The beginnings of mountain biking are well known: a group of riders and friends in northern California riding their single speed “klunkers” down fire roads in Marin county. These guys were the pioneers of the sport and the names Pott’s, Cunningham, Breeze and Fisher along with others are legend. They weren’t trying to create a new sport, they just wanted to have more fun on bikes. At about the same time another group of fun hogs were doing the same thing in SoCal. And while the Marin county crew were largely road bike riders and frame builders, the SoCal group came from the world of BMX, hot rods and motorcycles.
“As a kid I was trouble”, John admits. “I was incarcerated for a time and that’s where I learned to weld. I ended up working in the motion picture business as a welder fabricator and I would have been happy my whole life there. Then I flipped a race car in Arizona and was full trauma for three days. It gave me a lot of time to reflect and think about what I really wanted to do with my life. When I got out of the hospital I decided to follow my passion for all things on two wheels. I went to work for Scott Breithaupt at SE Racing, building work benches, shelving and misc. carpenters work. That’s where I met bicycle Bob Wilson, creator of Moto-cruiser and the original Yeti’s. He was a true genius and a real pioneer in mountain bikes that nobody knows about which is a travesty. He wasn’t a very good businessman though and he had lots of problems paying his bills and was in a lot of debt. Anyway, I had this 1928 Indian motorcycle that I sold and bought Bob out; his welding machine, fixtures, a few other things. Together with my friends Chris Herting and Frank Wadleton, we started making mountain bikes. We needed a new name to go in this direction and I had this sleeping bag that I got from this guy in Topanga Canyon called a Yeti. I asked him what he wanted for the name and he said give me a t-shirt.”
From the beginning John had a different take on what his bikes would be. “We weren’t Specialized or Fisher or Cunningham. We didn’t have road bike backgrounds. We didn’t have any preconceived ideas about frame design or angles or anything. At the time, mountain bikes were just beginning so the sky was the limit. The Ultimate was designed on a placemat in a Mexican restaurant. We were a tribe, we had fun and we built really good bikes that went fast and we won a bunch of races with riders like Missy Giove, Juli Furtado, Myles Rockwell, Jimmy Deaton, and John Tomac. Most of these athletes signed up with just a handshake deal. They wanted to ride our bikes. They were that good.”
“You know, we were lucky,” John continues. “Chris, Frank and I were all into the same things. We loved flat track, we loved motocross, we were gear heads. Something just clicked and really blossomed. We were in a different orbit than the guys in Marin. Don’t get me wrong, I admire those guys. They were my contemporaries, I never saw them as competition. They made significant contributions to the sport and deserve their place in history. We were just coming from a different place.”
And as the race wins piled up and sales soared Yeti grew to the point where, as John puts it, “I just felt overwhelmed. “We had 39 people working out of three buildings. That year I went to the Christmas party and there were over a hundred people there. And that’s who you’re really making the payroll for. It’s a lot of responsibility. That and a growing feeling that we were losing our direction. Product managers boarding planes to Asia looking for the cheapest way to make product? That didn’t interest me, it’s not what motivated me to make bicycles. And by the time Schwinn/SSG became interested in buying me out, we had won races all over the world, we made great bikes that people wanted and it was just the right time for me to leave.”
And that’s just what John did. He left Durango for Hollywood to be what he calls “a gun bitch” in Matt Sweeney’s special effects shop. “Sweeney has the market cornered on machine guns in the motion picture business. He has a rental fleet of machine guns and it was my job to keep them working and repaired. These were good times for me. I love being a welder and fabricator, I loved my union and my union brothers and sisters. But all the while I was still involved in racing. I helped sponsor a sprint car team and I’m still part owner of a flat track motorcycle team that competes at the top level on these crazy fuel injected water cooled 750 twins that they race on dirt ovals. At the season opener in Daytona our guy made the main and ended up 13th which is pretty good for a mom and pop team racing against these factory teams with semi trailers. So I’m way involved in that. I’ve kept my finger on the pulse of racing, I’m still involved in fabrication and use of materials. I’ve only gotten better with my craft and understanding how it applies to going fast. ”
So life is good underground. You don’t have to worry about payroll, taxes and health insurance. You keep your creative juices flowing making cool stuff. You collect a paycheck when the day is done. You stop paying attention to the bike biz and your old life. John says, “So one day I’m down in front of my place hunting for beach glass. I’m basically retired from the motion picture business at this point. And this old hippie guy goes riding by on a fat bike and watch him ride into the horizon. And I’m thinking ‘I gotta get me one of those!’ And so I would ride on the strip of wet sand just above the waterline for miles and I just loved it. The fat wheels and tires made it possible and believe it or not that’s what got me thinking about the bike biz again. There’s still breakthroughs and innovations happening. For years everyone played it safe with the same 26” wheels. Gary Fisher deserves a lot of credit for 29” wheels and I don’t know who did the 27.5 plus but they sure work good too. I’m highly influenced and inspired by these new plus sized tires. So now I’m fired up and my head is full of new ideas for frame designs and what’s possible with new technology.
About this time I was approached by a couple of buddies and we started talking about starting a new bike company. Over the next 12 months we built some test mules and worked on getting funding but we could never secure what we needed. So after a year we shook hands and parted ways with no hard feelings. I wish them all the best. But because we were under the radar people think that Underground Bike Works is an overnight sensation when in reality I’ve been hard at this for the last 36 months. Anyway, I get a call from an old friend, he’s heard I’m getting back in the bike business and he wants to get involved. We go to the Interbike show in Las Vegas, look at a bunch of incredible bikes and talk to a bunch of old friends, make some good connections. And a couple days later we’re talking to an investor and we’ve got funding to make UBW a reality. So one door closes and another opens.”
Now armed with a solid business plan along with reliable funding, John sets out to build a team to make UBW a reality. “I contacted a guy I’d worked with at Schwinn/SSG, Rich Adams, somebody I have always admired. Rich is an amazing engineer and his help and input on these designs was invaluable. But he’s also a super talented rider and really connected to current technology. He’s just a monster, way beyond my expectations. I also got ahold of some others I had worked with before. I knew their capabilities and they knew mine. And when they heard my plans they were all in. My team is small but everyone is the best at what they do. I’m extremely lucky to be working with people of this caliber again.”
The next move was to find a place to serve as UBW HQ. “I wanted to be where there’s good riders and great riding, a place that speaks to the core of mountain biking. I was able to find warehouse space in Durango and that’s where our headquarters and assembly plant will be. And, another beautiful thing, I’m able to hire some of my old friends and former Yeti employees to come work there. It’ll be our only showroom. You’ll be able to demo a bike out of there and ride the World Cup course at Purgatory or the XC course at Fort Lewis College or any number of incredible trails.”
You know, looking back, we made a lot of mistakes at Yeti. We could have been more profitable. We followed the traditional model of wholesalers and distributors and dealers. And they were making more money than we were and we’re doing the hard work! This time around we’re going to be a consumer direct company and offer riders something they can’t get anywhere else. These designs were created from what we learned winning races all over the world and applied to what the weekend warrior wants in an everyday ride. These bikes climb like a billy goat, single track like a factory works motocross machine and go downhill like being shot out of a cannon. They’re just a ton of fun to ride. It’s really a return to what mountain biking has always been about and that’s having fun riding bikes in the dirt with your buddies. People ask me ‘what are they for?’. Well, they’re for having fun. I call it ‘Funduro’.
“I wanted this bike to be a hardtail for two reasons. People think hardtail means XC bike, you know, quick and snappy but harsh and unforgiving. But I’m thinking, why? With the improvements in materials and components, especially the plus size wheels and tires, it doesn’t have to be that way. So we applied everything we knew about making a great handling hardtail and redesigned the frame to take advantage of new technology. Retro bike fans will recognize the DNA of the loop tail It’s like you found a 1995 Yeti ARC, put it into the DeLorean I created for Back to the Future, flew it into 2018, this would the bike that came out. It’s all new geometry with short chainstays to take advantage of the incredible grip the plus tires offer and longer cockpit with slacker headtube. Really nothing like an XC bike. It feels so confident and playful, you just gotta ride to believe it. Rich just did an unbelievable job from sourcing materials to programming, just everything. My hat’s off to him.
The second reason is I discovered there’s this ‘cult of hardtail’ as kind of a pushback against this arms race of the latest, greatest linkage-pivot-knuckle anti-whatever suspension of the month club that nobody can figure out. So I wanted to offer these guys a hardtail bike that would excel on your favorite trails, you know, would climb great with amazing traction and feel playful and confidant on the down. The bike looks retro but with a completely unique feel that nobody’s had before.”
John continues, “I’ll always be a frame builder. It’s for the rest of your life. I’ll always love bikes and motorcycles. What I don’t love, after all these years, is seeing the same antiquated business plan with the bike companies. I’ve always been an outsider. I like change, I like being an upstart. So, in creating Underground Bike Works I wanted to do something different. These bikes are not race bikes, which sounds funny given my history. They’re just fun to ride. The bike industry is just muddying the waters with this constant chase for suspension travel and more gears or less gears or wider wheels or whatever. Yeah, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. And today we’ve got gridlock on the freeways, our phones are always ringing, we’re over worked and underpaid. We’ve got all this shit to contend with. What we need is quality recreation time. I want to build bikes that have that fun factor, that you can just go out and ride on a trail, a bike path, the beach. Just go ride with your buddies on a bike that’s fast and fun to ride without any hassles or fuss. Take advantage of technology but don’t make it the point. It’s about having fun and being part of a community. I want to stay true to the origins of mountain biking and I think these bikes are a return to that.”
“After selling Yeti I went underground,” John continues. Now I’m back using new technologies and distribution models. If you like what I did at Yeti you’re going to love what I have up my sleeve at Underground Bike Works. Our first 250 numbered frames are coming out of FTW’s shop in Vermont and are being assembled and shipped around the world from our HQ in Durango, Colorado. I took everything I learned about making fast race bikes and applied that to these Funduro bikes. If that don’t light your fire then your wood is wet.”