BikeBiz examines the contribution to MTB history of Geoff Apps, the English Gary Fisher (both are dapper, both were pioneers).

An Englishman for Hollow Fame? There’s an Apps for that

Geoff Apps has always been ahead of his time. His ‘cross country bicycle’ pre-dated the mountain bikes of Marin County and even wearing tweeds on bikes is back in vogue, thanks to London’s Tweed Run.

Apps now lives in Scotland – he moved to Coldstream when Jim McGurn’s New Cyclist upped sticks there from York – but he was formerly based in Buckingamshire, smack bang in the middle of the Chiltern Hills.

His first commercially-available bike was the Range-Rider Cross Country Cycle in 1979, although he’d been refining his design since the mid-1960s. The upright Range Rider – later to form part of Apps’ Cleland Cycles brand – was built for riding through mud, for hacking up and down wet, slimy hillsides. It had mud-guards and obscure studded tyres from Finland.

Aside from those tyres and an eclectic mish-mash of international components, some from the world of trials motorcycling, the Range-Rider was English through and through.

Apps sold a few, but from an evolutionary point of view, it was a bicycling dead-end. (However, there’s talk of a replica machine being made available for sale by a UK bike company).

But just because the Californian ‘mountainbike’ had the right kind of off-road genes to take over the world, that doesn’t mean Apps’ Range-Rider was a flop. It turned heads, got people thinking. Apps was also in touch with the Marin County pioneers from the earliest days. His 700C tyres from pre-phone Nokia were shipped to MTB pioneers Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly. They had a frame built for the wheelsize by Tom Ritchey: if it weren’t for Nokia’s supply problems all MTBs today might have been 29ers and not the now familiar 26-inch standard.

It’s this linkage to the Californian pioneers that needs to be recognised. And recognised by the US Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. Apps has been nominated before but there are precious few non-Americans in what pioneer MTB racer Jacquie Phelan of America calls the Hollow Fame.

With the help of BikeBiz – and some famous names – perhaps Apps can stake his claim as one of the visionaries which helped transform the global market for bicycles?

In a Skype conversation, Gary Fisher told me: “I’ll talk with Joe Breeze, Charlie Kelly and Dan Cook and the rest of the gang and do something for Geoff.”

Hopefully, 2010 will be the year Geoff Apps gets the recognition he deserves. I’m biased. I rode with Apps in the 1980s, trying out the successor machine to the Range-Rider. Apps’ Wendover Bashes were among the earliest MTB events in the UK and helped fire up an enthusiasm for mountain biking from the early adopters, the folks like me who raved about this new form of cycling.

By the time I was writing about the Wendover Bash, App’s Aventura mountain bike was already losing ground to the likes of the first Ridgeback, the Dawes Ranger and, of course, the Specialized Stumpjumper. Soon to popularise MTBing in the UK, the likes of Ari Hadjipetrou and Drew Lawson were soon to introduce the Muddy Fox Courier and its game-changing print and TV adverts.

Geoff Apps faded from view. He still has a small but loyal following of Cleland owners. They meet up for annual retro rides and reminisce.

The Range Rider and Apps’ later bikes might have been practical for UK conditions but they were never likely to take over the world. He rode his in wellies, not exactly zeitgeist potential. Nevertheless, Apps influenced designers who came after him. Some of his original ideas later became standard on MTBs, such as twist-grip gears and sloping top-tubes. He was using big rear blocks in the 1960s.

Mountain bike designer Brant Richards said: “[Geoff Apps] and [his framebuilder] Dave Wrath Sharman were a huge influence on me because of their different way of solving problems.”

Richards would like to see Apps in the US MTB Hall of Fame but Apps himself is quintessentially deprecating:

“I’m not sure I should be in the Hall of Fame. After all, how much influence have I had on the ‘mountain bike’? Although many mountain bikes do now have sloping top-tubes and twistgrip shifters, they do not feature hub gears, roller-brakes, full-length mudguards, a chainguard, a skate-plate, a high centre-of-gravity, short-reach handlebars, a hub dynamo and lights, nor swing pedals.

“One difficulty for me is that, by 1986, the height of the boom, I’d been developing my ideas for twenty years, with no extant influences. I’d had to think through design solutions on my own. Once millions of mountain bikes appeared, that differed significantly from what I thought to be the most logical design solution, the majority goes with the majority.

"Now, more than a further 25 years have passed, and I suppose I have accept that I am quite deluded. I’m content to stick with what I’ve got [and] admire the success and achievements of others.”

On the supply of ‘29er’ tyres to Fisher and Kelly, Apps said:

“I sent some of these tyres over to Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher, who had built a frame in readiness. They loved them and really appreciated the ride they gave, compared to 26-inch tyres, and also loved the success they had at the races. As far as they were concerned, these 29-inch tyres were the way to go.

"This was the only tyre of this type and size in the world, there was no other choice. Unfortunately getting a supply of tyres was impossible.

“26-inch wheels were not absolutely fixed at that time, so, had the supply situation been better, it is quite possible that 700C tyres and wheels would have been the mountain bike standard now."

"When I tried to promote the 700C idea to UK mountain bikers they just thought it was bonkers Apps, raving again, like he did about short wheel-base, steep angles, sloping top tube, twist-grip gear shifters…"

It’s important to remember that Apps swam against the tide for many years. He rode with Rough Stuff Fellowship members (it was his appearance in a RSF journal that alerted two RSF members in America, Fisher and Kelly, to Apps’ existence) but even RSF members thought his ideas were extreme and odd.

“The attitude amongst cyclists, and therefore the entire trade, all shops, magazines, clubs, everything cycling, was that riding off-road was, at best, a necessary evil. Even the RSF would wax lyrical about the experience of finding themselves somewhere remote, but if the ride experience was ever mentioned, it was to say how difficult or inconvenient it was.

"The idea of seeking out and delighting in riding rough terrain was utterly alien to all the cyclists I met and talked to. Rough Stuff Riders would get off and walk when I was able to keep riding.

“Cycling as it is now was just totally inconceivable [in the 1960s and 70s] but I had my own fantasies about machines, the capabilities of those machines, and fantasies that it would be really popular. I occasionally voiced these fantasies, which made me unpopular.”

Apps’ first Cleland machines were built by Roy Davies’ Dees Cycles of Amersham. Fitting a ‘skate-plate’ to the bottom bracket – which helped the bike slide over logs and rocks – was seen as the height of eccentricity.

Graham Wallace helps to organise the annual Cleland reunion and is a big Apps fan.

“I was one of his customers in 1984 and still own and use two of his machines. Organised off-road cycling in Britain had existed since 1955 (via the Rough Stuff Fellowship) but Geoff was the first person to develop and market purpose-built bikes.

“People back then must have thought of Geoff and his ideas as eccentric, not realising that what he was doing was pre-empting the invention of a new sport and style of bicycle. Much of what happened back then went unreported and so its history has been overlooked.”

It’s time that this long forgotten part of the British bike trade’s early MTB history is commemorated which is why is throwing its weight behind the campaign to get Geoff Apps into the US Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. The deadline for nominations is April 15th. Graham Wallace will nominate Apps (for the second time) and members of the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame will be able to vote for the nominees in June.

A discussion about Geoff Apps and his legacy coalesced around this pic of him on Flickr.

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