Mountain Biking: A (Super Condensed) History of the Sport

Mountain Biking A History of the Sport

If you’re looking for the invention of mountain biking, you’re gonna need to do some digging. Like so many things, there’s plenty of information (and misinformation) out there to sort through. Luckily, we here at Dirt Gloves have done that heavy lifting for you. Although our sport strikes many as a decidedly contemporary activity, mountain biking has a long, rich history. Most point to the 70s and 80s as the point of inception for mountain biking, but the sport actually goes back much, much further than that. From its 19th century, military-only application, to today’s need-for-speed, thrill seekers’ sport, we’re going to go through the sport’s storied past.

It’s perhaps no surprise that mountain biking was developed out of necessity. In the 19th century, roads generally weren’t paved (or maintained at all). Early cyclists were forced to ride off-road, just by nature of the world around them. One of the first examples of cyclists modifying their rides to suit these off-road conditions though was the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps. To put their customized rides to the test, the men planned a particularly rough ride. In August of 1896, these riders rode from Missoula, Montana to Yellowstone -- and back. Even by today’s standards, that’s a heck of a ride. Their test was a success, and the following year, they rode even further.

In the early to mid-1900s, off-road bicycling was then used to keep cyclists in shape during the offseason. This activity was very similar to modern-day cyclocross - lots of short laps around rugged terrain. Cyclocross enjoyed moderate, but growing success in the mid-1900s.

But, between 1951 and 1956, the Velo Cross Club Parisien (VCCP) perhaps were decades ahead of their time. This french cycling club customized their bikes to ride on trails in France. The riding they did was remarkably close to modern-day mountain biking. Throughout the next couple of decades, the sport continued to gain ground, until the MTB renaissance of the 70s and 80s.

Marin County, CA is generally regarded as the birthplace of modern mountain biking...and for good reason! In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a group known as the Larkspur Canyon Gang rode vintage, 40s-era single speed bikes on Mt. Tamalpais, and all throughout Larkspur, CA. These bikes featured old-fashioned, balloon tires, earning the group the nickname “Ballooners”. Word of their exploits traveled far and wide, and mountain biking began to grow into (something like) its modern version.

One group that took a special liking to these Ballooners was the Velo Club Tamalpais (also in Marin). This small group of amateur racers restored vintage bikes as well. They would often source and strip down these vintage rides, retaining little besides the frame, tires, and simplistic drivetrains. Their customized bikes eventually were named “Inch Pinchers”, for the one-inch-pitch drive trains they featured.

The Cupertino Riders were another group of noteworthy, Marin-area,  70’s-era cyclists. Sometimes known as the Morrow Dirt Club, they fixed thumbshift-operated derailleurs and motorcycle-style drum brakes onto their bikes, to help them navigate up and down the robust South Bay environment.

About this time, the world got wind of these teenagers’ exploits. Famed bicycle manufacturer Joe Breeze is typically known for making the first purpose-built mountain bike. But, a man named Tom Ritchey was the first to bring mountain biking to the masses. Tom teamed up with friends Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly, and John Frey to build frames for mountain-biking, founding a company called MountainBikes. Sidenote: As it would turn out, this company was later purchased by Trek. These frames are still available as Trek’s “Gary Fisher” line.  

In 1980, the first proper mountain bikes were mass-produced: the Specialized Stumpjumper and the Univega Alpina Pro. Large companies like Schwinn and Fuji saw mountain-biking as a passing fad, and were happy to ignore the phenomenon. Meanwhile, new startups like Specialized made bikes exclusively for the mountain-biking community. In fact, Specialized's mountain bikes basically copied Tom Ritchey's frame geometry -- aside from a few welds that made for easier mass-production.

Throughout the 90s and 2000s, mountain biking moved from a niche activity to full-on, mainstream sport. Mountain bikes and mountain biking gear could now be found in any standard bicycle shop, and later still, the now-everywhere 29er was invented.

And that’s where we are now! Mountain biking has come a long, long way since the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps rode to Yellowstone. Hell, it’s come a long way since the Marin crews of the 70s. With all that progress in mind, we’ve gotta wonder -- what could be next?