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From the Vault: The Life & Times of John Tomac's Yeti C-26

During the golden age of 90s mountain biking, there was no one better than the great John Tomac. He effortlessly transitioned between disciplines, and for the 1990 world championships, he raced the cross-country and downhill events on this innovative carbon Yeti C-26.

From the Vault: The Life & Times of John Tomac's Yeti C-26

Written by:Zapata Espinoza

Published on:

Posted in:Bikes

“It all happened in typical Yeti style where we’d walk through a pile of shit and come out smelling like a rose!” - Chris Herting, Yeti Cycles designer, on the R&D effort for building the Yeti C-26. 

As the history books recount, Yeti Cycles was born and bred to make steel mountain bikes. Although it was an early-80s cruiser bike that acted as the brand’s original seed, it was only after John Parker purchased the company in 1985 that the brand’s raison d’etre would evolve from making bikes designed to pedal along sunny SoCal bike paths to racing in the rugged mountains of Colorado and winning a world championship title five years later.

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From the Beginning

Yeti was a small SoCal bike brand home to a motley collection of bike freaks, all with a penchant for chasing performance and going racing. Accordingly, the bike that first brought them the spotlight was the aptly named “For Racing Only” model with its signature one-piece rear triangle and turquoise blue team color. Week in, week out, the Yeti FRO would show up at the races ready for battle against a growing number of bigger-budgeted mountain bike brands. Slowly, but surely, Yeti Cycles began attracting attention thanks to the team’s competitiveness and the flamboyant ways of company founder John Parker. If ever there was a brand built on the “race on Sunday, sell on Monday” recipe, it was Yeti Cycles.

Yeti C-29 Easton C9 carbon tubes(Left) Herting's collection of Easton C9 tubes. (Right) A 1989 Preview of the C-26.

From 1986-1988 the Yeti shop stayed busy welding their rugged and heavy steel-tubed FRO frames. But in the early months of 1988, Yeti Cycles began working overtime to develop a radical new bike that no one really had any idea how to develop! Thanks to Parker’s budding relationship with executives at the giant Easton tubing company, Yeti was able to get in on the ground floor to use Easton’s newly developed C9 carbon-wrapped aluminum tubes. The only problem was that, in those days, there wasn’t much known about how to glue carbon frame tubes together, especially for a mountain bike, and no one at the Yeti factory was well-versed in or enthusiastic about joining tubes with glue.

Yeti C-26Thankfully, Parker was able to rely on frame designer Chris Herting to make the magic happen. Like Parker, Herting had spent all his years welding tubes, so constructing a lugged frame with bonded versus welded joints presented quite a technical challenge. But figure it out he did. Between designing his own scalloped lugs to choosing from a menu of Permabond epoxies to learning about the required baking times in the batch oven, Herting was able to design and build a frame that would knock upwards of half a pound off of what a steel FRO weighed. 

The C-26 was a radical departure for a brand famous for building heavy steel bikes. As Parker recalls, “We called the bike the C-26 because if you did the carbon dating on the bike, Chris was 26 years old when the bike came together, and it was a Chris Herting deal entirely.”  

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And Then Came Tomac

John Tomac's 7-Eleven Yeti C-26Tomac in his 7-Eleven Kit, riding the C-26 with an Accu-trax fork. Holding a Coors?

In the spring of 1990, mountain bike racing icon John Tomac was in Europe performing road duties as a rookie on the vaunted 7-Eleven team. Following Paris-Roubaix, Tomac’s 7-Eleven schedule opened enough for him to make a summer return to the mountain bike circuit where he was still among the sport’s most popular riders. However, given the mid-season timing, there were no team vacancies available, so it was left to a handshake deal with Yeti’s John Parker to make his planned comeback a reality. 

Knowing a history-making opportunity when he saw one, Parker promised race bikes, a mechanic, and perhaps most importantly, a box truck for Tomac to pit out of at the races. Although modern Sprinters and team trucks are a common sight at races today, in 1990 Yeti was the first to introduce the concept (as had been practiced for years by the motorcycle racing community) in mountain biking. 

Joh Tomac Yeti Fro Accu-traxAnd so aboard his steel Yeti FRO mounted with the Cinelli drop handlebars, a rigid Answer Accu-Trax fork, and booming Tioga tension disc rear wheel, Tomac went on to thrill the NORBA National crowds across America. Despite the fat sponsorship contract that Yeti had with Campagnolo, “The Tomes” never came to terms with the Italian-made parts so his bike remained outfitted with Shimano components. 

Although Yeti team rider Russell Worley had spent the season race testing a prototype C-26, it wasn’t until mid-summer when Herting finally assembled a carbon-tubed frame for Tomac to ride. 

The (In)Significant Bike 

John Tomac C-26 MammothUnlike the previous years when the NORBA Nationals wound down at the end of each season, there was a newfound level of excitement and anticipation in the thin mountain air of Mammoth Lakes, California when the NORBA tribe gathered for its final showdown in 1990. It was a race that no one had any history or previous experience with. Scheduled for the second weekend in September, it would come to be known as the “OG” of elite mountain bike racing.

For Mammoth, Yeti’s team camp (replete with tie-dyed t-shirts flagging in the wind like Tibetan prayer flags) could be found next to the main lodge – a spot as prestigious and valuable as the “Boardwalk” space on a Monopoly board! That the funky Yeti team was able to command such a highly coveted place in the pits was no doubt a pile driver of angst to the richer, big-brand teams. But what Yeti Cycles lacked in size and resources, they more than made up for with a “cool factor” that the mega brands could never possess. 

John Tomac graphic C-26That year, in addition to all the standard steel FRO race bikes on display, there was a new bike with the “John Tomac” signature decal from Imagine It Graphics applied on the top tube of its carbon fiber front triangle. While it was tested in Mountain Bike Action the previous year, this marked the first time that the prototype C-26 frame design made a public appearance. It showed up equipped with a similarly ground-breaking Manitou suspension fork. 

John Tomac C-26 MammothHowever, despite the bike’s historical and technological importance, curiously, no one really seemed to notice it! Clearly, this was an example of the pilot’s stature being more significant than the bike he was flying on. If there were any doubts about the bike’s structural integrity (lab tests be damned!), Tomac dismissed them by using his one-off bike in both the cross-country race and the Kamikaze downhill. 

Woodstock Comes to Mountain Biking 

John Tomac Yeti C-26 1990 World ChampionshipsCompeting self-titled “world championship” mountain bike races were held in America and Europe for years, but in 1990 the significance and staying power of off-road cycling was finally recognized by the UCI when it announced the first-ever officially sanctioned world championship event to take place in America. And not just anywhere in America, but in a remote, high-elevation town in Colorado. Indeed, it was owing to the efforts of legendary race promoter Ed Zink that the inaugural event would be held at the Purgatory ski resort located outside Zink’s hometown of Durango, Colorado. 

But it wasn’t just Zink’s charm and home address that brought the race to the Rocky Mountain hamlet. Over the years both Zink and the town had proven their race-promoting skills by promoting both the Iron Horse Classic road race as well as two years of NORBA National finals. Not that the road-focused UCI knew much about any of the off-road luminaries, but Durango was also home to two-time NORBA national champion Ned Overend who had also notched previous victories in both the American and European world championship races.  

John Tomac 1990 MTB world ChampionshipsAlready built to accommodate the annual onslaught of winter skiers, the Purgatory resort had also run a test race to further prove itself capable of hosting riders from all over the world. With its steep, vertical inclines, and rugged, tree-lined trails, both the cross-country and downhill courses would prove challenging enough. 

Heading into the weekend there was little doubt that Overend was the crowd favorite in the cross-country race with fellow Durango local Greg Herbold a strong bet in the downhill. But John Tomac was still John Tomac and race regulars knew better than to ever count him out. 

John Tomac Yeti C-26 DownhillTwo C-26 race bikes were built for Tomac, one for the cross-country race and one for the downhill. Yeti also rolled out another C-26 in Durango under their fiercely competitive rookie, Juli Furtado. The bike on display at TPC is the one “Johnny T” used to finish fourth in the Downhill. Although he led early on in the Cross-Country, he would finish 6th, a flat tire ultimately depriving Tomac of the rainbow jersey that many thought he was capable of winning.

Luckily for Yeti, Juli Furtado would suffer no such misfortune and she would ride her C-26 into the record books as the first UCI XC World Champion. In addition to her title, most race watchers would also reckon that after beating such talented and well-known competitors as Sara Ballantyne and Ruthie Matthes, Furtado’s win was also one of the biggest upsets ever seen.   

John Tomac 1990 World Championships

The C-26’s Future

For Yeti Cycles, the 1991 season would bring big changes. While Furtado remained on the team, it wasn’t long after the race in Purgatory that Tomac’s gamble of racing for Yeti at no fee provided him enough spotlight to gain a high-dollar contract with a bigger brand. And that’s exactly what happened when he was hired by Raleigh who were in dire need of some off-road cred to ignite their marketing efforts. Their Merlin-made Ti/Carbon frame was similar to the C-26, only with titanium replacing the steel tubes and lugs joining the carbon tubes. 

Yeti C-26 future in 1991More importantly, due to its complexity to manufacture, the plans for a production version of the highly touted Yeti C-26 were shelved in favor of a new bike that would ultimately come to define Yeti’s greatest racing success. The Yeti ARC marked the arrival of Easton’s all-new ProGram aluminum tubing, which was both lightweight and far easier to manufacture. 

Years later, Parker himself would recall, “The C-26 had a short life, but it was defined by great artistry and craftsmanship. I knew carbon wasn’t the right stuff for us. But with Chris and Frank the Welder in the shop, it was a great learning exercise for us. Really, as cool of a bike as the C-26 was, it just didn’t have a future with us.” 

When Wedding Bells Ring

The sport of mountain biking continued its explosive growth in popularity. I carried on as the editor of Mountain Bike Action Magazine, never without a flurry of new bikes to ride and races to attend. While the “high” of attending the world championships in Durango still lingered in my mind, my thoughts of the race and all the bikes and racers had dutifully been replaced with my need to plan for my upcoming May wedding.

Zap Yeti C-26 Wedding giftWith a strolling mariachi band to keep the guests company, it was a grand affair taking place on the grassy lawn of Soka University hidden away in the Santa Monica Mountains. Among our many friends attending who made their way up the long, tree-lined driveway, none made an entrance like John Parker, who rode up blipping the throttle on his vintage ’28 Indian Scout motorcycle to announce his arrival!  

A few weeks later Parker re-emerged at the MBA offices accompanied by the very C-26 that Tomac raced in the XC race in Durango. Surprise, surprise, my wedding gift had arrived! My bride Ronette wasn’t quite sure what to make of the carbon gift when I brought it home, and she was quick to announce that, as special as the bike may have been, it wasn’t going to reside anywhere near the other wedding gifts inside the house. 

Years later, Parker warmed my heart when he reassured me, “There was nobody in the world I wanted to have that bike more than you — it was meant for you. I’m sure Ronette might’ve been less than thrilled, but hopefully, she could appreciate that it meant more to you than another set of dinner plates!”

In The End

John Tomac's Yeti C-26Despite the bike’s celebrity, I only rode the C-26 once to attend a nearby Mt. Wilson Mountain Bike Association pancake breakfast. Other than a brief stint when Parker asked for the bike back to temporarily hang as a trophy in a friend’s pizza parlor in D-Town (when I regretfully replaced the original Tioga stem sticker with a self-promoting Mountain Bike Magazine sticker), one of the most famous mountain bikes of all time has spent the majority of its life collecting dust in an inglorious corner of my garage.

Thankfully, everyone can now see this historic bike up close in the TPC Museum. I’m sure the bike is happier too now that it’s found a proper home befitting its coveted place in mountain bike racing history.   

John Tomac Yeti C-26John Tomac Yeti C-26 drivetrainJohn Tomac Yeti C-26 Manitou fork

John Tomac Yeti C-26 drop handlebars

John Tomac Yeti C-26 tubes

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