There aren’t many modern bicycle brands that have a history quite as rich as Yeti, let alone a diehard cult following of collectors and fans for the early bikes. Coming into a steel F.R.O or Yeti Ultimate is usually enough to be considered a “Holy Grail” find for most. However, there is another bike in the early Yeti lineup that is so rare many will never see one in person and more modern followers of the brand may not know even exists. This is the story of an elusive Yeti Tree Frog…
The vintage mountain bike scene has been growing in popularity over the last decade; there’s no question. Collectors filling storage units of rare one-off bikes, folks building townies to use as pub crawlers, and the everyday enthusiast parting out old race bikes covered in CNC-anodized parts they found on Craigslist. It’s different for everyone due to their own journey in the niche hobby. For some, it’s the bike they saw in a magazine and dreamt of as a kid; for others, developing the vintage penchant only requires an interest in a specific brand. Regardless of how they arrived, it’s clear that the community of collectors and vintage-curious is continuing to grow. For most, bringing history along only deepens the passion for the hobby.
Yeti Cycles continues to be one of the most consistently iconic brands in the vintage realm. There are only a few modern bicycle brands that have continued to innovate while retaining such a rich history. And, almost certainly none with more of a cult collector’s following than Yeti. Coming into a steel F.R.O or Yeti Ultimate is usually enough to be considered a grail find for most. However, there is another bike in their early handmade steel lineup that is so rare that many will never see one in person, and more modern followers of the brand may not know even exists.
Let’s take a trip back to the 1980s. Back then, John Parker was a Hollywood special effects welder and would often cruise around southern California on his flathead Indian motorcycle. During a recent conversation, Parker said, “I sold the motorcycle, took what skills I had, and started the company. I bought the tooling and inventory from Bicycle Bob at Sweetheart Cycles and changed the name of the brand to Yeti.” The name came from a by-then-defunct handmade down sleeping bag company originally based in Topanga Canyon. Frank (The Welder) Wadelton and Chris Herting were Parker’s first two employees and, by ’87, there was a factory race team of about seven team riders based out of the Agoura Hills shop.
Only a few short years into Yeti Cycles’ time as a bicycle company, the Tree Frog prototype appeared in the November 1988 issue of Mountain Bike Action magazine. It was the brand’s first and only trials bike, a project Frank The Welder took on. As Parker tells it, “Frank was big into motocross and trials. The Tree Frog was Frank’s passion project, 100%. I want history to record that. We were doing some off-the-wall projects around that time. These were projects to exercise trying new things; good challenges as a company.”
The Tree Frog is elusive. Only a handful can be found online, and it requires serious web sleuthing to find anything more than a few sentences. It is a bike that has even managed to evade the Bike History page on yeticycles.com. Most Yeti employees and team riders of this era seem to agree that no more than a dozen frames were ever made; however, the actual number is truly unknown. Team riders had the bulk of the Tree Frogs made in their hands, while employees acquired several, and only a few went to paying customers (including two that shipped out to Europe). A short description touted the new frame as “a made-to-order custom bike. Bikes with seats are available on request.”
Frank Wadelton built the first prototype in the winter of ‘87/’88 with a double clamp fork made from early Yeti top tube stock, a seatpost, but no seat, and a tubular loop in its place. In April of 1989, the second version was shown and became the Tree Frog. It was serial number YT-2 and Frank’s personal bike. Parker recalled, “These bikes were bombproof. Straight gauge Patco aircraft tubing, 4130 chromoly. Never broke one. It had more tests done on it than any material on earth.”
I had seen fellow vintage mountain bike collector and restorer Martin Kozaczek (Second Spin Cycles) share several Tree Frogs he’d come into online and went on to restore. I simply made a mental note that they exist, are insanely rare, and are super cool. Not long after, I came across a post on Instagram that had several detailed photos of a Tree Frog, posted by my friend and industry legend James Bleakley of Black Sheep Bikes in Fort Collins, Colorado. I visit James regularly to talk bikes, shoot photos for him, and share singlespeed stories over a shop espresso. I was itching to hear about the bike, and we talked about it several times before he dug it out of his shed and brought it in for me to see it. When I showed up next time, I walked in to find James fixing a few broken spoke nipples, installing a new tube, adjusting the brakes, and crafting a new dropout tensioner plate out of titanium headtube stock.
While tuning the bike in preparation for me to photograph it, James told me how hard he used to ride this bike. “We’d always be on campus at CSU [Colorado State University], hucking off everything. And nose pogos. I think the most consecutive nose pogos I did were 83 in a row. That was also the day I broke the front end off this Tree Frog.”
Being a welder at a bicycle company, this is an easy fix for James. Primer was added to keep the raw steel from rusting. As time went on, James’ kids were getting older and wanted their turn to learn trials riding. He pulled it down from the rafters and rolled it back into the shop for a few more modifications. “U-brakes just recalled terribly, and V-brakes were the next best attempt at lever modulation and power,” James said. So, he cut off the cantilever mounts on the rear and bypassed the U-brake front mount.
This specific Tree Frog came into James’ possession around 1993 and, at the time, included the original frame, fork, Bullseye shorty crankset and hubs, XT headset, ControlTech stem, wheels, and Pirelli moped tires. “Of the estimated dozen bikes that are believed to exist, I’ve been told only three or four had a wider rear tire, this bike being one of them. It’s a 2.5″ Pirelli tire on a 19″ rim for an effective 20″ wheel, including a welded-in spacer in the gusset at the chainstays to accommodate the wider tire. Furthermore, it’s a team bike—one of Clint Knapp’s personal bikes,” Parker shared. “Knapp had never been away from home. He was green, talented, and such a nice young man.”
There were only two team riders during the lifespan of Yeti trials, there was an initial team rider, followed by Knapp. “NORBA started growing up around ’89/’90 and Mammoth was becoming a thing. Clint and Aaron were talented and great ambassadors while we were fighting alongside big brands like Specialized. We had to wake up earlier, work harder, and make a dollar stretch way further,” Parker went on. “The only way trials would work at events was if the promoter was willing to do something, like bring logs, pipes, and rocks down by the finish area. [Then] the event would flourish; rather than [having it] half a mile up the hill, it just wasn’t going to have attendance.”
When removing the bash guard to read the serial number stamped on the bottom bracket, I found “CLINT GO BOINK.” I asked John Parker to tell me the story about the serial number. He said, “Have you heard of the band called the Surf Punks? Drew Steele was in it. His guitar was half skateboard, half guitar, and he would ride it around on stage. He had blonde dreadlocks down to his elbows and was a buddy from the days I was hanging at the beach surfing. He was always full of energy.”
Drew asked for a job at Yeti, and Parker only had a spot in shipping and packing up bikes. “Every time a Billy Idol song came on, Drew would jump up on his workbench, wrap his t-shirt over his knees, and start dancing around,” Parker recalled fondly. “He would draw cartoons and comics on the boxes he was packing, and one of his expressions was GO BOINK. That’s how it ended up on the team’s bottom brackets as serial numbers.”
Parker went on to explain the story behind the name of the bike. “There was a welder I worked with back in the special effects department nicknamed “Tree Frog. He was one of those wild and unhinged guys. And at Yeti, we could never come up with cool names for bikes. It was a struggle to find a name for the trials bike, so I threw out Tree Frog because of that guy, and everyone said, ‘That’ll work!’”
A few original notable specs about this Tree Frog include:
- S/N: CLINT GO BOINK
- 100 mm front/130 mm rear hub spacing (115 mm and 135 mm rear also exist).
- Double wishbone reinforcement gusset
- Front U-brake/rear cantilever brake originally
- Ovalized top tube, round down tube with 1 water bottle braze ons
- 1 1/4” headtube
- 26.8 mm Seatpost
- Parallel 68-degree head/seat tube
- 39” wheelbase
- 12” bottom bracket
- 150 mm bullseye cranks
- Front wheel: 36-hole Bullseye front hub on Araya 20” rim with Pirelli ML14 2” tire
- Rear wheel: 36-hole Bullseye hub with an ML14 2.5” Pirelli tire on an unknown 19” rim for an effective 20” wheel
- Alloy skidplate
Pricing was $700 frame-only and $1,500 complete. A few Tree Frogs were made as a production run for the consumer level, but most were all team bikes kept in-house. Usually, these bikes would have had a yellow steel stem and custom riser bars made by Frank.
As a curious member of mountain bike history, laying hands on this Tree Frog has been a real treat. Learning firsthand how original art on cardboard boxes ended up as serial numbers, how a passion project went on to become a unique part of Yeti history, and spending time with James learning about how he went on to use this bike over the years will permanently be a highlight for me. John Parker put it this way, “I remain in awe that 30 years later people cherish bikes like these. We had amazing riders and a great group of employees, having a ton of fun and in a sphere at the right time.” Long live the Yeti Tree Frog.