I had the privilege of having a one-on-one interview with Gary Fisher, one of the inventors of the modern mountain bike, during his trip here last week. As you can see, he’s also one of the more recognizable people in the cycling world, and an all-around cool guy.
I came prepared with a few interview questions but once we started going, I realized that this was going to be more of a fun conversation with a revered icon in the sport, rather than a formal interview. Gary settled down quickly and it wasn’t that hard to coax him into sharing a few nice stories, making me feel like I was talking to an old friend.
I’ll share some of the more interesting stories of Gary below, as well as a few of his philosophies and insights into the cycling world.
Race Yourself: I saw in your Instagram that you were in Santa Cruz riding your road bike a couple of weeks ago.
Gary Fisher: Yes. I met this girl on the way down, she catches up with me, just wants to ride with me, sort of like a fantasy. 19-year old girl.
RY: And she pulled you all the way home, right?
GF: Yes, she was very kind.
RY: What kind of riding do you do most these days?
GF: I do a lot of road riding, because you can cheat in a lot of ways if you’re really clever. Where on the mountain bike, there’s no hiding. If you’re a good handler, then that’s great on the descents and single track. But man, on the climbs, strength to weight, not much else–it’s hard to hide. But on a road bike, it’s hilarious. Because I was a road racer for a long time, I’m very good at hiding. I can suck wheel like you cannot believe. I know exactly how to do it, I know how a group works, dynamics, and I’ve got good speed still. Two years ago I rode the Trek 100, a 100-mile ride with 3,000 riders, and I was in the first twelve finishers. 100 miles, four hours and 20 minutes, with stops included, because I know how to draft. I get to the front and I say, hey, I’m pulling through. You don’t expect the old man to pull, do you? So I use every trick I can, and at the end I’m stronger than a lot of the kids because I know how to eat, how to drink, I know my body, and I know how to draft. I can do this (aero on the drop bars position) all day long.
[On bike fitting.] I have a different, funny philosophy on this sometimes. I see these guys with these high stems and I’m like, you gotta train yourself. Flexibility and core strength. Until you get to take care of this problem, you’re not very aerodynamic, and you’re off the back all the time. This is something you’ve got to do. There’s fitting to make it work for you today, and there’s the fitting that you need if you expect to be competitive. And maybe you don’t work on your power and strength while riding the bike but you work on your core strength and flexibility so you can be in that position and not kill yourself. (When I climb) I do it down low to develop that musculature (to stay in the aero position). I go easy on the flats, low on the climbs, and fast in the last hour, because it’s in the last hour that races are won and lost all the time. When I look at Strava, my times are always better in the longer rides because I want to go steady. Although this one time I held this road bike descent in Strava for the longest time because I drafted behind a truck!
RY: Speaking of records, do you still hold the one on the Pine Mountain (Fairfax, California) Repack Course?
GF: Oh yeah, but that’s cause they don’t hold that race anymore. But every now and again someone will go out there but they can’t, and you know why, because it’s a pedaling race. And I was a really fast pedaler. I’ve got a lot of speed still, I always had a lot of speed. And the day I set the record it was like, three days after a good rain so the ground conditions were right, and there was a tailwind, and that makes all the difference.
RY: Which is kinda strange because of all the advances in technology and what not.
GF: It was an old 42-pound bike but it was equipped correctly, and I put short crank arms on it. Downhillers do that now, and I did that in the 70s. If you go to the velodrome, all those track sprinters, I don’t care how big they are, they’re riding short cranks. You can go 10-40 or 20-40 mph, that sort of acceleration. Short cranks are very good in changing pace like that, long cranks are from 0-10 mph.
RY: Where do you get your inspiration when you design bikes?
GF: From a lot of places. I get it through bikes from history, it’s astounding, if you go back a hundred years it’s like everything’s been done. And I get it from, the design stuff, it comes from everywhere. Designers are constantly riffing off of each other. And then it’s also neat things like, the UCI bans things that (make you) go faster, and I like to check out stuff that’s been banned by the UCI.
RY: What do you think of triathlon?
GF: I like the discipline. Triathletes are famous for being totally geeky, totally strict, like an exercise Nazi or something. But I’m all right with that. I’m not intimidated in the least. Cause I’m very good with discipline, everyone that rides with me knows. I’m not much of a runner, I could’ve been a runner but I never got into it. And I learned to swim when I was young, and I relearned to swim seven or eight years ago, just doing lap swimming, and I got ok.
RY: You don’t seem to be one who’s discriminate, like how some cyclists are so divided like I’m a roadie, I’m a mountain biker.
GF: I’m famous for a line, “Anybody that rides a bike is a friend of mine.” I made that up myself. We’re all bike riders, give me a break. Runners or triathletes, I can relate to those guys a lot more than other people. Face it, the biggest problem we have in the 21st century is a sedentary lifestyle. If you think about inventions, things, objects, the bicycle is probably the happiest invention on earth. And the stuff we have today, it’s crazy advanced, military-grade stuff. I used to design tubesets alone, but now you need a team, a computer, and a program, and rapid simulation–there’s so much variety in what you can do. You break the rules, you can have your cake and eat it too. You have something that’s incredibly light, incredibly stiff, and yet it doesn’t beat you up. There used to be not so many ways around it. There’s also a lot of counterintuitive stuff in sport, and that’s some of the most fantastic discoveries you can have–you wouldn’t think this works but it totally works.
RY: Tell me about your whole journey with Trek and how you had your own company, Gary Fisher, it got bought by them in the 90s, and before that a Taiwan company acquired it.
GF: For two years (acquired by Taiwan) and it was a mess. That was a crazy story. I’m very lucky but I did a couple of very spectacular backflips. I should’ve paid attention to my brother. He said “I don’t trust these guys.” And he was totally right. So family’s important, and honesty’s important, people who give you honest feedback. That was a mess, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. But it didn’t mean the end, there’s real possibilities, you go through stuff, you’re a failure in some business, but hey, do you learn? I hope so. And that is like the biggest incentives to learn. And boy, I learned from all those experiences, it’s rather marvelous. I learned on that one, be very careful of who you get into bed with. That’s it, that was it.
The Trek guys I’ve been watching them for years. I got better offers, better deals from a couple of other people, but that isn’t who I wanted to be, that isn’t gonna work.
RY: You had a long stint where it was basically the Gary Fisher brand, and it got folded into Trek. How’d that happen eventually?
GF: Well it’s more of economy of scale, they don’t want to have as many sales guys as you needed for two different organizations, they didn’t want to have two marketing teams, so they wanted to combine it all together and save some money, and they did save some money. And my advantage is that now, I influence all of it. People will say, “What happened to your bikes?” and I say “Wait a minute, these are all my bikes.” You can create your own attitude to make things ok. People will say you’re out of touch with reality and that’s true to some degree, but it’s your responsibility to make yourself happy or unhappy, either one you’ve got a choice. Trek is the best bike company out there, but we can be better, always. And I’m responsible for part of it, that’s for sure. And I can always be better. So that’s what we’re trying to do as a company.
RY: What do you think is the biggest advancement in technology in all these years that you’ve been working with and designing bikes?
GF: There’s a number of things. Clipless pedals, index shifting. When I was a road racer, we used full Campagnolo, and we had friction shifters. Before you would get out of the saddle to attack, you would fine-tune and make sure you were right in the middle of a gear, otherwise you could slip and land on your ass. Materials, the bikes I raced on they were 22, 23 lbs. and they were reliable, but not that much. And they weren’t nearly as comfortable or as fast. It’s everything, the total package. The clothing, it’s nicer–people say that wool was nicer–no. The new modern clothing is cut right, fits right, and is so comfortable. Training techniques like with power meters and all those things, it’s insane how I can find out all this stuff on my phone. Before, we had nothing.
RY: Speaking of clothing, what do you wear when you bike? Are you as stylish as you are off the bike?
GF: Mostly team stuff. I’m very careful with what I wear. The thing is that I gotta do my core work and I gotta be fit. I think it’s important that you show respect to the world that you care and you care about how you look, and that means that you care about others.
After the interview, an owner of a vintage Gary Fisher mountain bike walked into the store and Gary willingly obliged.
It was indeed a wonderful experience to talk to Gary Fisher in person. Special thanks to Trek Bikes Philippines for arranging the interview. I’ll be writing a few more posts soon on the Trek store and a BikeTech feature. Til’ then!