Off-Road Bikes

When we think of riding a bike in the dirt we automatically think of mountain bikes. The global spread of mountain bikes certainly made cycling more popular than ever but we think it's important not to overlook the ‘other’ dirt bikes; cyclocross, BMX, cycle speedway, trials bikes and their derivatives.

Lift your eyes from the road and what's there? Fields. Hills. Mountains. Tracks. Bridleways.

Way back in the dawn of cycling, Baron Karl von Drais was perhaps the very first off-roader. Bumping along the forest tracks near Karlsruhe in Germany, he could have had little inkling that one day the roads would become so good, not only for cyclists, that cyclists would want to escape again to the rough tracks of the countryside. Early cycling was ‘off-road’ because roads as we know them simply hadn't been invented and it was actually the popularity of pedal cycles which created the demand for smooth surfaces and the subsequent widespread adoption of tarmac as a road surface material.

Cycling has long had an off-road side to it, cyclocross racing which is as popular as ever, grass tracking, and cycle speedway all have long histories. The 1950s and 60s were the heyday of British 'rough stuff' cycling, a term created by cycle tourists for whom the lack of a road was little obstacle (The rough Stuff Fellowship). The bikes were tourers, probably with hand-built wheels for extra resilience, and rough stuff was the off-road journey you made to link the road sections of a route. But none of these were mountain bikes.

In the 1970s, a group of American cycling enthusiasts took the heavy American cruiser bikes and began an anarchic series of race meetings in Marin County. Their bikes had coaster (back pedal) brakes, and moderating the furious descent created enough heat to burn off all the grease in the hubs. At the end of each run down the mountain the hubs had to be stripped and repacked with bearing grease. So the course, and the race, became known as The Repack.

The reason that these bikes had such a performance advantage over anything that had gone off-road before was the wheel size, the uniquely American 26 x 2 1/8” standard, introduced by Frank W Schwinn in 1933. It had a large air volume and correspondingly large footprint which rolled well on dirt and gripped well in the corners. The first few Re-pack races required the use of a pick-up truck to carry all the bikes back up the hill after every run. The brilliant innovation which transformed these bikes from mere ‘Klunkers' onto mountain bikes was the adoption of technology which had started appearing on bikes being imported from Europe. Multiple chain-rings and long arm derailleurs allowed the riders to pedal back up the mountain, cantilever brakes with motorcycle levers provided greatly improved braking performance. Before long bespoke frames were being designed and built, lighter components added. A phenomenon had been born which was set to change the world of cycling profoundly and forever.

As mountain bikes increased in popularity and entered volume production, high prices dropped and components started to improve in quality. To the bike buying public these machines were a revelation, people brought up on heavy roadsters or five speed ‘racers' could suddenly afford a light bike with plenty of gears, reliable brakes and the flexibility to move briskly both on and off-road. Mountain bikes had made cycling cooler and more fun than it had ever been before.

In the twenty plus years since mountain bikes first appeared in the shops we have seen a complete transformation. Back then mountain bikes had steel frames and forks. Geometry was little different from those first Repack klunkers, cantilever brakes, friction shifters controlling 15 gears and a very limited range of suitable equipment, most of it adapted from other fields. Now? Steel frames have all but disappeared from the middle and upper end of the market, replaced by aluminum, titanium and, increasingly, carbon-fibre composite monocoque. Instead of five sprockets on the back wheel we now find up to ten, indexed shifters are now ergonomically designed to be operable whilst keeping ones hands firmly on the bars and braking. Short-arm cantilever brakes have disappeared, replaced by more powerful linear-pull brakes or even by hydraulic discs. And suspension has transformed the way we ride, available from 80mm travel on forks for lightweight XC bikes to over 300mm travel on the rear of some down-hill and free-ride bikes. Modern mountain bikers now have to consider things like platform-valving, high and low speed compression and rebound damping, pivot location, floating shocks, actuators, lock-out, oil viscosity and axle paths. But the biggest transformation of all is how the breed has fragmented; once upon a time a mountain bike was a mountain bike. Now we a have spectrum of specialists, choose your weapon; indestructible twelve inch travel free-ride, light, fast short travel cross-country, fully rigid single-speed, 4X, all-mountain or back country, hard-core hard-tail, dirt jump or fully loaded expedition mountain bike. Trail bikes, trials bikes, mud bikes. Snow bikes. All different, all mountain bikes.

In an ironic twist the twenty six inch tyre introduced by Frank W all those years ago, the very thing which made the invention of the mountain bike possible may now be under threat. Not completely satisfied with the success of the recently introduced ‘twenty niner' for its ability to roll over trail imperfections better than its 26inch grand-daddy, some manufacturers are now pushing yet another standard, the 650b (what Americans call the 'twenty-seven-and-a-half-inch').

The technological development of the off–road bike is far from over.

None of the Re-pack racers could have imagined that the simple act of bolting a triple chain-set onto an old Schwinn cruiser would have such a monumental influence on so many people's lives and would transform a whole industry. Without knowing it, they changed the world.

A Bike Culture article about The Rough Stuff fellowship.

A Bike Culture article; Repack and The Birth of the Mountain Bike.