The history of Mountain Biking can be traced back to the mid 1970's when the sport of road bicycling was rapidly developing. It was at this time when the collective world turned its attention to the skinny-tire British-inspired 10-speeds that a few thrill-seekers in the state of California turned a modest hobby into a legitimate market that’s stood the test of time.
Calling these early fat-tired combinations of spare parts “Klunkerz”, it was a small group from Marin County who treated conquering Mount Tam on bicycles like a profession. Road bike racer Gary Fisher and his partner Charlie Kelly made their way to the quiet serenity of Marin County where they met Joe Breeze, a fellow innovator with similar ambitions. Names like Joe Breeze, Otis Guy, and Tom Ritchey may not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but it was this ensemble of characters that began building purpose-specific off-road bicycles from a hodgepodge of part-sources (including pre WWII steel frames and motorcycle accessories).
While this crew wasn’t the first to put wide tires, flat handlebars, cantilever brakes, or even derailleurs, on a bike built for riding on dirt, they did spawn what we’ve come to define as Mountain Biking today.
Surprisingly, aside from frame material itself, the overall layout of what constitutes an off-road bicycle hasn’t changed much in all the years.
Perhaps the biggest innovation to find its way onto the mountain bike in recent years has been the introduction of front and rear suspension.
Suspension forks (front suspension) hit the scene the late 1980s and, despite small pockets of rigid frame holdouts, has proven to not only increase control but make for a more comfortable ride. What was once a unique gimmick run only by a select few has become standard equipment on nearly every modern mountain bike made.
Rear suspension (shock) also arrived in limited production near the end of the 1980s. Like the suspension fork, there has been some debate to the effectiveness of adding weight and complexity to the bicycle in exchange for bump absorption. For the most part, the shock has proven to keep riders in control in a wide variety of terrain situations while simultaneously improving rider comfort level. These days rear suspension setups arrive in a wide variety of travel numbers and linkage configurations, each attempting to maximize performance while minimizing weight.
Disk brakes were introduced in the early 90's and have also made quite a difference when it comes to performance enhancing innovations. Disks are more reliable in more situations and have nearly limitless power when compared to some of the older cantilever style brakes that they replace.
Other innovations have come in the form of frame material selection and manufacturing efficiency. These days the biggest advancements in frame materials include use of carbon fiber and Scandium alloy. Other advancements along the way include indexed shifting, the threadless headset, and hydraulic disc brakes not unlike those found on motorcycles and automobiles.
All of the innovation has, expectedly, led to specializations within the sport: Riders today have more choices than ever before when selecting a new mountain bike depending on what type of terrain they wish to ride and the skill level of the rider. While there is no official breakdown of the specializations offered, the following is a general guide to making sense of the many labels.