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Repack, and the Birth of the Mountain Bike
RICHARD BALLANTINE writes about the origins of the mountain bike, and the now-famous course that led to its inception.
The great bike boom of the 1970s and the passion for '10-speed' bicycles (and subsequently for BMX bicycles) led, through sheer volume, to mass-production of quality bikes and components. The stage was at last set to give the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), and it's hidebound, sport-biased regulations, a good one in the goolies. Back in the hills of Marin County, California, in the mid-1970s, a small coterie of cyclists started to brew up a new kind of fun. Their idea was simple: they wanted to ride off-road, and to time-trial down steep, rock-strewn trails - in particular, the 1.8-mile, 1,300-foot-drop course known as the Repack Downhill.
Ordinary bikes flinderised when pounded down Repack at 30 mph, and the first successful machines for the new mayhem were adapted balloon-tyre newsboy bikes such as the cantilever-frame Schwinn Excelsior, beefed up with fork braces and various parts from motorcycles. Called Clunkers, the bikes were massive dreadnoughts. But many of the riders were keen cyclists and/or frame-builders, and in a short space of time, by a process of innovation mixed with heavy borrowing from 10-speed and BMX technology, the lightweight, alloy-component mountain bike was born. The first machines were handcrafted and cost a bomb, but demand immediately outstripped supply.
The cycling world greeted mountain bikes as they had BMX – with loathing and disdain. The solid-as-a-rock, chunky-tyre, heavy-duty mountain bike was degenerate, the total antithesis of the featherweight, narrow-tyre racing bike and all that was holy in orthodox, UCI-regulated cycling. ATBs, as the industry called them, would never catch on. Well, in 1981 Specialised Bicycle Imports launched the first mass-produced mountain bike, the Japanese-made Stumpjumper. Happily, the legions of Asian manufacturers who attended the 1981 New York Bike Show wanted to use their manufacturing resources to sell bikes rather than fete the UCI. They swarmed over the Stumpjumper - at times the bike literally disappeared beneath a blizzard of measuring tapes and callipers - and within months there were a dozen copies of a machine that was itself, a copy of an original born on the Repack Downhill: the Ritchey Mountain Bike.
The regular cycling world never knew what hit them. Accustomed to the chronic use of hype to flog 'look-alike' bikes, their view of the mountain bike was similarly jaundiced: just hype. They never saw what was before their eyes - a lightweight, exceedingly rugged, high-performance bicycle - or anticipated that the new machine would find its greatest use not in the mountains, but on glass-strewn, potholed urban streets. Look at the names on the bikes. You won't find that many from old-line, pre-1980 firms. A revitalised cycle industry produced a genuine people's bike that sells because it works in the real world.
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Mountain and Off-Road Bikes
My whole day is built around meetings that can be achieved around bike rides
Jon Snow, UK Newscaster