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A Band of Renegades Reinvent the Bicycle

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Out of Bounds: Far from jam-packed stadiums and the media glare, they pursue sport with a zealous abandon. Some are adrenaline junkies, chasing thrills at breakneck speed; others are tough-as-nails masochists, enduring 100-mile footraces across the desert. They clash in bone-jarring physical combat, or race souped-up, outlandishly designed machines over junk cars and moguls.

In this occasional series, The Times examines their world--the new frontier of extreme sports: the performers and the entrepreneurs, the social forces and market trends, the way these contests fit into the fabric of our culture.

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Few contraptions are more deceptive. From five yards away, the bicycle is a no-brainer, a model of simplicity. But up close, moving fast, it becomes a teetering physics lab of forces and counterforces, an engineering puzzle more confounding than a spider web: angles, stress points, cables, levers, whirling hubs and spokes, a chain leaping up and down sets of sprockets.

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Countless tinkerers and inventors have toiled for generations to perfect a gadget that the Encyclopaedia Britannica calls “the most efficient means yet devised to convert human energy into propulsion.” Follow the jagged line of its evolution over the last two centuries and you find bikes of all types and sizes, from chainless big-wheelers and iron-framed velocipedes to clunky old Schwinns and banana-seated Stingrays and anorexic 10-speeds.

Then you come to an out-and-out phenomenon, a mutation 20 years ago that changed the biking world. Like the personal computer, the mountain bike was one of those advances so stunning it started a chain reaction: a multibillion-dollar parade of ever-faster machines, spiffier designs, the technological improvements piling up one on top of another on top of another.

It came out of nowhere, a product of the counterculture--invented by hippies, no less, a ragtag cast of pot smokers and Haight-Ashbury drifters who barely got through high school. A bunch of them, in the early 1970s, began taking old clunkers up to the top of Mt. Tamalpais, in Marin County, and hurtling down over rocks and ruts at breakneck speed.

Guys like Gary Fisher, who flaunted a sniper’s self-assurance and hair like a ragged windsock, and Joe Breeze, cool as the winds off the bay, fixed up their bikes with triple chainrings and heavy-duty brakes and custom-built frames. They dispensed with fenders and chain guards and adapted their machines to the rigors of the mountains. What they built they sold to their friends. They inspired other builders. Their brainstorms helped to create the light, durable machines that now account for more than 60% of the bicycle market. They created more than a new bike; they established a lifestyle, a hard-bitten society that would come to have its own heroes, its own fractious rivalries, its awkward and persistent clashes with other outdoorsmen, notably hikers and horseback riders.

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The mountain bike’s influence reached across a wide spectrum: It was a bestseller among millions of riders who never climbed anything steeper than a driveway, and it was de rigueur for maniacs who came bombing down rocky ravines at better than 50 mph. It spawned a new breed of extreme athlete, a whole new category of sport.

The boom had a roaring momentum that further propelled the bike’s evolution, which in turn drove the boom. The tinkerers and inventors clustered like moths under the hanging lights of garage workbenches; they labored at the computers and drafting tables of hundreds of companies, large and small. Entire firms sprang up just to design and manufacture rims, cranks, seat posts, chains, handlebars and other accessories.

Men who started out in oily garages, whose specialty in life amounted to welding metal tubes, became corporate executives, even millionaires. They ended up building cavernous factories and hiring hundreds of employees. They had their own R & D departments. They traded stock on Wall Street.

Paul Turner was one of those pioneers. Many years ago, the amateur triathlete climbed aboard a mountain bike to race at Mt. Shasta, down a brain-rattler of a course that plunged through a rocky stream bed. Beaten up afterward, his arms and fingers numb, Turner walked away and returned to his garage in San Jose, where he scaled down an air-sprung, hydraulically damped motorcycle fork to mount on his bicycle.

Ten years later, RockShox employs 300 people and churns out more than 200,000 suspension forks a year in a dozen models, among them a twin-crown racing fork with adjustable oil cartridges and six inches of vertical travel that retails for $1,100. The company is now listed on the Nasdaq, net sales totaled $106 million last year and Turner has moved to a mountainside near Boulder, Colo., where he is cutting himself a network of bike trails.

A Rigid Tradition Yields to Innovation

For decades, the trend in bicycle development was pointed down one road: the highway. The hulking, 60-pound Schwinns of the 1930s and 1940s--the cruisers that ferried untold thousands of newspaper boys--vanished in favor of the lighter, sleeker bikes of the 1960s, machines from Europe built for speed and distance.

Serious athletes competed in events like the Tour de France on stick-thin bikes that looked like so many mirror images. The Union Cycliste International, cycling’s world governing body, discouraged innovation, banning bikes that flouted narrow guidelines. Racing ethic held that the superior athlete should win, not the one with the better hardware.

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This was the prevailing tide, a drift so deep and pervasive that it was hard to see the renegades out there, the free spirits who didn’t care a whit about tight synthetic pants, who didn’t mind taking a header, ripping up their knees if they got a good jolt of adrenaline out of it.

A pack of these hellions earned a bit of notoriety in 1976 by riding their old Schwinns 41 miles from Crested Butte, Colo., to Aspen, over a rocky trail through 12,705-foot Pearl Pass--a trek whose primary aim was to “get drunk and chase the Aspen women,” in the words of one participant. The goal was considered so socially redeeming that it has been a yearly ritual ever since. Off-road bicycling began about the same time in Los Angeles, gaining some notoriety with “Reseda to the Sea” races, organized by a man whose full legal name is Victor Vicente of America.

But it was in Marin County, the hilly thumb of land abutting the north end of the Golden Gate, that mountain biking took off. The wooded slopes of Mt. Tam were not so severe as the Rocky Mountains and more accessible than the hillsides of Los Angeles. There were more riders, more bike shops, more competitive road racers and more rivalries. In Marin, off-road biking achieved a critical mass. It went commercial.

Gary Fisher, whose streaming locks got him banned, briefly, from touring races, remembers the first couple years of the 1970s, when members of the so-called Larkspur Canyon Gang would bike into the hills on moonlit nights for a thing they called the Derby: a sort of two-wheeled demolition contest ridden in top hats and tails on steel-frame bikes as heavy as barbells. The last rider to get knocked down would capture the prize purse, typically a lid of marijuana.

“They were a tribe. They were into conga drums, smoking tons of pot, drinking beer,” Fisher said. “My wife was in that group, some of her friends. Some are dead now. Some are clean and sober. Some are still right on the fringes.”

Zealots scoured the junk shops and Goodwill stores and paid $5 or $10 for antiquated balloon-tired bikes variously known as clunkers, cruisers, mongrels, bombers or beaters. They’d take them up Mt. Tam, “ride to the top in a truck or push the bike up the hill and come screaming down--have a blast. It was a party.”

Fisher, being a road racer, cared about efficiency, mechanics. He outfitted his own knobby-wheeled clunker with 15 speeds, long French cranks for leverage and motorcycle brake levers. It would climb even the steepest slopes and stop like a dart hitting the pub wall. It was so far out there that Fisher found himself making 10 or 20 replicas a year, selling them by word-of-mouth for $400 apiece.

It was probably inevitable that racing began. In 1976, Charlie Kelly, a roadie for the Haight-Ashbury rock group Sons of Champlin, organized the first “Repack” races--illegal, bone-jarring, 1.8-mile downhill dashes that were a stirring test of both man and machine. The name came from the fact that once you pulled your old coaster-brake clunker to a stop, you immediately had to repack your scorched-out brakes with grease. Let her rip and you could get going 40 mph, bouncing and careening to the point that half the time a tire blew or the chain came off or you fell and gave up skin to the mountain.

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In Marin, nobody much cared if you were a nationally ranked road cyclist, as Fisher was. They cared how you did in the Repack. If you were a Fairfax guy, like Fisher, they wanted to know if you could beat that Mill Valley hotshot, Joe Breeze. And if Fisher could fix up a racing bike, hey, Breeze could too--his 1977 “Breezers” were the first bikes specifically designed and built from scratch to go barreling down steep hillsides. Breeze copied the frame geometry of ancient Schwinn Excelsiors and added his own stylistic touches--graceful curves and a nickel-plated finish. “Works of art,” admirers pronounced them, and they were priced accordingly, a gaudy $750 a bike.

That was how it all started--bored youths, joy riders, skinny thrill-seekers with grease-stained hands, trying to outdo one another. Fisher figures he made 160 mountain bikes in 1979 and controlled 80% of the market. They were barely a niche item, no more than a fad everyone figured.

But certain attributes of the bikes--toughness, versatility, a kind of swagger--resonated with American ideals. They were solid, back to nature machines at a time when Earth Day had arrived and people were inclined to appreciate idyllic mountain trails. They were tools of the fitness craze, pricey gadgets that could be endlessly reshaped and accessorized and blown up on the slickest four-color handbills of popular culture.

Riding one, spinning down trails, fishtailing over rutted dirt and sand, you got an experience you never got on the paved road. In the mind of Bob Roll, 35, a Marin County native and back road philosopher who has raced in the Tour de France and any number of mountain biking events, the feeling is like being a bird: Not just any bird, mind you, but a red-tailed hawk, which follows the thermal updrafts and mates during thousands of feet of free fall.

“They break apart just before they hit the ground,” he says. “That’s the feeling I get. You’re flying through the forest. When everything’s clicking right, you’re like a bird of prey . . . just flying through what’s left of the natural world.”

A Revolution on Wheels

One year, the mountain bike was an oddity, like the propeller beanie or the zoot suit; even if you saw it, you took a long, hard look and kept going. Then, in 1981, it hit. All of a sudden, people were talking, sharing stories, the convention halls were jammed with them. Fisher cut off his hair and bought a suit; he was selling bicycles by the thousands. So were a whole mess of others, from independent builders like Breeze to the industry behemoths.

In a striking parallel with the computer revolution of nearby Silicon Valley, the advent of the mountain bike forced fateful decisions. Those who grasped the magnitude of the opportunity got in quick and took away money in buckets. Those who didn’t--companies like Schwinn, like a lot of the European manufacturers--went bankrupt, or lost sizable shares of the market.

Mike Sinyard made the move. He was a hippie capitalist from San Jose with a beard that would not let him near a stove and an imported bike parts company, Specialized, that grossed $5 million a year. At the urging of a friend, Sinyard rode a mountain bike. He circled the yard, tried out a few trails, took the five-hour jaunt from the top of Skyline Mountain to the Pacific. It was like surfing, hang gliding. “This is it,” he said.

It was Sinyard’s own thermal updraft, the jet stream that took Specialized global--to sales that now total 200,000 mountain bikes a year in the United States and 100,000 more in Europe and Japan. The bikes go out and the money flows in: $160 million a year.

Companies sprouted all over. Many of the bikes they built were not very good. Like experimental rockets, they were apt to explode at any time. “There was no handlebar [system] that worked,” says frame builder Tom Ritchey, the man who introduced Sinyard to the mountain bike. “To get something that wouldn’t collapse on you, you had to make it yourself.”

Mediocre technology was a vacuum that drew in the better builders, giants more able to exploit the craze. Trek, GT, Cannondale, Rocky Mountain, Klein, Diamondback--major builders got involved, dozens of companies from all over America. They introduced scores of new models, hundreds of small refinements. Bike sales in the United States had been in the doldrums, way down from the oil embargo years of the early 1970s. The mountain bike was the industry’s salvation.

Commercial success fostered the growth of mountain biking as a sport. Although the Repack races died out after 1984, a thousand other events came along: cross-country races, downhill races, a national series, an international circuit. The Kamikaze, a 60-mph dive down the face of Mammoth Mountain, debuted in 1985 and became a signature event in extreme sports.

Major bike companies spent more than $1 million a year to sponsor teams, creating a firmament for stars like “Insane Wayne” Croasdale, who numbers his broken bones at more than 30, and Missy Giove, whose notion of a luck charm is a shriveled, dead piranha that she wears when she races, dangling from her neck like a Van Cleef bauble.

Racing only intensified the demand for better bikes and more marketable equipment. Style was one element of the frenzy. Bikes not only got lighter, they changed colors, got cooler-looking seats, handlebars, sprockets--"all these little gizmos,” says Zapata “Zap” Espinoza, the executive editor of Mountain Bike magazine. “Then someone said, ‘Hey, if we dip it in this red anodizing paint, this handlebar won’t be like anyone else’s,’ and we went through a color explosion that was miraculous. One company started 3-D violet. Within a year, everything was purple . . . and in a few years you had to throw away all the 3-D violet stuff because it was such a mark of a certain time.”

Enhancing performance was more difficult. To endure the pounding of the mountains--rocks, logs, creek beds and crashes--a bike needed more than just a sturdy frame. Moving parts had to last, keep functioning. One of the more vexing problems was--and still remains--the design of the derailleur, the lurching, Rube Goldberg apparatus that throws the chain from one sprocket to the next, thus changing gears.

Its tendency to malfunction during hard mountain use only reinforced what bicycle engineers have known since 1912, when the infernal thing first appeared: The derailleur had to go. There had to be a wholly new system, perhaps a bicycle transmission, raising the technology of changing gears to the level of motorcycles and cars. This is the Holy Grail and has inspired inventors to come up with at least 50 or 60 designs and prototypes over the years.

Premised on a prodigious number of odd-shaped cams, cones, levers, belts, pulleys and centrifugal weights, they stand as an impressive, if futile, testament to the human imagination. Not a single one has cracked the marketplace. Either they were too heavy or too fragile or too costly or they just plain didn’t work. Gadgets that took years to create, consuming the life spans of ambitious, desperate men, tossed aside in dark and junky garages.

With the huge amount of money at stake in the expanding market, solitary inventors found themselves competing with industrial titans. Just as Microsoft moved in and took a stranglehold on the young software market, a huge, aggressive company leaped forward in the mid-1980s to dominate the production of shifters, sprockets and other bicycle drive-train accessories.

The Shimano Corp., a Japanese outfit that had started out making wheels in 1921, was already big and about to become a Goliath. Shimano did not replace the derailleur; Shimano only toughened it, refined it, made it worthy of the mountain. The firm invested millions in mountain bike research and development. It put 100 engineers to work in Japan and organized a think tank in the United States dubbed “Skunk Development,” after Lockheed’s fabled Skunk Works.

By the late 1980s, Shimano had unseated its Japanese rival, Suntour, as the No. 1 parts manufacturer, unveiling line after line of light, cold-forged, specially machined accessories that were simply the best available. When steep mountain slopes made clear the need for a better brake, Shimano introduced it--the V-Brake. Its newfangled cable configuration rendered the traditional cantilever brake obsolete. Other brake makers drowned in unsold inventory; Shimano’s revenues surged to more than $1 billion a year.

Only a few elite thinkers managed to solve problems beyond the reach of Shimano engineers. Tom Ritchey was one. A garage tinkerer and ardent rider--"I’m my No. 1 crash-test dummy"--Ritchey had scored big by becoming one of the very first builders of mountain bike frames, teaming up for a while with Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly in a company that tried to copyright the mountain bike name. Although that scheme was rejected--they blame their attorney--Ritchey’s reputation for bike engineering was such that even members of Shimano’s brain trust liked to sit around his breakfast table swapping ideas.

On his own, in 1985, Ritchey pondered the question of tire tread. Tires then were just tires; tread for mountain bikes came in basic block patterns stamped out by waffle irons, as it were. Ritchey saw that as less than ideal. He thought about the need for traction from the rear tire, control from the front; that it should be possible to tailor the grip to the path of the bike.

“Just by riding so much, I was paying attention to things that the guys behind the desks weren’t able to see,” he says. He designed his own tread, different patterns for downhill racing, cross-country racing, loose sand, clay--whatever you needed to excel.

Thousands clamored for Ritchey tires. Although he also sells helmets, pedals and cranks, tires will forever be Ritchey’s staple. Twenty-five people now work at his headquarters in Redwood City, and a dozen more at his warehouse in Switzerland, directing the flow of 2 million to 3 million tires a year. “That was big score No. 2 for me.”

It’s All About Keeping Control

Downhill speed is almost wholly unrelated to the size of the wheels, or the range of the gears, or the efficiency of the hubs and bearings. It is all about control--being able to hit a rock the size of a grapefruit, to fly up like a jack in the box, head bouncing, limbs jangling, and still land and keep going. More speed is always possible until that point where it all goes haywire, where you crash and burn.

The way to maintain control is to reduce the bouncing, a goal that gave rise to suspension systems--something never seen before on bikes. In 1987, the same year Paul Turner was launching RockShox, another tinkerer was holed up at the base of Pike’s Peak in Manitou Springs, Colo.

Doug Bradbury, a gangly, engaging young man who had grown up in Santa Monica, was yet another anonymous bike builder whose career had taken some road punctures. It was so bad at one point he had scrounged for a living sweeping up cigarette butts in parking lots. Now he was ensconced in a cold, dirt-floor garage so tiny he had to raise the ceiling to stand up.

The suspension idea was like a blinding flash, one of those insights that keeps you awake at night, wondering, planning, knowing you’ve got something and hoping to hell you’re right. Unlike Paul Turner, who decided to shrink a motorcycle fork, Bradbury set out to make a suspension fork by packing it with urethane. Simple technology, but it worked--you’d hit a bump and the fork would yield an inch and a half.

His critical break came when John Parker, the owner of Yeti Bicycles, offered to show it to racing star John Tomac; Bradbury rushed down to Durango for the biggest business meeting of his life. “I got a speeding ticket on the way down . . . and another on the way back. I was so excited I lost my license.”

Tomac rode the Manitou forks to a national championship. Before long, Bradbury reached a licensing deal with a company called Answer, as in We Have the Answer, an accessory maker born in a garage in Canoga Park. The resulting line of forks, Answer Manitou, became RockShox’s principal rival in a market now populated by Head Shoks, Speed Springs, Fox Shocks, Motohead Shoks, Shock Works, Stratos Shocks and Marzochhi’s Bomber forks.

From its sprawling plant in Valencia, Answer Manitou sells 80,000 forks a year, bringing in revenues of more than $40 million. Bradbury, 46, became a millionaire in “about the first two years,” he says, “and it’s grown immensely since then. It was this classic deal. The window of opportunity opens and you just can’t believe it. I saw this window open. I saw it all. I thought, ‘I never saw this window before, and I’ll probably never see it again in my lifetime. I’ve got to go through this thing.’ ”

Reinventing the Wheel

The industry hit a plateau in the early 1990s. Bike sales leveled off. The glut of manufacturers began to thin out, with weaker entries folding, companies merging and little guys getting swallowed up. It was a familiar arc: As with computers, any boom industry, after a while there are too many feeders in the revenue stream. Competition grows fierce. Finding an edge becomes at once more difficult and also more necessary to survival.

After two decades of evolution, the top-end mountain bike sells for up to $4,000 and is a finely honed piece of engineering. “We’ve already made a billion or more,” one inventor says. “We’ve learned what works and what doesn’t.”

Today’s frames concentrate metal at the stress points. They are constructed of extruded aluminum, titanium and various alloys and cut to size with lasers. Or they are cast from hot carbon fiber, a technology borrowed from aerospace. Saddles are more comfortable, helmets more aerodynamic. Thermoplastic wheels reduce wind resistance. Disc brakes are now the vogue. Suspension forks are so sophisticated you can get up to seven inches of vertical “travel,” and rear suspension systems afford a ride that is almost cloud-like.

The greater the advancement, the bigger the windfall. Inventor Sam Patterson improved on gear-change levers with a device called the Grip Shift, which makes changing gears as easy as twisting a motorcycle throttle. His company now sells 8 million a year. It operates plants in Mexico, Ireland and China. Is Patterson a millionaire? Does a mountain bike roll through the woods?

“Everybody is going crazy trying to develop the next thing,” says another idea man, Ritchey, seated before a desk piled with 24 file folders--seedpods containing the notes for 24 new products he hopes to bring to the market.

Serendipity is still part of the equation. Grand visions go forward, others fall by the wayside, pushed around by the forces of ingenuity, finance, culture and timing--code words, in some cases, for luck.

Hamlin Leonard is one of the backyard Edisons still looking for the Holy Grail. “An incredibly brilliant man,” in the words of a former colleague, he holds 60 U.S. patents in such fields as X-rays, power tube accessories and underwater ordnance systems. A quarter-century ago Leonard became obsessed with the bicycle transmission.

With his vision of a belt-driven, variable-ratio device that would incorporate tough, lightweight plastics and a single controller, Leonard was able to find sponsors and set up a tiny shop beneath a Dunkin’ Donuts stand in Wilton, Conn. His prototypes were promising: “effortless shifting,” enthused one product designer nearly five years ago.

To go that final yard, Leonard recruited help, hiring an assistant named Raphael Schlanger, a young Rutgers graduate with his own intellectual gifts and sufficient ambition to spend nights, on his own time, down in his basement, experimenting with carbon fiber.

Schlanger ended up reinventing the wheel. He came up with a new type of carbon-fiber spokes that solved the hard-ride problems of other thermoplastic wheels, winning himself a patent. Thrilled investors renamed the company--Hamlin Transmission became Spinergy Inc.--and diverted cash into wheel development. The Spinergy wheel rolled out in 1993, an eye-catching, $700 item that became the premier thermoplastic wheel on the market.

Leonard, meanwhile, is back on his own, no longer a part of the enterprise. At 78, he tinkers in the Connecticut countryside, a tiny man beset by osteoporosis and back problems. Bitter, because he may never see his dream, he struggles on, because he knows the bike needs what he can give it.

“I cannot be held down by a company that’s bogged down in wheels,” he says. “I’m an activist. I’m a congenital inventor. I can’t stop myself.

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Two-Wheeled Sophistication

1. SUSPENSION FORKS: Up to seven inches of “travel” cushion riders from bumps. Vital to downhill racing.

2. WHEELS: Metal spokes offer better ride, but new carbon-fiber designs are more aerodynamic.

3. FRONT AND REAR DERAILLEURS: Rube Goldberg mechanisms that move the chain on the sprockets, changing gears. No one has invented a superior transmission.

4. HANDLEBAR SHIFTERS: You can now change gears with the twist of a wrist.

5. DISC BRAKES: Now gaining popularity on top-end bikes, though older designs work about as well.

6. FRAMES: Built from steel alloys, aluminum, titanium and carbon-fiber. Today’s bikes weigh 20 to 25 pounds, half as much as old clunkers.

7. CHAIN RINGS: Three in front, eight in the rear, combining for 24 speeds.

8. REAR SUSPENSION: Designed to cushion rear bumps without responding to forces of pedaling.

9. SADDLES: Custom contoured, constructed of steel, titanium or metal alloys topped with leather or synthetics. Support posts now offer suspension springs.

10. CLIPLESS PEDALS: Bind to biking shoes without straps, much as skis bind to ski boots.

11. TIRES: Tread designs are tailored to terrain.

12. COST: Top-quality mountain bikes start about $700 and go beyond $4,000.

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From Hippie to High-tech

1970-73: Marin County hippies take to riding old clunkers on Mt. Tamalpais.

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1974-1975: Gary Fisher outfits clunker with 15 gears and motorcycle brakes.

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1976: Charlie Kelly starts illegal downhill races.

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1977-1978: Joe Breeze builds first original frames. Term “mountain bike” coined.

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1980: Kelly launches “Fat Tire Flyer,” first mountain bike publication.

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1981: Mountain bikes boom at trade shows.

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1983: National Off-Road Bicycle Assn. created to set racing rules.

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1984: Titanium frames are introduced, reducing weight and corrosion.

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1985: First “Kamikaze” race at Mammoth Mountain.

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1985-86: Tom Ritchey customizes tire tread.

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1987: RockShox markets suspension forks.

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1988-1989: Mountain biking Hall of Fame established. Light, tough carbon-fiber frames gain popularity.

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1990-1992: Gears expand from 18 to 24.

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1992-1994: Carbon-fiber wheels invade market. Cantilever brakes give way to Shimano V-Brakes.

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1995: Rear suspension gains popularity.

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1996: Mountain biking becomes Olympic sport.


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