The evolution of mountain bike and its many formats

Mountain bike englobes many different formats, ranging from the cross-country family to that of downhill. There is some crossover between - and evolution from - one format to another, but each demands a different riding style and has its own competitions, star riders and specialised bikes and equipment. A brief explanation.

As long as there have been bicycles there have been adventurous riders willing to test the boundaries. The history of bicycle development shows many modifications to accommodate riding away from paved or tarmac roads, not least the evolution of cyclo-cross - a discipline using drop-handlebar road bikes with knobbly tyres, lower gear ratios and other components specially modified for riding on dirt, grass and latterly gravel. However, the sport of mountain biking (MTB), distinct from its cousin CX, is widely acknowledged as having its origins in 1970s California.

Enthusiasts would meet to ride and race on (and more importantly down) the mountain tracks on the hills of Marin County. With no bikes yet being made by recognised manufacturers for the newly emerging scene, the pioneer riders modified steel-framed ‘cruiser’ bikes to suit the demands of their initially informal races. This included fitting wide tyres, motocross-style handlebars, bigger and better brakes and suitable gearing (although there was a lot of freewheeling in the early days!), among others. Tom Ritchey, Gary Fisher and Keith Bontrager are among the names from that era that still reverberate around the cycling industry.

The bikes were affectionately known as ‘klunkers’, and this term stuck around until mountain bikes arrived on the scene. The limitations of the early machines coined another name: ‘repack races.’ This referred to the necessity to repack hub brakes with grease after each outing to replace what was burnt out in the high temperatures generated by the riders’ wild speeds. This was something that the bikes’ original designers never envisaged. There’s still a trail on Marin County’s Mount Tamalpais called ‘repack’ in homage to these roots.

As well as being the epicentre of mountain biking per se, this scene gave birth to what we now know as downhill racing. The top level of this against-the-clock sport is highly technical, with UCI World Cup and World Championships the highlights of the season. Today’s big names such as Loic Bruni, Aaron Gwin and Rachel Atherton pilot highly specialised carbon-framed full-suspension bikes, and are an inspiration to a new generation of riders.

While downhill racing is essentially an against-the-clock individual time trial, the discipline of four-cross (4X) brings the same principles together in races where four competitors descend at the same time, shoulder to shoulder, in a series of knock-out rounds.

A little later than the klunker movement and not so far away, more Americans enthusiasts – known as the Laguna Rads – met to ride, race and innovate around the hills above Laguna Beach. This group, making their own trails and racing on hills with no previously defined tracks or routes, is often hailed as being at the origins of freeride (a term borrowed from snowboarding). Initially bridging unrideable gaps, ‘northshore’ boards were introduced, a feature which has evolved, along with ramps and other features, to the extreme standards of today’s freeride and dirt jump scenes.

Big suspension bikes with tight head angles and short wheel bases are used to perform amazing stunts – scored by points – by amazingly skilled and brave riders such as Cam Zink, Andreu Lacondeguy and Brandon Semenuk in competitions headlined by Red Bull Rampage and Crankworx in the USA and Europe.

Dirt jumping draws inspiration from freeride – sharing the principles of jumps, stunts and airtime, with a more accessible, ‘down to earth’ scene, closely akin to BMX Freestyle.

Trail and all-mountain are accessible, more generalist forms of mountain biking, with clubs, trail centres serving hobby and enthusiast riders. It’s the way many riders start and where many riders stay. Bikes are versatile, enabling riders to tackle a variety of terrain: up, across and down mountains and single tracks with natural and man-made elements. The machines can be full-suspension or hardtail (front suspension only) and vary in style, materials and componentry.

Closely related is Enduro – a term sometimes used interchangeably with all-mountain – but also alluding to competitive Enduro racing. At its top level, the Enduro World Series (EWS) – registered on the UCI International Calendar - is an eight-event annual championship with Sam Hill and Cecile Ravanel the current reigning multiple champions in the Men’s and Women’s categories respectively.

Our final major mountain bike discipline is cross-country (XC), an athletic, racing format where riders fight gravity as much as they benefit from it – and race head-to-head, elbow-to-elbow on sapping courses of mixed terrain including single track, rocks, forest roads and tarmac.

It’s competed over different distances: XCO (cross-country Olympic, 80-100 minutes – raced over multiple laps, a format that has been part of the Olympic Games since 1996) and XCC: a new short track format, on courses around 2km with race time between 30 and 60 minutes. The races are mass-start and it’s first to the finish line who wins.

Other popular formats include mountain bike Marathon (XCM – longer, more varied routes of typically up to 160km), along with the newer, quickfire cross-country Eliminator (XCE) knockout format. Some riders specialise in just a single format, others race two or more, and it’s an area of cycling that crosses over with many others.

As with downhill, the pinnacle of cross-country Olympic is the Mercedes-Benz UCI Mountain Bike World Cup and the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships presented by Mercedes-Benz, to be held this year in Mont-Saint-Anne, Canada. Some of the biggest names in XCO include the Swiss multiple UCI World Champions Nino Schurter and Jolanda Neff. The UCI World Cup for XCO athletes starts this month in Germany, so watch out for a preview feature here shortly.