Ray’s Soapbox: What About the Mountain Bike Boom?


Here at the Soapbox, we got a request last month to talk about some of the other industry booms besides the previously explored ‘70s and Covid ones. So let’s briefly examine the mountain bike boom of the 1980s.

If you’re into bikes much, you’ve heard the stories of the Marin Repack crazies riding up and down Mount Tamalpais on their modified Schwinns with wide-range gearing and fat tires. 

Mount Tam maniacs. Before we knew about the need for “protective gear”

The first purpose-built mountain bikes came from Mike Sinyard, founder of Specialized, hiring Tom Ritchey to build a few mountain bike frames, and John Finley Scott, a UC-Davis Professor hiring Gary Fisher to do the same. 

Finley had actually designed and built what he called the Woodsie bike back in 1953. They are similar to what the Mount Tam crew were riding, see photo. The first commercially available mountain bike was the $750 Specialized StumpJumper, introduced in 1981.

Cool Idea + Widespread Appeal

I was working at a Specialized retailer in the California Bay Area at the time. We thought these new machines were really cool but we had no idea that they would dramatically change the industry in two important ways. 

First, we were dealing with a consumer phenomenon that pre-dated the SUV auto boom. StumpJumper buyers weren’t sure whether they would ever ride their bike on a mountain trail, but they loved the idea that they could! 

The industry from boardroom to sales floor has been and still is terrible at marketing aspirational ideas like adventures on a bike, unless you wanted to ride cross-country back in the ‘70s, which few people did.

Consumers caught on and bought Stumpys before we were ready to sell them. I can remember saying to customers, “You know, you don’t really need all these gears or these wide tires, you’d really be better off on a Univega Sportour (our best-selling 12-speed drop-bar road bike).” They didn’t listen to us! 

Second, consumers grabbing up mountain bikes the way they did set the stage for the next really big “aha moment” for the industry, which is that most consumers were uncomfortable being bent over the dropped bars on a traditional 10- or 12- or 15-speed.

The liked sitting up a little more, having all of the brake and gear controls right at their fingertips, and having the cushy and protective ride of a fat tire under them. This created an appeal that we shop people didn’t quite understand at the time. We thought road bikes were… just fine!

Which Led to Hybrids

That same appeal of the the Mountain Bike Boom later morphed into what we now called the hybrid. The hybrid is basically a mountain bike with skinnier tires that works fine on both paved and gentle unpaved surfaces. And is now the single best-selling adult bike category. Cycling serendipity!

a hybrid bike
Mountain bikes emerged from the dirt of Repack and morphed into the Swiss army knife of bikes, the hybrid

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