Interview: Charlie Kelly, author of ‘Fat Tire Flyer’

Kelly promoted the original Repack races, published the first mountain bike magazine, and sold many of the first commercial MTBs

Charlie Kelly is often recognized as one of the inventors of the modern iteration of the mountain bike. He recently published “Fat Tire Flyer” with VeloPress, which provides a firsthand account of the sport’s early days in Marin, California. Web editor Spencer Powlison spoke with Kelly in October to learn more about the book, Kelly’s experiences and how modern-day mountain biking compares to the days of the clunkers.

VeloNews: I’ve been riding mountain bikes since I was a pre-teen and I have to say, it’s pretty awesome to learn all of the little stories behind the history of it.
Charlie Kelly: I’ve had to listen to the phrase; ‘you invented the mountain bike’ for about 35 years, and it is so much more complicated than just inventing the bike. The actual hardware was there, but the sport came from just one place, and that’s basically the theme from the whole book.

VN: Along those lines, can you talk about the transition you made from being an avid road cyclist to riding on trails almost exclusively once the movement really took off?
CK: I have a very nice road bike, but I haven’t ridden it in three or four years, it’s just gathering dust, hanging from a hook on the ceiling. The transition is complete. I am mountain biker, I own a number of mountain bikes and my friends have been pretty good to me, giving me bikes over the years, but the transition is very much complete. One of the things that really inspired that transition if you will, we were really one of the only people that converted our bikes. When you just took that converted 1937 Schwinn, put it next to your Italian road bike, it wasn’t hard to see room for improvement. We just took it in the natural direction, but the impetus was that we were competing against each other, and I don’t know if any of the people that came up with the hardware came up with the competitive idea also, because that’s what really drove us, the competition.

VN: Can you talk about how racing drove the changes in equipment, as well as the Repack race and what it meant to your friends and acquaintances?
CK: You know, it was so special, it was like we were the only 15 people who could surf at Mavericks, and it was just so cool. It started out as a contest, with who is the fastest, but what it developed into was to just get in the zone and stay there. Because no matter how well you did against the competition, you only had five minutes to do whatever you felt like knowing that you had the place to yourself. For me, I was moderately competitive, although my friends were faster, but I could really just get in the zone and just stay there. I use skydiving as an analogy, where there is a big thrill, but only for a few seconds, where what we were doing, we could get that same thrill, but keep it going for a longer amount of time. We all became so passionate about it. It became dominant in our lives. We were looking for that edge all the time, studying the course, working on our bikes as much as possible, and it really took over some of our lives. It was so cool, that it was hard to think about anything else for a while, but now I’m used to it I guess! But when we first had this thing, we just couldn’t do enough of it. That’s why even when people come out here with modern equipment, they have a hard time doing the same speeds that we did on junk. Gravity is gravity. You only fall so fast, no matter what you’re on. And the difference is that we put an immense amount of study into what we were doing.

All I can say is that this took over our lives for probably two years and certainly mine. It was a place where I found a stage where I could be a star, and everyone loved me. I tell you, there is nothing more addicting than adulation.

VN: Speaking more about the bikes themselves, one of the bikes that comes out of the Repack races is the Breezer, and you’ve got a chapter in your book called ‘The most important bike of the 20th century,’ speaking about the Breezer.
CK: Well that’s an opinion and my opinion. … To begin, there are only 10 of them. I don’t know that such a small number of bikes could cause such a tectonic shift in the direction of cycling. By the time Joe built that bike, I had been at this thing for two years, so it didn’t just pop into existence. Even before Repack racing started, I realized that there was a lot of room for improvement on the bikes. Repack just accelerated that, but more importantly it got Joe Breeze interested in the project. Because yeah, I wanted something like [it], but I’m not the one to build a bike and I needed a friend who understood what I was trying to do, and well Joe Breeze was the perfect person, in the perfect place, at the right time. It took two years to get it done, eight months of building, but when those 10 bikes hit the road … We had a few people riding around on the coolest bikes in the world, and then we saw ‘garage entrepreneurs’ started to look into that market. That was the ProCruiser, Koski Brothers’ Trail Master, and then eventually Tom Ritchey. But that bike inspired three or four other people. That was the pebble coming off the top of the hill that became an avalanche, but when you look at the modern mountain bike, working your way upstream, that’s where it hits, with that Breezer bike. Maybe the safety bike inspired that kind of tectonic change, but we’re talking 20th century here.

VN: As we go down the line with the Breezer, you and Gary Fisher got involved and worked with Ritchey. From there, one of the things that I found interesting was learning about how the term ‘mountain bike’ was coined, the trouble with the trademarking and that sort of thing.
CK: The mountain bike is one of those things that, boy, who knows who said it first. I mean, we had to distinguish the difference between our road bikes and the bikes we rode on the mountain, Mt. Tamalpais, but it was at first just to distinguish our fancy road bikes to our bikes we rode off-road. … That was just a distinction that we made. I know that the first reference in print was in 1979 in reference to Gary Fisher and myself, and it was already as the company name, which was true, but at that time, it was just the common way to distinguish the bike. … It was just a common parlance in our group. Unfortunately, I can’t trace the etymology any more than that. … It was a casual conversational term up until that point, and I couldn’t really begin to identify when that first conversation took place.

VN: One thing I really enjoyed from the book was how you would go out and ride road centuries on your Ritchey mountain bike to promote the brand.
CK: Well, if you’re in a road race, you would never be competitive on a Ritchey bike, but a century isn’t a race and elementary skills and tactics will allow you to keep up just fine. With fat tires, you lose some of the acceleration, and you can’t climb as quickly, but once you get rolling out on the road, the tires don’t make that much difference. So that was a real selling point, that this guy on this bike could finish road centuries in reasonable time. I mean, I worked on being fast, I was never a competitive racer, but it wasn’t a race or competition, but everyone notices who is going fast, and these bikes made people realize that you weren’t giving up that much when riding them, and it was really fun. When you smoked a guy on a Masi, well, he knows he’s been smoked.

VN: In terms of racing, can you talk about the history behind NORBA, how that came to be?
CK: By 1983, there were at least four or five people in California promoting races for this type of bike. At that time, the [Specialized] Stumpjumper was out on the market and you could buy one in the store. So racing was becoming very popular, and it was real clear that you needed insurance to protect the race promoter. I quit promoting the Repack calendar because a guy got hurt, and the exposure was way too extreme. It’s OK if it’s your friends and no one will sue you, but if it’s full of strangers, it becomes a different story.

So the first order of business was to just find insurance so we could have races without having to put your house on the line, if you will. So insurance was the very first order of business.

Then came minor races rules. This is not road racing. What are the rules? The rules were pretty simple: You just had to wear shoes! … There had to be some form of rules because you aren’t going to get insurance without some sort of structure, so the whole thing was not so much to unify the thing, but find some common ground among the four or five people that were promoting competitive events. One of them, Victor Vicente, never wanted any part of that, he would say, “here are the rules, I say ‘go,’ first one to the finish is the winner.” I certainly understand the philosophy, I took part in it myself, but if you’re going to expand outside of our immediate circle, you need some protection.

So it started off with “how do you get insurance?” And you aren’t going to get it without an identifiable insurable party. That was the basis. The other part was rules. I didn’t want to it to be cyclocross. Cyclocross is infinitely replaceable machinery. And perhaps you’ve noticed, cyclocross bikes didn’t take over the world. They’ve been around for 75 or 80 years, and they didn’t take over the world because they have no practical value.

Because Repack had done so much to improve the machinery, we didn’t want to restrict the machinery. In our minds, we wanted to keep the, “You run what you’ve brung” mentality. When we created the rules we didn’t want the governing body to freeze the technology at a certain point. Part of the purpose of a racing organization should not be to freeze the technology at a certain point. It should be to encourage technology. The UCI basically froze the technology around 1955. … My feeling is, if you could run a recumbent successfully in a mountain bike race, then go for it! It won’t happen, but that’s an extreme example.

VN: Speaking of cyclocross, you mentioned in the book that you never wanted to see a pit with spare bikes for mountain bike racers, but now modern cross country races offer that type of outside assistance.
CK: Well, they didn’t let me make that rule, I made the other rule. By the way, the Tour de France had that same rule. Back in 1903 or whenever, the guy broke his fork, and had to forge it, but got penalized because a kid pumped the bellows. … One of the classic stories of the Tour. … Had the Tour kept that rule, mountain bikes would have arrived in 1915, but they didn’t. But one of the things is that the technology of mountain biking is no longer dependent on the “Run what you bring” kind of thing. I now own a stable of modern mountain bikes, but the price of that performance is maintenance. I understand the back-to-the land movement of singlespeeds, rigid one-speeds, because they are so much less maintenance now, but if it was up to me, it would be the old rule of, “you run what you bring” and if it breaks, then you’re walking. That is the real mountain bike experience.

VN: Are there any aspects of modern mountain biking that harken back to the days of Repack?
CK: There was something that struck me recently at Interbike. I was prowling through some of the clothing, and they are now making mountain bike jerseys that look like a flannel shirt. As I’m sure you know in all the photographs, flannel shirts, work shirts, were the style of early mountain bikers, because, “Hey man, jerseys? Are you joking?” I’m not sure what the inspiration was … but the new thing is to look like the old thing. I guess maybe it’s the freerider types. They’re the spiritual heirs. They’re the guys that don’t want rules. They will make their own rules. I mean, if you can do that stuff, man I’m not going to tell you how … [laughs]

Now and then I’ll be riding one of my new bikes down a trail, and I’ll say “Man, I rode the same trail on a bike made out of plumbing.” Almost no one in the world — maybe Joe, maybe Gary — can appreciate how far this thing came.

But if I appreciate one thing more any other with modern mountain bikes, it’s the brakes. I could live without suspension, but man disc brakes … If nothing else got invented in the last 30 years, that would have made me very happy right there. The big thing, back in the day was, “Man these things are hard to stop,” and you almost have to have done it [back then] to appreciate how great these new brakes are. Because man, stopping was almost not an option.

VN: Anything you’d like to add?
CK: All I can say is that 35 years ago I did something immensely cool, and it took 35 years to digest it, to understand it. I tried to write about this stuff then, but you actually need a modern perspective to write about it in a meaningful way. … I can now look at it with a little more jaundiced eye. I’ll tell anyone that I had the best bicycle adventure of the 20th century … and mountain biking took me places that I would never have been otherwise. I’m certainly fortunate in all the things that I got to see and do.