An American Icon died on Friday. On the last day of November he took his final jump into the next realm. What makes this man an icon? He was the first to do what he did, on the scale that he did. All who follow are merely imitators.
Evel Knievel passed on at 69 years, a relatively young age by today’s standard, but maybe not so young when one considers the punishment he put his body through over the years.
I don’t know what effect this man had on the sport of motorcycling, or motorcycle design; but I believe the design of bicycles, and the way they look today can be traced back to Evel Knievel.
The moment this larger than life character began appearing on television in the 1970s performing these seemingly impossible jumps, every boy child in America went out the very next morning and built some form of crude wooden ramp and attempted to jump on his bicycle, to emulate Evel Knievel.
The heavy cruiser bikes that had been popular through the 1950s and 1960s were too heavy for jumping, and the bicycle of choice for all young boys eventually became the smaller and lighter BMX bike.
Early BMX bikes were built with a brazed lug construction the same as all other bicycles. Soon manufacturers realized that these frames could be welded far cheaper than brazed lugs, because, after all, children are not interested in the niceties of lugged construction.
Fast forward to the 1980s and another entity is developing, the Mountain Bike. Initially a sport of “downhill racing,” hence the name mountain bike. Mountain bikes were also built, using lugged construction, with level top tubes, and using the same standard size tubes as a road bike. Head angles on early MTBs were a shallow 69 degrees; like I said, designed for riding downhill.
Move forward again to the late 1980s and a genuine mountain bike-racing scene had developed, just as there had been a BMX racing scene. However, not all kids became BMX racers, and not all adults who bought a mountain bikes used them off-road.
The generation from the 1970s who as kids had emulated Evel Knievel, were now young adults and saw the mountain bike as a reincarnation of the BMX bike. These people were not interested in racing or riding down mountains, they wanted to jump over stuff, and perform stunts, just like when they were kids.
I remember a proliferation of MTB magazines in the 1980s. Each had a picture on the front cover of a rider on a mountain bike in mid-air doing some seemingly spectacular jump. A low camera angle made it appear the rider was several feet from the ground, when in reality he was probably at a much lower altitude.
The magazines showed pictures of people “Bunny Hopping” on and off picnic tables, and performing all manner of spectacular stunts. With all the abuse these bikes were recieving, it became necessary for manufactures to “beef up” the frames by using larger tubing, as well as adding suspension.
Larger tubing meant that frames had to be welded, because there were no lugs available for the oversize tubes. Welded frames were not accepted on road bikes at that time, but MTB customers were used to welded BMX frames. There is something about the look of a welded joint; it has an “Industrial” look, utilitarian, strong and very masculine.
The first idea the mountain bike borrowed from the BMX bike was the “Uni-crown” fork. In reality, this is a “No-crown” fork, with the round fork blades curved at the top and welded directly to the steering column. Cheaper and easier to produce than a brazed crown fork.
By the mid 1990s manufactures had borrowed another concept from the BMX bike; namely the sloping top tube. With the resulting longer seat post, manufactures were able to get away with building less frame sizes.
Once this look and concept was accepted, it was not long before road bikes were being made in this same style with welded joints. Throughout history, bicycle manufacturers and framebuilders have used cost-cutting ideas, and then sold it to the customer as an advantage.
A classic example of this was the notion in the 1970s that braze-ons weakened a frame. Leaving the braze-ons off a frame saved a tremendous amount of time, and was a cost cutting ploy that was sold to the customer as a benefit. When braze-ons reappeared in the 1980s there were no wholesale frame failures. Where was the argument that braze-ons caused a weakness?
People can argue that a sloping top tube frame is stiffer, but the pros in Europe are using both level top tube frames and sloping; there is no huge difference. So if anyone has cause to wonder why a road frame has a sloping top tube? The main reason is that it benefits the manufacturer who has to produce less sizes.
The practice became acceptable because of the mountain bike. Mountain bike design was influenced by the BMX design; not so much by public demand, but by manufacturers realizing welded frames, built in fewer sizes is cost effective.
The BMX bike had a sloping top tube for no other reason than style. Just as the old cruiser bikes of the 1950s and 1960s sometimes had fake gas tanks. The sloping top tube of the BMX bike represented the upward slope of a motorcycle gas tank. Because after all as its name suggests, the BMX (Bicycle Motor Cross.) is a bicycle pretending to be a motorcycle.
The popularity of the BMX bike is closely linked to the popularity of Evel Knievel, which is why I say that he indirectly influenced the design of all bicycles today.
Just this one man’s opinion, and one that no one is obliged to agree with. It is an opinion that I have held for many years, at least since the late 1980s. I felt that I couldn’t let the passing of Evel Knievel go by without sharing my views.