A 12-minute read on bike style changes in the last 70 or so years.
Most American bikes thru the ’60s were one-speeds for kids, because
teenagers were aching to grow up fast and cars seemed better for dating.
Beginning at the end of WWII, the older generation
launched a 20 years or so succession of screwups that sent a message to
the younger generation that these folks were not to be trusted or
emulated. Things like pesticides, the Korean War, Emmett Till, Viet Nam, holding women back, civil rights stuff, hating rock-n’-roll were just a few of the problems caused by the older generation.
A big one happened on January 28, 1969—an oil spill off the Santa
Barbara (California) coast. Union Oil took a shortcut with the drilling
rig, and the ocean erupted with oil. To a country of young people who’d
been environmentally sensitized by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, it was the straw that broke the back, and led directly to the first Earth Day,
April 22, 1970.
Earth Day was a protest against environmental
destruction, so riding a bike wasn’t retreating to childhood and taking
you out of the dating pool; it was a way to protest the older
generation’s greed that was destroying the environment. The order to
young people was: Don’t use gas on Earth Day. Show you care, don’t be part of the problem, ride a bike,
and we did.
Girl sees bike, boy meets girl. Who are they and where are they now?
Some of the bikes were borrowed from younger siblings, some
were leftover from when they were young, but bike dealers ramped up for
Earth Day, and lots were bought new. Schwinn Varsities sold like mad,
because Schwinn dealers were everywhere. High-schoolers took to the 10-speeds
because the drop bars and gears made them not kids bikes. But the
Varsity was unexotic and heavy, so if you were a one-upper, you held out
for a European bike—a Raleigh Super Course, Peugeot UO-8, Gitane
something or other, a Mercier, or the exotic (in my neighborhood) Cote
Back then, nobody lusted for a Nishiki, but it’s got a cool badge, riveted on and everything.
All of the early 1970s foreign ten-speeds ones were steel and slender, and had lugged frames and nice-looking decals. If you were into bikes you’d get the manufacturer’s catalogs at the bike shop and read about what the better bikes had that you’re didn’t, and figure out how to spiff up your U-08 so it was closer to a PX-10. (Mark put Campy Gran Sport derailers on his first cheap French bike.)
The first American framebuilder in the renaissance was Albert
Eisentraut, who grew up in Chicago and learned from Oscar Wastyn, the
first builder of Schwinn Paramounts. Albert was building his own frames
in the late ’50s, and taught frame-building classes in the ’70s.
A 1973 or so Ritchey road bike.
Tom Ritchey made his first bike frame at 15 ½, in … 1972? Something like that. Tom was never normal, he’s always been Mozart, and he’s not the standard.
Anyway, Eisentraut’s classes led to a boom in custom building that, by the late ‘70s, grew into dozens of American custom frame builders, who collectively revved up interest in bikes and riding and bike geekery in general.
By then the European brands, the French in Particular, were losing to the Japanese. The 10- and then 12-speeds were well established, too,
from cheap to expensive, all of them with familiar proportions and
details, just executed with different degrees of perfection constrained
Even the poorer executions were still signs of sincere attempts at art, and tho they didn’t get a lot of respect at the time, it’s an unexpected treat to see, locked up with a white plastic bag as a seat cover, a cheap ’70s bike with chome-tipped fork blades, seat stays, and chainstays, and a flat fork crown with a thin stamped steel cap on it with an artistic shoreline. These days, cheap bikes still copy expensive ones, but most of today’s expensive bike are de-detailed and are, I’d say, bad role models. Like 7-year old with leather and chains.
The first genuine mountain bike Tom Ritchey made…1977 or so. The frame joints are gorgeous, the tubes aren’t all fat, but the frame is not underbuilt. Looks nice to me..which is why our bikes use the same proportions still. It’s not because we can’t go fatter.
When the first actual mountain bikes were made in the late ’70s, they veered off from strict road style, but were just as beautiful (maybe more) than any European road bike . The upright bars and fat tires gave them away as mountain bikes, but frames and forks were still beautifully detailed. The first Stumpjumper was lugged and had a fork crown, just like most good road bikes. Then price competition forced out the lugs for tig-welds, and crowned forks for the crownless “unicrown” style, but from 25 feet they all looked about the same, with those traditional proportions.
By 1988 more than 75 percent of the bikes sold in America were mountain bikes, and moto-crossers and motocross magazine publishers saw the trend and got involved. To motocrossers, the early mountain bikes must have looked unevolved, effete, and ready for a crayons-to-perfume makeover. The whole look changed—the joint details, proportions, graphics, and these new mountain bikes didn’t look European anymore. It’s not a shame that they didn’t look European. Why should they? The shame is that they looked so crude, that somebody in the loop figured what the hell, it’s just a bike.
In late ’89, Rock Shox developed the suspension fork, and after
suspension bikes won big in the 1990 mountain bike world championships,
every body wanted them and almost all manufacturers jumped on it.
Stumpjumper from about 1991, I think. A good place to stop.
At first the
shocks were only on $1,000+ bikes, but within five years they came down
to $450 bikes. It was hard to sell a mountain bike without them, and
nobody knows that better than me (or Bridgestone sales reps at the
time). Now it’s 2017 and it’s hard to find a new model bigbrand a city bike or
whatever, that doesn’t have shocks. Fat tire bikes without them are barely even recognized as mountain bikes.
Suspension forks lead to full suspension frames, which lead to events that required body armor and helmets with full face protection, and at this point the desired look was gnarly, raw, and big. Ugly was pretty, pretty was obsolete. By the early 2000s, mountain bikes looked like motorcycles without the motors, and the clothing and helmets followed the same route. It’s hard to talk about these changes without coming off like a grump, but I’m just trying to address the evolution of these visual and techy changes. It’s kind of interesting, isn’t it?
Do bicycles need disc brakes? If heavier and faster motorcycles could use rim brakes, they would—because rim brakes are more powerful. But motorcycles weigh so much and go so fast that they’d burn up rim brakes. Rim brakes are ideal for most bike riding, but that gets lost in the inferiority complex.
The earth isn’t your %$#@ bike-gym!
There are some riding situations that favor disc brakes. Steep, rim-heating descents, grit, slim, and muck (it’s not a matter of braking performance in muck, it’s that muck packs rim brakes. Don’t ride in muck.) A lot of people feel better about their chances of survival when they’re over-gunned, over-sheltered, over-clothed, over-fed, and over-vehicled, no matter what kind of vehicle it is. The Ford F150 is the best-selling motor vehicle in America. I’m sure it’s a great truck, but still…
The trend to single chainrings and clutchy rear derailers is another way that bikes are going more like motorcycles. I’m all for simplification—if you can get by with one ring, that’s the way to go, for sure. And rear derailers with clutches that maintain chain tension to keep the chain engaged on the chainring and reduce chainslap on the chainstay. —those aren’t evil insidious infiltrations from the dark side, but they are from the dark side. Ha!
How dare you, dude!
Isn’t mountain biking great?
Motors are the final frontier, and they’re coming, too. People were monkeying with motors on bikes in the early 1890s. Electric motors didn’t hold a charge well and were too bulky. Steam was hard to start and too dangerous to put between your legs. The internal combustion engine, patented in 1885, was the winning design, and by 1903 we had Indians, Harleys, and Triumphs (and cars, too). Once motors were available, adults quit riding bikes.
Do it on an indoor track with fake trees!
One living & smart bike industry guy who works for a huge bicycle maker predicts that electric motor bikes will make up 30 percent of the bicycle market by 2022. He calls them just eBikes.
eBikes are conveniently called ebikes to de-emphasize the motor, even though the motor is why they exist, and they appeal across the board: To baby boomers who don’t want to grunt anymore; to millenials who like their hipness and tech and who also don’t want to grunt; to former drivers who for one reason or another have lost the right to drive, or who just can’t afford a car; and to Green people who want to be one less car. The scary thing is motors + fat bikes + trail access.
Positioning eMotorbikes as just another kind of bicycle avoids licensing, registration, more costs, a long wait at the DMV… and allows them on bike lanes and multi-use paths and trails in your local open space that still allow bicycles. Does it not matter that there’s a motor?
eMotorbikes can be a blessing for some people, can replace cars on
the road, but I bet they’re replacing more bikes than cars. When they
do, GREAT! But the question is: at what point does a bicycle stop being a
bicycle? How loosely do you define bicycle? An airplane isn’t the world’s best glider. Reel mowers and power mowers are both lawn mowers. Draw your own line, but to me, a motor on a bicycle makes it a motorcycle.
This is my bike. It can go anywhere, but stays close to earth.
Rivendell Bicycle Works is a bicycley bicycle company, which means we make the kind powered by muscles and gravity. We aren’t going to sell “bicycles” with motors. Maybe it’ll be to our doom, but we just like the simple, refined, nearly perfect pedal bike. It’s the best thing ever developed or that ever will be, even though sometimes it makes you tired and sweaty and even though it’s not always a joy. If an eMotorbike takes the place of a car, it’s doing less damage. When it takes the place of a bicycle, it does more. A bicycle, even when ridden by a world-class farter (eater of mung beans, sprouts, and cabbage) pollutes much less. In 2017 with another monster hurricane heading towards Florida, pedal-bicycles are something to celebrate, aren’t they?