Elephant In The Room: The Great E-Bike Controversy. Gary electric dirt bike

Elephant In The Room: The Great E-Bike Controversy

One should never dwell too deeply on any polarizing statement frivolously tapped out in the Комментарии и мнения владельцев section of any online article or posting. The stunning language, poorly argued opinions, hilarious misspellings and ill-informed “facts” expressed by virtually anonymous people can boil the blood of even the most level-headed, stable person. This is especially true with hot-button topics such as the emergence of electric-assist mountain bikes.

For example, read this comment posted in regards to a Dirt Rag mention of the Lapierre Overvolt electric-assist mountain bike:

The first one of these that I see on the local trails I’m taking out. See, you need to cull the heard of weaker less capable bikes (or ones that allow weaker and less capable people on the trails). Remember, it’s much more humane to cull the heard of early in the season than let some fat ass tourist run out of go-go 10 miles from the trail head.

A lot of the fear, concerns and opinions rest on the misconception that people will be out tearing up the local trails on a slimmed-down version of a motorcycle—a vehicle lacking any human effort to propel it.

It’s safe to assume that no bicycle manufacturer, advocacy organization, land manager, professional athlete or casual rider will ever want to see Harley-Davidson’s recently announced electric motorcycle ripping around Kingdom Trails in Vermont, Gooseberry Mesa in Utah or your local ribbon of buff singletrack. What we’re investigating in this article are bicycles: machines that are moved by the use of actual leg muscles, yet also feature a small electric motor to augment its forward movement.

There are at least a few different technologies from various manufacturers that use a motor somehow engaged by the rider to assist with movement of the bike. That means real effort is still required to turn the pedals. Electric-assist bicycles do not move forward by themselves.

For simplification, clarification and efficiency with regard to this topic, we’ll generalize all of this technology and collectively refer to it as “electric-assist.”

Bicycles sporting some form of electric enhancement have been around for a long time. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lee Iacocca, once the head of Chrysler and Ford, led one of the first companies to bring a serious electric bike to market, branded as “eBike.” Iacocca brought a high level of business acumen, lots of money and a certain level of legitimacy to the electric-bicycle concept. While eBike eventually folded, it did prove that the concept was ready for the big time.

Today, electric-assist bicycle technology comes in a few flavors. There are versions like the BionX system, which is an aftermarket product that retrofits any current bike by adding a battery to the frame and an electric motor in the hub of the rear wheel. Currie Technologies, owned by the Dutch bicycle mega-company Accell Group, also offers systems that can be retrofitted to current standard bicycles while also offering more integrated solutions to the likes of Haibike. Bosch, the company that provides the electrical system for many automobiles, now licenses a very slick and rather aesthetically unobtrusive electric system based around the bottom bracket. And, clinging to the inherent independent nature of mountain biking, you also have smaller start-ups delivering custom electric-assist technology and complete bikes, such as Kranked, based in British Columbia.

Personal Concerns

On a very basic level, some riders feel personally threatened by the mere existence of a bicycle equipped with any sort of motor. Some mountain bikers seem to have a potent combination of delicate egos and well-trained bodies. While struggling up a difficult climb, seeing a less-fit person breeze by using anything other than oxygen, muscle and determination will leave many riders seeing red and dismissing the offending rider as well as whatever new technology is carrying him or her up the hill.

Rob Kaplan is vice president of sales and marketing for Currie Technologies. It’s his job to be aware of the criticisms of the electric- assist mountain bike and to debunk the myths. One of the most audible knocks against the concept is that “it’s cheating because it’s an electric motorcycle.” Kaplan counters that thought by reasoning, “It is not cheating, as these are ‘assist.’ You must pedal, and pedal hard at times. It simply amplifies your output, allowing you to do more than you otherwise could.”

While so many of us cyclists love new gadgets and concepts to improve our ride experience, the dirty truth is that many of us cling to tradition and remain very stubborn when it comes to emerging technologies on or around the bicycle.

Gary Fisher is one of the forefathers of the mountain bike and a proponent of many technologies that were once considered disruptive, but are now taken for granted on our bikes. Fisher fought early and fought strongly for the 29-inch mountain bike wheel concept and faced lots of resistance. He said, “There would be 50 mountain bikes this guy would have in his shop. Two of them would be 29ers. They looked like orphans. ‘Who’s going to buy that?’” He also ran into friction when he tried to spec suspension forks on his bikes. “I was the first maker to put it [a suspension fork] on a [production] bike, and all my internal sales guys thought I was crazy, thought I was stupid,” Fisher remembers.

It’s obvious that we’re seeing the same kinds of battles today when it comes to electric-assist mountain bikes, and Fisher recognizes that these bikes are very disruptive to the status quo of mountain biking. Yet he sees electric-assist mountain bikes as inevitable—and a positive evolution. “People will try it and say they had too much fun: ‘I’m out of shape, I wanted to go do the high altitude.’ We’ve got hardcore stuff here in the States, man. We have high altitude, baking-hot weather. That bike is gonna make everything easy,” Fisher predicts. You go out with a group of people and three of them that aren’t normally so fast are on electric bikes. That’s cool. Believe me. This stuff is gonna come.”

Fisher’s statement touches on an important point: inclusion. And it’s something that bicycle companies are eager to capitalize on. We all ride at different paces and enjoy mountain biking for different reasons. Yet we have to admit that mountain bike riding requires significant physical commitments, which can be prohibitive to a potentially huge market.

The fact is that a lot of people don’t ride mountain bikes because getting themselves and the bikes up and over some hills and other obstacles is just too difficult.

The fact is that a lot of people don’t ride mountain bikes because getting themselves and the bikes up and over some hills and other obstacles is just too difficult. Sure, a whole category of our beloved sport sees riders being toted up a hill in the back of a pickup truck or on a ski lift for the sole purpose of bombing down the mountain. But most mountain bikers—and potential mountain bikers—also enjoy the simpler act of riding trails, exploring the woods and making a day out of a bike ride. The argument goes that if you help alleviate some of the physical challenges of mountain biking, the sport will “see more butts on bikes.”

Bjørn Enga, owner of Kranked, sees the writing on the wall. “Everyone that has tried my electric bikes has loved the experience; [it] blew their minds. The market is so much bigger than the bike market caters to at the present moment. The number of people on this planet that can actually ride their bike up a hill, let alone a mountain, is tiny.”

It’s a safe argument to make that the spirit of mountain bike technology lies with the tinkerers, the visionaries, and those willing to take risks. That’s how mountain biking was “invented,” that’s why the 29-inch wheel is so ubiquitous now and that’s why we’re starting to see electric-assist mountain bikes. While much mountain bike innovation might come from these independent minds, it’s not exclusively their domain.

“Electric-assist mountain bikes are turning on new riders and adding to the growth of cycling. It will be another entry point or maturation point for the overall cycling market,” says Travis Ott, Trek global mountain bike brand manager. Trek currently produces three models of electric- assist mountain bikes, which are powered by the Bosch system. While the hardtail Powerfly is currently available only in Europe, Trek is carefully watching the U.S. market for the moment when it makes the most sense to release an electric-assist mountain bike stateside. “If it gets more people on bikes, enjoying off-road riding, extending their ability to ride, getting them back into riding, enabling them to go further, riding with buddies they wouldn’t otherwise be, whatever, I’m all for it,” says Ott. “The more people in the sport, the better.”

Electric-assist bikes in a more urban setting are definitely starting to catch on in the United States. But Europeans have embraced electric- assist bicycles for several years. Mike Defresne publishes an electric- bicycle magazine in Belgium. He also publishes O2 Bikers, the largest mountain bike magazine in the country. Defresne explains that cycling in Europe is a very social activity and that electric-assist mountain bikes allow people to go farther and spend more time with their friends.

“Organized recreational rides are very popular, with distances going from 10 to 80 kilometers [6 to 50 miles],” he explains. “People like to do that, and with electric-assist mountain bikes, they can do longer distances and [ride] later in their lifetime. Now you see people that are 50 years old and beyond buying electric-assist mountain bikes because they don’t have the condition anymore to suffer on the bike. Because biking is a social thing, electric-assist mountain bikes will help them biking with their friends.”

Defresne is quick to point out, however, that electric-assist mountain biking in Europe is not quite an electrical utopia. “It’s a little like bringing back motorbikes into the woods, which is not good for our image,” he admits. “Plus, our market is performance oriented, so bikers are still embarrassed to admit they need electric assistance.”

While some people may perceive electric-assist mountain bikes to be a threat or an embarrassment, more and more people are also seeing them as opportunities.

Todd Gallaher was a cycle courier in Seattle and a professional mountain bike racer. Bicycles provided his livelihood. While leading out a teammate during a local criterium road race, Gallaher hit the deck. Hard. In addition to several broken bones and abrasions, he suffered a fracture on the distal end of his femur and a broken patella. He had to keep working, and putting some electric power on his mountain bike allowed him to work, rehab the injuries and recapture some of the fun of riding. “The add-on power plant to my race mountain bike let me fly along with my right foot clipped in and the broken leg on a platform pedal,” he says.

Environmental Concerns

While lots of sensitive (and vocal) mountain bikers may have their egos threatened by someone rolling past on an electric-assist mountain bike, most riders are more concerned with the potential impact that electric-assist mountain bikes will have on trails. Physics dictates that trails will deteriorate more quickly because electric-assist mountain bikes create more torque. torque means wheels will turn with more force. wheel force at the contact point with the soil negatively impacts the trails. And if the sport of mountain biking sees a sudden influx of riders like everyone is expecting, existing trails might not be able to handle more people. The situation is complicated by the fact that many new riders might not be up to date on their trail etiquette and rule following.

If [the trail] is made for mountain bikes with no motor assist, and people are using [electric-assist] on the trail, then I think it’s going to be bad for cycling in general.

Professional mountain bike racer and ardent trail advocate Mark Weir explains one of his concerns: “If it’s a green-sticker trail—a green sticker refers to California’s classification of allowing off-highway vehicles, motorized or not, to operate on public lands year-round— then electric-bike people are going to have to start doing trail work. But if [the trail] is made for mountain bikes with no motor assist, and people are using [electric-assist] on the trail, then I think it’s going to be bad for cycling in general.”

Currie Technologies has been in the electric-assist bicycle game since 1997, and Kaplan is keenly aware of the delicate ground upon which electric-assist mountain bikes tread. “I was in the thick of the trail-access issues in NorCal in the ’80s. I know that trail access is a fragile thing and that most mountain bikers do not take it for granted,” he says. Kaplan’s approach to land access and electric-assist bikes is a positive one. “This category can help get more participation in our activity and more participation means more demand for infrastructure and more political juice.”

Frank Maguire is a former IMBA regional manager and has built many miles of trails with his own hands. He doesn’t necessarily see a problem with the actual electric-assist mountain bike product. As an advocate of open space and sustainable trail-building, he’s more concerned with the higher number of trail users and their impact on existing trails and how to manage that situation: “[The problem is] not the users saying, ‘Oh, they shouldn’t be here.’ It’s more along the lines of, ‘Can we actually accommodate them? Can we say this is OK?’ Because we’re going to have more people in more places where maybe it wasn’t a big deal before. But now that there’s more people there, it’s going to be a problem.”

elephant, room, great, e-bike, controversy

It’s interesting to note that IMBA is not specifically against electric-assist mountain bikes. Instead of creating heated resistance, IMBA, through a recently published white paper, essentially explains that the organization wants to ensure that mountain bikes and anything with a motor are classified separately. The white paper explains, “IMBA is an advocate for the interests of mountain biking and the development and maintenance of singletrack trails. IMBA objects to land-management practices and principles that address mountain biking and motorized uses as a single class.”

While that statement doesn’t support electric-assist mountain bikes, it certainly doesn’t dismiss them. Mark Eller, communications director for IMBA, further explains the organization’s position by stating, “Mountain biking is a human powered activity. Anything with a motor or power assist is considered a ‘motorized’ form of recreation…pedal-assist or not. We are not against motorized or pedal-assist technology, but they are inherently different experiences. There’s a non-motorized experience that people crave. A bicycle is a simple machine.”

To illustrate this point, Eller explains, “Paddling a canoe and getting around with an outboard motorboat are two different ways to enjoy being out on the water. While they differ significantly and are usually separated, they are able to get along.”

Going Forward

Aside from some vocal opponents of electric-assist mountain bikes, the consensus seems to be that these forms of mountain bikes are coming and their momentum can’t be stopped. Bicycle-industry insiders definitely get a twinkle in their eye when they see the financial possibilities that lie within the largely untapped market.

With an aging and increasingly overweight population in the United States that’s transcending most demographics, we’re going to see more people with the need and desire to get outside and be active. According to a 2012 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) titled “Prevalence of obesity and trends in the distribution of body mass index among U.S. adults, 1999–2010,” 35.5 percent of adult men and 35.8 percent of adult women were classified as obese in 2010. Between 1980 and 2000, the Centers for Disease Control tells us, obesity rates in children and adults in the United States doubled, tripling among adolescents. With information like this, some sort of adaption to the concept of a mountain bike needs to at least be considered for mountain biking to remain relevant.

As such, IMBA concedes that ignoring the electric-assist mountain bike trend is a fool’s errand. Eller explains, “We are considering [electric-assist mountain bikes] at the 2014 IMBA World Summit because we have no business burying our heads in the sand by pretending electric mountain bikes don’t exist. It makes no sense to ignore the issue. We [mountain bikers] are born out of an innovative approach to technology, so we need to continue to look at how mountain bike technology will change.”

Exactly how to change the mind of the consumer is something that will be up to the marketing departments and other proponents of the concept. “Legitimacy happens when riders, journalists, opinion makers and the opinionated experience the technology and have an amazing experience. This experience makes them adopt the technology,” explains Enga. While it’s true that seeing (or riding) is believing in many cases, the question of how to get people to give it a chance is the real trick.

elephant, room, great, e-bike, controversy

Poison Spider Bicycles in Moab, Utah, is one of the premier shops in one of the premier mountain biking locations in the world. With more than 40,000 people coming through the doors of the shop each year to rent bikes, it’s safe to say that Poison Spider can be considered highly influential in the mountain bike world. Bicycle companies often provide rental fleets to renowned shops like Poison Spider to market their latest bikes to the public.

Electric bikes will also get people into the backcountry that should not necessarily be doing it by bicycle…this will bring up issues of not being prepared, not having the proper clothing, food and water.

Getting electric-assist mountain bikes in a powerful shop like Poison Spider would surely tempt seasoned cyclists to consider buying and riding electric-assist bikes. However, Poison Spider is having none of it. Owner Scott Newton explains, “We already have access issues on certain trails, and we get categorized into the ‘no mechanized vehicles allowed’ classification,” he says. “If all of a sudden there are more electric bikes on trails that are built for mountain bikes, hiking, and horseback riding, it might ruin it for the non-motorized bikes.” The issue is compounded by the fact that the landscape around Moab can be extremely inhospitable to humans. “Electric bikes will also get people into the backcountry that should not necessarily be doing it by bicycle,” Newton adds. “This will bring up issues of not being prepared, not having the proper clothing, food and water.”

While Moab might not be the most welcoming place for people to demo electric-assist mountain bikes, private resorts could present the possibility of offering electric-assist rentals or demos. Ski resorts, which have special use permits with the U.S. Forest Service or other public-lands agencies, or situated on private land and have long been offering mountain bike programs during the summer to increase off- season revenues. If electric-assist mountain bikes were provided to the rental and demo fleets at these resorts, they could easily welcome a new generation of cycling enthusiasts.

Sara Burdon from Lapierre echoes the adage that riding is believing: “At the moment, we can’t make them fast enough. The key to sales is testing. At first, many people are skeptical. However, once they have tried them, lots of people change their mind. What’s astonishing is how many customers are coming over to electric bikes.”

For Ott, he feels a heavyweight personality or company can help push a trend into the marketplace. “Demand can be seeded many different ways,” he offers. “However, more often than not, it takes a big player to stick his or her neck out to really help things gain traction. With 29ers, it was Gary Fisher and Gary Fisher dealers who pushed 29ers for a decade before the market really caught on. With electric- assist mountain bikes, you’re starting to see those big players step in. And one of those players is Bosch, who’s helping to create a viable electric-assist drivetrain.”

Larry Pizzi, president of Currie Technologies, is fully aware of the impact, literal and figurative, that electric-assist mountain bikes can have on trails and access. “We [the electric-assist bicycle industry] certainly don’t want to do anything that would put trail access at risk and negate the great work that IMBA has done over the last few decades,” Pizzi says. “We are hoping that we can get IMBA’s help to promote electric-assist bikes and all of the places that electric- assist bikes can be legally used today, and then, as the category is better understood, begin to work on broader access in areas that make sense.”

Weir understands the passion, the politics, and the realities of the situation and that getting everyone to play along is a delicate job. “People are super passionate about losing where their spirit is,” he says. “But you can’t win with just force. You really gotta get in there and work it out with everyone so everyone’s happy.”

According to Gary Fisher, new technologies follow a roughly 10- year cycle before they’re commonly accepted. “It takes 10 years for just about everything. That front fork I was telling you about…it took 10 years,” he says. “We had a dual-suspension bike at the end of 1991, and that whole program didn’t sell until 2001 when Paola Pezzo won a World Cup on one. Took 10 years for carbon bikes. Ten years for titanium bikes. It’s all about the speed of the gray matter! Just relax and hit it right on time and you’re gonna hit the early adopters at the beginning.” He goes on to say, “There are going to be more people having fun…there are going to be more people buying our bikes! This whole sport is going to be bigger! I think it’s going to be great.”

Editor’s Note: The rapidly growing popularity of e-bikes on trails is ruffling a lot of feathers in the mountain bike community. In Dirt Rag #179 we took an in-depth look at the issue and received a lot of feedback. Here you’ll find the IMBA’s position on “motorized” bicycles. Dirt Rag magazine supports IMBA’s stance and believes electric-assist bikes should be limited to motorized vehicle trails only. As such, we currently won’t be testing any electric bikes off-road.

This site is an independently-operated mirror and is not affiliated with Dirt Rag, Rotating Mass Media or any of its current or former subsidiaries. No copyright is claimed for any content appearing herein.

The Best Electric Dirt Bikes of 2023

Remarkably, only one of them went for the Dirt-E joke.

The motoring world is going electric. And it’s not just fancy, 1,000-horsepower, six-figure electric trucks. Electric motorcycle options have been increasing over the past few years. And even the relatively humble and underpowered dirt bike segment now offers a proliferation of emissions-free options — and we’re here to help you separate the battery-powered wheat from the chaff.

Why You Should Get an Electric Dirt Bike

Helps Save the Planet: Smaller motorcycles are far from the most fuel-thirsty vehicles. But electric dirt bikes still reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and every little bit helps.

Less Maintenance: Electric motors require far fewer moving parts. That means more time riding and less time (and money) replacing parts. You also don’t need to buy things like oil.

Less Noise: Electric dirt bikes do make some noise, but they make less than internal-combustion dirt bikes — noise that can diminish the enjoyment of being in nature for riders and those nearby.

Accessible to New Riders: Like electric cars, electric dirt bikes do not need a manual transmission. This may disappoint some riders looking for a traditional feel. But it’s also way easier to manage while off-road.

Torque: Electric dirt bikes tend to have a lot of torque, and it comes on instantly. This helps them accelerate rapidly and feel quick in everyday riding.

What to Look For

Street Legality: Like combustion dirt bikes, many of them will not be street-legal. And you may live in a municipality that will confiscate and crush them if you try to use them for that — electric or not. There are dual-sport electric dirt bikes (lighter than adventure motorcycles), which can also be used as commuter bikes. But make sure you clarify that before buying.

Battery Range: Range is a significant drawback to any electric vehicle. You want to ensure you have enough range to do the amount of riding you’re planning. expensive electric dirt bikes will have range that can exceed what most drives can handle physically. But that may be costly.

Battery Charging: A nother important factor beyond range is how long it takes to charge the battery. Shorter is better. Manufacturers may offer accessories that improve charging speed. Some dirt bikes can instantly swap in a newly charged battery and return to the trail.

How We Tested

Gear Patrol writers and editors are continually testing the best electric dirt bikes on a variety of terrains to update this guide looking at features like comfort, ease of use and riding characteristics. Our testers have spent time riding the Zero XF and the Cake Kalk INK so far; however, we’ll be updating this guide as we continue to test more models.

Zero’s FX isn’t a one-trick pony; it’s good at a little bit of everything. It’s fast but torque-heavy up front. For comparison, it’s nimble but still about 50 pounds heavier than KTM’s 350EXC-F. And it’s quiet, which anyone who’s ridden a dual sport before knows has distinct advantages and downsides. (Upsides include not disturbing nature as you ride through and saving your eardrums; cons include being unable to announce yourself to other riders on the trail or cars on the street.)

The FX’s ride is very smooth — from city streets to rutted-out trails and even completely off-road in the ungroomed wild. The tires grip well on city streets, even after a light rain. The FX can reach a top speed of 85, but I rarely found myself pushing it above 65 — this is a great cruising bike built for the trails as much as it is for the road. The acceleration feels torque-y until you get the hang of the feeling; I’d recommend starting in Eco until you get a feel for how the bike handles, experienced rider or not.

The profile is lean and mean, just as advertised. Your tester is 5’4” and weigh 110 pounds, and she could handle and maneuver this bike with relative ease, although she did make sure to get comfortable on the bike on uncrowded trails before taking it to the streets. Zero says the charging time is 1.3 hours, but I found it to be much longer than that. the bike was delivered to me with an 80 percent charge, and it took more than two hours to get it full. The range is 91 miles which is a solid day’s ride, but unless you have the means to give the bike a good overnight charge, you’ll be SOL the next day. And that 91-mile range is in the city — if you’re riding on the highway at 70 mph without starting and stopping, it drops to 39 miles per charge.

We’ve been fans of Swedish manufacturer Cake — and Stefan Ytterborn’s helmet/eyewear/apparel brand, POC — for years. Founded in 2016, Cake has consistently put out smooth, innovative electric bikes that offer both gorgeous looks and purpose-built function.

The Kalk class of offroaders, however, is much more about play than work. The street-legal Kalk INK picks up quick thanks to 252Nm of electric torque, while reliable suspension (200mm of travel) and beefy dual-sport motorcycle tires help you keep the shiny side up from the road to the trails.

  • Removable battery charges from 0 to 80 percent in two hours, 0 to 100 percent in three
  • Three ride modes and three braking modes adapt to your style and environment
  • Not exactly the cushiest seat on the planet (or this page)
  • You must come to a full stop to adjust ride and braking modes

TOM RITCHEY and the Early Years of Mountain Biking

The Legendary Bikemaker Tells His Story

Racing background: Tom raced the Absa Cape Epic a few years ago on Team Rwanda, an outgrowth of his charitable work in battling poverty in the war-torn nation. Photo courtesy Tom Ritchey

Tom Ritchey turned 20 years old in 1976, the year that Charlie Kelly, Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze and their friends started making history with their first fat-tired bike races down the fire roads of Marin County, California. Ritchey lived about 40 miles south of them in Menlo Park, California. He was a formidable road bike racer as a junior, one of the best anyone had ever seen. At 16 he entered the prestigious Crockett-Martinez race in May of 1973 and annihilated his competition, including two riders from the 1972 Olympic team. Ritchey ended up getting disqualified for being under 18. “They called me ‘The Senior Slayer,’” Ritchey recalls. “I beat most of the guys on the Olympic team.”

Instead of aiming to race in the next Olympics, Tom took a different path. Ritchey’s dad was a cyclist and engineer who had taught his son how to use tools and build things at an early age. At 5, Tom built a three-story tree house in the back- yard, then fell 15 feet to the ground while starting the fourth story.

In the spring of 1972 Ritchey went even further: “My dad had some tools in the shop, and I said, ‘Dad, I want to build my own bike.’ I not only built my first frame at 15, but at 16 I built my own stem, which was considered crazy in some people’s minds. It was half the weight of a Cinelli stem. I was selfish. I was a racer at 15 years old, trying to keep up with the Olympic team, and I needed every advantage I could get.”

The Skyline shop: Tom built his log cabin/workshop in 1980 and still uses it today.


After making his first road bike frame for himself, Ritchey built another one for his friend Donny McBride, then 100 more over the next 12 months. Ritchey more than doubled his production the following year. By the time Tom finished high school, he was turning out hundreds of frames a year and would soon be considered one of the best bike builders in America. Ritchey started building bikes with oversized tubing, using fillet brazing and lugless construction to save weight and cut production time.


Mountain bike historians usually credit Joe Breeze or Gary Fisher with the invention of the mountain bike, but Tom Ritchey deserves a great deal of the credit too. It was Ritchey’s early mountain bike frames that would become a veritable blueprint for how mountain bikes would look in the future. The fact that Ritchey’s frames were sold by Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly’s company, MountainBikes, would lead to a disproportionately small share of credit for Tom’s huge contribution to the birth of the sport and his influence on the evolution of the modern-day mountain bike. Tom Ritchey’s role in the rise of mountain biking in the late 1970s and early 1980s was enormous, with Ritchey having played a much bigger role than the mountain bike industry has previously acknowledged. In fact, one could reasonably argue that Tom Ritchey’s role in the development of the mountain bike was as great or greater than that of anyone else in the sport’s history.

When Ritchey was asked who he thinks deserves credit for the invention of the mountain bike, he talks about the men who influenced him, giving the most credit to his friend Jobst Brandt, but also acknowledging John Finley Scott and some of the other engineers who guided Tom in his early years.


Though Ritchey was a road bike racer, he and his buddies actually did much of their training on dirt fire roads and trails, usually led by Tom’s dad’s friend, Jobst Brandt, a Stanford-trained mechanical engineer who had helped develop the braking system on the 911 Porsche after his military service in Germany.

“People have no idea the thousands and thousands of miles I rode off-road with Jobst Brandt before the first mountain bike came into being,” Ritchey told EBA. “Not just me, but many others who have no name recognition. With the long distances we were traveling on any given Sunday, 100 to 150 miles, we put more dirt miles into exploring the Santa Cruz Mountains —and also Marin/Point Reyes—than any other ‘pioneer mountain biker’ I’ve ever talked to. The story of JB’s rides has never truly been told.

“We were all on tubular tires those days, and bikes were not as durable or as capable as they later became,” Ritchey recalls. “The bike industry hadn’t yet developed modern test standards to refine equipment, so from Jobst I learned the concept of ‘personal fatigue testing.’”

“The founding four”: (From left) Tom Ritchey, Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher all played key roles in the rise of our sport in the late 1970s. Photo by Bob Huff


John Finley Scott was inducted into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 2008 (posthumously) for building “the world’s first known mountain bike,” a knobby-tired, multi-speed bike he built in 1953 that he called his “Woodsie” (or “Woodsy”), which he rode off-road in the same areas that Ritchey did. Scott was a sociology professor at nearby Univeristy of California at Davis (UC Davis) and a cantankerous character, but one who could turn on the charm if needed in his role as a leading advocate for cyclists’ rights.

Ritchey recalls how Finley would yell, “I hate you, Ritchey!” every time he saw Tom. The greeting was probably in jest, since they talked frequently over the years. Ritchey says Scott kept telling him to build a 650b bike for the dirt trails they both liked to ride. After years of Scott’s bad- gering, Ritchey finally built a 650b bike, completing it in 1977, the same year Joe Breeze built his famous Breezer “Number One.” Whose bike was completed first? No one can say for sure, but Tom says he’d already built his first 650b bike when he saw his first Breezer.

After building mountain bikes with both 650b and 26-inch wheels, Ritchey was convinced that 650b was the better size. Unfortunately, the Marin riders demanded bikes with 26-inch wheels in those days. Ritchey made 10 more of his 650b mountain bikes in 1979, but the Marin crowd didn’t want them, so he sold most of them to John Finley Scott, who purchased the Cupertino Bike Shop in January 1981.

Scott’s often-abrasive manner may have cost him his life. After Scott confronted his tree trimmer for forging Scott’s signature on some checks in 2006, John Finley Scott disappeared. Though Scott’s body was never found, the bloody crime scene and compelling motive were enough to convict Charles Cunningham (not the one in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame) of Scott’s murder.

Ritchey’s roots: Tom and his buddies were riding road bikes on dirt more than 40 years ago. Photo courtesy Tom Ritchey


“I had probably built about 1000 road bikes before I built my first mountain bike,” Tom recalls. “Joe [Breeze] initially came to me in ’77 or ’78, and he ordered a tandem for himself and Otis [Guy]. It was at that meeting that he brought his ‘Number One,’ the first bike that he built for himself, the purpose-built bike with the double laterals. I had very minimal awareness that there was, you know, a different kind of ballooner-kind-of-lifestyle thing going on up there in Marin.

“The next thing I knew, the next day—within a day, I remember it was that quick—I got a call from Gary [Fisher], whom I knew, and who was also a racer that I raced against. He said, ‘Hey, if you build one for yourself and you want to build another, I’ll buy it.’ “So I said, ‘Okay.’” While he was at it, Tom decided to build a third bike as well, without telling Gary.

“He didn’t know anything about it,” Tom recalls, “until I called him up and said, ‘Your bike is ready.’ And so, at that point, I told Gary that if he knew someone who wanted the third one, I’d sell him that one too. That was pretty much the long and short of the entire business conversation. There was no real input about what the bike was going be designed around or anything like that, so I basically made it the way I wanted it. Gary liked it, and as a result of showing his bike, he sold the third one.

“The next thing I did was I built 10 bikes, and I said to both Gary and, at that time, Charlie [Kelly] that they could sell them. If you read Charlie’s stories, they had quickly thrown in their lot together with I think 100 bucks cash. The business plan was ‘Tom’s going to build some bikes, and he said we could sell them.’ So, basically, I was financing them.

“I knew they didn’t have money, and John Finley didn’t come along until a while later [Scott later loaned Fisher 10,000 to help sustain his MountainBikes business]. So, in the very beginning, I was financing their new business. I took the initiative to build as many bikes as I wanted. And for the first year or so, in that seed-time period in the late ’70s/early ’80s, it was pretty much my decision whether I was going to build them, not build them, sell them, or make them available to them or somebody else.

Ritchey #1: This was Tom Ritchey’s first fat-tired off-road bike. He built it in 1977, he recalls, with 650b (27.5-inch) wheels, which few other riders wanted back then.

“I didn’t really know what was going to work out, but I made the bikes available to them, and they seemed to be the only ones who had customers for them. I think people found out—because I was taken seriously as a builder back then—that I was building some of these ballooner bikes, and they actually thought I was being silly with my skills.

“The cross-country riding that I was doing previous to riding the very first Repack race was significant, as significant in terms of condition and roads and trails as anything they were doing with balloon tires. We were riding every weekend on dirt—Jobst [ Brandt] since the ’60s and me in the ’70s—for tens of thousands of miles leading up to the first Repack race. So, as far as a purpose-built bike for off- road, it was definitely more important to me than it was to practically anybody, because that’s what we rode.”

EBA: What was your first Repack race like?

Tom Ritchey: From my recollection, I had already started to work on a tandem project that Joe [Breeze] and Otis [Guy] ordered, I was invited either by Joe or Gary to come up and race one of the last Repacks. I think I had also started work on my first mountain bike, clunker or ballooner—whatever it was called at that time—but I hadn’t completed it, so I went up there and had kind of a quick yell-out and said, “Whose bike can I borrow?” and I ended up borrowing Wende Cragg’s, which basically was just about as classic as any of the bikes that you’ve seen from that kind of Schwinn-heritage category. I hurled myself into the race and down the hill, and—oh, shoot, just a couple of minutes into the race the handlebars rotated.” It was pretty much unrideable [laughs], and I ended up getting off, jerking on the handlebars to get them back to straight and got to the bottom. It really wasn’t much of an experience, other than that it initiated my thought process that had to do with the first Bullmoose handlebar and the one- piece system that I knew was needed for a purpose-built, off-road bike. Basically, my experience wasn’t a good one on Repack, and I think it was the last of the Repacks, so basically the whole thing was on its way out, and that was my takeaway—the bikes can go downhill because they weigh 50 pounds, and the bars couldn’t take a bump, so it was pretty much a learning experience for me.

EBA: How did you come to start building the early MountainBikes for Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly?

TR: They didn’t know much about my capabilities or capacities. Basically, I made the bike for myself and then announced to Gary when his bike was ready that there was another bike that I had made. I made three, because it just made sense to me. If I was going to build one, two or three, it didn’t really make a lot of sense for me to not build three at that time. I was a production-minded guy. The main thing was that the original bikes that they had, even Joe’s first bike, were so heavy that I really didn’t look at it as a bike that I wanted to copy or ride. Matter of fact, at the original Repack races, if you know the history and you see the images and all, they didn’t ride them as cross-country bikes. They used pickup trucks—Fred Wolf’s pickup truck and others—to drive them up the hill and then, you know, hurl them down the hill. The whole concept that they were working from was not interesting to me. I was much more interested in developing a lightweight cross-country bike, and I had the capability of fabricating all kinds of things that had to do with the specialty of making it that way. I think my first bike, even with the super- heavy wheels that were being used, was about 10 pounds lighter than Joe’s bike and about 20 pounds lighter than Gary’s bike. And so, really, the Repack experience taught me that the handlebars were terrible. The weight of the bikes was terrible. The pickup-truck idea of riding wasn’t who I was. In order for me to do the right thing, I needed to figure out a way to make these truly cross-country bikes. That’s what I did. And so that’s what launched things in what was somewhat of a spectacular way. They saw quickly what my interests and ideas and capabilities were. They didn’t really have the ability to do much in their business, because they didn’t have any money, but they seemed to have a relationship with a lot of local people who wanted what I had to offer, and so I looked at them as a great sales and marketing conduit. I ended up creating the concept technology around the lightweight cross-country bike that soon became associated with the brand and sport.

EBA: Did you ever dream that it would catch on the way it did?

TR: Not really. I don’t think any of us thought much outside of our local playground area [laughs]. I think the way cycling was perceived globally was very Eurocentric, and there was really very little of value that was coming from the U.S. from any U.S. companies, whether it be Ritchey, Specialized, Avocet or any of these companies.

I give Greg LeMond [American Tour de France Champion] a lot of credit for fanning the flame of international interest towards the United States, which at the same time was spawning this new type of bike. Even people like [Andy] Hampsten and [Eric] Heiden, and the people that raced for me who were on the 7-Eleven team, jumped on the sport with me and Mike Neel, who worked for me. It became a very accept- able thing in a very short amount of time for a lot of reasons—not just the people in the ripple, the pond of Northern California, quickly spreading it, but it became much more spreadable with the influence of 7-Eleven and Greg and the new kind of awareness in the world that there were things happening in the United States that were worth paying attention to.


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