Jul 31, 2023

Gary Fisher, Mountain Bike Pioneer, Jumps On New Bicycle Dream

Gary Fisher, 72, is the legendary innovator of modern mountain biking. (Gary Fisher)

To say that biking legend Gary Fisher is a man for the ages is a two-wheeled understatement. He launched modern mountain biking in an amazing life journey stuffed with lessons on how to live at full tilt.

At age 12, Fisher raised eyebrows when he started winning amateur bike races. At age 15, he ran away from home and hung out with the Grateful Dead and assisted with the psychedelic band's concert lighting. By age 16, he lived at the Oregon farm of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's" Nest author Ken Kesey. At age 18, organizers suspended him from bike racing. They complained his hair was too long. (The longhair rule was ultimately overturned.)

But Fisher was just getting started.

Also at 18, Fisher pedaled back to his eclectic drawing board and designed a one-of-a-kind light show that he dubbed "The Lighted Show on Earth." It caught the eye of the famed rock producer Bill Graham, who hired Fisher to work for cultural giant and concert promoter Bill Graham Presents in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The light show shook up the rock performance genre. Psychedelic bands he worked with including The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and New Riders of the Purple Sage adopted the style.

Around age 20, Fisher left his mark on the "Whole Earth Catalog," putting his artistic handprint on the famous counterculture publication's bicycle section. By age 22, the "long hair" bike racing rule was overturned, and Fisher was back on the racetrack.

Oops. Don't forget his most critical age of all — 29 — which is when Fisher pulled together all of $600 to co-found the world's first off-road bike shop — which he dubbed MountainBikes — in a tiny garage in San Anselmo, Calif. Company sales jumped from $10 million to $55 million in the first two years.

But wait. Fisher is the first to admit he didn't invent the mountain bike. He does, however, readily claim credit for coining the term mountain bike. And just as importantly, he says he's the first to figure out how to establish a global supply chain that imported mountain bike bodies and parts from Asia that could be assembled in the USA — instead of sporadically cobbled together from spare parts.

Fisher arguably led the mountain bike revolution by creating a bike that everyone and his brother wanted to get their hands on. Gary Fisher-branded mountain bikes drew cyclists' dollars and lust. "It was a calling," said Fisher, in a two-hour stream-of- consciousness interview that repeatedly hearkened back to his serendipitous adventures in the Bay Area's psychedelic era. "At the end of the day, you have to have a great design and you've got to deliver the product," he said.

Deliver? Did he ever. Fisher recalls that his company sold all of 160 mountain bikes that first year way back in 1979, which is when, he jokes, he figured out how to get by financially, "By learning how to float a check for 10 days," he said.

Fast forward to 2020, when Covid-19 put a seismic jolt into the global market for all mountain bikes. The industry sold a whopping 44.2 million mountain bikes in 2020 — and even in a marketplace of soaring e-bike sales, the mountain bike market is projected to almost double globally to 78.5 million units by 2027, according to Research and Markets.

If Gary Fisher isn't an industry leader, who is?

Now, at age 72, Fisher still typically rises at his Marin County home in Belvedere, Calif., by 6 a.m. and bikes 30 miles in about 2.5 hours every day. He's trying to keep up with the live-every-day-for-all-it's-worth pace set by his six adult children and his wife, who is a family doctor. Never mind that Fisher is also in the process of founding an e-bike company, too.

Even then, he's ultra-humble about his leadership skills. "Leadership is the art of letting people have their day," he said.

By that, he means, great leaders learn to move out of the way and let the people who work for them soar. "I give people permission to follow their own dreams," he said.

Perhaps no one knows that better than Jerry Carmody, who was the international credit collection manager for Gary Fisher Mountain Bikes for five years. Carmody vividly remembers staff meetings when Fisher would pose the questions that always began with the same two words: "What if?"

"After he asked the question, he'd always do what a great leader does: He'd be quiet and listen to what everyone in the organization — from the new-hire bike mechanic to the guys at the top — had to say," recalls Carmody, who is now CEO at Sage Portfolio Management.

Great leaders, says Fisher, always make certain that everything is clearly defined, so there's no confusion. "It's a lot like being a good parent," he said.

Fisher says he learned about leadership from his father-in-law who immigrated to the USA from Cypress, and started out as a dishwasher before eventually owning his own restaurant. "Whenever he visited a new restaurant, he'd walk into the back to check it out," Fisher said. "I learned from him that if you want to really see a business, go to the loading docks and watch."

Great leaders also need to travel, Fisher says. But don't just travel. Observe. "Are you sucking in and understanding what each culture is really about?" he said.

Great leaders always keep an open door to anyone and everyone, he says. That's what Fisher says he did in the company's Marin County offices, which happened to be near the Grateful Dead's recording studio. "You never knew who would be coming up to see Gary," said Carmody. Sometimes it would be Grateful Dead member Bob Weir.

Or it might be John Oates of the harmonic duo Hall and Oates. Or it might just be a mountain bike aficionado.

On other occasions, it would be Fisher who — without an appointment — would waltz into the Grateful Dead's studio to show off some crazy new item that he invented. That, at least, is the memory that Steve Parish, a longtime crew member for the Grateful Dead, related to Carmody in a recent phone call. Fisher might waltz into the studio, for example, with a new key chain that he'd creatively made from used bicycle gears, present it to a band member, then turn around and leave, Parish told Carmody.

That same creativity is what led Fisher to keep improving the design of the mountain bike — with everything from wider seats to more powerful brakes, to a wider range of gears. In 1993, when his brand's popularity was exploding — but finances tightened — Fisher sold his company to Trek Bicycle. Trek hired Fisher and marketed Gary Fisher-branded bikes as a separate line for 17 years.

After 29 years with Trek, Fisher left in 2022, and in 2023 founded Morelle E-Bikes, which — when they are ultimately for sale — will be "superfast charging" e-bikes, he says.

Fisher knows there's gobs of competition. And he estimates he's going up against roughly 350 new e-bike companies that have opened domestically. He hopes to stand out — in part by operating it as a "subscription" bike company (kind of like car leasing) he says.

Fisher's bikes have always been super-premium. Way back in 1979, he recalls, his top-of-the-line mountain bikes retailed for $1,320. "We'd say to people, 'You wouldn't want to buy a cheap parachute, would you?' "

The Gary Fisher brand was like the "Ferrari" of mountain bikes, says Carmody. His e-bikes will likely be no different.

"I'm the guy who's famous for coming up with stuff that nobody asks for," Fisher said, then adds with a smirk, "and it actually works."

Just like his bikes, Fisher, too, stands out in a crowd. He's hard to miss with his extended handlebar mustache. Why the eye-catching mustache — which almost seems to extend as long as a bicycle's handlebar? "It gives expression. It finishes the face. People like it," he explained.

The secret to a terrific handle bar mustache, he says: good wax. The secret to a good life?

It's in being a leader who helps to wax a positive pathway for others to achieve their dreams, he says. "Never underestimate the power of another human being," he said.


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