History has it wrong; the Californians didn't invent the sport, it was the French! And way back, in the 1950s.
We had a birthday recently, mbr turned 25 and it inspired us to look back over the early years… know your roots, and all that. We found a treasure trove of interesting ideas and article, not least this feature first published in the August 1998. It’s an incredible story…
Contrary to popular myth, mountain biking wasn’t born in California but in France – well over 50 years ago. Don’t believe us? Read on.
We all know, don’t we, about the early days of mountain biking, and we all have the same vision – long hair, clunkers with blobby tyres, hippy moustaches, Repack downhilling, Marin County, flowers in the hair, all that jazz.
And yet, though the men of Marin may have been the founding fathers of mountain biking, they weren’t the first to build mountain bikes, however groovy they were. That distinction – on current evidence – seems to belong to a group of French youths with a passion for motocross who wanted to emulate their heroes, just after the Second World War.
Young chaps are riding backwards and doing immaculate endoes past the shocked occupants of 1946-vintage Citroens
We’re talking Brylcreem, plus-fours, bomb sites, suspension – of several different kinds – and a very ungroovy area of north-east Paris. Flowers in the hair were a definite no-no.
These photographs of young chaps in formal post-war attire bouncing in the air on springy forks are startlingly bizarre in the way they juxtapose technology reminiscent of the 1990s with a background that’s over half a century old.
Video footage from the same period is simply mind-boggling: the young chaps are riding backwards and doing immaculate endoes past the shocked occupants of 1946-vintage Citroens and a Peugeots.
The story is simple: Jacques Michel and his mates, led by Gérard Gartner and Guy Santucq, went on to be selected for the European sidecar cross championships. Too young to ride the real thing, they built their own, pedal-powered versions of their heroes’ machines.
“There were motocross races everywhere back then,” recalls Michel. “We were all aged 14 or 15 and had no money, so we decided to make our own cross bikes. Nearly all the guys ended up owning proper motorbikes afterwards.” Hitler, of course, had handily provided plenty of open space to race on – with real bomb-holes.
Such was their desire to replicate the grown-up sport that the group took the name of current motocross champions – “never French ones, always foreign, that is English or Belgian, for the way the names sounded” – and reproduced the numbers used in international races on their own machines. Thus was formed the Vélo Cross Club Parisien (VCCP).
Whereas motorbike technology has only been gradually wedded with the Repackers’ development of the 1970s clunkers to produce today’s mountain bikes, the Paris boys were 50 years ahead of their time in that they simply put motorbike bits straight onto their road machines: rims, spokes, hub brakes and mudguards.
They were helped by the popularity of motor/pedal hybrid bikes such as the vélomoteur and mobylette.
They also devised different kinds of suspension: double-cylinder forks like today’s RockShox; a parallelogram at the base and top of the fork; and sprung, quadruple-forks devised by Jean-Claude Serre, a group member who became an engineer.
Also in the interests of strength, reinforcing brackets were added to the frames: typically at the off-side fork end, where the frames tended to break, and at the headtube. Mudguards were cut down purely in order to perform wheelies.
The VCCP fizzled out of existence in 1956 as its original 18 members grew up, moved away or acquired motorbikes. At one stage, however, its activities grew to the point where the vélo-motocrossistes were appearing regularly at motocross meetings as a warm-up act for their petrol-powered brethren.
Most popular and innovative bikes in the world today look so much like their hand-built machines of 50 years ago
So why did it never catch on in the same way as clunker racing, Repack-style? For one thing, the VCCP never managed to become part of a larger body which would officially recognise its existence. Approaches to motocross bodies were rebuffed on the grounds that they had no motors, while the cycling federation imposed safety conditions that could never be met by a group of teenagers.
While the official French cycling museum in Brittany is about to recognise the achievement of the VCCP, its ex-members are clearly somewhat bemused by the fact that the most popular and innovative bikes in the world today look so much like their hand-built machines of 50 years ago.
“We all met at the funeral of one of our old members, Calude Guilbert, and one of the guys just kept saying, ‘But we did it all 20 years before the Americans’,” recalls Michel, who requested that the article be dedicated to Guilbert’s memory.
With thanks to: Jacques Michel, Gérard Gartner and Guy Santucq for supplying the pictures used in this article; also to the other former members of the VCCP, who are: Henri Albisson, Claude Biraud, Serge Douvil, Jacques Boukhettal, Fançois Dechorgniat, Jean Duda Guy Hermand, Georges Leskowak, Alain Lyver, Lucien Picou, “Petit Prousky”, “Grand Prousky”, Jean-Claude Serre and Gourges Voutsas.