ROOTS, ROCKS & THE ROLL OF A FAT-TIRED LIFE

 

John Tomac

By Zap

Over the course of the nearly four decades that Hi-Torque Publications has been producing MBA, the magazine has seen a handful of editors at the controls. For the first official monthly issue (November 1986), former pro motocrosser Eddie Arnet was elected to steer the ship. When Eddie returned to his throttle-twisting roots as the editor at Dirt Bike magazine, yours truly assumed the big chain for a five-year stint (March 1988–September 1993) before getting hired away to run the competing Mountain Bike magazine.

In my stead came MBA’s previous tech editor (and founder of Mantis Bicycles) Richard Cunningham, who traded in his welding torch for a computer before choosing the digital route over at Pink Bike in 2011 “RC” was replaced by Jimmy McIlvain. Although he had worked on a variety of Hi-Torque’s moto mags over the years, “Jimmy Mac” had been a lifelong cyclist.

Ankle deep into the 21st century, Jimmy’s former right-hand man Mike Wirth took over in 2014 before he decided to use his tech prowess to start up his own mountain bike tuning shop (GooseWorks.com). Next in line was Joe Mackey, in 2018, who held the reins for a short term before getting a gig at Cannondale. He now owns his own bike shop.

Currently, Mountain Bike Action is overseen by Ron Koch, Sean McCoy, Traece and the ever-present John Ker, who has actually been on board since before MBA was even a “thing.”

Unlike the back-in-the-day industry norm of passive riding shots, MBA believed in testing bikes in real world conditions and relied on the “sending it” antics of test riders like Byron Friday to put another test bike through their paces. It didn’t make us popular in the industry.

NO “I” IN TEAM

Editors aside, there have been a handful of others who have played a critical role at MBA. Chief among them is the “Chief” himself, Roland Hinz, who, as the owner of Hi-Torque, had the idea for MBA in the first place. Motocross Action editor Jody Weisel acted as an all-important mentor to Eddie, RC and me. And when it has come to producing all the action-packed and close-up tech shots, in addition to John Ker, we’ve had Pat Carrigan as both a shooter and photo artist for all 420 issues of MBA.

Just for the sake of gloating, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that in addition to all the pages that each editor has turned out over the years, Richard, Jimmy, John and I have all been inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.

But really, with any discussion of the origins of MBA, what better way to get the celebration rolling than by going back to the beginning? May I have the pleasure of introducing you to Dean Bradley. Dean was the guy who singlehandedly assembled the first stand-alone issue of MBA (June 1986), and although he didn’t stick around to see the magazine mature, he’s remained in the bike industry as long as MBA has.

To mark the significance of this anniversary issue, I chased Dean down in the wilds of the Idaho outback where he now resides and rides with his wife, former downhill racer Jill Hamilton.   

Beyond inquiring how MBA came to be, I also asked him what he thought were the 10 most significant products and product categories that have shaped the sport over the years. And, I remind you kids out there, these products have played a role in developing the bikes and products that you’re riding today.

Dean Bradley then and now. In 1986 he was a bike obsessed editor living the dream life. Now, 35 years later, Dean is still obsessed with bikes and living the dream life along with his wife Jill Hamilton in the Idaho wilds.

MBA 35-Year Retrospective: DEAN BRADLEY

It was a truly special time, never to be duplicated. I think when any sport is young, just getting started and organized, people, even if they are technically competitors, are willing to work with each other for the greater good of the sport. That was certainly the case with the early mountain bike cottage-industry community.

Look at both motocross and BMX, two sports similar to mountain biking. They were small, ragtag, cottage industries that just followed their passion. Some were professionally run businesses. Others were mom-and-pop operations. Others were under-funded mad scientists. Still others were get-rich-quick schemers who jumped on board when they smelled money. All shared in and enjoyed fast growth, good times, and unrivaled camaraderie seldom seen in today’s economy.

One important point, maybe the most important point, is that, not unlike today, mountain biking was a huge cultural and athletic melting pot. Early companies and participants represented a wide array of other outdoor sports and various backgrounds. Everybody from derelict, dirt-bag welders working out of dimly-lit sheds to the most accomplished aerospace engineers were welcomed. Even if you were banished from other sports and activities, chances are you found a home in the mountain biking community. Whether it was intentional or not, we were very inclusive as an industry and as a sport.

The first ad for the company formed by pioneers Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchey and Charlie Kelly that was simply known as MountainBikes.

Mountain biking in the ’80s and ’90s was a rich tapestry of colorful characters, legendary players and pioneers. But no matter your role, big or small, in hindsight, we all knew we were part of something special. Secretly, we somehow knew that we were making history, building the foundation for something that would forever change not just the bike industry but, dare I say it, the world forever.

No. In some ways I feel like I pulled the pin on a grenade, heaved it down the hallway at Hi-Torque and then ran out of the building! I knew there would be an explosion. I just wasn’t sure how big it would be. And since MBA is still going strong after 35 years, I am proud to say that I was 100 percent correct. MBA has remained relevant throughout that time and must be acknowledged for playing a huge part in shepherding the sport along the way.

I feel most of the growth of mountain biking as a sport has been very organic. Mountain biking is very inclusive; all are welcome. Yes, riding off-road can be intimidating and physically hard, but it is so much fun. You’re out in nature, in beautiful surroundings where the rewards almost always outweigh the risks. Not every sport can claim that.

Bikes are better than ever. Prices for truly dirt-worthy mountain bikes continue to drop. The entry-level bikes you can now buy for $750–$1000 would have cost you $2000 ten years ago.

SunTour was an early competitor to Shimano in the drivetrain wars, but they eventually bowed out. Three decades later however, Steve Potts is still building beautiful steel and titanium mountain bike frames.

As for what people are doing on mountain bikes these days, without sounding old, which I am, it is vital to understand and appreciate where we are and how we got here. Today’s “senders” don’t really care about history—and I get that. Thirty-five years ago, we mountain bike pioneers didn’t care how things were done, either. We disregarded history. We discarded tradition. That blatant disregard for tradition is what continues to fuel how mountain bikes are ridden today. Today’s high-octane brand of mountain biking is the byproduct of rapid product development and equally rapid rider progression.

Q: Looking back, what are your thoughts on where the sport has gone and where it is now?

A: Honestly, it has been a bit of a whirlwind. Collectively, we have not spent a lot of time sitting around wondering what “the next big thing” will be. It just seems to have happened organically.

I recently watched the 2018 documentary The Moment, which chronicles the making of the seminal 1997 Freeride film Kranked by filmmakers Christian Begin and Bjorn Enga. During one segment, Elladee Brown recounted routinely breaking bikes and parts in early North Shore British Columbia freeriding. Industry veteran Bryson Martin also discussed the need to develop the at-the-time game-changing Marzocchi Bomber fork. These were great reminders of the sport exceeding the limits of current equipment and the immediate need for rapid product redesign and development to keep up.

Our “Premier Issue” of Mountain Bike Action, in July 1986 offered this one-page article on Dan Hanebrink’s and Brian Skinner’s downhill race bikes with rear suspension.

As for product development, mountain bike designers are less restricted than in other segments of cycling, for example road biking. Take wheel size. Since mountain bikes were invented, we’ve progressed from 26-inch to 27.5-inch to 29-inch wheels, while road bikes have kept 700c as a standard.

At every successful bike brand out there, there are daily discussions about consumers’ wants and needs. Product designers must be part visionary, part clairvoyant and full-time, hard-core enthusiasts themselves to predict equipment trends. Do these products ultimately drive what riders can do on their bikes? Sometimes. But conversely, what riders decide to do on their bikes also determines what product designers must deliver. No segment in the industry has progressed as rapidly as the mountain bike segment. If mountain biking is to be viewed as a cult, it is a cult of progression.

Long before all the creature comforts of the modern day came into play, mid-80s mountain bike racers faced the challenge of rough terrain by emphasizing handling skills versus technology.

However, there is a whole other side that I’ll simply refer to as, the “stoke side.” By that, I mean visual media and how we as a community communicate with one another. From my admittedly “old-school” viewpoint, I gravitated towards photo-journalism because of the life-altering effect words and still photographs have always had on me.

I still have print magazines from the late 1960s, because holding them in my hands and flipping through them still gives me a “stoke.” They fuel my love for all things two- and four-wheeled, surf, skate or whatever that ancient magazine I kept all these years featured.

But things are different today. Way different. Is print media dead? No. Mountain Bike Action magazine is living proof of that. So, I must not be alone in my continued love of print. But, the internet has changed all that. Love it or hate it, I would be remiss for not addressing the profound impact it has had on everything, especially product progression and riding progression.

Dean’s Top 10 Tech Moments

Looking back on the products that made a difference

THREADLESS HEADSETS

Before: All bicycles had threaded fork steerers and quill stems that inserted down into the fork steerer. Then, John Rader, an amateur inventor and avid cyclist from Texas, arrived at the inaugural 1990 UCI World Championships in Durango, Colorado, with a new idea. After he pitched Peter Gilbert of Dia-Compe USA and the company took an interest in his threadless design, complete steering systems for bicycles changed forever. One man, with one unique idea, made threadless headsets the universal standard.

RAPIDFIRE SHIFTERS

Before: Thumb shifters were the single top-mount levers located on the handlebars that for years were friction based until indexed versions arrived in the late ‘80s. To make a shift using your thumb, you’d push the lever back and forth, trying to locate the exact cog and gear you were looking for. For the adept expert rider, it was somewhat acceptable. For everybody else, it was an imprecise way to shift, and it required briefly removing your hand from the grip, which was never too safe over rough terrain.

In late 1989, Shimano introduced its under-the-bar RapidFire shifters, which brought indexed shifting to the handlebars. RapidFire levers enabled riders to simply and naturally push an ergonomically designed light-action lever for shifts up-cluster and then simply click a smaller trigger-like lever for shifts down-cluster.

Never again did I have to take my eyes off the trail and look down to locate and fumble with a thumb-shifter lever located unnaturally on top of the handlebars. Thumbs down for thumb shifters.

CLIPLESS PEDALS

Before: Toe clips and straps sucked, even with WTB’s Toe-Flips, which were bolt-on steel flaps you attached to the entry-side platform of your pedals to help flip them into the perfect quick-entry position. Even with the finest Alfredo Binda Super-Extra leather straps and modifications to the shoes, cleats and pedals, the pedals with toe clips and straps were a hassle.

And then #1: In 1983, when French ski-binding specialist Look began developing its “pédales automatiques” for road riders, everyone was still using the same basic system of toe clips and straps that had existed since the turn of the century. Look’s system instead relied on a plastic cleat bolted to the sole of the shoe that snapped into spring-loaded jaws that would release with a twist of the ankle. It was revolutionary.

The only thing the original Look clipless pedals didn’t have was “float.” The inventor of the Look pedal, Jean Beyl, introduced a system allowing the foot to pivot via the Time pedal-shoe system three years later.

And then #2: In 1990, Shimano introduced its Deore XT PD-M737 clipless pedal. Similar to the impact threadless headsets and suspension would have, clipless pedals for off-road riding quickly revolutionized the sport.

HYDRATION SYSTEMS

Before: Like clipless pedals, water bottles were just another facet of road cycling that the mountain bike industry naturally adopted; however, when off-road riding, water bottles were routinely ejected from their cages and were always hard to handle while riding.

Water bottles vary in capacity, from the standard 16-ounce to 25-ounce sizes, but even with three large bottles, you could get dehydrated on a six-hour ride.

And then, in 1989, Michael Eidson was competing in the Hotter’N Hell 100 road race in the grueling summer heat of Wichita Falls, Texas. Water is vital to surviving the race, so, an emergency medical technician by trade, he decided to fill an IV bag with water and slip it into a white tube sock. Yes, a tube sock. Then he stuffed the contraption into the back of his bike jersey, threw a thin hose over his shoulder and clamped it with a clothespin. Hands-free hydration (later known as the CamelBak) was born! The invention of personal hydration systems has not only changed the way mountain bikers stay hydrated but just about everyone in every sport who needs to drink water on the go.

Long before dropper posts had more travel than early front suspension, the Hite-Rite managed to get the job done at a fraction of the cost.

FRONT SUSPENSION

This innovation happened so long ago that we almost take it for granted. Don’t. Funny story, I was introduced to this guy based out of Boulder, Colorado, named Paul Turner. Paul was a former Honda motocross mechanic and (with help from Keith Bontrager and Steve Simons) had developed a telescoping front bicycle fork. I met Paul in the parking lot at the Interbike Show in 1988 and test rode the fork. It was a life-altering event!

Impressed, I arranged a meeting with some friends over at Dia-Compe USA. I figured they would be a good match for manufacturing and sourcing the new fork, which they did for the first few years until Paul and Steve took control. And the rest, as they say, is history.

There is no denying that front suspension forever altered the way we ride bicycles off-road. Has it been the biggest innovation that has had the most significant impact on the sport? I would say so.

DISC BRAKES

Before: There has never been a shortage of innovations in brake design. We’ve seen drum brakes, cantilever brakes, under-the-chainstay U-brakes, Roller-Cam brakes, V-brakes, hydraulic rim brakes, brake booster plates, ceramic rim coatings, specialty brake-pad compounds, and a myriad of goofy over- or under-powered levers combined with rim-crushing, cable-actuated brake systems du jour.

But, as an industry, we’ve dragged our feet (pun intended) in the development of disc brakes. Why? Tradition. And, Shimano was especially stubborn.

Former pro motocross racer Robert Reisinger was the first to showcase a cable-pull disc brake, which he designed in 1989 as the only braking solution that would work with his main component—the 2-inch travel, inverted Suspenders fork.

I believe the real credit for the evolution of disc brakes either belongs to Formula, based out of Prato in Tuscany, Italy, or the Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based Hayes company. Both debuted hydraulic disc-brake systems for bicycles in 1997. The real turning point for Hayes and its fledging disc brake came in 1999, when Trek and Gary Fisher equipped both the 8900 and X-Caliber hardtails with the brake, a move that vouched for Hayes’ technology and sent the message that disc brakes were not just for downhillers.

While the bicycle industry knew all about building frames, it was clueless about suspension. Despite the many bike geeks who saw throttle-twisters as an enemy of the sport, it was the latter who moved the sport into the future with the required vision and knowledge

TUBELESS TIRES

Before: In the early days, riders had to deal with inner tubes, carrying tubes, changing tubes trailside, running higher tire pressures to avoid “pinch” flats, valves ripping out of tubes, rim strips, rim tape, etc. Like much of the outdated and decades-old technology that desperately needed revision and replacement, pneumatic tires and conventional butyl rubber tubes needed to go.

And then in 1999, Mavic created and patented the first tubeless-tire system for bikes called UST (an acronym for Universal System Tubeless) in partnership with French tire brands Hutchinson and Michelin. Several companies make UST-compatible tires, but Mavic is the only company making UST rims and wheels. UST tires are typically heavier, and the UST standard has not been updated for modern, wide mountain bike rims, so it’s a small part of the overall market today.

Still, tubeless is the dominant style of wheel and tire for mountain biking, and its benefits also make it desirable for gravel and cyclocross riding. Tubeless has even made inroads in performance road systems.

Of course, the all-important post-script to Mavic’s UST came in 2001 when Pennsylvania mountain biker Stan Koziatek succeeded where so many other homespun efforts had failed. He developed the Stan’s No Tubes system, which delivered a reliable tubeless system for the masses.

DROPPER POSTS

Before: Seat posts were pinched in the seat tube by a seat binder that could be loosened and tightened with a quick release. This was handy for bike shops so they could easily adjust seat heights on the sales floor without a wrench, but you couldn’t adjust them on the fly.

And then in 1983, Joe Breeze and Josh Angel developed the Hite-Rite “seat-locating spring” that was comprised of a simple, scissor-like spring where one end mounted on the seat tube collar and the other clamped around the seat post. The Hite-Rite allowed the rider to reach down, open the QR lever, and let his body weight compress the spring to lower the saddle when riding a technical sections. Once you were back on flat ground, flipping the QR lever would return the saddle to its original height. It was simple, lightweight, brilliant and pretty ugly.

Today’s myriad of dropper posts play off of that simple Hite-Rite concept to provide on-the-fly seat height adjustment. Everyone from UCI XC to EWS enduro racers has adopted them. Of note, the dropper-post evolution has not only brought on versions with more travel than suspension forks had for the first decade, but they’ve jumped in price from the Hite-Rite’s $19 price tag to $800 for a RockShox wireless Reverb post.

Top mount thumb shifters were the order of the day until Shimano developed their under-the-bar RapidFire shifters along with SRAM’s Grip Shift.

SUSPENSION LOCKOUT

Oh sure, just after I claim that suspension remains the most significant innovation in mountain biking, now I’m claiming that suspension lockout is also a major innovation. Am I conflicted or what?

Embracing locked-out suspension really comes down to where and how you ride. Some people have absolutely no need to lock out their suspension, or so they think until they have the option. When I was developing product at Giant back in the late ‘90s, we worked with Fox for our suspension platforms and designs. Being able to lock out suspension was an appealing option for sustained climbs, pavement sections, and other terrain where a fully rigid hardtail would excel.

But, it wasn’t until a few years back when I purchased a Scott Spark with the TwinLoc suspension lockout system that I began to fully appreciate how cool the concept was. If you have to ride the road to get to your riding area, or if you ride sustained climbs up smooth fire roads, or if you ride fast, flowy trails where you wish you had brought a hardtail, having a lockout rocks! It’s like bringing two bikes along on every ride.

GPS & GoPro CAMERAS

I’ve lumped both these technologies together here for no reason other than they both have dramatically changed our collective mountain bike riding experiences. They have both enhanced how we navigate and  record and share our rides, routes, data and visual points of view. GPS technology has come a long way in the past decade. The units are smaller, more intuitive and easier to navigate with. Prices have dropped while the technology and durability have improved.

And then there is the GoPro. This innovation has forever changed how we record and share our experiences. Can you imagine a world without GoPros? I cannot. In fact, I don’t want to. As a lifelong photographer, I only dreamt of having such a high-quality, virtually indestructible camera to mount just about anywhere on just about anything. 


 

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