To talk about the history of mountain biking in Britain, we must begin in America. Or maybe France. Or maybe…
The one thing everyone agrees on, is that no-one agrees on the true origin of off-road cycling. In reality, when bikes were invented there were very few proper roads, so people will have been riding off the beaten track since day one of the bicycle's history.

Indeed, there are documented cases of riders doing routes that look pretty serious by today's standards from as far back as the nineteenth century. The fact that they did it on incredibly heavy, solid tyred machines makes it all the more incredible. Early signs of a movement gaining pace came from the Rough Stuff Fellowship, which formed in 1955 and embraced the idea of leaving the road and utilising the UK's trails and bridleways. These are the spiritual forefathers of mountain biking in Britain, but what we are looking at is the first time people caught the imagination of the masses and the bicycle industry by regularly riding bikes that you could race down a sketchy mountain track in one piece (or thereabouts), and then ride them back to the top again.
The chain of events that got mountain biking as we know it started was Repack.

The 1979 Klunker Tour line-up. Photo by Wende Cragg
Big Tyres, Bigger Hair
The Repack course was an old dirt road in Marin County, USA. In the early 1970's local cycle enthusiasts would take their fat-tyred old cruiser bikes from the 30's and 40's, also known as Klunkers, and bomb down the track on them. The road dropped 1300 feet during it's course, and the antique brakes fitted to the bikes saw some real action. So much so, that after one or two runs the grease in them would have evaporated and the hub brakes would have to repacked with new grease- hence the name.

As word spread about the trail, people wanted to prove they were the fastest, and in 1976 the first organised, timed race was held. Over the next three years there were 24 races, and as the series developed, so did the bikes. Now legendary riders like Joe Breeze and Gary Fisher took their klunkers and bolted on derailleurs, motorcycle brake levers, thumbshifters and so on and created the prototype for the mountain bike.

In 1977, Joe Breeze produced the first all-new off-road bike, and by 1980 Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly were assembling frames made by Tom Ritchey into complete bikes under the brand name MountainBikes. Come 1982, Specialized had begun selling mass produced Japanese-built off-roaders at prices people could afford, and the seeds of a revolution were sown.

Gary Fisher's 1974 klunkerA Repack race flyerSpecialized Stumpjumper
Cromoly in the UK
Back in Britain, the revolution was a few steps behind, but the signs were starting to show.
A few motocross inspired pushbikes emerged in the late seventies, notably the Raleigh Grifter with it's seminal twist-grip gear change, but it was mainly a child's council estate cruiser and not at home off-road. What we needed was a change in attitude- and it came in the shape of the BMX.

Compare a BMX to a mountain bike, and there's not a lot in common. Chunky tyres, strong frames- but no gears, tiny wheels and weighing as much as an Austin Allegro. What the BMX did for the development of mountain biking was to show people that you didn't need tarmac to have fun on a bike, that you could use a bike to get places and do things you wouldn't normally think of.
Racing dirt tracks, jumping trails, stylin' it on a half-pipe; you couldn't do these things on a regular bike and as the craze swept through the country it hooked a lot of people on bikes for life.

With these new horizons open, it was a few short years before people wanted bikes that could take them further, get them over hills and go faster. As the BMX kids were growing, they wanted bikes that had grown too.
The revolution going on in the states filled the gap perfectly. With their twenty-six inch wheels, grippy tyres, decent brakes, light, strong frames and gear ranges that went low enough to take on almost any hill, the Mountain Bike was the bike Britain was waiting for.

Several in-between affordable bikes came along in the early eighties; the 1981 Raleigh Bomber had dirt tyres and a burly frame and was taking the shape of a mountain bike, but it took something special to really catch peoples imaginations.

 

>Part 2: The Neon Years

The photos on this page are taken from Richard's Mountain Bike Book, by Charlie Kelly and Nick Crane and published by the Oxford Illustrated Press. They are used to illustrate what I'm talking about which comes from a love of mountain biking, so I hope nobody minds too much. If this piece has stirred any interest in you, you must read this book, with first hand accounts of the birth of mtb'ing and much more detail. An mtb bible...