When Mert Lawwill walked into the Koski family’s Tiburon, California Cove Bike Shop in 1978 he had an idea for asking the Koski’s help in producing his own line of BMX bicycle framesets. Mert was the 1969 AMA Grand National Champion and one of the top dirt flat track racers of the 1960’s and 1970’s. He knew how important good chassis design was to a winning motorcycle’s handling. He wanted to take that knowledge and his name recognition and transfer it to BMX framesets. When he walked out of the Cove Bicycle Shop Mert had something quite different. The Koskis convinced Mert that mountain bikes were the next big thing. The prototype mountain bicycle frameset that Don Koski designed for Mert would become the first production (made in large quantities as opposed to being custom made for a specific customer one at a time) made mountain bike ever sold, the Lawwill–Knight Pro Cruiser. It was, arguably, the fastest downhill bike of the first generation of production mountain bikes. The bike would go on to earn Mert a place in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame class of 1977 as well as the American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame.
The Koski family, father Earl, wife Lill, daughter Kristina and sons Erik, Dave and Don were avid motorcycle enthusiasts and road bike cyclists. Beginning in 1976 their shop served as the in-formal hub for the Northern California (NorCal) clunker ( slang word for the earliest mountain bikes) bike scene but probably most importantly for the evolution of mountain biking, they produced the first mail order catalog for mountain bike parts. The significance of this is very important because, with the catalog, people like me on the East Coast or people anywhere could have easy access to the same components the NorCal guys were building and riding. Downhill races were already being held at the nearby Mt. Tamalpais’s famous “Repack” course. The “Repack” racers went to Cove Bicycle Shop on Monday to buy components to strengthen or “bulletproof” and repair their customized Schwinn downhill bikes they had torn up on “Repack” the day before. They were literally doing research and development on the fly. The Koski brothers were at the races, watching and learning what parts they needed to be selling in their bike shop to make these clunkers faster and more reliable. This pioneering local bike shop’s role in the earliest days of mountain biking in NorCal would earn the shop and the family induction into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 2014 and I am proud to have nominated them. Keep in mind, this was all happening before the term “mountain bike” had been coined and before mountain bike cross country racing became popular. The first cross country race was held in 1977. By 1982 the entire bicycle manufacturing industry as far away as Japan was watching what was going on at the Koski’s Cove Bike Shop and other places in Northern California.
The last part of this Way Back Machine scenario was provided by Terry Knight. Knight was a well-known motor cycle chassis builder in Oakland, California and he had built winning motorcycle racing frame sets for Mert Lawwill when Mert was racing for Harley Davidson. Mert took Don Koski’s freehand welded electrical conduit tubing Pro Cruiser prototype frame to Terry Knight for fabrication. Terry went on to build about 600 of these beautifully crafted framesets between 1978 and 1982. The framesets were designed primarily for the then popular downhill mountain bike racing or fast downhill riding. The Lawwill-Knight Pro Cruisers were marketed as complete five-speed bikes selling for $489 or could be purchased frame set only. $489 was at least a thousand dollars less expensive than any of the custom, one off, mountain bikes being built at that time.
“…one of the few Lawwill-Knight Pro Cruisers sold on the East Coast.”
My connection with mountain biking began in January 1979 when I read an article in Bicycling Magazine about the Northern California clunker scene. I was fascinated. I lived in Richmond, Virginia at the time. A friend had won a beach cruiser bike as a prize in a Virginia Beach road bike race in the summer of 1979 and I bought it from him to convert it into my own clunker. It was a crappy bike. In 1981 I got a Trailmaster catalog ( produced by Eric Koski), probably from an ad in Fat Tire Flyer and ordered my Lawwill-Knight Pro Cruiser frameset from Eric Koski’s Trailmaster catalog. This was the first purpose built mountain bike in Richmond, Va., probably the first in Virginia and according to Mert, one of the few Lawwill-Knight Pro Cruisers sold on the East Coast.
No one in Richmond Virginia in 1981 knew what a mountain bike was “supposed” to look like. That was part of the fun and challenge of building mine up. I built my new Pro Cruiser frameset up with the most high-end components which were formerly on the old converted beach bike. My local bike shop, Two Wheel Travel in Richmond, Virginia and Eric Koski’s Trailmaster catalog supplied the parts. Those are the parts that my Pro Cruiser still has today. 4130 tubing, Magura bars, Tommaselli motorcycle brake levers, iconic Don Koski designed Cook Brothers Racing fork, Shimano thumb shifters, SR stem, Avocet saddle, IRC seat post, TA Cyclotourist triple crankset, Ukai rims, Sturmey Archer front drum brake hub, Phil Wood bottom bracket, Phil Wood rear hub, Suntour Mountain front derailleur, Suntour V-GT rear derailleur, Suntour bear trap pedals, CyclePro CR1 toe straps, Christophe toe clips. Originally, the rear hub was an Atom aluminum drum brake model. It was about the size of a saucer but it had little stopping power so in 1984 I had Shimano cantilever brakes retro fitted. I had to bite the bullet on ruining the Candy Apple Red paint on my seat stays but I needed some brakes and the cantis worked. In 2009 Aaron Dykstra at Six Eleven Bicycles fabricated a slick, new cable hanger seen today. My snobby Richmond roadie friends looked down on my off road bicycles but that was cool as I had found a group of off road bicycle riders, fellow graduates from the Virginia Commonwealth University Art School. Interestingly one, Frank Gresham owned a built to spec Ritchey.
We had a lot of fun riding off road in Richmond. Frank came from a BMX and motocross background so he knew a lot of off road BMX and moto cross trails in the suburbs. We bombed down power line roads and jumped on the BMX and moto trails. I built mountain bike trails in Richmond’s Bryan Park and promoted what was to my knowledge the first mountain bike race in Virginia in Bryan Park in about 1983. The race was won by Laird Knight (Mountain Bike Hall of Fame class of 2002.)
“…primal bombing…” I had family in Roanoke, Virginia and a lot of free time in the summers so I was also riding Poor Mountain, Ft. Lewis Mountain and Roanoke’s 12,000 acres Carvin’s Cove watershed in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the converted beach cruiser and a little later on my Pro Cruiser. The scary-fun memories of bombing down the rutty, rocky Poor Mountain and Ft. Lewis Mountain fire roads, un-suspended on the Lawwill-Knight Pro Cruiser are still vivid. This bike was built to bomb and this was primal bombing at its best.
In 1985 I graduated from nursing school and moved to Roanoke. In the summer of 1986, I bought a Mountain Klein and pretty much set the Pro Cruiser aside, high and dry. I did loan it to a few of my Roanoke friends to introduce them to mountain biking. From 1987 to 2013 the bike was not ridden. I dismantled it in 2008 with the idea of cleaning and riding it but didn’t get past the dismantling part.
In 2011 a cyclist from Richmond, Thomas Houff contacted me about research he was doing on the history of cycling in Richmond. Bicycle racing had been dormant in Richmond for about thirty years until I started promoting small club races in about 1972. I gave Tom a lot of information, a few pics, and memorabilia from the old days. Tom’s research evolved to a book and it includes a pic of me jumping a log on my Lawwill-Knight Pro Cruiser in Richmond’s Bryan Park in about 1983.
“…light years removed…”
When the 2015 World’s Road Cycling Championships were awarded to Richmond, Virginia, Tom was asked to guest curate a History of Richmond Cycling exhibition at Richmond’s Valentine Museum. He asked me to loan my Pro Cruiser for the exhibition. It was still disassembled so I took the frameset and a box of parts to a lbs in Roanoke. Yesterday, November 16, 2013, I took the Pro Cruiser home. The lbs did a good job with the restoration. As you can tell from the pics the Pro Cruiser’s geometry is light years removed from what we ride off road today.
On my way home from the bike shop, I stopped at Aaron Dykstra’s Six Eleven Bicycles. Aaron shares my love for bikes, bike history, the funkier the better. I frequently stop by to show him some usually old bike thing I found and he is probably used to me sticking my head in his shop door and yelling, “Check! It! Out! DUDE”!!! Aaron took a few pics and a test ride. Aaron has a motorcycling background and he noted how motorcycle-like the Pro Cruiser handled. Aaron and Six Eleven will play a central role in my next bike for this web page, my Lawwill-Knight Pro Cruiser 2.
“…significant horizontal line flow…”
I have not ridden my restored Pro Cruiser yet. The original toe straps are dry rotten and I need to get temporary replacements before my official first ride. I did sit on it for a minute and it was an instant trip in the Way Back Machine. I will probably do a few soft rides and then polish it up for 2015 then wrap it up for exhibition in Richmond in 2015.
I love this old bicycle. The Lawwill-Knight Pro Cruisers are, in my opinion, one of the few production mountain bikes with a significant horizontal line flow and a low, ground hugging profile that can be described as “beautiful”. It is a significant part of the very earliest days of mountain biking history and a bike that has not received the attention it deserves in the various histories of mountain biking that have been written. This Pro Cruiser has been a special part of my own cycling history and a significant part of the mountain bike history of Virginia. I am in the process of establishing a Virginia Mountain Bike Hall of Fame here in Roanoke, Virginia and this bike will be shown there.