Photos by John Watson | The Radavist
If there was one defining phrase, one singular utterance that sums up this bike and really the entire try and fail attitude of the early ‘90s sketchy mountain bike technology explosion, it would have to be when Chris Herting told me, “we could have killed him.” The him being referenced was none other than John Tomac, Eli’s Dad, or less importantly, mountain biking’s first million dollar man (at the time), and likely our sports greatest living hero. The bike Tomac raced at the 1990 Worlds in Purgatory had not graduated the prototype phase.
Thirty-year hindsight tells us it shouldn’t even have been ridden to the corner store for zigzag papers. Herting knew it was unsafe yet everyone was full send on race day, because well, that was mountain bike racing in the early ‘90s. Put finely tuned, high-level athletes on dangerous and untested equipment and see where the fail tolerances are. Only the fail tolerances for the Yeti C-26 were still back on the assembly table.
Mountain Bike Action wrote this about the prototype Yeti C-26 in June, 1989:
“The [Yeti and Easton Composites] union is one that not only represents the interests of both parties involved, but also every mountain bike enthusiast around the world who is yearning for what could possibly be one of the greatest performing mountain bikes ever made.”
I’ll talk more about “perfect unions” later, but I laugh every time I read this because Yeti and Easton didn’t split the atom here. “Alucarb,” or, carbon-wrapped aluminum sleeves, were the brainchild of Chuck Texiera of Easton Sports, who used versions of it in every tennis racquet or hockey stick they made. Texiera said, “we could make a bike out of this stuff,” and they did, licensing the technology to Raleigh who used it for their 1988 “Vision” line.
Over at Yeti Cycles, boss John Parker made no apologies about the weight of his bikes as he designed them to be “bombproof,” but partner Chris Herting saw no reason the Yeti race team should be forced to compete against riders on bikes three to five pounds lighter. After the 1988 race season, Herting realized parts could be drilled out only so much before risk of failure was too great, and he began seeking alternate ways to lighten the Yeti “For Racing Only” team frame. Once Teixeira suggested the carbon frames could be easier to manufacture, Parker gave Herting the green light to produce a prototype.
They called it the Yeti C-26 as for Chris’s initial and his age at the time. The design was complicated, but not revolutionary: The Easton “Alucarb” tubes would be mated to hand-machined steel lugs using a special 3M compound (Permabond 310), which would then be then cured in an oven. The classic steel BMX-style one-piece Yeti rear end would then be welded to the newly-formed, ultra lightweight front triangle. The total weight savings = exactly one half pound!
At some point in the process, early on, Herting was full stop on this project. The lug tolerances given to him from Easton (rumored to have been written on a Post-It) were what they were using in their million dollar production facility. Herting was doing this by hand on a lathe and it took three weeks to make the first bike. Tubes would slide over the lugs and the glue would be pressed out. After a few minutes, the compound would begin to harden, making minor adjustments impossible. Mating the later joints would break the bonds set earlier, and so on. Twenty years later, Herting considers building the first prototype one of the most challenging times in his career. However, MBA blew it up in their magazine calling it, “the future of mountain bikes,” so Parker and the Yeti marketing machine took it and ran. Yeti produced approximately eight C-26s for the factory racers, and the team rode them throughout 1990. And then they started to break.
I want to revisit the term perfect union, because it accurately describes Juli Furtado and Yeti Cycles in 1989. Furtado’s career has been well-documented, so I won’t go into depth, but I highly recommend her episode of Payson Mcelveen’s The Adventure Stache podcast. In summary, Furtado won 1989 Elite road nationals on a borrowed bike wearing a t-shirt and Parker signed her to a handshake deal. They were perfect for each other: the “Bad News Bears” of bike racing. Did she know how to ride a mountain bike? No, but she barely knew how to ride a road bike and she was already a national champion, so what could go wrong?
Speaking of things going wrong, Campagnolo had made a mountain bike groupset, and they needed someone to race on it. Klein was on board as well as Fat Chance, and so was Parker. I don’t know the dollar amount agreed upon, but most people involved agree it was a lot. And objectively we can all agree that stuff did not work. So throughout 1990, Juli Furtado rode on a custom made Yeti FRO with full Campagnolo Euclid. I’ve owned and ridden this bike by the way, and it’s amazing. Minus the Campy, which absolutely did not work. Juli’s results were good enough to identify her as a potential podium threat, so in September 1990, Juli was given a Yeti C-26 with full Campagnolo for the race.
Let’s recap: We have a bike racer who could barely ride mountain bikes, aboard a bike glued together with hopes and dreams, relying on a parts group that wouldn’t shift or brake. Really, what could go wrong? I’ve heard four different versions of this story firsthand from four people directly involved, but things did go wrong. The facts are this: The day before the race, Juli’s front derailleur would not shift up or down. Parker grabbed a full XT group from the Shimano guys and had every part swapped. Juli won the race on Shimano despite Yeti being a Campy-sponsored team. Parker was hailed as a hero, dollars rolled in, and Juli went on to become the most successful World Cup female XC racer of all time.
The Campy reps were fired and careers in the bike industry were ruined. The reasons behind the now-infamous parts swap range from it being a devious premeditated move to rid themselves of inferior equipment, to a desperate action as a result of a miscommunication regarding product specs (Campy’s front derailleur was not compatible with the 73mm bottom bracket shells the C-26’s used). Regardless, The C-26 was a world championship winning bike, and Parker thanked God the entire way home to California that it didn’t break during the race.
The C-26 never made it into production. Herting found his weight savings with the aluminum Yeti ARC, and the carbon bikes were mothballed. Fifty C-26 tubesets Yeti had requested from Easton were boxed and stored, eventually making their way to Durango, CO with the rest of the Yeti crew.
In February 1999, Schwinn closed the Yeti plant in Durango and the great dumpster dive of the past 30 years began. I’ve heard a set was made into a ladder for a bunkbed. In 2008, I was able to get my hands on a set of these tossed tubes and had Herting build a C-26 for me, which kicked off a spree of replica C-26s being made. These range from actual bikes built by Herting from original tubes, “pirate” bikes riveted together, or regular FRO’s with “carbon” decals to simulate a C-26. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
In 2002, strapped for cash, Parker sold Juli’s race-winning C-26 on eBay. Even then, the nascent online auction site netted Parker nearly $10k for the bike, and it went to live in a German basement for 25 years. During that time, the vintage mountain bike community grew like wildfire, and the stories and lore of the Yeti C-26 spread. What ever happened to Juli’s C-26?
In 2017, the collector who had purchased it off eBay surfaced and contacted Nick Martin of the Pro’s Closet who had amassed a small but mighty collection on display in their Boulder, Colorado headquarters. The terms of the sale were simple: Nick needed to find a 1957 Chevy Nomad and have it ready to drive cross country when the seller arrived at the Denver airport with the C-26 in hand. He absolutely would not ship it. Incredibly, Nick pulled off the multi-faceted sale, and this iconic piece of MTB history now lives in the Pro’s Closet museum.
S/N: STUD MUFIN (misspelled, hilarious)
Frame: Easton C-9 Carbon-wrapped alloy tubes bonded to steel lugs with custom bent one-piece steel rear triangle
Fork: Doug Bradbury Manitou
Stem: Custom Steel
Headset: Campagnogo Euclid
Bottom Bracket: Shimano Deore XT
Handlebar: Answer Hyperlite
Brake Levers: Shimano Deore XT M092 with Integrated Shifters cut off
Shifters: Shimano Deore XT M732 Thumbshifters
Front Derailleur: Shimano Deore XT M735
Rear Derailleur: Shimano Deore XT M735
Front Brake: Shimano Deore XT M732
Rear Brake: Shimano Deore XT M732
Crankset: Shimano Deore XT M730
Chainrings: Shimano SG
Hubs: Shimano Deore XT M730/732
Rims: Specialized BX
Tires: Specialized Ground Control More Extreme [rear] Specialized Ground Control [front]
Seatpost: Shimano Deore XT M730
Seatpost Clamp: Custom Yeti with Shimano Deore XT QR Lever
Saddle: Selle Italia Ladies' Turbo
Grips: ODI Mushroom
Cogs: Shimano Deore XT M730
Chain: Shimano Deore XT