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Evolution: The Mountain Bike

Posted Mar 08 2010 12:00am

In my last article I was outlining a talk I gave recently to a group of some 80 people here in Charleston. The subject was the Evolution of the Bicycle, and I had reached the period around the 1950s when my own interest in bicycles began.

In October 2009 I wrote a series of three articles here on the history of frame design, where I covered the 1960s and 1970s in Part II and Part III. I see no point in repeating myself in this piece, so I will jump ahead to the 1980s and talk about the Mountain Bike, something I have not touched on previously.

There was a bike boom in the mid 1970s in America, this was part of the fitness movement. European road bikes, which were for the most part fully equipped racing bikes, were being imported into the US.

The boom lasted though most of the 1980s. This was the time that I came to the US, and like the various importers of European bikes, my business was very successful during this period.

While this was going on, a separate group of bike enthusiasts were building and riding off-road bikes. People who included Tom Ritchey and Gary Fisher, and many others too numerous to list here.

Below is a picture of an early Tom Ritchey bike. Note its laid back angles, standard size tubes and level top tube.

By 1985 I realized the Mountain Bike was a serious entity, and I decided to build one. I had previously had a lot of experience in cyclo-cross before coming to the US, and I thought there might be a slot for a lightweight, very fast off road bike. Being lightweight it therefore needed to be ridden with some finesse.

The bike is pictured below; its angles not much different than a road geometry, and the tubing was Columbus SL road tubing. Note that the handlebars are extended out directly over the front wheel, positioning the riders weight evenly between the two wheels. It even looks fast.

The picture (Below left.) is me in the mid 1970s riding cyclo-cross, on a bike with dropped bars, that differed only slightly from a road bike.

The problem was with my MTB, unlike a cyclo-cross bike, the wheels and tires were far too strong and heavy for the fame tubing. People did not know how to ride cyclo-cross style, or were not even interested; instead the bikes were being used as stunt bikes, being jumped on and off picnic tables and the like.

A lightweight frame with no suspension, and an adult on board is never going to take that kind of abuse. I only build 50 MTBs, a few have survived.

The Fuso Mountain Bike is a misfit that doesn’t really belong anywhere.

In retrospect I could have built it with oversize tubes, added front suspension, and it might have been successful.

But to be honest my heart was not in it; after a lifetime of building, racing, and riding road bikes, to do so would have been "Selling my soul to make a buck." 

I moved on to do other things; there are no regrets

My take on why the Mountain Bike took off when it did. There was a whole generation of young adults who had grown up in the 1970s with BMX bikes; they remembered how they used to perform jumps and stunts. The MTB was possibly seen as an adult version of a BMX.

For the general public too, here was a bike that was easier to ride than a road bike, with its upright position and fat tires.

Do you remember in my last article how the High Wheeler bike of the late 1800s was the first enthusiast’s bike? A degree of fitness and athleticism was required to even get on a ride the Ordinary. When the Safety Bicycle came along, it opened up cycling to the masses; soon after mass production made it affordable too.

I believe history repeated itself with the mountain bike; the road bike never really caught on with the general public. It requires a certain level of fitness and athleticism just to ride a road bike.

Many road bikes were sold in the 1980s, but only a fraction of them ridden to any great extent; evidence of this is the number of 1980s classic bikes in almost new condition, including ones I built that come up for sale from time to time, on eBay and Craig’s List.

The average American is keen to try different sports, but only a few will dedicate the time and effort to reach any level of expertise. Typical was a man I worked for in Oregon in the 1990s; he would take three separate one week vacations spread out over a year.

He would go skiing one week in the winter; spend another week sailing, and one more week playing golf. I doubt he was any good at any of these sports but at least he could participate. Riding a road bike is not like that, had he spent one week a year riding a road bike, he would have suffered horribly.

When Tom Ritchey and Gary Fisher and others developed the first mountain bike, I’m sure there was nothing further from their mind than the BMX bike. However, the BMX bike influenced the design and manufacturing procedures of MTBs in the early 1990s, and of road bikes built today.

The BMX bike was basically a one-size-fits-all frame, welded and cheap to produce. The welding technology was around in the 1980s when I built frames but I could not have sold a welded frame back then; my customers would not have accepted it. The Mountain Bike was new and many of its customers had grown up with welded BMX bikes.

Manufacturers could not make one-size-fits-all frames, but they could get away with S, M, L, and XL. Tee shirt sizing had come to bikes. In contrast, I used to build 19 different sizes in one centimeter increments.

Look at the three bikes below; a BMX, a modern MTB, and today’s road bike and tell me that one did not influence the design of all three. Evolution once more, brought about mainly by what suits the manufacturer, as it always has throughout history.

Footnote: As this is more recent history that many of you may have experienced firsthand, I would be interested to hear your take on this period

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