The History of Mountain Biking

So, let’s go from highlight to highlight along the timeline of the bicycle-dirt love affair.

Mountain bikes and humanity’s cutting-edge technological advancements are not often mentioned in the same breath. Those types of conversations are reserved for Boston Dynamics, the James Webb Space Telescope, and the endless search for a dryer that doesn’t swallow socks.

joe breeze mountain birth of mountain bikes

However, as Mountain Bike riders will know, our hobby/career is one of the most technology-hungry industries out there. Since Mountain Bike’s inception in the 1970s, advancement has been hurtling forward at breakneck speed. Brands make use of some of the most exotic materials available and put staggering amounts of time and resources into research and development. 

So, the obvious first question to have is: 

Where did it all begin?

Joe Breeze is affectionately known as the “Godfather of Mountain Biking” because he designed and built the first purpose-made Mountain Bike in the 1970s. He and other industry legends were the very core of the unwitting inception of what would evolve into modern-day MTB, of that there is no doubt. 

However, that amazing era was not the first to see bicycles and dirt come together. Not by a long shot. 

“People have been riding offroad since bikes were invented. There were no roads, you know, in 1819!”
– Joe Breeze, Outer Edge magazine interview, circa 2010

So, let’s go from highlight to highlight along the timeline of the bicycle-dirt love affair.

1817 – Karl Freiherr von Drais of Germany invented the Laufmaschine (“running machine”), the first mode of human-powered transportation with two in-line wheels. It did not have pedals, the rider pushed off the ground, which was the inspiration for its name. In 1819, the first bicycle craze began as the “hobby-horse” – as the British called it – became fashionable.

1896-7 – Bicycles evolved significantly in the decades since Karl Drais blessed the world with his invention, but it was the end of the 19th century that saw an incredible milestone in the usefulness of bicycles to traverse wide expanses and a multitude of terrain. Buffalo Soldiers led by Second Lieutenant James A. Moss set out on three missions of increasing length and difficulty to prove the effectiveness of bicycles and their superiority to cavalry or infantry marching.

  • A four-day trip in the Mission Mountains covering 126 miles (203 kilometers)
  • A 23-day trip from Missoula to Yellowstone covering 800 miles (1,287 km)
  • A 40-day ride from Missoula to St. Louis covering 1,900 miles (3,058 km)

Unfortunately, though these expeditions were highly praised and proved a Bicycle Corp could cover terrain twice as fast as cavalry, the Army itself seemed unconvinced.

1921 – It kind of feels like the cart coming before the horse or the chicken before the egg, but this was the year that Shimano Iron Works was established in Japan by Shozaburo Shimano. A genuine mountain bike would not turn a wheel for another half century. They began producing freewheels in 1922. Fast forward to today and Shimano manufactures a whopping 70-80% of the bicycle components sold worldwide. Absolute domination.  

1960s – Geoff Apps in the United Kingdom imagined a bicycle that could be seen as an overlap with motorcycles in terms of capabilities. He tinkered away with designs on paper and experimented on existing bikes to create something that would “carry me through the landscape… the odd stream to ride through, hill to climb, maybe a long downhill to go as fast as hell as I could.”

“There was no inventor, there was not one person who brainstormed, made the bike and ran with it… there are all these people who deserve credit for starting mountain biking, for getting it going.”

– Joe Breeze, Outer Edge magazine interview, circa 2010

1970s – Here we arrive in the decade that naturally became the paint pallet that would color modern Mountain Biking history. Everything from culture to tech grew from here. This is when four legends of the sport/industry – Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly and Tom Ritchey – mixed the colors and began painting. It went a little something like this:

  • Dotted across the American mountain trail landscape, small groups of nomadic hippie cyclists had begun tackling trails with cruiser bicycles. The crowd in Marin County, California were rattling down fire roads aboard Schwinn cruiser frames Frankensteined with BMX handlebars, big tires and drum brakes (the idea for moving beyond coaster brakes came from the mind of Russ Mahon in Cupertino, CA). They rode these “klunkers” wearing little more than the occasional roller skate helmet and science lab goggles.
  • The early coaster brakes used would become so overworked and hot during descents that all the grease would boil away, necessitating the repacking of the brake system’s bearings with new grease. This is where the most famous downhill trail in Marin County gets its name, and hence the “Repack Races” were born.
  • The Repack Races grew in popularity, attracting riders from across the state, eventually gaining media interest. At one point, Charlie Kelly asked Joe Breeze to design and build a bike frame with the sturdiness to gain an edge on Repack and elsewhere. The request would spawn the Breezer 1 frame, which was married to parts cherry picked from across the world:

o Bike Seat from the United Kingdom

o   Seat Post from Italy

o   Derailleur from Japan

o   Crank from France

The Breezer 1 was revolutionary and coincided with a bike craze that now set its sights on Klunker territory. And in many ways, that wave has not stopped since.

1974 – Specialized Bicycle Components was founded in Morgan Hill, California, starting out by importing Italian bike parts to the US before manufacturing their own designs in 1976.

1976 – Trek Bicycle (Est. 1975) begins manufacturing steel touring bicycle frames out of Waterloo, Wisconsin.

1979 – The term Mountain Bike was born when Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly co-founded a new company called MountainBikes. It was the first company to specialize in the manufacture of bikes meant to tackle off-road trails, with Tom Ritchey building the frames.

1983 – Gary Fisher Mountain Bikes was formed after MontainBikes closed its doors earlier in the year.

1985 – Danny MacAskill was born.

1988 – SRAM enters the chat as a startup (or was in upstart?) that introduces the grip shift to the market, sues Shimano in 1990 for unfair business practices, AND WINS! In doing so, they opened the door for themselves and other companies to compete in the rapidly growing Mountain Bike equipment sector. In 2002, they acquired RockShox and went on to take over Avid, Truvativ, Quarq, Hammerhead and more in the years since.

 1999 – Gary Fisher’s “hand of god” swooped in again to shift the direction of MTB history when he pushed for WTB to put a 29” tire into production, which they did. This allowed Fisher to make the first 29er (29-inch wheeled bike) complete with a hacked up Manitou Mars fork that would bottom out on rough landings. Within years, 29-inch wheels were the name of the game after 26” being the norm since the ‘80s. Just after 2010, 27.5” wheels were introduced to give a “middle-ground” option that brings the advantages of both worlds.

2013 – The low, long and slack geometry found its practical inception after the Spanish company, Mondraker, introduced its “Forward Geometry” concept, thus getting the ball rolling on the increased controllability and smoother-riding mountain bikes that are the standard today.

Wrap Up

The more we study the history of MTB and look closer at its details, it’s amazing to see that it was born out of both necessity and desire. Out of both fun and practicality. The similarity between the most expensive bike you can buy today and a heavy Schwinn thundering down Repack in the ‘70s is that they are both tools born out of a pursuit of excitement, and yet, the same bike can be used for a practical need or in service of a work-related goal. Just ask bicycle messengers, police, the 25th infantry of Fort Missoula and many others. We bet Pheidippides would have loved riding from Marathon to Athens on a Mountain Bike.

It’s a wondrous and liberating sport, and it seems so fitting that even the individuals whom others point to as its creators brush the accolades aside and say it wasn’t them alone.


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