While at the Fisher Press camp, we were told that Fisher is about to celebrate ten years of 29″er bikes. That fact is pretty amazing when you look at it. Ten years! It means no one has had more experience selling 29″ers to the public than Gary Fisher Bikes. I thought it might be an interesting thing for some folks to check out the history behind the offering of 29″ers to the public for the first time by an established bicycle company.

Gary explores a design for a 29″er in 1999.

To begin the story, we were handed plans and copies of e-mails from WTB’s Mark Slate and Gary Fisher. For those who don’t know, WTB was the first to make a tire that measured 2 inches with knobs for off roading in a 700c format. Gary Fisher was one of the proponents of “The Tire”, (WTB’s Nanoraptor), and now that it was being made, he needed a bicycle to ride that fit them. Gary explained that the concept was to use a tire available in both 26 and 29 inch size that could be compared on two different bikes- one 26 and one 29″er- that were as identical as possible. As Gary himself said, he needed to be convinced that the idea had actual merit in the field.

Gary wanted chain stays that would match his current 26″er trail bike, so this caused some consternation amongst the principals- Gary, Mark, and Steve Potts, who was to build the first two frames for Gary. After several iterations on paper- all of which we received to peruse- the final version was produced with an offset seat tube to accommodate the shortened stays. This made a bike that was as close to Gary’s 26″er in dimensions as possible, but it created problems with the front derailluer. Essentially, a custom made one off had to be fabbed from a stock Shimano derailluer and the bike was finally complete.

Former Trek Brand Manager, Zap Espinoza, with Gary’s first 29″er.

Gary needed a suspension fork, so he had a Manitou Mars modified to accept 29″er wheels with a whopping 50mm of travel. Gary said that if you hit a big bump, the tire would graze the bottom of the fork crown! But this didn’t deter Gary, and he was off to figure out if the wagon wheeler concept was going to be plausible or not for mountain biking, and more importantly, for sale to average trail riders. Ever the tinkerer, Gary didn’t leave the bike this way for long.

This is the same bike with a new paint job and a modified Look Fournales fork.

Still in 1999, Gary had the bike repainted in a scheme his daughter designed and fitted with a Look Fournales fork with the anti-dive, constant trail linkage. The fork, originally a 26 inch wheeled fork, was modified for Gary by Gary Klein by extending the legs with bonded on aluminum inserts. The fork travel was the same, but at least it didn’t hit the crown now! The bike went through two more re-paints by designer Paul Smith before being retired by 2000. By this time Gary had a Marzocchi fork prototyped to test out with it.

A prototype from 2000 in titanium.

By 2000 Gary was convinced it was a good enough idea to pursue and Trek allowed some prototypes for possible production. Still using technology that was based on other standards, (forks designed with 26 inch wheels in mind and converted Rolf road wheels), Gary could still see merit in the idea and forged ahead with the idea that these big wheeled rigs could be a part of the Fisher mountain bike offerings. These prototypes used Genesis geometry on big wheels for the first time. Also, interestingly enough, a 69er prototype was made to help solve front end geometry issues. The stage was now set to launch the first production 29″er the following year.

A young Ryder Hesjedal on Gary Fisher’s first production 29″er.

In 2001 Gary Fisher Bikes introduced 29″ers to an unsuspecting world. Using specially constructed Marzocchi suspension forks, the idea was slow to take root with riders and especially dealers who were slow to warm up to what was at the time considered to be nothing more than a passing fancy. More models were introduced in 2002, including a full suspension model, but by 2003 things were looking pretty dire for the future of big wheels in the Fisher camp. In that year, models were cut, and a new “Dual Sport” model was introduced.

The Dual Sport models, which were pitched as do it all hybrid bikes, helped turn the tide in the sales department. Things started to turn around dramatically in 2004, when Gary Fisher Bikes introduced newly designed, externally butted frames in aluminum with better stand over clearances. They also cut a deal with Rock Shox to make the now classic Reba 29″er fork. Fisher Bikes fronted all the money for the tooling to make these purpose built 29″er forks. Fisher Bikes also introduced the Rig, a purple bombshell that propelled sales for Fisher 29″ers into unknown territory. Finally, Bontrager was making ground up 29″er wheel designs that were disc specific and stiffer and tougher than previous offerings.

In 2005 Cam Chambers won the National Championship 24 Hr race aboard a Gary Fisher 29″er. Then Jesse LaLonde almost won the Single Speed World Championships by dominating the actual race, but losing out in the go-kart finale required to win the title that year. Sales were increasing too, and Gary Fisher Bikes was becoming more of a big wheeled company all the time.

In the following two years, sales of 29″ers at Gary Fisher bikes doubled each year. Then in 2007 Genesis 2, or “G2 Geometry” was introduced for 29″ers and Fox Shox was persuaded to build specially offset forks for 29″ers. These were the first Fox forks for 29″ers ever produced. Rock Shox also had a new offset fork and all of this was done with the influence of Gary Fisher Bikes. On the racing side, Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski becomes the first athlete to ride a 29″er at the World Championships.

Now Gary Fisher Bikes is one of the biggest 29″er companies out there and the big wheelers are the mainstay of the line up for 2010. Hard to believe after the low point in 2003 that it would work out the way it did. The race team keeps pace as well, as I have detailed in the previous post. Results on the racing circuit are unprecedented. The offerings on the table for 2010 represent a decade of refinement, also an unprecedented thing in the world of 29″ers.

That’s a wrap on the reports from the Gary Fisher Bikes Press Camp. I hope the coverage was informative and entertaining. I would like to thank Gary Fisher Bikes, Gary Fisher, Travis Ott, all the athletes and product engineers, and the other media folk there who made this camp a great time for me.

Look for a long term review of a Gary Fisher Rumblefish coming soon!