The Original Mountain Biker Who Was and Is Joe Murray

A pioneer mountain bike racer turned component developer

Before Ned Overend, John Tomac or any other pioneer mountain bike racer whom the sport has popularized as the earliest superstar, there was Joe Murray. Like the two Hall of Fame racers who would eventually follow in his wheel tracks, Joe, too, was a quiet, unassuming guy who was simply capable of outriding his competitors.

It was his talent that earned him a wealth of victories in numerous back-in-the-day classics, such as the Rockhopper (five wins) and the Whiskeytown downhill (three wins). But, it was his follow-up NORBA National titles in 1984 and ’85 that earned him the credibility that led to steady employment in the industry.

For over two decades, as a member of Shimano’s secretive “Skunk” team of R&D riders, Joe Murray has played a key role in developing a host of components for modern mountain bikers. How did it all go down? Read on.

Joe celebrates with fellow two-time NORBA National Champion Jacquie Phelan.
Photo: Dave Epperson

THE REGULAR JOE

MBA: When did you get started riding and racing mountain bikes?

Joe Murray: I started out riding an old ’50s Rollfast cruiser on the dirt roads in Marin. Sometime around 1981, that led to buying a Schwinn Spitfire 5 from Mike’s Bikes in San Rafael, California, down the road from where I grew up in Fairfax. Piece by piece, I began replacing the parts. Right off the bat, the huge Messenger saddle was replaced with a Brooks B17 and one of those fluted BMX seatposts. Next came a Tuf Neck stem and some motorcycle handlebars.

When I was 17 years old, I entered a race in 1983 called Zero’s Notch, which was the Pine Mountain loop above Fairfax that ended at the bottom of the Repack downhill course. I was wearing Levis, a T-shirt and no helmet, and finished 13th overall. There were only two classes, Expert and Novice, so I was  first Novice and won a pair of Ukai gold alloy rims.

MBA: As the two-time NORBA champ, you became the sport’s first celebrity rider. What was the atmosphere like back then?

JM: As one would guess, it was fun and relaxed, until we were on the start line. Typically, we would camp out because we were young and didn’t have much money and just didn’t care. Usually, the events were located at random places. The bigger races were more serious, like Mammoth when racers came from a long way. Like anything, when more people started coming in, then everyone started thinking they needed to be more serious. Eventually, going to the races meant staying in hotels, and both training and carbo-loading became a thing.

MBA: Were the teams you rode for only Gary Fisher and Marin?

JM: Originally it was Ritchey and then Fisher. Marin was next, then Kona. In 1991, I was “retired” but kept racing locally.

MBA: How would you describe the difference between Gary & Tom?

JM: Gary was the marketing, hobnobbing, image-of-the-company guy who liked to talk up the bikes to everyone. Tom was more reserved and building as many frames as possible in the beginning. They both had good ideas, yet Gary would get someone else to design and build it, and Tom would be more hands on. Tom was more serious and Gary was more flamboyant. They both had overblown egos, which is why they eventually clashed and parted ways.

MBA: Being a “factory” rider for Gary Fisher meant what exactly?

JM: I was racing and working in the shop for Gary and wore many hats. I made drawings for Gary because he could barely write legibly. I took drafting in high school and community college, long before CAD was a thing. When the Japanese came by to visit, they asked Gary to test freehubs, the first mountain bike Tange tubing, and so on. Gary kept saying he didn’t have time to ride, so I was more than willing to ride the proto stuff.

Before John Tomac arrived, Joe was among the pioneers of pro-racer product endorsements.

TITANIUM DAYS

MBA: MBA tested a Marin Team Titanium bike with you in the late ’80s. What can you tell us about the “birth” of titanium frames related to you, Merlin, Marin and Gary Helfrich?

JM: I knew the gang at Fat City Cycles, and when Gary started Merlin with Gwyn Jones and Mike Augsberger, they set up shop across the street from Fat City in Somerville, Massachusetts. While visiting Fat City one day, I went over to check out the Merlin operation. I asked if they were planning to make a mountain bike frame. They were already working with Tom Kellogg on road frames, and when Gary said that they were planning to build a mountain bike frame, I said I would take one and made a drawing of the geometry.

Gary obviously knew how Fat City built frames, yet he felt the geometry was too East Coast-oriented and was unsure now to do it differently. I was at Marin and suggested that they build frames for Marin, and that’s how the Team Titanium model was born.

MBA: What were some of the pivotal moments in bike design and theory that got the sport through the early days?

JM: Sloping top tubes were big, and I give Canadian builder Paul Brodie credit for making that happen. The first days of Kona, we called the bikes Cascade, and we also raced and sold Brodie bikes. So, we adopted the sloping top tubes pretty much before anyone else and used the 71/73 geometry. Frame geometries never really changed until we started making the top tubes longer. I recall getting a prototype Marin made with a 23.5-inch-long top tube, 70-degree head angle and a 130mm stem. Times have changed!

MBA: After racing, you were part of Voodoo Bikes, which seemed to embrace a totally different business model from other brands.

JM: I credit Tom Morgan with making VooDoo happen. I was done with Kona and taking some time off, living in my truck, looking for the next latest and greatest place to ride and live. I mentioned to Tom that I was looking for a new job, so Tom told Mr. Mizutani, who was the owner of a bike company in Japan, about me, and Mr. Mizutani told Tom, “Get Joe Murray, and I want to start my own bike company.”

MBA: Didn’t Voodoo offer a type of build-your-own-bike platform?

JM: Yes, we started with consumers being able to choose the model of frame, kit, fork, stem length and crank length. The bikes were assembled in San Jose, California. That eventually went to complete bikes in the box, as there formed a pattern of what shops and riders ordered, so it was useful for that. It was a feature of the brand that got it noticed.

Merlin Metalworks pioneered the use of titanium for mountain bikes and was always ahead of the design curve as evidenced by this 1992 full-suspension bike with an air-bag shock.

SMELL A SKUNK?

MBA: Shimano has employed former racers as a “Skunk” development team since the ’90s. How did you become involved in its R&D process?

JM: I had been a test rider since working with Gary, and John Uhte was the mountain bike product manager for Shimano in the late ’80s. It was then I rode an index shifter, which was really a modified plastic low-end Positron top-mount bar shifter. (It’s on the bike in the Hall of Fame museum.) In the late ’80s (Mountain Bike Hall of Famer) Steve Boehmke came to Shimano, and he came up with the “Skunk” name, which has stuck since.

I was with VooDoo at the time and decided that it was not going how I liked. So, in 1996, I asked (Skunk overseer) Wayne Stetina if I could work officially for Shimano, and that’s been going since.

MBA: What does being a “Skunk” rider consist of? Is it just the classic “I get paid to ride a bike” line?

JM: In the beginning, it was anyone we thought was worth giving parts to and getting together to ride. It included people who could articulate what was good and bad and were capable riders, too, of course. Many guys from Japan and Irvine would get together and discuss everything while the Japanese guys were taking notes furiously. We would have Skunk camps in some of the best places to ride. Over time, Skunk got smaller and came to be just the few of us who were officially contracted by the company, such as myself and Paul Thomasberg. Back in the day, being a Skunk rider could have been just getting parts to ride, but not anymore.

MBA: What are the most significant best and worst Shimano mountain bike products?

JM: The most significant were the freehub, index shifting, disc brakes, Rapidfire shifters and clipless pedals. The not-so-smart list would include the Airlines shifting system, the Hub roller brake and Dual Control shifter brake levers.

MBA: How has the U.S.-to-Japan dynamic worked out?

JM: Shimano’s Irvine office has always been the red-headed stepchild of Shimano, yet California and the USA have always been the places where things are happening and where the innovation lies. The Japanese are still very conservative, so there is this thing where the U.S. wants to do something new and it gets beaten down. They make a point of keeping development in Japan, so there’s always been the disconnect from where the product is being sold to where it’s developed. Regardless, I’ve always enjoyed working with the product people in Japan.

MBA: The Airlines drivetrain was “not smart,” but it was so wholly other-planet-like. How would that illustrate Shimano’s cross-purpose of being conservative while also chasing new technology?

JM: Shimano has never shied away from development and wanting to push the envelope. They are still like that today. We make and test ride all kinds of stuff that may or may not make it to production. Yet, they are fairly conservative about what to bring to market. Although, with the disconnect with what Western riders actually want, they tend to miss that at times. There was talk of an actual product development office in the U.S., yet it never happened. They like to keep control of things in Japan, and as for the way they do business, I would say that being more profitable than any other company in the industry, they feel they must be doing it right—for the most part.

MBA: Wayne Stetina is a legacy American road racer, yet he’s had a big impact with mountain bikes overseeing the Skunk team. How would you describe his role over the years? 

JM: I still remember the fax you sent him in the early ’90s that read, “Wayne, you are an idiot,” that he pinned above his desk. As you know, Wayne is a freak of nature. All he ever really wanted to do was ride his bike and ride it hard, yet he was a serious product guy and was made for the job at Shimano. They made him vice president of the bicycle division, and he hated it, so it was not long before he demoted himself back to being like the rest of the people in the office and just having to think about developing new products.

Wayne has always been a straight shooter and way too serious. He did a lot for the testing protocol by mostly keeping everyone in line and pushing everyone to submit reports. He was a detail-oriented parts geek, and we debated the details of parts and we always related on that level. He was hard to drop on the fire roads.

Joe credits Canadian builder Paul Brodie with introducing frames that used a sloping top tube.

ALL THE TECH

MBA: Of all the rear derailleurs, do you have a favorite for any reason?

JM: I suppose the latest version of XTR, because I’ve wanted Shimano to make 1x even before SRAM popularized it. I rode 2x long before anyone wanted it, and I never liked front shifting either, because of the big jump in gearing.

MBA: Are the electronic Di2 components worth the upcharge?

JM: I think it works great for e-bikes, but I don’t like it for (non-assist) mountain bikes. The big price increase is only a minor improvement in shifting. The wiring and battery are just one more thing to deal with.

MBA: If you were stuck on a desert island full of good terrain and had to choose between using clipless pedals or suspension, which would you choose?

JM: Suspension. I ride flats occasionally, so I could live with that.

MBA tested the Joe Murray-designed, 1992 Marin Team Titanium in our usual high-flying style.

MBA: From frames to Shimano, what tech developments have you played a key role in?

JM: I designed forks for Tange, which led to the Project Two fork with Kona. I pretty much did all the bike designs for Marin and Kona while I was there. I also did design work on tires, stems and saddles for Titec. As for Shimano, it’s very much a team effort. I did want 1x drivetrains way before most everyone else. I never used a triple, so I realized the value of one chainring. They ignored me, and we know how that went.

MBA: And as for e-bikes being good or bad for the sport?

JM: The argument against e-MTBs is probably not worth mentioning that much. I would rather just say the more e-bikes the better! I think there’s this fear of the unknown that some mountain bikers have. And in particular, it seems more of the naysayers are largely in the U.S. and a vocal minority.

I would argue that e-MTBs do not infringe on the rights of non-assist mountain bikes. If anything, public land managers will have to accommodate more users. I also argue that e-MTBs are designed to ride just like pedal-only bikes by the size and output of the motor, and that the power cuts out at 20 mph, which is slower than what many people already go on pedal bikes. It’s really only on the steeper climbs that e-MTBs can go faster, and that is still below 20 mph.

Decades after his stint as one of America’s top racers, Joe Murray continues to develop product as an R&D rider for Shimano.

MBA: Best place you ever rode?

JM: That would be the Huaraz region in Peru. I was there two and a half years ago with a group of Canadians, including Elladee Brown. The riding was epic and super technical with some trails that had 8000- to 10,000-foot descents.

MBA: After all these years pedaling, what is it about mountain biking that keeps you at it?

JM: What keeps me inspired is that I’ve learned to ride steeper, more technical trails. There is more danger of wrecking and injury, yet making it down something scary and steep provides a real feeling of accomplishment. I’m learning quite a bit, even now after riding for all my life. Also, e-MTBs have allowed me to explore trails that I would rarely ride, if ever, on a pedal bike. With the assist power, I’ve also been riding up technical trails that would normally be impossible. Working to get up a technical trail section is really fun and challenging, both for handling and strength.

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