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A Band of Renegades Reinvent the Bicycle

Trying to figure out a way to survive bone-jarring downhill rides, mountain bikers turned a hobby into big business--and transformed an industry.

December 20, 1997|DAVID FERRELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Out of Bounds: Far from jam-packed stadiums and the media glare, they pursue sport with a zealous abandon. Some are adrenaline junkies, chasing thrills at breakneck speed; others are tough-as-nails masochists, enduring 100-mile footraces across the desert. They clash in bone-jarring physical combat, or race souped-up, outlandishly designed machines over junk cars and moguls.

In this occasional series, The Times examines their world--the new frontier of extreme sports: the performers and the entrepreneurs, the social forces and market trends, the way these contests fit into the fabric of our culture.

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Few contraptions are more deceptive. From five yards away, the bicycle is a no-brainer, a model of simplicity. But up close, moving fast, it becomes a teetering physics lab of forces and counterforces, an engineering puzzle more confounding than a spider web: angles, stress points, cables, levers, whirling hubs and spokes, a chain leaping up and down sets of sprockets.

Countless tinkerers and inventors have toiled for generations to perfect a gadget that the Encyclopaedia Britannica calls "the most efficient means yet devised to convert human energy into propulsion." Follow the jagged line of its evolution over the last two centuries and you find bikes of all types and sizes, from chainless big-wheelers and iron-framed velocipedes to clunky old Schwinns and banana-seated Stingrays and anorexic 10-speeds.

Then you come to an out-and-out phenomenon, a mutation 20 years ago that changed the biking world. Like the personal computer, the mountain bike was one of those advances so stunning it started a chain reaction: a multibillion-dollar parade of ever-faster machines, spiffier designs, the technological improvements piling up one on top of another on top of another.

It came out of nowhere, a product of the counterculture--invented by hippies, no less, a ragtag cast of pot smokers and Haight-Ashbury drifters who barely got through high school. A bunch of them, in the early 1970s, began taking old clunkers up to the top of Mt. Tamalpais, in Marin County, and hurtling down over rocks and ruts at breakneck speed.

Guys like Gary Fisher, who flaunted a sniper's self-assurance and hair like a ragged windsock, and Joe Breeze, cool as the winds off the bay, fixed up their bikes with triple chainrings and heavy-duty brakes and custom-built frames. They dispensed with fenders and chain guards and adapted their machines to the rigors of the mountains. What they built they sold to their friends. They inspired other builders. Their brainstorms helped to create the light, durable machines that now account for more than 60% of the bicycle market. They created more than a new bike; they established a lifestyle, a hard-bitten society that would come to have its own heroes, its own fractious rivalries, its awkward and persistent clashes with other outdoorsmen, notably hikers and horseback riders.

The mountain bike's influence reached across a wide spectrum: It was a bestseller among millions of riders who never climbed anything steeper than a driveway, and it was de rigueur for maniacs who came bombing down rocky ravines at better than 50 mph. It spawned a new breed of extreme athlete, a whole new category of sport.

The boom had a roaring momentum that further propelled the bike's evolution, which in turn drove the boom. The tinkerers and inventors clustered like moths under the hanging lights of garage workbenches; they labored at the computers and drafting tables of hundreds of companies, large and small. Entire firms sprang up just to design and manufacture rims, cranks, seat posts, chains, handlebars and other accessories.

Men who started out in oily garages, whose specialty in life amounted to welding metal tubes, became corporate executives, even millionaires. They ended up building cavernous factories and hiring hundreds of employees. They had their own R & D departments. They traded stock on Wall Street.

Paul Turner was one of those pioneers. Many years ago, the amateur triathlete climbed aboard a mountain bike to race at Mt. Shasta, down a brain-rattler of a course that plunged through a rocky stream bed. Beaten up afterward, his arms and fingers numb, Turner walked away and returned to his garage in San Jose, where he scaled down an air-sprung, hydraulically damped motorcycle fork to mount on his bicycle.

Ten years later, RockShox employs 300 people and churns out more than 200,000 suspension forks a year in a dozen models, among them a twin-crown racing fork with adjustable oil cartridges and six inches of vertical travel that retails for $1,100. The company is now listed on the Nasdaq, net sales totaled $106 million last year and Turner has moved to a mountainside near Boulder, Colo., where he is cutting himself a network of bike trails.

A Rigid Tradition Yields to Innovation

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