Then and Now: Mountain Biking over the Past Two Decades

We take a nostalgic look back at how far mountain biking has come since the 90's

Mountain biking is an activity enjoyed by thousands. Bike shops are filled with the latest models of every colour and type, there’s gear galore, and RedBull’s coverage of various races and events is all over the internet.

But all this interest is only a snippet of the coverage and popularity of the sport back in the 90’s when it was brand new. RedBull? Hell, Nike, Reebok, MTV and Volvo were all in on the act back in the day. Our big brothers at Dirt Mountain Bike have been in the industry since the early days and last year celebrated their 20th anniversary with an anthology of MTB.

So let’s take a look down memory lane where the kit, the trails and the bikes just look terrible…

The Trails

MTB trail centres were basically unheard of, so if you wanted to ride, you went and dug a track in your local woods. When it came to racing, cross-country and downhill were where it was at, but the courses were a far cry from the near-vertical rocky, mud caked courses riders face today.

 Where to ride MTB

Here’s MTB legend Missy Giove riding her heart out in a section from MTB video ‘Chainsmoke’. And yes, that’s video as in ‘VHS’ – remember that?

The Bikes

Missy Giove’s Yeti

Hearing the commentator say the words ‘tricky downhill single track’ while describing racers descending what looks like a trail centre blue these days is pretty hilarious, but it’s not that everyone’s a much better rider these now, it’s more to do with the bikes.

Early mountain bikes were RUBBISH. It’s been a long hard path of innovation and evolution to get to the sleek aluminium and carbon full-suspension feats of design and engineering we use today.

Back in the 90’s if you had front suspension you were lucky (or maybe not – it was notoriously useless), saddles were rammed up high, there were no disc brakes, only rim brakes, and some bikes even came with drop handlebars.

So actually the riders in them days were pretty hardcore. I wouldn’t fancy doing events like the Mammoth Mountain Kamikaze with temperamental rim brakes, would you?

With the jump in the popularity of the sport, innovation in bike tech speeded up rapidly, so thankfully by the end of the 90’s you could find a bike that actually looks a bit more like you’re used to riding.

Thankfully nowadays not only can you actually enjoy suspension that works and brakes that successfully control your speed, and you can get a bike designed to suit the type of riding you do. Downhill, cross-country, trail, all-mountain – you name it, there’s a bike for it.

Manon Carpenter’s 2016 Saracen Myst

The Gear

If you wanted to look good on a mountain bike in the 90′s, it was lycra all the way, baby! Or if you go right back to the early days, it was lycra shorts and loose cotton tees. Stylish.

Don’t believe us? Check out mountain bike commentator Rob Warner in his racing days. Who wouldn’t want a lycra skin suit for a gravelly, rocky downhill.

These days, most mountain bikers wear the unofficial uniform of baggy shorts and jerseys, or if you are a downhiller, a set of Troy Lee pyjamas.

We have American rider Shaun Palmer to thank for this. He came into the sport from MotoX, and brought the loose kit with him, along with such enviable style that everyone wanted in on the act. Basically, he made it look cool.

The Women

Back in the 90’s, the women who rode MTB were nearly equal to the men in terms of coverage and sponsorship, and hell, were they kick-ass!

There was Missy ‘The Missile’ Giove. A rider with an incredible attitude, skill and style. She was famed for her freeze-dried piranha necklace. Missy rode for the Volvo-Cannondale team and was one of the MTB Superstars of the early days, even doing ads for Reebok.

The winningest woman on two wheels at the time, Juli Furtado was 3 times World Champion, an Olympian, and a well-known sports personality. She had sponsorship and endorsement deals with some big companies.

Her racing legacy continues, with Juliana range of mountain bikes named in her honour.

Coverage and Sponsorship

In the 90’s if you wanted to watch mountain biking, you needed to tune into Eurosport, or Sky for the National Series. The whole thing would be broadcast live, so on race day you could settle down for a good 3 hours of racing. Not bad!

Given that there were only about 15 channels available on TV at the time, that’s a pretty significant chunk of time dedicated to people hurtling down mountains on two wheels. Or falling down mountains, as they often did. Here’s MTV giving the youth of the day the lowdown on this ‘totally insane’ new sport.

Things tailed off in the Noughties, with less coverage, and the big companies lost interest. But it looks like it might be beginning to swing back the other way now. Head to a World Cup DH race and the pit area will be filled with bloody massive vans and stands.

Red Bull TV covers the majority of World Cup Cross-Country and Downhill action online, and there seem to be about a bazillion film-makers making video edits every day (though sadly not that many of women – come on guys! We want more!)

So yes, the history of mountain biking is full of innovation, incredible athletes, brilliant characters, crazy locations (and a few things that are best forgotten) but all in all, when it comes to being a mountain biker…we’re glad we’re riding now not then.

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