Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Birth of Dirt - Origins of Mountain Biking

I picked this book up a week or so ago, along with a few other bike related books from the local library. The Birth of Dirt, by Frank Berto - printed in 1999. This book came out of a research paper by the author, prepared for the 1997 International Cycle History Conference. The original inspiration came from an article by Joe Breeze in Bicycling magazine in 1996, "Who Invented the Mountain Bike?", with a rebuttal from Gary Fisher in the following issue.

At one point in mountain bike history, Gary Fisher claimed to be the inventor of the mountain bike. Having read about mountain bikes myself back in the early '80s, and finally getting my first one in '84 - I always doubted that statement and just chalked it up to marketing hype for Fisher bicycles. Nothing really wrong with that, and Gary certainly was there at the beginning and played a huge role in what we now call mountain biking.

The book captures the chronological development of the mountain bike and the characters involved. If your local college ever cranks up a Mountain Bike History 101 course, this should be the textbook - along with a required viewing of Klunkerz. Along the way, you get a closer view at some of the facts and dates of who developed what - as in adding deraileurs, modifying brakes, building actual mountain bike frames, etc. I've read about most of this story before, but never in this detail and order.

I did learn that Alan Bonds was buying up old Schwinn frames in bulk, converting them for Klunker use and selling them, before Charlie Kelly and Gary Fisher started their company. I thought that was interesting, since in a way, Alan had the first mountain bike company. Mixed in with the facts are comments from all the known names from that era - Joe Breeze, Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly, Tom Ritchey, and others from that time. Lots of detail and history laid out in a simple format.

In the end, the author declares no one person invented the mountain bike - it was a collaboration of people and ideas. I would agree 100% with this conclusion. Other people were creating and riding bikes in the woods before the famous Northern California gang did it. However, that gang did invent and package mountain biking as we know it today - no doubt about that.

The Repack race is also covered in the book. The one chapter by Charlie Kelly describing Repack is worth the price of admission alone. If you have any interest at all about the beginnings of mountain biking, give it a read.


  1. DanO,
    As you may have noticed, I interviewed everyone in that book who was still alive. It was definitely a great resource for me in my research. I even used one of Frank's quotes to open the film:). Gary told me he wouldn't give me an interview unless I interviewed..."not just the same old story with me, Joe, and Tom...but the other guys that influenced us." Gary wanted, as much as anyone, for the collaborative element to come out. I think that whole 'inventing' thing was just a marketing gimmick, but that was a long time ago. Now, he's the first to admit he didn't 'invent' the mountain bike...but he DID market the hell out of it. When I got into the project I dropped off my pre-war bike pile to Alan Bonds. I would never have time for those projects, so I asked Alan to build me a bike and keep the rest for himself. He ended up building a bunch of bikes after all those years, and I got a really sweet 1935 out of the deal. You can see some of history about him, his original bikes, and some newer builds here...
    Alan Bonds website
    Ride on,
    P.S. It's Klunkerz with a "Z":).

  2. Billy,

    Your film and Frank's book are the best sources of mountain history in a condensed format - by far. Being the old school mountain bike freak, enjoyed both of 'em.

    That was a few years ago that Gary said he invented the mountain bike, and as mentioned - I thought it was just marketing schtick as well.

    I checked out Alan's website - awesome stuff - and included the link to his name in my post.

    I'd get a huge kick out of riding with any of the "founding fathers (and mothers)" someday - and with you as well. If you're ever headed to the Seattle area, let me know.

    Dan O

    P.S. I fixed the Klunkerz typo. I tend to rip these posts out at stupid speeds - squeezed into a few spare minutes at home. Being Family Guy, spare time is tight. If I ever get the time to sit in room alone, uninterrupted for a few hours - could really rip out some stuff.