Mountains Crumble, Tim Dawson (2009)

Original article first published in The Sunday Times October 2009

I still remember the first mountain bike I ever saw. It was the early 1980s, and a fellow student at my university brought it back from the United States. I begged a ride, to find that its most remarkable feature was the massive range of the gears — particularly the so-called granny gear — that enabled riders to keep pedalling up extraordinarily steep slopes.

In the quarter of a century since, the vast majority of bicycles sold in this country have been mountain bikes — or at least they have been styled to look like mountain bikes. Now, it seems, that era is over.

Hybrids, designed for town riding, are the biggest sellers today. The rise of utility bikes, with hub gears, chain guards and upright seating positions, has also taken a chunk of the market, as has the fashion for folders and fixed-wheel bikes aimed at urban hipsters. And our seemingly limitless enthusiasm for racing bikes — fuelled by the success of Chris Hoy, Mark Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins, Victoria Pendleton and Rebecca Romero — has turned another section of the market from knobbly tyres to racing slicks.

“Mountain bike sales fell off a cliff a couple of years ago,” says Carlton Reid, executive editor of the industry magazine BikeBiz. “There is still a lively — albeit diminished — mountain biking scene, but sales have really shifted to other kinds of bikes.”

At heart, I am not really a mountain biker, but the prospect of mountain bikes disappearing from our shops saddens me — for exactly the same reason that the rise of all these other kinds of bikes gives me cheer.

Ever since Raleigh struck lucky with the Chopper in the 1970s, fashion has been the prime driver of cycle retailing in Britain. And with the rise of each new fashion, finding any kind of bicycle that was unfashionable became absurdly difficult.

Until two or three years ago, it was extremely hard to buy a utility bike in this country. Some cyclists felt forced to travel to Holland or Denmark to pick up a sensible runaround. Others bought a mountain bike, then spent a further £40 on road tyres as soon as they got it home. For those who wanted a fixed-wheel bike, the usual route was to build your own.

Enthusiasts for lightweight racing bikes would usually be served by a single specialist shop in a big town — or, more likely, buy by mail order.

Today, most big bike shops will have something to show all of those niche consumers, which is a good thing. Not least because it makes poking around bicycle shops fun, which in turn drives sales.

So just because general-purpose mountain bikes have had their moment in the sun, let’s hope they don’t disappear altogether. If nothing else, because the pleasure to be had from scaling a vertiginous slope on two wheels and virtually falling down the other side, is no less life affirming than it was all those years ago.

TD Oct 09

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