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Did Brits invent the Mountain Bike?

30/06/2012

Mike Daly, tongue in cheek, puts the case

As an Englishman I like to feel that Britain is the true home of the Mountain Bike. However, if indeed it was the product of “eccentric British engineering genius”, it definitely falls into the category of being yet another idea that we British didn’t bother to pick up and run with!

This is not an article about technical engineering though. It’s about a phenomenon that lasted no longer than three years in a town in the North of England – Birkenhead – which has several claims to fame but of which this is not one of them. At least not yet!

It’s probably fair to assume that the phenomenon did not occur just in Birkenhead. It could well have happened in many other places in the UK. I’m only aware of one other possibly similar instance, which I haven’t yet researched [the Bogwheelers of Darlington, as described on page 151 of The Spaceframe Moultons by Tony Hadland], so for the moment it’s Birkenhead in the lead for the invention stakes.

First of all let’s consider what a Mountain Bike is. For this definition there is no better source than the book titled The Birth of Dirt by Frank J. Berto, an American writer and professional cycle engineer who has been involved with Mountain Bikes from their inception in the USA.

In his book, FJB states that a Mountain Bike should include six essential features, namely:

1. 26″ Tyres, at least 2″ wide.
2. Flat, roadster style bars.
3. Derailleur gearing.
4. Good brakes, using either drums or the cantilever system.
5. Off road use – and
6. Be of Marin County USA, origin.

It’s also worth noting – again according to FJB – that mountain bikes were invented around 1970 in the USA. Remember this date!

So what do we have? A bike that’s been beefed up to accommodate riding across rough ground, up, over and down mountains and no doubt across muddy river beds.

At this point let me start to explain where I’m coming from with the title of this article, and hopefully you’ll see at the end – or maybe earlier – how I can even question the origin of the Mountain Bike.

I want to take you back to England in 1958. This was still a rather tired little country even though the war had been over for thirteen years. Children and teenagers made their own amusements. If somebody in your street owned a television it would have been bought on credit, and would have been an attraction for visitors because they were still quite rare. Cars were the property of the well-to-do and life as such carried on very much as it had done before 1939, although drastic changes were only a few years away.

I was thirteen in 1958 and had a burning desire to own a motorcycle! However not just an ordinary road going motorcycle, but a scrambler! (Moto Cross Bike) This desire had been fuelled by watching scrambling on television. (Somebody else’s I hasten to add!) Every Sunday afternoon I would watch Arthur Lampkin, Jeff Smith, Dave Bickers and others roar around muddy fields, flying through the air with perfect balance and performing such acrobatic feats on two wheels that I became well and truly hooked.

As a thirteen-year-old in the North of England in 1958, the chances of obtaining such a machine were what dreams were made of. But I was not the only thirteen year old with this dream. There were many others and, by some trick of fate, we had all built bikes that resembled as closely as a bike can, one of those motor cycle scramble machines. We called our machines “Dirt Trackers” or “Track Bikes”. [Not to be confused with the single-speed, fixed-wheel, lightweight racing bikes, traditionally referred to as track bikes.]

I now ask for the reader’s tolerance as I dive down into the well of memory and produce details of a typical “Track Bike” that would have been state-of-the-art those days. Most of the following details refer to my own bike.

1. The Frame – The type of frame used would have been a normal cycle frame from a basic road bike, certainly not a lightweight or a racer. I used a Raleigh Trent Tourist that was quite strong although rather heavy.

2. The Wheels and Tyres – The wheels were 26″ with a 1 3/8th inch steel rims, again as found on most “hack” machinery those days. The tyres were “Avon Gripster”, which were the only ones we could find that had a “knobbly” tread. I recall that Avon originally produced these for speedway bikes, cycle speedway being popular those days, but using a different type of machine to those that I’m discussing here.

3. Front Forks – I used a set of Webb girder forks that were originally produced for use on motorised cycles (cycles with a clip-on motor). These forks were similar in some respects to the old style Harley Davidson fork with the girder arrangement and large spring at the top. There was a fair amount of damping but they were a heavy item. These forks were popular with most of the “Dirt Trackers”, being available from a dealer in Birkenhead who had bought a load in a surplus sale.

4. Handlebars – I used a set of handlebars that actually came off a scrambler! Very wide – and heavy – they had a strengthening bar across them and certainly looked the business in bright chrome. Motorcycle handlebars were the norm with most of the other lads.

5. Saddle – a large sprung saddle was used, lowered down as far as possible and the nose taped to the cross bar. There was no technical merit in this taping – it just looked good!

6. Brakes – I used a hub brake unit on both the back and front wheels. Both came off an old tandem and were built into ordinary rims for me. Again they were heavier than ordinary rim brakes, but the stopping power was out of this world, especially in the rain.

7. Transmission – I used 1/8th inch pitch chain with a Sturmey-Archer 4-speed rear hub gear. The ratios used were constantly being changed, I think I eventually got down to a bottom gear of 25 inches by using a rear cog from an old Myford Lathe that had an unbelievable 36 teeth. Of course, this resulted in a top gear of somewhere around 55 inches! Believe me, riding on the road was tiring! To digress for a moment, we never considered the derailleur gear system because we didn’t think it would stand up to the type of surface we rode over. Also I personally felt that a “gearbox” should be self contained and well lubricated, which the old Sturmey-Archer was.

8. Sundry – I fitted mudguards – it rains a lot in the North of England – because they helped give the impression of my fantasy scrambler. I recall that my rear mudguard (fender) was about eight inches long – and was a sawn off section from a Greaves scrambler. Lights were fitted, I had a bracket on the handlebars to carry my lamp unit, and the brake levers were fitted with plastic covers that had “ball ends,” again as scramblers did. The horn was a bulb horn and the pedals basic rubber platform units.

That information should enable you to appreciate just what we were up to in 1958/59, a good ten years before events in Marin County! As an aside, I often think about building a replica which, who knows … maybe one day.

So now let’s get back to the basics of this article. Was the mountain bike a British invention that was born and passed away before the innovators of Marin County came along?

Comparing the British model with the definition in Frank Berto’s book, the result is – with a little bit of end play – this:

a) 26″ wheels – yes, but only 1 3/8th inch tyres, albeit knobblies. Let’s say evens!

b) Flat roadster style bars – I think we’re on the same wavelength here. Dropped bars were certainly never used – evens again?

c) Derailleur Gearing – definitely not, for the reasons explained earlier. However, in the context of applying a wide range of gears – isn’t the concept the same? Maybe a point to the Mountain Bike.

d) Good brakes – absolutely, we are in the same ballpark here!

e) Offroad use – absolutely!

f) Be of Marin County, USA, origin. My only defence here is that if you look hard enough in Marin County you might well find some former residents of Birkenhead!

I think it’s fair to say that, point for point on the above, comparisons between the two machines are pretty similar. Most certainly the intentions behind them are the same even though we used sprung forks before the original Mountain Bike and we used mudguards.

And I also think I’ve managed to produce a fair case to support my theory that Britain produced the first “Mountain Bike” even though it was the product of fertile schoolboy minds. What do you think?

Before I close the article I must relate to you how this country “might have missed becoming a producer of these machines.”

During the building of my own bike, I would spend a lot of time in the local bike shop, chatting up the proprietor about tyres, etc. One day he showed me a catalogue for Viking Cycles that contained a photograph of a speedway bike. These were simple, stripped-down machines used for cinder circuit racing, mainly in the South of England.

What intrigued me was that the speedway bike had an extended down tube that came below the axle, and was supposed to alleviate whip in the frame.

Thinking that Viking must be ahead in thinking in the cycling field I wrote to them about my “Track Bike,” thinking that they might like to build some similar machines, as one does when the shoots of entrepreneurial thinking start to grow. No reply, so I wrote to Raleigh, from whom I did get a reply which went along the lines of: “Thank you for your letter … would not be commercially viable … current range suits all our customers … thank you for your interest … do not feel that it would have a wide appeal … Goodbye!”

Sic Transit Gloria


Tommy Sandham read the above article and wrote:

Enjoyed reading your account of the mountain bike being invented in England. Perhaps it was also invented near Glasgow around the same time? I too watched Jeff Smith on tele every Saturday afternoon. I too had a Trent Tourist frame number ag22212N. I did not have the money or ability to fit telescopic forks, but learnt all about gearing. I must have been the only person ever to ask for and buy alternative gears for a 3-speed Sturmey Archer hub. With my low gear I could climb anything. No use telling you where, unless you know Drumchapel, Glasgow quite well…!!! I’ve driven up some of those hills in my car and wonder how I ever did it on the bike.

I too had lumpy bicycle speedway tyres. Never found them in Glasgow but bought a pair while on holiday in Norfolk. When I went scrambling on my Trent Tourist and you hit a rock, you got a hell of a jar through the wheel, through the bars and into your arms…

Anyway, just thought I’d let you know there are others out there with similar interests and memories!


David Minter emailed from Australia to highlight this fascinating and well-illustrated account of early French cyclo-cross: Think ‘cross is hard these days? Think again.


Brian Morrison wrote from Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, England:

I read the Mike Daly article with interest. My thoughts exactly! I too had a ‘track bike’ when I lived in Essex in the late fifties/early sixties. The way in which I created it was, I now shamefully realise, nothing short of vandalism. A neighbour died and his widow sold me his bike. It dated from the nineteen twenties or thirties and was a Raleigh Gold Vase.

It had some exquisite features such as a rear hub that combined a Sturmey-Archer two speed hub with a drum brake. The front brake was a centre-pull caliper and the handlebars were ‘North Road’ drops on a beautiful extended stem. The frame was finished in black with fabulous gold leaf transfers. With cream celluloid mudguards it was probably 100% original.

What did I do with it? I stripped the frame with ‘Nitromors’, painted it red, fitted ‘cowhorn’ bars, knobbly tyres etc. and made it my track bike. May I be forgiven!

Still cycling at 62, I have a 1980’s Holdsworth Elan, a modern Ribble 7005SL and an MTB but I still wish I had the Raleigh Gold Vase.


Patrick Elsdale emailed, from South Queensferry, West Lothian, Scotland:

I feel I must e-mail regarding, who invented the mountain bike. Well it obviously depends on the definition of mountain bike. However, I add my tuppence worth:

When we were kids in the late sixties early seventies we all had trackers which were a home-built general purpose stripped down bike, usually with 3-speeds and just about nothing else to aid going anywhere we could.

In the late seventies, a year or two after Edinburgh Bike Coop started, I was working there and built a bike with the express purpose of having one that would go up hills as well as down hills. At this time the nearest thing was a clunker, not at all the same thing. This bike was based on a cromo frame with 650 (continental equivalent to 26″) and the fattest tyres I could find which were a variety of zig-zag about 40mm wide, if I remember correctly. Later we found a Finnish tandem winter tyre that was fatter but alas much heavier. The Zig Zag gave an acceptable compromise especially after I chopped up an old tyre and glued bits of it on a bit like a tractor tyre. This gave a lot of grip in mud but a less than perfect ride on tarmac; also after a while bits would fly off. The gears were 5-speed derailleur with a 44 or 46 tooth on the front – it would go up hills nicely! The brakes were more fun, as the frame was built for 27″ wheels. Therefore we had to fit the longest arm brakes we could find. Thus the braking was OK but not brilliant. Bars were straight alloy and a B17 saddle finished it off. There was nothing else like it at the time and everyone thought it was a totally daft idea. Only a few years later I was able to feel fairly smug. This bike actually still exists, although alas is converted to nearer original spec.

A few years after this I built a modified bike specifically as a round town racer, which has reappeared as a Cannondale Bad Boy and also as a Edinburgh Bike Coop Courier. It started with a hand-built short-wheelbase butted frame. To this was added a 1936 K series 3-speed Sturmey-Archer hub for pre-selection and fast changes, running on a mixture of 3-in-1 and WD40, it worked well until it exploded doing a quick start. I replaced this setup with a 7-speed block and bar changer. The rest of the bike was braze-on cantilevers, again, straight alloy bars and a B17. Wheels were mountain bike racing rims, imported at great cost, with 1.75″ slicks. This bike was famous for having steering so quick it was almost unridable, and fantastic acceleration and cornering. The weight was next to nothing.

As an afterthought, I realize the madness never stops. I just very recently built a fast commuter, 1980’s Giant Cadex Carbon/Alloy frame, straight carbon bars, twist grip for the rear mech and the front changer left on the down tube. A sprung B17 (again) and rat trap pedals, subtle. Fairly quick too. On this basis I feel I must claim the first mountain bike. Of course, I assume there will be spurious claims to contradict this. I will be glad to hear your comments.

In a later email, Patrick added:

I think the whole mountain bike thing is as you suggest, something that just happened. As I said above, when I built my first bike it was as something that could handle rough tracks, hills, mud, etc – conditions typically found in Scotland. To me a clunker is essentially a downhill bike. I had a Schwinn and it certainly did not go up hills! My definition of a bike is something one pedals. By this definition a clunker is not really a mountain bike, since you need a pick-up truck to get it up the hill in the first place!

I would suggest that from a UK perspective the first ‘mountain bikes’ that might reasonably fulfil the job description were Trackers from circa 1967ish (that was when I had mine, they had been around longer than that) since they were specifically built by kids to go anywhere. And that included all the sorts of places one might unreasonably expect take a 3-speed bike. They even made knobbly tyres for them! We had cowhorn bars and not much else on them. The whole point was that they were built by the owner, and thus each was different. I do not really have anything else to add to my previous words on the subject, all I know is that no one else was cycling round on a bike that that.

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11 Comments
  1. alan rayner permalink

    Interesting articles about dirt bikes as we called them in the south of england. Living in Portsmouth as a youngster in the fifties we built a type of off-road racer. Again, mine had proper scramble bars bought from Tom Sawyer’s little specialised shop and workshop of St Mary’s Rd. One had to open the stem in order to get them on but we never had a failure. Those old roadsters we converted were tough. Pompey in those days still had many bomb sites, not fenced off as they would be today, and we had great fun making tracks around them. We generally only used single speed and I remember that I got hold of a 24 tooth rear freewheel. Others found 22. These combined with either a 38 or 40 chain wheel gave us good acceleration round our small tracks but were awful on the road, although we could ride up Portsdown Hill to watch the scrambles at Trafalgar Farm without standing up.

  2. Here is a quote from a Bike-Biz article on Raleigh regarding the origin of their 1981 Bomber model…
    When Yvonne Rix became product manager. Following her (1975) appointment, she noticed older teenagers in England riding conventional cycles fitted with dirt track racing handlebars and sorbo protective padding. This observation led her to instigate the Bomber. To get the desired image and line while minimising the need for retooling, the front end came from a bicycle already in the range, a Nigerian roadster providing the sloping cantilevered back end. Equipped with chunky tyres and specially-made handlebars, the Bomber somewhat resembled an early mountain bike but was well ahead of the MTB craze and was developed independently of it. Launched in 1981, it was promoted in an advertising campaign featuring pop star Toyah Wilcox.”

    So bicycles derived from the British ‘Tracker’ tradition did evolve to have fat tyres wider than 2″

    Then there are the bicycles of former ‘Tracker’ bike enthusiast Geoff Apps that could be considered as the pinnacle of Tracker bike evolution. 2″ wide knobbly tyres specified from 1977, custom built reinforced 531 frames, Alloy hub brakes, Alpine gearing etc. These were manufactured in small numbers between 1982-84.

    • Hi Graham,
      Yes, I wrote the BikeBiz article in question! See also my book Raleigh: Past and Presence of an iconic Bicycle Brand, in which you’ll also see mention of my friend Geoff Apps and his Cleland bikes (Cycle Publishing, San Francisco, 2011). They also get mentioned in Bicycle Design: An illustrated history, which I co-wrote with Professor Hans-Erhard Lessing and which is published by MIT Press (2014, paperwork edition coming soon).
      Cheers,
      Tony

      • Hi Tony,

        I have known Geoff Apps since 1984 and own four of his bikes. I have recently been helping as an advisor on a documentary film called ‘Mountain Bike – the British Untold Story’, which will be released next month. I already have a copy of your ‘Bicycle Design: An illustrated history’ and was impressed that you mentioned ‘Tracker’ bikes. Something that most books bicycle design/history omit even though it is an important part of the history of off-road cycling in Britain.

        Cheers, Graham

      • Excellent! That must be the Blue Hippo film – I was talking to Sarah on the phone just the other day. I’m really looking forward to it. One of my erstwhile colleagues was an original Bogwheeler up in Darlington, way back when.
        All the best,
        Tony

  3. Who invented the canter leaver brake system and what was it based on only iknow that one and about the sprung suspensiononthemounts bikes

    • Hi Robert,
      The earliest cantilever brakes I know of went on sale in the UK in 1929. They were produced by a company called Resilion and were mostly used by serious cycle tourists. Resilion produced cantilever brakes for about 30 years.
      Cheers,
      Tony

  4. Mark L permalink

    In 1978 I was a kid who had never heard of mountain biking; I had an old 5 speed “racer” that I stripped down, changed the front chainwheel for a smaller one found at the tip (still on cotter pins – it was a cheap copy UK made “racer”), fitted cyclocross “knobbly” tyres (27inch!!!) and added a pair of wide bars (cowhorns – see note) that had the reinforcing support bar across the middle – I thought I WAS a Motocross rider!!! (Note: around my way, back in the day, cowhorns was the name for wide handlebars not like the cowhorns/bullhorns today – the ones with the raised up ends)

    I did try to bend some brake levers into cranked levers (motorbike style) to get more pull – and for the look of course – but that was a failed experiment – hey I was 14 years old with no engineering skill or tools

    Also I stripped the metallic blue paint and painted it in grey primer trying for a “utility” look (Scott paint job anyone?) Didn’t have fat wheels but I loved it……..I used to ride off road as much as on at that time.

    Before that I had an old single speed ladies tourer (well I was hard up!); stripped everything off, turned the North Road bars upside down (semi-cyclocross I suppose) took off the front brake to put the rear on the right side for more hand power and then fitted the chunkiest tread 26 x 1-3/8″ I could find at the local bike shop, It was dark green and I painted the wheels yellow (they were rusty!) My dad said that was a “tracker” – I had never heard that term before either!!

  5. Nice blog

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