But a tour has spice


The approximate history of the mountain bike is well known. Take a bike with big tires and a coaster brake, and ride downhill. This Marin county crew preferred the quality of the Morrow Coaster Brake hub manufactured in Elmira, NY.


The Morrow is tough, but many old hubs from various manufacturers have made it down the mountain. New Departure, Benelux, Schwinn, Shimano and others will do. They will all be smoking at the bottom of the hill, and they will all require to be repacked with grease. The Morrow claims, “Sturdy, sure.”


Add some better brakes to go faster. This is Joe Breeze’s 1974 adaptation of an old Schwinn frame. He reinforced the fork and bolted some cantilever brakes to the frame.


Dig through a bin of motorcycle parts for some wide handlebars and stout brake levers. In lieu of brazing cantilever posts to the frame, find an old drum brake and build it into the front wheel. Charlie Kelly bombs downhill; jeans and a heavy jacket keep him from losing skin while shredding through turns.


Convince your buddy to add a derailleur hanger to your frame to attach some gears. This rider shows some surf-inspired bicycle handling. Gears and a drum brake allow greater speeds.  Edit: Previously identified as Gary Fisher, this rider may actually be Mark Greene, according to a reader.


Gears, brakes and tires…

Get a whole group together to race downhill. After every descent the hub must be repacked with grease. Call it Repack Hill and design a flyer for local advertisement. Charlie Kelly is in the center, while Gary Fisher displays the height of fashion– bellbottom riding pants. Drum brakes abound.



And start a magazine to report the events.


Riders in Crested Butte, CO had similar ideas. The town was full of old ballooners, and mountains rise on all sides. Early organized rides and races solidify the act of riding bicycles in the woods as a proper sport.



Crested Butte has always had a sense of humor, and a sense of purpose.




As is often told, a group of boastful motorcyclists from Aspen mounted and descended Pearl Pass into Crested Butte. Several of the Crested Butte drinking elite were challenged by the arrival of the Aspenites. Thus, they pushed their balloon tire bikes up the pass and rode down into Aspen to carouse at the local bar. The Pearl Pass tour is born. Within a few years, Marin riders were coming to test their gear and join the fun. For many years, a keg of beer makes it’s way up the mountain. Charlie Kelly’s account of the Pearl Pass tour is essential reading. A race is nice, but a tour has spice!



Further developments included custom forks, and eventually custom frames. In 1977, Joe Breeze installed a custom fork onto a vintage Schwinn frame from 1937, as seen in Crested Butte.


By 1981, seven Breezers built by Joe Breeze made their way to the Pearl Pass tour in Crested Butte. In the navy blue sweatshirt is Charlie Kelly, then Joe Breeze to his right. The last two on the right are Steve Potts and Eric Koski. Breezer frames, as well as custom Ritchey frames were the pinnacle of tough, purpose built klunkers. No longer were they so “clunky”, and a new name was to be born.


In 1981, Mike Sinyard released the first mass-market bike for dirt roads and trails. Modeled after custom Marin frames by Tom Ritchey, this Japanese-made bicycle was about half the price. Note: TA cranks and Mafac brakes from French touring bicycles, Tomaselli motorcycle brake levers, and American-style balloon tires and rims. In fact, lightweight aluminum Japanese Ukai rims allowed these bikes to be ridden uphill, as well as downhill. The Stumpjumper allows consumers to sample fat tires, and fuels the craze. Within a year, other manufacturers begin to catch on.


The Stumpjumper tire predates the frame by a year. Several early Specialized tires established the company, including popular touring models.


But Stumpjumper was only a popular bike. These ballooners would eventually be called Mountain Bikes, the name of the company founded by Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly. Tom Ritchey was responsible for building many of the early Mountain Bike frames, as well as many frames produced under his own name. Mountain Bikes would eventually become Fisher, and then Gary Fisher bikes. In the letter below, Charlie Kelly admits that the first multi-speed ballooners he ever saw were entered in a cyclocross race in 1974 in Marin Valley. As such, Gary Fisher did not invent the mountain bike.


On the same letterhead (borrowed from Bike Forums), Gary Fisher explains to Geoff Apps in England that 650b tire offerings are enticing, although availability is an issue. The young entrepreneurs are unfamiliar with import proceedings. He cites that 650b rims are not entirely unknown in the area, but the large volume Nokian Hakkepeliitta tire is nonexistent. The Hakka is a Finnish tire designed with a knobby rubber tread and steel studs. It’s a winter tire, but with the studs removed it fits the bill on dirt.


From several years prior– Tom Ritchey experimented with 650b mountain bikes and the Hakka tire. This 1977 Ritchey was on display at Interbike this year and shows a refined approach to mountain bikes and the unknown future of mountain bike wheel dimensions. These tires still feature steel studs.



A mix of French and Japanese parts, inspired in many cases by the French style. A Campagnolo front derailleur rounds out the bunch.


Stronglight needle bearing headset and Super Champion rims, both of French origin. A Huret Duopar rear derailleur shifts the rear.



This is probably the most aggressive tread pattern available at the time, although cruiser American bikes often used larger volume tires. The Hakka was also available in 700c sizes and was influential in early 28ers, and 29ers– large-volume 700c adventure bikes. The Bruce Gordon Rock’n’Road tire, designed by Joe Murray, borrows heavily from the Hakka. Eventually, supply issues force the 26″ balloon tire into the mainstream.

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Classic Ritchey fillets. Check out this fantastic video about Tom’s career as a racer, builder and innovator. The video is product by his son Jay, who is also involved in the industry. Most recently, he spent several years working at Rivendell, selling and designing 650b all-terrain bikes, among other things.


Within a few years, mountain bikes had standardized and specialized as seen in this 1985 race model ridden by Joe Murray. Bullmoose handlebars were beginning to disappear by this time, although these used a clamp-on attachment similar to modern threadless systems, rather than the flexible, heavy insert often associated with quill stems. Joe Murray was a top racer in the day, and has designed bikes for Kona, Merlin and Voodoo. Note, the bike features only two chainrings which simplified shifting duties. Double systems are en vogue once again for mountain bikes. Further, SRAM has released a revolutionary 1×11 system recently.


Still plenty of tinkering: This 1984 Ross frame was made in Allentown, PA and was available at a fair price. The owner of this bike was obviously inspired by the drop-bar designs popularized by Charlie Cunningham, and raced by Jacquie Phelan.


A custom Ibis with a interesting approach to a chainring bash guard.


A short-wheelbase Don McClung design from Salida, CO.


Suspension forks and indexed shifting would change the game, as well as disc brakes and eventually, new wheel and tire sizes. Mountain bike history is dense with experimentation. However, the spirit of mountain bikes is best understood through the early personalities. The MTB Hall of Fame inaugural class of 1988 is a nearly complete list of my greatest cycling heroes. Charlie Kelly and Jacquie Phelan top my list for their commitment to the cycling lifestyle and clean living. With the quote below, CK is a new hero.


Charlie Cunningham made many advancements in bicycle design. His bikes were capable climbers and racers, and set records for being lightweight. He is the strongest early proponent of aluminum bicycle frames, influencing the shift away from steel. His first creation was a modified road bike with larger tires and drop bars, before designing and building his first purpose-built bike.


Joe Breeze’s early bikes were fun to ride downhill.


Jacquie Phelan always rode a custom Cunningham frame, often with drops bars. She would beat a lot of the boys, and could outspeak, outwrite and outwit many of them as well.

9809WP 2


Wendy Cragg was often along for the ride…


Other notable figures from Marin include Tom Ritchey, Gary Fisher, Otis Guy and Alan Bonds.

On the other side of Marin County, a group of friends were riding bikes in the woods in the early 70’s, but they weren’t the entrepreneurial type. They were just out for a good time.


And John Finley Scott, a Marin resident who had been experimenting with big tires, brakes and gears since the 50’s. He called his converted Schwinn diamond frame a “woodsie bike”.


Our arrival in Crested Butte on fat tires over Schofield Pass is a fitting homage to mountain bike history and a reminder of what fat tires are all about. For us, and for many others, fat tires go new places.


Looking out at Mt. Crested Butte, in the reflection of an old Stumpjumper advertisement photographed near the Butte.


In New Mexico, I’m off for a few days of riding with Lael, Cass and Joe.

19 thoughts on “But a tour has spice

    • Thanks George. There is so much to learn every day.

      We visited the Carnegie library in Monte Vista, CO the other day in the San Luis Valley south of Salida. It was closed for the evening, but was nice from the exterior.

  1. Love the photos, especially those of the early 650b wheeled, Tom Ritchey mountain bike.
    The 1977 date for this bike does not tie in with many other accounts or histories of Tom Ritchey bikes including this bike timeline:
    Remember that 1987 was the year that the first custom built mountain bike the Breezer No1 was built. Nor does the 1977 tally with Geoff Apps’ letters to Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly that show that the exporting of Nokia Hakkapeliitta tires to the US only started in 1980..

    • You might be right. The cranks are certainly newer than 1977, although it’s still possible the frame was built in 77. It doesn’t really jive with the Ritchey timeline either, although Tom had been building frames for years. This may take some further research. Please let us know if you come up with anything to add.


      • http://vimeo.com/47207697 From 8 minutes 30
        If you watch this section of this video where Tom talks about his very first 26″ wheeled mountain bikes , and imagine that Tom is talking about his 650b bikes then the history attributed to this 650b Ritchey bike can make sense.

        The English “Woodsie” bike had 650b wheels therefore the bike that Tom Ritchey made for John Finlay-Scott must also have been a 650b. However Ritchey’s reference in the video refers to his first mountain bikes being 26″. And contemporary photos of Finlay-Scott and his Ritchey also show a 26″ wheeled bike. Ritchey was also inspired by the first 1977 Breezer number one. Therefore the first Ritchey mountain bikes could also have been made in 1977?

        The assertion that this bike is the first Ritchey made mountain bike. That It was commissioned and owned by John Finlay-Scott and was also the first 650b mountain bike, are bold indeed. However, whilst there is strong evidence that these claims are no more than wishful thinking, there is no evidence to support them that I know of.

      • In the video, Tom neither confirms his first off-road bike as a 650b or a 26″ wheeled bike. I will try to unearth the history of the purported 1977 650b bike. Perhaps a personal inquiry to Tom is in store.

      • Graham, I spoke with Gary Boulanger of Dirt Rag/Bicycle Times magazine at the IMBA Summit in Santa Fe this past weekend. He currently resides in the Bay area and is in contact with many of the early players in mountain biking. Gary writes, “Regarding the so-called ’77 Ritchey 650B bike on display at Interbike, according to Joe Breeze and a few others, the frame set was actually built in 1980, most of the components were from 1985 or so, and the bike was originally built with drop bars. It was a touring bike; a nice one, but not a mountain bike, as Tom suggests, and certainly not in 1977.”

        Hope that helps. What I now want to know, is why, and how Tom Ritchey expects to claim the invention of the mountain bike as his own. It seems well understood that the mountain bike was co-developed by many players, and was not singularly invented. It is simply a bike with big tires, gears and brakes, with eventual refinements.

      • Hi Nicholas,
        Thanks for looking into the provenance of this 650b Ritchey.
        I would question whether this is the bike frame built for John Finley-Scott in the late 1970’s or an example of the Ritchey’ frames built to fit the Hakkapeliitta tires that Geoff Apps exported to Gary Fisher between late 1980 and 1984. Why build a frame that can accommodate 2″ wide tires before any wide 650b Hakkapeliittas were being made, let alone imported to the US?

        I have been researching the history of these Hakkapeliitta tires for some time now. I have seen much of the correspondence sent between Geoff Apps and Charlie Kelly/Gary Fisher. And read the accounts of three other NorCal frame-builders who made bikes using 650b Hakkapeliittas in the early 1980’s. It would be good if this bike could be placed on a verifiable timeline. It may even turn out to be a well documented bike like the one that caused an upset when it “finished fifth in the national 1981/82 cyclo-cross championships”.

        As you say “the mountain bike was co-developed by many players, and was not singularly invented”. And some of the “players” who contributed, did so unknowingly. For instance. It can be argued that without the influence of the 700Cx47mm Nokia’ Hakkapeliittas on Bruce Gordon/Wes Williams then 29ers may not have developed. But that of course does not at all mean that Nokia invented the 29er.

    • Aside from the Geoff Apps/Mountain Bikes association in the early 80’s, how long have 650b Hakkas been around? Is the 1977 date even possible? I’ve nearly ruled out the possibility that the bike is from that year, but I’m now curious to know if the claim is entirely incongruous with the hsitory of the Hakka tire.

      And the history of the 700c Hakka? Do you know when that originated? Surely, no single person invented the 29er either. If Bruce Gordon had been able to build a bike with 700×50+mm tires, would he have done so? It’s is impossible to say, but his Rock’n’Road suggests that he thought a 43mm tire was ideal, considering he spent his own money to manufacture it. The result was still very important. And the people involved with designing and manufacturing the 29″ Nano should also be given credit for their forward thinking, effectively making a tire that didn’t fit any bikes. The same can be said of the first Surly Endomorph and Knard tires.

      Bike builders are creative and thoughtful, but the tire designers and manufacturers that are willing to support new tire sizes may be the real imagineers.

      • Despite making motor vehicle tires since 1932 Nokia did not make tires for bicycles until 1975. The earliest listing that I can find for a 650b Hakkapeliitta is in the 1978 Nokia tires catalog. The only size listed is a non-studded 26″ x 1 5/8 (584x44mm). In 1980 Nokia started selling their motor vehicle tires in Canada. This was the first time they had sold there tires into north America. This does not mean that they also exported bicycle tires as Nokia’s core export was motor vehicle tires. In the UK, Nokia’s importer only reluctantly agreed to import bicycle tires because Geoff Apps asked them to. And he became the sole distributor of these tires because they couldn’t be bothered to bicycle tires.

        The 700c Hakkas appeared before the 650Bs and were the first tires to have tungsten carbide ice studs. The general trend was that they introduced narrow tires first and fat versions last. Apps tried unsuccessfully to persuade them to make 700c x 54mm Hakkas.

        Bruce Gordon says that he was initially inspired by a 700c x 47mm Hakkapeliitta that he acquired in 1988, a size that Apps says that he also exported to Gary Fisher. But its interesting that Gordon reduced the width to 43mm when he copied it to create the “Rock n’ Road. It is also on record that Wes Williams wanted a narrower 700c Nano-raptor but Gary Fisher won the argument in favor of a 2” version.

        I like your idea that ultimately it those who take the greatest risks who deserve
        most credit. But from a historical viewpoint, it’s the insignificant contributions, that later turn out to have long lived repercussions, that are most fascinating.

        An important update on the 650b Ritchey true date are the comments of 1980’s Ritchey employee and fellow 650b frame-builder Lennard Zinn. Elsewhere in a 1882 publication Zinn describes the first Ritchey 650b bike as a lightweight cyclo-cross racer. Next to a photo taken at InterBike Zinn desribes the Ritchey as 1980, but that’s still too early to be built for the Hakkapeliittas that Apps first exported from late 1981. He also says that the supply of these 650b tires dried up when Gary Fisher stopped importing them around 1984. Which implies that Apps was the sole supplier to the Marin frame-builders.

        This first webpage below has a link to picture of a second 1980’s Ritchey 650b, that is now fitted with drop handlebars.



        Lennard Zinn’s comment describing the 650b Ritchey as being from 1980 is next to image 3 of 11.

      • Still more inception dates to choose from. Your account of the importation of 650b Hakkas is compelling, and convinces me that date must be somewhere in between. Unless, of court, the frame was designed as a touring bike for another 650b tire. Graham, what is you association with Apps? Are you just an enthusiast and a historian, or more?

        Interesting that both Gordon and Williams were calling for narrower tires, as they both like to claim some foresight of large-volume 700c bikes and the “invention” of the 29er. The 80 or 81 Apps bike came long before.

        • Hi Nicholas,
          On the topic of the width of 700c tires that people wanted. Here is a quote from Don Cook who was also hassling Mark Slate for some big tires: ‘Every time I asked Mark about the tire he would throw his hands up and say, “You want a tire that’s big, like 52mm in casing size, and Wes keeps asking me to make one that’s 47 or 48mm. What’s it gonna be?” I was frustrated.’ Apparently it was Gary Fisher who decided on 52mm who chose the size because it was he who paid for the NanoRaptor molding costs.
          If you research the tire widths referred to in the various accounts of Bruce Gordon and Wes Williams you will find that they were in fact evangelists for narrower 700c tires.

          As for me… I am an evangelist for both old and modern Cleland style bikes and the riding ethos that underlies them. Though we live 400 miles apart, I work with Geoff Apps in designing and promoting these bikes and their componentry. I have known and ridden with Geoff since 1984 and we share a similar ‘blue skies approach’ when it comes to bicycle design. I am also a self appointed historian of pre 1990’s off-road cycling. However, in order to avoid any conflicts of interest when referring to Cleland related topics, I usually cite irrefutable primary and contemporary sources of information.

          On the topic of the alleged 1977 650b Ritchie, you should read the comments of Bill Savage on this RetroBike’ forum.

    • Kenne, I went for a ride with Tristan in Whitehorse. I met him at the bicycle shop in town as I was riding from AK down to the lower states. I see that you have tried to contact him. Let me know if you would like an e-mail address. I’m glad to see his trip has been going well.


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