Exploring the Real History of Mountain Biking
Mountain bikes may be everywhere right now, but they are still a young form of transport. In fact, it’s only since the 1970s that the history of mountain biking began. By then, the first mountain bike, and all mountain bikes for that matter were anything more than badly modified street bikes. And every time you saddle up, it’s worth remembering that the features we love on our bikes now were nothing but the stuff of impossible dreams right back at the start.
We’ve grabbed some mountain biking facts that should prove intriguing. After reading this, you will know everything (almost) there is to know about mountain biking. Well, and before anything else, if you’re now all ready to take on the road, make sure you have the right mountain bike for a beginner, the right MTB gear and shoes and also (more than anything) a great mountain bike helmet. Let’s ride.
The (real) beginning of the history of mountain biking
To get to the start of things with purpose-built bikes, you need to go back to the early 1970s, to California. There’s a place called Mount Tamalpais (‘Mount Tam’ to locals, and anyone who knows anything about the region) that was home to some seriously hardcore bike riders.
These guys took old bikes, standard ‘paperboy’ bikes made in the first half of the twentieth century, and turn them into mean, lean racing machines. This is when the history of mountain biking really began.
And then, rather than do the sensible thing and race them at a tarmac track, they threw them onto Mount Tam. They then raced down in the dirt, for a total of 52 turns on a downhill slope that was nothing short of challenging.
The strain on your body would have been immense. Just imagine riding a Penny Farthing around a junkyard and you’re a little closer to what it must have felt like. Undeterred, the races became popular. More and more bikers got involved. Mountain biking history was about to begin. For real.
They took it to the races with precious little regard for their own safety (most of the riders wore denim because that was the toughest stuff you could wear back then – there was no such thing as proper mountain biking clothing). The riders hurtled down Mount Tam, setting records and generally breaking the frames of bikes that used to deliver the morning papers to suburbia. Was it tough? You bet.
Today, we’ve got bikes that cost thousands, and are better designed than most cars. We’ve got it made. Back then, you were on top of a rattling piece of metal (they were known as ‘clunkers’ to the riders) and your only goal was to survive the race (the secondary goal was, presumably, to win).
Early Mountain Bike Riders:
An early rider called Charlie Kelly, in love with riding clunkers down the track decided to start a race event on Mount Tam. He kept the whole thing reasonably quiet at first (for some reason the authorities didn’t take to the frankly quite dangerous event) but eventually named the race the ‘Repack’ and started to advertise it.
It was called the Repack because of the need to ‘repack’ the hub brake of your bike by the time you’d finished. It was common for the racers that the brakes would simply burn as you made your way down Mount Tam, with a trail of smoke behind every rider.
Prior to the first Repack race, MTB bikes had never been anything more than a hobby. People had tried to modify bikes for years of course, and some had attempted the dangerous task of getting down dirt tracks on them. But the racing aspect (which is the true spirit of the sport) was born with Kelly on Mount Tam. The Repack races ran from 1976 to 1984.
This was the kind of event that was really not made for mountain bike beginners. It’s important to remember this distinction. Prior to Repack and the growth of it all (both competitive and hobby-based) people were creating basic berg climbing bikes (whatever that could be).
The key events of the early 70s in California gave the hobby an opportunity to grow into a competitive, recognized sport that eventually made its way to the Olympic Games.
The first mountain bike
If we’re not counting the improvised stuff around before the 1970s, Mount Tam is where we need to go to find the first ‘real’ MTB. Charlie Kelly stumbled on something that would prove to be incredibly influential, and he was starting to become a little frustrated.
He and his friends loved heading down the hill on those old paperboy bikes, but the damage that the bikes endured was just too much, and he would find that the bikes were ruined after just a few rides.
The clunkers couldn’t cope, and aside from the smoke that would come from the burning grease, he found that the frames were just shot to pieces due to the terrain being a little rockier than what they were used to.
So he contacted a friend. He asked someone called Joe Breeze to design him a bike that could manage the job of helping racers set records. Joe Breeze took on the challenge and designed what became the very first mountain bike.
In 1977 he created that first frame, which was designed on top of a Schwinn bike from 1941. The history of mountain biking would never be the same again.
He ended up creating 9 more frames, all of them inspired by the Schwinn bike. To make it tougher, lighter, and capable of managing Mount Tam, he used steel alloy tubing. Then he did the one thing that helped to solidify the whole legend.
He looked at the frame, and ran twin lateral tubes across it, but diagonally. This was, of course, an attempt to make a bike that could stand the intense impact of a tough downhill and aggressive course. But, it also served as a way to brand the bike visually.
To finish off the first ever purposefully designed one, Breeze added some modifications and new parts that made the new bicycle special visually, as well as performance-wise.
The ‘Breezer’ bike was then put to the test on the Mount Tam course. Mountain biking history as a sports specialty was just about to begin.
Repack and that first mountain bike
That first mountain bike, the Breezer number 1, won the Repack race. Breeze rode it to the win. And that totally changed the history of MTB, for real.
This showed that his design was sound because it was noticeably tougher and more responsive on the track. Kelly rode Breezer number 2 and that model is currently one of the most prized in the history of bikes.
In fact, it’s on display at the Marin Museum of Bicycling, in Fairfax, California. And that first one, the one that Breeze rode? That’s at the Smithsonian Museum.
What made the whole clunker thing really take off was a TV show that aired in the late 70s. The show Evening Magazine featured the Repack race, and it also showcased some of the famous figures of the time, including Breeze and Kelly.
The show included footage of one rider falling on a switchback. (Check out a visual history of mountain biking timeline right here). The tight turn caused no damage other than scratches to the frame of the bike, but it’s arguable that the show, and that footage, crystallized the image of the whole sport being dangerous and incredibly good fun.
These wheel machines were very simple, and nothing like the bikes used nowadays. On top of that, the riders in races like the Repack wore their normal clothes.
Denim and plaid were the closest things to safety wear. And no one wore helmets or headgear of any kind other than the odd baseball cap.
Mountain Biking History: From Europe and to the USA
While Breeze and Kelly created the first purpose-built bikes, the first ever off-road bikes (perhaps the first true bicycles made to be ridden over on wild terrains) have their origins in the eighteenth century.
The Swiss Army Bikes, which were literally bikes to be used by soldiers in mountainous areas, were the very first recorded examples of hill climbing bikes. They were meant to carry heavy loads as soldiers traversed hills and peaks, their rides giving them the edge over foot soldiers.
Of course, these are not used today, but they’re as far back as the whole thing goes in the sense of cycles used for off-road pursuits. The first regiment that used a Swiss Army Bike was in service in 1891.
Then the famous Buffalo Soldiers of the US Army were the next to see the use of a bicycle similar in nature and purpose. The regiment rode from Missoula, Montana to Yellowstone in 1896.
These were modified, just like the Swiss bikes, for use off the beaten track. As the world entered the 1900s, Cyclocross riders would take their bikes off-road.
Cyclocross hasn’t gone away and is still an immensely popular sport today. But back then the bikes were a lot heavier, and when riders had to pick them up and carry them across harsh terrain, it was a major physical challenge.
The first Cyclocross championships happened in 1950, and this spurred on Cyclocross enthusiasts to create a sport that would have clear links to the modern sport. And it would only be about 20 more years before Breeze and Kelly kick-started the more recent phenomenon of biking as a racing pursuit.
Specialized Mountain Biking History
The next big thing to happen in this amazing sports history timeline is the ascent of Specialized. This company was founded by a bike enthusiast who spent some time to import bike components that he couldn’t locate in the US.
Things changed later in the 70s when Specialized focused on different areas. This meant the creation of its own bike parts.
The main reason why Specialized has a place in history is of course due to its production of mountain bicycles. It was the first company anywhere in the world to mass produce bikes made to be ridden on mountains.
This happened in 1981, just a few years after the Repack phenomenon exploded. The Stumpjumper is a major off-roader. While it may have been created first back in 1981, and while it may not be in the same league of some of the top bikes out there today, it is still very special.
Every kid or adult who buys a factory one today is buying something that was made possible thanks to the production of The Stumpjumper.
Mike Sinyard founded Specialized, and he at one point did state that he wanted to make a production bike, but that it had to feel like it ‘was a custom bike’. Perhaps the best thing about The Stumpjumper (1981 edition) was the gears, a 15 speed Suntour set.
Any biker who remembered the Repack races would know that to go from a ‘coaster’ downhill bike to a production 15-speed model was a major feat. It was the testament to how MTBs had progressed.
Stumpjumper: Ahead of its time
Amazingly, for such an important and groundbreaking machine, it had no suspension. Perhaps this can be put down to the learning curve manufacturers would find themselves on in the years to come, but it was certainly an interesting omission.
The reaction to The Stumpjumper was originally perhaps a little less than ecstatic. Too many retailers it looked like a BMX bike, and nothing more. But Sinyard arranged for 500 to be shipped to the US from the factory in Japan in 1981.
The price (considering it’s relatively specialist nature) is reasonable. If you wanted the bike in its entirety, you had to pay $750. For just the frame, you would cough up $395. In 2018, that $750 is worth around $2000.
The first 125 of the Stumpjumpers sold out in just six days. Things have changed, and the Stumpjumper is still available today, but in a vastly different from, for obvious reasons.
The bike has its place in the story due to it being the first mass production MTB. While it may not be the best bike in the world, it’s legendary status is assured.
From Japan: Kuwahara
You can’t have an MTB history book without mentioning Kuwahara. The legendary Japanese company was founded in 1918, and after some hard work by the founder (Sentaro Kuwahara) and his family (he allowed his children to take part in the business), Kuwahara began to make a name for itself.
The Kuwahara brand became well known in the early 70s when it first started exporting BMX bikes to North America. Then E.T. happened.
The Spielberg movie happens to feature BMX bikes in it, and they were Kuwahara bikes. For much of the world, and especially Europe, this was the first time that BMX bikes had been seen, let alone ridden in such an exciting manner.
This made Kuwahara a household name, and as a homage to the movie, a special ‘E.T. Edition’ of their BMX bike was recently made available. E.T. was important, simply because top BMX riders of the day did the stunts for the movie.
Later on, Kuwahara branched out into mountain bikes, and things really took off there, because the brand managed to have its bikes feature heavily in some major championship events. Finally, in 1991, the Kuwahara team won its first UCI MTB Series in Switzerland.
Kuwahara’ history is a big part of the whole sport’s history and overall. The push behind its teams and its place in popular culture have made sure of it.
Most people now know MTB has a competitive culture. The first real competitions that had any kind of international feel to them started popping up in the 1990s and 2000s. The first UCI Bike World Championships took place in Colorado in 1990.
Just as they do today, winners were allowed to wear the famous rainbow-colored jersey. Cross-country, downhill, and four-cross (where four riders literally race downhill to the finish) are the events involved.
A cross-country team relay was added to the World Championships in 1999, addressing the growing popularity of the discipline.
Perhaps one of the most exciting international events in the world is the Red Bull Rampage. That classic event has had some flak in recent years due to the danger the races pose to competitors.
However, this hasn’t stopped it from becoming world famous. One of the most intriguing aspects of the event is the fact it is invitation-only. Held in Utah, the race first ran from 2001-2004.
It was then canceled due to the danger involved. It returned in 2008, and a venue change helped to bring the contest back to international attention.
Perhaps the most attractive feature is the prize money. Along with the invitation-only kudos, winners can expect an impressive prize. In 2015, there was an incredibly generous prize fund of $100,000.
Some key facts about mountain biking
We all love the sport, and there’s a ton of factual information out there that makes our practice even more fun. Knowing this stuff will give you a fuller appreciation of the genius behind the whole machines and industry and the way they are today.
Right now, MTB has a number of categories that make it a complex sport and pursuit. These categories are not exhaustive (there are bound to be more obscure activities out there) but just looking at the list shows how it has changed from what it was in the 70s:
- Trial biking
- Dirt jumping
These classes (and the sets of these classes) served to make the sport even more exciting. The first-ever national championships were held in the USA.
This wasn’t until 1983, with the competition giving the sport some much-needed stability and respect. A few years later there was more respect and recognition with the first International Cycling Union World Championships.
Extreme Mountain Biking:
If you’re looking for the extreme stuff, then you might want to grab your oxygen supply tanks for ‘The Yak Attack’. This is currently the highest bike race on the planet and if you want to take part, you have to travel to Nepal.
There’s one slight issue that you may want to be aware of if you’re thinking of trying the race. It’s a long race, with riders having to travel a total of 400 km.
While those guys in California in the 70s were trailblazers, the bikes they rode were still modified cruisers (apart from those that Breeze created of course). This meant that those riders who rode up Mount Tam (rather than catch a truck that took them to the start) were incredibly fit.
The climb was excruciating because the modified bikes were never meant to go uphill.
Bike racing is now a massive sport and has Olympic events, but the biggest race is still by far one that is held in Norway. This race is actually 53 miles long, but the really amazing fact about it is that it can attract up to 15,000 entrants.
The Birkebeinerrittet is one of the most popular events in sport, and the definite king, size-wise. As regards the longest race, you’re looking at the great Tour Divide race.
This one is an absolute classic and a real part of the history of mountain biking. In total, riders manage to travel over 2,700 miles. It’s a true long-distance race and one that runs from Canada all the way to Mexico.
One rather intriguing fact (and possibly one that will surprise many) is that there are many senior (in age) competitors. There have been examples of bikers winning major championships well into their 70s and 80s.
Mountain Biking in 2018 and beyond
To say the sports changed since the late 70s and the Repack days would be an understatement. The newer machines have systems on them that would put most cars to shame, in their ingenuity at least.
Creating a bike that is both light and incredibly tough, as well as stable and fast enough to compete is no small feat, and modern designers have taken their work to new levels of innovation.
Frames are lighter than ever while remaining tough and durable. Suspension (unless you’re the kind of rider who doesn’t want suspension) is responsive and quick. And the speeds the bikes can reach are phenomenal.
There are not that many places to go in design, other than faster and lighter. Perhaps the most important thing to remember about modern MTB’s is that there are many styles now. Designs have now developed so that they even fit certain disciplines.
So you can have bikes that are perfect for cross country, as well as bikes that are crafted for downhill and freeride events. And you can also buy a bike that is made specifically for stunts.
That’s stunts for MTB’s, not BMX bikes, in case you were wondering. They’re different things.
Downhill mountain bike history is another thing, long and complex, and there are incredibly expensive bikes made just for that style. We can only see the whole MTB becoming more popular.
With competitions held by brands like Red Bull, and technology moving at great speed, expect it to become even more important. Get your own bike and having your own saying in being a part of the history of mountain biking.