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History of the 29" wheel bicycle

This history of the first bicycle is mired with claims and counter claims.  Since this occurred in the 1860's, with minimal documentation from that era, it is easy to see how the origins could be muddied.  While mountain bikes hit the scene in the 1970s, the father of the mountain bike is still in dispute.  Much of the dispute depends on the definition used to define "mountain bike" and if you require commercialization of the concept to qualify.  There are many examples of bikes modified for off-road use but most of them were just personal projects and "production" ended at one.  Even more recently, mountain bikes have splintered into various niches and each one has a founding father.  The 650b bike was around at the origin of the species but was quickly abandoned for the 26" standard.  Kirk Pacenti brought them back in 2007 but who is the founding father?  Fat bikes were popularized with the 2005 Surly Pugsley but they existed before with bikes using rims such as the Snow Cats or with the Hanebrink bikes using ATV tires.  Again, what is your definition of fat bike?  The 29" wheel is another niche with murky origins.  Fortunately for us, Adam Hunt has taken it upon himself to help sort it out while the information is relatively easily available and memories haven't completely faded.  Below is the results or his efforts.  This should be considered a living document and will be updated as more complete complete information becomes available.  If you have such updates, please let Adam and I know.  

 

By Adam Hunt

Wheel size history

The 28” wheel dates back to the 1880s and there were some early off road events such as the Coconino Cycling Club races from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon in 1884. Apparently some of the Coconino riders were using 28” wooden rims.


Willits Brand Bicycles founder Wes Williams pointed out that up until the invention of the cruiser that 28” wheeled bikes were considered “adult” bikes while 26” wheel bikes were for children.

During my research I’ve found something of a general consensus that no “29”er” bike existed prior to Mark Slate scaling up the WTB Nano Raptor to fit on an ISO 622 (700c) rim. Or was it?

There are big wheel off road progenitors that predate the 29”er by almost a century. Many of the 1880s era bicycles used 28” wheels and were ridden extensively off road. Cyclocross bikes used ISO 622 (or 700c rims) and probably ISO 584 (or 650b) rims.  More recently Geoff Apps used ISO 622 rims on his off road “Range-Rider”.  John Finely Scott’s 1953 “Woodsie” used large diameter wheels as did Joe Bruman’s 1969 modified JC Higgins.  Bruce Gordon’s Rock ‘N Road, the Project series from Bianchi, the Overdrive from Diamondback and the Klein Adept all used ISO 622 rims.

It is important to note that Wes Williams’ Crested Butte Bicycles originally used 700c Continental Goliath tires (or whatever else was available).
Other period choices could have been the Avocet Cross II, Panaracer Smoke or whatever remaining stock of Rock ‘N Road or Hakkapeliita tires there may have been. During this time Wes called these bikes 28” bikes.

I talked to “Shiggy” (mountain bike tire guru, mtbtires.comconcerning some esoteric questions about early mountain bike tires. I asked him about the casing widths of some of the early 26” mountain bike tires and this is what he said:
“…Usually 1.75 or 2.125". The Comp III being the most common. ~1982 Specialized sold the Stumpjumper 2.125, made by, and also sold by, National, which may have been an existing tire.”
If we average those casing widths, they work out to be roughly 1.9375 and was probably pretty close to what every one was calling a 1.95.
Mathematically Geoff Apps may have a legitimate claim for being the father of the 29”er because the casing width for the 700 x 47 Nokian Hakkapeliita works out to be 1.85”; right in the middle of pre-existing mountain bike tires.  Bruce Gordon’s Rock ‘N Road, however, work out only to be 1.69 placing it significantly under the range of the tires Shiggy was talking about.  We can kind of rule out the Bianchi Project series because, depending on the model, they used  the Ritchey Crossbite tires which were 700 x 38c (or 1.49) or the Panracer Smoke at 700x 45 (or 1.77) or their house brand Maxxis “Project” tires at the same casing width.  The Diamondback Overdrive also used the 700x 45 Panaracer Smoke so that’s out of the running too.

Here’s where I think Wes has a legitimate claim. Wes and Bruce Gordon knew each other and in fact, after Gary Helfrich taught Wes Williams how to weld titanium, Wes made several early titanium versions of Bruce’s Rock ‘N Road bikes.
  It was Gary Helfrich who gave Bruce and Wes a cache of Hakkapeliita he had brought back from Europe.  After Bruce’s supply of Hakkapeliita tires had run out, he hired Joe Murray to design what would become the Rock ‘N Road tire.  
Both Bruce and Wes told me a similar story and that is at a certain point Bruce became frustrated with the Rock ‘N Road bike. Bruce had showed several bike industry people a version of the Rock ‘N Road that allowed a rider to easily switch the bar and stem on the bike from flat bars to drop bars and back. Bruce told me, “If I were Gary Fisher or Scot Nicol and I showed that to people, people would be cleaning their shorts up afterwards. I guess I’m not cool”. Bruce also said he eventually handed the Rock ‘N Road project over to Wes Williams to see if he could do anything with it. Wes told me that one of the things that frustrated him about taking on the flat bar, 700c all terrain bike project was there wasn’t enough air volume in the existing tire choices. He told me too that the original idea for the 29”er was it enabled a rider to extend the range he could ride a bike by linking on road and off road trails in a way that would have been difficult to do with 26” bikes.  Wes also said he tried to approach Scot Nicol about the idea but Scot wasn’t interested.

Wes also said he’d take day trips to Wilderness Trail Bikes to try to convince them that they needed to make high volume, knobby, 700c tires.
At that time Charlie Cunningham expressed some interest in the idea because he had been riding 700c bikes off road for several years at that point.  Initially Mark Slate had started as a frame-building apprentice of Steve Potts.  Later Slate would become a full partner of WTB with Steve Potts and Charlie Cunningham.
Over the years, Mark Slate had become WTB’s chief tire designer.
Wes would often meet with Slate to convince him of the need for these tires.  Initially the tire project was stalled due to the financial department of the WTB.  Gary Fisher was also a frequent visitor to WTB so it’s possible that Mark Slate may have talked to Fisher about the project some time along the way.  It is also possible that Fisher was trying to revisit some old ideas that he tried exploring with Charlie Kelly and Geoff Apps and was unaware of Wes’ conversations with Slate.

In 1998, possibly with the promise of Fisher and Trek (Trek purchased Fisher in 1992) to buy more tires, WTB decides to okay a small number of 700c Nano Raptor tires.  Trek/Fisher had been using a fair number of WTB products on their production bikes so the possibility of receiving more spec on the bikes was a good sized incentive.  WTB was also a Fisher team sponsor at the time and had previously worked with Trek on the design of their aluminum framed mountain bikes so there was history of collaboration between the companies.  
I was told by a former WTB insider the reason why Slate decided to choose the Nano Raptor tire as the first high air volume 700c off road tire was that existing 26” Nano Raptor molds were flexible enough to be easily scaled up to a 700c size without having to make a new mold.  Since the Nano Raptor was originally a 26" tire, it would also eliminate an unknown by using the same tread pattern on the 29" tire in back-to-back testing with the existing 26" version.
After the first batch of tires were made several were given to Gary Fisher, several were kept “in house” at WTB and some of the remainders were sent to Wes Williams who was now living in Colorado.

29er  29er  29er  29er  29er  29er 

In 1999 Gary Fisher has WTB partner, Steve Potts make him several test bikes to try out the 700c versions of the Nano Raptor.  To keep the chain stays as short as possible, the seat tubes were curved which required a modified front derailleur.   I believe the bike shown above is the same bike with 2 different paint schemes (yellow first, then white with vertical stripes).  The bikes below may also be the same frame in several different iterations.

  29er  29er  29er  29er 


The same year Mark Slate designs three frames to be made by Hodaka in Taiwan (pictured below) to serve as test beds for the new, larger version of the Nano Raptor.

  29er 

Around the time that Slate had ordered the frames to be made by Hodaka he had modified a 26” wheel frame that he made when he was apprenticing under Steve Potts. Slate modified his old frame in order to allow the new, larger wheels and apparently rode the bike as an early test bike for the Nano Raptor.

Contributors to 29" wheels

Geoff Apps: IIt seems to me he stopped developing his “Range-Rider/ Adventura” for the same reason why Kelly and Fisher weren’t able to go any further with developing a 650b or 700c mountain bike early on, lack of finances, and limited supply of tires in those two sizes.

Wes Williams: There’s a case for Wes largely due to his involvement with Bruce and the Rock ‘N Road. He also talked about meeting with Mark Slate independently of Gary Fisher.

Gary Fisher: There’s also a case for Gary because there’s a long history of him riding road bikes and the fact he was talking to Geoff Apps from the UK during the early eighties and we have a paper trail of those correspondences. Lastly, since the early nineties Gary Fisher bikes had been part of Trek and I think it was the financial might of Trek that helped convince WTB to make the first batch of Nanos.  Gary is also credited with coining the name 29er.

Tom Ritchey: At one point Tom Ritchey claimed to have been the father of not only the mountain bike but 29”ers too.
Tom had been riding 700c bikes off road with Jobst Brandt prior to making mountain bikes. Tom was the principal frame builder for the Kelly and Fisher owned Mountain Bike company.

  29er 

While there some remaining examples of his early 650b bikes (pictured above, June 1982 Bicycling magazine notice below) , the same can’t be said for a 700c flat bar off road bike because there’s little evidence he made any 700c flat bar bikes in any quantity

  29er

Ritchey wasn’t the only person that made frames for Mountain Bike. Both Tom Teesdale and Jeffrey Richman made frames for Mountain Bike so it’s possible that either one of these two builders could have made a flat bar, 700c mountain bike for Fisher and Kelly.

Charlie Cunningham: Charlie was a founding member of Wilderness Trail Bikes with Steve Potts and Mark Slate. Prior to forming WTB Cunningham had made several 700c off road bikes.
Charlie’s "Expedition" bikes which were 27" front / 700c rear and which he rode on trails with 35c tires. Most people today would look at this as a bike more akin to CX or MX.

Charlie worked on the original 26” Nano Raptor design.
Charlie's "69'er" bike which started life as a suspension-corrected 26" Cunningham and he later built a special Type-II to hold a Panaracer Firecross 700x45c tire.

Steve Potts: Steve made several prototype 29”er frames for Gary Fisher to test pre production Nano Raptor 29”er tires. Apparently Steve even made an early 29”er frame for Doug White but I don’t have any confirmation concerning this. August 1999 made a titanium frame with a Potts-modified Marzocchi suspension fork.
Both Steve and Charlie are forced out of WTB in 2002 so if they had any design input it may have been minimal.

Don Cook: Don Cook wrote a two part article starting in a 2007 issue of Dirt Rag talking about his involvement in the development of the 29”er.
Please read Bob Poor’s unpublished letter to the editor concerning Cook’s Dirt Rag articles.
 

Vassago Cycles:
Vassago claim have been intimately involved with development of the 29”er as well as being the first 29”er only company.
OX Brand Bicycle beat Vassago Cycles to the punch by nearly three years.

No one I have ever talked to has mentioned their involvement with the development of the 29”er.

Niner Bikes: Niner Bikes also claim to have been involved with the development of the 29”er as well as being the first 29”er only company too.  OX Brand Bicycle beat Niner Bikes to the market by two years.
No one I have ever talked to has mentioned their involvement with the development of the 29”er.


Timeline

1882, Thomas B. Jeffery, a bicycle manufacturer and inventor, gets a patent for an early precursor of the clincher tire.

1884, Coconino Cycling Club organizes a series of off road bicycle races that lasts until 1897. The race starts in Flagstaff and makes a 70 mile route to the Grand Canyon. Many of the riders use 28” wheeled wooden rimmed bikes. During the Pullman rail strike Arthur C. Banta delivers mail from San Francisco to the Fresno with eight primary riders. The route was 210 miles and was divided into eight relays lasting 18 hours each.

1885, John Kemp Starley, designs the first successful “safety bicycle” with equal sized wheels and a chain to drive the rear wheel.

1886, The 25th Infantry Corps “Buffalo Soldiers” tests bicycles for military use for the US. The final test in 1887 went from Ft Missoula Montana to St Louis Missouri. The bicycles used all had 28” wheels.

1888, John Boyd Dunlop, a Scottish veterinarian, develops the first pneumatic tire for his son’s tricycle. Dunlop’s tire consisted of a leather hosepipe as an inner tube and had an outer rubber tire with treads.

1898, Spanish-American War. First recorded use of bicycles used during warfare. Lt. Moss of the 25th Infantry Corp uses bicycle mounted “Buffalo Soldiers” to quell riots in Cuba.

1899, Anglo-Boer War. Bicycles used by couriers and spies for the first time in warfare. Many soldiers use 28” wheeled Birmingham Small Arms Co. (BSA) bicycles.

1890, Amos Sugden starts riding his bicycle off road in the English Lake District. CTC Gazette writes an article concerning Sugden’s adventures.
 

1893, August and George Schrader invent an improved valve to keep air in the tire.

1902, French soldier named Daniel Gousseau organized the first National cyclocross Championships.
 

1905, Vernon Blake experiments with “bad road” bikes and is an early adaptor of the derailleur and uses “flat” handlebars on his bicycle to ride unapproved roads during the late 1920’s.
 

1911, Philip Strauss invents the combination tire that consisted of an inner tube and a separate outer rubber tire.
 

1933, Schwinn produces the B10E a 26” x 2.125" wheel recreational bike but still produces the Racer using 28x 1 1/8 tires.
Later, old Schwinns would be converted klunkers by riders in Northern California.
 
1938, Rene Herse begins to manufacture aluminum bicycle components and by 1940 he produces complete bicycles. Herse’s designs and components allow riders to ride both on road as well as off. Apparently his bikes used 650b wheels.

1950, The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) sanctions first Cyclocross World Championships.
 

1951, a group of teen-agers in and around Paris began modifying old bicycles by adding suspension forks on them and riding the bikes off road. Bicycles were mostly 650b wheeled bikes but it seems they modified whatever they could get their hands on. The club lasted only to 1956.
 

1953, John Finely Scott modifies his road bike with fat tires and flat handle bars as a college student in Oregon and calls it a “Woodsie” bike. Scott is the first outside investor for Mountain Bike in 1979 with Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly.

1955, W M “Wayfarer” Robinson founds the English Rough Stuff Fellowship (RSF). “Wayfarer” wrote articles and gave lectures expounding the importance of exploring areas off road on a bicycle as early as 1919. The Rough Stuff Fellowship is still in existence and membership is not limited to cyclist only riding a specific style of bike or wheel size.

1967, Joe Bruman modifies an old JC Higgins frame and adds a suspension he made himself and explores the foot trails of the San Gabriel Mountains in southern California.  This bike is part of the MOMBAT collection and can be viewed HERE.


29er

 

John Olsen also modifies a road bike frame and constructs his own suspension fork in Minnesota. The bike was unusual because it used a 26” wheel in the front and a 20” in the rear. Olsen also experimented with using derailleurs on his bike but with less than satisfying results.  This bike is part of the MOMBAT collection and can be viewed HERE.


29er

 

1972, Riders in Marin County, including Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly, began riding old 26” wheel “newspaper boy” bikes off road.  Around this same time, Craig Mitchell, Doug White and Paul Brown were cutting the bottom brackets out of Motobecane and Marushi road bikes and re-welding them into a higher position to make them more capable off road.  These were referred to as "paperclip bikes".

1974, Members of the Morrow Dirt Club had started modifying WWII era 26” bikes with rim brakes and derailleurs so they could ride off road with them.
Russ Mahon and members of the Morrow Dirt Club drive up from Cupertino CA to Mill Valley CA to ride the West Coast Cyclocross Championships.  Nokian starts producing bicycle tires and tubes in Lieksa Finland
Gary Fisher puts together his first geared klunker.
Doug White makes a geared 20" wheel bike for off road riding (below, Paul Brown photo)

29er


1975, the first American national cyclocross championships take place in Berkeley California.
 

1976, Craig Mitchell makes Charlie Kelly his first purpose built off road frame and fork.
First Pearl Pass Tour. A group of riders from Crested Butte Colorado take their single speed “newspaper boy” bikes up and over the Pearl Pass to Aspen Colorado.

1977, Joe Breeze builds Charlie Kelly his second purpose built mountain off road frame and fork.

1978, “CoEvolution Quarterly” writes an article documenting the Pearl Pass ride.
California klunker riders drive across the country and Pearl Pass becomes a meeting place where bikers could exchange ideas.
 

1979, Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly start the first mountain bike company, Mountain Bike.
Tom Ritchey builds many early Mountain Bike frame and forks for Fisher and Kelly.
Fisher, Kelly and Apps also discuss the possibility of using 700 x 47 Nokian Hakkapeliita tires as an alternative to 26” wheels.
Fisher and Kelly correspond with British mountain bike pioneer, Geoff Apps about wheel size options.
Fisher was unhappy with the performance he was getting from 26” wheels he eventually convinces Tom Ritchey to produce a handful of 650b mountain bike frames in the early ‘80’s.
Ritchey produces a small number of frames under his own name too but the project comes to a halt due to the lack of reliable availability of both 650b and 700 x 47 tires.
Victor Vincente of America experiments with a 20” geared off road bike called the Topanga.  Topanga #2 is part of the MOMBAT collection and can be viewed HERE.

29er

1981, Geoff Apps makes a prototype Cleland off road bicycle called “The Range-Rider” in the UK.
Later be called “The Adventura”, “The Range-Rider” was designed to accommodate 700 x 47 Hakkapeliita tires.
After a frame building apprenticeship with both Joe Breeze and Charlie Cunningham Scot Nicol started making his own frames under the Ibis name.

1983, Scot Nicol (founder of Ibis) meets Wes Williams (founder of Willits Brand Bicycles) for the first time during a Pearl Pass ride.

1984, Wes Williams moves to California to work with Scot Nicol and becomes Scot’s first employee.

1988, Bruce Gordon builds the Rock ‘N Road and Joe Murray develops a tire of the same name for Bruce Gordon can no longer get any more Nokian Hakkapelitta tires from Europe.
Bruce hires Joe Murray to design the Rock ‘N Road tire.
 

1991, Bianchi introduces the Project Series
Bianchi sponsors rider Joe Blanco and gives him a Project Series bike to race. Bianchi features Joe Blanco in a catalog shoot.
Joe Blanco referred to the Project Series as a “cheater bike” and said that people were all ready modifying cyclocross bikes with flat handlebars prior to the release of the Project Series.

1992, Klein introduces a 700c, flat handle bar, off road orient bike called “The Adept” in limited numbers.
Dave Weins rides a 700c Diamondback Overdrive at the Cactus Cup.
Early 29”er style bikes were hampered by poor tires and were not received well by the riding public.
Wes Williams modifies an old Motobecane frame for off road use.
 

1994, Wes Williams leaves Ibis bicycles and starts his own bike company, Crested Butte (eventually renamed Willits Brand Bicycles).

1997 Willits produces 7 Townie 26" bikes.  Six of these (as seen below) were converted to 29" wheels in 2000 by repositioning the rear brake mounts and modifying the Type II forks.  The track drop outs had enough movement to accommodate the larger wheels.

29er 

 

1998, Mark Slate WTB starts design work and requests work order for prototype 700c versions of the Nano Raptor
Colorado frame builder, Don McClung starts making his retro inspired single speed 29”er bikes.
 

Prior to 1998, McClung and Don Rust make a number of experimental 26” wheel bikes called “The Shorty” due to their extremely short wheel base length.

Willits Mountie 28"er as seen outside Wes's shop in April 1999 (below) with Nano Raptor tires mounted.

29er 

Sandy Hague's 28"er set up for winter riding in Crested Butte, circa 1999 (below)

29er 


August 1999, Steve Potts titanium bike with modified Marzocchi fork as seen HERE.
 

1999, Moots makes their first 29”er, the Mooto-X YBB.  Shown at the 1999 Interbike show.

1999 Interbike, Carl Shlemowitz of Vicious Cycles shows his first 29”er bike, the Motivator. The frame was built using drawings of the upcoming tire and was finished prior to the tires entering the US.
Dirt Rag writes an article about the emerging 29”er trend.

1999 Interbike, Willits Ti Mountie B-29 full suspension bike (below).  Designed to showcase the adaptability of the 29" wheel.  AMP rear suspension is used since it is a proven design.  The matching AMP suspension fork is used since it easily adaptable to the larger wheel size.

29er 

 

2002, Gary Fisher (Trek) introduces the first mass produced 29”er mountain bikes.   Supercaliber 29 with a Marzocchi Marathon 80mm travel fork, Shimano XTR/XT components and Avid V brakes.  Mt Tam 29 with Marzocchi MXR Air 80mm travel fork, Shimano XTR/XT/LX components and Avid V brakes.  Both bikes use an IRC Notos XC 29 x 2.1" tire.  Mark Slate and partners produce a small number of steel and titanium frames under the name OX Brand Bicycles.

29er  29er 

Bernie Mikkelsen made the OX steel frames in the US (pictured above)and the titanium frames and forks were made by Xi’AN Chagda Titanium Products Co. in China (pictured below).

29er  29er 

2003 Surly release the Karate Monkey.
Fisher adds two lower priced hardtails, the X-Caliber_29 and Paragon_29 to the existing Mt Tam_29 and Supercaliber_29 models.  Two Sugar 29 full suspension models are also available.

2004, Niner starts as a 29”er only company.
Fisher continues the full suspension Sugar 29 models.  The hard tail models are discontinued and replaced with dual sport models.  These are more of an off-road hybrid with 700 x 42 tires.

2005, Fisher continues the full suspension Sugar 29 models and the hard tail Paragon and X-Caliber are back.  The Rig single speed debuts with a rigid Bontrager Switchblade fork and is painted pearl purple.  Rock Shox introduces the Reba 29" fork which is on all four suspended Fisher frames.


2007, Don Cook writes a story about the history of 29”er bikes for Dirt Rag.

 

Another similar article appeared on the Guitar Ted blog and makes for a good read.

 

 

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