A TRIBUTE TO RICHARD CUNNINGHAM
Looking back at the career of a legend
Words by Danielle Baker & Brian Park
Stories & photos from his friends & colleagues
January 1st, 2020, was the first day in many years that Pinkbike didn't have Richard Cunningham on as a full time technical editor. No more trade shows or bike test deadlines, but his insights and storytelling will always have a home here.
RC's contributions to our sport can't be overstated, but many have been made quietly, under the radar. We hope this tribute gives a sense of the many less public things that RC has accomplished in his life.
We are grateful to Cynthia Ward for sharing with us her account of Richard's life, in his own words, that she recorded in 2004. Much of this biography is based on her work. We're also grateful to RC's wife Justine for her help in sneaking us old photos and filling in a lot of blanks, as well as the many people who contributed photos and stories and ideas. And finally, we're grateful to RC for his many contributions to our sport. This story only scratches the surface of all he's done, but it's been a hell of a ride.
IT ALL STARTED WITH FLIGHT
Airplanes were RC's first love. After his mom told him that she would give him fifty bucks if he could build one that would fly, he set about figuring out the science of flight. "I had no idea what it would take to build an airplane," admits Richard. "Actually, I did have an idea, but it wasn't right. I made all sorts of contraptions with wings, I covered the wings with old shower curtains and I used skateboard wheels; which at the time were made out of steel. I took all this stuff to the largest hill in the city of Fullerton, where I lived, and then I would sit on it and go down the hill and bounce up and down, but I never took off."
He once took a modified patio umbrella up the embankment behind his school during the Santa Ana winds. "I knew I could fly. I knew it would work. I would run as fast as I could and jump off the top of the hill when the wind was blowing. But I just crashed my brains out all the way down." On his fifth try, he caught a gust of wind just right and it lifted him up, carrying him nearly to the bottom of the hill. "That was the first time I ever flew. I was so excited! I went home and told my parents - my mother never did believe me."
Years later, Richard's dad built an ultra-light airplane. With an airplane that flies slow enough, is a single-seater and weighs less than 250 pounds, you don't need a pilot's license. "None of us knew how to fly," recalls Richard. "But we went out to this big dry lake, and we'd just sit in it. Sit in the airplane, hit the gas, and just try to fly level with the ground until you feel good about it, and then you take off and go." And so, Richard learned to fly just like the Wright Brothers did. No lessons, just trial and error - and lots of open space.
"The dry lake is perfectly flat - about six miles long and two miles wide. But, at seventy miles an hour, you run out of six miles really fast. And, I didn't know how to turn. So I just tried to remember what I'd read in the book - ten miles, it took me ten miles to turn around, and then. . . just when I got all relaxed and thought I was gonna land, I passed [the lake] again. Ten miles, 400 feet above the lake, and I couldn't tell where we were parked. But after a while, I made this perfect landing, and that was it. I was thirty-five. It was the scariest and most beautiful moment of my life."
If you ask Richard, the bicycle is the closest you can get to an airplane. "If you can ride a bike - you know how you lean and turn - you can fly an airplane."
Until he was in his mid 20's, Richard was passionate about things with motors. He worked on cars and raced motorbikes - but seeing the impact his riding had on the environment pushed him more into the world of bicycles. "I used to go trail riding in a certain place in the desert. When I first went to this place, it was beautiful. There was a creek over here, bushes everywhere, and a little place to park your car. Well, I kept coming back as time passed, and thirteen years later, it was just a couple of bushes and all dirt. One day I realized that we had done that. We had ridden our motorcycles around the bushes to the point where those got destroyed, and everything just became dirt. And I thought, 'You know? I've spent most of my life making race cars, building motorcycles, and making motorcycles faster. But there's got to be an end to this. I'm not doing something that's making the world better. It's making it more fun, but if you look at my space…I went here because it was beautiful, and now it's denuded.'"
This was an important realization for Richard and the impact went well beyond his hobbies - it also involved his livelihood. He had his own shop and also worked for other people in the automotive industry. But the seed was sown, and several months later Richard changed the direction of his career. "I knew that I didn't want to participate in that world anymore. There are enough people who make cars, enough people who think cars are the coolest things in the world. I wanted to do something that made a better world."
He kept his shop but closed it up and took off rock and mountain climbing for a couple of months. When he returned, he applied at the community college and got a job assembling Schwinn beach cruisers for a dollar seventy-five each in the back of Fullerton Bike Shop. THE MANTIS YEARS
Bikes had always been Richard's first non-motorized love. As a kid, his first bicycle gave him the freedom to explore the orange groves, tiny paved streets, dirt roads, and hills of Orange county. "I was pretty much a solitary kid, one of those boys you see all by himself playing in the dirt somewhere. That was me. So when I got my first bicycle and my parents would allow me to actually leave the street, it was freedom. I rode for miles. That's the reason I like bicycles so much. It's just you and the road."
Eventually, Richard moved on to a job at Medici Bicycles - a company that made custom road racing bikes, and he started road riding himself. "I loved it, but I ran out of places to ride. I was riding 200 or 300 miles a week during the hot season - once you're that fit, you've ridden everywhere there's pavement for a hundred miles in every direction." So he began using dirt roads to connect longer rides on his road bike. "But the whole time I was going down these sandy fire roads on these tiny little road bikes passing four-wheel drivers and motorcycles, I was thinking, 'wouldn't it be cool if I had big tires and motorcycle handlebars and all the other stuff?"
Eventually, Richard heard about Monte Ward, a local mountain bike pioneer who had gotten one of the first mountain bikes from Tom Ritchey in Northern California. That inspired him to build his own. "I was already working at a bike company [so] when the right rims and the right tires came out, I just went back to my shop, and I made my first mountain bike, the first Mantis. It was 1981. From then on, I never cared if I rode the road again."
The bike the Richard built looked good but it needed to be properly tested. He reached out to Monte who was headed out to do what was considered the hardest climb in Orange County at the time. Being out of shape and afraid he couldn't keep up to "mythic Monte," Richard sent a friend along to ride his beautiful red Mantis. "My friend rode up there with [Monte] and came down and said that my bike handled the worst of any bicycle he'd ever ridden in his life."
Despite being constantly broke, Richard describes the start of Mantis as an exciting time. "When a sport first starts out, it's so new, just doing it is really fun. When I first started making mountain bikes, there were no boundaries. A mountain bike could be anything you could ride on the dirt. Nobody knew what made a good mountain bike, or what made a bad one. So I had a chance to experiment with different tubing, different types of arrangements that made a bike go faster or climb better, and it made a big difference each time I discovered something new. It wasn't just bicycles. I was participating with a very small group of other men and women who were making bicycles all over this country. We were creating a new sport."
Starting something brand new isn't easy and Richard and the Mantis team were met with plenty of closed doors in the early years. "My partner Mark Grayson and I went to all the biggest bike shops from Santa Barbara to San Diego trying to sell our bikes. And you know what they told us? We can't sell a $1200 beach cruiser. And they threw us out. We didn't sell one bike." The same shops that turned them down are now considered the mountain bike centers of their communities. It was just too new. They ended up putting on slide shows to educate people about mountain biking - and to sell bikes.
"These are T-shirts from the 1980s that I've worn the heck out of. The hieroglyphics one was all done by hand by Richard with puff paints on a sweatshirt. This photo is of the t-shirts produced from that sweatshirt. No small feat considering puff paints of that time. And of course, he researched the hieroglyphics. No surprise there." - Justine ZafranLEARNING HOW TO TYPE AT MBA
After over a decade making Mantis mountain bikes and design work, Richard began looking for something new again. "Here I was making maybe 500 frames a year, and companies like Specialized and Nishiki are making 20,000 and 30,000 bikes at a time. There wasn't as much need for a small manufacturer like me as there was for a large manufacturer to produce big numbers for less money. My bicycles cost, at the time, $2500 each and you could buy a fully equipped bicycle with the same amount of parts for about $700 or $800. So I looked at it and decided it was time to do something else."
The editor position at Mountain Bike Action had become available and, Corrine, Richard's wife at the time, knowing he was looking to do something different, suggested he look into it. But there were a few problems; Richard didn't know how to type, he wasn't great at spelling, and wasn't too sure about computers either. "But I did know a lot about mountain bikes. So I called up the magazine and said, 'You know, Zapata Espinoza is leaving. Why don't you put me on the list?' And the next day I got the job." All of a sudden he had a company to sell and also had to learn everything from how to type and use a computer to everything about how the magazine world functions. "I think it was the biggest change I've made in my life on any one day…"
It turned out that writing about bikes came easy to Richard. "You see a bike, you ride it, and then you talk about it, or type about it, like you were telling your best friend." And he found a formula that worked for him when it came to writing his own monthly column - despite the challenge. "You're supposed to be brilliant in just one page. And sometimes, I just didn't have anything to say, so I'd break it up. For two times, I would talk about something that's important, or something technical, something I like or something I hate - that's kind of political - and the third time, I would just tell a cool story. It's challenging to try to write a one-page story because you have to take out a lot of stuff that you think is important. It's easy to go on and on like I'm doing right now, boring you to death, but if I had to say everything in one paragraph, I'd really have to think it through. So that's it. A one-column story is a lot harder than anything else to write."TECHNICAL EDITOR AT PINKBIKE
Richard was the Editor of Mountain Bike Action until 2010. In 2011, he was welcomed to Pinkbike
as the Technical Editor. Richard brought his insight and creativity to Pinkbike, and could always be counted on to dig deep into his library of knowledge to explain exactly how mountain bike history was repeating itself. Again. RC demonstrated an uncanny ability to sense which way the sport was going before the rest of the industry caught on. He was espousing the benefits of wide rims, wider tires and lower air pressures well before that became the norm, and many of his insights on gearboxes, e-bikes, and geometry were glimpses into the future of the sport.
No one can say it better than Richard himself, so here are his own words
on his time in the industry, "I really wanted to make bikes and get a job in the bike industry and make a difference by doing this, and the whole time I was at Mantis, for the first ten years, I never made more than ten thousand dollars a year. I was poor the whole time. And my dad and my friends told me to give it up. But I really wanted to do it. And somehow, because I just kept working at it, I found an angle that worked, and it was really fulfilling. So never downplay something you really believe in, something that really makes you happy, because that's where you're the most creative. When you're doing something you really enjoy, you get that spark of creativity, and that's what drives the human soul. Make a difference, and feel good about it. Don't lose that one thing, even if it's contrary to everything that everyone else says -- keep it alive, and you'll find that it will take you to the next step."Greg Lambert photos
"This was Pepper (left), a POA (pony of America). The most intelligent and sturdy little pony ever! His other horse (right) is Sonny." - Justine Zafran
"Raki (right), was his third and last horse. They were so bonded, Richard could just think the speed and direction and Raki knew and complied. They were the horse and rider team people dream about. His horse days informed him of the equestrians' issues with sharing trails with hikers and bikes. Richard was uniquely qualified to broker the land-use deals for sharing trails, knowing the issues of each user group. Our early horse rides were equal to the fabled "Richard rides" on the bikes. But on horseback, I could equal him on trail! Those were some of our best times together, galloping "off-road" in the backcountry." - Justine Zafran
Harold Preston, RC and PB contributing photographer Eric Eilers on a recent ride in SD County (left). Self-portrait of Richard in April 2018 summiting El Cajon Mnt. in his home valley - (often seen in the background of bike photos) - a personal goal when he first moved there.
Richard working on the couch with Inca on his shoulder (left). Inca's voice was frequently heard in Pinkbike morning meetings.
This tribute will be worked into a small print volume in the near future. We know there are countless other people who have been impacted by RC over the years. If anyone would like to contribute, especially if you have some more embarrassing photos, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org