A Short History of the Off-Road Bike (Part 2)

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From the Beginning of the 20th Century to the 1960s

Due to the condition of the roads, the bicycle was in its beginning a vehicle for unpaved roads. With the rise of the automobile in the 20th century, the streets were increasingly tarmaced. The triumphant advance of the car and the asphalt roads, however, meant an ambivalent development for the bicycle: on the one hand there were more and more “good” roads, on the other hand, with the advent of motorised traffic, the marginalization of the bicycle began. Nevertheless, the bicycle established itself – mainly as a sporting device – on paved roads. And the technology had adapted to the new conditions: In the first half of the 20th century, the tyres became thinner again, the frames more delicate and thus the bicycle lighter. For use on rough ground, the state-of-the-art bicycles, especially the racing bikes, seemed less and less suitable. Thus, with the changing road surface and new imaginations for what and by whom the bicycle is supposed to be used, the bike evolved from a sturdy apparatus for unpaved roads to a filigree racing machine for tarmaced surfaces.

A classic Italian racing bike from the 1950s
Wikimedia Commons

Away from the thoroughfares, however, many fireroads and gravel tracks and of course hiking and footpaths remained. Under the changed conditions it seemed unusual to use the bike off the road. However, eccentric or adventurous people dared. In the 1950s, for example, the Rough Stuff Fellowship was founded in England. A cycling club, whose members undertook extensive expeditions into the mountains with their bicycles. A recently published book illustrates its history in an impressive manner and shows that even conventional everyday cycles or delicate racing machines can handle very demanding terrain. 

Members of the Rough Stuff Fellowship in the French Alps, 1961
Source: Rough Stuff Fellowship Archive
(Pictures courtesy of Max Leonard and Isolapress)

On one of their journeys the Fellowship even visited my hometown, Lucerne in Switzerland. Alas, as the caption reads, it was “still raining”.

“Still Raining Near Lucerne” on a tour through Switzerland and Italy, 1969
Source: Rough Stuff Fellowship Archive

Lucerne seems to have gained an unfavorable reputation amongst British cyclotourists as others have also lamented over the weather. Of course, there have been some British tourists with a little more luck than others, as the account of the Countess of Kent (aka Queen Victoria) suggests

Members of the RSF in the Bedretto Valley with the Gotthard Pass in the distance, 1969
Source: Rough Stuff Fellowship Archive

Back to the Rough Stuff Fellowship: As the pictures show, pushing and carrying the bike was also part of the adventure. Nevertheless, what is possible with the bike seems to be less an effect of the technical features, but depending on the social perception of the machines and their acknowledged field of application.

Glen Cairn, Spring Tour 1973
Source: Rough Stuff Fellowship Archive

But there were also individual people who experimented with bicycle technology to use the bike off-roads. For example, John Finley Scott, a later sociology professor from California, invented an off-road bike back in the 1950s that looked remarkably similar to the later mountain bikes. Twenty years later, Scott was one of the first investors in the emerging mountain bike industry

Finley Scott’s “Woodsy” Bike, 1953
Mountainbike Hall of Fame / Marin Museum of Bicycling
(Picture courtesy of Mountainbike Hall of Fame / Marin Museum of Bicycling)

At the same time, a French cycling club was racing on the motocross tracks around Paris. They used home-made bicycles fully equipped with shock absorbers and disc brakes. Technical innovations that became the standard in mountain bike technology only decades later.

Vélo Cross Club Parisien, 1950er Jahre

In the post-war period, however, the bike lost out to the car. If anything, the public perception of the bicycle was more on the racing machine or it was even only seen as a toy for children. This auto-centric context did not provide the ground on which the ideas from those early off-road innovators from France, England or the US could thrive. People who used the bicycle in everyday life were increasingly in the minority and they were marginalised. The completely neglected cycling infrastructure is only one of the most visible (and most sustainable) symptoms. Cycling off the paved roads was all the more just a matter for confident individualists.

(To be continued in part 3: From the 1970s to 2000 and the invention of the mountain bike)

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