From Repack to Rwanda – Mountain bike history on display

A 1983 Cunningham R1 built in Fairfax, Calif., for Charlie’s future wife, multiple NORBA champion Jacquie Phelan. Weight is 27 lbs.

By Gary J. Boulanger

Thirty-two years ago, Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly were selling more than 1,000 Mountainbikes-brand bicycles from their shop in Fairfax, Calif. At the same time, the San Francisco Airport Commission collaborated with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco to create an exhibition program at the San Francisco International Airport (SFO). In 1999, SFO Museum became the first to receive accreditation from the American Association of Museums, and is a widely imitated model for museums operating in public arenas. Today, SFOM features more than twenty galleries throughout the airport terminals displaying a rotating schedule of art, history, science, and cultural exhibitions.

And from now until February 2013, the main exhibition is focused on mountain bikes.

“Repack to Rwanda: The Origins, Evolution, and Global Reach of the Mountain Bike” is on display in the international terminal of SFO, and a private party was held August 4 to bring together many of the original pioneers of the sport, including Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly, Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchey, Keith Bontrager, Steve Potts, Otis Guy, Erik Koski, Charlie Cunningham, and Jacquie Phelan.

Jack Bissell’s 1981 Mountainbike, built by Tom Ritchey. Weight is 33 lbs.

The exhibit, curated by Tim O’Brien, begins with a restored 1941 Schwinn Admiral DX balloon-tire bike, an example of the bikes Kelly, Fisher, Guy, and Breeze would convert to a ‘klunker’ to ride down Mt. Tamalpais in the early to mid 1970s. Other similar-era klunkers in the display include Breeze’s modified 1941 Schwinn B.F. Goodrich and Guy’s modified 1941 Schwinn Texas Special, both stripped of their original fenders, racks, chain guards and kickstands. Fisher’s modified 1940s Schwinn ballooner included tandem drum brakes, derailleurs, and thumb shifters, plus a triple T.A. Specialties crankset.

According to O’Brien, the mountain bike was introduced as a possible subject for exhibition at SFOM in 2008, but only developed sporadically because his schedule requires that he and his team work on multiple exhibitions at any given time.

“The first step in our process is identifying potential lenders and learning more about the subject and any objects that may be available to help us address its history,” he explained. “That my colleague Ramekon O’Arwisters reached Joe Breeze near the beginning of our search was extremely fortuitous, as we quickly realized we had a guide who not only made this history, but cared deeply about historical accuracy. Joe’s assistance is identifying and locating appropriate objects for exhibit was critical, and we remain very grateful for his dedication to this exhibition.”

A 1990 Bontrager OR with composite fork crown.

Spokesman for a generation

Breeze, whose Breezer #1 bike is hanging in the Smithsonian Institute, was impressed with what he saw at SFOM Friday night. “I really like the chronology starting off with the vintage 1941 Schwinn,” he said. “That bike is all original and shiny new as it might have sat on the showroom floor in 1941. The bike is right next to the Schwinns that Otis and I modified in 1973. This allows people to see exactly where our clunkers were derived from.

“There has never been such a complete collection of historic mountain bikes, and many of the bikes in the show have extraordinary provenance,” Breeze added. “Since I was guest curator, my months of immersion in the project muted my appreciation of the final product—the actual installation at the airport. The SFO Museum did an amazing job, first gathering the materials and then displaying them. I really enjoyed working with Tim O’Brien, with his deep interest in and respect for history and his great attention to detail.”

Klunkers to carbon

Considering the fixed dimensions of his gallery spaces, O’Brien needed to decide on a focus very early in the process. One of his first decisions was that, rather than present a specific time capsule, he wanted to provide a historical glimpse at this subject beginning with the modified clunkers in Marin County and ending in the present, with carbon machines on display from Specialized, Gary Fisher, Breezer, and Santa Cruz. According to O’Brien, although there is no single moment-of-beginning for something as universally appealing as riding a bicycle off-road, and one’s definition of mountain biking will determine their own view of its history, the Marin County group was taking its bikes off-road and downhill at a significantly different level than anyone else at this time, and he was very comfortable beginning the exhibition with their story and what they were doing at Repack.

“After addressing the local roots of modern mountain biking, it would have been impossible to present a coherent timeline had we tried to include what was happening in all other locations at any given point in time—Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Colorado, certainly the really interesting work of Chris Chance out in Massachusetts—and I hope visitors to our exhibition understand that,” O’Brien added. “Fortunately for us, the fact that so many of the Marin County pioneers and other Northern California bike designers and builders continued to push the bike’s evolution in such fascinating ways allowed us to keep our focus regional.”

Based on last year’s numbers, O’Brien estimates that well over two million SFO visitors will pass these galleries during the seven-month exhibition.

“While we can’t determine exactly how many are stopping to view the show, the exposure is obviously tremendous,” he said. “We’re very excited to share this story with so many travelers.”

Soulcraft’s Sean Walling (left) and Steve Potts in front of the SFO Museum exhibit.

What goes in, what gets left out

With regards to the frustration of "leaving things behind," O’Brien acknowledges all the work that was done before and after a particular period of work highlighted in the exhibition.

“Case in point, in our timeline we show an example of Steve Potts’ beautiful craftsmanship from 1988, but we did not have the space to illustrate the exquisite work he was doing prior, after, and presently,” he explained. “We’re exhibiting Otis Guy’s modified Schwinn from 1974, but none of his hand-crafted frames from the ensuing decades. Scot Nicol’s early and important involvement is referenced in the text, but his company’s work is only visually represented by the 1997 Ibis Bow-Ti.

“And Keith Bontrager’s archives are just fascinating, speaking to much more than the examples of his work we were able to present. The level of generosity on the part of the participants was remarkable. They shared so many great images and drawings and information, that if viewed together, can really help someone understand the motivation and evolution of one’s work. It’s folly to think we can ‘represent’ an artist’s body of work in a five-foot window and with less than 300 words of explanatory text. But I’m hopeful that this exhibition provides some sense of the individual or company’s impact at a particular point in this history, and that those who are interested, will pursue this subject in greater depth.”

Several mountain bike pioneers gathered at the San Francisco International Airport museum on August 4, 2012, including the Koski family, Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly, Jeff Lindsay, Tom Ritchey, Otis Guy, Jacquie Phelan and Gary Fisher.

Among the highlights for O’Brien included locating the Kestrel Nitro, just 30 miles down the road at the de Saisset Museum in Santa Clara.

“The story about the work I did on the Kestrel Nitro, the first Rockshox forks, and the first V-brakes gets told,” Bontrager told me after the party. “We even found some of the original drawings I did. From an ‘evolution of the species’ point of view I think it’s cool to see that part of the story come out. I put a lot of work and thought into those designs, and they showed the way on what followed for a long time.

“Tim and his staff did an amazing job. They handle a lot of very old, rare items in their daily routine so they’ve got it down. Joe Breeze deserves a lot of credit too. He was their idea guy, the one who knew what to look for and where. The novelty in their presentation is the span of mountain bike history it covers. There’s plenty of the original Klunkers. It’s cool that there is so much of the old bikes and photos to tell that story.”

Tom Ritchey and his Rwanda coffee cargo bike, below a real Rwanda wooden bike.

According to Bontrager, O’Brien and Breeze took it further and showed where bikes went after that, beyond the stone age of the sport.

“That increased the quantity of information and the complexity of their task by a ton,” he explained. “Think about it: the original bikes were replicas of Schwinns with touring and BMX parts hung on them. After that we started developing bikes and parts from the ground up. There’s a lot more work involved to flesh out the latter.

“Extending the historical range in the exhibit means a few things to me. Some details of the Bontrager steel hardtails we worked so hard on get attention: that’s very cool. And thanks to Eric Rumpf, who supplied the bike shown there; he told me he still rides it a lot! We built them to last, and that one is more than 20 years old now; I guess we got it right.

“Other than that there were quite a few highlights for me, too many to list in detail,” he added. “The restored ’41 Schwinn was amazing. So was the Rwandan coffee bike. From the creativity and clever use of resources point of view, the coffee bike steals the show.”

O’Brien was impressed and humbled by the reception and cooperation of his participants

“It certainly helped that the project had the blessing of Joe Breeze, whose record of accomplishment and integrity commands so much respect,” he said. “I enjoyed meeting Don and Erik Koski and learning more about the valuable role their Cove Bike Shop played in the early days of this history up there in Tiburon; meeting the incomparable Jacquie Phelan and quickly realizing why, on or off the bike, others just can’t keep up with her. And I think anyone who has had the pleasure will understand when I say that intersecting with Charlie Cunningham has been meaningful on a level where words fail.” Potts agreed.

“One of the real highlights was to see how into all of the museum crew really got totally immersed into the project, you could see that everyone of them really understood the passion that drove all of us, it was clearly contagious, as the whole experience was and is for all of us,” the Mill Valley native explained.

“I thought all the setup and artifacts were awesome,” Guy added. “Very well done and thought out. My impression was that the more SFOM worked on it, the more they were inspired.”

Inspiration on wheels

Mike Varley, owner of Black Mountain Cycles in Point Reyes Station, California, a small town north of Fairfax, enjoyed the camaraderie of the evening. He took the spirit of the exhibit one step further.

“For me, one of the highlights was seeing friends who had flown in from out of state and others who I hadn’t seen in years,” he said. “I’m pretty lucky that I get to see a lot of these people on a somewhat regular basis, and it was nice seeing them all in one place. The bikes, of course, were awesome. The next day, about 15 friends who had come out to the reception, met up in Fairfax and we did a loop on Mt. Tam’s trails on our vintage mountain bikes and ended the ride with a run down Repack. The perfect topping to a fun weekend honoring the mountain bike.”

At the end of this process, the strongest overall impression O’Brien had was the joy and excitement all these mountain bike pioneers must have experienced in the wide-open days of the earliest part of this history, not just in Marin County or in Northern California, but everywhere it happened.

“Before marketing campaigns and money and patent fights and the like, the sheer joy of experiencing something so thrilling and so magical, and knowing that what you were doing made it possible to share that joy with so many others,” he said. “I think anybody who has experienced the pleasure of riding a bike off-road should pause and think about the real sources of all this.”

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