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Mountain biking involves riding a bicycle off-road, over rough terrains. But to do so, the bicycles have not always been what we know today. The pioneers of the sports were very courageous, and had to compensate, in a way or another, for the lack of suspension and proper design. With this little history of mountain biking, you will learn how bicycles have evolved to become what we know now.

Today, the bicycles are specially designed to handle these off-road terrains. However, there are several forms of mountain biking. Those include cross-country, trail riding, all mountain, enduro, downhill, freeride and dirt jumping. All of those are common when referring to mountain biking.

What is Mountain biking?

The sport requires physical endurance, strength, and balance. Moreover, it goes without saying that bike handling and self-reliance is needed for all levels of riders. Indeed, riders will seek steep descents, very rough terrains, and high incline climbs as they progress in the sport. Off-road trails such as single track, backcountry roads, fire roads and ski resorts are the playground of choice. Sometimes we are far from civilization, so self-reliance is a strong ethic. Indeed, we need to learn to repair our own bike where and when it breaks. It’s always a good idea to carry a backpack with water, food, tools and a first aid kit. This is sure to become handy more often than not.

Mountain biking in the 1800’s

First bike with pneumatic tires ridden off road – 1887

The history of mountain biking goes back to the end of the 19th century. It is reported that the first bicycles modified for off-road were used by the Swiss military in 1891. Those bikes were used for courier. And by 1905 they had their own standard bicycle built “army though”. The Buffalo Soldiers have also used bicycles modified for off-road on an expedition from Montana to Yellowstone in 1896.

1900s–1960s

Bicycles were ridden off-road by road cyclists as a means of keeping fit during the winter. However, the first use of the name “mountain bike” comes from D. Gwynn when he built a rough terrain trail bike in 1966. And he named it “mountain bike” based on its intended use. Then in 1968, Geoff Apps, a motorbike trail rider started to explore off-road bike designs. By 1979 he had developed a custom bicycle uniquely suited for wet and muddy off-road conditions found in England.

In parallel, in the late 1960s the early 1970s the sport of mountain biking was born in Marin County, California. A group of teenagers called The Larkspur Canyon Gang went on and rode their old 1930s-1940s clunker down the Mt. Tamalpais and they became legends.

1970s–1980s

Several groups of riders in different areas of the U.S. can make a valid claim on playing a part in the birth of mountain biking. Cruiser bicycles from the 30-40s were modified with fat tires and brakes. And these would then be used to shred down mountain trails in Marin County, California well into the late 70s. Indeed, it’s only in the late 70s early 80s, that road bicycle manufacturers started to manufacture mountain bikes. Joes Breeze is credited for the introduction of the first purpose-build mountain bike in 1978.

Welder Tom Richey went on and made frames for a company called Mountain Bikes: a partnership between Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly and Tom Richey. The company’s three partners eventually dissolved their partnership, and the company became Fisher Mountain Bikes. While Tom Ritchey started his own frame shop. The first mountain bikes were basically road bicycle frames with heavier tubing and different geometry with a wider frame and fork to allow for a wider tire.

History of mountain biking - First mountain bike production 1979
First Production Mountain Bike – 1979

1980s–1990s

Tom Ritchey built the first regularly available mountain bike frame, which was accessorized by Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly. It was sold by their company called Mountain Bikes (later changed to Fisher Mountain Bikes then bought by Trek). The first two mass-produced mountain bikes were sold in the early 1980s. At the time, the bicycle industry was not impressed with mountain biking, which many regarded as a short-term fad. In particular, large manufacturers such as Schwinn and Fuji failed to see the significance of an all-terrain bicycle and the coming boom in “adventure sports”.

Instead, the first mass-produced mountain bikes were pioneered by new companies such as Mountain Bikes, Ritchey and Specialized. They arranged for production of mountain bike frames from factories in Japan and Taiwan. First marketed in 1981. Today, pretty much every bicycle brand has some mountain bike models. And some of the most well-known brands are: Specialized, Trek Bikes, Giant Bicycles, Santa Cruz, Norco Bicycles, Yeti Cycles, YT Industries, Kona.

Norco 1999 VPS-1

1990s–2000s

In the early 1990s, in Canada, a group of bored teenagers in BC started to look for “a thrill”. Indeed, they had biked all the trails and roads there was. And for them the mountain bike races at the time were not that technical or challenging. So, they simply went up to the top of hills and mountains and picked the gnarliest lines they could find and tried to ride them. And soon they were jumping cliffs and building their own insane lines. That’s how freeride began.

As the history of mountain biking shows, in the 1990s and 2000s, mountain biking became a mainstream activity. So, mountain bikes and mountain bike gears became available at standard bike stores and not only in specialty shops as before. Early in the 21st century, department stores began selling inexpensive mountain bikes with full-suspension and disc brakes. In the first decade of the 21st century, trends in mountain bikes included the “all-mountain bike”, the 29er and the single speed. “All-mountain bikes” were designed to descend and handle well in rough conditions, but still pedal efficiently for climbing. They were intended to bridge the gap between cross-country bikes and those built specifically for downhill riding.

2000s–2020s

In the mid-first decade of the 21st century, an increasing number of mountain bike-oriented resorts opened. Often, they are similar to or in the same complex as a ski resort. Otherwise, they retrofit the concrete steps and platforms of an abandoned factory as an obstacle course, as with Ray’s MTB Indoor Park and others. Mountain bike parks, which most are operated as summer season activities at ski hills, usually include chairlifts (adapted to bikes), a number of trails of different difficulty, and bicycle rentals.

Norco 2021 Aurum HSP C2

What’s next

With the constant increase of mountain biking popularity, trails are emerging everywhere. And now you have a big chance of finding one in just a few miles from your house. Also, trail builders have shifted their approach and are building trails for everyone. Indeed, youngsters and beginners can find something to learn and evolve. As well, more advance riders have access to challenging trails.

Nowadays, the bike technology is changing so fast that how the history of mountain biking will change, and what’s coming next is anyone’s guess!

Let me know what you think will be the next mountain bike evolution?

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2 Responses to The History of Mountain Biking (revisited 2021)

  1. Avatar Joel Harris says:

    Wow. Well researched article. I never knew mountain biking only became popular in the 90s.

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