Brownie showed me the first mountain bike I ever saw. It was in the Glenroy bicycle and toy shop and I must have been about 14. Brownie was a fool and I told him so because this mountain bike was an abomination. It was half bike, half BMX, half…no wait, it was half…it wasn’t half anything. He was half mad and mountain bikes were ridiculous.
Our mate Brownie might have been a fool but his sister was all class. She used to wear things like pink tops with black lace bras and at 14 that was enough to make her the most desirable woman in outer suburban Melbourne. Brownie and I used to play squash together and he couldn’t play worth a damn but his sister wore things like white tops with pink bras and so inevitably Brownie and myself were drawn closer together and something that substituted as friendship blossomed.
Brownie’s sister had a boyfriend who could do a burnout the length of the block when he left her house. That must have impressed Brownie’s parents a great deal. It certainly impressed me. I can remember now no other details about Brownie’s sister’s boyfriend except the burnouts. I can’t recall much about Brownie’s sister either except her bras.
I remember Brownie’s bikes because he always had a new one. Well, not new, apart from that fool mountain bike of his. He had a revolving door of barely working 2nd hand bikes. One day at squash he showed me a ‘new’ bike and was gracious enough to let me take it for a test ride. I tore off toward Pascoe Vale road at breakneck speed.
Pascoe Vale road was thoroughfare from Hume Highway to Kensington for trucks full of lifestock. We’d sit at the lights and make hand-pump gestures to truckies and if they took pity on us they’d blow their air horns. Kensington was where my grandma lived and apart from saleyards and commission flats there was nothing much there. We’d visit my granny every Sunday and she’d prepare a Scottish high tea. I’m talking cakes. Lots of cakes. Loved my grandma. And her cakes. Glenroy always stank of pig and lamb shit as a procession of trucks passed through ladden with livestock to be sold in Kensington.
I sped toward Paccoe Road on Brownie’s ‘new’ bike. I was giving it everything I got. At Paccoe Vale Road I reached for the brakes to throw it into a dramatic skid. Still one of my best and most impressive (read: only) skills. If ever some casting agent needs a faded old guy to down a VB, tuck his smokes into the arm of his Golden Breed t-shirt and chuck a big skid on a racer with BMX bars, they should call on me. I can be that guy.
Brownie’s bike had no brakes. That was the problem. As kids you’re not really depending on brakes. Kids have mothers who pay for things like runners and new jeans and you can always jam your new shoes between the back wheel and the down tube or just crash and rip a hole in something. That’ll stop things at a push. I didn’t have that sort of time though or presence of mind to figure out why the bike didn’t have stopping devices and how to improvise for them. So I binned it. Trucks rumbled past redolent with shit, packed with two layers of bleating sheep.
It was cool though because Brownie apologized. “Hey I forgot to tell you, I haven’t put brakes on yet.” No worries. I’m just going to clean my underwear and then I’ll see if your sister is playing on court number two. (Court number two being the one that had recently been given a glass back wall. Practically the most modern thing in Glenroy. And perfect for watching teenage girls three years my senior who dress inappropriately.) I never did test Brownie’s mountain bike. It was probably because it was an abomination. And because last time I rode one of Brownie’s bikes I nearly got run over by a truckload of sheep.
So another 20 years passed before I got onboard the mountain bike thing. I joined just as squishy marshmallow things were being passed off as suspension. Two or three marshmallows in some reciprocating tubes could dampen the worst of anything as you made your way downhill. It was remarkable how effective they were. You could almost go as fast with these things as with rigid forks. And when the marshmallows wore out you could cut down cricket stumps and insert them between the reciprocating tubes to stop them reciprocating..and…go..even faster!
These were exciting times and innovation seemed to be our constant companion.
I remember my friend Greg getting the first pair of Haye’s disc brakes ever. They had a stunning on/off effect, like sticking a cricket stump between your spokes. (Yes, having removed it from your old forks.) Greg had bought the bike in Europe. Where they mount the brakes round the the other way. I tore off at Brownie test bike speeds and tried to throw the bike into one of my impressive skids. I went straight over the bars. Because I had hoiked on the front brake thinking it was the back.
Around this time I had upgraded to V-brakes. How sweet were they! If, by constant maintenance and adjustment, you got them in their sweet spot, they could stop you on a two-bob bit. Or a row of coins of some denomination anyway. My friend Greg took us on a tour of his local trails. My cousin Jason was there also, who still had centre pull brakes. Greg was looking for the trailhead as we rolled downhill on a fire trail. When he saw it he stopped on a dime. There might have actually been a real dime there that he stopped on. I pulled up somewhere near him with a fair bike of “ho-lee-sheet!” as I struggled to bring the bike to a standstill without rear-ending Greg. Jason, third in line, yelled, “Get outa the fucking way!” and sped past us with brakes afire.
I now have a mountain bike with 140mm of boing front and back, disc brakes that can be modulated to stop or slow, and pedals that looks like meat tenderizers (except when your foot slips they’re applied to shin bone rather than the fleshy part of the leg, ). And despite being a little slow on the uptake, I’m so glad I got into mountain biking. It’s not just the mountain biking itself either, which is great fun, but the fact that the riding of bikes with boing informs every other riding I do. The skills I learned off-road make riding on the road so much more fun. Even if it’s just knowing how to squeeze the front brake to help the back end drift that much better. Riding is about fun and better skills make for better fun.
Now I’ve got mates who want into the action. People who have expressed no interest in riding of any sort want to start into mountain biking. It’s akin to a sitting on the couch and thinking, “That cage fighting looks the go.” It can be a confronting and at times brutal and painful way to introduce yourself to a new sport. With no stand-up start to the sport, such as some cycle fitness or re-engaging with the basic skills of piloting a bike, mountain biking is more strenuous and more confrontingly physical than they imagined. Never-ending climbs punctuated by frequent crashes has sapped the confidence of the hardiest inductee. But for those who persevere, for those who cycle, mountain biking can be the most rewarding cycling of all.