In 2014, I was contacted by the family of Richard Long, the former CEO of GT Bicycles, about the possibility of writing a biography of him. My response was an enthusiastic yes, and we began discussions. In addition to meeting with his widow, Wanda, and youngest son, Chris, I had the opportunity to meet with GT founder Gary Turner and GT’s top brass at the time. It was evident to me that Long was a force of nature, a man for whom “no” was not an acceptable answer, a man who got things done—indeed, his parting shot to most employees was, “Get it done.” Unfortunately for me, I was not selected to write the book, but in our discussions, I composed what I thought would make for a grabber of an opening chapter. Today, July 12, marks the 20th anniversary of Long’s death. He was an amazing character who, were he alive today, would have shaped the course of the bike industry. It’s no understatement to say the landscape would be different were he still around. The least we can do is to take a few minutes to mark the passing of a remarkable man—Padraig.
California 38 is a road beloved by cyclists, motorcyclists, sports car owners—and virtually no one riding shotgun. It leaves the town of Mentone and winds up through the mountains and over Onyx summit before dropping into the town of Big Bear Lake, though it’s less a road than a paved intestinal squiggle meant to wash away the city and allow your blood pressure to drop as you climb a mile into the sky. For anyone visiting Big Bear Lake who cares as much for the journey as the destination, it’s the preferred route.
Richard Long, the CEO of GT bicycles, had chosen this route to break in his new, limited-edition Honda Valkyrie. Though he was the head of a bike company, his tastes ran to internal combustion, the more cylinders, the better. His collection of toys included a Ferrari.
Big Bear Lake in July is a locale of such idyllic charm it causes people quit jobs to move there. The mountain town sits at 6000 feet, above the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, a quick getaway from the hustle of tinseltown. Summer days are dominated by warm temperatures and blue skies, while the nights are just cool enough to warrant a campfire and a layer of fleece. The lake, broad and deep, welcomes water skiers as well as leisure boaters. The mountains above the community are criss-crossed with fire roads and singletrack trails. It’s a place that accommodates all the summer diversions—hiking, water skiing, fishing, golf and mountain biking. It’s mountain biking that transformed the community for nearly a week each July during the 1990s as the industry descended on the vacation town for the biggest race of the season—stop number four in the NORBA National Championship Series.
Winding through that route was exhilarating, not just because he had the new ride, but because he was on his way to what amounted to the homecoming game for the Southern California bike industry. And Long might as well have been the quarterback for the home team.
Because the majority of the bike industry was based in California, and much of that in Southern California, Big Bear served as the sport’s annual homecoming. Aside from the racing, the event hosted an enormous expo area where companies showed off their products, held meet and greets with their pro athletes and more.
In 1996, of the many companies with a presence at Big Bear, none was more prominent than the Orange County-based GT. Not only was GT one of the biggest brands in mountain biking in terms of sales, GT sponsored what was arguably the sport’s most dominant team, led by Juli Furtado who was a former World Champion as well as the current World Cup champion and national series champion.
Long had plenty to look forward to. GT’s presence in the expo was significant, the Macy’s of this temporary cycling mall. And in terms of competition, no other brand was as well positioned in the U.S.
The opening ceremonies for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta were just a week away. Mountain biking would be included in the competition for the first time in the sport’s history. With Furtado the top-ranked woman in the world, she was expected to do what she did so often—ride away from the field and solo to victory. But GT’s participation wouldn’t end there. The brand had funded a mid-six-figure investment in new bikes for the track team. They were the most aerodynamically efficient bikes in the world and would be ridden by their pursuit team and—more significantly—Rebecca Twigg, Gold Medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and arguably the finest female cyclist the U.S. had produced.
GT was in a position to see a score of riders medal in two disciplines while riding their bikes. It was a position previously unknown to an American bicycle manufacturer, especially one without a storied history in adult bikes.
Richard Long, courtesy Marin Museum of Mountain Biking
GT made its name as a manufacturer of BMX bikes in the 1970s and ‘80s. Long started a bike shop, Anaheim Bicycle Center, with the money he received as the result of a settlement following a motorcycle accident, one that left him walking with a limp for the rest of his life. Long met Gary Turner—the GT of GT bicycles— in 1974 when Turner showed off some BMX frames he had made himself. Turner sourced heavier gauge tubing than was used in the kids’ bikes and welded them in his garage.
BMX bikes, up until that point tended to be short-lived machines. The bikes were perfect for launching off ramps and bombing through whatever terrain a kid might encounter, but rare was the bike that could stand up to rough landings with 75 lbs. aboard. Long saw the possibilities in producing a higher quality BMX bike domestically.
Long met with Turner and sold him on the idea of using his shop as the exclusive retail outlet for Turner’s bikes. The business quickly took off and GT became synonymous with combat-strength bikes that didn’t need to be replaced annually. The company grew so quickly that five years later Long sold his bike shop to focus on growing the brand and making it available to bike shops around the country. As the company grew, Long used GT’s clout to buy competitors such as Robinson and launch new lines like the more budget-minded Dyno.
But for Long, selling bikes was only part of the business plan in GT’s growth. He saw that getting kids involved in BMX racing did more than encourage them to buy a bike and some equipment. It got them invested in a healthy lifestyle and caused them to stay with the sport rather than get distratcted by the next fad.
GT became a leader in sponsoring athletes and facilities. Many of the sport’s stars would call GT home at some point in their career. And to further growth, Long undertook the construction of two BMX tracks in Southern California. As an offshoot of BMX riding called freestyle took root, GT was there to sponsor those riders, construct ramps and offer new models built to suit the new style of riding.
Colombian drug lords wish they were so vertically integrated.
GT offered bikes at every step of a child’s entry into cycling, making models with 12, 16, 18, 20 and 24-inch wheels, from before they could ride BMX all the way to the cruiser class for riders outgrowing 20-inch wheels. The question became, what next?
It turns out that by 1986, the answer was easy: mountain bikes. In the late 1970s a group of hippies north of San Francisco began riding old newspaper boy bikes on the fire roads of Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais. The bikes featured 26-inch wheels and coaster brakes and in the lore of mountain biking Mt. Tam, as the locals called it, became known as Repack because the riders needed to repack the coaster brake hub following each run down the mountain.
Motorcycle levers, cantilever brakes, touring bike drivetrains, the riders scrounged for parts that could increase the bikes’ range and reliability. What was initially an underground pursuit with just a few custom frame builders soon became a growing counterculture movement once Specialized offered the first production mountain bike, the Stumpjumper, in 1984.
For Long, mountain bikes seemed a natural progression, a way to keep BMX riders devoted cyclists, as well as a way to increase their reach in their existing dealers, making them more valuable to a good retailer.
Adding a few more bikes to GT’s lineup was a small step in a much bigger plan, though. Long would start a distribution company called Riteway to handle the company’s bikes plus a complete line of parts and accessories as a way to deepen their relationship with their dealers. The company eventually grew to produce 600,000 bicycles per year, many of them produced at GT’s factories in Huntington Beach and Santa Ana, the latter of which is where the brand’s administrative offices were located.
By 1993, Long’s guidance had made GT such a powerhouse in BMX and mountain biking that the company’s potential for growth outstripped its capitalization. Long and a hand-picked team went on the road to look for investment. At the time, only one other bike company, Cannondale, was experiencing the same rapid growth and looking for the investment necessary to propel it even farther.
Long and his employees met with Mitt Romney and Bain Capital and elected to sell a controlling interest to Bain. In exchange, Long got $7 million in cash, plus $70 million in loans. Not another bike company on the planet was as well financed. The sale marked a period of unparalleled growth. Even as GT began sourcing bikes in Asia to meet its need, it increased domestic production, and the number of people on its domestic payroll jumped from 350 to 750.
Two years later Long would take GT public, raising $66 million—triple that of Cannondale’s IPO the same year—which was enough to pay off Bain’s loans, as well as those of another investor. It was this move that gave the company the independence and power necessary to go to USA Cycling and enter into an agreement to develop a bicycle program for the 1996 Olympics to be held in Atlanta.
The carbon fiber bikes that the company designed were the most aerodynamic that had ever been produced and used not a single off-the-shelf component. They each cost $30,000 and were believed to be the final ingredient necessary to help bring the U.S. gold in Atlanta.
Between Juli Furtado riding a GT mountain bike and six track riders aboard the machines dubbed Superbike, the staff at GT thought that medals were just weeks away. The final appointment was to watch Furtado prove herself at Big Bear.
But Long never made it to Big Bear.
On his way up Hwy 38, he lost control of his motorcycle and collided with a truck. First responders surmise that the combination of the motorcycle’s powerful engine, it’s newness to Long and the winding mountain road proved more than he could handle and he ran off the road.
The news swept through the GT staff like a tornado.
Team co-manager Doug Martin recalled the night when he got the news. There was a loud knock at the door of his condo there on the mountain, one he ignored at first. “They keep knocking, so eventually I get up. I figure there’s been some sort of screw-up. Someone’s crashed a van.”
At the door were Bill Galloway, Long’s right hand, and Todd Huffman, Martin’s counterpart in the marketing department.
“Todd is red-faced and red-eyed. My first thought was that something had happened to Juli [Furtado].”
“Galloway says, ‘Can we come in?’ I’m standing there in my underwear.
“We sit down on the couches and then he says, ‘Richard was killed on the way up to Big Bear.’ I couldn’t comprehend the moment. I just started babbling. Initially, I just didn’t even know what to say. It was such an ‘Oh my God!’ But immediately we realized that we had work to do and we snapped into, ‘We have to do this. We have to do that.’
“Once I got to bed, my mind was racing. I didn’t sleep a wink that night. The loss just washed over me the next morning. I had to meet with the team. It had gotten very real for me. I was just a wreck. I mean, here we are, the final race before going to Atlanta. Opening ceremonies were just a week away, the following Friday.”
A GT PR shot from Long’s tenure.
Somehow the GT team mustered and their athletes still managed to race. Furtado anchored the team’s performance, delivering exactly the display of dominance for which she was known. Early in the race she powered away from the field on a climb and then the former ski racer increased her gap on the long descent, eventually putting minutes into the elite field.
Coming in to the finish, Furtado slowed, coming to a stop 10 meters from the line. She got off her bike and the assembled GT team and staff walked out and joined her to walk across the line as a memorial to Long. Those in attendance say there wasn’t a dry eye on the mountain.
That performance was perhaps the swan song for the Long era of GT. It was as if with that tribute to him the wind abandoned the sails of the mighty brand.
In Atlanta, the U.S. mountain bike team did collect a bronze medal, but not by Furtado. Teammate Susan DeMattei earned the medal, while Furtado would finish 10th, the first sign of what would later be diagnosed as an auto-immune disorder and then lupus, which would claim her career a year later.
On the track, Twigg was figured a shoe-in for gold in the women’s pursuit. So superior was she that the combination of her talent and her $30,000 bicycle seemed unstoppable. However, Twigg was also known to be extraordinarily mercurial and difficult to manage. She requested a personal coach, former national team coach Eddie Borysewicz, better known to riders as Eddie B., but Olympic team officials were unable to credential a personal coach, so Borysewicz was sidelined.
Convinced that her old bike was superior, Twigg spurned her GT Superbike and turned in a slower time in quarterfinals than in qualifying and with that—poof—Twigg was out, and so ended the Olympic career of one of the more talented American cyclists to wear the stars and stripes.
The U.S. did go on to win two more medals at the Olympics—none of them gold. Marty Nothstein, a track sprinter earned silver, but rode a much stiffer rig meant to handle the rigors of the match sprint. It was Erin “Erv” Hartwell who rode one of the GT Superbikes to silver in the kilometer time trial.
For many, the Olympic disappointment signaled the beginning of the end for GT. CFO Michael Haynes, a seven-year veteran of the company, was quickly named CEO. Analysts believed the company would continue as before, citing, among other factors, its excellent middle management, a note that would prove to be prophetic.
Two years following Long’s death, GT’s fortunes had fallen enough that Bain sold its shares to Questor Partners. And while GT’s revenues had been $150 million in 1996, Questor was able to purchase GT for only $175 million, a sum Long would have been able to laugh off going into the Olympics.
But Long and the Olympics were gone. And Questor was the owner of Schwinn. That headline—“Schwinn Buys GT”—sent shockwaves through the bike industry.
What the hell had happened?