Last week, a story came across the wire that was so farfetched its headline might as well have read, “Elvis Alive and Headlining Concert Tour with Jimmy Hoffa” The press release boiled down to this: John Parker, founder of Yeti Cycles, is returning to the bike business and unveiling a brand new line of mountain bikes at the upcoming Sea Otter Classic mountain bike festival. Oh, and Missy “The Missile” Giove will be on hand to race the dual slalom event on one of the new bikes.
Two of mountain biking’s most iconic and missing-in-action personalities are suddenly strolling back into the limelight.
It sounded crazy. Crazier yet, it’s true.
In 1985, John Parker sold his beloved 1928 Indian motorcycle, “Beulah Mae,” for $5,000 and used the cash to found Yeti Cycles. If you were the betting sort, you probably wouldn’t have wagered that Parker would one day wind up in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame or that Yeti would morph into one of the most influential mountain bike brands of the 1980s and 1990s.
Unlike many of the pioneering mountain bikers, Yeti’s founder did not have a storied pedigree in the cycling world; there was no Lycra in the man’s closet. Parker was a tinkerer, a guy obsessed with hot rods and hopped-up motorcycles who earned his keep building movie sets and props in Hollywood. John Parker, however, also knew his way around a welding torch and had a intimate understanding of how to make two-wheeled machines go as fast as possible. Those traits helped him produce a long line of bikes that pushed the ragged edge of modern design.
Yeti fielded some of the first ultralight, butted aluminum frames, as well as carbon fiber and thermoplastic models years ahead of their time. Parker was also an early advocate of full suspension. Yeti models were ridden to victory by a who’s who of mountain biking racing royalty, including Juli Furtado, John Tomac, Tinker Juarez, Myles Rockwell, and Missy Giove.
Though small and quirky, Yeti had an outsize influence on the mountain bike world-much of what we consider innovative in mountain biking today, was first championed by Parker at a time when the bike industry was contentedly churning out heavy, fully rigid machines.
And yet, not long after Yeti peaked, the man behind the brand began to fade from the scene. It all began when Schwinn bought Yeti Cycles in 1995 and Parker walked away from company leadership.
“It was just the right time to step down,” says Parker. “Once Yeti was out of the box and it was big and all these wonderful things, but there was just one problem: Yeti was never going to go back into that box again. I’m the kind of guy who’s happiest finishing the day and looking at something I made with my own hands. Suddenly, my life was very different. I had a payroll of 39 people, working in three different buildings. It was a lot of weight on my shoulders. The Schwinn people were willing to hire all my employees, give them the same pay, the same benefits and medical. Everyone was taken care of. It was just time for me to go.”
Parker dropped off the radar for most mountain bikers. The same thing happened, for a while, with his former company.
Yeti Cycles did poorly under Schwinn’s big-brand management style. Schwinn soon punted Yeti off on ski company Volant, which also struggled with keeping Yeti viable. Finally, in 2001 Yeti was purchased by two employees who embraced the brand’s quirky, innovative spirit. The company has been building momentum ever since. Parker, however, remained missing from the bike picture.
YOU CAN NEVER GO HOME?
Why has Parker suddenly returned to the industry?
“It was always just a matter of time,” says Parker. “Once you’re a frame builder, you’re a frame builder for life.”
Where has Parker been all these years? He went back to Hollywood, toiling behind the scenes on movies such as Lethal Weapon 4. Mostly he worked for Matt Sweeney’s special effects shop. Parker is what folks in the industry call a “gun bitch,” the guy who builds all those machine guns that pop up on the movie screen. Yeti’s founder, however, never stopped riding bikes.
One day Parker picked up a cheap fat bike and began riding it on the beach at low tide, all the way from the pier near his home at Point Hueneme down to the naval base at Point Mugu. The extra-fat tires sparked something in him.
“This was stuff I’d always been thinking about,” says Parker. “Melding motorcycle and bike technology. Back in the day, 2.25-inch tires were the biggest things we could get our hands on and I always wanted more. So here we are in 2016 and my eyes are open to these 27+ bikes and 29+ bikes. These things climb like billy goats-there’s just this whole new dimension to the bikes.”
Parker’s new brand is called Underground Bike Works. A Kickstarter campaign is set to launch on April 14 and Parker expects to be selling a batch of limited-run 27+ and 29+ hardtails by this summer. The hardtail frames will be hand built here in America by frame-building icon Frank the Welder. Parker, however, is already working on a carbon full-suspension model that will be built overseas-that bike is still a work in progress,
“Full suspension is part of who I am,” says Parker. “Yeti was one of the first companies to not only make full-suspension bikes, but to go out and race them in front of God and country. I’m already working on the full suspension bikes. It just makes sense to start with hardtails.”
RETURN OF THE MISSILE
Now we get to the part in which Missy Giove shows up to join forces with Parker. On one hand it makes sense-Missy Giove, the former mountain bike downhill world champion and 1990s-era extreme sports poster child got her start racing on Yeti Cycles. Custom built for media coverage, Giove was famous for her dreadlocks, the ever-present, petrified piranha hanging from her neck, and her willingness to take big risks on the bike. Those risks usually paid off.
Over the course of her career, Giove racked up an impressive 14 NORBA downhill wins, two overall World Cup titles and a World Championship victory. Like Parker, she was revered for her bold, friendly, and generous personality. And like Parker, she’s been MIA for years. There’s an obvious explanation for her absence-Giove would have gone to jail if she showed up anywhere.
In 2009, about five years into her retirement from professional racing, federal agents busted Missy Giove while she was towing a trailer loaded with her bike and 220 pounds of marijuana.
Giove had long used pot to dull the chronic headaches stemming from her many race-related concussions. Somewhere along the line, however, she went from using to trafficking. Whether it was something she simply fell into or a conscious decision to keep the adrenaline flow alive, at some point the former world champion became a key player in a nation-wide marijuana distribution scheme.
Facing the prospect of 10 to 40 years in prison, Giove cooperated with prosecutors in exchange for a reduced sentence amounting to five years’ probation, 500 hours of community service, and six months of house arrest.
When her probation expired this past year Giove began showing up at a few downhill races. Amazingly, the Missile is still a contender for the podium despite the fact that she’s racing straight off the couch in a class dominated by competitors half her age. Still, the news that she might be teaming up with Parker again has people talking. Will she be making a comeback of sorts? Is Parker planning on putting together another race team?
“We all make mistakes, but Missy has always been an amazing, generous person and she’s still fast as hell,” says Parker. “Racing was a big part of who we were at Yeti. We’d show up to races for years and punch everyone’s clock. But I’m not looking to recapture that this time around-you’d have to be crazy to think that was even possible. I’m just focused on making bikes that are fun to ride. That’s what these things are. If I can also help Missy create a new place for herself in the bike business, that’d be great. We’re still figuring it all out.”
Can two former icons turn back the clock and return to a sport that morphs at mach speeds and quickly leaves its heroes behind? Only time will tell. A lot of people, however, will be cheering them on while they try.