History of Mountain Bike Evolution Show: Bicycle Taxonomy

John spent last weekend in Santa Cruz catching up with friends, riding some tacky dirt and checking out the History of Mountain Bike Evolution Show at Santa Cruz Bicycles, put on by Doug Hatfield, Velo Cosmos with Team Old Soil. The show spanned the evolution of the mountain bike from the 1940s through the Syndicate Racing Team’s World Cup DH machines.

Below, John hones in on the evolution of cruiser bikes to klunkers and the genesis of the Marin County “Mountain Bike” and shares a jam-packed gallery of bikes and hangs…

“It was the pneumatic tire that really spurred the evolution of the bicycle,” Doug Hatfield said as I rolled a klunker out the doors of the Santa Cruz Bicycles Factory, where the History of Mountain Bike Evolution Show took place last weekend. What Doug is referring to is the inner tube and vulcanized tires, aka ‘balloon tires’ as they were once called. “That Boneshaker penny-farthing in there [inside the show],” said Doug, “it’s got solid rubber tires, and it’s called ‘bone shaker’ for a reason… but it was the inner tube and tire that spurred a revolution.”

Bicycle taxonomy is something we talk a lot about here at The Radavist. ‘Drop-bar mountain bike’, ‘hardtail’ and ‘off-road touring bike’ are just a few of the common terms we use to describe bicycles editorially on any given weekday. But all of these off-road-oriented bicycles evolved from 1940s-era Schwinns.

The History of Mountain Bike Evolution Show visually told the story of Repack and the progression of both “newsboy” cruisers and BMX cruisers eventually giving rise to klunker mountain bikes. There was an overwhelming array of 80 display bikes at the exhibition and I went into the event with the hopes of documenting a few of the most standout bikes, to capture the vibes of the show and also to portray a few of examples of the evolutionary lineage of modern-day mountain bikes.


Grab the slider and transform this cruiser to a klunker!

The above image slider illustrates how a 1940s Schwinn cruiser was transformed into a 1970s Repack klunker. Swapping parts out for moto, touring, and randonneuring components from France, Japan, Germany, US, and the UK converted these heavy singlespeeds into even heavier-geared bikes with drum brakes.

Steve’s 1978 Cook Brothers Cruiser and Shawn’s 1978 Lawwill-Knight Pro Cruiser

Meanwhile, in the 1970s, companies like Cook Brothers and Lawwill-Knight made cruisers in California. Thanks to brothers like the Koskis and the Cook Brothers, these bikes that typically relied on coaster brakes, drum brakes, or long-reach calipers could suddenly be outfitted with cantilever brakes. From there, it was only a matter of time before these bikes became faster and more nimble with cantilever brakes.

In the late 1970s, guys like Doug Hatfield began taking production-model, prolific, affordable BMX cruisers—like this Mongoose Supergoose—and retrofitting them with all the accouterments to make them more appropriate expedition-style klunkers. Let’s bring back those fenders, okay? Doug, this is a work of art!

1982 Breezer Series III with a mix of components (left); 1982 Ibis retrofit with 1983 Deer Head components and WTB Roller Cams (right).

From there, the 1980s framebuilders like Joe Breeze, Charlie Cunningham, Steve Potts, Tom Ritchey, and Ibis all began evolving their bikes towards a more recognizable form, though the builds were still being limited to available production components, like short Italian or Japanese road racing seatposts, 26″ cruiser tires and wheels, and a mix of other French, Japanese, Italian, British, and German parts. It wasn’t until 1983, when Shimano debuted Deer Head, that the burgeoning mountain bike got its first dedicated parts group.

1985 Steve Potts (left); 1988 Rock Lobster #2 (right)

In came more builders and more mountain bike component companies. Brands like Wilderness Trail Bikes (WTB)—a joint effort of legendary builders Steve Potts and Charlie Cunningham, alongside Mark Slate—made some of the first mountain bike components. From Charlie’s mind came a modern version of a roller cam brake, “Toe Flips,” and a slew of other riding essentials. All while guys like Paul Sadoff from Rock Lobster were building their own version of the mountain bike and having a bit of fun with it, too.

Paul won his first-ever mountain bike race, singlespeed, on a 24″ and 26″ mixed-wheel bike in 1988. He then retired from racing for a few years before racing his second-ever mountain bike race, in which he came in second-to-last. But he’s still got the bike! That’s the real trophy!

In the late 1980s, Tom Ritchey began evolving his Super Comp line of fillet-brazed bikes into the P-23 race machines. Here’s a late 1980s/ early 1990s P-23 team bike with a wild neon orange to white to blue fade for the North Face Extreme Team. We’ve seen a lot of early 1980s Ritcheys on this website over the years, and there’s a clear and concise evolution from a 1983 Everest to the beauty posted above!

The 1990s brought in the era of suspension. We’ve looked at both a Greg Herbold Miyata from the early 90s and a late 1990s Ibis Bow-Ti before. Also on display were a number of Santa Cruz Syndicate racing machines, countless other classic race bikes from the Velo Cosmos/Dirty Sundays collection, and more.

Eric Rumpf summed up what was so great about this showcase: “Lots of impressive mountain bikes from every era, lots of cool people (also from every era),” and I completely agree.

Many thanks to  Santa Cruz Bicycles for hosting, Doug Hatfield for organizing, and Velo Cosmos with Team Old Soil for making it happen! We’ll see you at Velo Cosmos on November 15th – 16th, 2024, in Grass Valley, California!

What about you? What’s your favorite mountain bike era?

If you had a bike on display at the showcase, or want any of these images for personal use, here’s a Dropbox link for 2000 px wide images!