Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Early Days Of 29"ers- A Gary Fisher Perspective

 During a Fisher Bikes Press camp visit I was on in September of 2009, I was privy to hearing tales told by the famous Gary Fisher himself. This conference of media attendees was entertained and informed on Gary Fisher's take on the history of the wheel size from his perspective. I took notes furiously and after returning home I tossed the note pad in a box which I found again recently. 

So, this is over a decade afterward and some gaps in the notation, which I assume I probably thought at the time would be remembered after I got home, have occurred. This following is, to the best of my ability, a reconstruction of what was told then in the Fall of '09.

There were definitely a few things which Mr. Fisher said that seem to contradict tales told elsewhere, so from that standpoint alone this is an interesting bit of information to add to the history. Who is 'right' and who is 'not so right' really doesn't matter here as much as perhaps being able to see that 'like minds were thinking similarly'. Things said and seen may have been subliminally stored in memories and thought, "not very important', or "obvious" at the time and then brought back to mind later. Then it becomes time to 'fix' timelines and history and you know- things that weren't all that important to mark then have to be marked and can be messy. 

I'd like to think that some of that happened with regard to 29"ers, because, well, who really thought in 1999 that this wheel size would supplant the mighty 26"er completely? No one did. No one figured this would become what it has, and isn't that the way great things go? With all that in mind......

Fisher prototype 29"er drawings
So, this will be given in much the same manner as I received it at the time, which was in a timeline fashion. I will make commentary as this goes along also. 

1999/2000: Starting out with Gary Fisher's first 29"er, which was drawn up and made in Steve Pott's custom bicycle shop. Gary had in mind to do a direct comparison between a 26" and 29" wheeled MTB. His goal was to keep everything he could the same between the two bikes. Geometry, head angles, chain stay lengths, and head tube angles were kept as close as possible to the 26'er. This resulted in a frame with a bent seat tube to keep the chain stays short as possible. Fisher's design goal was to get to an amazingly short 16 1/2" length, which is equivalent to 419.1mm! A modified Manitou Mars fork was crafted as a front fork for the project with travel limited to 50mm. A custom modified XT front derailleur was crafted so it would not interfere with the rear wheel. Much of what was done on this 1st proto were things that would not be seen on 29"ers for a decade or longer. 

Interestingly, Fisher claimed that between he, Mark Slate (head of WTB), and Steve Potts that this was always known as a "29"er" when they referred to this bike. Fisher credits a conversation between he and Mark Slate at Interbike as being when the term was first used. This probably was at the '99 Interbike as "The Tire", the 29"er Nanoraptor, was introduced right at that time. If so, it predates Wes Williams claim of the term by a month, or perhaps a few weeks even. Regardless, as I said, it very well may be that the term was in usage between all the instigators of "The Tire" and no one can really pinpoint when exactly it was first uttered in relation to the wheel size. What matters is that this was a wheel size declared as being the "29"er" out of the gates. 

Update 11/29/23: It has come to light that Slate and Fisher dubbed the tire as a "twenty-nine inch" tire, this according to a Facebook post by Gary himself under his "married name" he uses there, "Gary Zaphiris". I posted the entire written comment by Gary at the bottom of THIS PAGE which is my history of the 29"er. 

The first Fisher 29"er held by former Mountain Bike Action editor, Zapata Espinoza. (Image courtesy of Gary Fisher.

 As an aside, Gary Fisher claimed that credit for the very first 29 inch wheeled bike belongs to Wes Williams. And what about Fisher's 26'er/29"er comparison? Fisher claimed that in his tests that he was 2-3% faster on the 29"er. That was all he needed to pursue this further. 

The second Fisher proto 29"er. (Image courtesy of Gary Fisher)
 Two more prototypes were made then in rapid succession. One having a Look Fournales Fork lengthened by none other than Gary Klein to fit a 29"er wheel. The fork was said to have a 450mm axle to crown height. (For reference early 29"er suspension forks with telescoping legs and 80mm of travel were approximately 470-480mm axle to crown. ) This bike had a paint scheme designed by Gary Fisher's daughter. 

The third Fisher 29'"er prototype was made in titanium. (Image courtesy of Gary Fisher)

 The second was followed quickly by a third bike, but this time the bike was made in titanium with paint designed by well known designer, Paul Smith. This had a prototype Marzocchi suspension fork on it. In 2000 another 29"er with Paul Smith designed paint was made which featured an integrated head set. Interestingly, Fisher claimed that they also were working on a "69er" design, which was a mixed 29 inch front, 26 inch rear wheeled idea. 

Update 11/29/23: Recently Gary Fisher has been posting a lot of historical images and relating stories about his past that were mostly unknown to the public before now. Relating to the white hard tail above, Gary posted on 11/28/23 the following:

"This frame was built at Trek by Doug Cusack. It is a one-off. (Note: there were other similarly painted "Team Frames" but Gary's had proprietary geometry that the others did not have) The chain stays are super short and the Marziocii (sic) fork had a knob that would lower the front end by 60mm. I set up the geometry, so I still had pedal clearance when the bike was let down, and the head angle when lowered would be 69 1/2°. When you let the fork out to its 100mm travel, the head angle was closer to 68. Degrees.. this was a great bike for European marathons.

It is interesting to note that a 68° - 69° head tube angle for 29"ers was generally thought to be unthinkable, crazy, and "would never work" on big MTB wheels like 29"ers back in those days. To see that Gary had tried this and that it worked out was a sign of things to come and introduces the notion that early 29"ers were chasing the wrong ideas. Ideas that were entrenched in the 26"er mindset and not focused on what bigger diameter wheels were actually good at, which finally came into being after about 2012-2014. 

Another interesting tidbit that Gray Fisher brought back to mind was that the UCI had rules on their books making alternative wheel sizes (anything other than 559ISO/26") illegal to use in competition. This arcane rule was starting to be implemented in European races to ban 29"ers from sanctioned events. Gary Fisher went to the UCI personally to lobby against this rule and did see success when the UCI finally recinded the rule and 29"ers were then free to be used in UCI sanctioned events. 

Now, on with the originally posted material.....

Fisher was working hard at trying to get Trek to buy into mass producing the 29" wheeled mountain bike. However, wheels were lacking, the Marzocchi fork was 'floppy', (Gary's term), and they were still trying to figure out the proper geometry and were trying to integrate their new Genesis Geometry into a 29" format. Fisher said that they were working with "less than the best technology" which hampered early acceptance of Fisher 29"ers by athletes and dealers. 

Ryder Hesjedahl on the first Supercaliber in '01 (Image courtesy of Gary Fisher

2001: Fisher Bikes introduces the first Fisher 29"er, the Supercaliber. IRC Tires were developed for the bike. Fisher had a Marzocchi production 29"er fork made for the bikes as well. 

Dealers were baffled by the wheel size and sales people basically ignored the bikes to sell 26"ers. The pressure mounted within Trek to abandon the 29"er experiment. 

2003: Due to poor sales and Fisher being the only company in North America selling 29"ers on a mass scale, Trek seemed poised to cut their losses and kill the 29"er. Internally a suggestion was made to 'hybridize' the 29"er and the Dual Sport models were introduced for the 2003 season. This model, being more closely relatable to hybrid bikes from the 1990's, were a hit with dealers and consumers alike. Gary Fisher said this model line is to be credited with saving the 29"er MTB line from being cut from the Fisher range. In fact, he went as far as to say this was a 'pivotal year' in the history of 29" MTB. 

2004 Fisher Dual Sport- the model that saved 29"er MTB.

2004: With the strength of Dual Sport sales, Fisher Bikes was ready to double-down on the 29"er. The company paid out of pocket for all the R&D and tooling to make the Rock Shox Reba 29"er fork, the suspension fork which helped legitimize 29"ers to the mountain biking public. Fisher also designed the new "Rig" model, a single speed MTB which was disc brake specific and came with purpose-built 29"er rims as well. 

2005: The Rig with the Rock Shox Reba is released and it is a Fisher only product. This was a brilliant marketing move in retrospect as Fisher sold out of Rig hard tails and 29"er freaks were left to scramble for Reba take-off forks on the second hand market. This pushed 29"er sales to new heights at Fisher and more good news was coming in as well. Athletes were winning races on 29"ers now. Cam Chambers won on a Fisher 29"er at Single Speed World Championships in '05 as did Jesse La Londe at the Chequamegon Fat Tire 40 that fall. 

2006-2009: Within this three year period 29"ers went from a niche, nearly dead category to the hottest bicycle on the planet. Sales of 29"ers doubled for Fisher in 2006. By 2007, Fisher Team rider Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski was racing 29"ers on the World Cup XC scene. By 2009 he switched to 29"ers exclusively. 

Comments: The early struggles at Fisher Bikes to get 29"ers off the ground nearly sunk the category at Trek. One has to wonder if 29"ers would have remained a niche, small market thing had Trek actually cut the cord in 2004. Remember- Fisher was pretty much the only game in town for non-custom 29" MTB. The rest of the 29"er world was pretty much dominated by custom bike makers. Had Trek pulled out I envision 29"ers being much like what we see today with 36"er wheeled bikes. That being a category of bike on the fringes of the mainstream. 

A magazine article featuring Wes Williams and the story of the first 29"er.

You also probably would never have heard about 650B anything. There would have been no reason to move beyond the entrenched 26" wheels. But then again, who knows?

One thing we need to keep reminding ourselves of though is that there are a few key folks who, without their vision, passion, and force of nature in regards to personality, we would not have the bikes we have now. In particular I would single out Gary Fisher, as he not only helped early MTB get off the ground, but it was he that helped push the 29 inch wheel into a place of prominence. Wes Williams has to be credited as the 'force of nature' that would not let big diameter MTB wheels die and no doubt it was Wes that played a pivotal role in getting "The Tire" made in the first place. Then we have to look at Mark Slate and his staff at WTB as the vehicle to get where we are with 29"ers. It was Mark who pretty much had the "kill switch" in his hand which, if pressed, would have pushed the 29 inch wheel off further into the future, or may have killed the idea altogether. 

Obviously there are a host of athletes and industry people to thank here, but if I had to choose a "Mt. Rushmore" of 29"er history it would have Fisher, Slate, Williams, and "The Tire" as its faces. That's my take. You can argue who/what belongs in that pantheon, but in my opinion, those are the main players. 

Thanks: I would be remiss if I did not thank Trek/Gary Fisher Bikes, and specifically Travis Ott, for the invitation all those years ago to go to that Press Camp in Deer Valley Utah. That is where most of the information and images for this post came from.


cuisto said...

excellent post sir, damn you write well. over the years ive noticed the 'dual sport' treks and thought " kinda ahead of its time ".
thanks again for the history.

Guitar Ted said...

@Unknown - Thank you!

MG said...

That’s some great perspective, Brother. Thanks for sharing it. I didn’t realize how close it all came to not happening, but I do remember that dual sport bike and how many of them almost instantly appeared on the trails. I think a lot of riders were introduced to gravel riding by that bike too, as an aside.

The Rig was the bike that finally got me to look at 29ers… but by that point I was riding for a non-Trek shop, so I went with a really evil handling Kona Unit 29 for my first 29er (2005), then onto a succession of Salsa Dos Niners, El Mariachis and Fargos.

Incidentally, it’s amazing how much that Gary Fisher frame drawing looks like what eventually became the Trek Stache… right down to the 420mm chainstays. And you know I love shredding on the Stache. Fisher for the win!!

Owen said...

Wonderful summary and write up! I have to respectfully disagree with you re. 650b though. Credit is due to Grant Peterson of Rivendell for resurrecting this wheel size with the Bleriot, the road bike Rive made and marketed with QBP in the early 2000s. Yes, like 29", 650b was basically a road wheel that later migrated to MTBs, but it would have stayed in the road (and possibly gravel) world thanks to Peterson and later Jan Heine's extensive wheel/tire size testing.

What I think is interesting is that MTB makers in Europe more or less skipped the 29" thing and went straight to 650b. They were initially behind the curve on 29", and then for whatever reason picked up 650b. Not trying to open the can of worms on which is better or worse, but I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this.

Guitar Ted said...

@Owen - Thanks for reading! Of course, 650B has been around as a wheel size for 80-ish years, and was almost exclusively a road wheel size meant for touring/camping bikes. What I was referring to was mountain biking.

"Modern" 650B MTB was explored by early mountain biking pioneers like Tom Ritchey, Fisher, Kelley, and other custom builders, but when the supply of rare Finnish tires ran dry, the experiment was abandoned. Much as with 29"ers, it would take a push from a person with mega-passion and know-how to put 650B MTB on the map.

That person was Kirk Pacenti. His experiments in '06/'07 led to the emergence of the 650B MTB wheel as we know it today. But.....what I am saying is that had 29"ers not taken off several years in advance of Pacenti's experiments, that Pacenti 'probably' doesn't do what he did.

If Pacenti doesn't do what he did, 650B would have been the realm of Heine/cyclo-tourist classicists and never would have been anything but the very fringe element of cycling that 650B was up until Pacenti sewed two Nanoraptors together to make his first 650B tire with 2" wide tread.

I probably should have specified that I was talking in terms of MTB in the post. I apologize for the confusion.