Mountain Bikes and Big American Motorcycles.

I just finished watching Klunkerz, a documentary about the birth of the mountain bike in Marin County, California.  It’s quite the inspiration to get out and ride, moreso than the usual cycleporn/sledporn/motorcycleporn I throw in the DVD player.  This was a bit slower paced and more accessible than HD footage of some 20 year old with no sense of his own mortality hucking himself at 60 frames per second (played back at 25) off a jump it took 3 days and a crew of 20 to build across a goat trail in Patagonia.

Wow, those guys did some cool stuff.  They literally invented a whole new lifestyle out of stuff they had lying around.  It took hold, and now look at it.  Sort of like snowboarding outgrew and out-cooled skiing (sorry, two-plankers.)  I wonder if there are any more sports like that?  Is stand-up paddling doing the same?  I think it will if you can catch decent waves off boats and surf on inland lakes and rivers.

Memo to self: try that this summer.

I did get a little kick out of the bikes they were using as the starting point for the mountain bikes.  The best frames, apparently, were stripped-down Schwinn Excelsior Xs.   They took these old newsboy bikes with balloon tires, and stripped off all the crap that Schwinn had bolted to them to get them to look like old motorcycles.  This is interesting, because in the late 20’s and 1930’s, Schwinn owned both Excelsior and Henderson motorcycles.  Excelsiors were the V-twin American style cruisers, and the Hendersons were big inline-4 touring bikes.

The bicycles looked like this:

The Excelsiors looked like this:

The most famous model was the Excelsior-Henderson Super X…  easy to see where the bicycle name comes from.

So the Marin County hippies were stripping these bikes down to the frames and riding them in the hills.  Then they started adding to them.  Some of the first things they added were decent brakes… which they sourced from tandems and period off-road motorcycles.  It would, of course, take many years for bicycles to follow the evolution of motorcycles, from fully rigid, to hardtail with front suspension, then fully suspended.  As with motorcycles, it took many years for any of that suspension to be worth a damn.  I suppose the motorcycle’s greater power and speed made the weight penalty of suspension less of a barrier, and more of a necessity.

The reason this gets me so nostalgic is that I actually worked for a descendent of the Excelsior-Henderson company from 1997 to late 1999, designing parts of what was supposed to be a revival of the original Super-X.  [ before you comment, yes, I know the springs are quite large.  I may have done the engineering on them, but I was forced to make them that big- I had no control over style.  Blame Dave Hanlon and Tony Pink… I think their names are on the design patents.]  Blame me for the fact that the front end worked at all, and that the front brakes played nicely with the suspension.  During this time, I wouldn’t have known even one tenth of what I was doing without a misspent youth tinkering with bicycles… including, it just so happens, an old Schwinn  balloon tire bike with a coaster brake, really wide Tommasselli knockoff handlebars, and a frame identical to the one Fisher is riding in the picture above.  Imagine that- boy grows up tinkering with a bike named after a defunct motorcycle brand, only to find himself helping to revive that brand one day.

It’s all very incestuous, really, when you think about it.  The design lineage and technological advancements from one field have been crossing over and influencing the state of the art in the other field for more than a century now.  Each discipline serves as an incubator for new technologies and ideas.  Motorcycles got to develop suspensions, disk brakes, loud pipes, and the feet-forward riding position.  Bicycles get credit for spoked wheels, the diamond frame, chain drive, drinking decent coffee before a ride, etc.  (I am aware that many patents for technologies existed in one discipline first- my categorization here is based on which was able to bring that technology to widespread commercial success.)

Keep your eyes peeled, because right now we’re in a phase where bicycles are teaching motorcycles a thing or two.  Dirt bikes have gone from steel frames to Aluminum.  From bicycle evolution, we know what comes next:  Carbon fiber.  After that, bicycles will teach motorcycles that bigger wheels roll better and that stripped-down minimalism has its own beauty.  Come to think of it, are fixies built from 1970’s Schwinn World Travelers == hardtail bobbers built from 1970’s XS650s?  The similarities are definitely there.

Where do we go from here, then?  What comes after bobbers and rat rods and tattoos and piercings?  Are we all going to be oohing and ahhing over metalflake-coated restorations of 1970s GoldWings with Vetter fairings?  Will the (mini?) Van Kulture come back?  Are Dodge Panel vans going to replace street rods at the car shows?  Is the next ZZ Top video going to feature a 1984 Chrysler Voyager?

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