Series Introduction: In December of 2010 I wrote a series of articles for Guitar Ted Productions on the "History Of The Beginnings Of The Modern 29"er". It appeared then as an eight part series with the title "More On The History Of The Beginnings Of The Modern 29"er". It was an outgrowth of a "Friday News And Views" post where I shared a bit that was sent to me on Facebook from 29"er pioneer, Wes Williams.
Many things have changed in the years since I wrote this. I have added updates and notes throughout the original text. At the time I wrote this I did not believe 29'ers would completely eliminate 26"er wheels as a viable choice for serious off-roading, yet here we are. That wheel size had effectively been eliminated as a choice ten years after I wrote this. Now with that, on with the articles.....
The Purpose: The purposes of the series were to show where the idea for bigger wheels off road may have come from, how those ideas passed from the beginnings of the safety bicycle to modern times, and the people behind those ideas. I also intended to show how and why Wilderness Trail Bikes' Nanoraptor was a "line of demarcation" that defined the beginning of what we know as the 29 inch wheeled mountain bike.This was also intended to show why previous bicycles like the Bianchi Project series, Diamondback's Overdrive, and the like were not really 29"ers and why they failed to make the impression that bicycles made with the Nanoraptor and following 622ISO X 2.1+ tires did make.
It was not a priority for my intentions to show "who was first" with a Nanoraptor fitted 29"er, since it is pretty obvious if you observe the facts who was the first. That said, it is of lesser importance to the reader that is a 29"er fan. What is of import is that 29"ers came into being, and that is what the overall intentions of the series is, and what it tries to tell the story of.
What It Is Not: I do not claim to have all the answers or an unabridged version of the story. Facts and anecdotes may come to light later that illuminate the story more than I have been able to with this effort.
Now on with the series!
Part I: The Beginnings Of The Safety Bicycle And More
The Safety Bicycle: The whole story really goes back to the beginnings of the bicycle as we know it. Before wheels were of equal size, there was the big bicycle craze of the 80's. The 1880's, to be exact. Folks rode "ordinaries", or "penny farthings", as they were sometimes called. These were two wheeled vehicles whose "gearing" was determined only by wheel diameter. The drive was direct- no coasting unless you took your feet off the pedals- and they were driven by the enormous front wheel. A trailing wheel of much smaller diameter was generally the set up back then. It is interesting to make note that your wheel size was described in inches of diameter and also in "gear inches", which are one in the same. (See here) This will come into play later.
The bicycle of those days was a dangerous vehicle due to the design which placed the rider high in the air and which led to many a "header" where the rider would be pitched over the front of the bicycle after impacting an obstacle the wheel would not roll over. (Editor's Note: Wes Williams tells me that a common cause for "headers" back in the day was actually related to a front axle failure. The crude bushings on which the axle rode would get hot and seize up due to friction. When this occurred, the rider would be pitched forward leading to serious injuries and deaths. This led to the development of ball bearings. Early ball bearings were simply cut off chunks of steel rod rolled and tumbled into a spherical shape.) However; it should be noted that these enormous wheels rolled over stuff really well. Another point to put into our minds for later!
Soon a dash was on to reconfigure the bicycle into something "safer" to ride. The development of the chain, originally employed in tri-cycles of the day, was brought up to speed and employed by designers to eventually evolve the bicycle into the "safety" bicycle which was so-called due to the inherent difficulty a bicycle of same wheel sizing had in tipping forward over its front axle. Headers became a thing of the past, for the most part. The chain, with its two cogs, could be used to convert rider's energy into similar "gear inches" than ordinaries had. In order to figure out the gear inches, the practice of measuring the outer diameter of the rear drive wheel persisted. Eventually, "gear inches" became an esoteric term and was only used in track racing circles, for the most part. However, sizing a tire to a rim was still done by using the outer diameter method in inches, and this still persists to this day.
How The Old Ways Affect Us Today: One thing to keep in mind here is that the commonly held thought that the "inch diameter" designation refers to rims only is an erroneous one. It was always a measurement that combined the tire with the rim to get the designation. So, for instance, your rim diameter may be 22 inches or so, but put a two inch wide tire or so on that rim and you have a 26" diameter wheel. Mountain bikes are described as "26 inch" bikes, but this does not necessarily tell you the rim diameter. In fact, there are several "26 inch" wheel variants in existence. 650B is actually a 26" diameter variant, for example. It was only recently that when Kirk Pacenti introduced 2 inch wide 584 ISO bead diameter tires that the 650B/26" type wheel became 27.5". (The proponents of this wheel for mountain biking use have stuck with the "metric" designation for this wheel size for mountain biking, further confusing things, but that's another story.)
It is also interesting to note that early bicycle engineers were intent on keeping things as efficient and as comfortable for riders as possible. Nearly every design feature we enjoy today on bicycles was thought of back in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Only a lack of materials technology and funding kept most of what we know today from becoming reality then. However; one thing was arrived at that will become an important part of this discussion. The 28" wheel.
The Original "Mountain Bikers": Of course, roads, (if there were any), and trails were very crude back then. Rough tracks were tamed by the old high wheeler's big wheel diameters, but when the safety took over, wheel size was a grab bag of different ideas as to what would be best. It ended up being a nominally 28 inch diameter with approximately 1 1/2" wide tires and whatever rim diameter worked with the particular tire design used. Eventually, what shook out was what we have come to know as "700c". At any rate, these early cyclists were enjoying the biggest, easiest rolling wheel size they could ride on a safety bike with fairly voluminous tires which gave them comfort and control on the rough roads and unpaved by-ways most common in that time. Some folks point to these folks and the bicycles they rode as the earliest "mountain bikers" and the earliest "29"ers". However; in the modern definition of both mountain biking and 29"ers, it is evident that what they were doing and what they were using can only be seen as prototypes for what came afterward.(Editor's Note: Wes Williams has passed on to me that he has a wooden rim that is very close to 622ISO diameter from the late 19th Century. Given that some early tires were close to, or actually may have been 2 inches wide, it is possible that an early 29"er existed. However; surviving examples of these tires do not exist, as far as I know, and we only have photographic evidence to go by, in regards to tires. )
UPDATE- February 2018: I found an article linked to Facebook which describes a record Trans-Continental ride done by an Australian across Australia in 1914. The rider's name was Edward ‘Ted’ Reichenbach, and he used a Turner bike of typical design and wheelsize for the day. Here is an excerpt of the tale originally appearing in "Ride Cycling Review". Here is the bit on wheels/ tires of the day:
"The bike was equipped with slightly wider than normal 28x1 1/2” tyres.
By 1914, 28x1 3/8” had become the default fitment for most machines, with the much larger 28x1 3/4” still theoretically available, but uncommon since the early 1900s.
The three sizes measured 28” to the outside, but required three different diameter rims."
Now, fast forwarding a bit: Roads got better, so "big" volume tires were not as necessary. This evolved to the point that by the late 1980's, road bikes were flirting with 18mm wide tires. Now that has backed off to the most commonly found size of 700 X 23mm and 700 X 25mm for paved road bicycles. (And now, in 2023, we are flirting with 32mm tires in road bikes!) At the time when the Marin Gang and the other NorCal off roaders were looking for something to use off pavement, the 700c based wheels were just not even on the radar, due to the lack of tire options that would allow for proper dirt usage. Not that the idea wasn't dreamt of, because it was, but tires didn't exist then, nor frames to put them in that would accept a wider tire on a wheel bigger in diameter. However; Arnold Schwinn's "ballooners" originally designed for juveniles, were around, and relatively easy to put to off road use. Thus the 26"/559ISO size became the de facto mountain bike wheel size out of convenience.
Next: The quest for "alternative wheel sizes" begins.....
The Search For Alternative Wheel Sizes: In the last post I left you all off at the point where "modern day" mountain biking started to kick off. The activity of mountain biking, as far as it becoming a competitive sport, found its roots in Marin County. A great site for delving into all the beginnings of that can be found here. That site belongs to mountain bike pioneer, influencer, guitar player, former roadie, (in both senses of that term), piano mover, and historian, Charlie Kelly. I highly recommend poking around there. We are most influenced out of what evolved there in Northern California, but that wasn't the only place people were tinkering around with off road cycling.
The English Connection: When discussing early 29"er influences, one would be remiss not to include one English fellow by the name of Geoff Apps. Regarded as an early pioneer of off road bicycles in the U.K., Geoff Apps was a consummate tinkerer, always trying to find parts to realize his ideal off road machine. In his pursuits, (of which you can read more about here), he came across several alternative tire/rim combinations that he employed into his designs. Besides the old 28" rim/wheel size, he used a lot of 650B stuff, and even 700c, when he could find it. In fact, it seems that Geoff was impressed enough by the bigger wheels that he shared some info with the Marin Gang about it.
Keep in mind that early on, a lot of experimentation was going on with mountain bikes. This included, and was not limited to, wheel size. What was optimal for off roading? The Marin/NorCal group knew that they had grabbed what was at hand and convenient, but were also wise enough to know that 26"/559ISO may not be the ideal size for off road bicycles. They were searching the outskirts of cycling for what could be employed in their search for the ideal mountain bike, just like Geoff Apps was. The two camps of thought crossed paths in the early 80's. Here is an excerpt from a Bike Biz article authored by Carlton Reid which quotes Geoff Apps:
“I sent some of these tyres over to Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher, who had built a frame in readiness. They loved them and really appreciated the ride they gave, compared to 26-inch tyres, and also loved the success they had at the races. As far as they were concerned, these 29-inch tyres were the way to go.
"This was the only tyre of this type and size in the world, there was no other choice. Unfortunately getting a supply of tyres was impossible.
“26-inch wheels were not absolutely fixed at that time, so, had the supply situation been better, it is quite possible that 700C tyres and wheels would have been the mountain bike standard now."
"When I tried to promote the 700C idea to UK mountain bikers they just thought it was bonkers Apps, raving again, like he did about short wheel-base, steep angles, sloping top tube, twist-grip gear shifters…"
I also can corroborate this as I have heard Gary Fisher say something in reference to that "700c mountain bike tire" and how it was an idea that stuck with him afterward. This would help motivate Gary to get behind the development of the 622ISO Nanoraptor by WTB in the late 90's. Obviously, that was an important influence on the modern 29"er.
More On Why 26"ers Became The "Go To" Size For Early Mountain Biking: I received some other interesting bits from 29"er pioneer, Wes Williams, in regards to why the old 28"ers of the late 19th/early 20th Century did not have the influence on early mountain biking, and why the 26 inch bikes did. Here is his note to me detailing this out:
"One of the main reasons that the 28" "Adult" sized bikes of the 1890-1915 era were not copied in the 70's was that most of these bikes had been scrapped , due to 2 world war scrap drives and the need for steel. The bikes that were not scrapped as often were the 26" "juvenile" bikes , the balloon tired kids bikes that were used as a basis for the first " Mtn" bikes . During those wars , those "adult" bikes had of course been replaced with the automobile , while little Johnny's bike was still being ridden by the children , the ubiquitous "Paper boy" .
The 700c designation was officially decreed in 1975 , as a collaboration between Mavic and Michelin , so as to end the confusion in tire sizing . A study of The Sutherlands Manual shows all of the sizes available and will answer a lot of questions . I own a pair of wooden rims from the 1890's and they measure 25 " , the same size as a modern 700c , so we know that the basis of that rim diameter goes way back . If you look at old photos of the era , it is evident that they used a 2" tire , so the "29" "is nothing new , just new to our way of thinking . I have always tried to stress this to people , that I was just trying to bring back what the best minds of the engineering world had developed back in the 1890's .
One must remember that there were no automobiles , motorcycles , or airplanes yet , and in fact these developments were all derived from the lowly bicycle . Look at Henry Ford's first car and see what the wheel size is . Remember what the Wright brothers did for a living before they got a wild hair and built an airplane . The first motorcycles were developed for bicycles to draft behind to set records . Of course all of these thing(s) soon took on a life of their own , but the 29" wheel played a part in the development of these "modern" inventions ."
It is an interesting fact that at the time Wes refers to- the late 19th/early 20th century- the U.S. Patent Office had an entire building dedicated to the advancements made by the bicycle industry of the day. This building was reportedly the same size as the building that housed the patents at that time for every other invention. Pretty remarkable.
So, it is true that the best engineering minds of the days of early cycling were zeroing in on the 28 inch/29 inch wheel size for "adult" bicycles. However; it would take nearly another century for the ideas of that time to catch on with mainstream mountain bikers.
Notes: Also, in the "could-a-would-a-should-a" file pertaining to mountain biking, you will find references early on to 650B sized tires and wheels. Remember that this is a 26"er variant originally made for French camping bikes and randonnuers. (Outer diameter of wheel and tire nominally 26 inches). A Finland based tire company had an aggressively treaded, narrow-ish version of a 650B tire that was briefly used on some early mountain bikes, most notably by Apps, Tom Ritchey, and another little known builder by the name of Jim Merz. (Also: Some early 80's Raleigh and Schwinn mtb based bikes were mass produced with 650B tires and rims) Some alloy rims were available in that size at the time, so it became an interesting thing to pursue. The trouble was that these tires were difficult to obtain, and when alloy 26/559 rims came about to satisfy the BMX cruiser class that emerged in the late 70's/early 80's, the 650B alternative was scrapped in favor of the now commonplace 26 inch mountain bike tire.
It also should be noted that the 700c tire used by Apps and apparently tried by Fisher may not have been a "29 inch" tire. Of course, there is no way to measure that now, and perhaps it doesn't matter. The real importance of that tire and its application at the time is its influence for the later WTB Nanoraptor in 700c size.
Next: The Main Players Set The Stage For "The Tire".
The Main Players Set The Stage For "The Tire": In all that came before the WTB Nanoraptor, the thing all the riders of 700c based mountain bikes were noting was that a truly voluminous, aggressively treaded mountain bike tire did not exist and was the one thing that most of these folks felt was the thing holding back 700c from becoming a truly viable size for off road bicycles.
Not that there weren't efforts being made despite that fact. Not that things like geometry and proper frames hadn't been made, because they had been done. Still, none of this was quite working as well as 26 inch based mountain biking, but the performance of the 700c stuff was so tantalizingly close and showed so much promise that the people behind the 700c movement were not giving up. If anything, they were even more determined to see it through.
In my last post I mentioned that Gary Fisher (and Charlie Kelly too, by the way), had some big wheeled influence from Englishman Geoff Apps. Well, they may also have picked up a cue from local frame builder and general mountain bike genius, Charlie Cunningham. Charlie was often seen riding a bike with a 28"er/700c based front wheel because he liked it better than a 26"er front. Here I will quote from Mark Slate of WTB:
"Charlie has been riding a 700x35c tire bike since I think about
1978. I think the first thing Charlie heard of a fat tire for 700c rims
was when Wes came out here and brought his "Mountie" with 700x47c Goliath tires."
So it would seem that Charlie Cunningham also may have had some influence on the thoughts that a 700c mountain bike wheel may be viable thing. (Editor's Note: Charlie Kelly contacted me to say that he and Fisher were not influenced by Cunningham, and that rather; it was the other way around. Kelly claims Cunningham didn't like the heavy, clunky 26 inch wheels. So, [according to Kelly], this is why Cunningham was riding a 700X38mm front wheel. This may be the case, yet it can not be denied that something may have come of the wheel choice Cunningham made for his personal bike in regards to later development of the Nanoraptor, and looking at Mark Slate's comments, one has to believe this has a great possibility of being true.)
<=== 1993 Rock n Road. Image from X0-1.org
Another of the early "big wheel" proponents was Bruce Gordon, a frame maker in the city of Petaluma, California. Bruce was pushing the idea of a "multi-terrain" 700c bike he called the "Rock n Road" bike. WTB's Mark Slate remembers Bruce in this e-mail transcription found in a thread on mtbr.com:
"Bruce is a highly opinionated and talkative guy (if he has the right audience). He is an ace frame builder himself, so experimenting with bike geometry is something he has done plenty.....No doubt in my mind that Bruce favored the bigger wheels."
Ross Shafer, the founder of Salsa Cycles, had a shop in Petaluma as well, and his remembrances of Bruce and 700c for off road cycling are also found in a thread on mtbr.com:
"Bruce Gordon (his shop was next to Salsa's at that time in history) is indeed the first person I know of who seriously pursued trying to get fatter tires for 700c rims. I know that Wes (Williams, of Willits fame), and he were pals, but I have no idea how much Wes had to do inspirationally or logistically with those first bigger tires Bruce got ahold of (had made?). I know that before Bruce got his tires going the biggest they could find was indeed the Hakkapelitas (sp?) from Finland. This was back in the days when the bike industry was trying hard to create a new "niche" and tried really hard to push "hybrid" bikes. A hybrid bike being a 700c bike with upright bars and tires that were fatter than your usual 700c fare. Bruce sold quite a few of the "Rock n' Road" bikes that he designed around the bigger tires he got. But the whole hybrid thing became more of a joke in the industry than anything else. Wes' is the man when it comes to really pushing the 29'er mtb thing. Wes was a friend of mine as well and if I recall correctly he first caught the bug by offroading on his fixed gear 700c scorcher bike"
Wes Williams also has the following to say about those early Bruce Gordon tires, and his pursuit of big wheeled mountain biking at that time:
"I credit Bruce Gordon and Gary Helfrich (Editor's Note: Gary was a partner in Fat City Cycles, and started Merlin back in '86.) for finding the first real 28" tire , a 700-47 Nokia Hakkapelitta in 1987 , and I made my first 28" in 1988 .( 700-38 does not qualify ) This was the same year the Rockshox was introduced , yet I was already bored with 26" , and have been riding the 28" off-road since then . The " hybrids " introduced in the early 90's ran 45c Smokes at best , and I imported 300 Goliaths in 1995 . This was the largest tire in existence at the time ."
From the above we can safely say that Bruce Gordon was a touchstone for setting off the big wheeled 700c idea in several folks minds, but most importantly, Wes Williams. Wes, who was the principal frame builder, designer, and production manager at Ibis Cycles for 9 years, was tinkering around with ideas he gleaned from late 19th/early 20th century designers. He built his first "28"er" in 1988 and never looked back to 26"ers again.
From a Facebook post by Wes Williams March 2nd, 2021: "i
started riding 700C off-road in 1988 . My own business was founded 1994
. I always pushed the concept , but lacked THE TIRE , which debuted
March 1999.......Before that , in 1997 I had ordered 300 old stock German Army Continental Goliath 700-47C . I sold every one of those tires ."
Wes was thoroughly convinced that the early bicycling experimentation that landed on the 28"er as being the ideal size for rough roading were still as right as ever, and he was willing to tell anyone that would sit still long enough to listen. Wes made a trip to see WTB and brought a 28"er with him. Again we hear from Mark Slate:
"Wes and I rode together and he left the bike with WTB so others could
ride and experience the big wheel feel. He pushed hard as you know Wes will
do when he has an idea of the better way and he certainly was not shy about
letting others know that the little wheels were inferior. I'm not sure
of the dates when Wes was here but he might remember."
The stage was being set. Gary Fisher was poking around at this time as well, having a race team sponsored by WTB in the 90's. The big wheeled idea was now seeping into the minds at WTB as shown by this inter-company Word Document Mark Slate shared from WTB in the same mtbr.com thread referenced before:
"Some old Word docs
survived somehow. In search of the "smoking gun" I found this (to the mold
September 28, 1998 - Gary Fisher has been after WTB to produce a 622
bead "2.1" tire. Several top riders I know in Colorado have bikes to fit
these 28" (+) tires. The Continental Goliath 47mm is now being used. These
guys are also interested in a full size tire to fit 700c rims. There is
validity to this size and we may be seeing future production of bigger wheel
mountainbikes. Mold production for this diameter tire may be a problem. Please
inform me regarding production of the 2.1 Nano Raptor with a 622mm bead."
With the tenuous promises of "future production mountain bikes" and Wes Williams passionate evangelism, WTB set off to do what hadn't been done before: Make a true 2 inch wide mountain bike tire based on a racing tread pattern in 26 inch size. What became known as "The Tire" to the early proponents of 29"ers- The WTB Nanoraptor.
Next: Why The Nano And What Happened Afterward.....
Why The Nano And What Happened Afterward: As we have seen in Part IV, WTB was being pressured to make the first true, 2.0-plus 622ISO tire with a mountain bike tread. No tire this large with this aggressive a tread had ever been proposed, much less built before. Questions as to whether the mold machines in Asia could even handle such a tire were very real and were considered seriously. This on top of whether or not WTB could ever recoup their investment into such a tire in the first place.
These questions and more were what drove the choice of the first tread pattern to be used in making this new 700c based mountain bike tire. Wes Williams wanted to see something like WTB's immensely popular Velociraptor tires become the new tire for 700c mountain biking. However; when he visited WTB in 1998 to pursue his dream of getting a mountain bike tire in 700c, he was shown something different. Charlie Cunningham, (who was a founder of WTB and was still working there at that time), showed him a prototype 26"er tire called the Nanoraptor. It was a racing tread with lots of smallish, low height tread blocks. Not at all like the big-blocked Velociraptor tires. This was the tread design WTB had in mind for the new, bigger diameter mountain bike tire.
Was it a fear that the mold machines wouldn't accept a bigger, blockier tread design? Actually, this is a valid point. 29"er tires have been limited in this regard until very recently, so it may have been a contributing factor to getting the Nano made instead. Was the bigger, more aggressive design not appealing for other reasons? Perhaps. It very well may be that Mark Slate, WTB's head tire designer, may have thought things through and foresaw that the Nano would be a better "first impression" for the 29"er format than the other choices he had at hand.
No matter in the end. WTB made good on the Nano in 700c size and by early 1999, the first prototypes were in the hands of Gary Fisher and Wes Williams. Very quickly things started to move forward in the background of mountain biking. Wes Williams made several "29"ers", as he dubbed them, early on.
From a March 2021 Facebook post again:
It was an obvious step up from his 28"ers, so it only made sense to call the bikes fitted with the new tires 29"ers. The moniker caught on with the early supporters, who included Bob Poor, a fellow who was one of Wes' friends, and internet savvy. Bob hopped on mtbr.com and also started a website that proclaimed the benefits of 29"ers to a world-wide audience. Things didn't take off right away, but a small ground swell of riders that believed in the concept and were involved in the internet culture began to make small inroads into the consciousness of the mountain biking's cutting edge riders.
Wes Williams comments on the internet influence and some of the time-line on the earliest bikes with Nanoraptors:
|The first 29"er. Wes Williams New Sheriff, March 2nd, 1999 |
Meanwhile, as mentioned above in Wes' quote, Gary Fisher was busy doing his own testing, having prototypes made by Steve Potts, and later, by Trek. Gary had the first primitive suspension devices, modified 26 inch forks, and was also instrumental in working out design issues with components like the front derailleurs, and geometry for the big wheelers. Finally, in 2001, Gary Fisher Bikes introduced a 29"er mountain bike in their line up. Across the pond, Nishiki also jumped in with their "Bigfoot" model. 29"ers were commercially available for the first time.
That wasn't the end of the story, and the 29"er story is still being written to this day. In my next post on this topic, I will touch upon "The Early Days Of 29"ers"
"The Early Days Of 29"ers": After the introduction of "The Tire", (WTB's Nanoraptor 29), a new era of bicycling was unleashed. Not only could those who wanted a 700c based mountain bike now have a legitimate mountain bike tire on those old touring rims, but they could get an ever increasing amount of custom builders to make one for them. Many custom builders suddenly found themselves with several orders for this new type of mountain bike.
It might be argued that this ended up becoming a shot in the arm to the custom bike building craft and that things like the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, (NAHBS) maybe wouldn't have taken off without the influence of the 29"er. Certainly the lack of manufacturing 29"er brands early on matched up with the early desire for folks looking for something new and different which resulted in a lot of small builders getting very busy.
Perhaps it was a "perfect storm". The burgeoning internet forum activity also played into this phenomenon. In the 90's it was all magazine based information which was limited and mundane. By mid-decade a parade of wonky suspension designs and "NORBA" hard tails were all you would see every month. Now with the advent of relatively cheap PC's and the "world-wide web" available on a large scale, folks were circumventing the staid magazine editors and company marketing machines to find a bubbling, effervescent sub-culture going on, which included 29"ers and custom bike builders most of us had never heard about before. Put this volatile cocktail in a web based forum and you have what became "Mountain Bike Review" or "mtbr.com".
With a daily flow of news and development rumors flying, the 29"er enjoyed a small, cult following. Maybe things would have transitioned beyond this eventually, but the next "big" development in the evolution of the 29"er movement would certainly have to be the introduction of Surly's "Karate Monkey" model. Surly, a Minneapolis Minnesota based concern, was well known for being a player in the single speed movement. The introduction of the Karate Monkey at the 2002 Interbike trade show marked the first time North Americans were going to be able to "buy into" the 29"er movement without paying custom bike builder prices. The Surly site says this about the Karate Monkey:
"It didn’t create the 29er category, but it helped bring it to the masses and set the standard for what a 29er could be."
I'd go further and say that this model was copied by more manufacturers and custom builders than any other single 29"er ever made. To say that the Karate Monkey was "influential" would be an understatement. Now just about anyone with a little faith and about 800-1000 dollars could build up a sweet 29"er from the ground up. And what is more, the Karate Monkey actually, (and still does), ride quite well.
The Fisher Influence: Meanwhile, the Gary Fisher Bike company was plugging along, trying to make the 29"er thing work in the traditional bike shop category. Fisher was able to bring IRC tires into the 29"er tire market, and also managed to get Marzocchi to manufacture a couple of suspension forks. That was all well and good, but the dealer network was having a hard time understanding the big wheeled oddities being pushed by their reps and even more shop employees had no idea what they were looking at. Times were tough at the retail level for 29"ers.
By late 2004, there was talk at Fisher/Trek of pulling the cord on the life support 29'ers were on. However; a new take on the big wheeled bikes actually saved the 29"er line, and it came in the form of "Dual Sport" bikes. Hearkening back to the original hybrid bikes of the early 90's, ironically, the Dual Sport bikes were more easily understood as hybrid bikes by shops and consumers. The Fisher company couldn't get enough of them out to dealers. By late 2007, 29"ers had entrenched themselves and were outselling 26"ers at Fisher. The tide had turned.
Fisher can also be credited with getting Rock Shox and Fox Shocks into the 29"er market, solidifying the category even further in the retail bicycle trade. Meanwhile, by 2006, more mainstream bike companies were jumping on board with 29"ers, and by 2010 it was easier to count those companies not making 29"ers than those that were. Gary Fisher Bikes had a big hand in making all that happen.
So it is that now, at the end of 2010, we have 29"ers coming from all sorts of companies in all sorts of forms. Accessory items like wheels, tires, and forks are readily available. Specific 29 inch designed stuff is commonplace now. All thanks to a few passionate individuals working the big wheeled idea for years before finally, "The Tire" was introduced and everything changed for big wheeled mountain biking afterward.
I know that for myself, I would not have been as deeply involved with riding mountain bikes anymore if it had not been for 29"ers. I was getting really tired of the way my 26"ers rode, and behaved for me. The 29"er made mountain biking more fun for sure. It's like Gary Fisher once told me: Buying a suspension fork buys you some "grace". The 29"er is like that for a lot of riders. It brings more "grace" and therefore you get to enjoy the ride more.
I could have been as happy as a pig in the mud the rest of my life just enjoying my 29"er and riding it. Trouble is, I found out about blogs and started writing about how great I thought these bigger wheels were. That got me into something I never foresaw before I started tapping on this keyboard. It took me to places and I met people I never would have dreamed I would have met before. So, I have the 29 inch wheels to thank for that privilege as well. Things started out with the now defunct site, "The Biking Hub" in 2005, and then, of course, it was on to "Twenty Nine Inches". Now I've been scribing there for over five years. I suppose you could say I've seen a thing or three concerning these 29"ers in that time. I've certainly met a lot of people, and some of them are part of the history I wrote about in this series.
Speaking Of People.... I have been reminded as I wrote these posts how blessed I am to have met many of you folks out there. I have also been privileged to have had contact with many of the rest of you. Without getting overly dramatic......thank you one and all!
Where Do We Go From Here? Ah, the inevitable question is that, isn't it? There still are some things 29"ers are not best suited for, and may never be. That said, these big wheels have gone from just a dream to places that I never thought they would. (29 inch down hill bikes? Really?) In the future, I still believe that the 29 inch wheel will eventually supplant the 26 inch wheel for beginner mountain bikers and in the hard tail category especially. Women will continue to find the 29"er to be a stable, fun, and safe feeling off road machine. Longer travel 29'ers will continue to be developed as new forks, tires, and rims develop to cater to those styles of riding that demand "big" equipment. UPDATE: March 2021: Obvious now, but all facets of MTB are now dominated by 29'er wheels.
The 29 inch wheel is perhaps, as Wes Williams believes, the biggest advancement in mountain biking since the purpose built mountain bike was first born in Marin, California. If not, it is pretty close to that. We still have not seen the extent to which these wheels will change the sport. 26 inch mountain bike wheels will never go away, most likely, (But they did!) but neither will the "adult" sized wheels. They are here to stay, thanks to those passionate and visionary folks that helped make it happen with "The Tire" in 1999.
I would like to thank and acknowledge the contributions to this series by: Wes Williams, Geoff Apps, Gary Fisher, Mark Slate, Ross Shafer, Bob Poor, Bruce Gordon, Charlie Kelly, Charlie Cunningham, Mike Curiak, Mountain Bike Review, and anyone else that had a hand in bringing the WTB Nanoraptor into existence.
12/11/21: A post about the Gary Fisher Bikes company and the early days of 29"ers. Based upon notes I took at a conference I was at where Gary Fisher spoke. This was a Press Camp in 2009 in Deer Valley, Utah. Here is the article link.
11/27/23: Gary Fisher (aka "Gary Zaphiris" on Facebook) has been on a nostalgic trip of late and has been posting all sorts of his archival imagery and telling tales. Since he is no longer affiliated with Trek Bicycles, he doesn't have to hold back his tongue and some of what he has been sharing has been a bit inflammatory. But for the purposes of this page, we will only focus on 29"er stuff.
|Gary Fisher's Steve Potts built prototype with modified Manitou front forks. |
Gary recently posted the image of this 29"er and had the following to say about it: (From Facebook)
NOTES: As updates, new information, and changes due to innovations and what not happen I will try to update this article. Last Update: March 2021