Tinkering With Cruisers: The USA In The Mid-Late 1970s

In the mid-1970s that a group of riders started tinkering with old, heavy cruisers that they modified specifically to race down steep mountain-side trails. This was the start of mountain biking as the sport that we know today

Mountain biking has been around in one form or another since cycling began, although it was not originally known by this term. When cycling was invented, back in 1817, there were very few paved roads so people had to ride ‘off road’ on dirt tracks and trails. Then in 1896, a team of Buffalo Soldiers embarked on an expedition from Montana to Yellowstone and became one of the first to modify bicycles to be used specifically off-road. 

However, it was only in the mid-1970s that a group of riders started tinkering with old, heavy cruisers that they modified specifically to race down steep mountain-side trails. This was the start of mountain biking as the sport that we know today.

The USA In the Mid-Late 1970s

During this time, there were several groups of riders in different parts of the USA who can claim to have taken part in the start of mountain biking. Groups of friends in Crested Butte, Colorado and Cupertino, California (aka The Morrow Dirt Club) tinkered with their bikes and adapted them to the difficulties of off-road riding on steep mountain trails. In addition, a group of Marin teenagers known as ‘The Larkspur Canyon Gang’ raced vintage single-speed, heavy cruisers in the mountains just north of San Francisco.

These different groups became known for their daring exploits and their ‘kick-ass’ attitudes, earning themselves the status of local legends. It wasn’t long before the media began to take notice, plus the riders themselves were spreading the word. Larger and larger groups began to gather and the sport of mountain biking had begun.

Joe Breeze, Tom Ritchey, Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher all became household names in the mountain bike world and can be credited with making the first purpose-built mountain bikes. However, they all started off remodelling old, heavy cruisers with innovative thumb shift-operated derailleurs and drum brakes operated with repurposed motorcycle brake levers before manufacturing their own mountain bike brands.

Joe Breeze is credited with developing the first dedicated mountain bike frame and went on to form the brand Breezer bikes where he still works as the frame designer today. His prototype mountain bike frame, the ‘Breezer 1’is now on display at the National Museum of American History.

Tom Ritchey is a pioneer in mountain bike frame building and the founder of Ritchey Design. His innovation and design of bicycle components have won him many awards and he was inducted into the Colorado Mountain Bike Hall of Fame back in 1988.

Finally, Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly have been credited with coming up with the term mountain bike way back in 1979. The former roommates went on to found the company Mountain Bikes later that same year, which then became Fisher Mountain Bikes and was eventually bought by Trek. Mountain Bikes was the first company to specialise in this type of bike.

Why Use Old Cruisers?

This new breed of dare-devil riders were exploring new terrain. They hurtled down rough mountain trails at high speed which caused normal, road bike frames to break. As purpose-built mountain bikes were not even heard of at this time, the riders started looking for a more durable alternative. 

They soon found that old cruisers, and especially 1930s and '40s Schwinn bicycles had the frames they had been looking for and they could be picked up at garage sales relatively cheap. The riders then retrofitted these old ‘klunkers’ as they became known, with better brakes and fat tires which helped them increase their speeds and hone their skills.

The old cruisers were stable and strong enough to carry heavy loads which made them popular with paperboys, bicycle couriers and students back in their day. However, by the 1970s they were being replaced by the lighter and quicker European style racing bikes and the classic cruiser was being left behind.

These strong cruiser bicycle frames became cheap and easy to find secondhand and so they became the predecessor to modern-day mountain bikes. The Schwinn Excelsior model was the frame of choice for most riders due to its geometry and its robust, heavy frame weighing in at 23kg. Riders added balloon or fat tires and modified them with gears and BMX-style handlebars to make riding up and down steep mountain trails easier. 

Re-Pack Races

Meanwhile, in Marin County, California, “Re-Pack” racing was becoming hugely popular. The first event ever was held on the 21st October 1976 and is credited as the start of mountain biking as a sport.

The race got its name “Repack” because the coaster brakes on these old cruiser bikes had to be ‘repacked’ with fresh grease after every descent. Repack racing served as the main testing ground for the early modifications and innovations that were crucial to the early development and evolution of the mountain bike. 

Joe Breeze, Tom Ritchey, Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher were all early participants in these Repack races with Fisher and Breeze still holding the fastest times on the course to this day. In total there were 24 Repack Races held on the original course with 22 of them held between 1976 to 1979. The last two Repack races, in 1983 and 1984, were held more for old time’s sake. After the last race in 1984, the Marin County land and water management made it clear that the Repack Race could no longer be held. There was little objection as the race’s time had come and gone and mountain biking had become an established sport.

In just over 50 years, mountain biking has grown from being a fringe activity to a massive global outdoor movement, and even an Olympic sport, which can all be attributed to these early pioneers.


Mountain Biking History - Marin Museum Of Bicycling

The Roots of Dirt: How Mountain Bikes Went From Clunkers to Global Phenomenon - Wired Magazine

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