Last month founding editor Dean Bradley gave us a look back at the launch of Mountain Bike Action. This month Dean continues his tale, telling us more about what our sport was like in the 1980s, how he put together that first issue, and what we all have to do to help our sport thrive in the years ahead.
MBA You wrote almost all of the articles and shot almost all of the photos in that first issue. How much time did you have at your disposal to produce all that content?
Dean: If I remember correctly, Roland pitched me on the idea around December 1985, and I had to have all deliverables in by March or April 1986. After I delivered everything, in-house proofreading and layout would have occurred in April and then to the printer in May. It was on newsstands in June. The cover date for the premiere issue was July 1986. So, it was roughly about a three- or four-month project.
MBA What was it like putting that first issue together?
Dean: At the time, it probably stunk. It was just me and me alone. The weather was nice at that time of year. I probably wanted to be out riding my bikes, or hangin’ at the beach. Instead, I was chained to my typewriter, shooting in a hot, stuffy studio, or soaking my hands in toxic chemicals and huffing noxious fumes in my darkroom, developing film and printing 8x10s.
MBA: What are some of your favorite memories of working on that first issue?
Dean: No office politics or bureaucracy. Working from home. Writing on the beach. Shooting photographs. Late nights developing film and making prints in the darkroom. Traveling up to Marin. Meeting some amazing people. Late nights shooting in the studio. Drinking coffee. Typing. Learning. Making mistakes. Knowing in my heart I was creating something pretty special. And, the best memory of all—driving the 120-mile round trip (that I once did daily) up to Hi-Torque in Mission Hills and handing off a humongous folder containing everything needed to create that very first issue of MBA.
MBA You ran photos of some big mountain bike races that had happened in the past. You had one shot of Gary Fisher leading a race at the Carlsbad USGP in 1983. The race was sponsored by Shimano. What was that race like?
Dean: It was insane. There’s just no other way to put it. A little backstory is needed here. Mountain Bike Hall of Famer Brian Skinner was one of the first rider/promoters to really work on cross-promoting mountain biking by having races at half-time events at the Super Bowl of Motocross in the L.A. Coliseum and at the USGP World 500cc Motocross Championships in Carlsbad, California. That race you speak of back in 1983 was the Shimano Mountain Bicycle Grand Prix and exposed our new little freak-show sport to tens of thousands of people. I was lucky enough to have gotten an invite to race that event. I still have that invite, too, signed by race director Bob Hadley, framed and hanging on the wall of my home office. That event was epic. Imagine a crowd of 30,000+ people baking in the mid-day sun. Most had been drinking since said sun had come up. They had all come to watch the world’s top motocross riders careening up and down hills at 60 mph. Then enter our ragtag crew of strange men, riding strange bicycles, wearing strange Lycra costumes, pedaling at 10 mph around the course. Gary Fisher was there. Victor Vincente was there. It was a full start gate of probably 40 riders. While hanging on for dear life on Carlsbad’s crazy downhills, grinding uphill in 100-degree heat on a brutal, almost-unridable course, we were getting sprayed with cold beer and heckled by thousands of raucous race fans. As I remember, we all had a pretty good time. It was certainly one of those events that I will remember for the rest of my life.
MBA You showed two rear-suspension downhill bikes in that first issue—one by Dan Hanebrink and the other by Brian Skinner. What did you think of those bikes then? Did you think then that full-suspension mountain bikes would become the norm in the future?
Dean: Both bikes were revolutionary in their day. By today’s standards? Laughable. Looking back, it was like cavemen chiseling wheels out of stone. Like Fred Flintstone dragging his feet to slow down the Flintmobile. But, every radical concept, every revolution, has to start somewhere, and both Skinner’s Descender and Hanebrink’s SE Mountain Shocker were pivotal (pun intended) starting points. Whenever and wherever those guys showed up with those bikes, we all knew this was the future. But remember, both those bikes had rigid front forks—only rear suspension. RockShox was just a glimmer in Paul Turner’s eye, and no suspension fork had been introduced into the market yet. If nothing else, that one point should drive home just how far we’ve come and just how long Mountain Bike Action magazine has been around. With the exception of that story, “Downhill Lunacy: A Shocking Look Into Downhill Bikes and Technology,” every single bike pictured in that premiere issue was 100 percent rigid. No suspension forks. No rear suspension. Nothing. Shocking, huh? Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.
MBA Many of the riders in the first issue of Mountain Bike Action weren’t wearing helmets. Some were; others weren’t. When did the shift to wearing helmets happen, and how long did it take to become the norm. Do you know what triggered that change?
Dean: That’s true. Most riders in that first issue were not wearing helmets. The fact was, most riders weren’t wearing helmets at the time, whether they were mountain biking or road riding. Remember, not even the death of Lance Armstrong’s teammate Fabio Casartelli in a crash descending the Col de Porte d’ Aspet in 1995 was enough to make helmets in professional road cycling compulsory. For the most part, if we were training, we didn’t wear helmets. If we were racing, we did. Some early race promoters/sanctioning bodies required it; others didn’t. As with many things in the world of cycling, tradition and what the pros were wearing dictated what the general public did.
MBA What have been the biggest changes in mountain biking over the past 32 years?
Dean: Good question, but it’s kinda like when Roland asked me what I was going to do when I grew up. The answer? Everything and nothing. It’s been 32 years. That’s older than many MBA readers. Yeah, there are the obvious innovations that were game-changers. Here is my highly personal and subjective list in some sort of rough chronological order: clipless pedals, threadless headsets and stems, suspension forks, Shimano Rapidfire shifters, CamelBaks, helmets, disc brakes, tubeless-tire tech, dropper posts. Notice I’ve left out any mention of frame materials, or even rear suspension, or what I’ll refer to as “the drivetrain du jour.” Or, fill in the blank: wheelsets, tires, bars, stems, saddles, computers, GPS, whatever-widget-du-jour. It doesn’t really matter to me. Here’s why—and I’ll get a bit philosophical here. Yes, there have been, game-changinginnovations. Part of MBA’s mission has always been to educate its audience on the latest and greatest through editorial communication with both its audience and its advertisers to better the breed and make mountain bikes and mountain biking a better sport and a better industry to ultimately provide a better experience for all involved. That’s the mission, and that’s a big responsibility. Here’s my point: it’s actually been 38 years since I first threw my leg over a mountain bike. Some would even go so far as to say it’s not even the same sport it was 40 years ago. I would disagree. At the deepest level, equipment aside, mountain biking hasn’t really changed. With a bike that can go almost anywhere, dependent only on the fitness, skill and determination of its rider, the mountain bike experience remains fundamentally unchanged. It’s pure freedom and self-sufficiency that continues to allow all of us access to some of the most beautiful places on earth, hopefully railing some serious singletrack and launching off a few sweet jumps along the way. Maybe you’re a 100-percent lift-assisted DH park or shuttle rider. Maybe you’re a big-mountain freerider who hucks yourself off of Red Bull Rampage-esque stunts of doom. Maybe you’re a hardcore cross-country racer or marathoner; EWS enduro rider; or crazed hardtail-single-speed, 6–12-hour endurance loon. I don’t really care. I respect all disciplines. But, the common thread—the spirit—is really no different from the spirit that possessed the sport’s pioneers to bomb down Repack on Mount Tam or ride/push those old klunkers over Pearl Pass from Crested Butte to Aspen. Just because they rode the grease out of their smoking coaster brake hubs and you ride stop-on-a-dime four-piston hydraulic disc brakes, it doesn’t really matter. The reason we all ride is the same—we can’t lose sight of that, lest we all become segmented and divided into specialized, snobby and self-righteous cliques. I see that happening out there a bit on the trails and in trailhead parking lots, and I don’t like it. Mountain biking was born out of a spirit of inclusion,not exclusion. Run what you brung. Just suit up and show up. All are welcome. My advice? And no, I’m not an old hippie— I’ll leave that to Charlie Kelly or Victor Vicente—but how about we all just love one another? Respect one another. Celebrate our differences. Encourage the newbies. I say, by all means, embrace new tech, but don’t look down on someone because his or her wheel size, drivetrain ratio, rear-suspension pivot points, handlebar width, frame material, choice of riding shorts or gender isn’t the same as yours. End of lecture.
MBA What kind of mountain bikes do you like to ride today?
Dean: Including my-way-better-half Jill Hamilton, we have a total of 20 different bikes between us right now, hanging in the garage and scattered in and around the house. For the most part, a 120mm- or 130mm-travel 27.5-inch or 29er are, in my opinion, the weapons of choice for the type of riding we do now. Jill loves her Intense Spider. We both ride Scott Sparks that we absolutely love. For an old XC and trail-riding guy like me, Scott’s TwinLoc suspension remote-control system is ideal. I lock it out when I’m climbing or on the road and open it up for rolling rough stuff and descending. In my book, it’s the best of all worlds. And, I don’t think I’m alone here. It also appears to work pretty well for Scott phenoms Nino Schurter and Jenny Rissved. We also spend a lot of time on our gravel/’cross bikes and our fat bikes in the winter. Sadly, our super-Gucci carbon-everything Pinarello and Masi road bikes have been getting a bit neglected because the off-road riding here is so exceptional.
MBA Your “Happy Trails” editorial page in the premiere issue touched on the potential for trail-access issues for early mountain bikers. Some three decades have elapsed since that first issue, and a lot has transpired with trail advocacy and peaceful coexistence with other users. Do you still have those concerns?
Dean: Absolutely. I’m probably more concerned today than ever. Having lived in Boulder and with our recent move to Boise, I am re-energized to our collective responsibility for trail advocacy as mountain bikers. We road-tripped up to Canada last summer. Our minds were blown. There were trail systems to die for built by strong communities of riders and advocacy groups who have lobbied and labored to create them. And just a couple of months ago, Jill went down to Bentonville, Arkansas, to speak at IMBA’s Uprising women’s event. We had both heard amazing things about the trail system the Walton Family Foundation has created down there. Once your eyes are opened to what is truly possible out there, it changes your perspective forever. But, you also feel an immense responsibility to preserve what access we have to trails. Contrary to popular belief, it is not our God-given right to be able to ride our bikes on public lands. It is a privilege—a privilege that can be revoked at any time. Just ask the people in Marin. Or Boulder. Or any number of riding areas that have closed trails to mountain bikers. If we don’t play nice with other users; if we don’t put in the work; if we don’t donate time, energy or money; then don’t be surprised when you see a new “no mountain biking” sign at your local trailhead. I urge everyone who rides a mountain bike to get involved. Do your homework. Connect with your local advocacy group. Google “IMBA.” Google “Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC).” Educate yourself on the new Human-Powered Travel in Wilderness Areas Act, Senate Bill S.2877. There’s a lot going on out there right now. Do background checks on politicians and parties promoting unlimited access to wilderness areas. Find out what you can do. Volunteer. Do trail maintenance. Lend a hand any way you can. If you are truly grateful for what you have, take responsibility to preserve it, or even enhance it, for all users to enjoy. And if you don’t have trails in your area or they’re closed to bikes, organize, mobilize and make it happen. Don’t just assume someone else is going to handle it for you. Please get involved.
BRIAN SKINNER’S DESCENDER – The first rear-suspension mountain bike
Back around 1982 Brian Skinner decided to invent the first rear-suspension mountain bike. Here is the story.
MBA: How did you get the idea for the Descender?
Brian Skinner: Simple really; I was racing desert and motocross at the time and knew suspension was the answer, especially since the downhill racing on my mountain bike was close to the same speeds. Besides, getting jarred to the point where you can’t see straight was good motivation!
MBA: When was that?
BS: Around 1982.
MBA: How did you come up with the design?
BS: There were three versions of the Descender. The first one I did with VVA (Victor Vincente of America). He wanted to sponsor me for downhill racing (back in 1982-ish) and said he would build whatever I wanted—fair enough!
I knew suspension would help and felt rear would be best, and VVA made frames, so it made sense. Victor and I worked on some ideas, and I basically pulled the first version from my head.
I just tried to figure out where to put it all. Victor added what he thought was needed to make it strong, and we went with it. Three things I focused on: where and how to put a shock (and look cool), a stronger head tube (since I was always stretching them out) and geometry. I went pretty aggressive with the head tube, seat tube and chainstay—much closer to today’s standards than back then.
The second version I did with Dan Hanebrink. (Thanks, Steve Boehmke, for putting us together!) After the first Descender review was published in 1983 in BMX Action magazine, I got a lot of calls for it, so Boehmke said his buddy Dan could make it lighter and faster! Dan was largely responsible for the second design, because he was a mad scientist, and I liked his ideas!
In 1984, after some rocky ground, Dan and I parted ways, and he went on to work with SE Racing to make that version with them. This left me in a pickle, because people were asking for Descenders, and I needed to do something, because I wanted to be in the mountain bike business.
Back in the ’80s I was a huge fan of Jeff Ward and his Kawasaki KX250, so I went to my local Kawasaki dealer with a tape measure, a piece of paper and a pencil, and right in the showroom I measured out the rear suspension and sketched up what would be the last version.
When I got home, I asked my dad if he would draw up a blueprint (he was a drafting engineer), and we worked together, scaling the linkage down to work for a bicycle, and worked on geometry.
Next, I went to the only person I knew who made bikes in the valley, which was Sweetheart Bicycles. At the time, it was in the process of becoming John Parker’s Yeti bicycles. Chris Hurting was the welder who helped me make a prototype of the final version—sort of!
Later in 1984 a company called Champion Bicycles (another valley manufacturer of bicycles) called me about making the Descender, and because of their scale, I was able to make the refinements I wanted, like a box-section swingarm, proper linkage and better production finish.
MBA: Where did you get the bikes made?
BS: Version one: VVA (one bike made for me to race).
Version two: Dan Hanebrink (a few bikes before we parted ways).
Version three: Prototype by Sweetheart/Yeti Cycles—production by Champion Bicycles (25 frames total).
MBA: How much did you sell them for?
BS: Frameset was about $600, with full bikes being in the $1500 range, depending on how the customer wanted it.
MBA: How long did it take before you were able to add a suspension fork to one of your bikes?
BS: 1989—the first year Paul Turner invented RockShox! By then, Mountain Cross Racing (my company) was just about out of business, as I had taken a full-time job with Shimano to do R&D and work with sponsored racers.
MBA: How many Descenders were you able to sell?
BS: About 27 bikes between the last two versions.
MBA: When did you stop making the bikes?
BS: Around 1985, when I started working for Shimano. I thought working with Shimano would be a good career move!
MBA: How many of the bikes do you own now?
BS: I own two Descenders—one from my friend Paul Shapiro and one from Walt Miller, the grandson of Walt Disney, who later invested in Moots Bicycles (the bike used in the photo shoot).
MBA: How much did the bike weigh?
BS: The bike the way we sold it completed was in the 35- to 37-pound range—I forget what the frame with shock alone weighed.
MBA: How much travel did it have?
BS: Rear suspension was maxed at 6 inches. There were spacers to make it less, but all the bikes were set at 6. At 6 inches, if you totally bottomed out, the rear wheel would rub the suspension strut—not enough to lock the wheel up, but you got a nice Zzzzzz sound [laughs]!
MBA: What else did you do in the world of mountain bike product development after you created the Descender?
BS: I went on to work for Shimano for a number of years developing index shifting, clipless MTB pedals, seatposts, U-Brakes, Shark Fin, brake levers, and almost everything involved with the Deore and Deore XT product line.
From there I went to Answer Products and worked on the now-famous TaperLite flat bars, A-TAC handlebar stem and Accu-Trax fork.
My next mission was at OnZa, where I worked with Danny Sotelo on the Porcupine tires, the now-famous OnZa bar ends, seatpost and headset.
I also worked with Club Roost on some products, namely the Butt-UG stem, and a few other items. I also did a quick stint at Odyssey on a front suspension fork.
From there I went on a sabbatical to figure out my life and came back for a couple of years doing BigHorse, which was a way to give back to the industry by supporting the privateer and sportsmen racers, giving them a place in the pit area to relax and work on bikes, supplying tools, food, and fun. I did this because I thought it wrong for the guys to have no support (the people who largely support MTB) to walk all the way back to their cars in the parking lot!
That’s the short story, but there’s so much history behind all of these instances with amazing people who helped me and great friendships made—that’s what mountain biking is all about!
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