During the ’90s, mountain bikes were seemingly everywhere, just as BMX bikes were in the ’80s and road bikes during the ’70s. While mountain bikes dominated the Clinton years, their popularity fell off dramatically in a post-2K world, paving the way for fixies, road bikes, beach cruisers, and hybrids. Where you once would find mountain bikes chained to bike racks and traveling down city streets, the rugged bicycles have now become out-of-fashion, paving the way for an assortment of bike styles that fill modern bike lanes. What led to the demise of the mountain bike’s once massive popularity?
During the ’90s, the X-Games were a wildly popular thing and it seems as if everything was marketed as extreme. Mountain bikes were seen as the cool new kid on the block and the ability to go anywhere lured in many cyclists, even if their tires never saw any paths rougher than the local cul-de-sac. Mountain biking became an Olympic sport in 1996 and images of gnarly dudes shredding singletrack were used to sell all sorts of consumer goods, securing the popularity of knobby-tired bikes on sales floors across America and the world. But, as with all marketing-driven trends, the fad ended and the masses moved on to the next big thing.
Mountain bikes initially became popular due to their rugged nature and the beating that they could take. While most cyclists never actually took them to the mountains, much less off-road, they were drawn to the bikes for their durable frames, over-sized tires, and multiple gears that were not as delicate as the 10-speeds of the ’70s. As the high-end mountain bike market became saturated with technological advances like front and rear suspension, disc brakes, and more gears, the once-simple mountain bike became a complex machine. Many of these racing developments trickled down to mass-market mountain bikes that consumers could find in department stores but the execution of the disc brakes, full-suspension, and expanding cog sets left a lot to be desired. The difficulty of proper set-up, rising maintenance demands, and complex repairs pushed casual cyclists away from mountain bikes.
Another reason for the declining popularity of the mountain bike, especially with the casual cycling crowd, has to do with pure efficiency. Mountain bikes carry a bit more mass than the average fixie or street bike and those disc brakes, shocks, and extra gears only added more heft to the already beefy package. Savvy shoppers have also become aware of the inefficiency of those wide knobby tires and the extra rolling resistance that comes along with them, making mountain bikes far less efficient than narrow-tired road bikes which are better suited for most cyclists’ needs. Additionally, the geometry of a mountain bike allows them to tackle various forms of terrain with ease, but gives the rider a position on the bike that actually saps energy when just being pedaled around town.
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