Bicycles were not meant to be ridden off-road. Until the mid-1970s, all advancements in bicycle construction had come about to make bikes faster, more comfortable, and generally more functional for either road racers, commuters, or children. When the first group of modern mountain bikers began in the early 70s to explore riding the wooded hills of Marin County, a scenic enclave just north of San Francisco, they had to go backwards.

At the time, the most cutting-edge bicycles were road bikes with thin tires and lightweight frames with aggressive forward-leaning seating positions for aerodynamics. However, on uneven dirt trails, thin tires can’t keep traction or stability, and an aggressive seat position is the fastest way to go tumbling over the handlebars on the first bumpy descent. Those early riders in Marin turned instead to bikes from the 1930s, with beefy steel frames and fat balloon tires, then grafted on modern derailleurs, thumb shifters, and good brakes. Their Frankenstein-like creations, nicknamed “clunkers,” were the first modern mountain bikes.

Garty Klein, 1985 - Adsum
Gary Klein, 1985.

In 1975, right around the time that the first ever bike with fat tires and good breaks was christening the Marin hills, a young road cyclist named Gary Klein was finishing his undergraduate degree in engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For one of his final projects, Klein sought to build a bicycle frame out of lightweight aluminum. While aluminum was known at the time for its relatively high strength-to-weight ratio, concerns over its durability and the challenges of working with it had kept the metal from being used by bicycle manufacturers, with rare exceptions. However, Klein’s frame proved successful and upon his graduation from MIT in spring of 1975, he founded Klein Bikes. Widely regarded as a pioneer of aluminum frames, what set Klein frames apart was the attention to detail and high level of stiffness provided by the uniquely wide aluminum tubing that made the frame. After spending the first few years of its existence producing only custom-built road bikes, Klein soon expanded to producing stock models of road bikes, and then in the 1980s, Klein used the same lightweight aluminum technology to produce its first stock mountain bike.

1975 Klein track bike - Adsum
Klein track bike at the New York Bike Show, February 1975 via Flickr.

When mountain biking surged from quiet American subculture to global phenomenon in the 1990s, Klein Bikes remained both at the forefront of the wave and completely in its own space. While other brands produced heavy-duty modernized versions of the original “clunkers” in dark, plain colors, Klein was building ultra lightweight, high-performance frames painted in striking fluorescent colors, a similar spirit to early Stussy surfboards. Each Klein was handcrafted in their factory, but with the highest attention on technical perfection and performance. In their promotional and tech materials, Klein referred to their famed wide aluminum tubing as “fuselages,” borrowing the term from airplane design. Instead of marketing the bikes as another element of the outdoorsy granola lifestyle, Klein put out ads in which their bikes were attached to the roof of a Porsche 911, but flipped on its head, with the Klein carrying the Porsche. Tinker Juarez, one of the greatest and most stylish competitive mountain bikers in the history of the sport rode for Team Klein from 1990-1993. And for much of the run of the series Seinfeld, an electric green Klein hung in the background of Jerry’s apartment in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, about as far away from the origins of mountain biking as imaginable, but also perfectly at home.

Tinker Juarez - Adsum
Tinker Juarez, 1993 Grundig World Cup, Barcelona.

Klein Rascal in Moonrise finish - Adsum
Klein Rascal in Moonrise finish via.

Yet despite all of their industry-leading style, marketing, and design, Klein Bikes was never the product of some sleek firm from New York or Los Angeles. Gary Klein himself never lost the drab appearance of a working engineer. And his company spent virtually its entire existence based in Chehalis, Washington, a small blue-collar logging town about halfway between Portland and Seattle. Until Klein was absorbed and then dissolved by Trek in 2009, every new Klein model was first put to the test on the dirt trails in the hills around Chehalis, with the same spirit of those first mountain bikers from the early 1970s, but with far more beautifully designed and technically advanced frames.