Wherever Gary Fisher goes, eyes follow. It’s a rare sunny day in London and as the mountain bike pioneer strides through Soho, tailored head-to-toe in pinstripes with his moustache coiffed into artful handlebars, passersby turn to look.
At sixty-one, San Francisco-based Gary Fisher rides about 250-300 miles a week. He may be the man responsible for naming and developing the mountain bike, but, like any innovator, he’s fascinated by all kinds of two-wheelers and the cultures that surround them. A prolific Twitterer, Fisher travels the world to meet different bike communities and campaign for riders’ rights.
Let’s go back to Marin County in the late ’60s. You were a teenager coming of age in hippiedom. Can you describe the culture that gave birth to mountain biking?
I was there at ground zero. But man, it was killing me. Timothy Leary’s son Jack Leary was a really good friend of mine. Owsley Stanley, “the bear”, used to make all the LSD, he was a really good friend of mine. Jerry Garcia taught me how to fucking roll a joint. I met those guys at a bike race called the Tour Del Mar in Pescadero in 1966. It was Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. […] I was doing light shows at the time but it wasn’t really working for me as a real profession and the drug thing started to get to me. I went on a bike ride with a friend – rode about ten miles and had to sleep the rest of the day. I was about nineteen. And I thought, screw this, I’m getting out of this scene. […] December 1969 and the dream was over. People left the city in droves. So I got back on my bike. I got back into racing and within a year I was first category again.
So the bike scene was part of that countercultural fallout?
Look, there were totally straight guys and then there were the freaks! They wouldn’t let me compete when I was a junior because I had long hair… back in the ’60s, people wouldn’t let you in restaurants if you had long hair. When Jimi Hendrix sings, ‘I’m gonna let my freak flag fly!’ it was truly an act of defiance y’know? […] I first rode off-road on a cyclo-cross bike when I was about sixteen. But you ride your cross bike really fast down the mountains and you get flats all the time. So I’d go out with tyres over my shoulders and end up patching tyres for three hours and riding for two hours, it was ridiculous. I had some friends in high school, the Larkspur Canyon Gang, it was a scene. We had drum circles – a bunch of stupid stoners all drumming like crazy in a circle – we’d do dogball and then they’d do things like derby out in Mountain Tamalpais, on a section of fire road, at night. The first hour would be cocktail hour – we’d haul a keg of beer out there and you’d ride around with a cup of beer and it was uncool to spill anything. […] It was sort of a drunken fest. But the point is, we had the golden key to the mountain. There was a huge part of Marin County that was just open space. In the ’60s the hippies used to go out there and camp. Anybody could go up there. So then they put up chains. But you could still take a bike up there and the Canyon Gang would ride really fast downhill on found bikes. There was no technology to it. It was all coaster-brake bikes with no front brake or anything. […] I thought, this is so much fun! But these things need gears, because my cross bike had gears. And they need brakes! So I went out and found drum brakes from tandems and I made a bike. In September of 1974 I made my first real clunker. I made about twenty that year for different people. It was all found objects cobbled together, motorcycle brake levers, motorcycle cables and things like that. I perfected this black art and there were other guys in town doing it too.
“We scared the shit out of them! It was like, here’s a bunch of long-haired freaks hurtling down a mountain really fast.”
But this new scene was met with hostility from The Sierra Club and Audubon Society that had fought to save the mountain environment in Marin?
We scared the shit out of them! It was like, here’s a bunch of long-haired freaks hurtling down a mountain really fast. And these guys had literally saved the mountain. They were getting old, they were in their sixties and seventies, and the thought of us being out there would keep them up at night. They’d go out on a hike and they were worried as shit that we were gonna kill them! We failed to, in all those years, kill a single hiker. Haha, but really, they just wanted to snuff this thing out right in the butt. They banned us from all the singletrack there.
A lot of singletrack in Marin County is still illegal to ride on, right?
There are more and more now and it’s because all kinds of people ride mountain bikes but more importantly it’s because of the High School Racing League. That was started by a math teacher over in Berkeley, Matt Fritzinger, and all seven high schools in Marin have teams now – it’s an amazing thing. It takes all these kids that aren’t into team sports, individual types, and really caters to them. A few of the high school teams are larger than football teams. A few have equal girls and boys. And the insurance actuaries have told us that cross-country mountain-biking is safer than any field sport for a kid. Because you don’t have someone running after you trying to tackle you!
It was always your vision and dream to take mountain biking to the masses. But what do you think of the way the sport has developed?
Well, it’s totally changed. In the ’70s a bike was considered to be a piece of regulation sporting equipment. Bikes were the same, the same, the same. At the end of the ’70s, people just started trying all kinds of new stuff. […] In the ’80s came a whole bunch of people from the industry because there was money to be made from new, different bikes, and innovation. And now? The rate of change is faster than it ever has been because there are more people, more engineers, more bright ideas, than ever before.
But do you think some of that DIY spirit gets lost through mainstreaming?
No because you’ve got things like The Handmade Bike Show and those guys are doing great these days, coming out with all kinds of crazy bikes. It’s always been there but now people appreciate it more and will pay for it. […] There’s off-the-peg mass-produced stuff, but the other side is definitely growing. There are ideas.
What excites you the most in the bike world right now?
The most exciting thing to me right now is that we’re going to redo all of our cities because they’re broken, big time. Our cities are too dense. The transport systems are broken. […] The automobile industry causes us between 35,000 and 40,000 deaths a year in the United States. Right now, the congestion is such in many cities that the average speed for the average automobile is about 8mph. So, this gives us tremendous opportunity in the bike world. Quite honestly, my generation doesn’t want to change. They’re incapable. They’re a mess. It’s a minority of them that can ride a bike. I ride about 250/300 miles a week. My company say, ‘You go out and ride as much as you want.’ I’ve never had a nine-to-five job in my entire life. And I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to live that way. I don’t want to work for the man. […] We’ve got a broken transit system in the US and I really want to change things. Who gave these guys permission to drive on a 100 per cent of my streets, y’know? They’re dangerous, they’re poisonous, they drive distracted, they tailgate, and they speed. Don’t tell me I run stop signs y’know?! Those guys have a proven track record of death and disease. The sedentary lifestyle, that’s the biggest cause of death and disease in the last century. We’ve not really weathered the industrial revolution very well at all. The notion was that it was supposed to give you freedom and it has not. […] I’m sort of an enigma in that I believe in freedom but man, discipline will set you free. It’s practise. The body and the mind like to perfect things that way.
So you’re optimistic about the next generation coming through?
The younger generation, twenty, thirty up to forty, they all ride bikes ’cos they know all this [advertising] stuff is a lie. They don’t have to have a car and they know a car is a bad idea. It’s really expensive and it takes longer. People don’t want to live in the suburbs anymore because it’s like man, this is my life, and I’m sitting in this car listening to stupid radio for forty minutes each way, sucking up all these fumes. Young people are realising, I wanna be where the real life is. You can go online and stuff, but that only tells you about what’s going on. Go out and do it! Go be a part of it, go have an effect! And the kids are really starting to realise this. […] Teenagers are told if they do well in school, they’ll be king of the world. They get out of college, graduate top of their class, and they can’t find a job. So many people are moving back in with their parents. Nobody did that when I was young! When I was seventeen I moved out, that was it. It was easy to get a job. We didn’t work nearly as hard as you guys do now. We had time. And that’s what’s getting eaten now: people’s time. And that’s why they wanna live in the cities because they save that time. [Young people now] are trying to carve out more time for themselves but the inequity just keeps getting bigger. Thomas Jefferson is rolling in his grave saying, ‘Revolution, revolution!’ […] The big thing for me now is going around speaking and talking about bike transit. I’m really involved with our city officials. I didn’t dream I would be able to do this. I don’t necessarily come up with the ideas, but I make them come true.