Saturday, October 22, 2011

Post-Nano 29"er History: Gary Fisher Bikes and Niner Bikes

This new post is the beginning of a series that is going to cover the earlier days of the 29"er as we know it now- What I like to call the era of the "Modern day 29"er". If you want to read the history of the big wheels, here is a good place to start.

In that series, near the ending, I touch upon some of the earliest production 29"ers like the Supercaliber from Fisher and the Karate Monkey frame set from Surly which opened up 29'er bikes to those who wanted to tinker with the idea. This was all happening pre-2004. I'll pick up the story from that point....

The Internet Influence: The rise in the popularity of 29"ers is directly tied to the rise in the use of the Internet and specifically, forums, of which Mountain Bike is the foremost influencer from this time in 29"ers development. There were a couple of other fledgling sites; Bob Poor, who influenced the production of the first Nanoraptors, had a site, Jan "Cloxxki" Klok from the Netherlands also ran a site for a time. In 2005, a couple of fledgling 29"er sites started, and Twenty Nine These sites and individual's blogs brought a lot of information that otherwise would have been cut and buried by magazine editors to the masses. The masses obviously responded.

2004 Gary Fisher Dual Sport

Near Death: 29"ers may not have made it much past 2004 had it not been for something significant which happened in late 2003. During this period, the only major manufacturer supporting the fledgling wheel size was Trek/Gary Fisher Bikes. Sales of 29"ers were poor. So poor that parent company Trek was going to pull the rug out from under the program.

At this early juncture, this action would undoubtedly have sent a very negative signal throughout the industry. The "nay sayers" would have had their day, and who knows what, if anything, would have become of 29"ers. As it was, internal pressure to give the wheel size another chance resulted in an unlikely "savior". This turned out to be a "hybrid' of a 29"er frame and 700c hybrid bike spec Gary Fisher called "Dual Sport"

29"ers were hard for the dealer network at Fisher to understand. Many dealers weren't even bringing them in, and most didn't stock accessories like tires and tubes for them. However; the Dual Sport concept was embraced by the dealerships and sales increased to the point that 29 inch wheeled hard tails were re-introduced into the line for 2005. (They had been missing entirely from the 2004 line, with only two full suspension bikes offered with big wheels that year.) Not only that, but another development behind the scenes turned out to be the spark that the entire 29"er movement benefited from.

Gary Fisher paid for the development of a new suspension fork by Rock Shox for 29 inch wheels. It was introduced for the 2005 model year, and its name was "Reba". Previous to the 2005 Reba, only sub-performing forks from White Brothers and Marzocchi were available. Now 29"er riders had a fork on par with decent 26"er forks for the first time, and of course, other companies took immediate notice of this and the increasing interest in 29"ers.

2005 Niner Bikes One 9
All In: Late in 2004, a strange banner appeared on the 29"er forum of It proclaimed "Niner Bikes: The Big Revolution"

It was a company, (or was it?), that had a banner on a site where formerly there had been the banner for WaltWorks Bikes, a small, Colorado based custom builder who was really behind 29"ers. Forum members were curious, and some actually were offended. Who were these upstarts?

Well, they were a couple of bike industry guys that fell in love with big wheels and started their own company in 2004. Their first product was a Scandium aluminum single speed frame with a Reynolds steel fork called the "One 9", which debuted in mid-2005. They proclaimed to be a company only doing 29 inch wheeled product. By the following year, they even had prototyped a six inch rear travel full suspension bike as a "proof of concept" piece, which sparked a lot of conversations in the industry.

Niner went on to introduce a steel frame, the "SIR 9", then geared hard tails,  and full suspension rigs were soon to follow. Along the way, Niner Bikes influenced component makers and industry thought about 29"ers in a very positive way. The company has stayed true to its "29"er only" roots all the way to this very day. 

2005: Gary Fisher Bikes and Niner Bikes were immensely influential companies which forged a new category of bikes in a solid way that wasn't to be denied or ignored. In fact, several companies flew in on the coat tails of the two companies. I'll talk more about what happened in 2005 in my next visit to this series. Stay tuned.....

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