My first meeting ever with the legend and top bloke that is Charlie Kelly was virtual, and sees him sitting in his computer chair, headset on and wearing a black Steve Peat ‘Won’t Back Down’ T-shirt. He stares at me through shiny eyes and tells me to get the first question on the virtual-table, and 90 minutes later, we concluded with what you’re about to read. I hope there’s some interesting stuff in here that you didn’t know about Charlie, as I didn’t know until I asked him. He is a very interesting legend.
Q: Where are your ancestors from?
A: My Grandma travelled in a wagon train in 1900 from Missouri to Oregon, because that’s how people travelled in those days. My Mum, who is 100 years old now, was one of 6 kids, and my Father is an Irish-German mix, hence the Irish Kelly surname.
Q: As an Irish descendant, do you like Guinness?
A: I like a beer I can chew and Guinness is so thick you have to drink it with a knife and fork, so yes, I like Guinness.
Q: How long have you been married?
A: 35 years and we’re thinking about making it permanent. We have a daughter who is 30 and she’s doing great, and makes us very happy, and she’s never had to come home again to live in the basement, which is good because we don’t have a basement.
Q: I hear that you’re an Army veteran, how did that come about?
A: I was conscripted and did 2 years in the Army, based in Arizona. My friends couldn’t believe that I would be OK with the Army, and that the Army would be OK with me! On my first day of service, I was given a number of aptitude tests, which at is turns out, is actually what I’m really good at, even though I left school early without any college degree. This meant that my high scores ensured I was immediately moved out of the rifle polishing platoon to the role of Medical Laboratory Specialist. It was a good job.
Q: Have you had your COVID vaccination yet?
A: Yes. I had it last week and it was given to me by a Doctor who had originally trained as a foot specialist for four years and was instead, vaccinating me. I told him that my vaccination training in the Army took 2 hours.
Q: When did you get into being a Roadie for bands?
A: I was lucky to get in right at the beginning in the early 1960s in San Francisco, and remember the images clearly, like seeing Janis Joplin in just red panties and matching red shoes.
Q: What are your indoor hobbies?
A: I’ve got my trusty Fender Stratocaster here next to me now, and I have a Gibson Les Paul, and a Martin, so I’ve ticked all of the guitar boxes in one small collection.
Q: Have you ever played on stage with the band, The Sons of Champlin that you were a long-time Roadie for?
A: For all of my 42 years, 1968 to 2010, I only ever missed 4 performances with the band and I had good excuses for missing them. My record for longevity and loyalty to the band is unmatched. One night, and after my retirement when the band were playing not too far away from home, I thought I would take a friend along who had never seen the band play. Although we didn’t have tickets, I said ‘I can get us in, no problem’. The front man of the band, Bill Champlin, 2 time Grammy award winner and a great friend, asked when we got in if I wanted to do the introduction on stage, so I marched on stage and said to the crowd, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together and your knees apart for the Son’s of Champlin’. The band should’ve started playing straight away, but it took them some time to stop laughing before they could get it together. At the end of the first part of the show, Bill asked me if I wanted to play the encore with them. I knew the song, but had never played it, so I find myself standing on stage with the guitar, and being told by the other guitarist the key, who’s shouting over ‘It’s D for Doggie’. Bill then introduces the band and me, and as the Roadie for the band for 42 years, pretty much everyone in the crowd knew who I was, so I got an amazing round of applause.
Q: If there is one song that you would play every time you walked into a room for the rest of your life, what would it be?
A: I have about 4 songs that I would call my party-piece: ‘You were on my mind’ by We Five from 1965, ‘Monkey Time’ by Texas singer Delbert McClinton, ‘Early Bird Café’, which has been covered by a lot of people, and a Taj Mahal song called ‘She caught the Katy’. I had dinner once with Taj Mahal and Lester Chambers from the Chambers Brothers, and it was one helluva funky dinner and night. Taj Mahal is a riot to be with.
Q: How did you get into the piano moving business?
A: I realized in 1990 that there was no place for me in the bicycle business, believe it or not. So, as I still needed to make money, I went back to what I was doing before I got into the bike industry, which was moving pianos. The fun part was moving the pianos. The unfun part, was owning the company, but was the reason I earned 4 times as much as the guys helping me, because I owned the company. I can tell you though, moving pianos is about as much fun as you can have, and we moved any type of piano. I did it for 20 years and it was great fun. People ask me, why moving pianos? Firstly, the job cannot be done with computers. Secondly, a company like General Motors can’t do it any cheaper than I could because there are no economies of scale, as Pianos are one at a time. Thirdly, you can’t off-shore the job to another country, and finally, if I own the company, I can’t be fired. There are easy jobs that pay the minimum wage, but get a job that terrifies people like moving a piano, and it’s a better payer. In San Fransicsco, getting a piano out of a 3rd story window requires a certain knack to be able to rope it up, throw it out, clear the wall and for someone to catch it below.
Q: What’s the one skill that you want to learn before you die?
A: I’ve got a GoPro now and it is the coolest video camera ever and I’m learning how to edit the footage. Filming is easy, but editing isn’t. The GoPro would have been great in the piano moving business to capture moves. The other skill I’m learning is because I can’t play with my friends in the studio at the moment due to lockdown, so I’ve got a multi-track recorder to learn how to use. I never stop learning and the pandemic has given me a few things I need to learn and test me.
Q: What’s it like being a pioneer of mountain biking?
A: There is a lot of talk regarding the origins of mountain biking, and there is one that I will claim. I invented the downhill time trial. Sure, other people raced downhill like we did, but did it as a mass start. As you well know coming from the UK, the time trial is the race of truth, and what we had found out with a mass start was that aggression was rewarded more than skill. We had a really big guy in the group and even with his extra weight, and sociopathic approach, which are all downhill competitive advantages, he couldn’t stay with the fastest in the individual race of truth timings. I devised a system with two synchronized clocks that I paid good money for to run the races. We never expected more than a few dozen people, but it turned into a world championship in the end. I didn’t invent the mountain bike, but what I did was facilitate and force the evolution of the bike into a specific direction. The Downhill bike was born!
Q: When you were racing in the Repack days, did you ever have a lucky charm to help you down the mountain?
A: Not really, but what I would say is, that we all had a certain routine, and for me, I always wore my Army fatigue shirt, and Joe Breeze always wore a blue denim work-shirt. It was an interesting atmosphere, because when the Repack races got going, there were basically two categories of people participating; the people doing if for fun, and about half a dozen who were basically doing it to win and were the real competition. This second hardcore group all knew each other really well, and we always started the newer riders first before the best riders went down last. It started off with a very jovial atmosphere with all of the new riders going off to get their two miles of wide open track to ride and trying to go as fast as possible. When it got down to the last 6 or 7 people, it went quiet at the top, nobody talking, everyone getting a race face on and I feel privileged to have been able to hang out with that group. I was quite good at it, but only through mass repetition, whereas the good guys were still 20 seconds better than I was, and I could not even imagine where they were finding that extra time. To win a Repack race, you had to terrify yourself, take big chances and be lucky.
Q. If that was the best idea you had that you actioned, what was the best idea that you didn’t action?
A: I’ve been on the ground floor at the beginning with so much stuff, so if I’m not rich, its definitely my fault. I had the first ever MTB magazine, the first bike company that was actually called MountainBikes, so it’s not about being super rich in cash, its about being able to say that I have had the best adventure in life ever. I’ve had the best things in life you could ever need or want and people I’ve never met think I’m quite the fellow.
It is also interesting, because Gary Fisher is seen as the face of the mountain biking that I was part of and he and I are completely different people. We were joined at the hip for 12 years and apart from maybe one of his 4 ex-wives, nobody knows him better than I do. He is on wife number 5 and I’m still on my first. If people meet Gary first, they’re never prepared for when they meet me, because I’m the other end of the spectrum. Gary is a swashbuckling musketeer and assumes the persona of a rock star, whereas I’m the one that’s lived the rock star world in jeans and a T-shirt. Gary was a top bike racer back when cycling was seen as a nerd sport, and before Greg LeMond ever came along. Football was a man’s game and cycling was just a nerd sport. Gary got famous at the age of 30 and embraced the rock star way and made sure he wasn’t seen as a nerd.
Q: What is the Legacy project all about? I’ve just bought some new-old-stock 1980s Fat Tire Flyer (FTF) magazines from Fat Tire Flyer Europe. Where have they been all of this time?
A: Those magazines have been costing me $300 dollars a month for the past 30+ years since FTF went out of business in 1987. I had a lot of unsold and undistributed magazines and I could not bear to see them go to the recycling. That magazine was the most creative thing I’ve ever done in my life and was the thing I loved the most about the whole thing. The FTF was the essence of me, and whilst I worked for a lot of other magazines, I could put things in the FTF that you couldn’t put in other magazines. It represents the pinnacle of my creativity, so I’ve been paying for their storage for over 30 years and they take a lot of space. I also have filing cabinets of everyone else’s magazines that had any article about me and Gary, particularly if I wrote it. So I ask myself, if I own every MTB publication up to 1990, what do I do with them? Fortunately, with the MTB museum opening, I now have a space where I can work in to capture and scan all of that material for others to access. Unfortunately, the current situation means that the museum is not open, but when it does open, I’ll be back to sorting out my magazine burden and curse. It won’t all be done in my lifetime, but I’m hoping someone will finish it.
Q: If there was one magazine of all of them that you would keep, was is it?
A: Dirt Rag of course, because it took over the niche that I abandoned with the FTF, and my good friend Maurice, the publisher, created the spiritual heir to the FTF with Dirt Rag.
Q: What’s special about the FTF?
A: I wanted to create a magazine that you could pick up a year or even years later, and it would still be relevant and interesting. A modern-day magazine is completely product driven and two thirds of the content is devoted to stuff you can buy, so it is out of date after 5 months. I divide the magazine world into two categories, widgets (stuff you can buy) and people (the cycling experience), and the FTF is universally the cycling experience. Putting out a magazine is like a life sentence, because you’re never done with it and it always weighs on you because you’re always trying to better the last one. I don’t miss the pressure of having to be creative and meeting deadlines, but the FTF is the most creative thing I’ve ever done and am proud of. I’m really glad that 30+ years down the line, people are still enjoying it and it justifies my keeping them.
Q: What is your favourite item of clothing at the moment and why?
A: Always a T-shirt and usually an FTF one, but today’s is a Steve Peat T-shirt! Back in the ‘70s, T-shirts moved from being underwear to become a statement of something.
Q: What is your favourite food recipe that you make?
A: I’m cooking for my 100 year old Mum right now and lately, I’ve been enjoying doing chicken thighs on rice and all baked together, but I’m sure your readers want to hear about something more interesting than my cooking. I’ve got a lot more interesting stuff to share than what I make for dinner.
Q: What is your current bike and what is good about it?
A: I’m riding a Breezer Repack right now and I like it because it’s an enduro bike and that’s closest to reproducing what we did back in the ‘70s because whilst it’s a downhill race, you have to ride your bike to the start and the top, and that’s what this bike does very well. This is important, because back in the day, our rides took a very specific form, and that is all of the towns and roads were in the bottom of the valleys and on either side, there are hills. This means that every ride starts with going up and quite often meant pushing and trudging, and even the trudging got competitive. When we got to the top of wherever we were going, nobody turned around and just rode down. The bikes were put on the ground and out came the frisbee. There was a lot of frisbee playing on the top of the hills. But at some point, somebody would look at their bike and you wouldn’t have to say ‘let’s have a life-threatening race for no stakes on $15 worth of junk bikes’, because everyone ran to their bikes in a Le Mans style start. This was the pattern of every ride, and probably still happens today, so a modern-day enduro bike captures that spirit.
I’ve also got my 29er Fisher Rumblefish that Gary gave me. He actually gave me three bikes (2 Rumblefish and a LeMond road bike). I’m privileged because all of my bikes have my friends’ names on them. I have 2 Fishers, 2 Breezers and 2 Ritcheys.
Q: What was the best bit about doing the book?
A: There are essentially three others that could write a book of our story. Joe Breeze could, but it would take him 30 years as he’s never been early for anything in his life. Tom Ritchey could, but he doesn’t care and he gets talked about by everyone else so he doesn’t need to talk about himself. Gary wrote his book with others and it took a while. My book was done with VeloPress, the biggest bike book publishers and they priced it at half the price that you’d pay for a big book like that, and it’s available, and a lot cheaper than Gary’s book, which is distributed through the Trek bike manufacturer. Gary’s also a really great story teller and doesn’t limit himself to actual facts, which can make the story a lot better half of the time. He has just sent me his book and he’s signed it for me. Doing my book, I had a unique resource as I had all of my magazines and all of the content produced by other people that I have in the Legacy Project, and it is why I could write it in that level of detail and speed. My book is written by a writer who studies every sentence and hammers it into perfect prose, and I’m very proud of the precision of my prose, dates and content.
Q: Will you do a second book?
A: No, I’ve told my story. It took me 6 months to write 24 chapters. It was done on a ratio of one pot of coffee to a chapter, which I then dumped in the lap of my editor and asked him to sort it out, and to his credit, he did a great job and I’m happy with everything my publisher did for me.
Q: Have you ever written a poem of a song?
A: No, but it’s not like I didn’t try either, although my brother is a brilliant poet and has a degree in it, but it’s a talent that completely eludes me.
Q: Best designed and most favorite bike component?
A: The dropper seat post with remote lever. The original klunkers were made for kids and not a 6’ 2” biker rider, so we put a quick release on the thin seat posts to lower them otherwise they got bent.
Q: Have you still got one of your original klunkers?
A: No. I broke everyone of them and in about 6 months, and I used them for both downhill and everyday rides. I just kept pulling the bottom bracket right out of them as the bottom end of the frame failed. That was the reason I thought about building a proper bike, and after 12 months of persuasion, Joe Breeze finally made one.
Q: What is the most fun lecture that you’ve done?
A: One of the top ones was in the UK in Hebden Bridge in a pub. I went there to see Singletrack magazine and my friend Charlie Hobbs. I had a few days with not much on, so I said that if he could find a pub and get all the local mountain bikers in, I would do a lecture. Previously, I had used Powerpoint in my talks and they were quite structured, but in this pub, I stood on the stairs so I could see everyone, and did it without any props or slides. It was one of the best sessions I had done, and with great feedback from everyone in the pub. From that point on, I never used slides again. Entry was free that night and after passing around the hat, I got more cash than if I’d sold tickets. It was a great night.
Q: What is your favourite book and why?
A: Easy one. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species as it’s the greatest science book ever written. It’s special because Darwin used observations that anyone could make. It was the first ever science book like it ever to be written, and whilst science is well written about, I don’t think this book has been surpassed. His ideas have been expanded on and he was wrong about a couple of things, but it is a brilliant work. Also, anything by Mark Twain as he’s the greatest novelist. There’s my fiction and non-fiction book recommendation.
Q: If you were a tree, what type of tree would you be?
A: I would probably be a Yew tree because they’re flexible and last for years.
Q: What is the one piece of Advice you would give to readers?
A: If you’re going to start a bike company, it’s probably a good idea to have a business plan. Our business plan was to sell bikes, but by the second day of business, it was too late to make the plan because when Gary and I started to sell our 9 bike frames, we had no idea or even anticipated where it was going. We just thought, we might be able to sell these, and if we sell these, we can get some more because we thought the actual market might be 15 bikes a year. We couldn’t believe how anyone would pay twice the cost of a road bike for our bike, which only had $3 tyres on it.
Q: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve ever done and why?
A: All of it. Being a rock band Roadie in the ‘60s in San Fransisco is the sort of adventure that I shared with only a couple of dozen others at the time, and a lot of them had big drug problems later on. I’m a bit of a rarity for never having had a drug problem in that world. To give it context, more people climbed Mount Everest last year than got the adventure opportunity I had then. It’s the sort of adventure that has a legendary caché to it, as many people have participated in it over the years now, and a lot have had tragic experiences. It was unique experience coming out of that one healthy.
Q: What is the most iconic design band T-shirt that you’ve got or had?
A: I have a T-shirt that is one of a kind with the ‘Sons of Champlin Roadie Number 1’ printed on it, and only I have them, because I am that Roadie (see featured image). We did some shows in Indianapolis and in the town there are lots of small businesses that supply the motor racing communities. I found one company that I bought their T-shirt from and it’s got ‘Champion Screw’ printed on the front. When people see me in this T-shirt, I tell them that the semi-finals were actually the hardest part!
I also have a special T-shirt from one of the really big shows printed with all of the band names that were playing like Leon Russell, The Band, The Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Sons of Champlin. It’s a pretty special T-shirt. I recently sold a couple of rock T-shirts that were special. It’s amazing what people will pay for a cheaply made T-shirt. I also sold a ‘70s skateboard of mine. I didn’t realise that these boards were so rare, and it was one I used to skate with in dry swimming pools. I broke my leg skating pools. The Steve Peat T-shirt I’m wearing now is from when I met him when he was being enrolled into the MTB Hall of Fame, and he came over and introduced himself. This was monstrously flattering to have a legend like Steve Peat come over and introduce himself to me. Steve is a great guy and probably the anti-Gary Fisher type of man. Gary carries his energy and flamboyance well and is a really big dresser, and I remember the greatest introduction to Gary was by Nelson Vail at some trade show that we were at just for the free dinner, and he said ‘Everytime I see Gary Fisher, I know that somewhere, there’s a naked pimp’.
Q: What is your best gig ever?
A: My encore. When you’re the roadie for a band for 42 years and the fans have been following the band for that long, they know who you are. Having the crowd respond the way they did, was special. Even when I got famous in the bike world, I was still the Roadie help at the gigs, and I never let the band down, never got drunk and was never in jail. When the band called, I answered every time, and I got that love back that night.
Q: Who drew the FTF Logo?
A: David Ross drew it 1982 for the FTF. Other than my FTF magazines, T-shirts etc, I don’t have a bike product to my name, but I do have that brand.
Q: What’s the Stooge CK Flyer story about?
A: Stooge bikes are made in North Wales in the UK. I stayed in a place I can spell, but can’t pronounce called Llangollen, with the owner, Andrew Stephenson, who is a good friend of mine. I was with him for a couple of days regarding the bike he wanted to do called the Stooge CK Flyer, which is a great bike. On one of the days we were together, I was sitting in Andrew’s car at the side of the road in this small town and whilst he went in to get something from a shop. A man walked by, stopped and came back to the car window and said, ‘Hey, are you Charlie Kelly?’ And I said yes. He said ‘I’ve got your book’, so that was pretty flattering.
Q: Anything you’d like to sign-off with?
A: I’ve already got more out of life than any one person deserves and I’m probably already operating on somebody else’s share, and I hope it’s not yours Guy. I’m so grateful for being what feels like the luckiest person ever because I had two adventures, one being in the greatest bicycle adventure of the 20th Century as well as a pretty good rock’n’roll adventure as well. My family loves me, and I’ve got enough cash to live, so it doesn’t get better than that does it.
Last Q: Have you got any message for the readers?
Last A: Yes. You can buy all of the FTF brand products and magazines from either me in the USA or from FTF Europe in the UK. (Links Below).
The Fat Tire Flyer Europe https://www.thebikecabin.com/fat-tire-flyer-uk-products
The Fat Tire Flyer http://fattireflyer.com/
Stooge Bikes http://stoogecycles.co.uk/
Singletrack Magazine https://singletrackworld.com/
Breezer Bikes https://www.breezerbikes.com/
Velopress books https://www.velopress.com/
The featured image, piano moving and Roadie photos courtesy of Charlie Kelly & other photos by the Author
5 thoughts on “The Interesting Interview series – No.3: Charlie Kelly”
It’s been a great read. I met Charlie when he did a talk in Chorley, where I live. This morning, by amazing coincidence, I’m going to the Bike Cabin to see if Ben can put a new spring in my XD freehub, which failed yesterday.
A great coincidence Andrew. Take a bag and a credit card as you might return from the Bike Cabin with some Fat Tire Flyer magazines, if you haven’t got some already?
Wishing you a great new XD Freehub as well!
Thanx for the comment.
Had da pleasure of knowing,working,riding and hanging out with Charlie he da man
I agree. Thanks for the comment.
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