Bikers have been traveling off-road ever since the invention of the bicycle, but it was not until 1970 that mountain biking became an official sport. Since then, the sport has grown more and more popular. There were several sports quite similar to mountain biking that were explored during the first half of the twentieth century, but none of them managed to catch on.
Early bicycles featured the thinner tires that are still seen on today’s road bikes. These bikes were nearly impossible to ride off-road, and yet there are many stories of people who managed riding them in rough terrain. For example, during the 1890s, a group of black soldiers called the 25th Infantry Buffalo Soldiers traversed hundreds of miles over rough terrain on single speed bikes. Given the popularity of bicycles in the early twentieth century, it is a bit surprising that it took so long for an off-road bike to catch on.
In the 1930s, Schwinn came out with a new bicycle model that is now seen as the precursor to the modern mountain bike. These bikes featured balloon tires, which were promoted as being sturdy enough to roll over glass. While this claim may not have stretched the truth a bit, it is clear that the balloon tired Schwinn bikes were better equipped for off-road traveling than earlier bike models. Schwinn also began to explore sturdier frames, but did not achieve much success. The technology for lighter-weight bicycles did not exist at that time, which meant that a good deal of physical exertion was needed for riding a bike with a “sturdy” frame.
What we now know as the mountain bike finally burst on the scene in the mid 1970s, when Joe Breeze recognized the need for a bike suited to the rough trails on Mount Tamalpais, near his home in Marin County, California. By 1977, Breeze had developed a lightweight but sturdy bike with fat tires. He dubbed this new invention the Breezer. This bike was formed from old balloon bicycles, which were updated to better suit the rocky trails of Mount Tamalpais. It was used primarily for riding downhill, as the old and heavy frames made steep inclines nearly impossible. This original Breezer bike is still around and can be seen in the Oakland Museum in California.
Breeze spent the rest of 1977 making improvements to the Breezer’s braking system, and then building more bikes. By 1978, he had created an additional ten Breezers. Soon after, Breeze and his fellow biker Gary Fischer began selling Breezer bikes in Marin County. The business, originally named Gary Fischer Bicycles was a instant success. The business hit off due, in part, to a combination of business skills on Fischer’s part, as well as the growing demand for off-road bikes, which were not widely available at the time.
Things certainly have changed. By the mid 1980s, off-road bike sales were skyrocketing and road bikes saw a huge decline. As mountain biking increased in popularity, several new mountain bike models were developed. The sport joined the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, where Bart Jan Brentjens brought home the first gold medal to the Netherlands. Today, hundreds of mountain biking competitions and races take place every year, and we have the innovative Joe Breeze to thank for the sport’s astounding success.