An Afternoon with Black Mountain Cycles: Be Your Own Brand

For nearly two decades, Mike Varley of Black Mountain Cycles has been designing and selling functional steel bicycles fueled by a lifetime of working in the bike industry and an unshakable obsession with drop bars and big tires. We swung by his shop in Point Reyes Station, California, to get to know the Black Mountain story firsthand and take a closer look at a few of his bikes…

Back in 1985, Mike Varley purchased a brand new Salsa mountain bike. Whether he knew it then or not, the bright blue Salsa would play a key role in a blossoming obsession and future career. Around this time, he was wrenching at Pacific Coast Cycles in Carlsbad, California, and the owner, Chuck Hoefer, was into drop bars on mountain bikes. The shop sold Cunninghams, Ibis, and other NorCal brands experimenting with drop-bar mountain bikes, and Mike was into it.

In 1987, he and some friends toured over to Crested Butte, Colorado, for Fat Tire Bike Week, where Mike met “some tall dude” riding a Steve Potts bike with drops. It was a metallic dusty rose/pink color, and after a test ride, Mike’s appreciation for the control and comfort of running drop bars on a mountain bike soared to a new level. It was one of the most memorable bikes he had ridden to date, and it further influenced his infatuation with off-road drop bar bikes.

black mountain cycles 1989
  • black mountain cycles 1989
  • black mountain cycles 1989
Photos from Mike’s 1989 cross-country tour

Mike has spent a lifetime in the industry, and bikes have always been a big part of his life. He spent 13 years in product development at Haro and Masi. He mostly worked in frame design and specs and, at one point, was working on all of Haro’s BMX, road, mountain, and lifestyle bikes. All of this experience eventually led to the creation of his own brand. Black Mountain Cycles was established by Mike in 2007 in Point Reyes Station, California, just 40 miles north of San Francisco along the Pacific Coast following Hwy 1. It’s a modest shop with a corrugated metal exterior and a matching roof plastered with small patches of moss. Mike made the wooden sign above the main entrance by hand, and the weathered glass panel doors look more like the entrance to a quaint cafe than a bike shop, although Mike has no plans to become a barista any time soon.

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  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit

One of the first things Mike did during my visit was stop what he was doing and switch up the music. Over the next few hours, an eclectic mix of songs and artists played over the shop speakers while we chatted about all things drop bars and big tires. Mike surrounds himself with music whenever possible. He engineers, produces, and hosts two shows on his local radio station, KWMR. “When it’s off, it’s just too quiet,” Mike explained. The only extended time he’s not listening to music is when he’s riding his bike, as he finds it too distracting. He even bought one of the first Walkmans for running, thinking it could work for riding, but it didn’t.

Before Black Mountain Cycles was a bicycle brand, it was a full-service bike shop. Mike prides himself on offering a one-stop shop for everything his customers need. Whether you’re considering a new bike, having a routine repair, or simply fixing a flat, you’ll be talking to the same person. In 2010, Black Mountain Cycles released its first production bikes: the Monstercross and Road. It currently has three models within its lineup: La Cabra, Mod Zero, and Monstercross.

black mountain cycles visit

La Cabra, which Logan reviewed here, is a drop-bar mountain bike inspired by the Salsa that he converted to drop bars in 1988. It has room for up to 2.8″ tires, lots of mounting points, and can play nicely with some flat bars. Mod Zero was released in 2023 as a replacement for the MCD and Road+ and is more of a light-duty all-terrain monster-cross bike with 2.25″ tire clearance and a good selection of bosses. The Monstercross is a timeless gravel bike with rim brakes, clearance for 50mm tires, and horizontal dropouts.

If you’ve been following Black Mountain Cycles over the years, you might know it has developed something of a cult following. Mike has singlehandedly carved out his own little corner of the industry, and people trust what he’s putting out. His experience shows. When I asked Mike what he thinks he got right with Black Mountain Cycles, he replied, after a slight pause, “I haven’t gotten full of myself and then decided to put in a cafe or a coffee bar. You hear it so often with shops wanting an inclusive place for people to come hang out, but do you? Do you want people to come hang out? Or do you want people to come in and spend money? Sky Boyer, who ran Velo Cult, had a neat shop with tables and beer; people would just sit and drink beer. How many $5 pints do you need to sell before you can pay your employees?”

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  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit

The reality is the retail side of Black Mountain Cycles isn’t what pays the bills, and Mike wouldn’t be able to support himself doing that alone. Even on a busy weekend, he would maybe sell a tube or two, which is hardly worth it. Plus, bikes are so complicated now that doing on-the-spot repairs for people is nearly impossible. These days, replacing headset bearings can mean cutting hydraulic hoses and more expensive bills for the customer. “I love working on really nice high-end stuff, but it’s so proprietary and unique. Cables are sometimes clipped in place on the inside of the frame, making something like installing a dropper post a huge project. Quick repairs that should take 15 minutes end up taking a massive amount of time.”

Mike’s original intention was to have a bike brand. He was inspired by Gary and Jean Boulanger of Cycles Gaansari, a shop in Dayton, Ohio, who partnered with Mercian Cycles in the UK to manufacture ornate lugged steel bikes—partially influenced by Gary’s time with Rivendell Bicycle Works in the mid-1990s. Mike remembers being at a tradeshow and seeing very distinct boxes: are you a Trek shop? Are you a Specialized shop? Or are you Joe’s bike shop? What he took away from that is that you should be your own brand, so he decided he wanted to create a brand around a shop.

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  • black mountain cycles visit

Mike’s experience designing products in the bike industry gave him an in, and he was able to get frames made that he liked. I asked Mike how he’s developed such a following, and he said it’s been mostly organic. “I created a following without creating one.” Instead of expanding, he honed in on his focus. Mike contributes some of his early success around the country to Mark Stevenson (aka Guitar Ted), who bought one of the first Black Mountain frames. He was a big proponent of the big-tired 29″ scene, and in 2019, Mark published an article titled The Beginnings Of The Modern 29″er: A History, which you can read here.

When I suggested that experience has led to his knowledge about frame geometry and features of all genres, Mike replied, “In reality, it’s not all that complicated.” He mentioned how Bruce Gordon used to come by the shop and talk about how customers started asking for the trail number of a bike and that neither of them really knew or cared. “It’s going to have this head tube angle and this fork offset. Whatever the trail is, it is what it is. I don’t know what it is.” Mike is of the mind that the human body is adaptable, and although we might notice the difference in geometry for a few minutes, we’ll eventually get used to whatever the change is, and it’ll feel fine. A few millimeters or a half-degree here or there isn’t going to make a world of difference. Similarly, he’s not a fan of absolutes, like “that is the worst” or “this is the best.” If something works in a specific situation and for you, that’s great, but it doesn’t mean it will be the same story for someone else. “We’re not going to see Jan Heine ride a high-trail bike across Paris any time soon because whatever he does, low-trail works for him.”

black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit

Mike used the example of manufacturers claiming a 21 percent increase in vertical compliance and can’t help but laugh. “Well, if previous vertical compliance was 1mm, a 21 percent increase would result in 1.21mm of vertical compliance. It’s 21 percent, but it’s only 0.21mm, which is negligible when you consider a tire or any other moving parts. Perhaps more important than virtually unnoticeable vertical compliance is whether you can ride the bike, have fun, and keep your tires from blowing off.”

The far left side of the shop is dedicated to Mike’s impressive vintage collection. There were around two dozen bikes on display, all of which Mike owns, except for one stunning Cunningham he pointed out. It’s hard to ignore the collection’s similarities with the current Black Mountain Cycles lineup, which all fall into some kind of steel, big-tire, drop-bar category in one way or another. Mike purchased most of them new, but a few were found secondhand, including a frame purchased directly from Tom Ritchey.

Mikes’ 1984 Salsa Ala Carte “Scoboni”

When I asked Mike which bike I should photograph from his collection, he was quick to point out his bright blue Salsa Ala Carte—the same one he rode to Crested Butte in the ’80s. During that trip, he suggested riding over Pearl Pass near Aspen, so they did. “Riding drop bars off-road just feels right,” Mike explained. “Instead of pounding over terrain, you’re forced to pick your way through technical sections. It’s not a matter of drop bars being less capable off-road; it’s just a matter of riding differently.”

Mike’s Salsa is built up exactly how he had it back in 1988 when he converted it to drop bars. It still has the WTB drop bar and nifty WTB shifter adapters, as well as everything that makes bikes from that era so fun to look at, including a Hite-Rite, a shoulder pad, quirky cable routing, and more.

black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit

Black Mountain La Cabra

La Cabra was released to the public in 2021 and is heavily inspired by Mike’s Salsa. It’s a 4130 Chromoly steel drop-bar mountain bike, complete with boost hub spacing, clearance for 29 x 2.4″ or 27.5 x 2.8″ rubber, and an abundance of mounting points for racks and cages. It’s also the first model in the Black Mountain lineup that’s dropper-ready with internal cable routing, and a seat tube with a 30.9mm internal diameter. So, while Mike isn’t ready to ditch rim brakes just yet, he clearly respects certain modern advancements that can make riding off-road more enjoyable.

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  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
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I asked what was coming down the pipeline for Black Mountain Cycles in the next 10 years, and Mike replied with a chuckle, “Well, in 10 years, I’m going to be over 70, so I don’t know what that’s going to be like. In five years, I’ll be fine-tuning what I’m already doing. Not overextending.” Mike sees most brands turning away from simple technology, like the rim brake, as an opportunity. His rim-brake Monstercross is by far his best-selling model, and he has no plans to turn his back on those customers who appreciate the simplicity and serviceability of a simple rim brake bike. “When I’m out riding, I’m constantly thinking about coming up with a plan, or a new plan, or a different plan. Like, what if I only sold bikes that had rim brakes? I think you could do pretty well.”

Similar to his love for rim brakes, he mentioned the beauty of cup and cone-style hubs and their ability to live year after year with proper maintenance. It was, and is, a quick job for a mechanic, and it keeps bikes running for years. These days, with so many proprietary and expensive parts to keep bikes running, sometimes it’s a hassle to even track down parts, let alone install them. He compared our desire to replace and upgrade bikes to our obsession with getting a new phone and its inability to be repaired. Even if it’s just the battery that has died on your phone, it’s not even an option to replace it in most cases, and you have to buy a new one.

black mountain cycles visit

This mindset plays a huge role in how Black Mountain Cycles handles new bike releases, which doesn’t happen often. Mike explained he only releases a new model if it’s deemed worthy. The Mod Zero only exists because, at the height of the pandemic, the factories in Taiwan increased their minimum orders sixfold, and Mike couldn’t see a way forward. He couldn’t justify having both the MCD and Road+ in his lineup with these new order constraints, so he combined them. He brought in some new tech, like flat-mount brakes and an oversized head tube so people could run modern carbon forks—despite Mike insisting that his stock steel forks ride so much better than carbon, even with a slight weight penalty.

If the three models in the Black Mountain Cycles lineup continue to allow Mike to keep paying rent and putting food on his table, then that’s good enough for him. He has no plans to expand, “If you’re doing okay and everyone’s getting paid, what’s wrong with being stagnant?” Mike mentioned that there aren’t many brands in a similar size category as Black Mountain that have run so smoothly for so long. He’s happy there’s no shareholders or investment firm breathing down his neck. He has extra inventory, but it’s his, and he owns it.

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  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
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  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit

As I took a closer look at the latest “Fence Post Gray” Monstercross frame Mike was unboxing, he mentioned how part of growing organically also means not sending out press releases to anyone and how he likes the word to spread naturally. “It’s kind of my thing.” I can’t help but see Mike as sort of a retro-grouch, and I say that with admiration. He talked about how he eventually bought a digital camera to show his work more consistently, but he only just got his first real smartphone last year. His phone before that was a flip phone from his days at Haro. He bought a single 35mm lens for his camera, leans the bikes against his workbench, and stands in the same spot every time. If you’ve ever scrolled through the Black Mountain Cycles’ Instagram feed, you’ve likely noticed the consistency. He has a no-frills attitude and no time to fluff.

black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit
  • black mountain cycles visit

Final Thoughts and Playlist

Mike’s approach to running a business is refreshing and slightly unusual in an industry heavily based on hucking the latest and greatest, pushing press releases, and trying to make a splash at tradeshows. There’s not much fluff when it comes to Black Mountain Cycles, and as a consumer, there’s a lot of comfort knowing that you’ll be dealing with the designer, owner, and mechanic any time you chat with Mike. He took what he learned about being your own brand to heart. Black Mountain Cycles is clearly an extension of Mike’s values and beliefs, which ultimately stems from his love for the bicycle and the places it can take you.

Some of the songs that played during my visit:

  • “I Just Can’t Get Enough” by Depeche Mode
  • “Where the Streets Have No Name” by U2
  • “Super Freak” by Rick James
  • “Goodbye my love” by The Smiths
  • “Molly’s Lips” by Nirvana
  • “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” by Billy Bragg

Further Reading

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