The Neon Years
In the mid-eighties the Muddy Fox Courier went on sale. This wasn't the first proper mountain bike available to us, Richard Ballantine and Richard Grant had shipped a batch a Ritcheys into the UK as early as 1980, but it's image caught everyone's attention. As the name suggested, the Courier was perfect for bicycle deliveries in the city streets and this image of darting in and out of traffic jams in snug fitting lycra shorts appealed to a lot of people.

Truth be told, most Muddy Fox owners didn't do much courier work, except the odd 9pm pick-up from the Chinese take-away, and relatively few tested it's off-road capabilities, but the thought that you could sold a lot of bikes and provided a huge market for these 'new' machines.

Mountain Biking in Britain grew steadily over the next few years, and by the early nineties it had become a big part of youth, and not-so-youthful culture. A steady stream of bikes had been imported from America and Europe for years, and British companies like Orange were making serious bikes available to everyone.

Several MTB magazines started appearing on the shelves, there were programmes on TV and mountain bikes were everywhere. The neon colours of the original Muddy Fox's bled through into shorts, gloves, helmets and sunglasses, and a painfully bright new era in British cycling had dawned.

yellow, purple and green- what could be more right?An early RockShox forkMuddy Fox Courier with essential wheel disc
Mountain Bikes from the beginning of the nineties look a little dated by today's standards, but give or take a few gears they are identical to what we ride now. At this time frames were almost all steel, but aluminium or even Titanium were available- if you could afford them. The average steel, proper bike weighed a little less than thirty pounds and had no suspension.

Rock Shox introduced their first commercial suspension fork in 1990, and, although they rose to become almost standard equipment in a few short years, acceptance did not come instantly in the UK. This was mainly down to price and weight- suspension forks were inherently heavier than rigid ones and the complete antithesis to the weight = BAD ethos of the times. A halfway-house came along in the shape of the Girvin Flexstem- a jointed stem with shock absorbing rubber between the upright and flat parts. It worked, kind of, but as suspension forks became more commonplace it fell into obsolescence.

Things moved fast for mountain biking in the early nineties, and a dual suspension bike or two became commonplace at the top of every manufacturers range. First designs were woefully crude by today's standards, but by the mid nineties the designs were reasonably well sorted and much more plentiful.
It's no coincidence then, that the period from around '95 to '97 saw a huge increase in the popularity of downhill mountain biking in the UK. With British riders like Steve Peat and Rob Warner getting encouraging results on a worldwide stage, combined with sexy full-sus bikes, body armour and danger, how could it fail?

Well, the fact we don't have many world-standard mountains in this country doesn't help. Though there were some decent descents, the thrills 'n hills combination was spoilt slightly by the lack of ski-lifts to take you back up to the top! The emphasis had moved from weight-shaving to bulletproof builds, and dragging forty-plus pounds of bike back up the hill took some of the fun out of it.

No such thing as a Free ride
Marketing men and women are nothing if not observant. No sooner had someone pointed out that riding a big-geared lump up a hill was hard work, than we were treated to the Freeride bike.
The concept of Free Ride, or Playbikes as they were also known in 1997, was simple. So simple, that most of us were doing it already! Downhill, uphill, trails, singletrack- any good ride would take in all of these, but the magic of marketing managed to convince a lot of people that we weren't actually having fun unless we were doing it on a 30lb, medium travel full-sus bike with a triple chainset and riser bars. Thanks for the tip, but I was doing just fine with my hardtail!

On the plus side, market demand encouraged some real innovation in suspension. Today, the emphasis in full-sus has moved towards distinct designs for separate disciplines- super-light cross country racing whippets and full on bombproof downhillers, with the slightly lighter, up to date interpretation of the playbike occupying the middle-ground.
While all this was going on, another contender to the 'latest thing in Mountain Biking' title was coming from the most unlikely of sources.

cannondale V700- a typical '97 freeride bikeHow we used to hop- early trialsearly 90s Ferrati Monoshox full-susser
Mate, your bike's shrunk...
Mountain bike trials have been around since the early days of the MTB's short history. Motorcycle trials were long since established, (remember Kick Start?) and bicycle trials were an obvious adaptation. Basically, the idea was to get your bike from one end of a course of obstacles to the other, making as little contact with the ground as you could. A fantastic test of bike control and skill, it's only shortcoming was it's sheer dullness.

Actually, that's a little harsh, but Trials just didn't have the speed, danger or glamour to thrill a large audience. And it would have stayed that way, had it not been for the likes of Hans Rey in America and, later, Martyn Ashton in the UK. These trials riders put showbusiness into the sport and performed breathtaking, spectacular tricks on their mountain bikes that got jaws dropping wherever they did their demo's. Suddenly trials were sexy- everyone wanted a bike their little sister could ride (the smaller the frame the easier it was to manoeuvre), and park benches, steps and bandstands across the country echoed to the sound of 180-degree drop-offs and pedals smacking shins. Currently, trials is the fastest growing area of the sport and the choice of trials frames, parts and bikes has never been wider.

So what is the state of British Mountain Biking in 2003? With nearly ten magazines available at one point, the last four or five years saw a boom for MTB'ing that couldn't be sustained- but until someone invents something a lot better than the micro scooter, there will be no bust.
The latest direction the sport is taking is BSX- or Bicycle SuperCross. Since it's birth in the late '90s the UK BSX scene has flourished, and really caught mountain bikers' imaginations. Whilst bearing a passing resemblence to BMX racing, it has it's roots in downhill but features spectacular multi-rider races making ample use of enormous jumps. The action is great for spectators and we'd all love to do it, so BSX could well point the way to the future of mountain biking. With many riders moving from bombproof hardtails to short-travel full-sus bikes, the action is only going to get bigger.

Wherever mountain biking goes, kids keep loving it and bringing new blood into the scene, and for those of us who've been riding a little longer the fun and the thrill and sense of achievement of riding never really goes away.
Mountain Biking is alive and well in the UK, still taking us places we couldn't otherwise go, still challenging and still plain exciting. Do yourself a favour and go ride. Whether it's endless hills, tramp-laden bandstands or mud as far as the eye can see, everything looks different on a mountain bike.

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