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« What is the problem? | Main | Talking of Bicycle Evolution »

Evolution: The Mountain Bike

In my last article I was outlining a talk I gave recently to a group of some 80 people here in Charleston. The subject was the Evolution of the Bicycle, and I had reached the period around the 1950s when my own interest in bicycles began.

In October 2009 I wrote a series of three articles here on the history of frame design, where I covered the 1960s and 1970s in Part II and Part III. I see no point in repeating myself in this piece, so I will jump ahead to the 1980s and talk about the Mountain Bike, something I have not touched on previously.

There was a bike boom in the mid 1970s in America, this was part of the fitness movement. European road bikes, which were for the most part fully equipped racing bikes, were being imported into the US.

The boom lasted though most of the 1980s. This was the time that I came to the US, and like the various importers of European bikes, my business was very successful during this period.

While this was going on, a separate group of bike enthusiasts were building and riding off-road bikes. People who included Tom Ritchey and Gary Fisher, and many others too numerous to list here.

Below is a picture of an early Tom Ritchey bike. Note its laid back angles, standard size tubes and level top tube.

By 1985 I realized the Mountain Bike was a serious entity, and I decided to build one. I had previously had a lot of experience in cyclo-cross before coming to the US, and I thought there might be a slot for a lightweight, very fast off road bike. Being lightweight it therefore needed to be ridden with some finesse.

The bike is pictured below; its angles not much different than a road geometry, and the tubing was Columbus SL road tubing. Note that the handlebars are extended out directly over the front wheel, positioning the riders weight evenly between the two wheels. It even looks fast.

The picture (Below left.) is me in the mid 1970s riding cyclo-cross, on a bike with dropped bars, that differed only slightly from a road bike.

The problem was with my MTB, unlike a cyclo-cross bike, the wheels and tires were far too strong and heavy for the fame tubing. People did not know how to ride cyclo-cross style, or were not even interested; instead the bikes were being used as stunt bikes, being jumped on and off picnic tables and the like.

A lightweight frame with no suspension, and an adult on board is never going to take that kind of abuse. I only build 50 MTBs, a few have survived.

The Fuso Mountain Bike is a misfit that doesn’t really belong anywhere.

In retrospect I could have built it with oversize tubes, added front suspension, and it might have been successful.

But to be honest my heart was not in it; after a lifetime of building, racing, and riding road bikes, to do so would have been "Selling my soul to make a buck." 

I moved on to do other things; there are no regrets

My take on why the Mountain Bike took off when it did. There was a whole generation of young adults who had grown up in the 1970s with BMX bikes; they remembered how they used to perform jumps and stunts. The MTB was possibly seen as an adult version of a BMX.

For the general public too, here was a bike that was easier to ride than a road bike, with its upright position and fat tires.

Do you remember in my last article how the High Wheeler bike of the late 1800s was the first enthusiast’s bike? A degree of fitness and athleticism was required to even get on a ride the Ordinary. When the Safety Bicycle came along, it opened up cycling to the masses; soon after mass production made it affordable too.

I believe history repeated itself with the mountain bike; the road bike never really caught on with the general public. It requires a certain level of fitness and athleticism just to ride a road bike.

Many road bikes were sold in the 1980s, but only a fraction of them ridden to any great extent; evidence of this is the number of 1980s classic bikes in almost new condition, including ones I built that come up for sale from time to time, on eBay and Craig’s List.

The average American is keen to try different sports, but only a few will dedicate the time and effort to reach any level of expertise. Typical was a man I worked for in Oregon in the 1990s; he would take three separate one week vacations spread out over a year.

He would go skiing one week in the winter; spend another week sailing, and one more week playing golf. I doubt he was any good at any of these sports but at least he could participate. Riding a road bike is not like that, had he spent one week a year riding a road bike, he would have suffered horribly.

When Tom Ritchey and Gary Fisher and others developed the first mountain bike, I’m sure there was nothing further from their mind than the BMX bike. However, the BMX bike influenced the design and manufacturing procedures of MTBs in the early 1990s, and of road bikes built today.

The BMX bike was basically a one-size-fits-all frame, welded and cheap to produce. The welding technology was around in the 1980s when I built frames but I could not have sold a welded frame back then; my customers would not have accepted it. The Mountain Bike was new and many of its customers had grown up with welded BMX bikes.

Manufacturers could not make one-size-fits-all frames, but they could get away with S, M, L, and XL. Tee shirt sizing had come to bikes. In contrast, I used to build 19 different sizes in one centimeter increments.

Look at the three bikes below; a BMX, a modern MTB, and today’s road bike and tell me that one did not influence the design of all three. Evolution once more, brought about mainly by what suits the manufacturer, as it always has throughout history.

Footnote: As this is more recent history that many of you may have experienced firsthand, I would be interested to hear your take on this period

Reader Comments (15)

Hi Dave

Love it when you write on bikes, design and the technology - you speak from real experience, not every blogger does. In the above article you write "Many road bikes were sold in the 1980s, but only a fraction of them ridden to any great extent". You're right about that but not just in the US, it was also true in the UK. In my experience road bikes at this time were modelled on real racing bikes. I turned to cycling in the late 80's when I was approaching forty and bought one of the road bikes - 531c throughtout, Smimao 105- I didn't find the position an issue as I was measured correctly for the frame, stem etc. The issue was the gearing. Like all road bikes at the time it was equiped with 53/39 chainrings and a racing straight block. For someone essentially just starting cycling again it was over geared. I lived in a fairly hilly area and the climbs killed me, I didn't have the fitness for the high gearing - there were no truly low gears. In the end it hung on the garage wall and five or so years later I bought a Gary Fisher 'Pine Mountain' which was ideal for me at the time. As I built up fitness and equiped it with slick tyres for the road it became undergeared and as the road rather than the trail was my passion I bought a new road bike but this time equiped with a triple and a more spread out cassette from another great British frame builder Chas Roberts. Last year I bought my latest road bike a top end tinanium racer from Condor with Campag Chorus - it is the most wonderful bike to ride. I'm now 'cycling fit' ride 200k Audax, time trial and ride hill climbs at the end of the season. But I spec'ed the Condor Moda with a compact chainset, I'm in my 60th year, I am not a semi-pro racing cyclist in my late teens early twenties, I would still stuggle at the end of a long day, on a steep climb on a racing double. A racing chainset with a straight through block is still innapropriate for the majority of leisure riders. It's the equivalent of using a F1 car as the family car. Many LBS in the past gave poor advice to those wanting a road bike, the maunufacturers didn't help and partly contributed to the decline in the use of lightweight road bikes.

March 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJonnyvelo (uk)

I worked at a bike shop in San Jose in 1989 that carried your frames. It is one of the few regrets in my life that I didn't buy one of your Lux frames while working there.
More to the point, the shop owner had one of your mountain frames, fully built up with top-o-the-line Deore XT and light wheels. Even more to the point, he let me ride it twice. It remains one of the best mountain bikes I've ever ridden - nimble, very responsive and incredibly light. The fastest climbing mountain bike I've ever ridden. Do you still have the measurements for those frames? I'd love to get a copy made some day.

March 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJFern

I now see another evolution taking place before our eyes. That is the "City Bike" or practical urban transport. While I do not see myself buying one of these any time soon, I see many builders (hand builders as well as production shops) having one or more models available. Is this a trend demanded by the people, or is this something that is a new idea by many builders thinking its time has come?
I am sure there are pockets around the country where these bikes are popular. Where I live it is not so popular. I do see that older adults seem to be attracted to the city bike format, just like the mountain bike did in the 80s and 90s.

March 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Campau


After having my road bike for a year or two, I saw your version of the mountain bike and thought I wanted one. You were ahead of your time with regard to bicycle weight. I was at the time a roadie, racing USCF races, a bike shop mechanic, a bike club director, a USCF race official, and a sometimes coach. I test road just about every bike made at the time. The road bike choice was easy after climbing aboard a Fuso. The mountain bike choice was tougher, ultimately having Gary Klein build the bike.

I was happy to read your comments on your MTB, they somewhat echoed my perception of it and now lay to rest any regrets over not having had you build one for me. The only comment I would add is the bike was too aggressively angled as it required a skilled and not tired rider to stay aboard it. Think criterium angles versus road angles. I wouldn't have wanted to ride a Masi criterium frame in a long road race but I was very comfortable riding the Fuso in a crit.

My final comment is in regard to frame fit and the rider. It appears that this has been gradually changing as perceived by me watching the current crop of elite racers. Am I wrong in the perception that rider position has been lowered? The leg angle behind the knee appears greater now, hinting at a lower seat position. In the 80's, the standard was 7~10* at the bottom of the pedal stroke. What else has changed in positioning?

Jim #985

March 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJim

Mountain bikes evolved past Dave's bike setup to a style a little more "Moto". That is, the bars were higher and farther back. In the early days of MTB, the ex-road riders influenced bike design and position. But as BMX and other motos joined the ranks, we became award that the road position, although impeccable on the flatter courses, was not the best position when one hit a steeeeep drop. Hence we saw the 'riser' bars, and, eventually shorter stems as well. On a particularly steep section of motorcycle trail we called "Depth Charge" my buddy Craig experimented with an adjustable stem until the back wheel stopped coming up on the steepest sections. Even now that the MTB tribes are separated into different disciplines we still see cross-pollination from one discipline to another. Thanks for the great blogs, Dave!

March 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDoug P

Looking at the geometry of those early MTB's, I imagine Jan Heine would be proud :)

In the late 80's I was a young lad of about 15 when I bought my first "real" road bike. A Centurion. It was designed as a sport bike rather than an all-out racing rig. It has 12 speeds (of course, Campy can now fit 12 on a single cassette) and indexed shifting on the rear. I think it was one of the first years Shimano produced indexed shifting. It was such a brilliantly designed bike that it is my favorite ride even today (yes, I still have it). I wonder how bicycle evolution would have changed if more bikes like this had been designed for the not-quite-pro set.

I too prefer a 'cross bike to a pure MTB - though I own an MTB and not a 'cross bike. I may need to rectify that.

Keep up with the excellent blogging. I enjoyed your series on frame building last year as well.

March 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterToddBS

Dave, this post prompted a lengthy reminisce which I posted on my blog.

I started riding MTBs in the early 90s, in fact it was MTBs that brought me back to my childhood love of bikes. I never much cared for the Xtreme antics of downhilling though and my tastes moved on. More than anything I loved long fast-ish rambles on cow tracks or fire roads, and as mountain biking "matured" as a sport those rides became inaccessible, and bikes became too slack with too much suspension.

That Fuso would have been pretty ideal for the kind of riding I loved 20 years ago.

I recently came across drawings for Finley Scott's "Cow Trailing" bike ... it's hard for me not to fall in love with the idea of a bike like that.

March 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Souders

I don't think there was any specific evolutionary aspect to the development of so-called "mountain bikes" within the cycling context itself. It parallelled similar popularity of motocross bikes in the motorcycle world, and SUV's in the automotive sector. In all 3 cases, most of these vehicles rarely put rubber down on less than paved road surfaces, and there was never any logic behind their popularity.

That mountain bikes were a response to "uncomfortable" racing bicycles is misleading, because the real mountain bikes were no more comfortable for the average Sunday cyclist than road bikes were, unless the same thing was done as with the road bikes: higher handlebars. If anything, they were grossly more uncomfortable than other more traditional types of bikes that were still on the market at the time, but soon disappeared thereafter. Properly-fitted, a mountain bike had the grips as far or farther away than road bike bars, and not much higher.

One attraction for the non-cyclist, as I recall from those early days, was the triple gearing. It allowed easier, if much slower, ascending of hills. But, judging from my experience with family members and friends, most mountain bikes never got out of the middle ring in front, and gears were rarely changed in back.

Another advantage was not so much the comfort of big tires, which the public had not seen since the days of balloon tires, but the perceived greater stability. The average joe or jane felt less likely to tumble on those.

But, I still don't know why off-road vehicles became popular, motorized or not. All I can guess is that it came along at the same time as our roads became more and more un-rideable due to increased volume and speed of automotive traffic.

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPierre

This is quite interesting and perhaps there will be a son-of-Fuso-MTB as "all-rounders" are becoming more popular. The availability of cross bikes you can ride out to the trailhead is encouraging since I believe most buyers of MTBs do not actually ride off-road or at least not on technical courses. I recently watched the movie about the Leadville race and was surprised that most of the course looked to me as if it did not require a suspension-equipped bike (well, there was a nasty section along a powerline right-of-way).

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSprocketboy

Hi Dave, This is a great subject. I worked at two different bike shops from 1976 through 1988. Working at a Schwinn retailer we received a newsletter from the
Schwinn factory once in a while that had the latest news, trends etc... in the industry. Called the "Schwinn Reporter" I recall an article about the "New Mountain Bike" and there was a picture of a guy pedaling up a steep climb on one of these "new bikes." Years later I figured out that that rider was Tom Ritchey. Anyway, BMX was big, and being 6' 2" tall I was just too big to ride a 20" wheeled bmx bike. Beach cruisers were good sellers as we were located 5 miles from the ocean.I kept thinking to myself wouldn't it be great if someone built an adult BMX bike except put some gears on it so you could ride up hills. As a child I adventured into local hills with my "Stingray" and always had to push it up to the top of a hill to ride down. Anyway, when the article came out (circa 1983 / 1984) I couldn't wait until these bikes were available. Being an employee at a Schwinn / Peugeot retailer, I took a Schwinn 'King Sting" frame with a Cook Bros. fork, brazed on cantilever brakes and adapted a Phil wood 5 speed rear hub with a suntour freewheel that had a 38 tooth low gear ( I believe). This was my first "mountain bike" until Schwinn introduced their "Cimmaron" production mountain bike. I later realized that by the time they released this that there were many other better bikes available. Specialized Stumpjumper, Ritchey, Fisher ect... yours included. Schwinn management was too conservative and they really missed the boat at the time, but that's another story. Soon after this I started working at another bike retailer that sold every hot brand of mountain bike and the owner was wise enough to bring in the latest "trick" bikes. I soon ordered an Ibis custom steel frameset, sold my truck to pay for the bike and commuted by bus until the frameset arrived.Ibis had a chart that you fill out with various body measurments and Scot Nicol asked such things as "what type of riding do you intend to use the bike for? This was 1986, I still own this bike and ride it as a commuter. It fits like a glove. I put well over 10,000 miles on it the first year as I had a 15+ mile one way commute six days a week, plus a Sunday dirt ride.I use a current Cyclocross race bike as my road bike. With 'cross" gearing I'm able to still comfortly climb and and still have enough top end to keep up with most riders. After comparing your pictures of the three bikes, I feel designers are trying to: 1.Keep the frame size as small as possible for a given size as this makes it stiff, light, and reduces cost as less material is used to make them. 2. Trying to limit the amount of different sizes made to cut costs. 3. A lower center of gravity. I'm not an expert, but just by observation and knowing that bicycle business isn't and hasn't been wonderful (I still know many people involved), This is my take. Of course technology has played a part as well. My Ibis was considered "state of the art" back then, but now is antique with the latest products. I agree with other responders that the majority of mountain bikes (and for that matter road bikes) are purchased by those hoping to get in shape and have some fun, but most lose interest at some point and the bike ends up sitting idle. Unless you are really serious or have lots of self discipline, you will never be comfortable on any bicycle without a good fit for size, a saddle that fits your rear and enough upper body strength to be able to relax and control the bike at the same time.This, in my opinion is obtained by frequent riding, stretching, diet and rest. And ,Dave, referring to a past writing of yours ( about the Brooks saddle) having a saddle that fits. Without this, you will not ride very far. I'm willing to bet that if you asked the average person (not a regular rider) why they don't ride or quit riding etc... the number one answer is "My butt hurts" when I ride. Of course those of us who ride frequently know that your "sit muscles" need to be trained for the bike seat, not just the couch. Great article Dave. Thanks as always!

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

Great article, thanks Dave. I think the urban mountain bike has grown over-developed, hence the current popularity of the fixed wheel bike. More on my own blog: Mountain Bikes going downhill.

March 10, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterThomas Guest

Cool post and I agree with some of your views on the evolution of the mountain bike. If your story continued into the modern era of mountain bikes, there would be even more to discuss. The suspension revolution changed everything and now mountain bikes have split into different groups, depending on your interest - cross country, downhill, freeride - and various cross overs of each. The terrain ridden and speeds hit would have been unthinkable in the '80s (or even '90s). Do a few downhill World Cup searches on YouTube for examples.

I've been riding mountain bikes since 1984 and worked in a shop from '81 - '84 or so, and witnessed the start of mountain biking - at least from a production bike stand point anyway. I still ride and occasionally race mountain bikes to this day - as well as road ride and dabble in 'cross.

I think the initial attraction to mountain biking was the adventure of it all - get out in the woods, away from cars, etc. People also discovered they were more comfortable for casual road riding as well - low gears, upright bars - and compared to road tires, no flat tires. I don't think there was much of a direct BMX influence as far as riders. BMX has always been it's own little world.

As for frame construction - I'd agree. Road bikes started to copy mountain bike frames, partly because it was cheaper - TIG welded. Plus with sloping top tubes, can get away with less frame sizes. Also, with the popularity of the mountain bike, the sloped road frames started to look "normal".

I'd agree with some of the comments that many mountain bikes were never ridden off road - in the '80s and '90s. Not any more. Here in bike crazy Seattle, most are road bikes. Most mountain bikers today, truly are dirt riders.

In a way, the mountain bike boom of the '90s helped fuel the road bike sales in later years (as well as Lance). Many mountain bikers later picked up a road bike, once they discovered how much faster it was for road use. These are folks that may never have picked up a road bike in the first place.

Your Fuso mountain bike reminds me a bit of the production Bridgestone mountain bikes of the '90s. They were designed to be lighter and quicker then what was out at the time. I was big fan and owned a MB-Zip at the time. I owned a few Fat Chance bikes as well.

The '90s was also the hey day for cross country racing and the bikes reflected that - for better or worse. Similar to most modern road bikes are patterned after race bikes. For some people - great. For more casual riders - maybe not so.

As I mentioned, the suspension revolution changed everything and for the most part - for the better. Take a dirt demo on a modern 5" travel "trail bike" with disk brakes dual suspension - total weight in the 25 pound range. If you haven't ridden a mountain bike since the early years - you're in for a shock (ha - get it?). That type of bike works for everyone, from racers to casual trail riders. You don't need to fly downhill to dig it - it works everywhere.

Want to stick with something semi-old school? Try a 21 pound hardtail (front suspension only) or a 29er (700c wheels). Both huge fun and appeal more towards XC riders and racers. I fall in that category myself and I'd bet most readers of this blog also would.

Mountain biking is also awesome for kids. No roads, no cars and being in the woods. My 10 year old son rides and races with me. Super cool father/son time and way less stress then riding on the road.

As you can tell, I'm a huge mountain bike fan - but also road ride and commute a lot. I consider myself a "cyclist" - not just a roadie or mountain biker.

If you haven't mountain biked in years, or never tried - give it a go. It's almost impossible not to like it. Take advantage and enjoy the benefits of the evolution.

March 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDan O


For what it is worth, I have that Fuso Mtn. bike you are using for this blog.

Still have all the original parts on it. I am not a mtn. biker but just got lucky this time owning this. Don't have a plan for it yet but will let you know when it happens.


March 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRonald Lau

I bought my first nice 531-Campagnolo road bike in 1971, when I was 15. I rode more than 50,000 road miles in the next two decades. When mountain bikes first came out, I tried a few and wasn't interested much. But about ten years ago, I discovered the joys of exploring the backcountry on a responsive, comfortable, non-squirrelly machine. Since then, mountain biking has become 99% of my cycling. I'm not interested any more in putting my life in the hands of unknown persons. Kentucky, where I've lived for the past 8 years, has beautiful but narrow roads with no shoulders.

March 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLarry

Hi Dave. yours is the first thing I read! ! Iremember your "Black Beauty" bike reviewed in cycling weekly and your setting up in the US around the time my local builder Colin Laing left here for Arizona. Yesterday??? Seems like it.
Anyways what I can tell you is that in the early 60s mountain bikes were a feature on the hills in ESTON area of Teeside. Thats right. the 60s.
lets build what I and every kid rode on the disused mine and rail tracks. Cow horn handlebars with a masonary naiil through the stem clamp to keep the bars upright. Another in the seat clamp. A 30 tooth crank set off a kiddies bike to give a low gear and clearance. Cyclo cross rubber studded tyres if your Dad bought them. The shops all sold them as they were so popular. Long reach side pulls were kept in place by coathanger wire thruogh the brake shoe slot and hose clips on theseat stays. Forks were reinforced with steel rods running from a headset plate to the fork dropouts.
Rember this is Teeside home of the steel industry and every ones Dad seemed to have access to welders and machine tools. Ther were dozens of refinements but all built from doner bikes. The craze died out when I was 12 or so. About 1964 or so. I have tried for years to find photos but cameras were reserved for weddings !!
Got to go back to work regards JIM

March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJames Reilly

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