THE BRIDGE FROM BMX TO MOUNTAIN BIKING

Looking back at how the little-wheel racers made their mark on mountain biking
Whether on a BMX or mountain bike, Toby Henderson was one of the most stylish riders ever. Photo by John Ker

THE BRIDGE FROM BMX TO MOUNTAIN BIKING

As much as the sport of mountain biking was fueled early on by an influx of road riders (remember that all the Marin pioneers came from road-racing backgrounds, as did the very first NORBA XC national champion, Steve Tilford), the sport of BMX also delivered riders who would go on to become household names on fat tires. Two of the earliest would have to be Tinker Juarez and John Tomac, who both made the transition to fat tires in the mid-’80s. Coincidentally, both also shared an early relationship with MBA, as John Ker had been using Tomac as a test rider for MBA’s sister ’zine, (and now-defunct) BMX Plus! magazine, and MBA was there to loan Tinker a bike for his first-ever mountain bike race in 1986.

SPLIT THE DIFFERENCES

What separated Tinker and Tomac from the wave of BMXers who followed in their wake was that cross-country racing was the venue where they would claim their earliest fame. Tomac, of course, would go on to prove himself to be the most multi-faceted rider the sport had ever seen, with dual-slalom and downhill titles eventually added to his XC resume.

While Tomac’s career would go on to include a multitude of wins, including the 2005 Mammoth Kamikaze (despite officially retiring in 2000), there was one event that best exemplified his true talent—the 1991 World Championships in Il Ciocco, Italy, where he won the cross-country race and finished a close second the following day in the downhill.

Both Tomac and Tinker credited their handling skills on the mountain bike to their BMX days. Their BMX experience was one of their biggest advantages over the majority of cross-country riders who knew little about jumping, sliding and bunnyhopping.

And just to clarify, given that BMX relies on its own model of periodic dating of the sport’s history—old-school, mid-school and new school—we are focusing on riders from the mid-school era, spanning both the ’80s and ’90s.    

THE CULLY FACTOR

While plenty of random BMXers would test the mountain bike waters in the late ’80s, Dave Cullinan, as a full-time BMX racer, opened the floodgates with back-to-back NORBA dual-slalom wins at Mammoth in ’88 and ’89 and a historic 1992 downhill win at the World Championships in Bromont, Canada.

At the time of his dual wins, “Cully” was a member of the Robinson BMX team owned by GT Bicycles, so it surprised no one when the 1990 season began with him under the big blue-and-yellow GT tent.

For the ’92 season, Dave was sponsored by Iron Horse Bicycles, and it was in Canada that the famously gloveless rider shocked the world—not just by winning the coveted rainbow title, but the manner in which he did it.

Near the bottom of the course, the promoters had installed a massive wooden tabletop jump so that the DH course could cross over a section of the XC course. No one thought to be concerned about the chairlift that was running overhead, least of all Cullinan.

“I actually began thinking about making the [20-foot] jump in practice and started by just landing on the top section. In the race, I actually had to slow down coming out of the corner before it, because I had to look over and time my jump with the chairlifts that were running so I wouldn’t lose my head!”

Following Cullinan’s rainbow success, the die was cast. A new future for many BMXers was born. Almost every one of them steered their way to the downhill and dual-slalom courses where their bike-handling skills could be put to use.

AS FOR THE REST

According to GT team manager Doug Martin, who brought a litany of BMX riders to mountain bikes, “There was definitely a significant influx of BMX riders coming to mountain biking, but while many of them stuck their toes in, not many of them stuck around.

“The committed riders quickly realized that racing a seven-minute downhill was a lot more physically demanding than a 45-second moto on a groomed track. They knew that fast-twitch muscles and doing leg lifts alone would not be enough to succeed, so the next thing you know, they were hiring coaches, thinking about their diets and even riding road bikes to increase their anaerobic threshold.”

Yamaha was the first motorcycle manufacturer to jump into the BMX market with its Moto-Bike. To help promote the bike, Yamaha created an indoor BMX race series that culminated with the finals held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Mimicking the exploits of his motorcycle/sidecar-racing father, John Palfreyman (pilot) teamed with Doug Takahashi to bring the two-rider concept to BMX in a high-flying manner. Photo: Windy Osborn
As much as Bruce Brown’s classic movie On Any Sunday did to help popularize motorcycling when it debuted in 1971, the opening segment featuring local BMXers no doubt did the same for the pedal set.
Of course, in the absence of any BMX tracks, wooden ramps often filled the void, as Zap demonstrates on his Schwinn Stingray in 1974.
Long before he discovered mountain bikes, Tinker was a top BMX’er
If ever there was a “marathon man” in all of cycling, it would be Tinker Juarez, who started racing BMX in 1977 and continues racing mountain bikes today. Following earlier stints riding for General and Klein, Tinker signed with Cannondale and stayed with them for almost 30 years.

Yamaha was the first motorcycle manufacturer to jump into the BMX market with its Moto-Bike. To help promote the bike, Yamaha created an indoor BMX race series that culminated with the finals held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

CROSS-OVER CHAMPIONS: A who’s who of BMX stars

HEART OF A CHAMPION: DAVE CULLINAN

That he won his first NORBA National dual-slalom race on a borrowed bike says something about how quick Dave Cullinan’s transition to big wheels was. Riding as an expert in 1990, he won the Mammoth Mountain Kamikaze with a time that was 8 seconds faster than the winning time in the Pro class.   

After winning the gold at the ’92 Worlds, Dave Cullinan was hired by Diamondback for a three-year deal. Unfortunately, following a crash in 1992 that impacted his heart, Cully missed the ’94 season. He required heart surgery to fix the damage.

While he never repeated his world-beating finish in future years, Cully remained a threat, especially in dual-slalom racing, with factory rides from KHS and Schwinn.

WHEN ROYALTY ARRIVED: MIKE KING

Following in the race-winning footsteps of his older brother, Mike King started racing BMX at 6 years old and came to mountain biking in 1993 as a multi-time national champion. It wouldn’t take long for him to continue his winning ways. In his rookie year, he first won the NORBA dual-slalom title, followed by a sensational downhill win at the World Championships in France.

The next year, “Mikey” was a GT team rider. Over a five-year span, he would reward the marque with numerous wins, including a bronze medal in the downhill at the 1995 World Championships. Mike would tack on another five-year stint with Haro before retiring.

In 2006, the BMX Hall of Fame inductee was hired by USA Cycling as the BMX program director to manage Team USA at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, and 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England. Currently, Mike works for the city of Rock Hill, South Carolina, as the BMX supervisor of the Novant Health BMX Supercross facility.

FROM BREWS TO GOLD: ERIC CARTER

“EC” was both a national and world champion amateur BMXer who came to mountain bikes following some off years when he was just “a fat guy riding motocross and blowing BMX money drinking beer and going to Lake Havasu.”   

Riding for the same SoCal bike shop that gave Cullinan his mountain bike start, Carter initially took a tepid liking to mountain bikes. “It was all so different, but we knew Cully had made the transition and was getting paid, so I figured why not try.”

Eric rolled into mountain biking as a member of the upstart Barracuda Bicycles team. “It took me about three years to get comfortable with the downhill speeds; dual-slalom racing kept me in the mix.” As with Cully and King, in 1997 Carter became a member of the mighty GT Bicycles team. He rewarded them with a bronze DH medal at the World Championships in 1999.

It was after he moved to the Mongoose team that Carter enjoyed his greatest success when in three successive years at the World Championships (2002, ’03 and ‘04) he won a bronze, silver and finally a gold medal in the Four-Cross event.

AKA “MR. MAJESTIC”: BRIAN LOPES

No doubt, one of the more dynamic BMX crossover riders in the ’90s had to have been Brian Lopes. Though lacking the championship-winning record of others, Lopes enjoyed many major wins on 20-inch wheels before trying mountain bike racing for the first time in 1992.

“In 1991, I’d won a GT mountain bike in a race, and that got me started,” he recalls. “My first races were at Big Bear and Mammoth, and I raced the beginner XC and DH classes and won both. Then I upgraded to the Expert class at the finals in Durango, and I didn’t even last a lap in the XC race. I was so hurting!”

Riding for a trio of powerhouse teams—Mongoose, Cannondale and GT—for the next decade, Lopes would eventually amass the titles that eluded him in BMX with four World Championships (DS), six World Cup titles (DS/4x) and nine NORBA National titles (DH, DS).

THE FRENCH PHENOM: ANNE-CAROLINE CHAUSSON

Simply put, the reserved rider from Dijon, France, was the most highly decorated mountain bike racer of all time. In addition to a string of UCI World Cup titles, Chausson scored a record 16 rainbow jerseys between her downhill, dual-slalom and four-cross racing pursuits. Riding for the French powerhouse Sunn team, “Anne-Caro” came to mountain biking right out of her BMX career in 1993 and enjoyed immediate success with a World Championship victory in the Junior class.

In 1997, Chausson would make the move to the high-dollar Volvo-Cannondale squad where she would carry on her winning ways with epic, year-in and year-out battles with Missy Giove and Leigh Donovan.

Chausson capped off her post-downhill mountain bike career by winning the gold medal at the inaugural Olympic BMX race in China in 2008, followed by a successful stint racing enduros.

A ROUND TABLE OF BMX TALENT

After she made the move from BMX, Leigh Donovan went on to claim nine NORBA National titles and the 1996 Downhill World Championship crown. Fittingly, Leigh has been inducted into both the BMX and Mountain Bike Halls of Fame.
Toby Henderson is a celebrated old-school BMXer who jumped to mountain bikes in the mid-’80s. When he wasn’t racing, Toby could often be found grabbing big air for John Ker’s camera as one of MBA’s most oft-used test riders. Toby has remained a fixture in the bike industry with his Box Components brand.
Like Brian Lopes, Aaron Gwin started racing BMX before he was 5 years old. Following a successful BMX career, Gwin tried his hand racing motocross but eventually quit due to injury. In 2007, he took up downhill racing and would subsequently go on to become a five-time UCI World Cup champion and eight-time NORBA national champ.
In addition to numerous Grand National wins, “Pistol” Pete Loncarevich was also a four-time recipient of BMX Plus! magazine’s Rider of the Year award. Best known as a dual-slalom rider, five years after making the switch from BMX, he won the Master DH World Championship title in 1999.
Tara Llanes started racing BMX as an 11-year-old and came to mountain biking in 1996. In 2004, she claimed the Four-Cross National title followed by the Downhill National title in 2006. Unfortunately, in 2008, with thoughts of competing in the inaugural Olympic BMX race, Tara suffered a career-ending injury in a dual-slalom race.
As a four-time national and four-time world champion, Cheri Elliot was one of the more successful BMX riders who jumped to 26-inch wheels in 1994. She went on to claim a dual-slalom national title in her rookie year with more DS and DH titles to follow.
Ever the trendsetter, along with some sweet woolly socks, John Tomac rolled out a 24-inch-wheeled Mongoose BMX bike retrofitted with thumb shifters and derailleurs to compete in the 1988 Mammoth Mountain dual slalom, which included a unique uphill section. Photo: Pat Carrigan

THE GT BEHIND GT

As world-famous as GT Bicycles would eventually become, the brand itself started in a most inauspicious way when Gary Turner began welding BMX frames in his garage for his son to race in the early ’70s. By the time GT entered the full-suspension fray in 1991 with the RTS-1, Gary had long before been pulled away from designing and building bikes.

Gary Turner stands proudly with his refurbished suspension BMX bike that helped fuel a short-lived fad in the sport.

But, that’s not to say that Gary had no first-hand experience when it came to designing and building a full-suspension off-road bike. While GT’s in-house suspension guru Jim Busby was responsible for the brand’s suspension lineage to come, Gary had already trod down the path when he built six, radical, full-suspension BMX race bikes in 1975.

Gary Turner’s suspension bike was one of a handful of BMX bikes mimicking the Monoshock suspension developed by Yamaha for its motocross bikes. Primitive-looking as it was, it proved to be a winning design.

As opposed to the pavement-smooth tracks that are used now, many early SoCal tracks (e.g., Yarnell, Saddleback, Randall Ranch, Corona Raceway) were high-speed, natural-terrain courses filled with ruts and jumps, which made suspension a viable alternative to the traditional rigid bikes. And that was where visionary designers like Wayne King and Gary Turner decided to turn their attention to by building their own suspension bikes. Adding fuel to the fire, this was also when the long-travel suspension revolution was overtaking the motocross world.

Just as Brian Skinner discovered years later with his Descender mountain bike, lacking any adequate options for front suspension, it was easier to build a rear-suspension bike. Not all of them were pretty.

The frame was made with square steel tubes with suspension in the six-inch range. The forks came off a Yamaha Moto-Bike which Gary extended to get added travel. Gary’s bike was raced for a few years before it was hung up in the rafters for a decades-long stint.

Check out the video of the complete lowdown on Gary Turner’s (GT Bicycles Co-Founder) first BMX Monoshock.

aaron gwinbmxbrian lopesJohn TomacMountain Bike RacingTinker Juarez