When we meet at Crowne Plaza, Gary Fisher is togged up in an Edwardian paisley shirt, cufflinks and suspenders, a pair of Gautier glasses perched on his nose, fedora on his head and an impressive handlebar moustache. He looks more poster boy for the penny farthing and less father of mountain biking. But, this is before the 67-year-old changes into riding gear, bandana and helmet, his gold-capped teeth and laughter lending him the air of a jolly Viking warrior. Looking back at a time in the 1960s when he had to cut his hair short to be permitted to race, California-born Fisher says, “Oh I did grow my hair long again.”
Fisher has viewed the world from a bicycle saddle for nearly half-a-century now. In India for a series of ride camps as brand ambassador of Trek, one of the world’s leading bicycle manufacturers, Fisher emphasises on cycling being one of the easiest ways of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. “A bicycle is a simple solution to some of the world’s most complicated problems,” says Fisher, his lean, fit frame silently endorsing the fact.
After a brief childhood in Guam, Fisher moved back to Beverly Hills with his mother when his parents divorced. “My grandfather worked in the movie business for 50 years. He taught me a lot, especially publicity. I was surrounded by Hollywood greats like Ronald Reagan, Joan Crawford and Walt Disney. When Disneyland opened, I learnt that if you want to succeed, you need to have great design, hype it like crazy and deliver the product.”
This mantra was to guide his business. “My first bike was a Schwinn Spitfire when I was five. Later, my father gifted me a 10-speed. I rode often with my friends and hung out with 15-year-olds who tried to get rid of us as they thought we were too young. I was 12 when I first raced. In the early 1960s there were so few bike riders in California because it took more to water sports. If you saw bike riders you’d stop and exchange phone numbers,” he laughs.
Filling a need
Although Fisher came from money, he spent his early years designing bikes sourced from junk.
“The fat tyre bike I discovered at Redwood High School, Marin County. The old Schwinn bikes that were of pre-Second World War vintage had a crankset and pedals that were higher to enable riders to get over the rocks. They were inexpensive but you spent 80% of the time pushing them uphill as they were single-speed. Downhill, the breaks wouldn’t work, smoke would come off the grease and you had to turn sharply to make it stop. Since I was working at a bike shop I learnt to fix this with power brakes and wide-range gears. I used parts from BMX bikes, tandem bikes and motorcycles. This reversed the ratio and we could now ride 80%. I made one for my roommate, one for his friend, another for the boy down the street. That was about 20 bikes in 1974. I thought they’d ride for a while but they came back saying they loved it, the bike had changed their lives. That set me thinking.”
By 1975, Fisher was a top road racer and had his sights set on the Olympics. “I was in Colorado Springs at the Olympic Training Centre when I heard that the US was boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics. I decided to start the bike company.”
In 1979, his roommate Charlie Kelly — “not from university, we were into rock and roll” — and Fisher started the company Mountain Bikes with $600. They hired frame-builders, three different painters, welders and managed to finance themselves. “By the second year we had 1,000 bikes. I was riding for a bike magazine and knew one of George Lucas’ staff who put a slide show together for us at the New York Bike Show. The Japanese government and a lot of companies, showed interest.”
Over the next 25 years, Fisher joined forces with Trek to influence how bikes, especially ones like the iconic 29er, were being designed. Fisher says “The challenge lies in designing something that hasn’t changed its basic shape in a hundred years. Reliability matters even in the least expensive bikes; otherwise, you’d only be making a bike-shaped object. Our bikes are built for poor infrastructure but are not necessarily affordable to all. Quality costs and never goes out of style.”
Fisher says that making biking popular with school kids is a priority, especially in times of childhood obesity. “When children learn to ride young, they will be lifetime customers. The fun factor will also keep them exercising.”
“Good health opens doors,” he says, “just as good dressing does. If you love the world, you’ll dress for it.” With that, Fisher uncoils like a spring, jumps up and doffs his hat as I leave.
- Gary Fisher names three places in the US to get an epiphany
- Moab, Utah, is a place you see in the Westerns, a place of incredible geography where rocks lend you traction and the sand doesn’t.
- The Avenue of Giants, North of San Francisco, is a beautiful ride through redwood trees bordered by a river.
- Crested Butte, Colorado, where at 9,000 feet elevation, the skies are incredibly blue and the people ride for the sheer joy of athletics.