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Ups & Downs: A Brief History on the Sport of Mountain Biking

Although mountain biking is sometimes seen as a recent sport, its roots can be found in the latter 1800s and its history is one of invention, evolution, and fierce rivalry. Although the history of the mountain bike and the bicycle are connected, many historians cannot agree on the “who,” “where,” and “when” of the mountain bike’s invention.

History of Mountain Biking

Although mountain biking is sometimes seen as a recent sport, its roots can be found in the latter 1800s and its history is one of invention, evolution, and fierce rivalry. Although the history of the mountain bike and the bicycle are connected, many historians cannot agree on the “who,” “where,” and “when” of the mountain bike’s invention. 

Before getting into the how of mountain biking, let’s tackle the when. It’s an interesting story. 


When Did Mountain Biking Come About?

The origins of mountain biking are a topic of debate. The Buffalo Army rode bicycles off-road as early as the late 1880s, but many people give Joe Breeze the credit for creating the first mountain bike in 1978. However, more modern day mountain bikes were made in the 1970s from retrofitted beach cruisers in the 1930s. 

So, to answer that question, we need to ask – what exactly is mountain biking?

The Buffalo troops end up being the correct answer if mountain biking is just off-road cycling. But with many experts in the field referring to Joe Breeze as the creator since they believe that a bike designed specifically for riding off-road is what mountain biking is, the answer gets a bit murky. Adding to the fact that many believe that the sport is created by free-wheeling hippies in California in the 1970s and not a singular person, getting a straight answer as to the inception of mountain biking is not as easy as it seems. 


Now, let’s get into the “how” part of how mountain bikes came about.

The modern version of Mountain biking is generally believed to have begun on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California, in the late 1960s, by the “Larkspur Canyon Gang,” though it’s known that other people rode bikes and motorcycles off-road, as American inventor John Finley Scott created the “Woodsie Bike” in 1953 specifically for off-road riding. 

The answer to these questions boil down to how you define mountain biking: off-road riding with a bicycle, or specialized bikes to ride on rough and uneven ground? The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the sport or activity of riding a mountain bike (a bicycle for riding over hills and rough ground)”. 

In that case, it certainly sounds like the US army wins since it started riding bicycles off-road in 1886.


The Bicycle Evolution 

Bicycles have been around in some capacity for over 200 years, and is quite the engineering achievement. While they might seem average and normal now, they really are quite amazing – free to power, low environmental effect and are wonderful for people’s health and getting them in the outdoors. In many places, bikes give you independence, one of the #1 reasons people love them. Rick or poor, city slicker or country dwellers, everyone can enjoy biking for pressure, exercise, or travel. 

Throughout the last 200 years, the bike has gone through many revisions, design and material concepts as innovation pushed through to create the modern bike – and the modern day mountain bike. 


The Modern Mountain Bike

A gang of crazy hippies from California modified 1930s beach cruisers with motocross handlebars, thick balloon tires, and better brakes in the early 1970s. They loved riding these bikes down fire roads as quickly as they could…which often ended in a crash or injury, but when you’re having fun, who cares? 

With the bikes known as the notorious “Klunker” bikes, the popularity of them only grew and eventually transformed into races.

Known as “Repack races” due to the grease in the hubs leaking out and forcing riders to repack the hubs after every race. Roaring in popularity, these events kick-started some fierce competition and inspired creative minds to make the very first mountain bike-specific products.

By the time of the early 1980s, road bike manufacturers started to take notice of the growing popularity of mountain biking, and created the first-ever mass-produced mountain bike. Still, most people saw the mountain bike as a short term fad, expecting the popularly to die down sooner rather than later. As we can see today, they were quite wrong. 


A brand call “Specialized” made the first mass-produced mountain bike.

A brand call “Specialized” made the first mass-produced mountain bike called the ‘Specialized Stumpjumper’ in 1981, and a modern version of the Stumpjumper is still made by Specialized today. With the first flat handlebars to give better stability, a modified road bike frame along with thicker tubing for added strength and a wider frame for larger tires to handle the terrain of mountain biking, the first Specialized Stumpjumper was a landmark in the world of mountain biking. 

In the late 1980s, mountain biking exploded across America – and the rest of the world. Taking the world of sports by storm, massive mountain bike competitions and events were being covered by live TV studios and channels, garnering millions of viewers and an engaged fan base. 

As you can expect, the world of mountain biking only got bigger. More pro athletes, sponsorship deals, mass media, national and international events created the launchpad for an international sport that wasn’t just something practiced in school sports or on TV – but was something people of all ages and locations could partake in. 

This pushed top-level bicycle brands to meet the demand, and make innovative mountain bikes while increasing the range of mountain bike products and components allowing athletes to get a competitive edge on their opponents. 


Mountain biking has come a long way from the 1800s

The sport has come a long way from the 1800s – and has traveled at light speed from the 1980s. Mountain biking has become a sport that is constantly evolving while splitting into many subcategories, with their own growing communities and subcultures.  Despite mountain biking subdividing into many categories, the communities are forever intertwined and as bikes evolve, some ideas are left in the past while other ideas pave the way for the future of the sport. 

While the story of mountain biking shows the history of the sport, it also illustrates the history and desire of man’s desire for freedom and innovation. It took thought, trial and error, planning, failing, giving up and coming back to triumph for not the very first bicycle inventors to create the bicycle and later on the mountain bike – the same process that athletes and inventors of today go though, constantly push, striving and never giving on the pursuit of greatness. 


The simple bike is just metal and plastic, but has a rich and influential history – and future. 

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