Now that 29ers are catching on in a big way, Don Cook looks back (way back) to the origins of this alternate format for mountain bike creations.
By Don Cook
At long last, some eight years after 29"-wheeled mountain bikes were introduced to the riding public (and Dirt Rag first wrote about them), they are gaining widespread acceptance. Don Cook has been a force in this movement since the beginning, and here recounts the fascinating tale of industry wrangling and flashes of brilliance that brought us big wheel bikes.
I have been overwhelmed with phone calls and emails from riders wondering about this and that for the new big wheel mountain bike (29er) they are building. This is very encouraging. As we all know the more people getting turned on and involved, the more products we will all be able to get our hands on. This is also a real indicator to me that the big wheel mountain bike has finally reached critical mass and is being thought about seriously as the next purchase for many who have been questioning it for the last 7 or 8 years. I thought this might be a good time to document a little of the history behind the big wheel and, even better, some of the thinking and story behind "why" the big wheel even happened. After all, mountain bikes have been around since the early ’80s and the father to them, the klunker, has been around since the early to mid ’70s. So what’s up with the introduction of big wheels and why now? This informative story should help.
There are many who use the term "29er" to describe the type of bike I’m writing about. It’s an abstract term used to account for the difference from a standard mountain bike, which generally uses 26" wheels. Many who are unfamiliar with these big wheels actually think that it is a new rim size that is being used and this should be cleared up from the start. Big wheels or 29ers are made with 700c size rims, which are used and have been for over 60 years on road bikes. The usage of the term 29er comes from the first production bike available to the masses from the Fisher bike company, called the Two Niner, which came out in 2001. It is in reference to the perceived wheel size, but it is much like using the term "Kleenex" instead of tissue—it works and people know what you’re talking about, but it is a commercial term for just one company. As you will read in this story, Gary Fisher (Hall of Fame Inductee, 1988) deserves such credit but there are many other people involved in this movement that also deserve the same recognition.
Some readers may be wondering how mountain bikes ever got started with 26" wheels if the bigger wheels are supposedly so much better. In the early to mid ’70s in a handful of isolated locations, mainly Cupertino, Marin and Crested Butte, young bike enthusiasts began riding their bikes in the dirt. In Marin they were trucking their one speeds up Mt. Tamalpais for a downhill thrill, while in Cupertino the Mahon clan were adding gears and powerful brakes so as to ride up the singletrack hiking trails in comfort and then come smoking down with confidence. In Crested Butte commuting through pothole-laden dirt streets was what demanded the big tough tires.
So why didn’t they use road bikes and wheels? It’s simple—the tire. At that time in history there were no 700c tires available in a pneumatic (air filled) form that were big enough for really rough rocky riding. The only tires that were big enough for the rough riding of dirt came out of the late 1940s and early ’50s off of bikes made by Schwinn and other companies. These bikes had smaller rims (559mm) than the more popular 700c road bikes but had much larger tires. There was a good reason for that, too. These bikes were being built by Schwinn and others for 10- to 16-year-olds to use, jumping curbs, riding through empty lots full of gopher holes and weeds; in general a maintenance free machine for an age group not yet nimble enough for the finer points of the fancy road bike.
You see, after WWII ended and the economy swung full tilt back into the hands of the general public, your average 16-year-old wasn’t saving up his/her allowance for a new bike. Oh no, they were after those beautiful fast machines coming out of Detroit: cars, cars, cars. Bike sales were hitting the cellar and the Schwinn Company, who had shut down bicycle production during the war to make other war needed parts, was suffering. Frank Schwinn knew he needed to go after a different market with his bikes and so began building bikes designed for kids from 10 to 16 years old. Frank reduced the wheel size from the standard of the time, 28", down to 26" to lower every aspect of the bike to fit the younger, shorter consumers he was marketing to. He even sloped the top tubes by bending them down in an arc to accommodate the shorter customers. At the time, cars, with all their fancy chrome and sexy curves, were what every young and old adult wanted. So Frank mimicked the auto industry and put gas tanks, lights, horns and racks on his machines and gave them the look. The bikes sold and sold well.
Well now it’s the ’70s, pavement reaches out to every part of the west and the road bike has taken over for the affluent traveler or recreationist. Those nifty fifties bikes are stuck out back behind the garage and can be found at every yard sale and junkyard in town. They’re shorter and stronger than the road bikes and oh, by the way, they have this huge 2.125" pneumatic tire on them, usually a Schwinn, Carlisle or Uniroyal brand. So easy to find and so affordable, they were being snatched up by these hippie thrill seekers who were looking for something new to do.
I think the rest of the story is pretty self-explanatory. It unceremoniously started probably with the Canyon Gang from Larkspur. Then Russ Mahon (HOF Inductee, 1996) and his siblings, along with several friends from the Morrow Dirt Club in Cupertino, built these paperboy bikes up into dirt machines to have fun riding and get away from all the cars. Up north in Marin, Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly (HOF Inductees, 1988), Otis Guy (HOF Inductee, 1993) and many others were doing the same thing at the same time.
In 1979 BMX rims began being made in 26" and more importantly, aluminum. Tires from several companies were showing up on the scene with gorgeous knobs and light skin sidewalls. Basically there was no looking back from that point. By 1985 so much was going on in that format for mass production mountain bikes nobody even noticed or questioned the rim or wheel size. Remember, the size of the tire is what truly gave the rider the ability to ride at speed over very demanding terrain. Suspension was several years away from entering the picture, so the carcass or casing size was the suspension and the amount of air inside was what balanced rider size vs. speed vs. flats.
Interestingly enough, without 25 years of development for the 26" mountain bike rim, the 700c road rim would never have been strong or light enough to even contemplate making a big wheel mountain bike in say, 1976. It was through the mountain bike market that almost all development of materials and products happened in the industry from the early ’80s to the present. Everything to do with headsets, cranks, shifting, frame materials, bars, stems, brakes, wheels—including spokes and yes, tires—came out of the mountain bike industry.
Back to big wheels
This modern day movement using bigger wheels is of course just like every other facet of bicycle history. It is a "recycle" from years past. The pneumatic tire is nothing new. It dates back to 1887 when Dr. John B. Dunlop invented the first pneumatic device from a garden hose and installed it on his own son’s bike. The superior air suspension this provided over solid tires led to worldwide acceptance by 1891. Tire sizes for many years before and after the turn of the century were commonly 30" x 1.5" for men, and the smaller 28" x 1.5" for young adults, women and vertically challenged men.
I can hear a few of you asking, "Why so big?" The answer: no pavement yet. Yes, the bigger sized wheel was used to smooth out the dirt roads that were full of potholes and rock or stone. Does any of this sound familiar? As pavement developed across the world and more surfacing took place, the wheel size began to shrink and tire size also was reduced to decrease rolling resistance.
Bicycles were not the only example of a large wheel diameter size incorporated to glide more smoothly over dirt. Take a look at any make of auto from any country in the formative years of that industry—they all had massive wood-spoked wheels in the 30" to 35" range to accomplish the same thing. Of course I’m just sticking to info from the rubber-clad days. We could go back even further in time and, say, take a look at that chariot thing that Ben Hur was riding around on in the coliseum, which had a rough and rocky surface. It had huge 40" to 50" wooden wheels. Or better yet bring it up to more recent times with how the "West was won" using wagons and buggies. Now there are some big-ass wheels that were used to roll over raw land as efficiently as possible. The average size of the rear wheel on a covered wagon was six and one half feet. You get my point by now, so let’s talk mountain bikes again.
But on a bike?
.Curious as to the beginning of big wheel usage on the mountain bike yet? I thought so. For me it began in September 1980. A gang of riders from Marin made their way out to Crested Butte for the 5th Annual Pearl Pass Tour. Among them was Charlie Cunningham (HOF Inductee, 1988). Charlie and I got along famously from our first ride together. He was sporting this homemade 24lb. aluminum rig with drop bars and could ascend and descend like no one I’d ever seen. Remember this is 1980, so a 24lb. bike that could take the abuse Charlie was dishin’ it had my attention. He was polite when we talked and said anytime I was out in Fairfax I was welcome to come by his little factory. I did just that the following April and ended up working for Charlie for two months, making parts for my own aluminum Cunningham rig and schooling off of all the other Fairfax brain trust.
Charlie had several fun bikes to ride, a 20" rear/26" front wheel off-roader, a couple standard mountain bikes and Charlie’s "personal" bike, which was a 700c pseudo dirt rider. It had a 27" x 1 3/8" tire on the front and a 700c x 35mm tire on the back, both Schwinn gumwalls. It also had Charlie’s custom bent drop bars, which many found bizarre for dirt riding. That bike quickly became my favorite and we began fighting over it when it was time to ride. Charlie is a mellow man so I got to ride it quite a bit. I ended up working for Charlie the next two years in the spring months and the same thing happened every trip. If I could make a certain amount of whatever parts Charlie needed or clean and steel wool a certain amount of tubing, I got to ride the "dirt racer" that day. At the time I could not have told you why it was more fun, it just was.
As mountain biking began to take off in the early ’80s and things started happening fast with new products and materials, the standard Cunningham Indian he made is what was in demand and so the 700c "dirt racer" went back to what it started as, Charlie’s commuter. I was very involved with product development of all kinds at the time, studying under and testing for Tom Ritchey (HOF Inductee, 1988), Steve Potts (HOF Inductee, 1989), and Scot Nicol (HOF Inductee, 1990), while still doing stuff for Charlie and working with Shimano to introduce their new Deore mountain bike gruppo.
Oh those days were fun, working with Keizo Shimano (HOF Inductee, 2000) and his engineers, what a time. I didn’t forget about the "dirt racer" but with all the cool stuff to play with on my standard bike there was no time to think about anything else. Although I never did have enough money to have Charlie build one of his dirt racers for me, I was not the only one who felt this kind of bike needed more attention. Suntour began sponsoring Charlie’s race team in ’84 and two of the team members, Steve Cook (HOF Inductee, 1988) and Tracy Smith, who were also from Crested Butte, talked Charlie into making them each one for what they called "training purposes." Those lucky shits, I’d love to have them write about their experiences from back then.
The Allegro touring bike
As it was, in 1984 I was racing for the Ross Bicycle Company and mountain biking was exploding everywhere. The 700c thing wasn’t on my mind and didn’t resurface for a couple years until the summer of ’86. My archrival and good friend from telemark ski racing, Artie Burrow, showed up in my yard with a buddy if his. They lived in Aspen and had just ridden over Schofield Pass and were looking for a place to stay. Turns out it was Mark Joseph who owned a bike shop called the Hub of Aspen and he imported these Italian touring bikes branded "Allegro." Mark and Artie each had one and had built them up with flat bars and thumb shifters, long reach caliper style road brakes and road levers, equipped them with a 38mm knobby tire and rode them as their mountain bikes.
I was impressed with what they were capable of riding and spent several days showing them around on the local trails. I switched off with Artie a couple times and put some hard miles on his 700c touring bike in complete amazement. I had ridden Charlie’s drop bar version hard and fast but that was on California super groomed singletrack via Mt. Tamalpais. This was here in my yard, on track full of hatchet rocks and pine roots. It was fun and brought back memory and mindset of what I wanted to achieve. Now I’m not going to embellish and say that I could ride it as fast as I did my Ross Signature; after all, the Signature had the new Ritchey 2.35" Z-Max on it and could fly over the biggest of debris, but I could give that Allegro the spurs and hold my breath enough in the rough to make it work. Mark really was ahead of the times with his Allegro offering and deserves some credit for his attempt. I’m sure he tried to sell his clients on the concept, but it just wasn’t the right moment. Mark himself was on a standard mountain bike within a couple years.
Again though, the problem wasn’t frame strength or riding position that killed the Allegro, it was the size of tire that ultimately limited the potential for general use.
Bianchi Project 7
Another attempt made flight just a couple years later. This time it was from a major manufacturer, Bianchi. In 1989 the product manager at Bianchi was Bill Horner, who is much better known for Felt Bicycles than this, but he began working on a bike labeled "Project 7" that year. It had 700c wheels, flat bars, thumb shifters, mountain bike brake levers and brakes (cantilevers) and a triple crank. Bill really believed in his work and pushed this Project 7 into production by 1990 under the name "Volpe." I have no idea what brand tires were spec’d on it, all I remember is the flat bars and mountain bike componentry. Bill left Bianchi that same year but the bike remained in the lineup. Sky Yeager took over the helm at Bianchi (she was Product Manager for 16 years and is one of the most respected authorities in the cycling business) and followed up what Bill started with Project 5, 3 and 1. She said at the time it was a concept that she kept "ramming into the system where it was not wanted," so by ’95 it was dropped from Bianchi’s line. Sky believed it would be very useful for adventure racing but did not see it as a mountain bike replacement.
Panaracer Smoke Tire
While the Volpe may not have been a big seller it was an inspiration of sorts to several who were aware of it. In 1991 Panaracer introduced a tire for mountain bikes called "Smoke" and it sold so well (over a million units) that they followed it up with a rear specific tire called "Dart." Story has it that Dave Agiki, of Dan and Dave at Onza, drew the basics of the Smoke on a napkin while conversing over breakfast. This drawing was given to the director of R&D at Panaracer, Massa Odani. Mr. Odani, who by the way is still the R&D guy and in ’06 brought big wheelers the popular Rampage tire, engineered and produced the Smoke, in 2-D I might add, and because of its success he up-sized it into a 700c x 45mm version and showed it at the Interbike tradeshow in Anaheim, fall of 1991. Not many even noticed it, but it caught my eye because the Smoke was very popular at the time, but I wondered how in the world I could use it.
This is when things got interesting, because the tire had a 45mm casing and was equipped with sharp stiff block knobs that stuck outside the casing for aggressive cornering. Problem was it didn’t fit in any 700c production bikes at the time. Well, one thing inspired the tire and now the tire inspired a new bike. In 1992 the Diamond Back Company had a production manager working for them by the name of Harry Larry, who like Diamond Back, had come from the BMX side of cycling. That year Harry introduced and delivered the "Overdrive" bike, a steel mountain bike style frame and fork fitted with 700c wheels and Panaracer Smoke tires front and back. Ooh-la-la! This bike was heavy and long but it fit these huge knobby tires. (According to Jeff Zell at Panaracer the tire was made for Diamond Back as an O.E.M. product just for the Overdrive.) First time I saw one was at the local Diamond Back dealer in Gunnison. Dave Wiens (HOF Inductee, 2000) was "the man" racing for Diamond Back at the time and was training locally on the Overdrive, even raced one at the then-popular Cactus Cup. He thought they would be very useful for uphill time trials.
Across the Divide
Meanwhile in 1992 on the east side of the Continental Divide in Salida, Colorado, Mike Rust (HOF Inductee, 1991) and his partner Don McClung were operating a bicycle factory they named Colorado Cyclery. For a couple years they had been producing all kinds of bikes—road bikes, Ordinaries (high-wheelers or penny-farthings as they are known), and a very unique mountain bike called "Shortie." It had a 39.5" wheelbase, which was unheard of in mountain biking.
Now Mike came from a motorcycle background in his hometown of Colorado Springs. The Rust brothers were infamous for their wheeled skills, including racing on Ordinaries in contemporary races, and Mike was at the top. He traveled in and out of Crested Butte for a couple years back in ’80–’81 teaching me his finely tuned mechanical skills and racing knowledge, so whenever I could I would head over to Salida and go riding and catch up with my ol’ buddy. Again, Mike spent a lot of time in the moto world and believed strongly that the popular enduro motorbikes (dirt bikes) really had something going for them over mountain bikes. One was obviously suspension, but the other was the larger diameter front wheel with a smaller diameter rear wheel.
That same year is when the 700c Smoke was available and Mike and Don jumped quickly on this format for the front end of their Shorties. Fabricators extraordinaire were these two, so they incorporated both aspects of the enduro bike into theirs by taking the new RS-1 Rock Shox front fork and making it work with 700c rims. They extended the stanchions on the fork by making new ones out of chromoly, made a new brake arch for cantilever placement and even took the time to re-plate the stanchions in chrome so they would work smoothly with the RS-1 lower fork seals. This turned out to be one wild looking rig, with the 700c Smoke up front on the big rim and the fat Ritchey 26" x 2.35" mountain Z-Max on the back, but it worked and really seemed to make sense. It looked moto.
I still had a little of the "race jock" inside me, and since Don McClung was notorious for his racing ability we played cat and mouse on every downhill we came upon. After all, McClung was bragging how the big front wheel was so much better for running over obstacles and I was interested in seeing if he could keep up with my retro ass (I was rigid both mental and bike—hey, it was 1992). I won—McClung had two front flats in a matter of 10 minutes. The Smoke could not handle the rock-strewn Crest Trail at those speeds. To be fair though, Don and Mike demonstrated what the wheels could do and my mind started dreaming again.
That was the second week of July and within a few days I was down at the Tune Up ordering a Diamond Back Overdrive frame. I had spent the last 12 years dabbling with a 700c dirt bike and now there was an opportunity to test the waters again thanks to the Smoke tire. I wanted the Overdrive because it was 700c front and rear, but it was noticeably heavy and came with a straight bladed steel fork. Shake your hands right off the end of the bars, it would.
Jacob Heilbron (HOF Inductee, 2002) of Canadian mountain bike lore and owner of Kona Bikes had produced a Joe Murray (HOF Inductee, 1988) designed cyclocross bike and had outfitted it with a 700c version of his popular and affordable Project II mountain fork. It was a copy of the much more expensive and unavailable Type II fork made by Charlie Cunningham, the same Type II that was outfitted on Charlie’s 1980 "dirt racer." Jake the Snake sent me one for the Overdrive and I put the rest together—flat bars, the brand new Shimano under-the-bar thumb shifters (push-push style like what SRAM is offering today) and other assorted light parts of those days. I had many different experiences on this bike that summer, but the one that haunted me the most was repeated 58 times and ultimately led to the selling of my rig that winter. It was hasty but 58 flats in one summer was too much. I still regret it, but I needed the money. Slapping mosquitoes while fixing a flat is tolerable a couple times a season, but 58 times put me over the edge and that bike was gone. The tires just weren’t big enough. I was enchanted you might say by what I had experienced in the four months I rode it, enough to believe that if a mountain bike size tire casing came along I’d be right back at it, testing the theory. But this size casing was not to materialize for some time and the industry was very busy with suspension, mostly in the fork arena.
Now in the spring of ’94, I visited all my cycling friends around the Bay Area. One of the most predominate names in the business was my close friend Scot Nicol, owner and design genius of Ibis Cycles. His factory was in Sebastopol just north of Marin. I was staying with him for a couple days, riding at Annadel Park and catching up on industry info, when he told me Salsa Cycles was just down the street. I always admired Ross Schafer (HOF Inductee, 1991) and since he hadn’t been to Crested Butte for a few years, I thought I’d go see him in his element.
The shop was open but his employee said he was gone to get a bite to eat. So I stepped out front and noticed that right next door was Bruce Gordon’s shop. Bruce was in and showed me his set-up, a beautiful shop, well organized and cleaner than a nun’s mouth. He was working on custom racks that he made to go along with his custom touring bikes. A couple hours went by quickly as he told me his story and some of his theories, one of which really grabbed me. He was very disappointed with all the people who were out on the roads touring on mountain bikes. He was a touring connoisseur and didn’t understand why a rider would use a mountain bike with a much smaller wheel circumference over the tried and true 700c touring wheel. After all, with its size it could roll much easier and faster across the country. He did understand the durability of the mountain bike tire and its volume advantage, but knew that once the touring world was introduced to his new bike and new tire they would all come around.
‘I had one made’
"What’s this, a new tire?" I queried. He quickly pulled one out and handed it to me. It was a beauty eh, very similar to the 650b tire that Tom Ritchey used to use from Europe called Hakkapelitta. Now it was all coming to me and I mean in a flash. The words Bruce used that triggered it all were, "I couldn’t find a tire that was adequate in size and tread for touring on dirt roads, so I had one made." "So I had one made," well, HELLO! Ding Dong—one of my closest friends was one of the tire designers at WTB, Charlie Cunningham. I’ll get him to make me a tire in the size casing needed to make a big wheel mountain bike, duh. I stuck around for another hour or so just listening to Bruce’s logic and ideas.
One of Bruce Gordon’s Rock N Road bikes, with modified suspension fork.
It didn’t stop at the tire either. He took me into the frame shop again and showed me a bike he had just designed and had built two of. It was called a "Rock N’ Road" and it turned out that the fella who welded them was Wes Williams. Wes had been working for Scot Nicol for the last nine years at Ibis, where he learned fabrication, welding skills, design and frame building knowledge. He was obviously an artist as this Rock N’ Road was just beautiful. Turns out that Bruce and Wes did the same thing as Mike Rust and Don McClung had done a couple years before. They built their own fork crowns and stanchions on RockShox Mag 21 forks to be used with the 700c wheels and Bruce’s new 38mm tire. I thanked Bruce for his time and went back to say "Hi" to Ross Schafer before heading out.
Bruce certainly expanded my thinking and gave me some ideas. I was jazzed and immediately drove south to Charlie’s. Charlie is always ready to sit and talk bike stuff so I ran my request by him, probably so fast he didn’t catch on to what I was asking for but he still remembers the long-winded sales pitch. WTB was consuming every moment Charlie had in the early ’90s and it was a struggle just to make the prototype stuff he needed to get into the O.E.M. world. He explained the procedure of tire fabrication and was unsure if a tire that big could be made. Molding questions! My vacation was running out and I needed to get back to Crested Butte. I wrote a couple letters to Charlie (before email) that summer and finally in the fall at the Interbike tradeshow we talked again. He was too busy with other projects and now Mark Slate (HOF Inductee, 1992) was given sole tire design duty, so maybe I could ask him about it. Mark is very knowledgeable about tires and construction and did listen, but he too was very busy and didn’t really understand what I was asking for.
That year (1994) Wes Williams moved to Crested Butte to begin making Willits Brand Cycles. He set up shop and soon began building custom bikes; mountain and road bikes for the first three years, but he too had come to believe in the larger wheel theory that Bruce Gordon had introduced to him and started making his own version of the Gordon Rock N’ Road bike. He called them "28inchers." He continued to ride his Rock N’ Road on the trails around Crested Butte but ran into the same problem with flats that I had had. I remember one ride we did on a wonderful piece of trak in Taylor Park called the Timberline Trail that first summer he was in CB. We ended up waiting quite awhile for Wes at every junction because he just wasn’t able to run at the speeds that we were on our mountain bikes. I felt for him because I was just there a couple years before on my Overdrive bike—you could roll along but not at the speed you felt the most free.
[Willits New Sherrif, pictured. Read our review from Issue #84. -ed.]
I politely kept up my requests with Mark Slate at the next Interbike, and he and Charlie politely reminded me that it was more about sales and supply and demand than it was about just throwing money at a concept tire. No one quite got what I was wanting. I started bugging Moots founder Kent Eriksen (HOF Inductee, 1996) about making me a frame for this big wheel bike I wanted to design, and he just kept asking when he could make me a PsychoX, which is the Moots cyclocross bike.
Apparently Wes was also bugging Mark Slate about producing a tire for him, and I do mean bugging. Wes is an "in your face" personality, which was good because my approach had changed drastically over the years, ever since I was physically tossed from Gary Klein’s (HOF Inductee, 1992) booth in 1981. Back then the bike show was in Reno and Gary made these gorgeous road bikes out of 6061 aluminum. I was a little too aggressive asking and informing Gary about these fancy klunkers and he didn’t want to hear it. "Son, I’m sure your bike is fun for you to ride, but it will never amount to anything so leave me alone and get out of my booth," he said as he was holding the back of my neck and pushing me into the aisle.
But what size?
So Wes was doing me a favor, aggressively pushing Mark for a new tire, but perhaps we weren’t envisioning the same end product. Every time I asked Mark about the tire he would throw his hands up and say, "You want a tire that’s big, like 52mm in casing size, and Wes keeps asking me to make one that’s 47 or 48mm. What’s it gonna be?" I was frustrated. Charlie would ask me if the smaller size would fit my needs and I adamantly told him and Mark that if they made one in 47 or 48mm it would kill the whole big wheel mountain bike idea and that it would cost WTB a lot of money for maybe a year or two’s worth of interest, since that size would not be adequate enough to change people’s minds and yet again it would disappear from being used properly for mountain biking.
Conversations continued and still the numbers weren’t there; obviously it was tough to make it happen. I was busy with the Shimano Skunk Team at the time and my hands were quite full testing and riding standard stuff. I understood the bike business a little better now and knew why WTB was having a struggle with it, but I had an idea: Gary Fisher is a good friend of mine and he was popular enough in the mountain bike world to maybe get this done. His company already spec’d WTB tires on several of their bikes. I mentioned it to him a couple times and his response was positive. He said that he had seen Wes’s 28incher and had heard his rap on it more than once, and maybe there was something to it. My hopes were up. I gave Gary one more talk about size and what I envisioned and left it at that. That was the fall of ’98. By early February of ’99 I got a call from Steve Potts saying that there were going to be a handful of prototypes coming in soon. "What’s it like, when can I get ’em?" I asked. Pottsey couldn’t say—everything around the tire was being very close guarded. Well, like everything else in this darn industry it takes weeks longer than you’re told.
They finally arrive
I had a commitment in Seattle the first week of April for a television show doing a story on the Hall of Fame, and my wife and I decided we would drive south from there to visit friends and her family in the Bay Area. First stop was Mill Valley to check out WTB’s new facility. Freddy Falk pulls me aside and says to keep it cool, here was a pair of tires and to take care of them as there were only a dozen or so made. A couple for me, a couple for Wes, a few for WTB to work with and the rest were for Gary Fisher to experiment with. Gary had already asked Steve Potts to make him a testing frame and soon would be building wheels just for the experiment.
The guys at WTB had only played with the tires a day before we arrived and most of them really had no idea what they had in their hands. It was so big that in order to get one of the tires to fit in a frame, Steve Potts and his helper had to use an old mild steel frame that could be spread apart in the chainstays to hold the girth, and that had long slotted horizontal dropouts, with the axle pulled all the way to the back. The wheel would not go in the frame unless the tire was flat. We stuck around Marin for a few more days and then drove directly home to Crested Butte. I unpacked, spent the night and then the next day left for Steamboat Springs, Colorado. This is where my frame building guru Kent Eriksen lived and operated Moots Cycles (now of Eriksen Cycles). Like I said earlier, I had bent Kent’s ear on this bike ever since ’94 and he kept offering me a PychloX, so when I showed up at his place with the tires, his jaw dropped and all he could say was "Oh, now I get it." He sat down and went over my drawings, did his little Kent genius thing to them, started cutting the tubes and by May 10th, 1999, the first ever "Big Wheel Mountain Bike" was made.
It was a fully active YBB Ti frame with a Manitou 700c suspension fork. It had a whopping 50mm of travel up front and 30 to 32mm in the rear. I still remembered my roots for this bike and wanted to name it after Mike Rust and Don McClung’s moto looking bike, so I called it a Mooto-X (as in "motocross") to make a play on the words and give Kent credit for what he had just made.
When the tires finally showed up at Wes’ shop, I think he was actually quite surprised when he mounted one up and discovered the size of it. For starters it didn’t fit in any of the bikes he had made in the last couple years. His stays were way too narrow and fell quite short in length for the tires to fit in them. I could see that he really did want a 47 or 48mm tire. But Wes is a clever and artistic builder so he quickly started grinding on his dropouts and bending his stays to get one of his bikes rolling and ride these big beauties. He didn’t make a new frame to fit them until August because he was busy modifying all the other 28inchers he had built that could not fit the tires.
I got busy riding and testing, using a controlled environment to measure just about everything I could think of that would be positive or negative about these bigger wheels: uphill, downhill, cornering, braking, traction, speed and most important to me, overall control. I collected pages of data and in the end came up with the conclusion that there were many positives and I hadn’t yet found any negatives. If I remember correctly, several years later a couple students at a northern California university, Berkeley I believe, did their thesis on big wheels and concluded much the same as I had. I did discover that standard mountain bike gearing was not quite low enough, or didn’t feel the same to the legs, when getting the bike started or for maintaining momentum in slow uphill conditions. I quickly made adjustments to the gearing, along with a couple other little tricks, and this made the leg input feel good. I knew this was important because many who were going to be riding and sampling my bike would notice if it had an obvious drawback. I applied all the CSI info I could along with everything that Mike Rust and Charlie had taught me to make sure that the rider input didn’t change, but that the sensation or dynamics of the big wheels is what was noticed.
Which is better?
I could write pages with my opinion on how these bikes need to be built and assembled but that would be just that, my opinion. As I’ve learned, every rider feels they know what works best for them anyway. For now it was time to go out on the dirt to show what the bike could do. I chose to talk to only a few about all the dynamics involved; instead I let my riding say the most. I showed my bike to my neighbor Doug Bradbury (HOF Inductee, 1994) of Manitou fork fame and tried to explain the wheel dynamics. He hopped on it for a couple minutes, rode it around the block and then told me all the reasons it didn’t feel any different and how it was an unnecessary change—more suspension was the answer. That was 1999, but in 2005 when my little 5’4" wife started riding big wheels and clearing things on trails she never could before and giving Doug all he could handle on uphills and downhills, I think he took notice, changed his mind and finally built his first big wheel bike in 2006.
Same thing could be mentioned about Kent Eriksen, who had built the first ever big wheel mountain bike in ’99, yet didn’t ride one of his own creations until 2006 for one reason or another. And I’ll be honest, I talked Kent’s ear off about it for years, and like Bradbury he would come up with every reason why suspension could or was doing the same things as my big wheels were. I finally gave up and didn’t talk to anyone, just rode. It turned out to be very beneficial because Wes was talking up a storm. Wes was in the business to make frames and sell bikes, so who could blame him for verbalizing so much? I’m not involved that way so I chose to quietly go about testing and riding as much as I could to improve my knowledge of what exactly was going on with the wheels.
Still, I was surprised when it took so long for it to catch on. I’d lived through the klunker days and figured it would come around sooner or later, but it didn’t. I figured most mountain bikers would see the obvious advantage of a wheel this size over its smaller brother and immediately demand it. Over the last 20 years several popular sports have undergone changes in equipment used to widen the appeal and enhance the given sport: Tennis went to an oversized racquet years ago, making it much easier for beginners and recreational players. Golf clubs have done the same with tremendous results; take a look at the size of today’s drivers vs. one from just 15 years ago. The ski industry struggled to get wide shaped skis accepted, but once that technology turned mainstream it changed everything. Softball bats are bigger today because it has made it easier to hit the ball. Even ping pong balls have gotten two percent bigger for regulation play. I think in the big wheel case it just caught many who love what they already have off guard; that or they’re waiting for their buddies to try it first.
What took so long?
There were several reasons for the slow development. First, there was no availability to the masses. Moots’ Mooto-X, Willits’ New Sheriff, Carl Schlemowitz at Vicious Cycles and his Motivator, and Edwin Bull from Van Dessel with his first offering were for the most part the only bikes available that could handle the big tire in the year 2000. It wasn’t until 2001 that Fisher Bikes introduced their first version, the hardtail Two Niner. Most people have heard the story of Gary Fisher and his claim to the mountain bike, but his credit should instead be noted in "supplying" the bike. Gary took the mountain bike to the world in 1980 before demand was there, and here again with big wheels, he recognized a great idea and with mass production offered it to the world where there was no demand and little knowledge that it even existed. No doubt Gary has always been a man with vision.
Tires were the second reason for the slow start. That first tire, the WTB Nanoraptor, didn’t have everyone convinced it was really a mountain bike tire because of its low profile knobs. It had the size, but even I felt it was lacking side knobs for hard cornering. Again Gary Fisher is the one who deserves the credit here. If it weren’t for Gary saying he would pay for the molding costs, we all would have waited a lot longer for the first big wheel tire. He’s the one who could talk the numbers with WTB and with that they took the chance to do the sample molding of the Nano. I remember going back out to Fairfax in November of ’99 to do the Turkey Day ride. I stayed with Gary and went riding a couple days ahead of the very old festival. Gary swapped off with me on part of the uphill and part of the downhill so he could try a big wheel bike for the first time. He still hadn’t gotten his frame from Steve Potts and had only built up his wheels a couple weeks before. I asked him at the time why the Nano? He replied that if he was going to really test this theory to its fullest extent, he wanted to compare apples to apples and the Nano was what he was riding at the time on his standard mountain bike. Made sense to me. Now there are 20 or more tires on the market for big wheels and even more rolling our way. It seems the tire problem is solved.
Suspension fork availability was next as a detour-ant. The handful of luckies to have a big wheel were riding around on Manitou 700c forks. They were 45 to 50mm of elastomer sprung suspension with no damping and fairly long stanchion/fork legs. I rode mine like I did my Manitou standard fork, fast, but they were flexy and whippy and had so little travel. But hey, they held the big tire and got us started; problem was they were already discontinued from Answer. The boys at Moots were laughing at my expense over my intro of the Mooto-X. It was just another "What the hell is Don up to now?" joke.
But Butch (production manager at Moots) seemed to think they wanted to offer it in their 2000 catalogue, so he had a dilemma on his hands. What fork would be available to their customers? He quickly phoned Dan White of White Brothers and asked if Dan could take their popular XC 1 mountain bike fork, extend the legs/stanchions and make a fork available for this Mooto-X thing. Thankfully Dan was open to it, but said he wanted a little testing to happen prior to production. Butch gave him my name and phone number since I was the only one with a bike at the time, and out of those phone conversations came the White Brothers CX-1. It had 70mm of air sprung travel on 32mm oversized stanchions that were attached to a stiff extruded 2024 aluminum crown. Dan made two of them, one for Wes and one for me. Now this was going to take us places. The CX-1 was too expensive for Fisher’s production bike in 2001, so Gary involved Marzocchi of Italy. Gary only wanted 40mm of travel up front on the Two Niner so that’s what he spec’d and got. It was a disappointing fork from the travel standpoint, as well as heavy enough to be used as a boat anchor, but it opened the door across the U.S. for Fisher dealers to stock these bikes on their showroom floors and that was more important than any component up to this point. With the explosion of big wheel bikes at the ’06 Interbike show, many manufacturers are on board fully now.
Getting it right
I suspect frame design was the third drawback to this slow acceptance. The handful of riders who were out lending their bikes to others to try, while still getting a feel for it all themselves, were on Willits Brand, the others were on Mooto-Xs. Here were these first "28inchers" that were basically a similar version of Gordon’s Rock N’ Road, never designed for this size wheel and more of a touring geometry than mountain, that also had to be heavily modified and tweaked so the big wheels could even be stuffed into them. I wanted to build a frame and bike around the wheels, not take the wheels and stuff them in a mountain bike; Kent Eriksen understood and built mine to the millimeter of what I’d asked for but when the first Mooto-X offering catalogued to the public, they weren’t built the same way.
Without the right backbone (frame), a lot of riders were not feeling and getting the benefits of the big wheels, and I believe this really slowed the concept down. I’m sure there’s a Fisher dealer or two who could write about the ’01 Two Niner and the ’02 big wheel Sugar and how many were turned off by those bikes. And I’m just as guilty in a way, because being a Cunningham disciple I built that first one up with drop bars, not exactly a mountain look. I understand that everyone is wired differently and that there are different needs for different parts of the countryside, but thank goodness the wheels are as dynamic as they are, because even with all this dancing around on frame configurations, customers were trying them and for the most part liking them. That’s a credit to the wheels and where we stand today. The canvas still has room on it and different colors of paint always appeal to more who seem intrigued with the art.
Speaking of credit, I hope I’ve given it to those who’ve been involved. This story is about the wheels and where they came from, not about one person or a particular racer. It’s intriguing that the first mountain bike movement started in Marin and Crested Butte, it’s incredible that this second wave, or format if you will, started again in Crested Butte and Marin. Big wheels have popped up in isolated areas throughout the country for the last 8 years. Dave Agapito took what he was shown in CB and spread it to the Grand Junction/Fruita area of Colorado along with prevalent forum writer Mike Curiak; Carl Schlemowitz at Vicious Cycles won the World Mud Bog Championship three years in a row on a big wheel and turned many from the east coast on to them. Artistic frame builder Jeff Jones in Medford, Oregon rolled the concept to the northwest area. Then there are all the guys in Bloomington, Minnesota at Surly and QBP who, though they weren’t sure it was ready for their complete attention, jumped on their big wheel singlespeeds and spread the good word. As with all new evolutions it is the accumulation of different people with the same enthusiasm, passion, and mind set that bring it to the public’s attention and make it popular. I may have made the first one but my influences came from many.
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