The tyke trackers who beat Team Tamalpais (2010)
Original article by Tim Dawson (pictured left a year or so before his breakthrough invention)
My role the invention of mountain biking has been overlooked for too long. I now intend to set the record straight once and for all.
At some point in the mid-1970s my friends Alex Pearce, Patrick McBride and I started to experiment with bicycles that were specially adapted for use on mountain trails. We lived in a Yorkshire town, overlooked by a famously wild moor. Rather like Marin county’s relationship to San Francisco, it served the role of outdoor playground of the Leeds/Bradford conurbation.
We were familiar at the time, of course, with the Rough Stuff Fellowship of cyclists who enjoy riding off-road tracks. They might have some claim to having invented mountain biking – but it was us who were the pioneers of the mountain bike.
Our motive was simple. We wanted to ride down the vertiginous slopes of the moor. From the hill tops, we would pick up speed on the sheep tracks, scooting through the gullies, and, when our nerves allowed us, jump over the massive gritsone boulders that punctuated the heathery slopes.
To do this required a number of technical leaps. We quickly realised that bike wasteage was high. Enthusiastic descents frequently resulted in bent wheels, and fairly often we managed to snap frames in two. Our prized ‘road’ bikes could not be risked on the moors, so we sought out expendable alternatives.
We also needed to get up to the top of the trails – without the benefit of the pick up trucks that our Californian counterparts relied upon in the early days. It was here that we were at the cutting edge. The nature of our riding meant that we only ever really had to pedal up hills – the descents took care of themselves. It was Alex Pearce who realised that small childrens’ bicycles had very small front chainrings – some with as few as 20 teeth. These we cannibalised to create the first bikes to feature ‘granny gears’. The granny gear was, in fact, their only gear, but it was sufficient to get us up even the most precipitous slopes.
Children’s bicycles also provided diminutive frames, with brought with them two advantages. Their compact triangles were generally stiff and were better suited to a rider moving their body about the bike to stay upright as they careered downhill. Sadly they were also badly made – which increased the frequency of frame failures.
We called the bikes that we created ‘tracker bikes’ and would take them out several evenings each week in search of high octane thrills.
Although pretty much all the mountain bikes that have been commercially produced since that time have included our innovation – the granny gear, to get up the hills – the names Pearce, McBride and Dawson now go uncelebrated in the annals of cycling history.
Twenty years after my adolescent spanner sessions I spent a summer in Mill Valley, Marin County – pretty much the epicentre of the area that claims the mountain bike as its own. There it was impossible not to dwell on this question. Why did the Californians spark a cycling revolution while our efforts were consigned to the tangled mess of rusting frames at the back of the coal shed?
Well first let me qualify my story. We were very young – 12 or 13, I would guess. We had neither the tools nor the workshops to do very much ‘adapting’, nor the money to buy components. We were pretty short on technical skills too. Neither were we much interested in attracting a scene around what we were doing and, our enthusiasm endured little beyond a single summer.
That we inspired no one then should come as little surprise. More interesting to consider is why California has for long been the most productive well-spring of lifestyle trends. BMX, stakeboards, surfing, Apple Computers and much, much more has been beamed to the world from the sunny west coast.
Hauling my adult body up and down Mount Tamalpais, I began to glimpse just why the Golden State provides quite such a favourable enviornment for novelty to thrive. Sunshine, money and media play a part, as do a young, mobile population that is relatively free from tradition. It struck me that my friends and I could have fitted our bikes with duel suspension and crafted frames from carbon fibre and donned full body armour and still gone largely unnoticed in Yorkshire. For bolting a derailleur to a klunker, Gary Fisher has a reasonable claim to be the most important cycle-design innovator since James Starley.
The lesson if there is one is this. The audience for an idea is often every bit as important to its success as the invention itself. Not for the first time in my life, I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
TD Oct 10