In Europe cyclo-cross is the winter sport of cycling. The season runs from October through February. The sport started in the 1950s as a way for road cyclists to stay fit during the winter, but soon developed into a sport in its own right with people specializing solely in cyclo-cross. I was one of these; my frame building business kept me busy in the spring and summer months, in winter business slowed and I had the time to train and race.
The bikes were not far removed from the road bikes; slightly longer wheelbase, higher bottom bracket, and more clearance under the fork crown and rear bridge. Cantilever brakes with the brazed on pivots were used; not for their stopping power, but because there was nothing above the wheel but a thin loop of wire therefore nothing to catch mud.
Mud is a big factor in European cyclo-cross because it rains a lot during the winter months. Tires are special sew-ups with knobbles, not much wider than the standard road sew-up tire. The trick in riding through mud is to do so in as high a gear as possible. A higher gear means more traction, translating into more speed therefore less time to sink in the mud.
Bikes were built with standard light weight road tubing; Columbus or Reynolds 531, and a bike could go for four or five seasons and not break. I used a single 48 teeth chainwheel with chain guards either side to prevent the chain from unshipping. I used a five speed free-wheel with 14-16-18-21-25 teeth. This was the 1970s and six and seven speeds were not yet available.
Meanwhile back in the USA in the late 1970s, early 1980s. Misters Cunningham, Fisher, and Ritchey and others were bombing down mountain trails on old cruiser bikes and the MTB was born. The old cruiser was a bicycle designed more on style than function; it was never a race bike, it was a bicycle styled after a motor cycle. Some of them even had fake gas tanks, and was born out of the opulence of the 1950s that also put tail fins on cars for no reason other than style. The balloon tires were for effect not efficiently. Everyone knows fat tires make a bike harder to ride.
By 1985 the people building MTBs had a following and I realized if I were to break into this market I would have to find my own niche. I felt there might be a market for a light weight MTB built on the lines of a cyclo-cross bike that would be fun to ride in the hands of skilled rider who knew how to ride within the limitations of a bike. This didnít happen, people were jumping off pick nick tables destroying the bike and then expecting their money back. I saw no future in this and quit after building some fifty frames.
The problem as I saw it was the tires and wheels available were too heavy and strong for the frame. Other people seemed to have the same problem because soon after bikes appeared with oversized tubes and shock absorbers. The MTB had become heavier and more complicated than it need be. Now I see a trend in bike riding for simplicity; people are riding single speed and fixed gear bikes.
Maybe itís time to rethink the MTB. Fat tires and shock absorbers are for motor cycles, the MTB is a bicycle, human powered, low revolutions and a lot of instant torque. If those MTB pioneers had started riding down a mountain on a modified road bike instead of an old cruiser the MTB might be a whole different animal now.