Story by JASON NORMAN
SAN ANSELSO, CA (BRAIN)--Kids all around the world opened up their gifts this past Christmas, and a great many probably received bikes, possibly their first bikes, possibly a Gary Fisher bike.
So what did Gary Fisher get this past Christmas? “That coffee machine around the corner,” Fisher said non-chalantly, helping his son, Miles, put together a Christmas toy in the living room.
Fisher answered the door a couple hours earlier looking ready to work on his bike, or fleet of bikes. He wore a black Dickies one-piece work outfit and a red knit cap, sporting his customary soul patch. Even with a bum ankle that he was rehabbing from a cycling mishap, Fisher’s overall appearance still cast a shadow. He has a fighter’s physique, long, but hardly gangly. There’s a toughness to his skin and bones that can’t really be comprehended.
As soon as he opened the door to his Marin County home, Fisher quickly hobbled back to the kitchen, where he was fixing breakfast for Miles. His daughter, Rachel, sat at the kitchen table. This was the domesticated Gary Fisher many might not have known existed.
“There’s a lot more money here,” Fisher said of Marin County. “Some parts I love and some parts I’m disgusted by. The money thing is ridiculous.”
But you see: Marin is as much a part of Fisher as Fisher is Marin. He’s lived in Marin for more than 40 years, testing the first mountain bikes on trails right outside his front door. And when you look at Fisher it’s hard to believe he’s lived more than 40 years, but the guy was born all the way back in 1950. We’re talking Truman and the Korean War here.
Age, Marin County, Christmas presents, that’s all fine and dandy, but every topic of conversation for Fisher ultimately reverts back to the bike. I could have flashed Fisher January’s Playboy centerfold, and I’m sure he would have easily found a way to steer it back to what he calls a “beautiful and incredible object—maybe the happiest invention in the last 200 years.”
And that’s Fisher for you in a nutshell: the guy lives for the bicycle. He lives for making the bicycle better. More importantly, he lives for getting more people to see the way of the bike. See, in Gary Fisher’s world, that most beautiful object can (and Fisher believes) will eventually change the world, solving our deepest-rooted problems. Even if you pulled up in Fisher’s driveway in a Hummer you couldn’t help but see this as truth, as to what the future will indeed hold for mankind.
“My real dream for a bike magazine—and there’s really maybe only room for one—would be much like the model of Wired magazine,” Fisher said as his words picked up speed. “Wired magazine is about technology and computers and everything, but they don’t review computers and technology, they think from the point of mind that technology is going to save the world. They speak from that point of mind that technology is going to save the world about every world problem. And there needs to be a bicycle publication that speaks from the bicycle frame of mind.”
Fisher wasn’t done.
“You can talk in the philosophy of bike about every world issue, because Wired speaks about lots of different political issues and different types of issues, but all from that frame of mind,” he said. “The whole idea is getting people out there connecting together, people that speak from our frame of mind, that bike frame of mind. And like I said before, a bike frame of mind is we’re humble, we like things simple, we like it to be honest, we like it to be efficient. We love the beauty of efficiency. The great thing for us these days is that the world is going that way. We’re not in a sustainable society at the moment.”
Then he told me to look at the Japanese, Germans and all the Europeans for that matter. If they’ve figured it out how to be sustainable, why can’t we Americans? “We love consuming,” he said.
Gary Fisher knows a lot of people in this industry, and a lot of people know Gary Fisher. He goes way back with many of them. Mike Sinyard. Tom Ritchey. Joe Murray. The list reads longer than this story. And it makes sense considering Fisher was there for mountain biking’s birth.
“It’s like Tom Ritchey was shocked with the nice things I said about him in the movie (Klunkerz),” Fisher said of the man who built the first Fisher frames. “And I’m saying, “Tom, that’s the truth, you’re great.’ It’s kind of funny because we have a much better relationship just recently. We had I think some horrible conflict, just incredibly bad. It’s stupid and everything.
“Mike Sinyard, awe man, I’ve known Mike forever,” Fisher said. “We’ve gone round, round and around. Mike continues to be a power. It’s just great. I’ll see him on the run. I’ll say some things to him. But we are competitors. I love competition.”
The part where Fisher says he loves competition, he said that with a twinkle in his eyes. Perhaps it stems from his racing career. Perhaps it comes from the competition that steadily cropped up as Gary Fisher sold more bikes, thus becoming more successful. Fisher wouldn’t be where he’s at today if he wasn’t competitive as hell. He’d never cheat in getting there either; he’d just out hustle and outwork you.
Determination was Fisher and co-owner (and roommate) Charlie Kelly's only option in order to stay on top in the early days. “There were quite a few competitors, but the first two years we had almost nobody. In ‘79, ‘80, ‘81, it would take a year to get a Razor, it would take six months to get Kosky’s Trailmaster,” Fisher recalled. “It was nuts how long it would take to get a bike. You could come down to our place and get a bike in the same day. We were killing them that way. We had production. Then everybody and their brother got into the business. Specialized got in. Univega got in. And then it was: What brands don’t carry a mountain bike rather than do? And the guys that were new were willing to slash prices and do everything cheaper and all that. How do we stay on top? Innovation and the actual product, and then publicity. Guerilla marketing, and all of that. We did a lot of it. We had a race team. We talked about our product a lot. We got crazy exposure.”
Fisher, Kelly and Fisher's brother had a glorious run making mountain bikes, but the handwriting was on the wall in the early ‘90s to “cash in” on the empire he had built. “We were totally hawked out to our eyeballs,” Fisher said. “We were doing about 11 million in business. We were making money. We have all this huge lines of credit with people and everything. It was risky. And it was time, say, ‘Hey, it’s time, let’s cash in.’ And my brother didn’t want to stay in the business forever. He came from the computer side and he wanted to get back into that. So we sold the company.” Kelly left long before Fisher's brother came on board and the company was sold.
Fisher gave a Taiwan entity the first shot to keep the Gary Fisher machine rolling along, but things didn’t work out. “It was a disaster,” Fisher recalled. “They were losing a ton of money. Trek came along. A number of people came along and said, ‘Hey, we want to buy the name.’ It was still a very good name. I learned something from that relationship.”
What Fisher learned was that an agreement—it’s only as good as the person you make it with. And—be very careful whom you get in bed with. “I met the Burkes and everything,” Fisher said. “They’re really good people, first and foremost. People I felt good to be associated with. I come from a completely different place than do the Burkes in the Midwest. Theirs is more like, ‘Build the stuff and they will come.’ And they both have their merits. And that’s why we have a great marriage. I’ve been a self promoter to a fault.”
Fisher called the near 15-year marriage between Fisher and Trek “very good” and wanted to point out that he works for Trek, too. “We sit down at the table like a big family, and decide, ‘What’s going to go to this brand? What’s going to go to that brand?’” Fisher said. “It’s like you get 100 consumers in your shop, several different flavors. The reason why you have different brands is to be able to reach a larger percentage of that 100 people, not just a single brand, a single way of doing things.”
Being top dog in the industry—such as is the case with Trek—does mean that you’re a bigger target to public criticism. Something Fisher fully realizes, and ultimately seems to relish the lofty perch.
“People, they have attitudes about Trek, they have attitudes about Gary Fisher, about me. You know what, if they didn’t, we wouldn’t be happy I don’t think. You talk to the people that own Walmart, and it’s like, ‘Hey, these our good people.’ It’s like Nike. Nike’s become a very green company. But people will argue to the end of the earth how they’re not green. The company is based on a lot of Midwest values, which are very clear cut and simple,” Fisher said of Trek.
“We don’t always get the nicest things written about us,” Fisher added. “That’s life. You’re not doing your job unless you’re getting a certain amount of flak. C’mon, it’s supposed to be controversial.”
As Fisher shows me some travel pictures on his computer, it’s clearly evident that this man eats, sleeps and drinks bikes. He has about a dozen or so bikes on a rack in the garage. He’s got more in the backyard, along with some surfboards. He’s even got bikes hanging from the ceiling of his house.
Even though it might have its ebb and flows, Fisher believes the mountain bike will continue to sell. “Mountain biking has done quite well considering it’s no longer new,” Fisher said. “Riding off road is no longer a novelty. And the future looks good. We build a ton of trails. We are the prolific trail builders of North America. We outdo both the hikers and equestrian people as far as how much we put out, and even the quality.”
As far as what category of mountain bike is going to take off in the future, Fisher thinks they’re all important to a certain degree or another. “It’s funny, the bikes that people are going big on, doing all this incredible, spectacular riding—I wish I could do it—totally envious of them. They’re going back to 4-inch [travel], they’re using the intelligence springs more to do their tricks. That whole genre evolves and evolves and evolves. The trail bike and the cross-country segment that’s still really where most people live, that’s what they’re doing,” Fisher said.
What about carbon fiber on a mountain bike? “Carbon’s a marvelous material, but the sort of tragedy of carbon fiber it takes a really good computer, and a really good programmer, and a really good operator to make a really cool bike. In the olden days you had steel tubing from Reynolds or Columbus. You had lugs from a few different makers. There was just a finite amount of experimentation that was available, and so you could make an educated choice, and a master builder could make that decision a lot easier than you can with all these different fibers aligned all these different ways, all these different shapes. It requires a computer, and therefore you see a lot of the small guys have gone back to steel.”
What bikes are going to be hot for the future? “I think it’s bikes that are going to do things, more utility style,” Fisher said. “Hybrids are being sold to more people in their 20s now then they have recently. It’s people saying, ‘Look, I don’t need a car. I can get around on this bike.’ And I think that’s the next big thing. When you get into suburbia too. It works hand in hand with the bike activists and getting more places to ride and teaching more people how to ride.”
The thing about Gary Fisher is that he doesn’t rest on the fact that he’s Gary Fisher. The name still carries a lot of weight in the industry, but Fisher comes at it from a What have you done for me lately perspective.
“What am I bringing to the table? Am I still worth it and all of that? There’s two lifetime achievement awards up on the top shelf there,” Fisher said, standing up and pointing. “I get those things and I think to myself, ‘Is my life over? Am I done?’ It’s not the money so much as I see so much potential with the bike world and bike people. There are a large group of us that now believe we hold the cure for what a lot of what ails the world. It’s an incredible opportunity and struggle to get the word out.”