Mountain Biking: A Brief History

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AUTHOR’S NOTE:  I’ve been involved in mountain biking for more than 30 years, but I never cared for the politics or the arguments of who started this or who created that. I just love the sport, and didn’t really care to take sides. Still don’t. So here’s a quick look at the early days, from my perspective. I welcome comments and differing opinions, and even offer space here on VMB to let you give your own history. – Brian Hemsworth

Mountain biking is a lot like rock and roll. It’s origins are not clear, it came about as a clashing of different forms, and the result is something of enduring greatness.

It is man’s nature to go beyond. They say that bicycle racing began the day the second bike was built.  I believe that. I was once chatting with John Parker, one of the original Yeti guys. We were different in many ways, but he loved bikes, and motorcycles, and cars, and racing, and so did I. He said, “You know, Brian, if I didn’t have bikes or cars, I’d be racing shopping carts.” I went from kinda not liking John to liking him a lot, just for that attitude.

Mountain bikes aren’t just about racing, but it helps explain the origins of the sport. Bikes are about getting from here to the. Getting there faster, in style, and in a more fun way. That’s why the early velocipedes begat penny farthings, and those begat safety bicycles, and those begat racing bikes, and those begat mountain bikes.

Where the first mountain bike was invented, we’ll never know. I will bow my hat to the boys in Marin as the real birthplace of the sport. I’ve talked to people from down my street to around the world who claimed to invent the bike, and maybe they did, but the boys (and girls) up north created the sport.

Charlie (Cunningham), Steve (Potts), Gary (Fisher), Tom (Ritchey), Joe (Breeze), and Charlie (Kelly), and others, are the guys we now look back to. They each brought something to the party. Some were gearheads, Some granolagheads. Some racers. Some storytellers. But together, they created something really cool on the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais.

These guys made bikes, and with no disrespect to them, they won’t have gone too far had it not been for Mike Sinyard. Privately, in conversations I’ve had over the years with everyone involved, there was more jealousy over who made money than who got credit, but both caused issue. With more water under the bridge, I will say that what Mike did was not create a sport, but an industry.

I interviewed Mike once at the Specialized offices in Morgan Hill. He told me the now well-known story of how he sold hard-to-find parts out of his trailer to shops around the bay area (“specialized” parts, hence the name).  An avid rider himself, but a marketer, he took the best design features form the handmade mountain bikes of the area, and went to Asia. He bought his first container of Stumpjumpers (by my estimation one of the best names ever given to a mountain bike), and brought them to the U.S. When I asked him how confident he was, he said, “I was sure I could sell them, but honestly I thought it might take a couple of years to sell the whole container.” I imagine the length of time was days, not months or years.

In relatively short order, Southern California took over, and I personally think the Nor Cal guys hated it.

So Cal does everything big…movies, freeways, housing tracts, etc. We were epicenter of motocross during the growth in the 60s and the heydays of the 70s and 80s. Saddleback, Muntz, Bay Mare, Indian Dunes, and Carlsbad were places we nearly lived at. And Pismo, California City, and San Bernardino, and about 1000 other riding spots. Most of which closed, thanks to insurance hikes, land managers, and urban sprawl.

In that vacuum, hundreds of thousands of former motorcyclists were waiting for the next “thing.” At the same time, So Cal had also become a mecca of bicycle industry parts distribution. BMX cut its teeth in So Cal, and bike companies pop up everywhere. Shipping to So Cal from Japan, Taiwan, and eventually China was easy. Tons of port space, trucking, and warehousing.  San Francisco, Chicago, Ohio and New York had been centers of production and distribution when three-speeds and ten-speeds were popular, but as Asian took over production, the industry shifted to the westcoast, primarily California, and mostly in So Cal.

Specialized, Schwinn, Raleigh, and Ross, as well as others were doing well with their mass market brands, and the custom guys were selling everything they could make. But the seismic shift had happened. KHS, Univega, GT, Nishiki, Mountain Sport, Peugeot, Giant, Diamond Back, Kuwahara, and dozens of others popped up. What helped was that most of these companies had existing pipelines to dealers, so sales boomed quickly. There was gold in them wheels.

It needs to be said that the Rockies, arguably some of the best mountain biking in the world, was over shadowed. I’ve met guys form Crested Butte and Bolder and Colorado Springs that showed me pictures of mountain bikes predating those of Marin County. I don’t deny it. And in those days I loved riding in the Rockies more than anywhere else. I saw the same thing from dudes in the North East and Western Europe.

But for my money, and from my memory, Nor Cal created the spark, and So Cal threw gasoline on it.

Using that rock and roll metaphor, the guys in the Rockies were like Richard Berry who recorded Louie, Louie, but never really got much credit for it (the Kingsman cover is, to this day, the one we all know.) Nor Cal would be the Ike Turners, Little Richards, Ray Charles, and Big Joe Turners, architects of the art. So Cal would become the Elvis, Beatles, and yes, Monkees of the sport, gaining fame and fortune, but not always respect.

This marked one of the first times in modern history that the United States beat Europe to the punch in bicycle innovation. The U.S. broke away and left Europe and the rest of the world waiting for the broom wagon. It would be years before that would catch up, design and production-wise.

So for the early early days, I yield to Charlie Kelly, the historian of the sport, to the inner workings of the Klunkers up north (by the way, history buff should check out Charlie Kelly’s Mountain Bike Hubsite (http://sonic.net/~ckelly/Seekay/mtbwelcome.htm) , a treasure chest full of amazing mountain bike history.

For the sake of disclosure, I’m born and bred in Los Angeles. I rode mini-bikes when On Any Sunday came out, raced motocross before I could drive, saw BMX become a professional sport, and learned the beauty of Italian road bikes before the “sport” of mountain bikes ever began. That meant, like so many others, I was hungry for it as soon as I saw it.

To me, I mark about 1979 as the transition year from the very earliest and historical days of mountain biking, the first modern era of the bikes. Gary Fisher coined the term, and trademarked it (technically “MountainBikes”, one word, two capitals). The sport never looked back.  The early part of the 80s saw dozens, if not hundreds of brands rise, and the sport took off.

I borrowed a few bikes, then got a Mountain Sport and Redline Conquest, and I was hooked. By 1984 I was talking to a publishing company, and soon after co-founded Mountain Biking Magazine. It was a dreadful company I worked for, but I got a front row seat at how a sport is born, rises, trips, falls, and picks itself back up.

Today I’m older, slower, but still ride, and very grateful to be able to share my collection of images, memorabilia, and memories with anyone who enjoys mountain biking (vintage or otherwise) as much as I do.

I love mountain biking, and think the solution to all of the arguments on the history of the sport is to throw your leg over a bike and go for a ride.

In fact, this history has about hit my limit. Time to ride. Hope to see you out there.

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