Mountain Bikes going downhill

2010-03-10, Comments

Ritchey Mountain bike

In yet another great blog post, Dave Moulton discusses the evolution of the mountain bike. He starts by setting the scene:

There was a bike boom in the mid 1970s in America, this was part of the fitness movement. European road bikes, which were for the most part fully equipped racing bikes, were being imported into the US.

Sadly many of these bikes were barely used. No wonder so many classic road bikes from this period end up on ebay in mint condition. As Dave Moulton says:

The average American is keen to try different sports, but only a few will dedicate the time and effort to reach any level of expertise.

It’s true. A thoroughbred road bike is an unforgiving machine — just looking at the saddle is enough to make a grown man wince. Add skinny tyres, handlebars you need to bend over to reach, gears calibrated for hardened professionals, and you have a machine all too likely to stay in storage. You need to be fit and confident to enjoy riding a road bike.

You even more confidence to ride off-road, though. You’ll need to be fitter, too. Cefn Bryn, at the back of my house, is popular with mountain bikers. The gradients are steep. The paths are muddy, edged with gorse, and strewn with gritty nuggets of bryn stone: tough on foot, treacherous on wheels.

So why ever did the mountain bike catch on?

Dave Moulton:

My take on why the Mountain Bike took off when it did. There was a whole generation of young adults who had grown up in the 1970s with BMX bikes; they remembered how they used to perform jumps and stunts. The MTB was possibly seen as an adult version of a BMX.

Maybe. I think he’s right to associate the mountain bike’s acceptance with fun and leisure, rather than exercise. But it’s the next paragraph which rings true with me.

For the general public too, here was a bike that was easier to ride than a road bike, with its upright position and fat tires.

Right! And let’s not forget decent brakes. Those low gears, designed for use on hills, make zipping across town a snip. Urban riding is about starting, stopping, negotiating obstacles. A mountain bike performs well.

I bought my first mountain bike, a Specialized Rockhopper, in Sydney, where I worked for three months as a bike courier. It did the job admirably and performed equally well in the same role in Melbourne. It wasn’t the fastest machine to take on the great Victorian bike ride, but we never went further than 100km in a day. It was a reliable, solid bike for touring the Tasmanian hills.

The Rockhopper came back back with me to England. I ended up in Cambridge, one of the few British cities where bikes are truly popular for getting about, where it served me well until someone stole it.

A few years later, in Bristol, I acquired another mountain bike. I can’t remember what brand. I got it second hand from a colleague who was trading up to a full-suspension model: I just wanted something sturdy enough to attach a child seat. If you’re carrying a child, you want comfort and safety.

The point is: I never used my mountain bikes off-road. A classically-styled mountain bike is not the 2 wheel equivalent of the ridiculous, grid-locked 4 wheel drive. Their design is sturdy, versatile, and well-suited to general road use. Hence their enduring popularity. My children’s bikes look like mountain bikes. The bargain bikes you pick up in supermarkets look like mountain bikes.

Raleigh Diva

Unfortunately, what a mountain bike looks like has changed. In an effort to persuade people to upgrade, manufacturers keep adding new features. Isobel’s bike has suspension: that’s what kids’ bikes come with now (and let’s not mention the hand bag). Combine this spongy suspension with a heavy steel frame and knobbly tyres, and you’ve got a clumsy, energy-sapping machine.

Full suspension MTB

I’m convinced the current trend for fixed wheel bikes is a reaction against the over-engineering of the urban mountain bike. Some off-road features have no place in a city. A fixie is simple, nimble, direct. A fixie can be fast, too. It has direct power transmission and few moving parts. The fastest cyclist on the planet rides a fixed wheel.

ride your bike in the rain, Brenton Salo, Flickr

The fixie won’t catch on like the mountain bike, though. Oh, I’m sure manufacturers are delighted to cash in on these stripped-down machines; they’ll hold on to the surplus cogs, derailleurs and shifters until people realise they need them. Without gears, cycling is too much work, especially for a beginner. Pushing a bike up a hill is neither cool nor fun.

Bad Boy 700

I reckon Jonny has the right idea. His matt black Cannondale Bad Boy 700 comes within a whisker of being camp (you Bad boy! you), but it’s just about perfect for urban use: no suspension, sealed bearings, disc brakes, slick tyres. Its stealth finish won’t ever look dirty. And look at the range of gears!

Not everyone can afford a Cannondale, though. If manufacturers truly want to benefit from the fixie they should cross it with the mountain bike. Then we’d have something simple, safe, accessible. Something cool enough to be seen out with. Something so much fun to ride it won’t get left in the shed.


Thanks to Brenton Salo for kindly allowing me to use his cycling in the rain photo.