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The History of Mixed Terrain



The history of mixed terrain bicycle travel begins with the bicycle itself. Early roads were rarely paved. In fact the popularity of bicycle riding encouraged paving of roads.

Bicycle travel became very popular around 1885 with the development of the modern bicycle configuration which we still see in wide use today. By 1886 the U.S. Army started experimenting with bicycles as a replacement for horses in mixed terrain environments. The 25th Unites States Infantry unit (African American Buffalo Soldiers) stationed at Fort Missoula, Montana was chosen for the test.

These hearty riders traveled from Missoula to Yellowstone during one trip and from Missoula to St. Louis Missouri for their final trial. Much of the mixed terrain route was on unimproved roads or through roadless areas. Although they succeeded in beating the best horse travel times, the Army abandoned bicycle travel in anticipation of yet a faster new technology just being developed, the automobile.

Although the U.S. military has not relied on bicycles, other militaries throughout the world, out of necessity, have used bicycles extensively for travel in mixed terrain. During the Second Boer War (1899-1901) both sides used bicycles in combat. Although the bike was primarily used for messanger service.

By WWI, the Italian Army developed a folding bicycle that could be carried on a soldier's back for easy transport over difficult mixed terrain and alpine obstacles. The Germans, French and British also used bicycles for mixed terrain travel in WWI. Mechanized transport was still fairly limited so bicycle travel was relied upon heavily.

Mechanized transport during WWII was much more prevalent, but the bicycle was still used by Japanese, German and Italian troops to some extent. The Allies supplied a limited number of paratroopers with folding bikes. British paratroopers on folding bicycles raided a German radar unit at Ste. Bruneval, France.

Up until recently (2003), the Swiss Army still had a bicycle infantry unit. The Swiss were great believers in the virtues of mixed terrain bicycle travel. " A fully equipped man can fly down the mountainside at speeds up to 50mph, and up to a distance of about 30 miles the entire troop can reach a potential battle zone faster than mechanised troops. 'We can go through the woods, we can take short-cuts,' said Jean-Pierre Leuenberger, commander of the training school near Romont. But the important point, he added, was that his men were able to fight when they got there." (Alison Langley, The Independent April 1, 2002)

Although armies around the world still use bicycles even today. Here in the West, it has become the many police departments that rely on mixed terrain travel by bicycle. These cops on bikes can quickly chase down a runner, maneuver through tight areas not available to cars and yet cruise down any paved road or path.

Mixed terrain bicycle travel for pleasure & commerce has seen varying degrees of interest over the years. Cyclocross racing likely got its start when European road racers in the early 1900s began cutting through farm fields and over fences as a way to train and keep warm during the winter off season.

Club riding in early 1900's Europe often included mixed terrain (called rough stuff or storm passing) as an integral part of typical routes. Tourist of the time would often extend their range to include off road cycling. Cycling magazine featured a weekly article by " Wayfarer" who described crossing unpaved mountain passes by bicycle, sometimes in the snow. His May 8, 1919 entry for example is named "Over the Top: Crossing the Berwyn Mountains in March".

"Evidence of how much rough stuff was viewed as an integral part of the experience for the touring cyclist can be found in the format of the BCTC (British Cycle Tourist Competition). Run by the CTC and inaugurated in 1952 until the late 80's its aim was to find Britain's best tourist. Rough stuff riding was a key element and the organisers often went to great lengths to find awkward tracks, fords etc that would test a rider's skill." Mountain Biking Before Mountain Bikes, Steve Griffith.

By 1954 in Great Britain, there was some thought that rough riding was loosing popularity. In response a club called The Rough Stuff Fellowship was formed in 1955 around mixed terrain and off road touring. The club cultivated a mountaineering flair to their rough riding. Many routes through the Scottish hills required hauling the bike over rocky sections. "I never go for a walk without my bike" was a common club saying that suggests these rough riders thought of biking and hiking as an integrated activity. The Rough Stuff Fellowship is still an active club today.

France also had an off road club called Velo Cross Club Parisien formed between 1951 and 1956, but no longer active. Not content with cyclo-cross racing of the day, around twenty French cyclists modified their 650-b bikes for mixed and off road travel. The French riders retrofitted bikes with suspension forks from mopeds and used other trick for off road riding and moto-cross courses.

Beach cruisers, developed by Schwinn, entered the market in the early 1930s in America. These heavy single speed bikes sporting "balloon" tires could handle a variety of mixed terrain including moderately loose flat sandy beaches. Paper boys and couriers favored these bikes since they could handle the occasional gravel road with ease. However, as heavy single speed bikes they were not good for hilly terrain and climbing. These bikes have made a comeback in recent years for their retro look. They are still good flat lander all-rounder bikes, great for cruising the beach or urban landscape.

By the late 1950s the cruiser lost favor as the English racing bike gained popularity in America. European racing bikes were lighter, had three-speed gearing and taller wheels making them better at hill climbing and road riding. But they weren't durable enough for real mixed terrain including off road riding.

In the late 1970s beach cruisers made a resurgence. By then called "clunkers" they became the inspiration for mountain bikes. Offering cheap material for experimentation, clunker experiments were slowly turned into the modern mountain bike. Wider tires on ligher frames, with multiple gears proved to be a wildly successful combination for mixed terrain and truly rugged single track. Unfortunately with trends in suspension systems and other technical single track specific features, the mountain bike of today has become overkill for mixed terrain touring.

Recently a new synthesis between current road bike and mountain bike technologies has begun influence a new breed of bike called the "all-rounder". These new designs strive for the speed and efficiency of a road bike on pavement, while maintaining the necessary features for dirt and gravel. To learn more, visit our all-rounder bike forum.


Bicycle Museums

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Web Resources

Timeline History of Bicycles
Wikipedia History of Bike
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