Mountain biking does not have a precise, definitive moment of conception. The sport isn’t like a toaster or a telephone. Instead, it evolved more organically, with various pioneers being part of its slow-burning yet fascinating journey.
While the international story of mountain biking focuses primarily on the United States, the sport also gained traction (albeit perhaps more quietly) in Britain. The Rough Stuff Fellowship, the oldest off-road cycling organisation in the world, was established in 1955. Their members chose to traverse the ‘rougher and less beaten ways’ in pursuit of their pastime. These were folk whereby the majority would spend their working days indoors, primarily in factories, and come the weekend, wanted to spend as much time as possible outside.
The bikes they used to do so were the same bikes they would use to commute. It wasn’t a bother – if you got to a hill, field, or forest, you couldn’t cycle up, over, or through; you simply got off and pushed. Choosing to ride off-road was a means of escape. Pedalling away into the fields with friends, stopping to swim or sleep, meant freedom from the drudgery and responsibility of work.
In the meantime, Geoff Apps, an English pioneer in the mountain biking scene, was tinkering away. He was developing an off-road bike and experimenting with wheel sizes, tyre sizes, and gear ratios. He wanted a bike that could carry him through the landscape, with a bit of trials riding thrown in: ‘I quite enjoy trespassing’, he said, ‘I enjoy going places I’m not supposed to go, and bicycles are ideal for that.’ Back then, Geoff was creating a bike he could clearly see in his head but that he couldn’t see on the tracks, by-ways or trails anywhere. Interestingly, he was also in touch with his Californian counterparts – the likes of Gary Fisher and Charlie Kelly, who were also developing a bike more capable than anything we had previously seen before.
By the early 1980s, the combination of Californian cool and the Brits’ more chaotic and excitable desire to disappear into the undergrowth whenever and wherever possible meant the popularity of mountain biking was on the rise. Then came Muddy Fox in 1982 – an independent company founded by Drew Lawson and Aristidis Hadji Petrou. These two unlikely entrepreneurs took the bicycle industry by storm. A stylish brand image and a successful marketing campaign (complete with a TV advert in which a man dully watching his TV is split in two as a rider explodes through him and out of the house) were instrumental in rebranding the off-road cycling scene in the UK into something highly desirable.
In the 1980s, off-road racing became increasingly popular, drawing in competitors and spectators and being covered by the media. Athletes began receiving sponsorship deals, and bicycle manufacturers were encouraged to develop new designs and patent pioneering technology in order to stay ahead of the competition. The sport naturally fractured into multiple disciplines. This included cross country, downhill and trials, among others. Since the 1960s, mountain biking has gained momentum and popularity worldwide.
To come full circle, the history of mountain biking is really the story of our pursuit of joy. Whether it’s racing downhill or bimbling with friends, it’s all about the feeling that biking brings you, which is the important part. The sense of contentment, achievement and ultimately, of time well spent.
So from the past into the future – at the syrupy end of what we hope will be a long, hot summer, Scotland is hosting the UCI World Cycling Championships. From the 3rd to the 13th of August, Glasgow will welcome over 8,000 elite and amateur cyclists from 120 countries. There will be thrills, and there will be spills; there will be glory, and there will be heartbreak. Through it all, there will be a buoyant, excitable atmosphere as crowds gather to witness some of the most impressive cycling events, all brought together, in one place, for the first time ever.
While there is so much to see, for mountain biking enthusiasts, here’s a quick rundown of some of the main events:
From start to finish, competitors will be pitted against one another on a rough, arduous and technically demanding course. There will be gruelling climbs and bone-rattling descents. The athletes must be calculated: burn out too soon, and you’re toast, hang back for too long and risk being left behind.
Fancy riding the Championship trails yourself? After the last flag has been waved and the final cowbell struck, the trails will be opened to the public. Located at Glentress, an award-winning mountain biking destination located just an hour outside of Edinburgh, test yourself on the XC or enjoy a mellow pedal through the leafy forest. With a buzzing cafe on site, walking trails, and wildlife hides, it’s a lovely destination for all.
It’s the ultimate test of endurance on a 100km course that sees riders take on rocks, roots, mud, fierce climbs and techy descents. Everyone sets off at once, with the professional riders leading the charge and anyone else who fancies a gruelling race bringing up the rear.
Where spectators gather in snaking lines along the race route and competitors dig deep to find the strength needed for a sprint finish – it may be a marathon to pedal, but it certainly isn’t a marathon to watch.
Downhill Mountain Biking is an electrifying sport. From the starting gate at the top of a mountain, riders set off with one objective in mind: to be the fastest. Descending at breakneck speed (reaching around 80km/h), competitors must navigate rock gardens, off-camber corners, steep chutes and big drops. A lapse in concentration, a rogue sniper root, or a sudden mechanical can result in big crashes and obliterated hopes. Riders must be completely focused as they choose the fastest lines while holding their nerve as they race to the noise of capacity crowds.
This year, the Championships will be held in Fort William, in the shadow of Ben Nevis. With the 2022-2023 reigning British National DH Champ Greg Williamson hoping to secure the rainbow stripes in front of his home crowd, it’s an event not to be missed. Once it’s all over, you can ride the race route yourself, as well as a flowy blue or rocky red.
Scotland is an awesome place to mountain bike. With a fantastic network of trails traversing some of the country’s most beautiful and wild landscapes, it’s a bucket-list destination for anyone who enjoys time spent on two wheels.
From brilliant and inclusive trail centres designed for all abilities; to natural off-grid singletrack that will take you through the salt-stung scenery of the Outer Hebrides – there is so much to explore.
With several biking trips heading off before and after the UCI World Championships, why not combine an adventure with Wilderness Scotland with one of the most exciting cycling events the world has ever seen?