Over on my buddy Steves blog I commented on his article about how wearing his camelbak while riding made him uncool, which he is right about. A cool road biker will never wear a camelbak, the pros don’t wear them and they are the epitome of cool. He replied that as both a mountain biker and road biker I was probably really conflicted about what to do.
Well I hate to admit but I have struggled with that very problem when dealing with shorts. If you hang around with mountain bikers you’ll find that they are usually younger, and being younger much more worried about not looking like a dork to the eyes of society. Wearing spandex shorts makes you a dork in the eyes of society therefore mountain bikers have switched to baggy shorts. I took off once on a mountain bike ride with baggy cut off cargo shorts, lets just say the results were not pretty.
Luckily for me the guys I ride with are old, and besides how many members of society do you run into in the woods when you’re mountain biking, not many. I don’t have to worry much about it and my good old road bike shorts fit the bill.
This line of thought got me thinking about the short history of mountain biking. Mountain biking is a very young sport and in the spirit of our modern world has changed quickly and drastically in the last 30 some years. Lets look at some highlights, what follows is a crash course in mountain biking history. Since this isn’t a scholarly blog I haven’t bothered citing my sources, if you find my sketch of mountain bike history lacking you are welcome to a refund.
1970s IT BEGINS
Looks like these guys aren’t too awful worried about their camelbaks since they hadn’t been invented yet. They also don’t need shorts; jeans and T-shirts are all they need. Their bikes are cobbled together from whatever parts do the job. Frames are heavy steel fat tired Schwinns, that could accommodate larger tires but were almost guaranteed to break. If only us modern folks could be as pure and tough.
1980s IT SPREADS
Bikes have taken leap forwards in sophistication, purposely built mountain biking frames are now available along with drivetrains, cantilever brakes, flatbars and tires with good tread all purposely built for mountain biking are all the norm.
Mountain bike racing becomes a bona fide American phenomenon and ingrained in mainstream culture. The excitement and energy that was in the rebirth of road cycling and touring gets pumped into mountain bikes.
1990s BIG MONEY PROS
In the 1990s mountain biking became a world-wide phenomenon. Massive sales, big races, big attitude and big money turned mountain biking into a household name. World cup racing began in 1991 and was won by an American, John Tomac. Americans continued to place highly in events for the first part of the decade until racing became dominated by traditional cycling powerhouse countries like France, Spain and Switzerland.
In 1996 mountain bike racing becomes an olympic sport and the first ever medals are awarded on American Soil, the highest place American, Tinker Juarez only manages 19th place.
Bicycle manufacturers innovated and tried to create a machine that was more capable of handling the diverse terrain and conditions of off-road cycling. Radical frame designs and geometries were developed such as elevated chain stays. Bikes are even more strongly influenced by racing, handlebars get lower and more narrow, and every single bike must have bar ends. The entire bicycle industry is driven by mountain bike innovations, indexed shifting, wider gearing, stiffer steering columns, improved brakes, and stronger lighter frame materials push bikes into a new era.
Suspension is in the works and is starting to become more common on the front wheel, but early rear suspension designs left a lot to be desired and were generally avoided unless you like your bike to feel like a boat on the ocean. Component makers sprang up overnight offering custom brightly colored anodized parts, and the garish neon color combinations of the 1990s dominated mountain biking fashion. Riders are still wearing what is more or less a road bike kit.
The 00s, naughts, 2000s, IT SPLINTERS
The mountain biking bubble pops and cross-country racing starts to slump in America, entries and attendance are down, the big money starts to dry up and all the pretty purple parts start to break, don’t worry about the warranty the manufacturers disappeared overnight. The Europeans dominate World Cup racing and with an American dominating the Tour de France the national cycling spotlight, (really more of a small flashlight) turns to road biking.
Not everyone was excited about riding trails and cross-country racing. Downhill racing which had always been a part of mountain biking evolved from something similar to a high-speed downhill ski run to a technical descent including large obstacles, drops, and tight forest trails. Bikes get far more suspension travel and radical geometry changes to handle the high-speed madness. Disc brakes technology trickles down until many bikes are coming with both disc and rim brake bosses, by the end of the decade rim brakes would be nearly dead.
Riders begin wearing looser fitting clothing to accommodate more protective gear, this goes on to influence most mountain bike attire. Colors go from the neon puke of the 90s to natural muted colors. Mountain bike clothing is almost completely separate from its road cycling counterparts. Shorts become baggy, jerseys loose-fitting, more and more people begin including shin and elbow guards into their standard riding kit.
While the probably doped Europeans run away with the word cup each year Americans seem more interested in simply playing on the trails. Freeriding is born, which is essentially just playing around on a overbuilt mountain bike. Most freeriders fuel their rides with gravity but instead of taking the fastest route down the mountain they’ll take the most creative and difficult; often throwing in massive drops and jumps and even manmade sections of elevated wooden trails up in the trees. Its crazy.
Suspension technology matures to the point were many riders are rolling on full suspension bikes. The amount of travel drastically increases and platform dampening and clever suspension linkages make pedal bob, or a full suspension bikes tendency to bob up and down as it’s pedaled, less of a problem. These bikes are perfect for a new types of racing like Marathon and Enduro, which puts emphasis on overall endurance over a longer time frame. All this performance comes at a price and the upper end of mountain bike prices skyrocket.
2011 and beyond
The astronomical price of upper end mountain bike gear and complicated suspension designs seems to have sparked an anti-technology movement with some regular joe mountain bikers. More people are avoiding suspension and returning to rigid bikes. New tubless tire technology is becoming more mainstream allowing lower pressures and better rides without suspension.
Even more drastic is ditching the long time standard 3×9 27 speed drivetrain and using a single gear. I’ve got a box of broken rear derailluers and hangers that indicate this may not be a terrible idea. On the flip side a long time mountain bike staple, the triple crank, seems to be on the way out. The newest drivetrains are going 2×10, with a massive 12-36 rear cassette giving the bikes a wider range with less overlap in gears. This follows the compact crank revolution from road cycling, ironic since mountain bikes have been the driving force of innovation for cycling since their creation.
Even though they’ve been around for ten years many people are just starting to get around to trying a 29er, or a mountain bike with 29 inch wheels as opposed to the standard 26. The bigger wheels supposedly give more stability and smoother ride over rough terrain. Many experts predict that 29ers will out sale 26 inch bikes by the end of the decade.
Racing is alive and well, what may be the coolest development are High School leagues. High School mountain biking is growing in Colorado, California, Texas, Washington and Minnesota. Races across the country seem to be surviving if not thriving. Internationally American men still flounder in the world cup, but American women have stepped up, especially Willow Koerber.
Who knows what the future will hold, I never believed that Ray’s Indoor Mountain Bike Park would go over, but I must have been wrong since it’s expanding to a new city. It seems a good bet that sustainable growth will continue and the myriad of equipment options and riding styles will give everyone with an interest in mountain biking a trail to follow or a new trail to blaze.