I’m going to attempt to take you back in time so you can have a look at where this crazy sport came from and what is was like however many years ago. I think it’s important to know the heritage of your bike and your sport. So with this in mind, I’d first like to take you back to the very beginning.
Back in the early days (by that I mean around 1974), a group of people in California decided that it would quite good fun to ride their old bikes to the top of the nearest mountain, and then ride them back down. Sounds simple these days as we do it all the time, but you have to remember that they had so little of what we take for granted.
Some of the guys used to ride it on motorbikes but when using pedal power they had to adapt their bicycles to cope with the long downhill track. Set in the area around Fairfax and Mt Tam, these rides turned into races that ended up being staged more than once a year – they were always very informal. They became the legendary Repack races. They were called Repack because the old drum brakes on their 1940s Schwinn “clunkers” would need the grease repacked after a run, having vapourised it through the constant brake use down the course. Parts were subjected to absolute carnage, so new bits were needed and the bikes started becoming customised.
They added gears and decent brakes, using secondhand French items more accustomed to road bikes. Then motorcycle handlebars and brake levers. Amongst the group were some very influential people, such as Tom Ritchey, Joe Breeze and Gary Fisher, of whom you have no doubt heard. Most of them claim to have invented the mountain bike in their own right, but to be honest I’m not bothered who called them what first. They all had a hand in it. News spread of what these guys were doing, and a small industry was born.
Joe Breeze made about a dozen lightweight MTB-style frames in 1977/78 and sold them all immediately. Then in 1979 Tom Ritchey made a load more, and sold them just as fast. They retailed for a staggering US$1,400 each, although at that price you were buying a complete bicycle, not just a frame.
This went on for a bit, and then a company called Specialized decided to do what Joe and Tom were doing, but they outsourced the manufacture of frames to Japan to keep costs down. The Specialized Stumpjumper was born. OK, so there were others around (Muddy Fox in the UK, for example and the Univega Alpina Pro competing with the Stumpy in the US), but the original Stumpjumper of 1982 was a revelation. It sold as a complete bike for US$850 and used brand new parts. None of the second-hand road components that had been altered to work on the clunkers Tom Ritchey sold. Hardly cheap, but compared to others it was a relative bargain and they sold loads of them. This bike is widely considered to be the granddaddy of the bikes we ride today.
This really kick-started the revolution. For the first time ever, Joe Public could walk into a shop and hand over cash for a bicycle that could be ridden up the nearest mountain and then back down again. They were robust, cool, exclusive, and the mountain bike industry had begun.
Over the next few years, stuff like frame geometry was tweaked. Shimano and Suntour got in on the act with decent gears that didn’t cost a huge amount of money and were MTB-specific and bikes got a little lighter. Manufacturers suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the mid to late 1980s when some pro-riders thought they could have a slice of the MTB pie (Kona, started by Joe Murray, for example). Some tiny companies popped up out of the ether to supply funky tyres and other little accessories. The NORBA race series was established in USA and cross-country and downhill races were being staged all over the place.
Then, in the late 1980s, it simply went nuts. Mountain biking had become immensely popular. Every bike manufacturer worth their salt had a MTB in their range. The choice was getting bigger and better. Bikes were even lighter, had better components and brakes that worked and they were starting to come down in price too. Much of the manufacturing was done in the Far East and this made it affordable. Tom Ritchey and Joe Breeze were still making their bikes, though. But on thing they were not was cheap – although you could pick up a MTB off the shelf, custom bikes with massive price tags started selling well. In much the same way as road bikes evolved, people wanted to ride what the pros did.
MTBs were very much established in the cycling world by this point. Whilst there were many hideously styled bikes and paint jobs (not to mention clothes – let’s not go there), many were rather nice. Not only exotic but good looking, which is to say that you can look at one now and not laugh at it. Companies like Merlin and Litespeed started selling titanium frames. Even magnesium and carbon fibre was being used as a frame material, although they had yet to be perfected. The bikes were catching up with the technology available. Quickly.
If you take a look at the bike that you ride now you can see the heritage, even though you may not know it is there. Most bikes these days have what is referred to as “NORBA” geometry. That’s a 71-degree head and 73-degree seat angle to you and me and they’ve been doing that since about 1989. No need to change it if it works and it does work.
Then there are suspension forks, if you have them. They wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Paul Turner, founder of Rock Shox. In 1989, you got one inch of travel from your RS1 fork. Now you’d consider 3 inches to be a cross-country fork and might feel shortchanged if you can’t adjust the compression damping via an external dial on top of the fork leg…
Gears – Shimano have so many patents that they needn’t make any more components; they could live off the profits from royalties! But you have them to thank for making your gears work. And let’s not forget the companies that Shimano crushed, such as Suntour – their light burned just as bright, but not for as long.
And if you’re fortunate enough to have a full suspension frame, then you should look back at the Mountain Cycles San Andreas. They still make them, in spite of the fact that they haven’t really changed since 1992, because they just work. And back then it had upside down forks AND disc brakes! That bike in particular was so far ahead of its time that it wasn’t even funny.
I could go on and on but I won’t. That’s where your bike came from – a load of guys just having fun riding down a big hill on the edge of control. Without those pioneers where would we be? We have to thank them for starting this sport of ours. But how do we thank them? Well, I do it by going out riding pretty much every day and I suggest you do the same.
Ed Note: This was written for the original 26inches.com and has been lost until now in the great caverns of the Digital Vault located on the great disc of the past