Bicycling has come full circle. In the beginning, there were fat-tired bikes and dirt roads. Then, the League of American Wheelmen spearheaded the campaign to begin paving roads to improve bicycle travel.
That smoothed the way for skinny tires and faster bikes, but it also ushered in fast cars and monster trucks.
The debut of mountain bikes in the late 1970s has lured the bikes back to the dirt roads and trails.
Axles to axles and dust to dust - this trend has brought certain resurrection and new life to an industry that was floundering in the early ‘80s.
“Our ratio of mountain bikes to road bikes is 300 to 1,” said Mark Beattie of Vertical Earth bicycle shop in Coeur d’Alene. “The biggest growth, I think, is in women who are riding aggressively.”
Craig Dalzell of North Division Bicycle and Ski in Spokane said mountain bikes have accounted for 90 percent of the shop’s sales for several years.
“I figured it would have tapered off by now, but it hasn’t,” he said.
“Mountain bikes are attractive to such a wide range of people now, not just the young maniacs who made them popular.”
Young kids who once wanted bicycle motocross bikes now want the increased performance of mountain bikes, he said.
Mature riders prefer mountain bikes over road bikes because of the more comfortable upright riding position, lower gearing and fatter, cushier tires.
People are flocking to buy $300 bikes for their kids and spending $175-$300 to upgrade their introductory mountain bike with a front shock system.
“A lot of shops are totally ignoring road bikes now,” said North Division’s Michael Conley. “But we still have a secret showroom for them in the basement.”
Conley remembers making his own mountain bikes out of Schwinn Cruisers.
“When Specialized came out with the first production mountain bike in 1980, I wanted one so bad,” he said. “I just couldn’t afford it.”
But he found a way. So did much of America.
The change could be seen this spring at the National Off Road Bicycle Association races at Mount Spokane.
Cheryl Moores, 31, of Boulder, Colo., waited in line to hose off her mud-caked mountain bike after racing the cross-country course. Moores, who raced in the expert women’s class, soon had her bike shiny clean, but when she left the bike wash, her face was still caked with dirt.
“First things first,” she said.
Moores is one of about 4.6 million off-road mountain bikers in this country, more than a quarter of whom are women, according to National Sporting Goods Association statistics.
About 10.5 million Americans, 41 percent of them women, ride mountain bikes on the road. Moores is also one of about 23,000 Americans who regularly compete in this young sport, which will debut next year as an Olympic event.
She’s on the bandwagon.
In 1983, according to industry statistics, only 200,000 people were pedaling across forests, streams and deserts on the knobby-tire cousins to the sleek racing bike. By 1994, the mountain bike industry was generating $1.2 billion a year, according to the sporting goods association.
Most surprising is that the sport isn’t just for young maniacs, at least among females. The median age of women in NORBA is 32, five years older than male members.
The sport’s wide appeal has not escaped some agencies.
The U.S. Forest Service has designed excellent mountain bike trails on Canfield Mountain near Coeur d’Alene.
Other systems are in the works.
“We’re getting great support for our effort to use rail trails along the Montana-Idaho border and reopen the (2-mile-long) Taft Tunnel to mountain biking,” said Jim Fowler of Lookout Pass Ski Area.
Lookout Pass already is popular with riders heading to Copper Lake. New this year, is a Forest Service trail from the top of Lookout Pass ski area into the St. Regis Basin.
“They also completed a single track from Lookout Pass to Mullan Pass, which allows you to ride from Lookout Pass down a railroad grade to Mullan, up a dirt road and then back to Lookout Pass on the new trail,” Fowler said.
Next year, the Forest Service plans to finish a trail from Lookout Pass to Silver Mountain, Fowler said.
“As much as this sport has grown in 10 years, it’s just in its infancy around here,” he said.
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