The approximate history of the mountain bike is well known. Take a bike with big tires and a coaster brake, and ride downhill. This Marin county crew preferred the quality of the Morrow Coaster Brake hub manufactured in Elmira, NY.
The Morrow is tough, but many old hubs from various manufacturers have made it down the mountain. New Departure, Benelux, Schwinn, Shimano and others will do. They will all be smoking at the bottom of the hill, and they will all require to be repacked with grease. The Morrow claims, “Sturdy, sure.”
Add some better brakes to go faster. This is Joe Breeze’s 1974 adaptation of an old Schwinn frame. He reinforced the fork and bolted some cantilever brakes to the frame.
Dig through a bin of motorcycle parts for some wide handlebars and stout brake levers. In lieu of brazing cantilever posts to the frame, find an old drum brake and build it into the front wheel. Charlie Kelly bombs downhill; jeans and a heavy jacket keep him from losing skin while shredding through turns.
Convince your buddy to add a derailleur hanger to your frame to attach some gears. This rider shows some surf-inspired bicycle handling. Gears and a drum brake allow greater speeds. Edit: Previously identified as Gary Fisher, this rider may actually be Mark Greene, according to a reader.
Gears, brakes and tires…
Get a whole group together to race downhill. After every descent the hub must be repacked with grease. Call it Repack Hill and design a flyer for local advertisement. Charlie Kelly is in the center, while Gary Fisher displays the height of fashion– bellbottom riding pants. Drum brakes abound.
And start a magazine to report the events.
Riders in Crested Butte, CO had similar ideas. The town was full of old ballooners, and mountains rise on all sides. Early organized rides and races solidify the act of riding bicycles in the woods as a proper sport.
Crested Butte has always had a sense of humor, and a sense of purpose.
As is often told, a group of boastful motorcyclists from Aspen mounted and descended Pearl Pass into Crested Butte. Several of the Crested Butte drinking elite were challenged by the arrival of the Aspenites. Thus, they pushed their balloon tire bikes up the pass and rode down into Aspen to carouse at the local bar. The Pearl Pass tour is born. Within a few years, Marin riders were coming to test their gear and join the fun. For many years, a keg of beer makes it’s way up the mountain. Charlie Kelly’s account of the Pearl Pass tour is essential reading. A race is nice, but a tour has spice!
Further developments included custom forks, and eventually custom frames. In 1977, Joe Breeze installed a custom fork onto a vintage Schwinn frame from 1937, as seen in Crested Butte.
By 1981, seven Breezers built by Joe Breeze made their way to the Pearl Pass tour in Crested Butte. In the navy blue sweatshirt is Charlie Kelly, then Joe Breeze to his right. The last two on the right are Steve Potts and Eric Koski. Breezer frames, as well as custom Ritchey frames were the pinnacle of tough, purpose built klunkers. No longer were they so “clunky”, and a new name was to be born.
In 1981, Mike Sinyard released the first mass-market bike for dirt roads and trails. Modeled after custom Marin frames by Tom Ritchey, this Japanese-made bicycle was about half the price. Note: TA cranks and Mafac brakes from French touring bicycles, Tomaselli motorcycle brake levers, and American-style balloon tires and rims. In fact, lightweight aluminum Japanese Ukai rims allowed these bikes to be ridden uphill, as well as downhill. The Stumpjumper allows consumers to sample fat tires, and fuels the craze. Within a year, other manufacturers begin to catch on.
The Stumpjumper tire predates the frame by a year. Several early Specialized tires established the company, including popular touring models.
But Stumpjumper was only a popular bike. These ballooners would eventually be called Mountain Bikes, the name of the company founded by Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly. Tom Ritchey was responsible for building many of the early Mountain Bike frames, as well as many frames produced under his own name. Mountain Bikes would eventually become Fisher, and then Gary Fisher bikes. In the letter below, Charlie Kelly admits that the first multi-speed ballooners he ever saw were entered in a cyclocross race in 1974 in Marin Valley. As such, Gary Fisher did not invent the mountain bike.
On the same letterhead (borrowed from Bike Forums), Gary Fisher explains to Geoff Apps in England that 650b tire offerings are enticing, although availability is an issue. The young entrepreneurs are unfamiliar with import proceedings. He cites that 650b rims are not entirely unknown in the area, but the large volume Nokian Hakkepeliitta tire is nonexistent. The Hakka is a Finnish tire designed with a knobby rubber tread and steel studs. It’s a winter tire, but with the studs removed it fits the bill on dirt.
From several years prior– Tom Ritchey experimented with 650b mountain bikes and the Hakka tire. This 1977 Ritchey was on display at Interbike this year and shows a refined approach to mountain bikes and the unknown future of mountain bike wheel dimensions. These tires still feature steel studs.
A mix of French and Japanese parts, inspired in many cases by the French style. A Campagnolo front derailleur rounds out the bunch.
Stronglight needle bearing headset and Super Champion rims, both of French origin. A Huret Duopar rear derailleur shifts the rear.
This is probably the most aggressive tread pattern available at the time, although cruiser American bikes often used larger volume tires. The Hakka was also available in 700c sizes and was influential in early 28ers, and 29ers– large-volume 700c adventure bikes. The Bruce Gordon Rock’n’Road tire, designed by Joe Murray, borrows heavily from the Hakka. Eventually, supply issues force the 26″ balloon tire into the mainstream.
Classic Ritchey fillets. Check out this fantastic video about Tom’s career as a racer, builder and innovator. The video is product by his son Jay, who is also involved in the industry. Most recently, he spent several years working at Rivendell, selling and designing 650b all-terrain bikes, among other things.
Within a few years, mountain bikes had standardized and specialized as seen in this 1985 race model ridden by Joe Murray. Bullmoose handlebars were beginning to disappear by this time, although these used a clamp-on attachment similar to modern threadless systems, rather than the flexible, heavy insert often associated with quill stems. Joe Murray was a top racer in the day, and has designed bikes for Kona, Merlin and Voodoo. Note, the bike features only two chainrings which simplified shifting duties. Double systems are en vogue once again for mountain bikes. Further, SRAM has released a revolutionary 1×11 system recently.
Still plenty of tinkering: This 1984 Ross frame was made in Allentown, PA and was available at a fair price. The owner of this bike was obviously inspired by the drop-bar designs popularized by Charlie Cunningham, and raced by Jacquie Phelan.
A custom Ibis with a interesting approach to a chainring bash guard.
A short-wheelbase Don McClung design from Salida, CO.
Suspension forks and indexed shifting would change the game, as well as disc brakes and eventually, new wheel and tire sizes. Mountain bike history is dense with experimentation. However, the spirit of mountain bikes is best understood through the early personalities. The MTB Hall of Fame inaugural class of 1988 is a nearly complete list of my greatest cycling heroes. Charlie Kelly and Jacquie Phelan top my list for their commitment to the cycling lifestyle and clean living. With the quote below, CK is a new hero.
Charlie Cunningham made many advancements in bicycle design. His bikes were capable climbers and racers, and set records for being lightweight. He is the strongest early proponent of aluminum bicycle frames, influencing the shift away from steel. His first creation was a modified road bike with larger tires and drop bars, before designing and building his first purpose-built bike.
Joe Breeze’s early bikes were fun to ride downhill.
Jacquie Phelan always rode a custom Cunningham frame, often with drops bars. She would beat a lot of the boys, and could outspeak, outwrite and outwit many of them as well.
Wendy Cragg was often along for the ride…
Other notable figures from Marin include Tom Ritchey, Gary Fisher, Otis Guy and Alan Bonds.
On the other side of Marin County, a group of friends were riding bikes in the woods in the early 70’s, but they weren’t the entrepreneurial type. They were just out for a good time.
And John Finley Scott, a Marin resident who had been experimenting with big tires, brakes and gears since the 50’s. He called his converted Schwinn diamond frame a “woodsie bike”.
Our arrival in Crested Butte on fat tires over Schofield Pass is a fitting homage to mountain bike history and a reminder of what fat tires are all about. For us, and for many others, fat tires go new places.
Looking out at Mt. Crested Butte, in the reflection of an old Stumpjumper advertisement photographed near the Butte.