid-’80s, Mert quickly concluded, “This thing needs some suspension!”
And just as he had done when he pioneered the use of rear suspension for AMA flat-track racing in 1966, Mert set out to design a rear-suspension system for mountain bikes. As luck would have it, one of Mert’s NorCal neighbors happened to be the “father of mountain biking” Gary Fisher.
Since his own days of mixing parts to build his Mt. Tam clunker race bikes, Gary had always been open to innovation, so when Mert showed Fisher his unique rear suspension, Gary jumped at the opportunity to incorporate the design on what became his RS-1. In fact, Gary was probably the first person to ever race a full-suspension mountain bike when he competed at the 1990 Durango World Championships aboard a prototype RS-1 with a RockShox fork.
MOAB AND SO MUCH MORE
Owing to MBA’s leadership status among all the cycling pubs of the time, as well as MBA’s connections with the moto industry, we were the first magazine to test ride the radical bike for our annual sojourn to Moab in 1991 (page 43).
In the year since we had seen the bike in Durango, the aluminum RS-1 had been fitted with a pair of mechanical Mountain Cycle disc brakes (replacing the original Phil Wood rear disc) and a steel Lawwill Leader fork. The bike weighed 30.5 pounds, and with its selection of urethane bumpers with different durometers, we were able to easily tune the suspension.
It was prior to the Moab trip, at the Interbike trade show in Anaheim, that I got to actually meet Mert when he invited me to test ride his Lawwill Leader suspension fork in a parking lot adjacent to Disneyland. I still recall being amazed at how the linkage fork handled my head-on hits into a parking-lot bumper.
Over the next decade Mert would have his hand in a number of mountain bike projects, most notably the rear-suspension design that brought both National and World Cup victories with Yeti and Schwinn riders.
Above and beyond the merits of any race-winning bicycle or motorcycle design he’s invented, Mert’s homespun ingenuity has had the greatest impact for those unable to ride because of the loss of a hand. Ever since one of his best friends lost an arm in a racing accident, Mert has spent countless hours perfecting a prosthetic hand (dubbed “Mert’s Hands”) that has enabled thousands of people to keep riding.
IN THE BEGINNING
With the advent of the suspension boom in the mid to late ’90s, Mert was in high demand; however, few were aware that he had actually made his first mark in the off-road pedaling world when he introduced his Pro Cruiser back in 1978. In fact, some will argue that the Pro Cruiser might actually qualify as the world’s first production mountain bike.
A few decades later at last year’s annual Mountain Bike Hall of Fame induction gala in Fairfax, I took the opportunity to visit Mert to chase down some mountain bike history. And there I stood on his front doorstep, wondering if anybody was home.
As it turned out, I was there on the correct day, and it was only when I sheepishly crept around into his backyard that I discovered Mert inside on his couch watching a NASCAR race with the volume turned up so loud that he’d never heard the doorbell.
THANKS TO JOE BREEZE
THE PRO CRUISER: “Actually, my first idea of getting into the bicycle business started in the mid-’70s when I thought about having motorcycle frame builder Terry Knight build some BMX frames for me. But, it was on a visit to the Cove bike shop in the fall of 1976 that Mountain Bike Hall of famer Don Koski pointed to a Breezer mountain bike on the floor and told me I should make a mountain bike instead.
“Since cruisers were really popular back then, I decided to call it the Pro Cruiser. It had a 5-speed drivetrain and 26-inch wheels. I had Terry build 50 frames for me, and I went down to Shimano to see about buying parts. We had a two-hour meeting. They told me I was making a big mistake, because a bike with a lightweight frame and heavy knobby tires didn’t make sense to them, but thankfully they sold me the parts I needed. The complete bike sold for $495.
“In 1981, I went to the Interbike show and saw that Specialized was already jumping in big, so I had to decide whether to stay in it or not. At the time, I was still involved on the motorcycle circuit with my dirt-track products that were doing well, so I decided to forgo the bicycle business.”
THE RS-1: “The reason I started with the rear end of the bike is because I knew that it would be the most difficult to figure out and design. The funny thing is that I was the first guy to run with rear suspension in flat-track racing when I converted my rigid Harley-Davidson race bike inside Dudley Perkin’s Harley shop in San Francisco in 1965. Dudley didn’t have a tube bender, so I had to hand-form the frame’s rear end to accept shocks. It was only after I started racing with rear suspension that I started winning races, because all of a sudden the rough tracks felt like they were graded.
“The idea behind the RS-1 was to design a system that would not consume pedal energy while also transferring the bump force into forward motion. It was a concept that I had learned from Bobby Unser in his design of the radius rods he used for the car he raced on Pike’s Peak.
“At the time, we were using skateboard elastomers for the shock to get about 2 inches of travel. I went to Japan with Gary twice to oversee the bike being built, but after Trek bought the Gary Fisher brand, they decided not to go forward with the bike (opting instead to produce their own Y-bike).”
THE LEADER FORK: “Actually, I began thinking about designing a fork almost as soon as I thought about the rear end. I was on a rough downhill on my Pro Cruiser when I realized that while I was working on rear suspension, I could barely hold on to the handlebars.
“The Leader fork was in production from around 1991 to 1993. I made the first one in my garage out of steel and used an old coil-spring shock. Eventually, I got hooked up with Control Tech, and we started producing an aluminum version that used a Risse air shock. The fork’s mechanical linkage provided constant trail and 3 inches of travel that would act like even more travel and allow the wheel to climb up and over an obstacle.”
THE YETI/SCHWINN DAYS: “I had known Yeti Cycles founder John Parker from the races, and after Schwinn bought Yeti, he suddenly had new financing. So, we hooked up on designing a new suspension bike that used my quadrilateral swingarm design and a pull-shock. I moved to Durango in 1995, and our first version had 4 inches of travel and eventually moved to 6 and then 8 inches of travel.
“I got the idea of using a pull-shock from NASCAR innovator Smokey Yunich, because pull-shocks had much less stiction than traditional shocks. At the time, even the Formula One guys were experimenting with them.
“It definitely took some convincing of the engineers at Schwinn, but eventually it was used by both the Yeti and Schwinn riders, and we won quite a few races on those bikes (Jurgen Beneke won the NORBA DH series). But, those were challenging days, as the bike industry as a whole was trying to evolve into the world of long-travel suspension.
“I really enjoyed those days going to the mountain bike races. The only bad part was that Yeti never got the same respect that Schwinn did. The Schwinn team manager would treat Yeti like dirt, but we always seemed to have a bigger fan base because of Yeti’s racing history.”
EVEL KNIEVEL: “Back in the early ’60s, Bob (Evel’s real name was Robert) and I used to race together up in Boise, Idaho. I remember one time at Corona Raceway in SoCal, he was telling people that he was going to quit racing and start jumping cars because he could make a lot more money. He was never that good of a racer, but none of us really believed him.
“Well, after he’d become world famous jumping cars, in 1972 he came out to San Francisco to do a jump in the Cow Palace. Since I was local, the Harley guys asked me to go over his bike and make sure everything was tight. I remember before the jump he took a shot of bourbon and off he went.
“Although he made the jump, he ended up crashing after he landed. The next thing you know, he’s staying at my house recuperating from his injuries. I have to say, Bob was a real character but a big pain when he stayed with us. I remember we went out to dinner once in Daytona, and when nobody noticed him, he went up to the maitre d’ and had himself paged so that everyone would know who he was. He also drove around in a Rolls Royce and kept the price sticker on the window just to show how much he paid for it.”
DOES RACING IMPROVE THE BREED? “Well, of course it does! I guess some people will never understand that some people are just competitive by nature. Whether it’s with bicycles or motorcycles, racing is what pushes the engineering and development curve to make things better, because you want to win. For me, it was personal, because back in the ’60s, the only way to survive as a racer was to race three to four times a week, and you’d always be trying to figure out how to make your bike perform better than the others, because you needed the purse money to live on.”
THE DAY TECHNOLOGY TRUMPED TALENT
Back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the MBA wrecking crew would make the annual pilgrimage to the then-sleepy, old mining town of Moab, Utah, to partake in their annual Fat Tire Festival. From the Slickrock Loop to Poison Spider and, of course, the Porcupine Rim trail, Moab’s plethora of rough trails was the perfect test bed for all the tide-turning full-suspension bikes that were beginning to arrive.
It was at the Moab Fat Tire Festival in 1991 that, in addition to a Pro-Flex, a Boulder Intrepid AL, and a wild handmade GP Cycles, we also brought a Gary Fisher RS-1 out to play. Given the early state of play in mountain bike suspension technology, there was only a smattering of RockShox and Manitou forks to be found, and most everyone was still riding fully rigid bikes.
A DOSE OF MODERNITY
Without a doubt, the Fisher stood out for its highly imaginative Mert Lawwill-designed suspension. The rear end was based on Lawwill’s own quadrilateral linkage design that provided a whopping 2 inches of travel (via tunable urethane bumpers borrowed from a skateboard). The front-end duties were handled by an early steel version of Mert’s own Leader fork that used a Risse air shock providing 3 inches of travel. By the following year, Control Tech would purchase Mert’s fork and produce a beautifully crafted aluminum version.
Owing to the Mtn. Cycles Pro-Stop (cable-pull) disc brakes designed by former pro motocross racer Robert Reisinger, the 30-pound Fisher could be capably slowed down.
I had actually first ridden an RS-1 the year prior at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Durango when I “borrowed” Gary’s personal bike after it was left unattended at the Campagnolo truck. Gary’s bike was running a RockShox fork and Phil Wood tandem rear disc brake, and he would race it in the downhill that weekend (arguably making him the first person to ever race a full-suspension mountain bike).
THAT MOAB MAGIC
As was our daily ritual at the festival, a small bike industry collective would meet at Rim Cyclery in the morning to plan the day’s ride. On this particular day we shuttled to the outskirts of town where a group of over a dozen riders had collected. Among them was ’84 Olympic road race winner Alexi Grewal, who surprised everyone by showing up on a prototype steel Clark Kent hardtail with a Scott Uni-Shock fork. What was soon to ensue was a high-speed duel through the Utah desert where modern mountain bike technology—though still in its infancy—would win out.
Just as the group readied to drop in, I snapped one quick photo of Alexi while he relaxed in his Coors Light kit sans helmet. As soon as we rolled, Alexi took the lead and a string of riders followed behind down the challenging singletrack. It didn’t take long for Alexi and me to gap the group; Alexi relying on his fitness and handling skills, and me on the merits of full suspension and disc brakes with a dash of motocross skills and audacity to stay on his rear wheel.
As the trail got rougher with a succession of rocky drop-offs and stutter bumps, Alexi was forced to slow, given the limits of his bike. I, on the other hand, was able to exploit the benefits of both suspension and disc brakes to surge past and promptly drop him! For me, this was yet another clear example of the impact that motorcycle-inspired technology could and would have on a mountain bike. Thanks, Mert!
Funny thing, but fast-forward some 30 years later, and here I am still arguing with many cyclists about the merits of disc brakes and suspension on road/gravel bikes. How does that old saying go, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”?
MERT’S MAGIC ON TWO WHEELS
Photos: Mahoney/Mert Lawwill Collection