Bullets to Bikes: Outdoorsman/Mountain Bike Specialists Adapts
Mountain Bike Specialists has become one of the best-known and most-revered cycling shops in the region, the country, and even the world.
While this may sound boastful, there is plenty of evidence to back up this statement – one that would have indeed seemed outlandish if even contemplated in the spring of 1968, a half-century ago.
But some insightful business leadership, some dedicated employees, and a little bit of luck created one of Durango’s most renowned success stories.
The origins of this business are humble, to say the least. This is a story of a specialty cycling shop that started out as anything but that. It barely sold bikes – only those heavy, workmanlike U.S.-made Schwinns, for gosh sake! – and most of its original clientele were much more likely to chew tobacco and wear chaps than sit on a bike saddle wearing chamois-lined shorts.
This tale starts with Crawley Sporting Goods, a business that opened on Durango’s Main Avenue just after World War II ended. William S. Crawley was an Army veteran of both world wars. He grew up around the farming/ranching community of Falfa, located along the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad tracks on Florida Mesa (just south of where Florida Mesa Elementary is today). Barely 18 as World War I drew to a close, he nevertheless managed to enlist and served as a cook.1
At the time he enlisted in the service in 1942 he was selling Packards, a luxury auto of the day, at a dealership at 135 East Eighth Street. When Uncle Sam set him loose after the war, in 1945, he opened Crawley Sporting Goods at 940 Main Avenue.
Crawley sold not only sporting goods, but motorcycles, household appliances, and more. He was known as a gunsmith, master mechanic, and tinkerer who could fix all kinds of things, from motorcycles to chainsaws to toasters to bicycles.
“He started the business on practically nothing and built it into a successful and profitable business,” the Durango Herald said in a 1968 obituary.2“He was active in the gun and rifle clubs of the area.”
Bill Crawley died January 21, 1968, in Oklahoma, where he’d gone for some sort of surgery.3His death was notable enough to make the Herald’s front page.
And it prompted his good friend John Zink, a rancher in the Animas Valley, to pay the widow, Marie, a visit. During that meeting the subject of the store, and what was to become of it, came up. As Ed, one of John and Ruby Zink’s five children, recalled:
“Dad went to offer condolences and support, and came home owning a sporting goods store.”
John Zink paid Marie Crawley and her family (she had three daughters) $26,000 for the business and all its inventory.
OK, now what?
John Zink’s original thought was that he’d ultimately run the shop. His rugged ranching lifestyle and potato farming had beaten him up physically over the years, and he was ready to do something a little more sedate. John, age 51, figured that operating a sporting goods store meant he could talk to folks about hunting and fishing and not have to mend fences or dig ditches or throw around heavy bags of spuds.
Meanwhile, 20-year-old Ed was attending Fort Lewis College. He had a wife and young son, and could use a job. Before John could really settle in to running the new business, he needed to tie up a few loose ends at the ranch. So a possible temporary plan developed:
“Ed, do you want to run this store?” John asked.
“Sure, I’ll give it a shot.”
In the end, this “shot” was a bull’s-eye.
Ironically John never actually worked a day in the store. But his wife, Ruby Zink, did work there. Ed’s mother became the bookkeeper, and was a fixture in the little office in the back for more than two decades.
The Zinks took over the business on March 1, 1968. Immediately, they weren’t keen on the location. The roof leaked badly; Mrs. Crawley didn’t want to fix it, and the Zinks didn’t want to buy the building. Meanwhile, John Zink had purchased the old Redfield scopes factory building at 31st Street and Main, and was preparing to remodel it for the sporting goods shop.
“I’m 20, so what the hell do I know about anything,” Ed said a half-century later. “But my gut told me, ‘That’s too far from Main street downtown. That will not work.’ ”
Ed looked across the street at two pool halls. There was The Pastime, 949 Main, and there was Bill’s, 957 Main. Neither was doing a roaring business. “I said, that’s where we ought to be.” John Zink connected with the owner of The Pastime building, and the purchase was consummated.
After hosting a pool hall and card games for countless years, it was in rough shape. There were rings of cigarette burns on the floor around each of the pool tables. But it wasn’t long before it was the new home of a sporting goods store, which was renamed The Outdoorsman.
Ed Zink found himself as a motorcycle dealer, yet he’d never touched one in his life. He looked around for someone who understood motorbikes and was given the name of Gary Wilkinson, who’d worked part-time for Crawley. Wilkinson was still in high school, but he agreed to begin at The Outdoorsman on June 1, 1968, just after graduation day.
The shop sold Honda motorcycles, hunting and fishing gear, athletic equipment, Boy and Cub Scout supplies, and Schwinn bicycles.
Of course, as a business owner, especially a young one, you’re always looking for ways to improve your profits.
Around 1972 one of the newest, hottest items was a Yamaha two-stroke, lightweight dirt bike. Fun to ride, great for kids. The problem: Everyone was already going to a dealer in Farmington to buy them. The Outdoorsman wanted in on the action, so Ed and Gary flew to Las Vegas for the Yamaha convention.
“We walked in the door of the big hotel, and the first, absolute first, guy we saw was the dealer from Farmington,” Zink recalled. “We were young, and he was established, old enough to be our father. It was rather intimidating. He knew why we were there, and he was not happy.”
The Farmington man followed them around, and talked to everyone Ed and Gary talked to, evidently to talk them out of giving the newbies a Yamaha franchise only 50 miles from his.
Ultimately, The Outdoorsman got the franchise. Great, but where to put these hot-selling Yamahas? The answer: expansion.
The Zinks bought the other pool hall, Bill’s, sold the pool tables to a new family-oriented billiards parlor at the Northpoint Mall a few blocks up the street, and moved the motorcycles in there. They built a repair shop in the back of the former Bill’s, and knocked a couple of holes in the wall between 949 and 957 Main for easier access.
That’s where the dirt bikes and other machines stayed for nearly a decade, until a new section of U.S. Highway 550/160 was constructed and Bodo Industrial Park became a reality. (The old route south or east out of town was along State Highway 3.) The Zinks bought and added to a former electrical company building along this new stretch of highway at 346 South Camino del Rio. The motorized machines (cycles and snowmobiles and, later, water craft) were sold there, and the business was renamed as Handlebar Cycle. (In 2007, Wilkinson bought Handlebar from Zink. It is now owned by Tom Grover and known as Handlebar Motorsports.)
Hunting was a large part of The Outdoorsman business. For several years during the 1970s and 1980s The Outdoorsman sold more hunting licenses than any other outlet on the Western Slope, excluding Grand Junction. The Zinks created an outfitting business in the late 1960s, and every fall took several groups of hunters to their camp up the Hermosa Creek drainage. John Zink stayed involved in that.
John Zink was a prolific hunter. He traveled, with friends and sometimes with Ruby, to Alaska, Africa, and elsewhere for big game. He finished the “grand slam” of North American sheep, bagging a Rocky Mountain bighorn, Dall, desert bighorn, and stone. These heads were displayed proudly at The Outdoorsman, along with more exotic species such as kudu and impala from Africa.
Things went well. Business increased greatly. And as far as bicycling, the wheels had barely begun to spin.
It’s hard to imagine now, but in the early 1970s, Memorial Day Weekend was still a slow time for businesses in Southwest Colorado. The tourist train – then called the Denver & Rio Grande – really wouldn’t crank up until later in June, and the college students had mostly left for home.
It was 1972 when the convergence of several people and happenings led to the beginning of something remarkable.
Some locals had become enamored with the mostly European-dominated sport of road cycling. On a road bike you could cover a lot of ground, and in Southwest Colorado, you could ride some spectacular high alpine passes. But if you wanted to prove your mettle, good competition was far away.
One of those who discovered road cycling was Tom Mayer, a Durango contemporary of Ed Zink. Tom boasted to his brother Jim, a brakeman on the Denver & Rio Grande, that he could beat the train to Silverton on his bike. Tom had timed it, and knew full well that he could, even though the road distance was several miles longer than the train had to travel.
“What?” Jim retorted. “No way.” (Or something like that.)
One day in the summer of 1971, Tom waved at Jim as the train cruised past Honeyville, where the Mayer boys grew up, and took off on his Schwinn Paramount4up U.S. Highway 550. He sailed up and over Coal Bank and Molas passes, and cruised into Silverton, where he waited until his surprised brother – “whose pickup did you arrive in?” Jim wondered aloud – showed up on the train.
By the next spring, 1972, Tom had moved to Albuquerque. He wanted to share his favorite ride with others, so he tried to organize a Durango-to-Silverton race. This would take some cooperation from the State Patrol, and they would barely listen to his request. So Tom got Ed Zink involved, thinking Ed might be more persuasive. After nearly dismissing the idea, Ed eventually came around. He realized that not only would it be a good community event on a then-slow Memorial Day weekend, but it would increase the market for bicycles.
There was still resistance from higher-ups, and a hesitance to have riders race down the mountain passes. So the first Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road race went only from Durango to the top of Coal Bank Pass. Officially. Many of the riders continued unofficially all the way to Silverton to complete the ride. The race went all the way to Silverton beginning in 1975 – up and over two 10,500-foot passes, 5,700-foot total elevation gain in 50 miles of some of the most scenic and awe-inspiring territory anywhere. It has done so ever since, except for those dastardly snow years, and COVID year in 2020, that canceled or shortened the event.
Just 36 participants rode in the first Iron Horse in 1972. The event’s popularity swelled rapidly as hundreds, then thousands signed up each year. Safety became an issue, and the field was limited. Under a permit agreement with the Colorado State Patrol, which determined that the only way to safely and legally hold the event was to shut down the highway from Purgatory to Silverton, the IHBC limited rider numbers to 1,500 in the mid-1990s.
By the 1990s the number of participant days for the weekend of road and mountain bike races ballooned to 2,500, and it grew to 3,800 by the 2010s. (Some riders entered multiple events.) The road ride/race became so popular for several years in the 2000s that the field filled quickly after entry opened up in early December. In 2013 the road ride sold out in 36 hours and some race categories closed within 13 hours.
Under Zink’s leadership, the IHBC molded and transformed the event, adding mountain biking, kids races, a fun “cruiser crit” with an old-fashioned theme, and more recently, gravel rides and an e-bike event. Innovations first seen at the Iron Horse were copied by other events.
Gaige Sippy served as event director beginning in 2007. Once a serious racer, he understood the competitive cyclist’s mentality. He also came to understand Zink, a rancher and hunter who embraced cycling as a fun activity and celebratory community event.
“Ed was not a shaved-leg cyclist,” Sippy said. “So the Iron Horse was not a typical bike event.”5
Ed Zink carried the torch for the event and was its overarching leader as director or president of the board through 2014, more than 40 years. There were many lean years that the event cost more than was taken in, and The Outdoorsman/Mountain Bike Specialists made up the difference. Because it was still a boon to the region, and Zink believed in the future, he never wavered on keeping the Iron Horse going.
The Outdoorsman/MBS sponsored and organized multiple events through the years – the Iron Horse, national championships and a world championship among them. They’ve always supported events, not people or teams – the philosophy being that a greater number of participants would benefit.
“We’ve always tried to support things that are good for the community,” Zink said.
Sippy recalled standing next to Zink while watching a busy Iron Horse event in the mid-2010s. It was a rare, fleeting moment where both could relax and take it all in – the fun and fiery competition, the onlookers, the volunteers. Knowing the history of the event’s humble beginnings, how it had impacted the area and Zink personally, Sippy nudged him and asked:
“Ed, what do you make of all this?”
An almost imperceptible smile grew on Zink’s face as he responded.
“I never would have thought …”
John Bradley graduated from high school in southeast Denver in 1975, and headed to Fort Lewis College in Durango that fall. Bradley had started working at bike shops during junior high school, and by high school was toiling at Big Wheel in Denver, which sold high-end road bikes such as Cinelli and Masi, and equally quality components such as Campagnolo.
When he arrived in Durango he first tried to get a job at Four Faces Outdoor Sports, the type of high-end bike shop where he was used to working. That didn’t pan out, so he ventured into The Outdoorsman for a job. Four Faces was considered the more “hippie” hangout, while The Outdoorsman was the more family-oriented store, where the bicycles were limited to the back. Hunting, fishing, and athletic equipment dominated the shop.
Bradley recalls his first or second day at the shop, starting to feel comfortable in his new surroundings, when a loud, shrill blast from just outside the back door jarred him badly. What the heck was that!?
“I’m pretty sure they had to peel me off the ceiling,” he recalled.
Of course, it was the train whistle – warning traffic, and scaring the bejesus out of unsuspecting bike mechanics.
The first repair tag he received was equally bewildering. Attached to a Schwinn Little Pixie, a kid’s bike, was the perplexing note, “Horse step on it.” Perhaps the Pixie got in a horse’s way? One could only hope the child wasn’t riding it at the time.
Bradley helped whip the bike shop into shape, giving it a professionalism it had lacked. He also learned to help out where needed – selling various items from baseball bats to fishing line, or writing hunting licenses during the fall. While the legendary George Malarsie and Bill Cherry manned the front of the store, Bradley was in the back, working in cramped quarters alongside a young man named Jeff Neely, a “rodeo kid” who wore Wranglers and cowboy boots and knew just enough about cycling to get by.
“We were a bit of an odd couple,” Bradley recalled.
Bradley sold and worked on Schwinn LeTours, Collegiates, and, in 1976, the red-white-and-blue Schwinn Bicentennial Varsity. And whatever other cycles arrived needing repair.
He already had three male siblings, but came to think of Ed Zink as almost a “fourth brother.” Growing up in suburbia, Bradley had never fished, ridden a horse, or shot a gun. By the time he left Durango in 1981, “I’d accomplished all three of those tasks,” thanks to Zink.
Near the end of his stay in Durango, a major innovation was starting to take shape. People were starting to convert their Schwinn Continentals or Varsitys into off-road-capable bikes. This was around when Robert “Bicycle Bob” Gregorio joined The Outdoorsman staff. (For his mechanical genius, Gregorio would later be named to the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.) Customers began coming in, requesting The Outdoorsman mechanics help them make this conversion.
Bradley recalled that an athlete named Ned Overend, mostly a runner, had just come to town. Overend worked as a car mechanic, and once fixed Bradley’s heater. Bradley returned to Denver, where he became manager of the Denver Spoke, then a rep for Trek, then a product developer who traveled to Asia to manage Trek’s workings on the Pacific Rim.
“It was a great time in my life and I met a lot of fantastic people,” Bradley said of his time at The Outdoorsman. “I learned a lot from being here, from Ed in particular, from the people I worked with.”
Over the years the shop employed hundreds of high school- and college-aged youths, many of whom went on to equal success – sometimes in the bicycle business, and sometimes in other careers. Just as John Bradley left, another Fort Lewis graduate named John was coming on the scene.
John Glover arrived in Durango to attend Fort Lewis College about the same time Bradley did, and in 1975 got a job at San Juan Cyclery. The shop lasted only about a year, so he caught on part-time at The Outdoorsman.
After graduating from Fort Lewis in 1980, John Glover got a summer job with the Forest Service. In January 1981, John and his fiancée, Michelle, drove to the East Coast to get married in Maryland. Upon their return to Durango, John still hadn’t heard from the Forest Service about whether he had a job for the summer season. He didn’t want to wait to find out. Plus, working on bicycles was more enjoyable. He knew bicycles, raced a bit although never professionally, and enjoyed the atmosphere of what was then a small-town store.
In March 1981 he talked Ed Zink into hiring him back. Was it a good career move? Well, who’s to say. But the bottom line is that Glover has no regrets.
The Outdoorsman branched out into many areas, some successfully, some not. It offered trophies and engraving, it sold athletic uniforms, it tried carrying cross-country skis and running shoes. Glover learned how to sell everything.
“Because you had to, you did it all,” he said.6
Soon he was manager of the bike shop, and a couple years later found himself working with that guy named Ned.
Ned Overend isn’t quite sure how this story originated, but Zink recalled to people that when The Outdoorsman brought in a line of Saucony running shoes in the early 1980s, it could not sell them. Zink wondered: Was it the wrong brand? The wrong staff? The Outdoorsman needed someone with a runner’s insight and local repute, and Ned’s name came up.
Overend moved with his wife, Pam, from San Diego to Durango in 1980. With training as a car mechanic it took him no time at all to land a job with Precision Imports, which specialized on Volkswagen repairs. (In fact, Overend walked into Precision Imports to ask if they needed help, and owner Dorman McShan told him, “RIGHT NOW! We need somebody RIGHT NOW.” An hour or so later, Overend had VW bus gas dripping down into his armpit.)
A competitive runner, Overend was nudged toward road cycling, first as recovery training from a running injury. But he’d also become well aware of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic while running the Narrow Gauge 10-miler on Memorial Day weekend. Cycling, which included a downtown criterium, was bringing crowds to watch. “If you’re an athlete, you want to be part of that,” Overend said.7
In 1982, riding a Crescent road bike that a Swedish high school cross country running teammate had sold him several years prior, the 26-year-old Overend won the Category IV Iron Horse road race. The result raised his profile locally, and helped turn his focus toward road cycling or triathlons as a potential career. After briefly working for manager Grant Glover, a fellow runner, at Alpine Sports ski shop at Seventh and Main, Overend was hired by Zink and John Glover (Grant’s younger brother) to work at The Outdoorsman in early 1983.
“Zink took me under his wing as a racer,” Overend said, “and they gave me a schedule that was flexible so I could train and still work.”
For Overend, Zink, the shop, the Iron Horse race, the town – and one could argue the sport of mountain biking – this was the beginning of a fruitful and symbiotic relationship. During the next decade, the fortunes of each of those entities would soar.
Zink said Overend was unsuccessful at selling the running shoes (that Ned doesn’t recollect trying to sell). But no matter, Overend did know how to work on and sell bicycles. (“So I did contribute something,” he laughed.) And Overend knew how to race them. In 1983 he focused on road cycling almost exclusively, winning the Iron Horse and the renowned Morgul Bismarck in Boulder. With Zink’s help talking to race team managers, he joined the Raleigh team for that year’s Coors Classic, which brought elite international riders to Colorado for a week-long stage race.
* * *
Meanwhile, starting with Specialized in 1981, manufacturers had begun marketing mass-produced bicycles specifically for off-road use. Schwinn, no longer just a klunker bike, joined the mountain bike game; Overend got his hands on one at The Outdoorsman. In 1984 he switched his racing attention to off-road as a Schwinn team member. Overend’s ensuing success wasn’t the only reason Durango grew as a mountain bike mecca, but it was high among them.
Also in 1984, the Iron Horse added mountain biking to its weekend of racing. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Memorial Day weekend event began to boom. By 1986 it drew 800 contestants, and that doubled to 1,600 in 1987.8Simultaneously, Durango was gaining a reputation as a mountain bike hotspot. It hosted the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) championships in July 1986, and again in 1987.
The growth of The Outdoorsman was “jagged,” Glover noted, but certainly steady. From 1986 to 1987, just as the Iron Horse ballooned and the nationals arrived, the store’s sales volume rose 14 percent.
“A lot of it was being in the right place at the right time,” Glover said of the growth. But just as key, it was due to The Outdoorsman’s insight in recognizing mountain biking’s popularity and the potential of the sport. “It was also the work we were doing and the vision we had.”
The mid-1980s were an exciting time for the bike industry, with mountain biking rising rapidly in popularity, particularly in the racing realm. Zink, Glover, and Overend went to bike shows to get the latest and greatest for the shop.
“Everything was changing so fast,” Overend recalled. “Racing was such a huge part of sales. Wheels, tires, grips. Everything was performance-oriented at the time.”
The Outdoorsman, the Iron Horse, Durango – all glommed onto the mountain biking craze early and never let up. Marin County, California, had early history on its side as the place where the sport developed, but Durango more quickly developed its trails and competitions. Moab found a niche too, but its major growth came after Durango was well-established.
The solid volunteer organization established by the Iron Horse allowed the community, with Zink in the lead, to pursue bigger races. The 1986 and 1987 NORBA championships were both held at Edgemont Ranch, a new development east of town.
Overend won the men’s titles both years, and he was winning multiple other races around the country. The Outdoorsman capitalized on his success, using Overend for promotional purposes. When Overend switched to the Specialized racing team in 1988, that was fine for the shop, which also carried Specialized.
The success of those NORBA races made Durango a high-profile contender when, in the late 1980s, talk turned toward unifying competing world mountain bike championships.
Thom Parks was working at Cycle Transport, a bicycle shop in Fort Collins, when he developed an idea to create a mail-order company strictly for mountain bikes and related gear. He branched from Cycle Transport in 1984 and founded Mountain Bike Specialists, running the business out of his home for a time before moving into a second-floor commercial unit.
Although the business created sales nationwide, it was not financially successful in Fort Collins. Parks looked for a buyer, and that person was Ed Zink, who purchased Mountain Bike Specialists (MBS) in 1987 and moved it lock, stock and barrel to Durango. Zink even brought with him two of its employees, Keith and Shari Chapman. MBS carved out a space adjacent to Handlebar Cycle, and continued the business there.
Meanwhile, The Outdoorsman was undergoing a metamorphosis. It still sold sporting goods, but the bicycles needed more store space to meet a growing demand. Bikes began edging up toward the front of the shop, grabbing more and more retail space. Fishermen and hunters continued to frequent The Outdoorsman, but it was more out of habit and loyalty than anything else. Athletic equipment still sold, but that market was challenged by mail order, Kmart, and the specter of a Wal-Mart possibly locating in Durango.
Starting in their teens in the 1980s, Ed’s sons Brian and Tim both worked regularly at The Outdoorsman. They got to know the ins and outs of the store, from merchandising to selling to purchasing, from bullets to baseball bats to bicycles. Both were also expected to “volunteer” for the Iron Horse, and neither objected. (Sister Kristi was several years younger, and later volunteered as well.) Despite the hard work, it was a bonding experience and left the brothers with a feeling of contributing to a greater cause – an attribute that their father had instilled.
Both Brian and Tim went to buying exhibits – gatherings of manufacturers to display their latest merchandise. One brother might suggest that a baseball glove or inflatable raft would be popular, and Ed would simultaneously validate their input and challenge them by asking, “OK, how many do you want to buy?”
Around that time, the Zinks were having to put some deep thought into the future of the business. Nothing was more frustrating than the feeling that your store was a showroom for someone else. They noticed that customers would come in, get a feel for, say, a fishing reel or baseball glove, ask several questions, then leave. It was obvious that the customer was going to find it online at a lower price, and order it that way.
The issue for The Outdoorsman was that retail was changing. As Brian Zink framed it: “What can we do? How do we narrow our product line to those areas where we can provide the service and ultimately close the sale – where we’re not a showroom for mail order?”9
Brian, a business student at Fort Lewis College, needed a project for his senior thesis under professor Barney Anderson. He was aiming to become a small business consultant. With encouragement from his dad, Brian turned the store’s dilemma into a senior thesis, which he co-wrote with classmate Eric Marshall in 1989.
How could a small-town store “Walmart-proof” itself? How could such stores compete with this price-cutting behemoth as well as everything available via mail order? (Note, this was several years before online sales made an even bigger dent.)
What their thesis determined was that “mom and pop” stores could never compete on price and selection. Walmart, for example, had the buying power to purchase from distributors for often half of what The Outdoorsman paid. Both Walmart and mail-order could get by on a smaller profit margin and also offer a greater selection.
Brian’s study determined this: Regarding any goods that were strictly price-based, Walmart, with its volume and ability to thrive on small profit margins, would kill the little guy.
What seemed to be left was to focus on becoming a specialty, service-oriented business with a knowledgeable, trained staff. Such a shop, if run properly, could offer something Walmart and mail order couldn’t, and attract a loyal clientele.
“We looked over our profitability and segments of our business that were price-based and the segments of our business that were service-based,” Ed Zink said. “And with the euphoria of mountain biking, we closed out our sporting goods because they are primarily price-based.”
And that was it: A sporting goods store had become a high-end cycling shop. It was a transcendent moment. It signified a change that Durango, with the Zinks at the forefront, had brought about. The town had become a cyclist’s destination, both for visitors and newcomers.
But nothing was certain. Hopefully, they thought, mountain biking wasn’t just a fad – a craze that would soon die out. The Outdoorsman’s future rested on that assumption.
Ed Zink always incorporated his family into running the shop, and that carried over to the races.
To this day, Tim Zink jokes that he and his siblings are “volunteers for life” for the Iron Horse. Their involvement began early in life, and they were given responsibilities that many youngsters their age didn’t have.
“From some perspectives we grew up fast,” Tim said. “At the same time, it prepared us well.”10
The races were fun, recalled Brian Zink, but there was always an expectation that he would be available to work.
“That’s just what we did,” Brian said. “There was never a thought that anything else happened on Memorial Day weekend.”
Their roles went from tagging along to lending a hand to being in charge of venues to being overall troubleshooters. Brian and Tim knew how to fix problems – where to find a tractor or a hay bale or a part.
When mountain biking’s world championships came to Durango in September 1990, Brian was put in charge of the dual slalom venue at Chapman Hill, where thousands of spectators swarmed to watch some of the first, and most exciting, events of the Worlds. Brian directed a crew in setting up the berms and starting gates and timing elements. The dual slalom went off, perhaps not flawlessly, but definitely spectacularly. Anyone who was there will vouch that this event was a grand kick-start to one of the sport’s most exciting weeks ever.
Meanwhile Tim, still a teenager, was told to open an Outdoorsman shop at Purgatory, where even larger crowds came for the downhill and cross country races. The shop sold parts and rented bikes to the masses. It was a big responsibility.
“By the time I’m 18 I’m running a satellite shop,” Tim said. It was busy, and it was successful. “We turned a profit that year.”
Kristi Zink was just 10 when Worlds were held, and wasn’t called upon to serve. But she didn’t miss out on the family fun. Starting in the early 2000s, during and after college, Kristi served many years as an Iron Horse volunteer. She had many tasks, including giving out awards to going up to Silverton the night before the event to set up the finish line. It was no simple task, planning for an event with thousands of participants. “The amount of details that go into it,” she said. “All the millions of things you have to think through.”
It was a learned skill: “You would learn from what you didn’t do right the year before.”
She traveled abroad with Ed to world mountain bike championships in France and for UCI meetings. In 2001 she was awards coordinator for the World Cup event in Durango.
It was one of those things that if you’d known what you were in for, you might not have done it. For Ed Zink and the community, it took a year of planning for the September 1990 event.
The back story: Bicycling’s world governing body, Union Cycliste Internationale, agreed to become part of the mountain biking scene in the late 1980s. There had been “world” championships both in the U.S. and in Europe (Ned Overend won basically wherever they were held), but now UCI was going to hold the first-ever official world championships of mountain biking.
United States officials convinced UCI that they should be host, since mountain biking originated there. And with Zink leading the bid, Durango, among several candidates, convinced U.S. officials that it was the most prepared place to create and host the event. (Zink was already highly involved in U.S. cycling. He served as president of the National Off-Road Bicycle Association, or NORBA, and later would serve as USA Cycling’s vice president, as American representative on the UCI Mountain Bike Commission, and as technical delegate for mountain biking at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, when it debuted as an Olympic sport.)
September 1990. The Worlds came to Durango. The week-long extravaganza was held in a spectacular setting at Purgatory Resort. Some events, including opening ceremonies and the popular dual-downhill slalom, were held in town.
Overend thrilled the hometown fans by winning the men’s cross country; Juli Furtado, who would soon move to Durango, won the women’s cross country. The charismatic Greg Herbold, a Durangoan and Fort Lewis graduate, won the men’s downhill. Overend’s visibility in the sport, his connection to The Outdoorsman, and his understanding of the industry, all helped the Main Avenue shop’s growth.
The occasion left an indelible mark on everyone who attended – riders, spectators, industry members – and carved Durango’s name into mountain biking history. Coincidentally or not, around this time Durango and La Plata County began a fairly intense growth spurt, one that saw the population balloon and property rates skyrocket.
If one had any doubt, the post-Worlds truth was clear: Durango had been discovered.
John Glover said that to this day people from around the world still enter the store and exclaim, “I was here for the Worlds in 1990.”
“They got to see it all happening,” Glover said, “and have never forgotten.”
The sporting goods part of The Outdoorsman hung on for a couple of years after the Worlds, but perhaps it was inevitable that cycling completely took over by 1995. Gaige Sippy, later to become director of the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, was an Outdoorsman summer employee in the early 1990s as he was finishing college at New Mexico State. He then stayed on for a year as he figured out his next career step.
Sippy remembered the winter of 1992-93, when huge snows carpeted the town and business died even more than in a usual winter. He sold some Sorels and a few pairs of snowshoes, but spent most of his days on projects to spruce up the shop. The old yellow pegboard was covered by wooden panels for a more modern look. And one winter day, John Zink’s animal heads came down. Some heads, Sippy recalled, were extremely heavy. In place of the heads, a new museum of sorts took shape. The memorabilia included bikes ridden to victory at the Worlds, jerseys used by the sport’s stars, pictures and plaques. This “museum” remains an under-the-radar attraction for visitors today.
Outside above the store, the life-sized elk – a landmark for visitors and townspeople alike – came down. During the next couple of years hunting, fishing, and athletic equipment – all things not related to bicycles – were eliminated. Off-road bicycles, and a smattering of road bikes, took over the store.
The mail-order company folded, but the name lived on. In 1995 the shop at 949 Main Avenue officially became Mountain Bike Specialists. The long transition was complete. The Outdoorsman was relegated to a place in Durango history.
As obvious as it seems, consider for a moment that for mountain biking to become popular, you need trails. Sounds simple, but this took some complex coordination among local trails advocates and land managers. And a ton of work.
Trails 2000 (now Durango Trails) was created in 1989 as the World Championships were taking shape.
When several locals brainstormed the concept of Trails 2000, the first person they engaged to make it happen was Ed Zink. He enlisted the help of Bureau of Land Management area manager Sally Wisely, and the organization was born. Bill Manning, who would later become director of the Colorado Trail Foundation, was installed as Trails 2000 director.
This organization, to be often emulated in other communities, advocated for trails – their development, their maintenance. Trails 2000 coordinated efforts among trail users; federal, state, and local land managers; and other interests, both public and private. It was wildly successful in creating several trail systems within quick riding distance of town – many of them usable by Durangoans looking for a quick lunch ride.
Trails 2000, with volunteer labor, built or rebuilt dozens of miles of trails around town and maintained trails in the high country. Whether it was educating the public, teaching trail etiquette, or planning a bike path in the city or the hills, Trails 2000 became a valuable community asset and transformed the local trail system.
As Trails 2000 was being formed, the issue of mountain bikes on public lands was still being debated.
Bob Moore was among a group of public lands officials who attended a seminar held at Tamarron Resort (now the Glacier Club) during the 1990 Worlds. Moore, since retired, was state director of the Bureau of Land Management in Colorado from 1990-95.
“The BLM and the Forest Service were trying to deal with this mountain biking thing that was just beginning to impact the trails,” he recalled. “Is it OK for mountain bikes to be on natural surface trails?”
The BLM faced the issue head-on. In the spring of 1991, Wisely put together a national program called “Getting in Gear,” which involved a series of two- and three-day get-togethers around the West. One took place around Durango, and another in Palm Springs, California. The idea was to congregate public land managers and trails enthusiasts, whether they rode horses, hiked, or rode bikes. By then, the International Mountain Bike Association had formed as an advocate for cycling on public trails, and was also heavily involved.
From these meetings, the 1992 publication, BLM’s “National Mountain Bike Strategy,” was produced.
Zink, who attended several of the “Getting in Gear” get-togethers, credited Moore with developing a plan that not only guided the BLM, but whose structure was later used by the Forest Service to develop its mountain bike plans.
“You can’t have a sport without thinking about where we’re riding,” Zink said. “You can’t think about where we’re riding without talking to land managers.”
After more than four decades at the Outdoorsman/Mountain Bike Specialists, John Glover has seen a lot of employees come and go. Some were in and out quicker than they could change a flat tire. Others made an indelible mark. Many went on to greater things, in the cycling or other industries.
What strikes Glover, when reuniting with former workers, is the depth of their attachment to a place where they might have toiled for only a year or less.
“Their time here was of greater significance to them than it was to the arc of the store,” he said, emphasizing that is not a slight. It’s just a fact: Those workers cherish and value their MBS time highly. “It was a really meaningful step in life along the way for a lot of people. I get feedback on how meaningful short periods of time were to a lot of people.”
Sporting goods – from a baseball glove to a fishing rod to a bicycle – are all about recreation, about having fun. Such a store, a bike shop in particular, has to engender that spirit. When hiring people, you don’t look for sullen, unexcitable employees. You find people who love bicycles or love helping people, preferably both.
Working for Ed Zink was never easy. Employees were challenged, and, if they could survive the scrutiny, that style of fostering brought out the best in many. He often questioned workers, perhaps asking why they did something a certain way. He might have had a lesson to teach in that process, or he might just as easily been trying to learn a new way of doing things.
“Working for Ed was a test,” Glover said. “A pop quiz every day.”
Part of the nurturing process at MBS meant that employees who stayed for any length of time became part of the larger Zink family. They would be invited to get-togethers at the Waterfall Ranch, or on group bike rides or other occasions. Several employees lived at Waterfall Ranch in a ground-level apartment next to the waterfall itself. Ruby Zink lived on the top floor.
Glover gave many kudos to Patti Zink, co-owner of the shop and a familiar presence at the store since she married Ed in 1994. Patti’s role has evolved over time, and greatly shifted in 2019 after Ed’s death. She has a different leadership style, more empathetic than Ed, yet decisive and fair.
“They made quite a few of the employees members of the family,” Glover said of all the Zinks, “and I definitely was one of them.”
A list of former ODM/MBS employees who have gone on to greater achievements will leave someone deserving out. So, apologies in advance. But, sticking with the cycling industry, here are a few examples.
- The aforementioned Gaige Sippy, who has successfully run the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic as director since 2007, with a one-year break in 2014.
- The aforementioned Ned Overend, 1990 Worlds champion and six-time National cross-country champion.
- Eric Moore, a college classmate of Brian Zink’s, who went on to become a director for the National Off-Road Bicycle Association and USA Cycling from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s.
- Scott Daubert, who became Trek’s liaison to Lance Armstrong when Lance won his seven Tour de Frances. Before that, Daubert served as mechanic for the 1996 U.S. Olympic cycling team. He has continued with Trek in Waterloo, Wisconsin, in many important roles, including Race Shop Manager.
“When I think of the rewards of the job,” Glover said, “it’s the people who have worked here. Amazing. And it continues to this day. They are a gift to me and the customers every single day. The people we get to work here are just simply the best.”
* * *
In the last 20-plus years, two key employees have been Darian Harvey and Heath Garvey.
Garvey raced bikes while attending Western State in Gunnison. He moved to Durango in 1998 to take a job with Schwinn, which had established a factory in Bodo Industrial Park south of Durango. (Schwinn had purchased Bodo-based Yeti bicycles in 1995.) But when Garvey showed up on his scheduled start date at Schwinn, they told him to come back in a week.11
Garvey wasn’t too thrilled with that news, so he popped in to MBS, and told them he was a mechanic. Glover hired him.
Garvey lived in the Waterfall Ranch house under Ruby from 1998-2002. That meant that on weekends, Ed would come looking for him as an extra ranch hand. If the affable, soft-spoken Garvey didn’t want to be asked to do irrigation work, build fences, or throw hay, he had to get away pretty early.
By the time he left Durango in 2002, Garvey was receiving and buying merchandise and had worked his way into an assistant manager position. When Garvey moved to Fort Collins, he quickly got a job at Lee’s Cyclery, the most venerated bike shop in that town.
“Ed and John took the time to teach me things they’d learned through the business, and that helped me at Lee’s,” Garvey said.
Garvey and his wife, Jennifer, began raising children in Fort Collins. But a visit to Durango, during which they stayed with John and Michelle Glover, made them think about a permanent return. In 2014, Zink and Glover said sure, come on back. Garvey had to start as a mechanic and work his way back up. In a few years he’d become co-assistant manager with Darian Harvey.
Garvey sees some irony in how the shop’s image changed. During his first stint, MBS was seen as the corporate behemoth. Now, Durango has other, bigger shops. “We’re the funky store with history on the walls.”
Harvey was attracted to Durango through racing. Her love of cycling started in the early 1990s at age 10, and she began reading about and idolizing the sport’s stars, many of whom lived in Southwest Colorado. Harvey gravitated toward a job in the industry, and got a mechanic job at Dave’s Bike Shop in her hometown of Ukiah, California. When Durango hosted a UCI-sanctioned World Cup mountain bike race in July 2001, it gave Harvey and a friend a good reason to head this way. She visited MBS briefly on that trip, was impressed with the history museum, and was stunned to find out that colorful World Cup banner she coveted would set her back $400. (She left empty-handed.)12
In August 2002 she returned to Durango to attend Fort Lewis College and join the race team. Hoping for part-time work, she typed up a resume and handed it to several bike shops in town. While she was giving her resume to an unencouraging MBS mechanic, John Glover overheard and popped out of his office. By the time Harvey left the store, Glover had told her to call back in a few days and see if he had some work hours for her in the shop, “wrenching” bikes. Thus began her MBS career.
Harvey still didn’t understand MBS’s full significance on the racing scene until a couple of incidents widened her eyes. One was scrolling through the computer list of store customers and running across legends such as downhill champion Missy Giove. “Oh my gosh! Lots of my heroes come to MBS,” she thought. And it wasn’t long before world champion Ned Overend strolled in and introduced himself. “I was pretty blown away by that,” Harvey recalled.
“MBS is special for a lot of reasons to a lot of people. For me, I was trying to find a new home to put some roots down,” Harvey said. “The atmosphere at MBS just had a real kind of family, homey feel.”
She saw how Ed, Patti, and John were welcoming, that the employees had each other’s backs, and that everyone had a good attitude. That attitude rubbed off on customers.
If she had any doubt that she’d found a home, that disappeared after a crash while racing for Fort Lewis left her with a broken collarbone. She went over the handlebars during a dual slalom at Chapman Hill. Coach Elke Brutsaert (another of Darian’s racing heroes) picked her up off the course and made sure she got medical attention.
Harvey was petrified she’d lose her job. She couldn’t wrench with a broken collarbone. Ed and John asked her, “Well, what CAN you do?”
“They plunked me down at the computer in the service department,” Harvey said. “They just really cemented the fact that there’s always going to be a place for me, as long as I was willing to work hard.”
Furthermore, when it came time for surgery, “I was in a bit of a bind”: The dorms were closed and Harvey had no way to travel home and no place to stay during her recovery. Ed Zink put on his “father hat” and insisted she stay in a spare room at the Waterfall Ranch house.
“We were the option,” Patti recalled. She and Ed looked after Harvey for several days, keeping her occupied with fun DVDs, supplying bags of ice, and cooking her meals. And every night at dinner, Ed taught her the history of Durango cycling and its main characters.
Ed helped many people – family, employees, one young man whose family had abused him – in similar ways. And he did it without fanfare, something that Patti said rubbed off on her. “Credit wasn’t important to him. He didn’t need to see his name on a list of donors.”
In Darian’s case, she quickly developed a rapport with customers, who sought her advice and relied on her mechanical skills. Customers became family too. Racers trust their bikes to MBS, and Harvey made sure she put the same 100 percent effort into casual riders’ bikes as well. She ultimately became an assistant manager, in charge of the shop.
With Ed’s death, Patti Zink’s role and presence increased at the store. But Ed’s philosophies are still with them, and go through their heads when it’s decision time.
Said Garvey, “We have debates about what Ed would do.”
To continue being successful, Mountain Bike Specialists constantly considered all aspects of the business. That meant being a champion of ideas that would allow the sport of cycling to thrive, and to bolster the conditions for those who wanted to follow their passion.
It meant getting the community involved – in the Iron Horse, in the World Championships, in Trails 2000.
But it all began at the retail level. In order to continue all these outside efforts, MBS needed to be a reliable and fun store that carried the necessary equipment and delivered accurate advice.
It jumped on mountain biking in the 1980s, then back into road cycling when there was a boom in the early 2000s (the Lance Armstrong years), then into fat bikes, snow bikes, and e-bikes in the 2010s and beyond.
Garvey noted how much the store changed between his departure in 2002 and his return in 2014. What had been a race-driven, cross-country mountain bike store had become more of a trail riding store. The style of bikes being sold had transformed. The race scene, although still prevalent, had faded. Keeping with the Walmart-proofing theme, MBS sold fewer, but more expensive bikes to cater to serious riders.
“Ed was very perceptive about the way the market goes and changed with it,” Garvey said.
Glover gave a lot of credit to the staff for upholding the store’s reputation. Hiring talented, loyal employees such as Harvey and Garvey has been crucial.
“It has continued to position us to be competitive in a very competitive market,” Glover said.
For decades MBS has been a member of the National Bicycle Dealers Association, or NBDA, which includes a couple thousand retailers in America. The NBDA reviews shops, showing them where they’re succeeding and where they’re in need of improvement. It evaluates and ranks the top shops, using peer reviews and fiscal productivity numbers. NBDA’s “secret shoppers” call or visit the store and ask questions, grading how they were treated and the staff’s knowledge.
Mountain Bike Specialists was surprised and honored to be named a Top 100 cycling shop by NBDA in 2013. The honor was repeated several times. Pretty good for a store in a relatively little market.
In 2016 the honor went further: MBS was named one of the nation’s top five shops. Yet further, an online vote would determine which of the five would be the top. It seemed like a stretch for a small-town shop to get the top honor, but when the votes were counted, MBS was No. 1!
“That was a nice recognition to get,” Zink said simply.
The 50th anniversary
On March 1, 2018, the shop reached a huge milestone. The Outdoorsman/Mountain Bike Specialists turned 50 that day, and MBS hosted an open house. Hundreds of townspeople, city officials, customers, and former employees attended, each congratulating Zink on the achievement.
In a surprise to Ed and wife Patti, both the City of Durango and Governor of Colorado John Hickenlooper proclaimed March 1, 2018, as “Ed Zink Day.” As the open house began at noon, several luminaries gathered to honor the Zinks and the shop. City Mayor Dick White, Trails 2000 Director Mary Monroe, and U.S. Senator Michael Bennet’s local liaison, John Whitney, all offered plaudits. Bennet lauded Ed Zink for his help in creating the Hermosa Creek Wilderness Area, a years-long struggle that took compromise from multiple entities that didn’t all see eye-to-eye. Horse riders, mountain bikers, hikers, hunters, fishermen, motor bikers – Zink’s role in being able to speak for each entity from experience was invaluable.
“I was honored to get to know Ed as he helped lead the community effort to pass the Hermosa Creek Watershed Protection Act back in 2014,” Bennet said in a Facebook post on March 1, 2018. “The bill protects one of Colorado’s finest watersheds and, in the words of Ed, helps us ‘keep it like it is.’ Ed, thanks for all you do for Colorado.”
That afternoon at MBS, on “his day,” Ed Zink spent much of the time receiving all these congratulations in virtually the same space that his mother, Ruby, had sat for a quarter-century doing the bookkeeping with a pencil and spreadsheets.
“Mom’s probably the only one who thinks I actually deserve this,” Zink mused.
Fifty years in operation: A feat that only a tiny percentage of businesses can claim. And a longevity that seemed unthinkable that fateful day that John Zink announced to son Ed that he’d done a widow a favor by purchasing an old sporting goods store.
1 The Durango Herald, January 23, 1968, Page 1. The notice of Crawley’s death said he was a veteran of both world wars. A document in the “Roster of Men and Women Who Served in the World War from Colorado 1917-1918 La Plata County” lists a William S. Crawley, from Griffith, Colorado, as a cook. Griffith was the name of the post office, Falfa was the name of the railroad stop.
2 The Durango Herald, March 5, 1968, Page 1.
3 The Durango Herald, January 23, 1968. The story does not specify the type of surgery.
4 Taken from a story written by Tom Mayer about riding the 40th annual Iron Horse Bicycle Classic: http://abundantadventures.com/IronHorse/IronHorseClassic40yr-2.html
5 Gaige Sippy was interviewed several times for this and other related stories. This quote came from Sippy’s talk during Ed Zink memorial service October 14, 2019, at the Fort Lewis Community Concert Hall.
6 From series of interviews with John Glover in 2018 and 2021.
7 Interview with Ned Overend, May 18, 2021.
8 Durango Herald, May 26, 2011.
9 Interview with Brian Zink, October 10, 2021.
10Interview with Tim Zink, May 24, 2021.
11Interview with Heath Garvey, February 12, 2021.
12Interview with Darian Harvey, February 19, 2021.