One of the many highlights of mountain biking is that the sport is still young enough that we can meet the makers, listen to their stories and ask them how they’d like to see the sport develop. So, when given the opportunity to chat with Gary Fisher, one of the men who invented mountain biking back in the 70s, that’s exactly what we did.
Sitting in the canteen at the Trek global headquarters in Wisconsin, I’d been given the heads up that an interview with Gary Fisher isn’t like an interview with anyone else. To expect tangents, to see where it goes. Consider this more of a conversation: about growing the sport, about mountain biking’s most underrated innovation, and about his vision for the future.
It’s been about 40 years now since you started turning road bikes into mountain bikes.
It’s been a long, long time. I really enjoyed when I was 63 because I could say I’m 21 three times over. [He stops and laughs a huge laugh. He turns 66 this year. Sitting there in his riding kit, still wearing the bandana he uses underneath his helmet, and exposing molars full of gold fillings, he looks like a pirate.]
I’ll tell ya, I’ve had an unfair amount of fun. [He laughs some more. I get the sense laughter is never too far away when you hang out with Gary.]
But you seem to enjoy it.
Oh yeah, I mean, come on. I’m a lucky man you know. I get to come to…I mean, I tell my wife, I’m going out to Madison. What are you going to do out there? I’m going to be out there with 50 women. She goes, ‘Ah, that’s typical.’
What gives you the biggest buzz nowadays?
Changing things. You know? That’s the biggest buzz. My excitement at this moment is [he gets serious all of a sudden] we are going to get in every single high school in the United States and I’m convinced that we can do it.
There are 179,000 high schools in the United States. Imagine if we got 10-20 riders in each one of those schools? This would be a bigger influx of bike riders than ever in the history of the United States. Now THAT is an exciting project.
Is that with NICA [the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, a group doing incredible things in schools in the USA]?
Yeah, that’s with those guys. They’re good people and everything, but we have something to bring to the party; we have an awful lot of business experience and experience with politicians and all that minutia to make this happen.
I am fully confident that we’re going to pull it off [he says convincingly]. It might take 10 years, but we’re going to pull it off.
Did you ever think you’d see something like this Trek Women’s Advocate program happen?
The women’s thing? It’s really funny because last night at [Trek President] John Burke’s house it was a completely different dynamic from the normal get together there. Normally there’ll be guys there, and they don’t talk to each other so much. They give each other a lot of space. That whole thing [the contrast] was not lost on John Burke.
He said exactly the same thing.
He really recognised that these personalities are different. And now I’m talking to people around here and saying, ‘Well, look!’ You see how the dynamic totally changes when the men are totally outnumbered by the women.
Imagine, the women have always been outnumbered by the men in all these meetings we have within this building [the Trek Bikes Global HQ]. Could we have more meetings where the women decidedly outnumber the men?
Just to see what happens?
Well, I KNOW what’s going to happen. Things will be worked out better in that whole category. We, as a business, have really failed to engage even a good majority of women. I mean a real minority is what we’ve got.
Not many women like going into the man cave. It’s building this whole other environment that a woman feels comfortable going into and working with it.
Why do you think it’s changing now?
Because we’re looking at the obvious. You look at all the stats, like, how many of your subscribers are men versus women? With bikes, with races, with all this, it’s been hovering around 10 per cent. 10-15 percent. Maybe 20 in some good situations. But that is completely unrepresentative of the amount of women that want to ride and enjoy riding.
Sometimes I think women, in general, hold themselves back in growing the sport.
Yeah. We all find that. We are our own worst enemy. In the bike industry, we’ve got real problems. We’re not a force that we deserve to be. You look at Madison Avenue [in New York City, not the band]. All the advertising agencies, they use the bike as an icon of the good life. And it’s one of the top five icons of a good life.
When you’ve made it, you’re going to go out and ride your bike and have a great time. This is real freedom and everything. While that’s great, and we get, in a way, this free advertising, we as an industry have never controlled it, that message.
We are always doing this whole guerrilla advertising sort of thing, and we’re not a big force. Especially in the United States. Only 40 per cent of people in the United States even owns a bicycle. So there’s a 60 per cent majority that has no idea how much fun we’re having! And that’s really the crazy part.
People look at us riding up a hill and go, ‘That guy’s gotta be miserable.’ And nothing could be further from the truth.
So how do we share the fun?
We start with the kids. [That massive laugh returns again as he switches to his pantomime voice.] Now you see my wicked plan!
[More wild pirate laughter. His expression says this is so obvious and excellent, that we switch instead to a different topic.]
I have another question, one that my brother was wondering when I told him about this trip. When I asked him about innovation in cycling, he commented that bike has basically looked the same for about 100 years.
Given your history in reshaping what a bike can do, what do you think are the most underrated innovations in bike design?
Hmmm. That’s a really good question… The most underrated innovations in bike design…. [he says, thinking…] because they’ve all be rated pretty high…
I know what it is! For mountain biking, it’s the trail. A good trail makes you look like a genius! [That infectious laughter again.]
I had this experience two years ago – we went to the 25th anniversary of the European World Championships. They were in France and they were held in a ski resort. It was on hiking trails, basically. We were given the opportunity to ride the original course. It hadn’t been ridden in years. And here I am riding this course and we’re walking all this stuff. It was just unrideable. It was ridiculous.
Because it hadn’t been maintained? Or because it wasn’t ridable in the first place?
It wasn’t built for mountain bikers to start with and it wasn’t…it was a really crummy trail. And quite honestly, in the beginning days of NORBA and all that we held all these races, especially up in ski resorts, because they were willing to pay for us to come up. [NORBA was the National Off-Road Bicycle Association and ran from 1983-2004, a bit like Mountain Bike Australia (MTBA), but more NORBA-y]
They loved us. They had a famous event and they didn’t have many spectators. It would fill all their condominiums for a week and they wouldn’t have to deal with the public.
I used to be on the NORBA Board of Trustees. And I used to be complaining all the time saying, ‘Can’t we make a course that’s actually faster with the bike than without the bike?’
Such a crazy idea!
Yeah! And I rode this course. And I’m going, this is a miserable piece of crap. It’s a miracle that anybody got beyond riding stuff like that to actually enjoy the sport.
What do you think are the big limitations that we have to overcome now?
In the States, acceptance from the other 60 per cent. And those are mostly guys like me. Old white guys. And they’ve got the money and the power and everything. And they’re the ones that are saying ‘no, never, you’re going to have to pry my cold, dead fingers off my steering wheel. The car is the answer and it’s the only way.’ And they’re entirely wrong.
[The conversation detours as we take a tour around the world, the history of transport, health, the medical system and lots and lots of un-fact-checkable-but-very-motivating stats.]
What advice would you give to people who are already part of the riding community now?
To go out and teach somebody how to ride right. And tell them what it’s all about. And talk about all the…all the medical papers, peer reviewed, that say what we’ve been saying all along: I’m very happy when I ride a bike. I’m healthier. I’m more intelligent.
There’s also this thing where you’re doing this thing. Skaters do it, surfboarders do it, skiers do it. And you’re doing this motion. And this motion has been proven to create happiness in your brain.
Yeah! It’s why we dance! It’s why we do all this stuff you know! It creates happiness.
And after all, at the end of the day, what are you really after?
What are people really after?
Well, OK. The top five death bed regrets, right?
I should work more!
No, it’s never that!
No, it’s…people don’t lie [at that point]. They look back on life and they say, I wish I’d taken better care of myself, my health. I wish that I kept my friends. I wish that I told everybody around me how I really felt. And I wish I had tried to do what I really wanted to do.
[As we wrap up our interview, I can’t help but think that Gary is a man who has certainly done just that. And in the processes, he’s swept along a whole wave of people who can now call themselves mountain bikers with him.]