MOUNTAIN BIKING HISTORY
There’s a lot of history, information and mis-information floating around about the origins of mountain biking—some that’s well researched and some that depends on who had the best public relations firm—and the biggest printing press!
Mountain biking has existed in one form or another since the dawn of cycling. Few roads were paved in the 19th century, so most early cyclists rode on dirt roads or trails. Some examples of early off-road riding stand out. One is the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, a regiment of riders who customized bicycles to carry gear over rough terrain. In August 1896, the riders, black enlisted men and a white lieutenant, rode from Missoula, Montana, to Yellowstone National Park and back—an arduous trip to be sure! Their mission: to test the bicycle for military use in mountainous terrain. The following year they rode still farther, from Missoula to St Louis.
Another fascinating example is the Velo Cross Club Parisien (VCCP), comprised of about 20 young bicyclists from the outskirts of Paris. Their riding between 1951 and 1956 was remarkably akin to present-day mountain biking. These riders juiced up their French 650-B bikes with an extraordinary degree of technical sophistication.
History has seen many other isolated occurrences of off-road riding, and people who modified existing bikes for off-road use. Many are barely remembered. One of the best known is John Finley Scott, an off-road cycling enthusiast in the United States. In 1953 he assembled what he called a “Woodsie Bike,” using a Schwinn World diamond frame, balloon tires, flat handlebars, and derailleur gears.
Today’s sport of mountain biking evolved through a series of connected events, with the involvement of many people. Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County is generally regarded as the birthplace of the sport and of the mountain bike.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a group of Marin teenagers known as The Larkspur Canyon Gang rode 1930s-40s vintage single-speed balloon tire bikes on Mt. Tamalpais and through Baltimore Canyon in Larkspur, CA. Their exploits and attitudes earned them status as local legends and spawned the birth of mountain biking as it grew beyond their circle of friends.
By 1973, “Ballooners” had found their way into the hearts and minds of a group of Marin road-bike racers from Velo Club Tamalpais. Devoted to racing their road bikes and to using bikes for transportation (many of them working in local bike shops) they added off-road riding to their cycling passions. They located, restored and collected old balloon-tire bikes made by Schwinn, Colson, Shelby and others—stripping off extraneous parts from the old mild-steel steeds, but retaining the heavy-duty one-inch-pitch drive trains and vying for who had the coolest original paint. The finest bikes of the day would be equipped with much sought-after high-performance vintage components such as Morrow coaster brakes, Schwinn cantilever front brakes, S2 chrome rims, fork braces, and genuine B.F. Goodrich knobby tires. These riders and a growing group of friends explored the trails and fire roads on and around Mount Tamalpais, aka “The Mountain,” on their trusty, beloved “Inch-Pinchers.”
Another example from the early 1970s was a band of cyclists, The Cupertino Riders, aka the Morrow Dirt Club, from 75 miles south of Marin, who were modifying their bikes. They were grafting thumbshift-operated derailleurs and motorcycle-lever-operated drum brakes onto their klunkers to help them get up and down the south bay hills. In December 1974 a few of them came to a Marin County cyclocross race, where their technology was noticed. Then they went on to other pursuits.
In Marin County, the off-road riders not only kept on riding, they started the first organized downhill race series. They called it Repack, because they had to “repack” their coaster brakes with fresh grease after each race. The grease would vaporize in the excessive heat generated from extreme braking during the super-steep descent.
More and more Marin riders got involved. More and more innovation occurred. Eventually coaster brakes and inch-pitch drive trains gave way to light-weight components and completely new bikes with chro-moly frames specifically designed for the sport. The media was starting to notice — in fact some of the local riders were writers as well, adept at spreading the word. New businesses formed to sell off-road bikes and market them. A renaissance of bicycling had begun.
The origins of mountain biking were totally innocent. The sport and the bike came into being not as some faddist vision of profit-oriented marketing types, or from any one single person, but rather as the evolving product of true cycling enthusiasts doing what they loved. These cyclists found through fun and competition that the old one-speed “Klunkers” they were using could be improved with modern cycling technology. One innovation led to another and mountain biking as we know it today was born.
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nice really helpful
Having lived on Forrest Avenue for 41 years I saw Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly start their bike shop on Center Blvd., Fairfax.
I bought the bike that Dale Stetina rode in the Crested Butte, Colorado Fat Tire Bike race in 1982.
I’ve made very little changes to this bike and have enjoyed it for years. I’m interested in selling it, trading it, or donating it.
Interested in any of the above, contact me. Kathleen
Great to hear from one of the “Pioneers” Kathleen! Yes, we would definitely be interested in your bike. Click here to contact me using our webform.
I work for a nonprofit bicycle collective based in Madison Wisconsin. Do you still have this bike?
Do you still have your bike? Do you still want to sell it?
Having participated in the fat Tire Bike Week annual rides in Crested Butte , Co. from the early 80’s
I always thought that the heart and soul of mountain biking was there. They did have many “town bikes” and they did have the major event of the Pearl Pass tour to Aspen every fall which added soul to the off road riding.
It was probably an unavoidable innovation to outfit the Klunkers with derailleurs and rim brakes , whether it was California or Colorado. Good thing for cyclists everywhere that ideas pooled into the bikes that take us into the mountains and over the passes.
The “Klunker era / pre mass produced mountain bikes may still be around in various condition – if anyone has a lead on one of these Klunker era bikes i would be interested in talking to you
Dallas , Texas
214 223 1859 text
As a 115 year old it’s really good to see the progression of mountain bikes over my lifetime.
Good job Samta Cruz
who wrote this article, i need to know for a research project
Hello! Thanks for your comment– the article was written by Joe Breeze and Marc Vendetti, both mountain bike pioneers and board members of the museum.
I had Gary Fisher build me a bike, I believe early 80’s from his shop on Center Blvd. I had him paint it black and asked him to leave the decals off as I didn’t want anyone to see it was a “Fisher” and steal it. I still ride it, without any alterations, on the average three times a week. Great bike !
Have a 1984 schwinn high Sierra. 95% original and fantastic shape. Do you believe that there are any people collecting bikes like this ?
This is a fantastic story! I thought much of mountain biking got its start solely in Marin. Yet even my own story nudged the needle forward with mountain bikes and I was in Berkeley. In the late 1970s, I was throwing together old English 3 speed frames with very old balloon tire wheels. One bike in particilarbran as smooth as silk. Peter Rich at Velo Sport in Berkeley hired me for a Christmas season to assemble bikes and he was intrigued by my off road idea. He showed me an ovalized frame he had purchased from a fella in Chico called the Mountain Goat. He also steered me over to Marin to meet the guys in Fairfax who were producing “Mountain Bikes” with the Ritchey frame, forks and handle bars. I did not have much money but immediately put in an order for one. That was December of 1981. I still have that bike with only the frame, fork and original “bear trap” peddles.
I love it!
An aside story: I travelled to Nicaragua and Guatemala and I witnessed how mountain bikes transformed the world. Families often can not afford a car or motorcycle but some can afford an old mountain bike. With a flat top tube, they can transport an entire family!
My first “mountain” bike was an old Raleigh frame, fat tires, two speed kick hub and saddle from an old Schwinn Twin. Magura bars. The repack of 1978? the first event I rode that bike in. Then got a Specialized Stumpjumper which I still have (but dis-assembled). Next time I’m out in the bay area I’m going to visit your museum.
Those skedaddles up and down Mount Tam were more fun than anyone should be allowed. I was and, even at 83, still am a roadie. but I am getting interested in gravelling. We have a lot of gravel roads here in Missouri, though the closer you are to a city the fewer the roads. Here in Franklin county we still have a few one or two iron bridges left too.
The best descender I ever rode behind (and in sheer terror) was Gary (Fishbait) Fisher. I have a hard time remembering names but Joe Breeze I remember. What ever happened to Otis Guy? Charlie Cunningham?
Nice to hear from you Tom! You are doing amazing at 83! Otis runs the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and Charlie is working his way through a serious injury a few years ago. He has a gofundme for his medical expenses. Happy trails to you!
MTB is the best
I went to Tam High in the Mid 80’s and remember the guys from woodshop – the “Bilge Cruisers” hitching and trucking up MT. Tam in camoflauge for a “Strictly Downhill” run from the Park Rangers. Man how times have changed!