A Short History of the Off-Road Bike (Part 3)

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From the 1970s to 2000 and the Invention of the Mountain Bike

When the road racing machine was the bike of the time, the modern mountain bike emerged and it is now probably the most prominent type of bicycle built specifically for riding off-road. The well-established story tells that mountain bikes were invented by hippies in California in the late 1970s.

Five proud owners of Schwinn Excelsior “Clunkers”, 1976
Charlie Kelly’s Homepage
(This and the following pictures courtesy of Charlie Kelly)

But the various cliques from the valleys around Mount Tamalpais were not the only ones who took their bikes to the mountains. In the 1970s, people from California to Colorado experimented with off-road bicycles independently. A initial and fruitful interaction between different groups occurred in 1974 during a cyclocross race. However the later mountain bikes did not technically evolve from the cyclocross bikes but from old “Balloon Tire Bicycles” from the 1930s. Youngsters at different locations concluded that these old “Clunkers” were particularly well suited for off-road use due to wide tyres, a sturdy frame, a long wheelbase and a high bottom bracket.

From a Schwinn “Clunker” to the first purpose built mountain bike, the “Breezer” by Joe Breeze, 1979
Source: Charlie Kelly’s Homepage

Not only the cyclocross race of 1974 stimulated imitations and adaptations, also personal connections between different groups in Marin County let the knowledge about successful experiments circulate. In one particular group, various innovations and social milieus came together which proved to be crucial for the emergence of the modern mountain bike. Dedicated and enterprising members of this group have received worldwide recognition for the invention and popularization of the mountain bike: Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly or Tom Ritchey have inscribed their names into the global world of mountain biking. For some years now, the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame has also drawn attention to previously lesser-known pioneers and honours them for their contribution to the development of the modern mountain bike.

Pioneers of the modern mountain bike, 1977
Source: Charlie Kelly’s Homepage

These innovators from Marin County were part of the counterculture of the Flower Power era. This allowed the mountain bike to develop and flourish in a niche, undisturbed from control mechanisms of the wider social context. Coincidentally awareness for environmental protection also circulated in the Californian counterculture. According to both Joe Breeze and Charlie Kelly, the fun of riding fast downhill was a prime mover and the Repack races were the magnet that attracted the group on a regular basis. Nevertheless, both reassured that ecological concerns were among the reasons why individual members became cyclists. Joe Breeze describes the gravitas of the bicycle as a utilitarian vehicle as well as an interest in personal and environmental health as the glue that held the group together. As he puts it, Marin County had long had a strong environmental awareness and therefore it was only natural that cycling (and later mountain biking) would become popular there.

Mountain bike pioneer Charlie Kelly on the “Repack” downhill track, 1976
Source: Charlie Kelly’s Homepage

While the mountain bike was being invented in the USA, the cyclocross bike was still the machine of choice on the off-road racing circuits in Europe. Cyclocross was mainly known as a sports discipline and it attracted huge crowds, but those racing bikes were hardly ever used casually or leisurely outside the races. However, with its global rise, the mountain bike superseded the cyclocross bike and cyclocross events gave way to cross-country racing on mountain bikes. Finally, the mountain bike became an Olympic discipline in 1996. The mountain bike prevailed not only in competitive cycling but also in everyday life. Once again, thicker tyres and a more upright seating position promised  a comfortable and safe cycle. In Switzerland, for example, the mountain bike is still the best selling type of bicycle behind the hybrid bike with mudguards and racks.

(To be continued in part 4: 2000 to Today and the Re-Invention of the “Gravel Bike”)

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