While we can trace back the usage of a two-wheeled transportation vehicle to a long time ago, in this article, it’s all about how bikes started to be used for off-road purposes. From humble beginnings as means of transportation only to huge international competitions and a massive community of those practicing it recreationally, mountain biking has really come a long way.
Interestingly enough, first bikes that were adjusted for the purpose of off-road usage are related to the military. Buffalo Soldiers used off-road bikes for their expedition from Montana to Yellowstone in 1896, and the Swiss military had a permanent unit of their army on off-road bikes even earlier, in 1891. In terms of sports, road racing cyclists employed off-road bikes as a means of staying in shape throughout winter months, and it grew to become a sport of its own in 1940s. Nowadays we know it as cyclocross, and it usually takes place in winter or autumn and includes many laps on steep hills, trails in the woods, paved paths with obstacles and spots where the racers need to carry their bikes. Cyclocross bikes are becoming increasingly popular among mountain bikers that ride not only during cold seasons due to their versatility.
Experimentation with design and suitability for different terrains started in 1960s, when The Rough Stuff Fellowship was established in the UK and later on, when a well-known motorbike trials rider Geoff Apps started creating innovative bike designs that were lightweights and suitable for wet, muddy, slippery road conditions. 1970s is a period when the real beginning of the sport can be traced back to. Notably, several biking enthusiasts from Colorado and California worked tirelessly to adapt bicycles to the off-road conditions and started competitions where riders would race down mountain fireroads, which were known as “Repack Races” (the hub brake would intensively burn the grease inside and the racers needed to pack additional bearings).
This type of biking really picked up in popularity, and in the early 1980s, the manufacturing of extremely light weight and durable bikes became a thing. The first ever mountain bike built with a purpose in mind is credited to Joe Breeze, but the first company to start producing mountain bikes was Mountain Bikes (later Fisher Mountain Bikes) established by Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly, John Frey and Tom Ritchey. From there on out, accesorization, customization and adaptation to different means really escalated and groups of people interested in mountain biking started gathering in mid 1980s. No specific mountain biking trails existed at that point, so they are also seen as the pioneers of freeride mountain biking.
With all that in mind, mountain biking was still viewed as a short-term fad by many. Large manufacturers did not recognize the newly emerged form of cycling and mass production of mountain bikes was carried out by the previously mentioned Fisher Mountain Bikes company. In doing that, the small company proved all the industry giants wrong as in 1990s mountain biking became a truly mainstream activity, with devoted supporters and even pro riders. This established the foundation for the popular mountain biking scene we can see today.