The Birth Of Dirt, Frank Berto (2008)

An enjoyable and apparently definitive exploration of the mountain bike’s paternity

Van Der Plas Publications 9781892495617
15 x 22.5 cm 128pp $18.95

That there should be controversy over who invented the mountain bike just 35 years after the fact seems extraordinary. The key players are all still alive, there is a wealth of documentary evidence and the phenomenon of riding off road has received saturation media coverage pretty much from the outset.

The doubtful parentage of such cycles is due, in part, to the scale of the phenomenon that their arrival sparked. Berto reports that in 1982 5,000 mountain bikes were sold in the USA – rising to 50,000 the following year, 500,000 the year after that and finally to 5,000,000 by 1985. It’s moment in the sun might be drawing to a close, but for quarter of a century the vast majority of bikes sold in the UK and the US have been mountain bikes.

Berto, who worked as a journalist with Gary Fisher in the 1970s, pieces together the story meticulously, accepting as fact only that for which there is corroboration. The bones of the tale are well known. A group of 20-something cyclists in Marin County California started to adapt pre-war Schwinn bicycles for use on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais. When the troves of klunker frames ran out, they stated to make their own, adding derailleurs and rather more effective brakes.

Although based on an academic paper, it is an engaging read – not least because of the wealth of illustration. There is also much to enrich the tale – the author’s own account of riding a Repack race in 1984 and Charlie Kelly’s article on the 1996 reunion, for example. It is hard to believe that Berto has not pretty much nailed the story of the origins of the mountain bike. The story of mountain biking, however, has plenty of mileage left.

Just why did the Tamalpais gang find the environment so fertile for the hobby they enjoyed? A similar group who enjoying much the same off-road thrills came and went in an area to the south of San Francisco a few years earlier and are remembered now only because Gary Fisher might have been inspired by one of their bikes. And as many have pointed out, cyclists had been enjoying unmade tracks since the earliest days of two wheelers. Those stories, however, must wait for another day.

TD Oct 10

I wrote about my own, largely overlooked, place in the early history of mountain bikes here.

A rather more idyosncrative view of mountain bike history – and a fine history of another era of bicycle development…

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