Words and photos by Jeff Archer. This post originally appeared in Bicycle Times #6.
Almost everyone in the bike industry has a love of all bikes. Some prefer the road while others prefer the trails, but each rider can also appreciate the other. Many of the famous mountain bike makers, such as Jeff Lindsay, Gary Fisher and Ross Shafer, started out building and/or racing road bikes.
Most cyclists also appreciate the utilitarian possibilities of the bicycle. There’s something appealing about accomplishing some of your daily tasks on two wheels. Joe Breeze may be the best example of promoting the utilitarian bike. Back around 1977, Joe created a purpose-built mountain bike from scratch and is acknowledged as the first person to do so. His Breezer mountain bikes were available through 1998, when Joe quit distributing them. In 2003, Breezer came back with a full line of utilitarian bikes with the tag line, “transportation for a healthy planet.”
While Breezer became known for a wide range of transportation bikes, there was at least one earlier effort from another one of mountain biking’s founding fathers, Ross Shafer. Ross began building frames on his own starting in 1976. Then, in the early 1980s, he began building bikes for Santana during the day, while continuing to build for himself at night. These initial frames were sold under the Red Bush name, which was changed to Salsa Cycles in 1982. The Salsa frames were highly sought after, but many riders were more familiar with Salsa stems, which were available in an almost infinite variety of lengths and rises and seemed to be on nearly every custom bike of the era.
Manufacturers often liked to roll out special projects for the annual bicycle trade shows. In 1994, Ross had made a 24”-wheel frame for his son’s 9th birthday and took it to the trade show to present the concept. When attendees saw the bike, Salsa started fielding calls from people asking for a production version. Not wanting to let a niche go unfilled, a total of 10 frames were built and offered up for sale…to the sound of crickets chirping. The “demand” dried up before the paint had dried on the frames!
For the 1996 show, Ross, once again, wanted to have something new and unique for dealers. This show bike was the aforementioned town bike. The idea was to offer a complete bike with internal gearing, eccentric bottom bracket, rack, fenders, lights and a kickstand for well under $1,000. While the price obviously precluded the use of a custom U.S.-built frame, the show bike was made in-house using Columbus tubing. Many of the parts, such as the Shimano Nexus 7-speed internal hub and dual-leg kickstand, were production-ready parts, but others, such as the King headset and MAFAC cantilever brake, wouldn’t have been found on the production version. The prototype was finished in a unique metallic blue-to-clear-coat finish. Once again, the response from the show goers was very positive. Based on his previous experience with the 24” wheel, Ross asked buyers for deposits, which once again resulted in those chirping crickets. The prototype was the only Salsa town bike ever produced.
The next year, the Salsa name was sold to Quality Bike Parts and the town bike project never saw the light of day. With the recent popularity of similar bikes, it appears as if Ross was about a dozen years ahead of the curve.
To see what Ross has been up to lately, check out his newest creations at Six-Nine Design. To see a virtual tour of the Museum of Mountain Bike Art & Technology, including one of the 24”-wheel Salsa bikes mentioned above, check out MOMBAT.org.