Gary Fisher: down from the mountain

Mountain biking scenester sees fun and profit in city cycling trend

It’s not unusual for a few of us at Momentum to gather around a table at Gastown’s Irish Heather, order some meat pies and Kilkennies, and brainstorm on cures for the common car. What made it unusual one rainy night last November was that the most fervent ideas came from Gary Fisher.

Fisher was in town for the weekend to help Cap’s Bicycle Shop celebrate their 75th birthday (they were the first shop in Canada to carry Gary Fisher’s fledgling line of mountain bikes back in 1980) and as he put it, “I picked up a copy of Momentum at a bike shop, read it, and went “wow!”

“It felt really good,” relates the bike industry veteran on why he requested a meet-up, “It was people who had the right attitude ~ and I thought I’d just try to investigate.” Being “investigated” by Gary Fisher is kind of like being offered a drink by a Sony Music A&R rep. The man’s talking your language and you’re charmed by the attention, but you kind of wonder where his hands have been.

Same place as yours, it turns out: wrapped around bicycle grips and bullhorns. Only, he’s Gary Fisher and he literally invented the term “mountain bike”. He’s very successfully sold the mountain bike lifestyle to the world-at-large, and now he says he’s wants to do the same for urban cycling.

“Okay,” you say as the waiter slides a fresh pint in front of you, “I’m listening.”

~ ~ ~

By the time Gary Fisher dragged his Shelby Traveler up Mount Tam to join Joe Breeze and the rest of the dirt-racing gang in 1973 (see Momentum #23, Aug/Sept 2006), he’d already competed in road, track and cyclocross and had already been suspended for wearing his hair too long. You could say that his intense dedication to ~ and defiance of ~ traditional bike infrastructure gave Fisher the “king or kook” reputation that follows him today.

“Bike people get used to that,” he says of himself and others, “not fitting in, being the outcast and doing what they do because it’s the right thing to do.” He reflects, “It seems the way things get done in society is when they become popular.”

Take mountain biking. Neither he nor his Bay area buddies could have dreamed back in the 70’s that their retrofitted clunker bikes would create a mountain biking industry. Fisher was only 29 when he started building bikes under the name “MountainBikes” but he made sure he sustained the sport as it grew. He helped found the National Off-Road Bicycle Association, sponsored winning women’s and men’s teams, racked up a shelf of awards and titles, and by the time he sold the “Gary Fisher” name to Trek Bicycles in 1993, he had created one of the most recognized brands in recreational cycling.

With Trek taking over day-to-day business, Fisher could let his hair down again and think up new things to do to bikes. Commented Bicycling magazine on Fisher’s relaxed style at the time, “The guy makes a living just being Gary Fisher. I mean, how many people can say that they get paid to drive a purple Lexus with flames, wear Paul Smith suits and ride all over the world? One.”

And one of the ways Fisher continues to make a living is by scouting fresh bike. “I’m the eyes and ears for the big boat, the big corporation, Trek,” explained Fisher dryly on the phone from his Marin county home. “I’m known for that within the company and I try to give a realistic assessment of what’s going on, what’s going to happen and what we need to do.”

In Vancouver, what he saw going on was something he hadn’t seen for a while: “An attitude of fun overall. In the major bike world ~ with the big numbers and the big players, you forget. The next thing you know, you lose your charm and it’s not easy selling anything when you’ve lost your charm.”

It’s as incongruous hearing Fisher discuss bike fun and bottom line in the same sentence as it is riding with a chain-smoker. “It’s a dichotomy that I’m in,” he admits, “I’m a bike person and bike people try to believe that we don’t trade in the seven deadly sins all the time…” But he does, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “A lot more people in this world could really profit by riding a bike and I don’t shy away from that… but replacing that thing that sits on the driveway ~ now, that’s a huge undertaking I think we’re capable of.”

Ask what it would take to make that happen, and Fisher gets downright practical. To start, support bike activism. “Encourage activists to start asking for more, and knowing what ‘more’ is. Things get done because they have big plans, but plans need money”. Second, maintain bike paths. “It’s simple things like keeping bike riders to a certain portion of the street. Keep it the smoothest and most debris-free part and run a street cleaner over it once in a while.” Third, initiate route programs. “You have to be able to find your way around as a bike rider. There are dozens of [programs], and someone is doing it somewhere else in the world ~ look at what might work for you.”

Fourth, keep it simple. “The idea is to get out of ‘the guys in the know’ and more into ‘anybody can ride a bike and it will function for you.'” Fifth, don’t preach to the choir. “The real growth is in convincing people who don’t ride bikes, to ride bikes.”

If you believe Mr. Fisher is stating the obvious, then please open your hymnbooks to page 160. According a recent study commissioned by Shimano to increase their market share (translation: create more cyclists), 160 million Americans who hadn’t been on bikes since they were kids admitted that they loved cycling ~ or more accurately, writes Catherine Fredman in Hemispheres Magazine (February 2007), “They loved their memory of it.”

The subjects in the study connected cycling with simple pleasure and enjoyment, but got a wake-up when they walked into the gear-and-performance environment of a bike shop. Writes Fredman, “these people were just turned off by cycling. They weren’t seeing a way to enjoy a bike the way they used to.” In response, Shimano has captained a fleet of simple but modern Coasting bikes, ordered training videos for bike shop staff, and partnered with the bike industry and communities to promote cycling.

And what will Gary Fisher do? Pretty well what he’s always done: influence, persuade, and consult. At Trek, he says he’ll influence the company and show how things can be changed. In the bike industry, he’ll persuade dealers that everyday cyclists can create “a real scene change.” In communities, he’ll consult with activists and help cross-pollinate programs.

“There needs to more of us to say, ‘Here’s what you do on these bikes, and how they can liberate you.’ That’s where you guys comes in,” he suggests of Momentum, “It’s a big responsibility, but it’s a wonderful opportunity too. The times are right, it’s starting to light on fire, and people want that freedom.”

Is it odd discussing change, liberation and freedom with Gary Fisher? You bet. You feel like you’ve both pushed clunker bikes up a Mount Tamalpais fire road, but then you realize he’s been up there a while. He’s standing over his bike, hands wrapped around plastic handlebar grips, and he’s motioning down the road. “C’mon,” he says, “Follow me ~ I’ve done this before.” He pushes down on a pedal and you follow, hoping he really is out to start a revolution, again.

Published in the April/May 2007 issue of Momentum Magazine.