SUMMER SPECIAL: Being Gary Fisher, the Interview

Sarah Goodyear: Hello, this is Sarah Goodyear, and this is The War on Cars. We’re enjoying a little downtime here as summer comes to a close, but we’ll be back in September with new episodes that we’re really excited about. In the meantime, we wanted to share the conversation I had last winter with bike legend Gary Fisher, which we previously released exclusively to our Patreon supporters. It’s a taste of what you get if you sign up to support the podcast at TheWaronCars.org.

Sarah: But before we get to Gary, here’s a word from our sponsor, Cleverhood.

Doug Gordon: You’ve heard us talk about Cleverhood rain capes, and all the great gear they make for walking and cycling. But Cleverhood is also a company that understands what it means to make cities better for walking and cycling. Five percent of their profits go to organizations working to make streets safer, more sustainable and more equitable. Plus, they support local economic development, small suppliers and the kind of businesses that make communities healthier and more vibrant. Listeners of The War on Cars can receive 20 percent off everything in the Cleverhood store, including the Rover Rain Cape, their new anorak and more by going to Cleverhood.com/waroncars and entering code “waroncars” at checkout. Again, that’s Cleverhood.com/waroncars.

Gary Fisher: I had a definite mission. I wanted to get more people to ride bikes.

Sarah: Hello, this is Sarah Goodyear, and this is a Patreon special edition of The War on Cars. What do you think of when you hear the name Gary Fisher? Maybe an image of a mountain bike comes into your head. And a Gary Fisher is definitely a bike, or rather a brand of bike now owned by the bike giant Trek. But Gary Fisher is also a person, and it turns out that he listens to The War on Cars. Recently, he got in touch on Twitter, and of course, we asked him if he would be up to talk with us.

Sarah: Gary was born in 1950, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He started racing road bikes as a teenager, and also got into the local music scene, putting on light shows for the Grateful Dead in the late ’60s. His love of bikes and his willingness to try just about anything led him to start modifying what he and his friends called “clunkers” to ride off-road on local mountains. Before long, Gary and his buddies had hacked together the basic form of what we now know as the mountain bike—although he didn’t get that term trademarked. Then it was on to the adventure of getting the bikes manufactured at scale and marketing them to the world.

Sarah: Gary tells the whole story in very colorful detail in his autobiography, Being Gary Fisher and the Bicycle Revolution. It’s a wild and beautifully-designed book featuring loads of photos that show his evolution from teen road racer to psychedelic showman to international businessman. Gary isn’t just about road racing and off-road biking—he rides for transportation, too. He met his wife, Alex Zaphiris, while waiting online at a bike valet station in San Francisco in 2009, and they rode to their wedding ceremony in a pedicab rickshaw surrounded by a procession of guests on bikes.

Sarah: We ended up discussing the failed promise of the automobile, the bike boom of the late ’70s, and how we can learn from COVID about building better streets. So now, for all you beautiful Patreon supporters out there, here’s some highlights from our talk with Gary Fisher.

Sarah: What a trip the book is, and how beautiful the whole thing really reflects a spirit of adventure and risk-taking. And yet at the same time, it’s very precise and controlled. And that seems like kind of your jam, right?

Gary Fisher: There’s always discipline in this madness. And then the bike as—I mean, I like to call it the world’s happiest invention, you know? In that you sit on that thing and you ride around. There’s always a place to sit, and you can divide up the effort with the gearing and all that sort of thing. It’s just so beautiful in that, you know, you can cruise, and that whole thing of cruising, really, it’s an incredible dynamic.

Sarah: One of the details that really struck me is where you talk about your stepfather being an architect who designed suburbs, and designed the kind of car sprawl infrastructure. And his intentions were—his intentions were good, right? You say he wanted people to have a better way to live.

Gary Fisher: Exactly. The law of unintended consequences. You know, the whole General Motors, it was incredible what those guys did. You know, how they took all the rail out and everything. And the bias that we still have existing is amazing.

Sarah: Yeah. And then it sort of destroyed itself because, like, if you look at how you grew up running around, being outside all the time, you know, all that freedom, now the way that things are built, kids can’t have that anymore, right?

Gary Fisher: That’s very true. And it’s really difficult. But it’s going to change. It will change. I mean, the bike is—kids love the bike and the parents love the bike. And we’ve got to change our whole cities. You look what Paris did. I was impressed by your podcast with Paris, and then it took 60 percent of the population to agree to do this. 40 percent were saying, “No way!” And they did it. And that has to happen. I’m sick and tired of these guys that have taken over our streets and everything. We got the same deal. It’s just like it feels like knives, you know, going at 40 miles an hour, you know? And the noise level and everything. Some people love noise, you know? I mean, the sound of a Harley Davidson or a rocket taking off gets them off. And then there are other people—a lot of people—that shudder over the whole thing and it destroys them, and they’re into scratching sounds and folding sounds. [laughs] You know, we’re all made—we all come out different, and that’s fine. That’s great. And it keeps us alive as a species. Good gravy! [laughs]

Sarah: And you said that when you would go on rides then, you experienced hostility from drivers then, right?

Gary Fisher: Oh, sure, you know? And I mean, when I was 12, I remember one time the cops—a cop making me ride on the sidewalk, you know, for miles and miles and miles, you know? I was like, “What are you doing?” I was riding to the Cupertino bike shop, and it was a 50-mile ride round trip. And he was like, just for about an hour he followed me, you know? But the traffic wasn’t—there was just a lot less traffic, also. You didn’t worry about it as much. And I’ll tell you, people kept their hands on the wheels then, too, you know? It’s gotten a lot worse recently. You know, people are much more detached from everything.

Sarah: Yeah, I sort of feel like the environment inside the car, like, as things have gotten more and more soundproofed, and there’s more stuff like cup holders, and the seats are so cushy and it’s like people are starting to feel like they’re in their living room. And especially with the soundproofing, I think it’s like it is a really self-contained world. You know, nobody drives around with the windows open anymore, right?

Gary Fisher: No, no. Air-conditioned environment, you know? The whole thing. And now they’re putting HEPA filters in it and everything. You don’t want to breathe that air out there.

Sarah: Yeah, right. That you’re making filthy yourself.

Gary Fisher: It’s really a big property ripoff. That’s what it is.

Sarah: How do you mean?

Gary Fisher: It’s like it’s your boudoir. You know, people do makeup. It’s your rumpus room, it’s your kitchen, you know, it’s your tool box, all that. And you get to leave it anywhere you want. We know I mean, at 1.3 passengers per vehicle, you could not move enough people. So it does not deliver on promise. It causes a lot of death by massive crushing, and a lot more death by fine particulate. It brings in poisons. It encourages us to be lazy and uncommunicative with each other. We know all these things, and yet we let them have 100 percent of our streets. Are we out of our minds? Yes!

Sarah: Yeah, I think that’s been well proven recently.

Gary Fisher: Yeah, it’s been totally proven, you know? And we got to get to 60 percent, friends. You know, because I—and I know the auto culture. I mean, you got it in New York. We got it here. You got sideshows. You got stuff. People love their cars, man. And they love high horsepower, and they love all this crazy stuff, but they need a place to go play, you know? And it’s like I say, you know, it’s like, road riders can be really rude, you know? On the Golden Bridge, you’ll see guys riding across and they’ll have a whistle in their teeth and they’ll be, like, blowing it at the tourists and everything. You know, tourists are out with their cameras, taking selfies and all that stuff. And it’s like, “Hey, that’s our money out there on the bridge, guys. Don’t mow ’em down. And do you want a liability issue? You want to mow one of these tourists down? You’re an idiot. Okay, my friend? Can you slow down for a minute?” These guys need to go racing every single week and get it out of their system on a real race course. And I’ll say to city officials and stuff, it’s like, you want to have less idiots riding around with everybody in the bike lanes and everything? Let them get it out of their systems. And the same with car drivers. It’s like you go to Germany, you can run a lap on a track. Bring any jalopy you want, you know, get it out of your system, boy. You know, it’s mostly guys, it’s mostly this testosterone, you know, and everything. There are women who like to go fast too, come on. But you need to get it out of your system.

Sarah: But you also talk about the idea that your car—I think you say something about like, this is my face and how people are, like, that’s their identity. Maybe you could talk a little bit about, like, the difference between expressing your identity through your car, and how you can express your identity on a bike.

Gary Fisher: Well, the car, you know, come on, it’s a whole shell and everything. You can hide in the thing. It’s hard to hide in a bike, and people dress and they look nice on the bike.

Sarah: I mean, you certainly project quite an identity on the bike. and have, like, a bunch of different identities. Like, I feel like you’ve had, like, several bike personas over the years.

Gary Fisher: A bike is a wonderful way to arrive, you know? And it’s the same with just dressing period. You know, it just shows that you respect the world and where you live and everything and everyone around you. And you want to project that, you know? It’s just a happy way to live, that’s all.

Sarah: Yeah. So you talk a little bit about the way that there was a sort of a small bike boom in the ’70s around the time of the oil crisis and how that …

Gary Fisher: It was huge. I mean, it was, like, nuts. I mean, it was even more nuts than this supply thing. I mean, it was really crazy. I mean, sales went from 4.7 to 15 million in one year. So that’s more than triple. And you’d go into a bike shop, there’d be three bikes there and you’d say, “I’ll take it.” And they’d say, “No, no, no. You order off of this, and in six weeks our container’s gonna come in.” And the problem with that time is there were very few people that could work on bikes. There were very few choices of bikes, you know? And there were very few people advocating for bikes, and we might have had—today we got 45,000 bike advocates in the United States alone, and back then it might have been 40.

Sarah: Right.

Gary Fisher: You know? And that’s a huge difference, because the year after that, bike sales went down to seven million, and all those bikes, a lot of those bikes wound up in the garage.

Sarah: Gary talked about how the mountain biking craze took off after a TV report about the bikes he was building and riding on the trails north of San Francisco.

Gary Fisher: Then things started to go crazy with that, you know, the media part. Because that’s part of the whole thing. I mean, I knew damn well I’m not the first person to make an off-road bike. Give me a break! You know, like, they did that 150 years ago or whatever, you know? It’s like everything was off road, you know? This whole thing with the gears and everything and the heavy duty brakes, well, I developed it like crazy, but there were some guys in France that did it in 1947. None of these things turned into something that would be something. And I had a definite mission: I wanted to get more people to ride bikes. Part of the problem in ’73 was the bikes were all these, like, little brothers and little sisters of a real road racing bike, right? And they had these dumb old cheater levers on for the brakes that made the brakes terrible, the rims were awful. I mean, you’d blow up the tire, put more pressure on the tire and the rim would spread out. Those bikes were awful, little narrow, hard saddles, drop bars, you know, stem shifters and everything. That was the standard bike.

Sarah: So if what you did—so you’re saying, okay, so people have been trying, you know, people have been throwing together off-road bikes forever. But, like you figured out some secret sauce that had to do with what? With marketing? With communicating?

Gary Fisher: It’s three things. You got to have a great design. That is, it’s got to look good, you know? And then you got to hype the living crap out of it. And then you got to deliver on promise, you know? Deliver goods. And it was nuts. I mean, people went crazy, you know? I mean, our bikes were really expensive too, you know? And we had huge lines out the door. And I went to great lengths to make sure I could deliver bikes. And my competitors—you know, I started early on. I came up with the word “mountain bike.” To me, that was an obvious—that was a good word to use, and then I blew it in the trademarking. Boy, I learned all about trademarking after that. [laughs] But I blew it. I let it go generic. You know, a trademark is only as good as the attorney and all the money you got behind the damn thing.

Sarah: But if your goal was to get more people on bikes, you did that.

Gary Fisher: Well, open source, right? A lot of that.

Sarah: What’s happening that’s equivalently interesting in the world of cycling now? Or is there anything that’s …?

Gary Fisher: There’s a lot right now. I mean, I look at additive manufacturing, you know? And we’re gonna bring a lot of manufacturing right back into the city center because that’s where people are. And, you know, you don’t transport goods. It’s like this hyperloop thing. It’s hyper-jive, except it needs to be a four foot in diameter tube, not 12 foot in diameter. And it needs to move goods in the city and eliminate all these stupid trucks all over the place, you know? The hyperloop, you think Elon Musk divested of it basically, because he knows there are too many technical issues with the thing. But you got to start in that whole system. You go back to the tube system, and the tube system actually, that was a system for a lot of mail and stuff in cities and that. And that could come back. I totally believe that you hit it right dead on. We got these big spaces, you know? And we need a bike highway.

Sarah: So what about e-bikes? Because I think that e-bikes are going to be huge potentially if they’re handled right. Especially, like, in—I mean, look at some of the suburbs, you know, in the South Bay there. That’s a good example.

Gary Fisher: The electric bikes, the electric scooters, the electric skateboards, the one wheels, holy Toledo! And the kids that can ride them blow my mind, you know? I ride through San Francisco on my e-bike, and these guys are going 20, 25 miles an hour on their one wheels, and they’re going over all the big—all the crap in the road and everything. And I’m going, like—the other day there’s this guy in a three-piece suit, you know? It’s like six in the morning, it’s dark, and he’s on his skateboard and he’s doing, like, 25 miles an hour. And, you know, he’s going where? He stops, goes to the bus stop. He’s got this big, long backpack, and he puts the longboard in it and it’s like, good to go, man, three piece suit. All this stuff is so incredibly—you’ve been examined and regulated and everything, e-bikes, all these things, you know? It’s crazy compared to, like, these big, wild, crazy things that are unregulated out there running around like crazy that they put all these advertisements. Like, Nissans are the worst, people, you know, the rogue, just idiot drivers and things. And while at the same time we have the technology that’s been in place for some time now is geo-fenced speed regulators in every car. How unromantic is that? Exactly as it should be? And it’s so ironic, you know? Like, we got the Trump guys in their big trucks, and then you go on Amazon and say, “Boost my truck,” okay? And right there, man, you can get those things that defeat the system and make your truck spew ultra amounts. Have you read the latest?

Sarah: We were just talking about that this morning.

Gary Fisher: These guys don’t even know it. The guys buy it and do it and are proud of it. They don’t even know what they’re doing. [laughs] And then they gas themselves of it and then take pride in it?

Sarah: I know. And their kids, and whoever else happens to be around. Okay, before we wrap up, I want to talk to you about COVID lessons, all right? So we’re going through—we have not been through it yet because it’s still going on God knows, the worst thing that a lot of us have seen in our lifetimes. And, you know, there’s this idea that maybe we can learn something from it, right? What could we learn and how can we not squander this opportunity?

Gary Fisher: There’s been a tremendous amount of self-examination. The bike realm—I’m gonna keep this sort of close to that realm. People in the bike realm are like—some of them are like, “Well, this will just go all back to normal, it’s not in our control,” and that sort of thing. But I think a lot of people understand that there’s been a real seismic shift, and that a lot of places have changed a bit. Just seeing the bluer skies and seeing the nature come back, I think that has been a bigger effect than the clear streets or any of that, because there’s not much of that. I mean, the big news there has been in Paris this year and Barcelona and those cities that have made the bold moves and taken away the valued land from these people that have blown it on their promise, you know? And we have to get organized on making the big ask, because a small ask is squirrel nuts. I mean, it just doesn’t satisfy anything and it doesn’t work.

Gary Fisher: A narrow bike path does not cut it anymore, you know? We got too many people, and it’s a mess. This is not gonna work if it’s a mess. It needs to be designed like paradise. And done correctly. It’s a lot of work, and fortunately, we have a lot of passionate people. We’ve never seen so many passionate people with us before, and a lot of realization that we can make change. We’re not done at all, you know? We have to work really hard. We have to really convince people that, no, we’re not taking at all. This is giving. You’ve been taken for a ride, my friend. And I know you enjoy this tremendous vehicle and they’re incredible but, you know, there’s more. Much more.

Sarah: That’s it for this Patreon special edition of The War on Cars. If you’re interested in buying Gary’s book, it’s available only through Trek bicycles at Trek.com. On behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Aaron Naparstek, I want to say how much your support means to us. You are the ones who make all of this possible. We love to hear from you, so if you have any ideas, comments, complaints or insights, please drop us a line at TheWaronCars@gmail.com. Thanks for listening.