Today’s hipsters and their fixie bikes are not the first to embody the too-cool-for-school persona of the cyclist. The bicycle riders of the Victorian Era have them beat by well over 100 years.

Back then, people rode high wheelers, a vast improvement in many ways over the original bicycles, the delightfully named boneshakers, which apparently did just that. However, the high wheelers had their own set of issues. Because of the design, catapulting off headfirst was quite common and, obviously, somewhat dangerous. The high wheeler riders saw this as a chance to leap off and display their recklessness, daring, and physicality.

Some 150 years after the high wheeler riders cultivated the art of crashing, counter-culture types in the mountains north of San Francisco took to careening down Mount Tamalpais in search of a new kind of bicycling experience. These were not your dutiful, safety-conscious road bikers. They had gang names and club names and threw their beater bikes in the back of pickup trucks so that all they had to worry about was the thrill of the downhill. Through tearing down Mount Tam, these renegade cyclists learned something new about biking and bicycles. Their observations about what the cruisers could and couldn’t do eventually led to modifying and building bikes and, subsequently, the booming mountain biking industry.

In an attempt to understand the rich and storied evolution of mountain biking, Sarah McCullough’s Ph.D. dissertation at UC Davis explores the history of this sport and pastime through a variety of lenses.  McCullough sat down to talk to some of the early mountain bikers (actually, an integral part of her research was riding with them). McCullough is interested in “…the expansion of do-it-yourself bike repair spaces, and the rise of various bicycling “lifestyle” subcultures.”  Her research focuses on conflicts that developed between bikers, hikers and equestrians over use of the trails, while also highlighting the women who participated in this often male-dominated activity.

It wasn’t just the biking that galvanized the specific spirit of 1970s Marin; this activity was part of a holistic lifestyle that included rising concerns about environmentalism and a thriving music scene in San Francisco. These early pioneers re-imagined the bikes themselves, but they also re-imagined the relationships between people, bikes and the larger community entirely. Folk rock festivals and bike races went hand in hand, and through these connections, people were creating the kind of world they wanted to live in.  A world with trails that created a flow through the mountains, paths they could follow fast, without braking.

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