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Racing roots: great riders in the history of mountain biking

Mountain bike racing has been pushing the envelope since the first knobbly tyre popped onto a rim. This is its story told through some of its biggest names and most iconic moments.

No matter what, where or how you ride, there is a cornerstone which is important to acknowledge; mountain biking was born a sport. Competition has been at the forefront of defining what constitutes a mountain bike since before they were even known as such. Faster was the focus, the clock the unflinching enemy, and products have always been developed to keep up with the need for speed, creating the best mountain bikes with each new development. 

Economics and fashion may have propelled the mountain bike forward over the years, but the core element that has allowed it to weather the storm and survive to be the passion that we all enjoy today is the fact that it is, first and foremost, a competitive sport. 

Photo of Steve Peat mountain bike racer spraying champagne from a bottle

Steve Peat of Great Britain after winning gold in the elite men’s downhill final at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships on Mount Stromlo in Canberra on September 6, 2009.  (TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP via Getty Images)

The mountain that gave birth to MTB

That sport first sprang to life amidst the much-storied and somewhat exotic smelling dirt tracks of Mount Tamalpais, California in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Knobbly tyres were fitted to slack angled beach cruisers to help them cut through deep, silty gravel. The names of the early pioneers (Mike Sinyard, Gary Fisher, Charlie Kelly et al) are writ large into the history books.

Early tech advancements were born out of a need to go faster

Speed was key – the mountain bike didn’t begin life as a commuter vehicle or an aesthetically-pleasimbng hot rod. Early tech advancements were born out of a need to go faster. The now iconic Repack races were named after the competitors’ hurried need to re-pack their coaster hubs with grease in between runs. The film ‘Klunkerz’ (the name given to the precursors of the MTB) features something much more than just a bimble down memory lane – it’s a glimpse at the kind of speed and danger that still resonates with fans of racing today. Right from the start, competition was the driving force. 

Mountain biking steadily grew and although some of the technologies that followed those early years may now appear laughable, many stuck. The mass market discovered the appeal of off-road cycling and exploration thanks to the ruggedness of components developed to take a beating on race day. 

In Michigan’s John Tomac, mountain biking played host to one of the most talented all-rounders, ever. A former professional BMX racer, Tomac spent the late 1980’s racing both on and off-road. In 1991 he would win gold at the UCI World Championships in Italy on his XC bike, take silver in the downhill and win the UCI World Cup overall title along with the hotly-contested NORBA US national series in downhill. Tomac’s prodigious talent loomed large across disciplines and is unlikely to ever be repeated. America’s (very different) next big thing would arrive four years later…

Tomac’s prodigious talent loomed large across disciplines and is unlikely to ever be repeated

One of mountain biking’s earliest global household names would come from a perhaps less likely place; the low countries. Bart Brentjens lit up TV screens across the world as XC arrived into living rooms as part of the Atlanta 1996 Olympics. The tall, pony-tailed, sleeveless figure was already a UCI World Champion. But his win in Atlanta, ahead of Switzerland’s Thomas Frischknecht and France’s Miguel Martinez, is still seen by the sport’s European heartland as when it really arrived on to the big stage.

The gestation had been a good one, now it could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the most recognised sports on earth. Brentjens went on to take a bronze medal in Athens 2004. He now co-hosts Red Bull TV’s coverage of the UCI World Cup XC series. He has also acquired the rights to the American Eagle brand, on which he campaigned as a pro, to back his own top-flight squad. 

Check out the best cross-country mountain bikes

Downhill and the extreme sports boom

Whilst XC got the ball rolling in the popular consciousness, it was downhill that really made mountain biking a cult sport. Downhill races had slowly moved from sideshow status to being a main event in their own right and attracted an entirely different athlete compared to the spartan XC whippets. The technology remained worryingly basic whilst speeds crept ever higher. Even by modern standards the danger factor seemed huge. Races like Mammoth Mountain’s Kamikaze Downhill saw bikes sprout all kinds of aero appendages (yet little in the way of suspension or brakes) to bid for speeds of 65mph down its lunar access roads.

Photo of Nico Vouilloz with mud on his face

Sep 1995:  Nicolas Vouilloz at the World Championships in Kirkzarten, Germany.  (Credit: Anton Want/Allsport)

Downhillers had style, bravado and kudos beyond the anaerobic mechanics of their XC stablemates. The arrival of the extreme sports boom of the 1990’s naturally hoovered up downhill mountain biking and dragged it into its melee of hair gel, piercings and soon-to-be-defunct energy drinks. 

A titanic struggle for the soul of the sport played out on the pages of magazines, on bedroom walls and on Eurosport TV. Nico Vouilloz was the ice-in-the-veins Frenchman who knew only a monk-like focus to his craft. He travelled to races with a suspension dyno in his van, he pored over every possible line and tried every and any combination of settings as he bulldozered his way to 10 UCI World Championship titles. Only his teammate, Anne-Caroline Chausson, would ever topple Nico in terms of success, with 16 cross discipline Worlds crowns.

World Championships 4Cross Women’s Podium with Jonnier Sabrina,  Chausson Anne-Caroline and Kinter Jill (Photo by Tim De Waele/Getty Images)

Shaun Palmer on the other hand won just one top flight race, yet is often talked about in the same breath. If Vouilloz was the master of precision, Palmer was the master of chaos. A snowboarder by trade, he arrived into mountain biking with a bang in 1995 and nearly pipped Vouilloz to a UCI World Champs win in Cairns the following season. But crucially Palmer fundamentally changed how downhill looked and acted.

He wore baggy motocross gear and skate trainers amidst competitors in awkward Lycra and gawky pads. Palmer was brash, outspoken and brought a ‘ride fast, party faster’ approach that stuck. New brands from outside industries, desperate to carve out a slice of the pie, tripped over their cheque books to get involved. Six figure salaries and obscure sponsorships were all the rage, with many race bikes resembling sticker boards. 

And then suddenly, as if overnight, it stopped. 

Old photograph of NORBA national mountain bike championships

16 May 1999: Shaun Palmer #20 catches some air during the NORBA National Championships in Snow Summit, California. (Credit: Jeff Gross/ALLSPORT)

Rise of the Australian racers

The extreme sports bubble burst. The endless stoke ended and mountain biking was left with a generation of racers who had battled it out to make it to the big show, only to find that having now got there, that the huge motorhomes and branded trucks had made way for rented Sprinter vans and hotel room floors. Mountain bike racing survived the early 2000’s as Vouilloz’s reign, occasionally troubled by the likes of Britain’s Steve Peat and South Africa’s Greg Minnaar, came to an end. There was a collective ‘What next?’ until an 18 year-old, quietly spoken, gap-toothed Australian Junior first climbed off a flight to try his hand at racing in the European big leagues. If Shaun Palmer had rewritten how fast downhillers should live, then Sam Hill reformatted how quickly they should ride. 

If Shaun Palmer had rewritten how fast downhillers should live, then Sam Hill reformatted how quickly they should ride. 

A new wave of Aussie powerhouses fronted by Chris Kovarik and Nathan Rennie had already done the heavy lifting on bringing flat pedals back into the conversation, but it was Sam Hill who would make them infamous. Heels-down to the point of toes nearly contacting shins, Hill seemed to surf the back half of his bike through the most brutal of technical sections. He turned gap spotting into an art form and line choice into a craft. Thirteen UCI World Cup wins were notched between 2005-2014, two overall titles and five UCI World Champs titles alongside some race run displays which would be seen by many as the greatest ever.

Hill’s most mercurial masterpieces were painted against the backdrops of a sodden Champery in 2007 and a dusty Val Di Sole in 2008. The fact that he didn’t win either race is testament to just how highly they are still regarded.  

Photo of Sam Hill at the Rotorua enduro world series race

Sam Hill of Australia celebrates after winning the World Champs on August 26m 2006, in Rotorua.  (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

When Sam Hill wanted a new challenge he turned to the newest discipline of mountain bike racing; enduro. With a format mirroring that of rallying, enduro had taken hold in varying forms around the world but the emergence of the Enduro World Series attempted to bring it all under one roof.

The rise of enduro

What began life in Punta Ala in 2013 as a collection of trail bikes sporting DH tyres would go on to focus and drive mountain bike design and technology further than anyone could have imagined. Born out of the deep compromise between plummeting down stages – which often surpassed the length of an entire DH race season – and gruelling 50km long days in the saddle, enduro bikes have redefined what we expect from our full-suspension mountain bikes. Tracy Moseley and Jerome Clementz did a lot of the early winning, but it was Hill (who jumped to enduro full-time in 2016) who would become the first three-time title winner, whilst Cecile Ravanel became the first racer to post the fabled perfect season. 

Whereas XC and DH challenged a specific skill and mindset, enduro challenged what it meant to be a mountain bike racer. Not only were EWS racers taking on each other and the clock, but they also had to manage their own physical endurance alongside any technical issues which might come up along the way. Being fastest through one section or on one lap was no longer enough. Enduro quickly evolved, much faster than perhaps any of the other disciplines had done and in many parts of the world became the focal ‘grass roots’ race discipline. It required the equipment that most riders already had and race courses could be created anywhere there were trails. 

Mountain bike racing is now everywhere

Mountain bike racing, if you choose it to be, is now everywhere. As with any sport, fans can nestle their online world with the social media accounts of racers, teams and brands alike and keep in touch with their heroes from the morning coffee to the last beer of the evening. So too are there more ways than ever to view the racing itself. Whether it’s on YouTube or through a specific streaming service, you can now sit down and watch your chosen discipline whenever it suits.

Photo of Sam Hill riding a Nukeproof bike in the mountains

Sam Hill turned his hand to enduro, and his immense skill brought him numerous victories (Kike Abelleira / EWS)

The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), like pretty much all governing bodies, has come in for flack over the years. But once you consider the relative age of mountain biking (50 years old versus road cycling’s venerable 150 years) the progress can really be seen for what it is. The UCI has warmed up to mountain bike racing now, and cottoned on to not only how widespread and diverse a sport it is, but how it remains a fantastic point of entry into cycling for millions.

What does the future hold? It’s hard to say, but after the dip in interest at the turn of the century and the financial collapse not long after, it feels like the momentum is once again firmly behind mountain bike racing. New heroes and villains are seemingly created every weekend and the bike industry sees racing once again as a way to win on Sunday and sell on Monday. E-bikes will be key and develop in their own right, but what is important is that the heady metamorphosis that began on Mount Tamalpais all those years ago continues to strive to go faster.

Author: Ric McLaughlin

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