As many times as I’ve written about Gary Fisher, I’ve yet to actually talk about his vintage bikes. He’s often referred to as one of the fathers of the mountain bike, even though he didn’t actually weld the frames himself. Even so, his bikes are highly sought after, innovative, and just plain cool as we’ll see.
Gary was an integral part of the Repack scene in California with Charlie Kelly, Joe Breeze, Tom Ritchey, and several others you probably wouldn’t know. In 1979 he started Mountainbikes with Kelly and Tom Ritchey. They only lasted until 1983, but Gary started his own company that same year. Unlike Ritchey or Breeze, he wasn’t making the frames himself, but he definitely knew what worked, so he got good people to make frames for him, like Tom Teesdale.
Things clearly went well for Gary, as he was importing frames from Taiwan by 1988. In 1991, he sold the company to Anlen of Taiwan, but stayed on as president. In 1993, Trek bought Fisher from Anlen, and ran them as a mostly independent line until 2010 when Fisher became just a name on a special series of Trek bikes. Then in 2014, Fisher the bicycle simply disappeared, with not one word from Trek – or from anyone else judging from the searches I’ve tried – to commemorate it.
A truly sad end to a truly cool company.
Fisher loved to push the envelope of bike design. In 1989 he introduced the Evolution headset which featured a 1 1/4″ head tube, rather than the standard 1″ head tube. I believe he did this because he wanted to make lighter forks from aluminium and titanium instead of steel, and needed larger diameter head tubes for the forks to be strong enough.
The 1991 Montare had a curved seat tube and elevated chainstays to improve climbing. The 1991 Mt. Tam came equipped with the revolutionary Rock Shox suspension fork. In 1992 the RS-1 blew minds with a Mert Lawwill (a motorcycle legend that would go on to design the Schwinn Straight 8 and Yeti Lawwill DH) designed rear suspension, disc brake, and linkage fork. There was really nothing else like it at the time.
Then there was the Richard Cunningham designed CR-7, with an aluminium front triangle bolted to a steel rear end. Meant to give you the best of both worlds; a stiff front end for maximum power transfer, and a resilient rear end for a much less punishing ride. Still, for me, one the coolest bikes ever made. Cunningham would use this design on his own Mantis XCR, and the Nishiki Alien.
It’s hard to know what exactly Gary did in the company after Trek took over. He appeared at trade shows and rode a lot – he came to St. Albert for a group ride not too long ago in fact – but who knows how much input he had on bike design.
Except for one thing.
One really big thing.
In 1981, Geoff Apps in the UK contacted Fisher and Kelly about a bike he had developed using a Nokian tire in 700c x 47 size. There were intrigued, but everything Fisher and Kelly worked on used 26″ wheels, parts for the bigger wheels just didn’t exist.
It must have made an impression though, because after using his Trek leverage to get WTB to make some fat 700c tires, he convinces Trek to bring the Supercaliber 29er to market in 2002. It took a couple years, but eventually, Fisher’s big wheel bikes take off. The rest of the market follows with better rims, lighter wheels, and more tire choices. And the rest, is history.
26″ wheel bikes are now virtually dead. 29″ wheel bikes own the racing and recreational markets, and there are very good big wheel trail and enduro bikes too. And not long after 29ers proved themselves, companies looked at 27.5″ wheels, and found them to be a great compromise between the two sizes.
All serious enduro and DH race bikes have 27.5″ wheels now.
Gary Fisher didn’t invent the 29er, and he didn’t invent the mountain bike, but it’s hard to imagine where we would be now without his pushing the industry. It’s too bad Trek didn’t a bit more reverence for him.